Shane Koyczan's To This Day

If you're a parent of a school age child, this might be one of the most important videos you'll watch today.

I see much of myself in this video. In fact, the first time I watched it I cried. (Which was rather awkward since that first viewing was during a break at work.) I got home and watched it again, and I cried again. I've seen it a few times since then and I have not yet finished it tear free. Each time, I was reminded of the pain of growing up.

It started with cruel names. I heard them all. From fag to loser to uglier words that I'd rather not repeat here. The movie Dick Tracy came out the summer after fifth grade, and the jump from Nic Casey to Dick Tracy wasn't that difficult for my eleven year old classmates. Since Nic sounds like Dick, it wasn't long after that until kids found another play on the word "dick" that sounded like Nicholas. I was left out, an underdog, the last one picked, picked on, the punch line to many jokes, and often a punching bag.

I also heard the excuses. The "get over it" and the "kids can be cruel." WE can't forget the "boys will be boys" defense.

My greatest fear for Christian is that he'll have to endure the same crap that I went through, yet I know there's a new level of cruelty awaiting him because of his Asperger diagnosis. My son is a mini me. A clone with a few of the better parts of his genetic makeup handed down from his mamma. My other two kids are brown skinned beauties growing up in a white world. And our town has an unfortunate history with some of the ugliest of Caucasian culture. I worry about their place in this world filled with vicious school kids.

I'm not sure how my kids will cope with the inevitable taunting and teasing that comes with adolescence. But I do know how I handled it and I didn't handle it well. I retaliated. I got in fights that I usually lost. I occasionally came home with a bruised body, and frequently came home with a bruised spirit. I was defeated. I was ashamed. I developed a tape in my head that's stuck on replay with words like "I'm not good enough" and "I'm a freak." I carried those words into adulthood and it's taken me most of my adult life to realize that the tape in my head is a lie.

My parents tried to help. They probably didn't do their best, but they did the best that they knew how. I'm not sure if my folks ever knew or understood the extent to which I was bullied; I don't remember how much I admitted or revealed.

But it got better. By my freshman year, I had discovered that my reactions contributed to the continued harassment. The brutal teasing stopped by the end of my sophomore year. I was never accepted by the cool kids, but by graduations day I had their respect. However, the wounds I gathered in my school days took much longer to heal than those caused by sticks and stones.

Looking back, I wish that I had learned some of my lessons sooner. I wish my parents, teachers, and school administrators had done more to end bullying. I wish kids weren't so cruel. All things considered, I grew up into a mostly functioning human being.

We can't change the past, but maybe we can change the future.


A graduating member from the class of We Made It.


Saeed Abedini

Perhaps you've heard of him - The Christian in Iran that has been imprisoned (depending on whose claims you believe) either for being a Christian or for compromising Iranian national security. He was facing a notorious judge who is known as a hanging judge. He could have faced the death penalty, but instead has been sentenced to an eight year prison term.

I say perhaps you've heard of him, because your exposure might be limited by what you watch and listen to. His story has been covered heavily on FOX News, and the radio personalities on Air1 have frequently talked about him and his family. There is a an outrage against the Iranian government among conservative Christendom. Frankly, I'm appealed. But it's not the circumstances of Saeed's unfortunate time in Iran that bothers me. It's the completely un-Biblical response from American Christians that I find most disturbing.

Before I go further, let me say that I'm not an expert in Iranian law. Nor am I an expert in Mid East culture or Muslim beliefs. In fact, I'm not much of an expert in anything. But I do read and study the Bible. I do observe and analyze the American Christian subculture. I do participate in Christian traditions and I find significant identity and value in my faith. So before anyone wants to label me as a heathen, lets look at the facts.

1. From most reports, Saeed Abedini's presence in Iran was fairly benign. He was there to build an orphanage. This is something that should be lauded regardless of your religious persuasion.
2. Iran is Islamic republic governed by a Supreme Leader who has absolute power in Iran. As such, Islam is their only recognized and accepted religion.
3. Saeed was arrested by The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution. Iran's regular army defends it's borders and fights the physical battles like the army of any other nation. However The Army of the Guardians is a religious army and their purpose is to protect Iran's Islamic system. From that perspective, it's easy to believe that Saeed was arrested solely due to his Christian faith as Iran's religious military could view his religious views as a threat to Iran's security.
4. This was not Saeed's first trip to Iran. Iran is his nation of origin. He and his wife moved to the United States to escape religious persecution in 2005. He was arrested there previously on his first trip back to Iran in 2009. Since then he's made several trips between Iran and his home in Boise.
5. Iran does not recognize his American citizenship.
6. Prior to assuming his role as Secretary of State, John Kerry said that he was concerned about Saeed's trial and imprisonment. He was vocal in condemning Iran's violation of Saeed's human rights. Several members of Congress are urging Kerry to intervene.

From the news reports I've seen/heard/read, the universal response from the Christian church is one of disgust. The unfairness of the situation is the overwhelming theme in how most Christians have responded. Is Saeed's prison sentence heartbreaking? Yes. Is it tragic? Absolutely. Is it unfair? I'm not so sure about that one.

Consider this. Saeed knowingly went into a nation that is hostile toward western influence. He knowingly professed his faith in a land that is adamantly opposed to Christianity. I'm sure that Saeed was aware of the risks to his safety before he went to Iran, yet he went anyway because he believed it is what God wanted him to do. His situation reminds me of Andrew van der Bijl (AKA Brother Andrew), who smuggled Bibles across the Iron Curtain during the 50's and 60's. Brother Andrew worked to share the Gospel in Communist countries starting with Poland and Czechoslovakia, eventually going into Russia and China. Brother Andrew understood the risks of his travels. He has preached with guerrilla guns trained on him. He's been arrested in Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Yet, he continued in his work despite the ever-present danger.

This is where American values don't align with Christian ideals. We think we should be able to do whatever we want and God will shield us from the consequences because we're acting in His name. The fact of Saeed's imprisonment is that the practice of Christianity is not welcome in Iran. Does that mean that Saeed should not have gone back to that country to start home churches or establish an orphanage? Of course not. If he feels that is what God wanted him to do, then I don't have any objections to him going and following God's lead. However, doing God's will is not without risk. Saeed had previously experienced religious persecution for being a Christian in Iran. He had previously been arrested for practicing Christianity in Iran. To continue travelling there means that he understood and accepted the risk of his actions - much the same as Brother Andrew, or missionaries to China and Indonesia, or Christians in any other country where there is pervasive religious persecution.

But the American Christian thinks that's unfair. The American Christian thinks that Christians should be immune to the foreign laws that could be hostile toward Christianity. The American Christian demands that Christians be treated with more respect than people of other faiths. The American Christian insists on having an equal or greater voice in the affairs of the world. The American Christian has come to believe that they should be able to share their faith in any manner they see fit without any push-back or rejection. I see nothing in Biblical texts to support such an impetuous mindset.

The Bible that I read states time and time again that we are to expect to be mistreated and maligned. Jesus' teachings indicate that we should not only expect it, but also accept it. In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first... If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also... They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me." Elsewhere he says that we are blessed "when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man."

Even when you look at the lives of the apostles, the first followers of Jesus and forefathers of the Christian church, none of them lived out their lives in the comfort the American Christian has come to expect. The Biblical account shows Peter arrested for his faith, and Christian tradition accounts his death as martyrdom - crucified upside down. Andrew is said to also have been martyred by crucifixion. Phillip, Simon, and Jude were all martyred. James was beheaded. Bartholomew was flayed. Thomas was speared to death. John was banished to Patmos. Paul's fate is more well known - repeatedly beaten and jailed. Tradition holds that he was executed in Rome.

Of the apostles, Paul's view of persecution is most poignant. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says, "if you suffer because you are a Christian, do not be ashamed. Praise God because you wear that name." And in his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, "everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." Paul's instruction to the Church in Corinth states, "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed... For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body." He praised the church in Thessalonica as being strong despite suffering and mistreatment.

The typical attitude of the American Christian is contrary to what the Bible teaches. If there's a Christian in jail, he or she should be released. Christians should not be mocked. Christians should be able to retaliate against those that attack the church. The church should rebel against any perceived tyrannical government. Such a defiant ethos is not the kind of faith preached throughout the Gospels and the Epistles. Saeed's predicament shows a clear contrast between a Christian life and the life of an American Christian. The American Christian has an expectation of a certain level of comfort. For the Christian, comfort is never guaranteed. The American Christian demands justice now. A Christian should accept justice in God's timing. The American Christian wants the world to function acconding to their beliefs and opinions. The Christian understands that the world functions within the will of God and that we might not understand His will. The American Christian is proud and arrogant. The Christian humbly submits to God.

The predominant message in Saeed's story has been that we pray for and insist on his release. There is an expectation that he returns home, safe and sound. I'm not convinced that's how we should be praying. If we understand the Biblical purpose for persecution, we know that it is for God's glory. We understand that He is made great through our weaknesses. We trust that He is in control even when bad things happen. We accept that the worst of circumstances serve to further the Good News of hope and redemption.

The news from Iran breaks my heart. But I don't think we should be praying that Saeed is released from prison. Instead we should be praying that Saeed's imprisonment is used for God's purposes. We can hope for Secretary Kerry and other government leaders to work through diplomatic channels in Saeed's favor, but we should have no expectation for their success. Rather than praying for Saeed's life and safety, we should be praying that God gives him strength and courage. We should be praying for his wife and kids, that they should find rest when discouraged. We should be praying for Saeed's friends at Calvary Chapel Boise, that they demonstrate love and support to Saeed's family in their time of distress. And above all, we should pray that God's will be done. If our government reaches a deal with Iran to release Saeed early, we should praise God. If Saeed serves out his eight year sentence before he is allowed to return home, we should praise God. And if he never returns, we should praise God.

But this attitude that we know what is fair or just... that needs to end.


Interview - and a giveaway!

In case you missed it, City of a Thousand Dolls came out last week. It's awesome. And you should read it. But before you do, I had the opportunity to interview the author. Not that that was difficult. She's family, and she came to visit. So read on and peer into the mind of the woman who wrote the book.

Me: You have been writing for as long as I’ve known you, but you’ve been at it much longer. Your author’s profile says that you wrote your first story at the age of seven. What do you remember of that first story? What was it about?

Miriam: I actually don’t remember much about writing that story. I know about it mostly because my mom still has it, complete with folder and crayon illustrations. The story was about a princess who was captured by a dragon and rescued by a prince. But in the fight, the dragon was stabbed and deflated like a balloon. The princess thought maybe the dragon was mean because he was empty, so she put good things inside him and he became the castle pet.

Me: City of a Thousand Dolls is part a fantasy novel with a fantastic world of your own invention where magic abounds and is inhabited by talking cats among other species. But it is also a murder mystery with some elements of a traditional whodunit where Nisha is out looking for clues and hunting down a killer. What drew you to these genres and how did you end up blending them together?

Miriam: Fantasy and mystery are my two long-time favorite genres. I was always switching back and forth between them, and so when I needed a plot to use in this new fantasy world I was dreaming up, it seemed logical to use a murder mystery. But it was actually pretty difficult to blend them. Fantasy and mystery are usually paced pretty differently, and it was hard to find that balance between worldbuilding and suspense.

Me: In City of a Thousand Dolls, there are seven houses that raise and train the girls: House of Combat (warriors and guards), House of Flowers (brides for nobles), House of Beauty (beauticians), House of Jade (healers and scholars), House of Music (dancers and musicians), House of Pleasure (courtesans), and House of Shadows (assassins). If you were a girl in your book – which of those houses would you want to have train you?

Miriam: Oh, I’m a total House of Jade girl. Peace and quiet and studying sound fantastic. I’d like to say that I’d be in the House of Shadows but I’m nowhere near dangerous and badass enough.

Me: You’ve spent most of your adult life working in customer service. To what extent have the customers you’ve seen and worked with influenced the characters in your stories?

Miriam: One of the main things customer service has left me with is a profound interest in class differences. Especially when you’re working in a coffee shop where people order four or five dollar drinks every day. I love coffee shop culture, and my regular customers were fantastic, wonderful people. But it was weird having people pay for their drinks and see multiple hundred-dollar bills in their wallet. There’s a divide there that you don’t always notice, and I think it fed into my fascination with cultural and subcultural differences in general. Plus customer service is great for people watching.

Me: It is always a blessing when you come visit our family because your recreational palate fits well here. My kids share your interest in wildlife and nature films. Bekah and I are endlessly amused by the random infomercials you find. And it’s easy to swap stories with you. There’s a lot of laughter in our house when you’re around. In which of your hobbies do you find the most comfort?

Miriam: Awwww, thank you! I think I find the most comfort in stories, be they movies or TV or books or…gasp, fanfiction. Stories make good escapes. But I also like making things, which I haven’t done lately. Now that we have a garage, I’m thinking about possibly painting some furniture or something. It’s soothing to make something physical that way.

You have heard from her, and now is your chance to win an autographed copy of the book. If you want your very own copy, tell me what house from the City of a Thousand Dolls you would want to train in in the comments below. Winner will be posted on March 1st.

ps: Please use the comments on this post. I'm going to ignore anything noted on facebook or twitter.


A private matter

Zu is in my office watching Kung Fu Panda. The office doubles as a guest room and that's where my sister-in-law has slept this week. Miriam went into to the office to retrieve something from one of her bags when the following conversation occurred.

Zu: "Can you get out please?"
Sis-in-law: "Are you doing something private?"
Zu: "Yes."
Sis-in-law: "Watching Kung Fu Panda?"
Zu: "Yes."
Sis-in-law: "Is watching Kung Fu Panda a private thing?"
Zu: "Yes."

Um... OK.


In defense of blandness

In route to Seattle, somewhere between the frozen over Sprague Lake and the occasionally odorous Moses Lake, I looked out the passenger window and lamented over the dreariness of the scenery. If you wonder what scenery I speak of, I can only answer that you've proven my point. I have driven along that stretch of I-90 several times, and it's always been my least favorite section of road between Seattle and Spokane. In my opinion, it's missing something. Primarily color. More specifically, any color other than a sickly yellowish brown. It's somewhere along that uninviting expanse that I held my phone up to the car window and snapped the picture below.
I see this landscape and am overcome with an inescapable feeling of blah. Surprisingly, this section of freeway had just enough of a 3G signal for me to upload this to Instagram with the caption: "Dear Eastern Washington, you're boring."

I've always clung to the belief that everything north and west of the Columbia was the pretty half of the state. I've often considered the Puget Sound area to be God's country; from the Cascade crest to the Olympic Peninsula. Sure there are gems elsewhere in the desert wastelands like the wineries and vineyards of Walla Walla, or the rugged terrain where the Snake River divides Washington from Idaho. But for the most part, I think that the majority of the eastern half of the Evergreen State is anything but green. It is empty, monotonous, lonely, and unsightly. In a word - bland.

However, my judgmental opinion of the misshapen scablands west of Spokane is not shared by everyone. In fact, Eastern Washington has its own apologists. Shortly after I posted the picture, the admissions office for EWU tweeted the following message: "@niccasey Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. It's beautiful here! (We also think your photo is pretty stellar, by the way.)" They included a link to a Google image search for the Palouse.

I will say they've got a point - to an extent. The Palouse area is beatuiful. I have found a strange allure to the rolling hills between Moscow and Pullman that is nearly indescribable. Palouse Falls has a wild and dangerous grace that is easy on the eye and on the camera lens. The Columbia Gorge is also dazzling; from Grand Coulee Dam, to the Wild Horse Monument and Vantage Bridge, to The Dalles, the scenery there is audacious. But everything in between?

Maybe that picture above works for you. That flat arid nothingness. If so, congratulations. Good for you. This world needs more people like you. It's not for me. I grew up in the land of pine trees and mountains. Salt water and seagulls. Crowds and traffic. Fog and rain. Suburban paradise.

You can keep your bland land. I need to live somewhere with lakes and rivers and mountains. And trees - preferably the kind that stay green all year.


What are you doing this weekend?

Something BIG happened this past week. This:

I reviewed the book earlier this week, but for those of you in the Moscow/Pullman or Coeur d'Alene areas, you have a chance to see Miriam in person. And get your book signed. Or get your own copy if you haven't yet done so.

If you're close to Moscow, she'll be at Book People of Moscow on Main tonight starting at 7pm. The Cd'A book signing party is Sunday from 1pm-4pm. And there ain't no party like a book signing party.

Also, if you're not all ready following Miriam's blog, you totally should.


A weird night

Question: What goes on in this house while I slumber?

Hypothesis: My sleep is profoundly messed up.

Prediction: Something weird is happening at night.

Test: When I went to bed, I had a pillow under my head, I was covered by a single blanket, and I have a second blanket wadded up and stuffed under my feet to elevate my legs. When I awoke, the blanket that was my original source of warmth had been rolled into a ball and replaced the pillow. The blanket that was propping up my feet was pulled over the top of me and in it's place was a pillow. But not the pillow I first laid my head on - that pillow was nowhere to be found. I have no memory of how this rearrangement occurred.

Analysis: I need better sleep habits.


City of a Thousand Dolls

It's time for a book review. Why? Because this book is in stores today.

What is it? It is a murder mystery. It is a romantic tale set in a fantasy world with Indian and Asian influences. It has talking cats.

Now before I go further, I should mention a couple of disclaimers. The author, Miriam, is my sister-in-law so there might be a bit of obvious bias in my praise. However, she's my wife's sister so I feel I have a little more room to be honest. Second, my preference for fictional reading steers more toward supernatural thrillers and are intended for adult readers. Miriam writes for teens and young adults; I am clearly not her target demographic. Finally, I tend to avoid books with strong romantic themes which seems to be popular in YA fiction. That being said, I enjoyed City of a Thousand Dolls

The story follows Nisha, an abandoned girl living in an isolated estate that grooms orphan girls into a variety of lifestyles. Some will become courtesans, and other healers. Rumors exist that some of the girls are being trained to be assassins. Unfortunately, Nisha was too old when she came to the city to be accepted by any of the city's houses. Instead, she works as an errand girl for the estate's matron. Through this role, she's allowed access to each of the houses in the city. But because of her position, she finds herself in danger when other girls start dying. She seeks to find the killer loose inside the city and to find answers about her past. At risk is a relationship with her best friend, a romantic interest in a noble boy, her future in the city, and her own life.

The city's fictional world is beautiful and filled with colorful characters. There is a strong caste system both inside and outside the city where Nisha lives. I usually struggle reading narratives with female lead characters, but by the time people started dying I was hooked and interested in the well being of each of the book's players - which include a herd of talking cats. I'm not a cat person either, but I genuinely was hopeful that the cats would survive through to the final pages.

Miriam is an emotive writer, inviting her readers to feel every emotional twist in Nisha. The heartbreak, confusion, fear, longing; she takes you on a roller coaster ride with a girl who wants nothing more than a place where she belongs.

City of a Thousand Dolls fits well within the fantasy genre, but has strong whodunit elements. As the pages turned, I spent most of my time trying to figure out the identity of the killer. In some respects, there is a bit of predictability in the mystery. But Miriam throws in enough well placed twists to temporarily keep you guessing. And once you figure out the who, then you still have to figure out the how and why. Even if you deduce the answers to those questions before they're revealed in the story, the question of Nisha's fate lingers until the final pages.

The book is a quick and easy read. I had to remind myself that it was intended for audiences younger than me. However, the simplicity in prose lends itself to the suspenseful elements of Nisha's quest.

Beware, the book does leave some unanswered questions. The heart of the story is wrapped up in a fine package, yet it seems like there are more stories about this world that are still untold. I am eager to hear more of Nisha's past, the future of the city, and the next steps in Nisha's life.

The book is out in hardback. It's also available for both the Nook and Kindle.
You can find it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Hastings.

For those of you in the Coeur d'Alene area, Hastings on Best Avenue is hosting a signing party on Sunday the 10th from 1pm to 4pm. Feel free to come in and congratulate her, get your book signed, or just say hi. I'll be there with my family. I hope to see some familiar faces there.