My Resolution for the New Year

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Happy New Year!

I resolve in the New Year to always let facts shape my faith. My decisions will be influenced by knowledge not belief. My gut instinct will be informed by observation not aspiration. When I don’t understand a thing, I will strive to know that thing. I will not be blindly obedient. Instead, I will be unrelentingly curious. I will ask more question. I will demand more answers. I will not let old traditions shut down new ones. I will allow myself to be afraid but not frozen by fear. The mistakes I make will be paths to understanding not roadblocks to living. I will celebrate my accomplishments that are achieved through hard work and perseverance, and I will acknowledge the random nature of good fortune when I am blessed by it.  I will show gratitude for earned and unearned riches of any sort. I will not give authority to anyone who isn’t open to change. I will not pay attention to anyone who thinks having the spotlight is their destiny. I will only show reverence to those who put others before their own ambition. I will not seek the approval of others by shaping my life to meet their expectations, but I will earn their respect by what I know, how I treat others, how I face my fears, the manner by which I achieve, and how I take ownership of my mistakes.  Shit, I’m just going to a better damn person in 2016 – who uses more profanity.

Outlining in the New Year

  Christmas was great. However, the week before Christmas almost killed my brain, but I loved every second of it. I went on a deep-think marathon to plot out Book Two of the Pearl of Justice Mysteries, and I kid you not, my head was numb by the time I was finished. You’ve heard of a runner’s high? This was a writer’s high. I couldn’t carry on a coherent conversation by the time I was done. I crashed. Hard. But the result is I have 132-page outline that will make writing the novel much, much easier than if I were to start from scratch. I still have to clean it up before sending to my publisher, but that requires considerably fewer brain cells. 

Happy New Year!  Write on, man!

 

Trumbo was a great movie, but it totally ruined one of my idols for me

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Dalton Trumbo writing in the bathtub. Why? Because it’s dead sexy, that’s why.

I reached the age of – older than I want to talk about yesterday, and my gift was a trip to the movies. As it so happens, The Force Awakens opened on the day of my birth, so I avoided the stress of waiting in an endless line to see that movie and went to see something more in my wheelhouse. I saw Trumbo. I am a huge Bryan Cranston fan.  If something I ever write makes it to the screen or New York stage, he is the one actor I would beg the producers to pay ungodly amounts of money to head up the cast.

I’m happy to report that his portrayal of the legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo did not disappoint.  As a writer, I know a little bit about the era of the Blacklist, and the great shame it brought upon this country. That people were ruined and even jailed because they were accused of being part of the Communist party is beyond disgusting. Trumbo was an unabashed member of the American Communist Party, and when he was called before Congress to testify to that effect, he instead scolded the lawmakers for violating his Constitutional rights, a move that found him in contempt of Congress and ultimately placed him behind bars.

When he was released he, of course, couldn’t find work as a screenwriter, so he went to a B-movie producer and offered to write scripts for him at a fraction of his normal rate, using assumed names to assure they would avoid scrutiny by Congress. The end result was that two of Trumbo’s screenplays written under aliases ended up winning Academy Awards.

Trumbo eventually outed himself because he saw that he was living a lie and allowing his country to be overrun by fear and propaganda. When President Kennedy publicly endorsed a film written by him, the Blacklist died.

As I said, I knew a little about this period, but I was unaware of the Hollywood side of this story. I knew the names of the bad guys in Congress, but I did not know who the scumbags and heroes in Tinseltown were. Hedda Hopper and John Wayne are painted as two of the worst people to come out of that disgrace, while Kirk Douglas was as heroic as his signature character Spartacus (a film written by Dalton Trumbo).  There’s a great scene where Trumbo puts the Duke in his place, and to see Hopper’s face when her house of hate comes crumbling down is priceless.

I highly recommend Trumbo. Outside of the great performances – including one by Louis C.K. – it’s an educational film, and you can’t help but see our current torrent of fear and loathing as a repeat of the Red Scare.

On a sad note, The Cowboys staring John Wayne was one of my favorite movies. However, this movie opened my eyes to his true character. Wayne maliciously ruined lives and did so with gusto and aplomb. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch that or any of his other movies again. I don’t normally hold an artist’s political views against him or her, but his actions went beyond politics.

A New Staged Reading

As you may know, b10389512_1564615963750068_8929018021791817570_nesides writing books, I’ve been trying my hand at writing stage plays this past year. I’ve written (and rewritten) two full-length plays and a handful of ten minute plays. It’s been challenging and rewarding, and most importantly, it’s been hella fun. Writing a play is much more collaborative than writing a novel. That is to say there are more people involved, particularly if you join a playwright’s group that holds regular cold readings of new works in progress. I’m fortunate enough to have two I get to participate in every month, and I find the whole process fascinating.

To that end, I was attending Writer’s Bloc at 5th Wall Productions last night, and the organizers, Jason Olson and Blair Cadden, graciously offered to do an unscheduled staged reading of my new full-length play, One Bear Lake,  from beginning to end. It’s a comedy about sibling rivalry and cancer, and we’ve been reading it in 10-12 page chunks over the past number of months, and now I get to hear it in it’s entirety. I could not be more pumped and thankful.

The reading is going to be January 24 at 6:00 pm.  If you’re in the Charleston area, come and laugh it up as a group of talented actors portray a family spending their vacation together fighting over carrot cake, marijuana, and cancer.

No, really.

In the meantime, if you want to see a fun musical for the family with an evil toad and original Christmas songs, 5th Wall has a show this weekend by Kem Welch called The Heart of Christmas.  Check it out. Bring the kids. See some cool puppetry.

In the Heart of the Sea – Dusting Off an Old Review

In light of the release of the movie, I’m reposting this repost of a review of In the Heart of the Sea. I’m dying to see this movie. If it’s half as good as the book, it will be a great film.

The South Side of the Moon

The True Story that Inspired Moby Dick!

I read and reviewed this book over a year ago, but I’m posting it here for you lucky blogophiles. In the Heart of the Sea is one of my top five favorite books (In fact, let’s call it number 5). If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and read it. If you’re a high school English teacher, please make this required reading. Here’s my review:

This is a phenomenal book. I am putting it in my top five. It is that rare bit of nonfiction that keeps you on the edge of your seat. I am an avid horror reader, and although technically this book doesn’t fit that genre, I am making a place for it on my horror shelf. This truly is a tragedy, and the depths of Captain Pollard’s misfortune is staggering. Granted he wasn’t a “fishy man,” but he is a character you rooted for…

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The Spooky yet Logical Intersection of Fiction and Reality

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Precogs ain’t got it easy.

I’m deep in the throes of working on outline número tres for book número dos of the Pearl of Justice Mysteries. It’s a struggle to wade through all the nothingness in the universe to develop a story idea. There’s one right turn to make at every pivotal point in your journey in order to reach your final destination, and about a million wrong turns you can make that will leave you stranded in a strange land where you don’t speak the language and the natives are cannibals with a taste for authors who screw up story outlines.

I don’t want to spoil the central theme of the story I have in mind for book two, but I will say I was having doubts about it. I thought it might have been a bit farfetched to pursue. But then – Then something spooky happened. A news story appeared yesterday about a coming event that nearly matches what I have happening in the book. In fact, it takes it a step further than even I had imagined. It’s as if the story god’s were monitoring my doubts and said “hey, asshole, stop thinking real life is only full of sane people making rational decisions every second of every day. There are idiots, nut jobs, and psychopaths working 24/7 trying to screw everything up for everybody else.”

And this isn’t the first time this has happened to me. I will often experience crossover. An element of a story I’m writing or have written makes an appearance in the real world. Sometimes names of characters will even show up unexpectedly over and over again. Now, I’m not saying I’m getting messages from an alternate universe or that I’m manifesting these things into reality. I think it’s just an illusion of precognition.

These events can be explained as kind of a logical preconstruction of actual incidents. In other words, I have been influenced by real life events in the world, and I logically piece together these events and reach a fictional conclusion that matches a reasonable eventuality. That that eventuality comes to pass isn’t that strange.  Most of us can predict what’s going to happen when it comes to human nature if we really pay attention to the world. It’s really fascinating how the brain works.

The fact is I’m kind of bummed this particular element of fiction is about to become a reality. I can only hope it doesn’t go as badly as I have pre-constructed.  Even though I write books full of bad guys doing violent things, I think that people are basically good and want to do the right thing, but that doesn’t mean they know what the right thing is.

My History of Rejection

crop380w_istock_000012132005xsmallI have been at this writing thing for a long time. I wrote my first long-form project in 1991. It was a screenplay that has long since been lost to the inaccessibility of something called a floppy disk – Ask your parents. I actually first wrote it on an old Brother electronic typewriter, and then ambitiously retyped it into a computer that took three people to lift. The screenplay  was titled “Life Just Happened,” and it was as misguided as the name suggests. I don’t have to read it today to know that it was bad.  Still, at the time, I was convinced, simply because I had completed an entire screenplay, that it was worthy of a deal. It was not. And the agents, production companies, and studios all let me know with form rejections.

Some rejections were so short they didn’t even bother using an entire sheet of paper to tell me no. They sent a strip of paper slightly bigger than you would find in a fortune cookie, and it read something like “Thanks for sending us your screenplay. Unfortunately it’s not right for our company.” That was it. Each rejection hurt. How could it not?

I coped by writing another bad screenplay that was rejected just as unceremoniously.  Two of my screenplays and no bites. I wrote a third to see if I could figure out what I was doing wrong. Rejected. What? I wrote a fourth, and fifth.  Rejected. Rejected. Insanity. What the hell was wrong with these people? I started reading books on Hollywood and tried to figure out if it was run by lunatics with no eye for talent. It was. Just as I suspected.

In my research, I read an article by a screenwriter who said that he didn’t make a sale until his ninth screenplay. Ninth? I was no math wiz but even I could figure out I was more than half way to the magic number. I could write four more if it meant a deal was on the horizon. So, I wrote screenplay number six, and I started getting more encouraging rejections. Agents and producers even scribbled some positive comments in the margins of form rejections.

I carried on, unfulfilled by my day job, but totally pumped to get to write in my off hours. Then eventually came screenplay number nine. What didn’t come was the deal. More encouraging words accompanied the stack of rejections. I even talked to an agent by phone, but that was it. By now, I had developed the unfortunate habit of writing, so I had no choice but to carry on. In addition to screenplays, I started writing novels, and I ran into the same rejection pattern.

My 12th screenplay came with some excitement. I reached the semi-finals of the Nicholl Fellowship, a competition held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the friggin’ Oscar’s people. I was jacked! I didn’t make it to the next round, but I did spend the next two weeks or so talking to some Hollywood folks and independent filmmakers. I was too stupid to know how to proceed, so interest quickly died.

I wrote my fourth novel The Takers in 2004, and started sending out the normal inquiries with agents, but by now I was losing interest in the rejection game. It was the only way I knew, so I kept at it. Until, that is, I got a rejection from an agent that literally made me LOL.  She turned me down because my thirteen-year-old protagonist didn’t have a “sexy” enough disease. He only had mono, and she felt like kids today were too sophisticated to connect with someone who just had mono. She actually floated the idea that I should consider something like cancer or HIV.

That’s when I decided to go the indie route. As a result, I won a few awards, got some decent buzz, and  by 2008, I had an agent. By 2015, I had a publishing deal. Just like that. All it took was a mere 24 years of rejection to get to this point.

I bring all this up because The Independent has an article titled Rude rejection letters could cost you the next JK Rowling or George Orwell, publishers warnedRude rejections were never my experience. Years of rejections were my only obstacle. The point is to not let rejections or bad reviews derail you from doing what you love. Find a way to endure and keep writing or acting or telling jokes or designing buildings, whatever. No one is owed a career or respect. There’s going to be a lot of bullshit along the way. You deal with it by focusing on your craft. If you do that, the career and respect will follow. If it hasn’t yet, it will – as long as you don’t let the rejections stop you.

Creed: Rocky got old, man!

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Creed gives us a realistic look at an aging hero

I saw Creed last night. It’s the story of Adonis Creed, Apollo’s son, trying to make a name for himself and prove that he is his own man.  Actually, it’s about a lot more than that, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. I’m a Rocky-file. I’ve seen the previous six films more times than I can count, and that’s not just because I’m really bad at math.  The first film edges out the second film as the most engrossing film I’ve ever seen. It’s impossible to watch those two movies and not be on the edge of your seat and not live and die by every line delivered and every punch thrown. You become desperate for the hero to succeed, and there is no better type of escapism than that.

Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago, and Tommy Gunn are a league of super-cheesy villains that did their best to ruin the Rocky franchise. There’s no way around it Rocky III -V are just bad films.

Stallone redeemed the franchise with Balboa, the sixth Rocky film, but it involved the serious ability to suspend disbelief that a sixty-plus-year-old Stallone would be allowed to step into the ring, even in an exhibition match. Still, the film was markedly better than the previous three Rocky films, and it made for a nice conclusion in the Rocky saga.

And then came Creed. Is it a good film? Yes. It’s better than good, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s problems. It’s predictable. It’s schmaltzy. It’s a bit heavy-handed at times, but somehow it works. I saw it in a too-crowded movie theater, and I’m glad I did. I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to witness an audience in unison spontaneously yell and scream for the protagonist during fight scenes. To hear other grown men sniffle during the most dramatic moments is beyond comforting.  At one point, when Creed is floored during a fight, the film goes silent, and in that silence, a woman roared at the top of her lungs, “Get up, Creed!” It sent chills down my spine.  If you’re going to see Creed, see it in a crowded movie theater. It’s not my favorite environment, but it’s worth the hassle in this case.

And now for the depressing news. Rocky is old. I’m not talking about Stallone. I know he’s approaching 70, but he’s managed to keep himself fit and vibrant. This is not the Stallone that appears in the movie. Rocky looks like a man in his 60’s who took punches for a living. He has trouble moving. He gets winded easily.  His clothes are baggy and worn.  He just looks tired.  They threw in an unnecessary health struggle for Rocky to deal with in this movie, but forgetting that, it was just sad to see Rocky on the decline. He was the hero. The tough guy that gave as good as he got.  Age gets us all, but too see it happen to Rocky – Well, that’s tough to watch. I know that was the point of the Rocky character in this movie, for us to see him fight the biggest battle of his life (aging) and to do it with the same courage as it took him to step into the ring all those years, but it doesn’t make it any less depressing.

Having said that, I still give Creed a recommend. It’s a thrilling movie that – like the first, second and sixth movies  – does the Rocky franchise proud.

The Actuals: Book Seven of the Oz Chronicles – Chapter Three

vlcsnap-2013-05-29-17h27m00s83A little skinner dead gore for you on this Friday morn!

Three

I fell asleep in the cupcake shop.  I’m not sure how long I was out, but by the time I woke up, Milly and Mike were long gone.  The lousy monkey left the empty Tupperware container on the floor right next to me.  I could almost see that little primate-punk’s big ugly grin as I kicked the container away and slowly stood up. 

The skinner dead dudes were gone, too.  I left the store feeling confused by what had happened inside.  There were so many questions I didn’t ask. The most important being who the hell was the ‘they’ that sent Milly to find me?  And while I argued with her at the time, she was right, I didn’t have any value at all.  Why they wanted me was a question even I couldn’t answer.  

Beyond the who and the why, I also wondered how she was so normal looking. She didn’t look half-dead or dirty like any of The Actuals.   Plus, she had all her teeth. It made me more than a little bit angry to learn that they’re folks out there that don’t get a tooth plucked from their heads for getting out of line.  Maybe Cutter’s leadership tactics where even more unreasonable than I had already thought them to be.

I rounded the corner two blocks from the Whole Foods and stopped at the sight of two skinner dead tearing into some poor chump on the sidewalk.  Whoever they were stooped over was flopping around like a snake on a hot skillet.  The gurgling sound he made was almost drowned out by the sounds of them chewing away on the bloody goo they were pulling out of his guts.

They hadn’t spotted me, so I backed away as quietly as I could and hid myself behind a package store drop-off box.  It was sickening to listen to the dead dudes chowing down on the poor guy.  I wish I could say it was because I felt bad for him.  I did, kind of.  Mostly I felt like it was a waste that the dead dudes were eating a perfectly good meal instead of me.  

I cowered down behind the drop-box and waited for the skinner dead to get their fill and move on.  A few minutes passed before I heard a sound next to me. I turned and nearly swallowed my tongue when I saw Cutter staring down at me.  He eyes were bloodshot and appeared to be bulging out of their sockets.  His jaw line rippled as he clinched his back teeth together.  Before walking off, he shook his head in disgust.

He moved in front of the drop-box, crouched slightly, extended his arms out, and grinned like a madman.  His right hand was wrapped around his only weapon, a ten-inch hunting knife. 

“Gentlemen,” Cutter said, even though it was impossible to tell if the skinner dead were male or female.  “Do you have a permit to eat in my town?”

I looked at him like he had lost his mind. 

The two skinner dead didn’t hear him.

“Gentlemen, I asked if you have a permit to eat in my town,” he said louder.

One of the skinner dead finally looked in his direction.  It seemed as puzzled as I was by Cutter’s question.  It clicked its teeth together and hissed.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to cease what you’re doing ASAP, and introduce yourself to my weapon of choice for this evening.” 

The other skinner dead turned.  Its ear was still covered in skin and I could see a long fancy earring hanging from it. 

“That’s it.  Come this way.” He stepped over to the drop-box.  “Come over here.  See the coward hiding in the dark like a useless child.”

I grimaced because I had put myself in a no-win situation.  If Cutter killed the skinner dead, I would be next.  If they killed him, they’d be fighting over my liver before I took my last breath.  Running wasn’t an option because I was pretty sure, Cutter was going to win, and he’d just make my death that much more painful. 

I stood with Chewy on my shoulder ready to take a swing.  The thought of bashing Cutter square in the back ran through my mind, but if I didn’t kill him… I didn’t want to even think about what he’d do to me.  So, I did the only thing I could do.  I ran past him and slammed Chewy into the chest of the first skinner dead I came to.  The sound of its ribs breaking on impact bolstered my confidence. 

That confidence was quickly shattered when I couldn’t free the nails from the skinner dead’s torso.  I jerked and pulled on Chewy while the ugly dead dude reached for me and snapped its jaws.  The other one stumbled around and tried to reach for me, too, but thankfully it wasn’t coordinated enough to get around its buddy.

“You want to live, 17, you’ll kill ’em both,” Cutter said.

I gave Chewy another yank and lost my balance when the nails worked their way free.  I managed to keep my feet. 

“Don’t waste your at-bats,” Cutter said as he turned back in the direction he had come.  “Bash the freaks on the head until there’s nothing left but a stump.” He kept walking without ever looking back at me. “Should you prevail, bring me proof of victory.” With that, he turned up a back alley out of sight. 

I didn’t have time to hate him for leaving me to die because one of the skinner dead grabbed Chewy and impaled its hand on the nails.  It took all my strength to keep hold of the bat. 

“Get off!” I screamed. 

The other skinner dead tripped over the feet of its skinless friend and crashed face first to the ground.  When it lifted its head up, a number of teeth remained on the concrete sidewalk. 

I twisted and pulled on Chewy until the skinner dead’s hand ripped in half.  The bat free I swung it wildly and just by luck clobbered the one still standing in the head.  All that managed to do was to get Chewy stuck once again. Only this time I lost my grip when the dead dude jerked its head back.

Before I could reach for my weapon, I heard a thwack and grunt.   The skinner dead on the ground suddenly had an arrow through its cheek.  A screech came from across the street, and I watched wide-eyed as Mike bounded across the paved road.  Before I knew what was happening, the baboon grabbed the shaft of the arrow and twisted with such force I heard the skinner dead’s decaying neck muscles tear. 

Another arrow flew out of the darkness and struck the other skinner dead in the eye.  Milly walked out of the darkness reloading her crossbow.  In a matter of seconds, an arrow was cocked and ready to fire. She placed this one in its knee. 

Mike continued to turn the other dead dude’s head.  I could hear the bones in the neck breaking.

“Cannibal,” Milly said.

I gave her a confused look. 

“I’m going to take the other knee out. Once that thing is on the ground, grab that bat of yours and turn its head until it pops off.”

I didn’t respond.

“You hear me?  I can’t help you if you’re just going stand there like an idiot.”

I forced myself to nod even though I wasn’t exactly sure I could do what she wanted done.

As promised she fired and the arrow actually sliced off the dead dude’s knee cap.  It fell backwards to the ground, and I stomped forward, took a hold of Chewy and jerked.  To my surprise, I was able to raise the bat over my head. Half the skinner dead’s skull was now stuck on the end of my bat. 

“Swing away, cannibal,” Milly said.

I turned her way.

“With the bat, moron.  Hit the skinless dead guy with it.  In the head.”

My mind was completely fogged out.  I heard what she said, but I couldn’t put the actions together in my brain to make it happen. 

She rolled her eyes and took Chewy from me.  The skinner dead’s head was nothing but chunks of crud by the time she was done with it. 

Mike had successfully twisted the other dead dude’s neck to the point that it no longer supported the head set on top of it. 

Milly handed the bat back to me.  “I thought The Actuals were supposed to be bad asses.”

I shrugged.  “Just had an off night.”

She smirked and walked over to the chump the skinner dead had been eating.  “Friend of yours?” she asked.

I joined her and squinted to see through the blood that covered the guy’s face.  Spying his tattoo, I said, “Number 5.”

“You don’t seem too broken up about it.”

“Didn’t know him that well.  Treated highers like crap.”

“Highers?”

I pointed to my forehead.  “Higher numbers.  It’s a seniority thing.” I chuckled. “I guess that makes me twelfth in line now.”   

“In line for what?”

Shaking my head, I said, “Nobody knows.” I turned to the skinner dead. The one with the broken neck crawled around on its hands and knees with its head dangling down, swaying back and forth as it moved around aimlessly.  “I got to get some trophies off those things to bring back to Cutter.”

“Take their hearts,” she said kneeling down next to number 5.

“Hearts? Why?”

“Because I know men like Cutter. He’ll appreciate the symbolism.”

“Symbolism?”

“It means imagery…”

“I know what it means.  I’m not that stupid.  I just don’t know what the hearts are symbolic of.”

“Take him a thumb or an ear, and he’ll toss it aside and forget all about it two seconds later. Take him their tickers, and he’ll never forget you brought him the heart of his enemy.”  She pulled a knife out from her boot.

“What are you doing?”

“Never pass up a good pair of hands.”  She twisted number 5’s wrist and started to remove his left hand.

I watched her for a few seconds before saying, “I have no idea what that means?”

Looking up, she answered, “You will.”

What to do after this mass shooting

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Looks like a mass shooter. Never been profiled.

So, I’m not going to lie, the mass shooting in San Bernardino feels different. It feels more volatile, and tears at my gut because I foresee it leading to a horrible ripple effect.  And, it’s because of who the killers were. The fact that they were Muslim worries me. Not because I think they represent all Muslims, but because they fulfill the expectations of the anti-Muslim movement in this country.

There have been over 350 mass shootings in this country so far in 2015. The fact that most of the shooters look like me doesn’t matter to those who want a reason to hate Muslims.  No one saw me in a grocery store after the Robert Dear shooting and cursed my ethnicity. No one confronted me about my whiteness after the Emanuel Nine were killed in my hometown.  I’ve never been profiled and accosted by anyone because I match the typical description of a mass shooter, an assuming white male.

Yet, millions of Americans will wake up today and eye Arab-Americans with distrust at best and disgust at worst. They will mutter something horrible about their beliefs and culture. They will confront Muslims (or any person of Middle Eastern descent), and ask them to denounce the shooting. They will blame all Muslims for the senseless murder of 14 people at an office holiday party, whereas I’ve never once been blamed for the murders committed by the people that look like me.  That ripple effect I mentioned earlier will be crazed, armed, and full of a deadly bloodlust.  I don’t want to be right, but history suggests otherwise.

So what can you do after this shooting? Don’t give into your basest human nature. Instead watch out for your neighbors and loved ones. Their race, gender, political affiliation and religious beliefs matters not to me. Stand by and up for them no matter what they look like or how they vote or what prophet they pray to. Terrorism wins when we as a society victimize the innocent simply because they share certain commonalities with the terrorists. Guns, suicide bombers, beheadings; these are just the tools of terrorists. Fear is their weapon. They are counting on us to do their work and turn on each other. They want us to defeat America.

I, for one, will not participate in the hate. I won’t give them a victory.