Planet RMFO Blog

August 27, 2015

Karibeth

guest post and giveaway from Gennifer Choldenko!

imageI love Gennifer Choldenko, but more importantly, my students love her books as well. Al Capone Does My Shirts is always a big hit, and I remember that right after I bought If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, all I had to do was show students the first paragraph and they were hooked (it uses the word “crap” a lot). When her publisher offered to let me do a giveaway of her new book Chasing Secrets, I could not say no. Please enjoy this post (in which she talks about Flannery O’Connor, as if I needed a reason to like her more) and then directions for the giveaway will follow.

Not every writer loves to write, and many are not fond of revising. I’m one of the lucky few because I love both writing and revising. In fact, for years my license plate was REWRYTZ because of my proclivity for the eraser side of the pencil.

Recently I was reading a series of essays about the work of Flannery O’Connor. Apparently, Ms. O’Connor revised an earlier work called The Train into her classic piece Wise Blood. Below are short passages from The Train and Wise Blood.

Sentence from The Train:

Now the train was grey flying past instances of trees and quick spaces of field and a motionless sky that sped darkening away in the opposite direction.

Haze leaned his head back on the seat and looked out the window. . . .

Same sentence revised in Wise Blood:

Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. 

The first passage is a strong and evocative description of the setting, as the character, Haze, presumably perceived it. The two sentences set the scene and introduce the character. First-rate writing for certain.

But the second passage, in my view, is even better. It leaps off the page, making us immediately curious about this Hazel guy and why he’s on the train. It pushes us inside Hazel Motes, giving us a vivid, visceral sense of who he is and how he sees the world. It’s a jumpy, uncomfortable sentence that drives the narrative forward.

When I see an example like this, it brings home what a huge payoff revision can have. Even someone as great as Flannery O’Connor can up her game. This is evident in the micro here, but revision can have a far greater effect in the macro. 

When you write for kids, you don’t have the luxury of missteps or digressions. A slow spot in a novel is a minor annoyance to an adult. For a kid, it’s a game stopper. My book will be closed, not be reopened again. And so I spend an inordinate amount of time syncing character and plot.
 
I have to develop characters that resonate with my readers, because the world’s greatest plot inhabited by empty-headed characters is nothing but a bunch of stuff in a bag. On the other hand, intriguing characters with no story get abandoned too. Character development has to happen between the lines, and character change occurs because of the pressures of the story.
 
For me, achieving that kind of balance takes time. The good news is with every revision my characters come more sharply into focus and subtle unexpected plot turns suddenly appear before me.   

In my new novel, Chasing Secrets, what happened to the main character’s brother, Billy, occurred quite late in the revision process. I didn’t understand him well enough early on. And as I got more deeply into his psyche, he started behaving in ways I didn’t expect, which caused a chain of events that shocked me. I always know I’m on to something when the characters push beyond my own conception of the story.

I love these words from Gennifer because they show how kids deserve our best, and how important it is to write for our young people. If you have not read her books, I wholeheartedly recommend them to you. And if you would like to win a copy of her newest book Chasing Secrets (to find out what happened to Billy!) please comment below by midnight on Friday, September 4th, 2015. Winner will be chosen at random and notified on September 5th.

by Kari at August 27, 2015 10:00 AM

August 24, 2015

Brandy

Yeast Rolls and Heartache

Every memory I have of my Aunt Rita is set on the backdrop of food. Every Thanksgiving the aunts, uncles and cousins would all crowd into Aunt Rita and Uncle Earl’s tiny home, the men in the living room watching sports and the women in the kitchen preparing dinner.

Aunt Rita was small and soft and one of the best cooks I’ve ever met. I still remember the smell of her fried potatoes sizzling in a heavy cast iron skillet. Her pies baked in well-worn pie tins, the bottoms rippled with countless knives cutting thick slices. We cousins delighted in Aunt Rita’s heavy-handed scoops of ice cream that we ate noisily around a wobbly card table wedged in one of the bedrooms.

But it was Aunt Rita’s yeast rolls that she was famous for. Brown and crusty on the outside, impossibly airy on the inside. She brought them to every gathering, nestled in a metal pan with a dishcloth draped over them to keep them warm. They always stood at the end of the buffet line, the crowning glory. We ate them dripping with butter. Murmuring with delight.

And every Thanksgiving, Aunt Rita slipped some of those yeast rolls into a bag for me. In my  mind, I’m the only one who got one of those bags. But maybe I’m wrong. I doled them out the next morning for breakfast, where we smeared them with Country Crock and and toasted them in the oven. We ate them with leftover ham. We rationed them. And we were sad when they were gone.

Last night, I got the call I’ve been expecting for weeks. Years, if I’m perfectly honest. Aunt Rita had died.

The last time I saw her, a few months ago, she was just a shell of the woman I knew. She was mute, confined to a wheelchair. But somehow, I knew she recognized me. She tried to say my name but could only get out the first letter, “Buh, buh buh…”

I left the house in tears. Ashamed at how uncomfortable I felt. Broken by the knowledge that my Aunt Rita was already gone.

When I got up this morning, the first thing I did upon stumbling into the kitchen was go to my shelf of cookbooks. I dug through them until I saw the familiar brown spiral binding. I pulled it off the shelf and flipped it open. It was a cookbook compiled by the women who worked at the sewing plant my aunt had retired from. I turned to the bread section. It was the first recipe.

Aunt Rita’s yeast rolls.

I toyed with the idea of making them today. In her honor. But I knew they wouldn’t taste like hers. My hands would be clumsy where hers were practiced. My pans are not weathered enough. My kitchen table is not seasoned enough. My heart is not ready.

Instead I poached an egg and slid it onto a piece of toast covered with smashed avocado. I fried up some bacon in my cast iron skillet and crumbled it on top. I sliced a peach and made a cup of coffee. And then I sat on my couch, a quilt pulled over my lap, and read the recipe for Aunt Rita’s yeast rolls.

Eight cups of flour that she would dump into a mixing bowl, sending up a cloud of white.

One quart of milk, with the rest of the gallon going into the cereal she fed me for breakfast when I stayed the night.

Two packages of yeast sprinkled lightly with a flick of her wrist.

Half a cup of sugar, never measured, always eye-balled.

One and a half teaspoons of salt, pinched between her callused fingers.

Three-fourths of a stick of margarine that she worked into the dough, her hands shiny and skilled.

Baked in a 400 degree oven for 25 minutes. Brushed with butter.

Eat. Enjoy. Murmur. Delight.

Remember.

We’ll miss you Aunt Rita.

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by Brandy at August 24, 2015 04:21 PM

Cabaret and White Jeans

I don’t like my thighs.

There, I said it.

I don’t like how they look when I run. I don’t like how they look in skinny jeans. I really don’t like how they look in white pants.

Also, while we’re at it, I’m not a big fan of my arms. They have extra skin and if I don’t hold my arms just right in pictures, all I can see are big ol’ grandma arms.

I hate that these are the things I focus on. And sometimes, I try to force myself out of that mindset–to move past obsessing with the flaws and move into accepting, even embracing them.

And that’s how, two weeks ago, I found myself wearing both white jeans and a sleeveless top when I went to go see a play with some friends. Although I grabbed a cardigan at the last second and shoved it in my purse. I told myself it was in case I got cold. But in reality, I knew it was in case I got scared.

I only vaguely knew about the production we were going to see. My friend, a physical therapist told me it was a production of Cabaret, put on by Phamaly, a theatre company made up of performers with disabilities.

(From their website, since they say it much better than I could: Phamaly Theatre Company (formerly known as The Physically Handicapped Actors & Musical Artists League) produces professional scale plays and musicals year-round throughout the Denver Metro region, cast entirely of performers with disabilities across the spectrum (physical, cognitive, and emotional).)

I will be really honest. I jotted “Cabaret” on my calendar and promptly forgot about it. It was nothing more than a social outing with friends. An occasion to wear white jeans and a sleeveless shirt. And a cardigan. Just in case.

The two hours I spent in the small theatre in the round, at times close enough to literally smell the sweat and perfume on the actors, was, and I don’t say this lightly, life-changing.

If you haven’t seen Cabaret (I hadn’t), it is a fairly risque play. Lots of skin and sex and promiscuity. The themes are heavy and sometimes disturbing. And then, layered on that were the disabilities. These were not hidden. They were also not played for laughs. They just…were.

The wheelchairs. The tremors. The sign language. The deformities. They were all just a part of the actor. A part of reality.

Just like my thighs.

Please, please hear me out. I’m not comparing my white-jean-clad thighs to a disability.

But what I am saying is, sitting in that auditorium, watching those actors embrace themselves, their bodies, was breathtaking.

And as I clutched my program, resting my hands on my jeans, I was struck by their strength. By legs that carry me. That have grown strong and muscled.

As the play ended, I stood and clapped until my palms stung. I applauded the singing and the dancing. The costumes and the life. And most of all, I applauded a stage full of people who have taken a culture of body shame, and turned it into something beautiful and life-giving.

And may we all remember the words of Sally Bowles:

“‘I used to pretend I was someone quite mysterious and fascinating. Then I grew up and realized I was mysterious and fascinating'”

Don’t be ashamed and scared.

Be mysterious and fascinating.

And leave your cardigan in your purse.

QP248Cabaret



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by Brandy at August 24, 2015 04:21 PM

Numb

I wrote this piece after a recent trip to El Salvador and Mexico, where I was gathering stories from children living in desperate poverty–stories of hope and release. Stories that remind me how blessed I am.

Today I feel caught between two worlds. My arms still bare the mosquito bites of El Salvador, but my legs stretch out in front of me in a dentist chair in Colorado. My hair is still in a clumsy bun that I wear when I travel, rushing as I was to get to this appointment this morning. I imagine that it smells of Mexico, of air thick with humidity and pollution and corn tortillas. But in reality, all I can smell is sharp disinfectant and the cherry numbing gel my dentist put on my gums before he numbed them.

The numbing is working, and I poke my lip. Half of my mouth droops in a drunken frown.

This isn’t where I thought I would be less than 24 hours after returning from my trip to El Salvador and Mexico. But some combination of teeth rattling pick-up truck rides and crunchy tortilla chips have left me with a fractured crown and an early morning appointment with the dentist.

My cheek is numb now. All the way to my ear lobe.

I have too much to do today to spend an hour of it in this chair. I scratch at a mosquito bite on my foot. I think this one came from Mexico.

The dentist returns and reclines my seat. I stare up at the light over my head, feel the tugging inside of my mouth. I close my eyes, and as the assistant sprays water in the back of my mouth, I feel like I’m drowning. I usually listen to NPR during my appointments, but in my rush, I forgot my earbuds. The whirring of the drill is loud, and I want to be anywhere but here.

17944827176_804c7b40b2_zThey sit me up, tell me that my new crown will be ready in 30 minutes. And then they leave me here.

But I’m not here anymore. I’m back in Mexico. Sitting at lunch, a plate of spaghetti and chicken and French fries in front of me. It’s a strange combination, but I eat. And at my right elbow, a little boy takes small bites, nibbling the food from his plastic plate. His front teeth are rotten nearly to the gums, brown and ragged. Yet, he smiles. And I wonder, do they hurt? How does he eat?

Who will help him?

The little boy disappears for a moment and returns with a plastic baggie. He fills it with the rest of his food, chicken and noodles and potatoes all smooshed together. I’ve seen this before. He’ll take it home to his family to share.

That hot little cafeteria is as real to me in this moment as my dentist office, gray mist coating the window in front of me. And that little boy with the brown teeth is as real as the dentist now pressing a new crown over my tooth. I get this life of privilege, and I am grumpy. He has a life in which there’s never enough, yet he smiles with those painful little teeth and shares his scraps.

The dentist pushes harder and my jaw aches with the pressure. Is it strange that a small part of me is glad for the discomfort?

I look forward to the pain that will creep in as the numbness flees.



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by Brandy at August 24, 2015 04:21 PM

Thoughts I had while working out with my trainer…

How do you get muscles that big? Could I get muscles that big? I would look like a freak with muscles that big.

You could literally break me in half. Dismember me like a Barbie doll in the hands of a pesky little brother.

Oh, yeah, I can totally do that move. Easy.

HOW DO YOU MAKE EVERYTHING LOOK SO EASY?

I saw you add some weight there. Don’t think I didn’t see that.

I’m not fooled by your tricky stopwatch. I KNOW THAT WAS LONGER THAN 20 SECONDS.

You want me to balance on a bench. And then lift one leg. And then take that weight there? You best be prepared to spot me like you’ve never spotted anyone before.

See. I told you.

I saw you take that weight off. Bless you.

Oh good. Time for abs.

I was being sarcastic.

I hate abs.

I’m sorry for the things I said to you while doing abs.

Is that a foam roller?

What are you doing with that foam roller.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Just leave me. Leave me here to die.

See you next week!

personal-training



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by Brandy at August 24, 2015 04:18 PM

My new favorite breakfast

In my last post, I alluded to a breakfast I recently made for myself on the morning after my aunt died.

It was a self-care breakfast. One that took time. Skill. There were layers and tastes and it’s not the kind of breakfast I would typically make just for me.

But why? Why wouldn’t I make something nice just for me?

This isn’t a recipe. It’s a journey.

I turned on my electric kettle, listening to the water inside it start to softly bubble.

From the refrigerator I pulled out a pitcher of cold-brewed coffee, a bottle of creamer, a package of bacon, and an egg.

From the blue speckled antique saucepan on my counter I grabbed an avocado. I put a slice of bread in the toaster. Placed a pan of water on the stove. I turned on the heat, and soon tiny bubbles formed on the bottom of the pan.

I poured coffee and creamer into my favorite mug and sat it on the counter by the steaming kettle. Back at the stove, I diced the bacon and put it in the cast iron skillet. The smell is immediate, delicious.

I split open the avocado, soft and green. I scoop out half and mash it with a fork then .

I crack the egg into a ramekin and walk back to the stove. I take a deep breath. This is the moment of truth. I have never poached an egg.

I swirl the simmering water with a wooden spoon. The steaming water spins, and I carefully slide the egg into the center. The water wraps the egg white around the yolk. I’m amazed that it worked! I set a timer for four minutes.

While I wait, I take a peach, soft and fragrant, from the fruit bowl. I peel it, then slice it, my fingers sticky from the juice.

Then it’s time for everything to come together.

I put the toast on a plate and heap the avocado on top, sprinkling it with salt and pepper. I slide a wooden slotted spoon into the saucepan and pull out the poached egg, sliding it on top of the toast. I top it with the crackling bacon.

I balance my plate on top of my coffee mug. Hold the bowl of peaches in the crook of my arm. Carefully place each item on the table.

And then I step back and survey it.

This was what my heart needed. I grew up in the south–a region where grief and casseroles are impossibly intertwined. Yogurt was not what I needed on this morning. Or cold cereal.

I needed warm toast. Creamy avocado. Crunchy bacon. A poached egg that oozed sunshine. A peach that tasted like summer. Coffee sipped out of a favorite mug.

I needed breakfast.

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by Brandy at August 24, 2015 04:16 PM

August 18, 2015

Jeff H.

How the 2014 Yellow Jackets Saved Football For Me

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I played a lot of sports as a kid. Soccer was the only organized sport that I played, but I played lots of games with the other kids in the neighborhood in our cul-de-sac. We imagined we were the Atlanta Braves with a wiffleball and bat. We played lots and lots of kickball. The sport that was the most fun, however, was football. We would gather together in someone’s backyard (“home” and “away”) and all we needed was a football and we would just run around and tackle the fool out of each other. Darkness would fall and we would return home covered in bruises and cuts to our horrified parents. We had made up rules (5 “Mississippis” before you could sack the quarterback. Everyone was terrible at place kicks so we just threw the ball instead of a kickoff.) and made up teams. Football captured my imagination so much that I had entire imaginary teams and players in an imaginary league as a child.

My dad went to Georgia Tech and was a casual fan of football. My grandfather was a huge football fan, his team was Georgia, but since his money was going to Georgia Tech he paid a lot of attention to them, too. I grew up with football on the TV and on the radio. I sat in the old South Stands at Grant Field around 1984 and I vividly remember listening to the amazing 1985 Georgia-Georgia Tech game on the radio. I was hooked. By 1990, I was in high school and pretty sure I would be going to Georgia Tech for college and the National Championship season was a crazy, unbelievable ride. My dad and I bonded together over a lot of those games, even riding the train out to Athens for the 1990 game against Georgia. As a student at Tech, though, the heady days of the National Championship had already subsided and football was kind of a drag. I went to many games just because that’s what you did as a student at Tech but my interest was waning. Then in 1998, I met a girl and Joe Hamilton started throwing the ball all over the place and that girl and I went on a lot of great dates to the stadium and also to Raleigh and even to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl and that 1998 season will always have a lot of romance and legend associated with it.

After graduating, I kept on buying tickets and before I knew it I had gone to some 10 years worth of games all full of ups and downs. Chan Gailey became coach and Tech became good, but not great. There was Calvin Johnson, but Tech lost to UGA every year and stagnated. Paul Johnson arrived and suddenly football started to be fun again. Adriene and I got to celebrate New Year’s Eve with old college friends in downtown Atlanta and we had a great time even if Tech got paved by LSU. We spent a week in Miami for the Orange Bowl and though we froze in south Florida, once again we have fond memories intertwined with football.

In the last couple of years, though, football stopped being fun again. I’ve never been a huge fan of the NFL, but I began to be repulsed with the off-field behavior of the players. The domestic abuse cases and the violence associated with the sport began to gnaw at my conscience. Research about concussions only made my enjoyment of the sport even more conflicted especially every time I watched a defensive end gyrate and celebrate over a prone sacked quarterback or hear an announcer say “ho ho! He got his bell rung!” The comical enforcement by the NFL made players, coaches, and owners all look bad even as they grabbed for more money by building new stadiums to replace the ones that weren’t really that old and sell pink merchandise to women while looking the other way as women were victims of attacks by players over and over. All of this happened while Tech continued to limp along to 6 or 7 wins a season and fall farther and farther behind UGA and I started to wonder why I even bothered anymore. Soccer was happening more and more often on TV and the Premier League captured my attention. Maybe I didn’t really need football in the fall anymore.

Maybe sensing this, I told Adriene I wanted to move our seats at the stadium. For a long time we sat in the corner of the stadium with a large group of friends, but as time passed and they moved away from Atlanta or succumbed to the grind of Saturday children’s sports our group shrank until it finally dwindled away to just Adriene and me. We were sitting around people we didn’t know, many of who were quite frankly rude, sometimes inebriated, and angry a lot and it wasn’t a very healthy place for enjoying the game and it didn’t put me in a very good attitude. I hoped if we paid a little more for our tickets, maybe we’d end up sitting around a little more refined crowd. Adriene was for anything that would allow her to be a little more pampered at the game. (You may be surprised to hear she is not a huge fan of sitting on a metal bench in searing heat, freezing cold, rain, and blowing wind.) I bought the tickets with the attitude of “if I don’t enjoy this season even after getting nice seats, maybe it’s time to give it up and just watch from the TV. This is too much effort to not enjoy this.”

The 2014 season started out mostly like every season with a couple wins over some overmatched teams and then Adriene and I went to London during the Georgia Southern game. I sat in a pub on a Saturday night and listened to the game and tried to enjoy my vacation while Tech nearly gave the game away to Southern and then somehow pulled it out at the end and no one at the Zetland Arms cared, but I was a pretty excited Tech fan a couple thousand miles away. We came back home and the games turned fun again with big wins over Miami and Clemson and in a comedy of errors beat Georgia in the kind of game Tech almost always loses to Georgia. Tech made their way to the Orange Bowl again and for a variety of reasons we decided to pass on it. That’s too bad because Tech ended up cold-cocking Mississippi State in one of the best games of the season, leading to my all-time favorite moment in Tech football in the last 10 years with running backs Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey dancing to Apache while enjoying such a big lead with plenty of time left in the game. How can you not love this?

The 2014 season was so much fun, especially at the end, that it’s pulled me back in. On top of Tech’s season, my daughters started cheerleading for football this year. The summer was a hectic mess with so many practice sessions, but once the season started I can’t overstate how entertaining football was with first graders. They aren’t strong and fast enough to really hurt each other yet and they wander around aimlessly to the frustration of coaches and I could not stop laughing at each game. The games brought back memories of those backyard brawls I had, but we never had the helmets or this much padding, and we pretty much fought over what the score was and when the clock finished. I didn’t have any child in the game, so I was able to enjoy it win or lose without any stress. As long as my girls cheered, it was a good morning.

I know it is a fool’s quest to believe that Tech could match the success in the 2015 season that they did a year ago, but maybe the games will at least be entertaining this time around again. I’m well aware that none of the problems of football have been solved (and the whole “deflated football” mess between the New England Patriots and the league makes me like the NFL even less. There is no one coming out looking good in that.) I’m still very troubled about the head injuries and the off-field behavior and while I’ve never had a problem with rich owners I have a hard time taking anything they say at face value when their only concern seems to be gobbling up even more money. I don’t know how much I will follow the NFL this year, every time I think about it I get a little queasy, but I am on board for another season of Georgia Tech football and I am hoping to make it to a couple high school games around the neighborhood.

The only hope I have for football is that it has always been a very evolutionary sport. Baseball and soccer rules for the most part haven’t changed in a 100 years. Basketball’s rules have really only changed to make the sport more entertaining. Football, however, has from the very start modified it’s rules to try and become a safer sport. Even at the beginning, in the 1890’s, the mother of a UGA player had to beg the state not to ban the sport altogether even after her son died playing it. Technology and rule changes have improved the safety of the sport, but it’s clear it will need to continue to evolve and change or parents will steer their children towards basketball and soccer in even more numbers. I still think there is too much money and too much affection for football by too many people to let football fade into the marginalized realms of boxing and UFC. I hope so, because I have to many good memories of football games to let it all go.

by jholland at August 18, 2015 04:26 PM

August 03, 2015

Jeff H.

The Last Day of Summer

PHINEAS AND FERB

An altogether too short summer ended today. School starts much earlier now than when I was a child. I remember going back to school the week before Labor Day but now it is the first week of August. August is my least favorite month of the year. It seems to drag on forever. It is hot. Football is still a month away (no, preseason NFL most definitely does not count) and yet we are out sweating every evening at cheerleading practice. Now we get to add to all of the hassle of signing forms, remembering to pick art supplies, homework, and all the other fun of school. At least we’re not trying to plan a trip to London on top of everything else this time around. That nearly broke me.

We didn’t do very much this summer which is fine. We enjoyed being lazy for a little while. We sent the girls off to each grandparents’ house for a week and did a little bit of housecleaning and date night dinners. We did a family trip to Myrtle Beach. I shamelessly played a lot of video games with the girls. We laid around on the couches a lot because we could. Now it’s time to get back on the merry-go-round and everything is going to revert to spinning out of control again.

Also poignant at the end of this summer was the end of one of our favorite tv shows. I had to endure a lot of awful childrens’ shows to placate the children when they were younger, but Phineas and Ferb was always a delight to watch. I’ve sung the praises of My Little Pony before, but Phineas and Ferb is on another level with humor, clever plots, and slapstick gags that make me guffaw as much as it entertains the girls. I loved the relentless optimism of the kids and the comedic violence reminded me of Looney Tunes episodes with maybe just a little bit of a gentler touch. The series aired the last episode this summer with the children returning to school. While the final episode was bittersweet, I can’t help feel like the co-creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh picked a good time to go out before the show become too creatively stale. (Hopefully, they will be returning with a new series in a couple years and I hope it is half as funny as Phineas and Ferb.) The series has left a pretty massive body of work. The girls and I started a marathon at the beginning of the summer watching every episode and we still have a way to go before finishing.

The last episode, though, was a tangible reminder that time continues to march on and on despite whatever we do to slow it down. My friend Sam remarked that when he started the series with his oldest daughter, she was a little older than a toddler and now at the end she is only a couple years short of middle school. I am reminded that this is a tangible end to an era in our children’s childhood and even an end to a little bit of re-living our own childhood.

So here we are in August. Autumn is approaching but I am going to have to grin and bear it through August first. I don’t want to rush the month too fast however as this summer has once again reminded me that the time with our children is all too limited and ebbing away.

by jholland at August 03, 2015 07:54 PM

July 28, 2015

Karibeth

(some of) what I have been reading.

I am behind on my NetGalley posts so here is a big roundup. The books were provided to me for free but my opinions are my own.

The Tragic Age by Stephen Metcalfe

Billy’s family won the lottery, but his family is in a bad place after the loss of his twin sister. Some new friends plus a crime spree plus maybe Billy isn’t completely reliable equals aN unsatisfying read for me overall. This book moved incredibly fast – I wanted to know what was happening but I didn’t necessarily enjoy it.

Weightless By Sarah Bannon

This book takes a communal narrator – a group of girls who are not individually named or spelled out – to tell the story of a new girl named Carolyn moving to a small town in Alabama. The narrators both observe and gossip about the situation, and as Carolyn’s place in the community changes, it is clear that no one knows which parts of the story are exactly true. I think this is a powerful YA book about bullying. My one complaint would be that the narrators kept me at a distance from the story because there was no one person to sympathize with or to connect to. I both enjoyed the book and found it frustrating for that reason.

Every Last Word By Tamara Ireland Stone

Samantha has had a place as one of the most popular girls in school, but lately she feels less secure in her role there. As things change for her socially, she falls in with a completely different crowd, one that writes and performs poetry in a secret spot in the school. Her new friends help her open up to the world about her darkest secret – OCD. I thought this book was extremely memorable and I liked Sam quite a bit as a character, and I enjoyed her new group of friends and the poetry they wrote to help deal with the frustrations in their lives. I was less sold on her romance with Andrew and was not totally sure that the OCD was dealt with in the best way. However, a young friend of mine read and loved the book, so I would happily recommend it to smart teenagers, especially those who deal with anxiety.

Wild in the Hollow by Amber Haines

I read this faith memoir in one sitting, but the different parts of the book did not gel particularly well for me. I thought the beginning, especially the descriptions of her teenage years, suffered from being a little bit too aware of itself, as if it was trying too hard to impress. That calmed down a bit as the book went on, and I think that Amber is best when she is writing about daily life, the quotidian mysteries. I did not think the travel to Haiti and Italy added much of anything to the story – maybe you had to be there? Overall it moved quickly but did not seem to say very much.

This Raging Light by Estelle Laure

Everyone in town knows about Lucille’s dad going crazy, which is why she has to make sure that no one finds out that her mom skipped town. She gets a job so she can take care of her sister, and her best friend Eden (and Eden’s twin brother, dreamboat Digby) help out. Predictable in some ways, but I found this book about kindness and love to be charming and I liked it more than I expected to.

Cut Me Loose by Leah Vincent

I enjoy a good story about breaking free from a cult or fundamentalist community, and there is some of that in this book, but I was also surprised by it. This is Leah Vincent’s testimony about what happened to her because she was not given the tools to live in the real world, specifically when it came to sex. I thought this was a great call for educating our young people about sex and consent and healthy boundaries.

The Faith of a Mockingbird by Matt Rawle

It was interesting to read this small group study based on To Kill a Mockingbird just days before Harper Lee’s “new” book came out and to think about whether any of it would change based on the new information we are given about the characters.

Good Mourning by Elizabeth Meyer

I really enjoyed this book about an event planner who began working with families in a prestigious NYC funeral home after the death of her own father. She had funny and touching stories as well as a clear call to encourage people to talk about death in a meaningful way. Great entrance to a world I know nothing about.

by Kari at July 28, 2015 12:02 PM

July 24, 2015

Jeff H.

The Oh Hellos at Terminal West

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Last night, I went to see The Oh Hellos at Terminal West and it was a whole lot of fun. Terminal West is a relatively new venue in an old industrial part of Atlanta that has become a hipster haven. There is a great coffee shop (Octane) over there and lofts and apartments popping up overnight. Terminal West is a relatively simple room that still feels new, it’s not nearly as dank as Variety Playhouse or terrifyingly spooky as the Masquerade. There’s a nice balcony (I didn’t venture up to the patio on the roof but I kinda wish I did.) and a restaurant next door. I hung out mostly by the bar where I had a decent view. The show was sold out and it was snug, but there was still room to move around if you weren’t up next to the stage. The crowd was mostly 20’s-30’s, maybe slightly more girls with their boyfriends in tow, but there were a couple of groups of bros, too. There were a few older couples, too. The crowd was generally speaking well behaved.

The show started at 9 PM, which feels so freakin’ late now that I am old, with Ruston Kelley who was ok, mostly nondescript ballads on acoustic guitar. He brought this sister out to sing some duets and they sounded nice together. The most interesting part of his set was when he told a story about breaking into a publisher’s recording studio and living there for seven months, even borrowing some of the artists’ clothes while there.

The Oh Hellos came on stage around 10:15. The downside of these bands with 10 members is that even a brief soundcheck seems to drag on forever. The violin player moved quickly around the stage to check all the instruments and mics but with that much stuff, it seemed to take a long time. The band itself is essentially a brother-sister duo Tyler and Maggie Heath and they are pretty static, but behind them is a swirling chaos of eight musicians playing two drum kits, violins, banjos, guitars, and other percussion and they are all leaping around the stage and whooping and hollering and generally having a good time. I liked how they introduced each member of the band with a generic 80’s sitcom soundtrack in the background and each member would pose like they were in a 80’s sitcom intro when their name was announced.

Their sound isn’t particularly original, they play a blend of Irish and American folk music similar to The Lumineers or Mumford and Sons, but it is singable and enjoyable. Their first album _Through the Deep, Dark Valley_ has a couple songs loosely based on the creation story. Those songs were the most popular with the crowd as they sang along, but the new stuff from their upcoming album _Dear Wormwood_ sounds really good as well. The title track was apocalyptic with a cathartic yell at the climax. The crowd was really chatty during the opener’s show and quieted down a little bit during The Oh Hellos, but after “Dear Wormwood” you could hear a pin drop.

By this time it was late and I didn’t want to get caught in traffic getting out of the parking lot so I bolted before the encore. I had heard everything I wanted to hear plus some new stuff so I was satisfied. All in all, a really enjoyable show, even if it was late for this old man. The last time this band played Atlanta they packed out Eddie’s Attic and now they’ve filled up a bigger venue and the new stuff sounds great, they seem to be a band on their way up. They are currently very independent, it will be interesting to see if they get corralled into a label or if they just keeping doing what they do. They kind of remind me of Caedmon’s Call around 1996 before they got pulled into the CCM machine, being from Texas with a large ensemble (though maybe not at as didactic as Aaron Tate’s lyric writing) playing folk music. I like having a new band fill that niche for me.

by jholland at July 24, 2015 02:51 PM

July 23, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Why nerds hate analogies

Nerds hate analogies. I know this because I hate analogies. I know this because I nitpick analogies. Well, I used to.

I’m not using the word nerd pejoratively here. I’m using it as a sort of shorthand for sciency techy people who like facts and logic. So basically… me.

But why? Why do nerds hate analogies? I’ve thought about this for a while and I think I’ve got a bit of a handle on it. Then again I might be full of crap. So don’t listen too closely.

I think this all has to do with arguments.

What Is An Argument

This is a terrible place to start. Sorry for that. But I’m not actually asking what an argument is. That’s pretty obvious, like asking what a star is. An argument is when you have two people with different points of view talking. That’s it.

What happens after that isn’t at all obvious. Because we can all agree what arguments are but we can’t seem to figure out what arguments are for. Like… why do we have them?

For some people, this is like asking what stars are for. They just are! It’s all very obvious.

But as with everything, it’s not so obvious at all. There are at least two things to consider. One is what we say arguments are for. This is easy to figure out. Just ask anyone. You’ll get ten different answers, and different kinds of arguments have different timbres, but they’ll all tend to cluster around facts and logic and trying to get someone else to understand your (obviously correct) view. Leaving aside that other kind of argument, which is actually just a fight and a different beast altogether.

We talk about arguments like they’re debates. And that’s not a terrible way to think about the way we think about them. In an ideal world, two people with different points of view get to present their point of view, and then at the end we all sit down and agree who has the stronger argument. The loser submits, the winner comes out victorious, and facts and logic win the day.

Now if you read that and said “but that never happens!” to yourself, you’re absolutely right.

Because that’s not what arguments are at all. I know this. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen an argument that works like that.

Maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong people. I don’t think I am. I think most, if not all people work this way. We say that arguments are about facts and logic and strengths of positions, and making good points, and having discussions that lead to agreement… Yet every argument I’ve seen leads to all the participants slinking away to find better arguments, not better positions.

People are slippery that way.

What Are Arguments For

Arguments actually function as a defense mechanism for things you’ve already decided. If you think there’s any semblance of some kind of scientific method in arguments (and a lot of the time in science, but that’s another matter altogether), you’re either a very special snowflake or a very deluded snowflake. I mean, you must know that your response to feeling like you’ve lost an argument, especially one you care deeply about, isn’t to throw your position out the window, but to figure out a better way to justify your existing beliefs.

Arguments are actually kind of traumatic. Someone has come along and is trying to mess up the internal consistency of your thought. Somewhere deep inside you know that your already have a crazy shortage of consistency, so your brain just needs to defend, defend, defend, until you can no longer defend. Then you take a shower the next morning and you have a bolt of insight!… that magically happens to bolster your position.

A Brief Word On Logic

Before I go any further down this path I want to talk about logic for a second.

Logic is a tool. So are a lot people who talk about it a lot. (Excepting people actually studying logic, but that’s a whole other thing.)

It’s a tool that can prove nonsense. Logic takes inputs and produces outputs. The problem is the age old problem of garbage in, garbage out. So let’s say you’re using logic and you feed it a bunch of false premises. You get a result that doesn’t make any sense.

That’s the problem with logic, right?

Well, no, not really. Because most of the people who use “logic” are actually using the word logic and not actual using logic.

I remember reading a book by Alvin Plantinga that had a lot of formal logic in it. I couldn’t make much sense of it because I’m very much not Alvin Plantinga. But the point remains, we just don’t use formal logic. Or really even informal logic.

Or really logic at all. We say “logic” but we mean “this makes sense to me”.

The really annoying result of this is people who use logical fallacies as counter-arguments. Straw man! Appeal to authority! Appeal to the stone! Ad hominem!

Here we have a bunch of yammering ninnies who know enough to critique the informal logic of a statement without actually examining its soundness. Remember, just because some argument has a logical fallacy doesn’t mean it’s not true! (You could almost say that an argument from logical fallacy is… a logical fallacy. But then the snake begins to eat its own tail and universe is divided by zero or something.) That you can analyze a statement by scrolling through a Wikipedia page doesn’t prove or disprove anything.

Okay, so it maybe proves that you’re a jackass. But that’s beside the point.

A Brief Word On A Brief Word On Logic

So why am I talking about logic, other than to gripe about some internet knownothings?

It’s because it’s important to what I’m about to say. I don’t know how to express this well, so I’ll tell you a story.

I knew a guy who was very concerned about facts and logic. He was always talking about is this logical, is that logical. He would take really defined stances on things based on logic (which wasn’t actual logic mind you, just whether or not he could make something make sense to himself). He wasn’t doing anything wrong, not at all. I was really impressed with the amount of thought he put into doing thing that other people just did.

He didn’t like to speed on the highway. Because the speed limit was a law, just like not setting fire to a nunnery was a law, and if we sped on the highway, didn’t that mean that we were also implicitly approving of burning down that nunnery? (There’s a deeper law about speeding on the highway called “not putting your family in danger by obstructing the flow of traffic”, but I didn’t come to that idea until later.) For a while I was very impressed with this argument, except that I kept speeding anyways.

I was impressed but not persuaded. I might have agreed, intellectually, about this kind of absolutist framework of viewing the law as a monolithic entity where speeding and murder were on the same level. But it didn’t change my behaviour. I actually wondered about that a few times. I didn’t realise at the time that I actually didn’t agree. I just couldn’t put into words my objections, which weren’t logical and rational and didn’t have the hollow ring of facts about them, but were actually simply that some laws are law-eyer than others, and that morality isn’t decided by a penal code.

Persuasion is important. Think of all the things you’ve been persuaded to do for love. You may have even converted to a religion for love (and meant it!). Look at all the people who suddenly become devout Christians or Jews or what have you, exactly when it’s conveniently required. Love has this way of making up your mind for you. There’s all kind of stuff that suddenly clicks into place. You become a different person, or at least a different kind of person.

Love kind of short circuits the bits of your brain that want to grasp the facade of logic.

And so do analogies.

An Analogy From Analogies

If you’re a good nerd, you probably hate the meandering train of reasoning I used to get here. I made a few analogies, talked about logic, told a story, then made another analogy. That’s okay!

I did it all on purpose.

Sorry.

The point I’m trying to make is that logic is a domain-specific thing that has certain uses. Arguments are domain-specific things that have certain uses. They are technically meant to do one thing but are press-ganged into doing another, more pernicious thing, which is defense of pre-existing positions.

Analogies are different.

They’re not about facts. They’re about state transfer. By using an analogy, you’re trying to express to someone else your state of mind. You’re making a comparison that is meant to explain to someone why you feel a certain way without using tools like logic and arguments.

It feels a bit like cheating.

There’s a long oral tradition of using extended analogues (aka parables) to help people understand something. You may not like this. If you’re a super-nerd you’ll probably say something like Well, that’s because human minds are silly things that evolved to take stories more seriously than logic and facts. Because after all, the end goal of humanity should be to become correct-thinking computers, right? All this mushy meat instead of the glorious computational accuracy of silicon! What a shame.

That may be. But the reality remains that we are human, and we do respond to stories and analogies and anecdotes far better than we do to lists of facts.

Like, it’s safer to send your kids to the park down the street than it is to let them play in your backyard… if you have a pool. But we don’t fear the pool because we know the pool. We fear the child-snatcher because that narrative has potency.

Analogies are essentially stories, right? And they function in the same way stories do. They provide a slight narrative, they give a small insight into how you think.

Analogies are tools of persuasion. They’re not tools of argument and defense. They can be used that way and maybe even often are, but they’re particularly hard to “defend” against.

But we’re going to try anyways!

Pay No Attention To The Analogy Behind The Curtain

There’s no good way to respond to an analogy without responding in kind. A better analogy. But then you get trapped in an analogy loop where everyone is agreeing to disagree because we all kind of understand where each other is coming from. And we can’t have that.

So the standard nerd turns to the standard nerd toolbox to defeat the analogy…

Logic will save the day!

If analogies short-circuit the logic/argument paradigm, there’s only one way to get back on the offence. Pick apart the analogy. It’s not exact enough! The analogy breaks down! It’s not good! Make a better analogy!

This is all standard stuff. But you have to understand that it’s a distraction the same way presenting a logic fallacy is a distraction. It’s not really salient. We all know analogies are inexact and break down somewhere. If they didn’t break down they’d just be exact descriptions of the argument at hand and would lose their usefulness. Which, come to think of it, if you’re of that sort of disposition, is exactly what you want.

So you nitpick the analogy until it breaks down, wash your hands, and pretend it’s been a good day’s work. The analogy has been short-circuited, and we’re back to logic/argument land, where the free-flowing dialogue can go on forever with no one ever having to adopt a different (read: unsettling, new) opinion.

Persuasion

My point is that analogies are tools of persuasion.

Arguments are not.

Analogies are state transfers.

Arguments are not.

Analogies can be effective.

Argument are almost always not.

Analogies aren’t the only tool of persuasion. It’s just one of many. It might not even be a very good one. But my point is a little bit more meta than simply facts vs analogies. Arguments are not effective in drawing people together. They don’t naturally help people (especially on the internet) understand each others state of mind better. It naturally creates an us vs them mentality, and an isn’t an us vs them mentality the root of all violence? The cavemen who wear pelts of deer who must kill the cavemen who wear pelts of the unclean animal.

And yet we argue. All. The. Time.

I’m not sure what that says about us humans.

by D.S. Deboer at July 23, 2015 03:39 AM

July 21, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Development vs Production

When I think of development vs production I’m thinking of manufacturing specifically. These terms mean slightly different things in, say, software, where development is where you make the thing stable enough to run and production is where you run it.

On the other hand maybe that’s not so different after all. Development makes it run, production runs it.

But that’s all very obvious. I want to think about product development and production in more conceptual terms, thinking about how each area does what it does. And I want this to be a little abstract. So I’m going to talk about development and realization instead of “production”. (Just to prevent any confusion here, I’m using the term a little differently than the ISO 9001 spec does, where design, development, and production are all subsets of realization.)

First, product development and realization are two separate things. This isn’t obvious to some people. You know who these people are. I once heard a developer friend of mine years ago (he worked at a bank, which in kind of super-scary) describe his co-worker as a “cowboy”. The sort of person who doesn’t value (or worse, understand) the difference between development and production, who pushes changes from development to production with minimal or no check (or worse, develops in production).

This was software, but manufacturing has the same sort of thing. In a system like ISO 9001:2008 development and realization are considered two different domains, each with their own sets of paperwork, processes, work instructions, and potentially different management teams.

In a large company you might have development plants or skunkworks. This makes the separation super obvious. And obvious for a reason, you don’t just push development changed into a realization scenario where you can make 10 million widgets wrong.

In a small company the domains get a little muddier. This is why a conceptual framework is useful. The same people might be managing the development, producing prototypes, doing testing, as are managing the production lines, running the production lines, and doing inspections.

There might not be a clear reason to separate development from realization (at least at first), especially as a 1-person or few-person outfit. When you’re a small company, you’re probably not making 10 million widgets where development is a much smaller part of your overall cost structure. If you’re developing a lot of one-offs and specialty products, maybe most of your time can be taken up with development.

This is why a development/realization conceptual framework is important. It helps separate domains, and by doing so helps you to stop making the same mistakes over and over again.

First, product development and product realization have different inputs. An input, of course, is just something you dump into a process in order to do some work on it and get something out the other side. This can be materials, specification, people, processes, etc. (And usually realization has as one of its inputs the results od

They also have different causes and effects. Things that go wrong in development often are (but don’t have to be) very different from things that go wrong in realization.

Even more abstractly, they have different purposes. So let’s start there.

Different Purposes

Realization exists to make a product, to bring it to market in a certain form. It might seem at first that development also exists to make a product (as prototype), but that’s not exactly true. Or, if you’re doing in that way, you’re potentially doing development wrong.

Development actually exists to make knowledge. Specifically, reusable knowledge.

Why would you develop, let’s say, “a tool that doesn’t vibrate while cutting Titanium”? That’s a narrow goal. It’s applicable to just one thing. A more abstract and useful expression of this development process would be “a type of geometry that doesn’t vibrate in a material with certain properties”.

Then you can take that knowledge and reuse it for different items of that class. I think of this as a sort of don’t repeat yourself (or DRY) for product development.

Instead of ending up with a tool, you end up with a set of criteria than can be applied to tool, plural. And instead of that knowledge accumulating in one person’s head, it accumulates as a set of specifications.

I’ve seen this so very many times. Someone says “My customer wants a tool that does x and y”, a single person does the development and realization process at the same time, no specification is written, the tool goes out, and the knowledge is nowhere to be found. This makes for a very valuable person but a useless procedure.

(This doesn’t even touch on the amount of waste generated by this kind of process conflation; think of all the extra time spend developing the same tool again and again, reinventing the wheel, only to have the product returned because something went wrong somewhere in this crazy whirlpool of a development process. It might seem like time has been saved in the short term, but as with most things, it’s a long-term disaster.)

Different Causes and Effect

When you do development and realization at the same time, you risk conflating cause and effects, which are different in each domain.

Typically in development, causes of failures are related to development type things (experimentation going wrong as it always does, etc). Since you’re developing a specification and creating knowlege, you’re venturing into the unknown where unknown things can happen.

In realization, causes of failures are usually related to process type things. The processes should be nailed down enough that when something goes wrong (apart from the usual acts of God) you can track down where the process hasn’t been followed or where the process needs to be changed.

These causes and effect, when taken together, when development and realization are bundled, become exponentially more tricky. Suddenly your production causes and effects are no longer bounded by adherence to processes, instead you have to look at your processes and your development criteria, and so on. Suddenly your troubleshooting tree has way, way more branches. It can become so complex that you just can’t troubleshoot at all, and you just ship and pray.

I don’t think I need to say why guess & test plus ship & pray is a terrible, terrible idea.

Different Inputs

My final thought is that development and realization have different inputs. In fact, one of the inputs of realization is a specification from development.

Development takes existing knowledge, engineering expertise, and customer specifications, and outputs a specification. This can be an prolonged period of prototyping and testing, but if you’re doing similar things quite often it can be simply spitting out a specification with small modifications. (Eg, my customer wants this thing that we already make, just with a different dimension or material.) In fact, with the proper ongoing research and development efforts, even a small company can radically shorten development engineering lead times with reusable knowledge.

Not only that, but reusable knowledge doesn’t have to be domain-specific. For instance if you’re improving one process, it’s quite possible you can reuse that improvement in many processes. The knowledge generated by development can be diffused across both development and realization. This is the kind of thing that can save serious cash by improving processes across the board and shortening lead times.

Realization on the other hand takes as one of its inputs (possibly one of many) the specification produced by development. With proper modularization it may even be possible to create a series of specifications that can be mixed and matched to achieve different results as required.

For instance where I work we could have a meta-specification that simply calls out other specifications and mixes in the customer’s special requirements.

Or if the customer needs something truly oddball, a new specification is created. (From my experience 90% of our custom work would easily be covered by a meta-specification.)

Different Inputs

Just to wrap things up, this is why I see development and realization as two different domains. They accept different inputs, they produce different outputs, they have different causes and effects, and they exist for different purposes.

I hope I’ve done a decent job of explaining why I see conflating the two domains as a really dangerous idea.

That said, I think a lot of companies, especially small outfits, don’t see the immediate benefit of decoupling development from production. Maybe this is because of cost concerns (I need to make a whole new division!) or because of lead time concerns (I have to do two things in line instead of at once!).

The problem is the value proposition here is kind of hard to quantify. If you’re worried about those things you’re probably also not doing proper analytics on scrap rates, production breakdowns, customer satisfaction, nonconforming product returns, and all the other fun stuff that comes along with doing too many things at the same time.

And there’s no way to really make this sexy. This is sort of the least sexy possible domain. There’s nothing really clever, there’s no Suits-esque maneuvering here.

All I can say is that decoupling development from production is a proven long-term success story. It’s going to be one of the ways you make your company (at least, if that’s what you want) into an organization instead of a random collection of people and things those people do. It’s going to result in fewer lost man-hour trying to reinvent a process or specification (again). It’s going to cut down on the amount of lost time and money on returns, replacing faulty tooling, dealing with upset customers, and scrapping out nonperformant parts.

The greatest benefit, though, is something really intangible. It’s peace of mind. You’re not relying on one guy who just “knows” things. You’re not guessing and testing. You’re not shipping and praying.

I don’t know about you, but peace of mind if kind of a big deal for me.

by D.S. Deboer at July 21, 2015 09:36 PM

June 28, 2015

Jeff H.

RIP Chris Squire

One of my favorite bass guitar players passed away. If you want to see some over-the-top, goofy and amazing bass guitar playing for ten minutes, watch this:

The video doesn’t convey it accurately, live in concert, the bass would rattle your teeth, it was a sight to behold and hear.

Chris was always a man of excess, both on stage and in his personal life. One of my favorite instruments that he would bring on stage was a TRIPLE-NECKED guitar (4 string bass, 6 string standard electric, 4 string fretless) for “Awaken” It was a gigantic monster that only he could tame.

One of the songs that Chris would play during his solo was “Amazing Grace” inspired by his youth as a choir boy in England. I don’t know what his relationship with the Lord was, like I said he was a man of excess, though it wasn’t his hard living that killed him, it was cancer, but I hope he has found peace at the end. And thanks for all the music, I can’t wait to see Yes in August and see what they do to honor his life.

by jholland at June 28, 2015 05:21 PM

June 14, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Sour grapes vs PDCA

When someone leaves (your company, your church, your circle of friends, a relationship, whatever), there’s always a temptation to say “Oh yeah, we’re better off without him/her”.

I mean, this is a sort of very human way to deal with loss. It’s almost a glass half full approach, but only almost. It’s more loss mitigation than anything else, a way to build a mental framework of the world where things you can’t control end up being not just okay, but good for you.

We just had someone quit at work. It was a huge loss, frankly. We’re still trying to figure out how to replace them. There are thousand little actions we’re trying to reproduce, but we don’t quite know how. It’s really hard to take those thousand little actions and figure out how to do them all over again. Even with cross-training and other ways to deal with people taking vacations or getting sick or whatever, there’s still a ton of work to replacing them.

That said, as we work through this stuff we’re finding a bunch of stuff that’s frankly a little… off. Processes that are inefficient, time wasted, etc. Nobody’s perfect. Everyone does some stupid things. But we’re talking about 10% or so. A small fraction of stuff that could be improved.

What I’ve seen happen before is people seize on these things, magnify them into a gigantic showstopper, and then act like it’s a huge blessing that person left.

I get that reaction. I do.

But it’s fundamentally dishonest. And it gets in the way of improvement.

There’s a feedback loop you should apply to everything. And I do mean everything; if you can send me an example of something that can’t be improved, I’ll buy a hat and eat it. Won’t be the first hat I’ve eaten. Probably won’t be the last. But I think I’m on pretty solid ground here. As a bit of an aside, anytime someone exempts themselves or their profession from feedback and improvement, I guarantee you they’re resting on laurels, and often not very impressive laurels. I’ve sat under a bunch of preachers who were obviously not terribly interested in doing a better job, ostensibly because being “called” to a position and going to some barnyard seminary means you’re instantly equipped for a lifetime of preaching. But that’s my baggage and largely neither here nor there.

The feedback loop has many different names but almost everyone has one. Consciously or not, you take a look at things and try to make them better. I may be being too charitable here, but it’s what I choose to believe.

The particular feedback loop I have in mind is called Plan/Do/Check/Act. You make a plan, you do the plan, you check the results, you adjust what you’re doing and then (and this is the critical part) you start back at the beginning again. This is why it’s called a feedback loop. You take the outputs of Check/Act and apply them do Plan/Do. Something isn’t going right, because nothing ever goes right the first time, right? You figure that out in the check phase with analysis, then you act upon that analysis to figure out what wrong, then you revise your plan and start again.

This is not some kind of stunningly original capital-I Idea I just came up with. I shamelessly stole this from Toyota and every management book ever. It’s also not hard to do, assuming you’re not used to doing something else.

I think just about everyone is used to doing something else. I said earlier that most people do PDCA unconsciously in their personal lives, and the important word is unconsciously. We start doing something big and all that stuff falls out of our heads. Haven’t you seen something like this before? Someone comes up with an idea. And critically this is an idea. Is an idea the same thing as a plan? Well, maybe. But most of the time probably not. An idea is “I want ice cream”. A plan is “I’m going to get my wallet, walk to McDonald’s, and get some soft serve”. I trust the difference is obvious. An idea is the core of a thing, a plan includes implementation details and processes ([1] get wallet, [2], walk to McDonald’s, [3] soft serve, where [1] and [2] are processes and [3] is a detail).

My ice cream idea evolves from a very vague sort of feeling into a set of instructions. Now, my plan is not the only plan, and this is important. I could have driven there, I could have walked to a different store, I could have decided on a different kind of ice cream. Critically, all plan implementations in some way dictate their results. Does McDonald’s have anything other than soft serve? No, right (at least where I’m from)? So choosing to walk to McDonald’s limits the outcome. On the other hand driving to the grocery store also limits the outcome, as they don’t have soft serve.

Let’s say you decide to carry out your plan. You get your wallet, you walk over to McDonald’s, you go to pay… and you’ve left all your cash at home. You’ve accidentally and unfortunately stumbled into “check”. You then act in some way, depending who you are (try to run up a tab, beg for free ice cream, go back home and get money, use a credit card instead etc). If this all seems a bit to concrete and a little too life-like, yes, that did happen to me, and yes, I felt like an idiot.

Now, critically, this isn’t a feedback loop. Not yet. What’s missing? What incredibly important feature of a cycle hasn’t happened here?

Let’s say the next time I’m going out to buy something I just pick up my wallet and assume there’s a wad of cash in there and leave the house. You’d ask me if I’m an idiot, did I not just yesterday learn that lesson?

This is where revising the plan comes in. I’m using this on a sort of very high meta-level, but you see what I mean. My plan should have been generalised to something like: [1] get wallet, [2] CHECK WALLET, [3] go somewhere, [4] buy something. If you’re wondering if this still seems too lifelike, yes, I’m still trying to remember to actually look in my wallet. I’m considering putting up a sign at the front door. Look in your wallet DUMMY.

But you see how this applies in a management scenario. Your plan is to [1] figure out the personnel you need, [2] hire them, [3] train them, [4] keep them if they’re working out.

If they leave in a huff, completely fed up with their working environment, so pissed off from top to bottom that they can’t see any other possibility than quitting, you have 2 choices. You can figure out what went wrong and try to fix the problem, or you can just throw up your hands and say, “Oh well, they sucked anyways.”

One of those is extremely counterproductive and near rage-inducing.

Anyways. This is not the post I meant to post. This is a eulogy of sorts for a relationship with a coworker I will very much miss. I think I’ll come back to PDCA soon, as I feel like a lot of creative types have difficulty with forcing their creative actions into a feedback cycle. I have some thoughts on what it means to be professional about something, and what genius really looks like. This all ties together somehow, I promise. Cross your fingers.

by D.S. Deboer at June 14, 2015 11:23 PM

May 25, 2015

Brandy

Tips for Staying Healthy While Traveling

Since I’m in the middle of a heavy travel season, I thought I would share some of my tried and true tips for staying healthy while traveling. Oh, and most of them are pretty sarcastic. Because it is really hard to stay healthy while traveling. Most of the time I just try to stay alive while traveling. That takes up most of my energy.

1. Keep Moving – I do usually bring workout clothes with me when I travel, and I do my best to try to visit the workout room at the hotel. But sometimes the workout room consists of a pile of dumbbells and a treadmill held together with Juicy Fruit and a handful of paperclips from the business center. In that case, you must get creative. I enjoy giving piggy back rides to small children but only if it’s more than 100 degrees because then you sweat more and also you’re more likely to fall, at which point you’re in prime position to do a few push-ups.

Speaking of falling, make sure you do your stretches, because you don’t want an injury while traveling. I say steal toys from children and use them as stretching tools.

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2. Eat the Local Food – Eating the food that the locals eat has a two-fold benefit. First, most people around the world eat much healthier than we do. So dining on that food instead of filling your carry-on with protein bars can actually be quite healthy.

And second of all, eating the local food will probably mean at some point your stomach will revolt. It’s basically a cleanse. If you want the full effect drink the tap water.

Here I am, eating a cricket in Mexico. Because I take my own advice very, very seriously.

 

3. Work like the locals. I’ve found that it’s always beneficial to take on some tasks that the locals do. Making tortillas gives you an excellent upper arm workout. Carrying water from the local well is good for both cardiovascular and shoulders. Driving a rickshaw…well, you probably wouldn’t survive that anyway.

Remember to keep in mind, though, that you are a white visitor, pretending at the actual work that they have to do. So just remember not to take yourself too seriously. Which leads to my final tip…

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4. Laugh. Like, laugh all the time. Mostly at yourself. Because nothing goes quite like you planned when you travel, especially if you’re traveling internationally. Your flight will get delayed. Your bus will break down. Your hotel will be crazy, you’ll be culture shocked and frustrated that you can’t speak the language.

Stop it. Stop being all American and anal. Throw back your head and laugh. Preferably so hard that you snort. You burn more calories when you snort.

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by Brandy at May 25, 2015 11:38 PM

Blessed

Hey y’all! Don’t you love it when someone launches a blog and then never ever posts on it? I know I do!

In all seriousness, those last two posts summed everything up. I had nothing new to report. The bad days outnumbered the good for a while. And then they evened out. And now I’d even say the good days outnumber the hard ones. Yay for progress!

I can’t promise that I’m going to be super active around here for the next month or so. I’m in a crazy season at work, with lots of travel, and just doing laundry and packing is taking up most of my energy.

But I want to share with you the things I’m learning, the hope I’m finding in the most unexpected of places. In jungles and dentist chairs and airplanes. So I’ll do my best. But have patience with me.

I will leave you with this, though.

I just spent about a week in El Salvador and Mexico. The trip was a whirlwind of laughter and tears. Planes and pick up trucks. Poverty and gratitude. Stories and silence.

My first morning home, I woke up early and for a moment my foggy brain couldn’t figure out where I was. But slowly all things familiar soaked in. My soft sheets. The row of colorful scarfs hung over my door. The pile of books and magazines next to my bed. The mug filled with pens next to a journal.

I was home. And as I stared up at my dusty ceiling fan, one thought broke through the gray morning.

I am blessed.

It’s cliche. I know. To come home from a trip to a poverty-stricken country and prattle on about how blessed we are. We have clean water and clothes and grocery stores and health insurance. And on and on. It’s all true. I am blessed to have each one of those things.

But it goes deeper than material things. I am blessed to have a strong and healthy body. Yet I don’t always treat it as such. When I don’t fill it with good things, I squander that gift. When I look at it in the mirror and ridicule it, I mock that gift. When I reduce it to a number, I scorn that gift.

I am trying to shift my way of thinking. To fill my body with good things, not so I can wear a certain size pants, but so I can have the energy to do the work I am called to do. To run hard after my calling. I will workout so I have the strength to give piggy backs around a dusty courtyard. I will eat healthy food so I can hike through the jungle to a holy spot to tell a holy story.

I will care for this body so I can use it to care for others.

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by Brandy at May 25, 2015 11:23 PM

Daniel - ElsewhereInDreams.com

Bays

The sand might as well be
lava on the hot days.
We had to cross that small desert
to get to the green diving board bracketed
against high, smooth rocks.
The relief contained its
own affliction,
as always.

We were all a lack of parents.
I imagine they slept and slept
and woke to make dinner and then slept again.
We died a thousand times
with no one looking
but rose again with stray
lures in our fingers.
We stole canoes and paddled
to the island where we looking in
all the windows.

I can’t imagine my child doing those things.
I am too much a slave of death to allow it.

This place no longer exists,
of course.
It’s been sold and divvied out
to the landowners.
I have my own family now
but we can never escape the city’s hum and crumple.
There exists no place for it
out there or
in here.

by ddeboer at May 25, 2015 12:48 PM

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Beach

Crossposted from Elsewhere In Dreams

The sand might as well be
lava on the hot days.
We had to cross that small desert
to get to the green diving board bracketed
against high, smooth rocks.
The relief contained its
own affliction,
as always.

We were all a lack of parents.
I imagine they slept and slept
and woke to make dinner and then slept again.
We died a thousand times
with no one looking
but rose again with stray
lures in our fingers.
We stole canoes and paddled
to the island where we looking in
all the windows.

I can’t imagine my child doing those things.
I am too much a slave of death to allow it.

This place no longer exists,
of course.
It’s been sold and divvied out
to the landowners.
I have my own family now
but we can never escape the city’s hum and crumple.
There exists no place for it
out there or
in here.

by D.S. Deboer at May 25, 2015 12:45 PM

May 21, 2015

Jeff H.

The 10th Anniversary of The Everglow

MAE in concert

In 2006, I posted about how a concert reenergized me when I was weary. I wrote that before I had children and truly learned the meaning of tired. The band was MAE and the album they were performing was The Everglow, my favorite album from the year 2005 and maybe one of my all-time favorite albums. Only a few years later, the band lost momentum and faded away. I had good memories from the concert, but I didn’t think I would ever hear those songs in concert again.

Surprise, surprise, the band reunited, all 5 members from the album, and announced they would tour and play the entire album from beginning to end. As it turned out, our own group reunited for the show. Jerry and I were no-brainers for the show, but to our delight Chuck even traveled from Tennessee and it was the same as the 2006 show even if we are a little longer in the tooth.

We used to eat a Jaqbo’s over by Georgia Tech when I was in school, but that is long-gone. In it’s place is a “little Italy” section with a pizzeria, gelato store, bar, and open seafood grill. We enjoyed Antico, where the room is as bare-bones as possible, we sat on a large metal bench and ate pizza right off the pan. On the other side of the large room were the large ovens and kitchen staff that cheered loudly when Pachuca scored a goal.

After the delicious dinner, we made the short dash over to The Masquerade. If anything hasn’t changed in the last ten years, it is The Masquerade. It is still as dark and terrifying as ever with it’s random mill equipment still hanging from the ceiling and mysterious dark corners that I don’t want to know what is hiding there. The concert was in the top floor, the “heaven” part of the venue, the exact same location as the 2006 show. It’s not uncommon for The Masquerade to have more than one show at the same time and I joked that there is probably a death-metal band in the “Hell” part of the venue and the fans there would be waiting to beat us up before or after the show, but there was only one show that night.

Mike Mains and the Branches opened the show and while they lacked a little bit of the “anything could happen here” vibe they had at Cornerstone, they were still really fun. They played a couple songs from each of their two albums and I was familiar with just about everything they played and sang along. The second band was All Get Out and they really weren’t my thing and I didn’t know any of their songs so I kinda checked out while they played. I would have greatly preferred that they were the first band and Mike Mains and the Branches got the second longer set.

Finally, MAE took the stage. I really liked their stage setup with posts and Christmas lights strung up between the posts. The light gave the appearance of tiny stars behind them and changed a couple of different colors for a couple different moods. They started with a couple more recent songs, but it wasn’t until they started the intro to The Everglow that the room figuratively and literally lit up. The crowd was in it from the start, singing loudly as the band went into “Someone Else’s Arms.” Dave Elkins declared “MAE is for lovers!” and perhaps he was right as there were plenty of couples arm-in-arm in crowd. The girl next to me wiped away tears at the end of “The Ocean” as she pressed into her beau’s side and who could blame her? It was beautiful. “Breakdown” had a great moment where the girls and guys in the crowd each sang a different part and it made a great 3 part melody. After the band wound down “The Sun and the Moon” they exited the stage to the “The Epilogue.” They came back for a short encore before the night was done.

The show was a little uneven, the Everglow material sounded a little more polished than the rest of the set, but that’s the part I wanted to hear so I left pleased. The best part is that the band is together and touring again and I’m hoping this means there will be new music in the future. There have been so many endings when it comes to my favorite music that I would welcome some beginnings and renewals.

by jholland at May 21, 2015 01:51 AM

May 18, 2015

Keith

Moved

I’m going to let this domain expire. You can now find me at keithjgrant.com.

by Keith at May 18, 2015 04:00 PM

May 01, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

10 simple rules for making a podcast

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I cycle through a bunch of new ones every once in a while trying to find new stuff to listen to (I listen faster than my favourites get made) and I inevitably just crash and burn out of a few of them despite them being decent shows. Sometimes the flaws are too annoying for me to cope.

Doing this today made me think… All the podcasts I really, really like have some things in common. A bunch that I find just kind of bearable have some things in common. And then all the podcasts I couldn’t get on board with have some things in common too.

So I made a list.

First, my bona fides. Here’s my top 5:

1) Hello Internet
2) Caustic Soda
3) How Did This Get Made
4) Freakonomics
5) Filmspotting

This list is not great. Well, the first 3 are great. The last 2 are radio shows, and I don’t think they should count. But I’ve really struggled to find decent, independently produced stuff that I like.

Get a better mic.

Seriously, just do it. There’s no excuse. A decent mic is like $100 (and up, of course). And while you’re at it, learn how to EQ. There are podcasts (like Stuff You Should Know) that I just can’t listen to because their mids are too dense and the whole mix is muddy. Do the minimal post-processing. It’s a world of difference.

Get to the point

If this blog post was a podcast, it would be pretty crappy. Too much frontloading is not interesting. Remember, you’re not a radio show. You don’t have to try to pick up the previous show’s audience with a catchy lead-in. A podcast I canned (notably; this sticks out in my mind as a particularly egregious example) is Doug Loves Movies. The first episode I listened to was a live show, which probably wasn’t the best place to start, but the lead-in was something like fifteen minutes of blabbering on about nothing. No fun, unsubscribe.

Now all that stuff could have been done in the context of the show and it would have been fine. I mean How Did This Get Made does this all the time, and it’s fine when it’s wrapped up in content. But if you’re talking for more than a minute or two and you haven’t gotten to the thing you’re about, you’re doing something wrong.

Ads are good, good ads are better

I don’t expect you to starve, I don’t want content for free. I understand that the sort of unspoken social contract behind subscribing to your podcast is that I’m going to listen to the things you say, including ads. But I’m not going to listen to terrible ads. I’ll pick on Freakonomics here. Their podcast ads are horrible. Same thing every time.

If I’m listening to your podcast, there’s a good chance I trust you more than the average joe on the street. I am, after all, listening to what you’re saying. If you shill a product with generic advertising, that’s no good. If you shill something well, something that you use and recommend (thank you How Did This Get Made for hooking me up with Squarespace, and Hello Internet for getting me knee-deep in Audible).

Your personal recommendation, funny, sincere, fast, slow, whatever, means ways more to me than just another ad. An ad is okay, your personal recommendation is better, an interesting person recommendation is best.

You’re not on the radio

All that stuff that radio shows do because they have to, like be a certain length, have a certain format, come out on a certain schedule, have seasons, etc, etc… None of that has to apply to you. Caustic Soda, for instance, generally separates itself into two segments with a song in the middle.

That’s not to say that having segments or a theme song or ad breaks or whatever is a bad thing… You just don’t have to be constrained by the hard limits of radio broadcasting.

Be about a thing

Very few podcasts (with the exception of Hello Internet) can be just two humans talking to each other. You need a theme. Stick to the theme. Be a thing. If you want to be two things you can always start another podcast.

On the other hand, podcasts about everything are interesting if you’re especially interesting. There are people I could listen talk about just stuff for days. These people are few and far between. You are probably not one of them.

Edit ruthlessly

Editing your podcast ruthlessly will help you get rid of cruft but it will also help you find cruft in real time and prevent it (a sort of self-modifying feedback/ operant conditioning loop).

All that frontloaded crap? Gone.

When in doubt choose quality

Don’t use Skype. Record on both ends and mash the recording together in Ableton or whatever. Yes, this is harder. Yes, it will take more time. Yes, it will sound 1000x better.

Don’t be afraid to be funny

Some people just aren’t. That’s okay. But humour is this sort of conversational and topical lubricant that helps stuff slow along. Caustic Soda for instance is incredibly informative but also really funny. Well, except for the puns.

Don’t forget about guests

Especially great guests. I know some shows are built around guests, but others aren’t and just don’t have them. But what makes Caustic Soda (with Dr Rob), Filmspotting (with Michael Phillips), and How Did This Get Made (as I say for all things ever, more Adam Scott please) so occasionally wonderful is the guests. Plus it breaks up the same-old same-old. Tired of Joe Fulgham stumbling around blindly looking for some quasi-scientific explanation for things? Enter Dr Rob! (If this doesn’t make any sense, go listen to Caustic Soda for a while.)

Prepare, prepare, prepare

You can over-prepare. You can stifle the creative spirit. You can also ramble on for hours having said nothing substantive or interesting while your audience just kind of… dissolves. Your choice.

Pacing is a lot more important than you might think. It’s great, it’s really wonderful when a podcast takes a minute to linger on one topic. But in general, brisk is better.

by D.S. Deboer at May 01, 2015 01:10 AM

April 29, 2015

Keith

Taming CSS

Observation 1: Web developers, in general, don’t know CSS as well as they should.

Observation 2: There aren’t really any good roadmaps for learning all the essentials of CSS.

There are great resources for the basics, for styling, for code organization/architecture, for advanced tricks. But to work through them all, you get a lot of overlap, and they still leave you with missing gaps in your knowledge. Often, with CSS, you don’t know what you don’t know, and that makes it hard to move forward. My hope is to fix that, by putting them all together in one place.

Announcing Taming CSS, a CSS book for web developers.

by Keith at April 29, 2015 07:31 PM

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Riot as voice

Sorry to give away the ending with the title; I guess you know what I’m going to say already.

I’ve written about this before, I think it might have been on Twitter, and I can’t be bothered to find that now (something that reveals a real hole in Twitter’s architecture, though I digress). I’ve also written about how we can think something is wrong but still understand why it happens. Root causes are important. You can’t just tell everyone “don’t riot” and expect that to solve anything. (If this sounds strange, don’t feel bad, it took me a while to get this too.)

This point goes for just about everything, by the way. If you work on identifying and fixing root causes, you stop thing from repeating. If you see someone have the same thing happen over and over again, you can put money on it: They’re not fixing the root problem. I’ve written about that too. We normally think of root causes in a management context, but it makes sense in cultural and societal contexts as well. Mind you, the root causes of race riots are being hashed out as a political problem in a realm that’s really only good for flinging crap.

I’m almost always on the side of the rioters. If there are riots, you can be sure there is oppression and voicelessness. (Unless you’re rioting about hockey in which case you need a new hobby.)

In the US the Supreme Court has called money speech. And a large portion of the country (notably people who have lots of money) agree with this, but can’t see that violence is also a kind of speech. It is a desperate call of an oppressed class.

There’s a lot more going on than just that of course. One of the problems that poor and marginalized groups have is that their few available methods of speech are either considered offputting or just plain criminalized. Not to mention that poverty and crime are associated, so it’s really easy to demonize the marginalized, who also happen to be poor, who are also more likely to be criminals. And there are always opportunists who will use riots as an excuse to get some free stuff.

There was a lot more going on with the Boston Tea Party too. Maybe it will take a few hundred years for us to really understand what these riots mean. Why do they keep happening? Baltimore in 2015, or Chicago in 1909, or Tulsa in 1921, or Newark in 1967, or Miami in 1980, or Los Angeles in 1992, or Cincinnati in 2001, or Ferguson in 2014… it’s a long list.

Why does this stuff keep happening? Are black people just naturally violent? (If you think yes, congratulations, you’re part of a long tradition of racists, including slave owners who justified their slavery by appealing to “savage” nature of the black man.) Or is there something else wrong here? Something perhaps systemic? Some kind of unhealed wounds perhaps?

But it’s all okay. Slavery and racism are over in the USA, don’t you know? So a bunch of race riots keep happening. What can the US possibly be expected to do? Oh well.

It’s frustrating to see people (unfettered from the associations that would normally keep them from saying this stuff [don’t open that link if you mind language]) at once angry about the destruction of property and kind of grotesquely jubilant that their casual racism has been confirmed by a few photos they saw.

Which makes me think… Why is the merchandise in a 7-11 more important than a man’s life? Why focus on the looting? You know why. You want to call them thugs so you don’t have to deal with their (very real) problems. You tacitly admit that you think poor black people are bad people. And because they’re bad people we don’t have to care if these modern-day lynching continue. And before you get on my case, I don’t see how you can see the unprecedented brutality and murder of black people in the US by the largely-white police as anything else.

The Christian response in the US is frankly disgusting. There should be a Christian response to this, right? We’re ready and willing to help the Nepalese (as we should) because they are a people sorely in need. But here’s a people in our backyard. And a lot of the response I see is people mentally passing by on the other side to get out of our obligation — yes, obligation — to help the poor and the needy, to give voice to the voiceless, to do all those things Jesus talked about again and again.

Or as the Proverb says:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

not “unless they look like an obese black woman or a gang member, then just ignore them.”

by D.S. Deboer at April 29, 2015 03:08 AM

April 28, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

The mechanisms of magic

I keep looking at John 10 and finding new stuff. So you’re in for a treat: I want to talk about the mechanisms of magic.

One of the things that frustrated me for a long time about the Tolkien fantasy universe is stuff like Tom Bombadil and magic. Specifically the mechanisms of magic. How does it work? What causes it? Where does it come from? Why does it happen at all?

Tolkien is either very cagey or very purposely old-fashioned about this. When I was first thinking about this I have to confess to a bit of blithe chronological snobbery (and Tolkien underestimation; never a good thing). My first instinct is to assume Tolkien himself has the old-fashioned worldview, that it never occurred to him to think about the why, the how, the mechanism of magic.

But of course he did. This is the guy who invented a bunch of languages. He was a professor, and one who was by all accounts used to putting himself in the shoes of the ancients. Of course he knew that they didn’t think about mechanisms like we do. To them, magic would be the default position. You’d have to be a bit daft to ask how it worked. Angels-as-men get sent to Middle Earth and futz around with their magic sticks and whatnot. That’s just what happens.

And I think we can assume Tolkien wrote his world that way on purpose, to capture the mind of a different era.

I’m not even going to talk about Tom Bombadil.

Contrast that with The Malazan Book of the Fallen, a more recent high fantasy decalogy. It’s very concerned with the means and methods and flavours of magic. It goes into a fair amount of detail. Elemental magic is shaped into holds, then holds are deprecated in favour of warrens, which are all essentially flowing from inside a giant magic dragon, which can be accessed almost as other worlds. There are gods and goddesses who have houses, each house having members who perform certain magical functions. And in the end they’re all shuffled into the Deck Of Dragons, a way of both organizing the pantheon and divining the future.

I consider this a bit more modern approach to magic: Not only does it happen, but here’s how. Notably the Prince of Nothing series cares a great deal about how sorcery works. Even the more down-market Shannara books posit a mechanism for magic.

All this to say, It Just Is isn’t a satisfying or really acceptable answer to a question.

But what if it’s the only answer we can give?

Back to John 10:

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.

This is kind of a tautology. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice because they are the sheep. Everyone else doesn’t because they aren’t the sheep. This logic kind of bends back on itself. I don’t find it really satisfying because I know at the root of it all there’s a mystery. It’s not like gathering statistics and analyising the data and conducting a randomised trial and confirming a hypothesis and doing science. It’s not like that at all, in fact I think there’s an element of faith you need to approach this statement on its own ground.

Not very satisfying. I feel the schematic impulse. I want this thing mapped out.

So… we have some doctrines to swoop in and save the day. Let’s be very clear here. I’m not saying that doctrines are bad or even unhelpful. I’m not saying we should get rid of them (nor that we could). I just think there’s a level of specificity you can try to get to where you’ve diced and sliced everything up into little doctrinal chunks where you lose a sort of overall resolution. Sort of like standing too close to a TV screen.

A friend of mine once said (publicly no less; he has basketballs for cojones) that scripture affirms both predestination and free will. Which I wrote a blog post about, because I didn’t think that made sense. I called it the Third Rail of Christian thought. You don’t get to affirm opposites and handwave all the problems away.

(As an aside, it only doesn’t make sense if you agree that scripture even talks in these categories, and if it does, that scripture is this kind of monolithic repository of God-words that coheres perfectly and can be cross-referenced like a theological dictionary. I may have called predestination/free will the third rail, but if I may borrow from CS Lewis here, the Bible and what it is is the deeper third rail. It is, one might say, third-raily-er.)

I’m sort of on the outskirts of the “free will” camp these days. Maybe not as far inside as some might wish, but that’s a complicated discussion (sorry!) for another time (you’re welcome!). There’s a lot less free will in the world than we think. Initial conditions and all that.

Either way you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t go into a theological discussion about the methods and mechanisms of how predestination interacts with free will. He speaks broadly of God’s power and humans’ reaction to it. Perhaps we should follow Jesus’ example here: God calls, people respond. Believers believe. Non believers don’t believe.

The mechanics of calling and what that means are hidden here. They’re not important. God is powerful to call, people are empowered to respond. How that works… well, that gets into a kind of unhelpful doctrinal resolution, unable to see the screen for the pixels. We don’t need to posit a mechanism for it to make sense, you know?

by D.S. Deboer at April 28, 2015 12:56 AM

April 26, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

The authentic Christ as rebuke

Sometimes when you ask Jesus a question you get more than you bargained for. Or you get something you weren’t expecting. This is one of the things I love about Jesus: He’s clever. I don’t mean that in a sort of internet-snark way (Jesus isn’t just drive-by smugposting on someone’s Facebook status). He divines the intent of the questioner and answers with something confrontational.

I mean, look at John 10:

So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Before I continue, I’m going to acknowledge that there’s a lot of stuff going on here and I’m not going to dive into much of it at all. I’m not professionally religious. I’m just a guy reading a thing, and I might be full of crap. It’s happened before; I’m sure it will happen again.

Now the usual take-away from these verses is blah blah blah predestination blah blah blah perseverance of the saints of something like that. Or they’re used as a battering ram against religions who acknowledge Jesus as a prophet (or something else) but not as God. True as those things may be, I don’t know if they’re really all that helpful (or in the spirit of the passage). I mean, we tend to give ourselves a little in-group massage with this passage and go back to our usual selves.

It’s helpful to remember who Jesus is talking to here. The Jews as John calls them, or in other words, the pre-Christian analogue of the Church. This is us. And more to the point, it’s our leaders. (The Jews seems like John’s way of talking about the religions leaders. Earlier in the book The Jews decide anybody who identifies with Jesus gets kicked out the synagogue: This is clearly not something just anyone can decide. When John wants to take a dump on a particular faction of leaders such as the Pharisees, he’ll identify them by name.)

There’s a lot that can be dug into about the leaders of the Jews and their negation of Jesus and how that parallels our church leaders attempted negation of Jesus (from liberal Christian leaders who want to deny Jesus divinity to conservative Christian leaders who want to deny his social conscience). But I feel like scripture is a sword that I should use on myself first. It’s too easy to pick on the other guy, you know? I’ve got enough problems inside myself to fix before I go after other people, including that perverse desire to pick out splinters but ignore lumber.

Anyways.

Jesus gives The Jews more than they bargained for. They want to know if he’s going to identify as the Messiah. But he gives them more, much more than that. Not only is he the Messiah, but he’s the son of God, and not in a “we’re all sons of God” way but in a “I and the Father are one”.

This is sort of the inverse of Deuteronomy where the writer says

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

in opposition to the nations around them and the nations whose land they are about to possess. The startling thing is that there is but one God. For John the startling thing is this unveiling of trinitarian thought, where the Son and Father are one. As usual Jesus’ surprise isn’t the exact inverse (we’re not going back to polytheism here) but something completely and utterly new, something only ever obliquely referred to in the Jewish scriptures.

It seems to me like this is when The Jews make up their mind: Jesus has to go. They’ve got to kill this guy before he brings down the iron hammer of the Romans against them. They have to disown him to avoid political disaster. (Interestingly Jesus’ ministry also often touches on showing a “third way” of kingdom that doesn’t involve revolt and reprisal or subservience.)

They pick up stones to kill him.

Now to be fair, this is the right response to blasphemy, minus the trial and all that. This is what Jesus keeps hammering away at in John 10. His sheep hear his voice. They recognize him for what he is. Everyone else defaults to the usual response.

And then the interesting part comes. A straightforward reading of this (2000 years later without the benefit of the historical context or Jesus and The Jews scriptural memory and outside the narrative context) seems to have Jesus discussing the finer points of the grammar of the word “god” with a crowd of people trying to kill him.

If that seems a bit… odd… well, you’re right. It is a bit odd:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?

If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.

It’s easy to read this as Jesus trying to convince The Jews that he is God. And that’s not a terrible reading, but I don’t think Jesus choice of Psalm 82 is entirely coincidental. I mean, there are lots of things Jesus could have referred to other than this kind of obscure and opaque bit of the Psalms.

I think the thematic content of Psalm 82 and John 9-10 are related. In Psalm 82 you have God asking his judges (or little-gods) how long they will withhold justice from the weak and fatherless, from the afflicted and the destitute. (And just in case you think that Jesus cares about the little guy because he’s some kind of hippy bleeding heart making a bunch of stuff up, Psalm 82 precedes Jesus by 1000 or so years.) He rebukes them for their lack of care for his people. Earlier in John Jesus talks about shepherding, and in John 9 he heals a man on the Sabbath, provoking anger from The Jews.

Now he equates himself with God in the context of corrupt and unfaithful judges. He lifts himself up above the religious leaders, proclaims himself their judge, and proceeds to imply that they are unfaithful, that they are covenant breakers. Like the judges in Psalm 82.

This is what his Lordship really means. And they get this, I think. They want to stone him, they want to arrest him, not only because they think he’s a blasphemer (despite all evidence to the contrary) but because he threatens their way of life. He holds before them a sort of institutional looking-at-death, in that he calls them to repentance and a turning away from the false gods of religious piety and man-made “holiness”. He requires reinvention, rebirth, the sort of thing that will almost certainly endanger their professions and their livelihoods, maybe even bring an end to the category of “Pharisee”. He calls them to a sort of death (which will be called the “old man passing away” by Paul as he expands on Jesus’ teaching during the beginning of the Christian church).

And of course they react in much the same way we tend to today. They sought to negate Jesus as a person by killing. We seek to negate Jesus as both a person and an idea by softening him or filing off his edges. They seek to remove the thing that is causing this internal discord.

Jesus (at least to me it seems this way) intentionally antagonizes the Jewish religious leaders until they feel forced to either accept him or reject him. I think every person coming into contact with Jesus does this. Meeting Jesus is one of those things that marks a turning point whether you realise it or not. Either you accept him and seek to emulate him. Or you reject him and seek to negate him.

by D.S. Deboer at April 26, 2015 08:19 PM

April 25, 2015

Brandy

No Pretty Bow

I like to write about things once they’ve been resolved. I’ve always struggled with wanting to wrap things up with a nice bow. Make it pretty. Whitewash it.

Now do you understand why I haven’t written in so long?

I’m in the middle of a difficult season. I wrote about much of it in my last post. I slip. I gain. I pull myself up. I lose. And then we do it all again.

As I type this, I have slipped once again. I started my day by eating peanut M&Ms. So many M&Ms. And it just went downhill from there. I am writing this while my stomach is still uncomfortably full. I haven’t gotten out of my pajamas yet. I still have chocolate stuck in my teeth. I just pulled a piece of popcorn out of my hair.

But before this, I had seven good days in a row. Seven days in which I took care of myself. Where I worked through an injury and cooked healthy meals and went on walks. But today was not one of those days.

Can I confess to you that as I sit here, stomach bloated and head aching, I close my eyes and picture myself as fat. My fuzzy robe covers my arms, so I don’t see the muscles that repeated swinging of the kettlebell have earned me. I imagine them soft and puffy.

My pajama pants cover my calves, so I picture them dimpled instead of defined.

But in a few minutes, I will walk into my bathroom to get ready for the day. And I will be surprised when I look in the mirror. I will be surprised because in my mind, one morning of mistakes is enough to destroy over a year of hard work.

That is a lie.

I will try again. Not tomorrow. Not the next day. Right now.

I’ve always loved the idea of new beginnings and fresh starts. It’s why I love New Year’s day and my birthday. They feel like clean slate kind of days. But I’m trying to find tiny moments of newness.

I may have wrecked breakfast. But I am going to go brush my teeth. Put on a shirt that doesn’t have popcorn stuck to it. And reset. Moment by moment, a chance to begin again.

And I’ll try my best to bring you along on the journey. Even when there’s chocolate stuck in my teeth.

 

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by Brandy at April 25, 2015 08:47 PM

April 21, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Echoes of the Christ

I was listening to the sermon on Sunday and my mind began to wander. We were looking at John 21, fairly standard stuff, not exactly an obscure passage. Usually we focus Jesus telling Peter to feed his lambs and sometimes (if we’re lucky) we get to think about what that means.

And that’s all well and good. I’ve heard that sermon about… what, twenty times or so? I’m at the point where if I haven’t gotten it yet I’m probably not going to at all, you know? (If this all seems a bit too much “for me to know and you to agree that I probably haven’t gotten it and never will”, don’t worry, the navel-gazing ends here.)

This passage is all about echoes to me. The structure of it is very telling. The structure itself tells the story of what the passage is about. Everything in it refers back to something else that’s already happened.

The miracle itself is a retread. It clearly refers back to the previous miracle of the fishes. It’s an echo of something that’s already happened. The question is — why? Why does Jesus do this? Let’s assume for a moment that Jesus is in control of what’s happening and he isn’t just caught up the current of events (a… safe assumption, right?). He isn’t reliving his greatest hits or accidentally reading the same page in his playbook. So he’s doing all this stuff with a purpose. What might that purpose be?

Well if we back up a tiny bit and look at John’s explicit purpose in writing his book, this all becomes clear:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Isn’t this the purpose of Jesus speaking to Thomas as well? Of showing him his wounds?

John writes, more than any other gospel writer, to us. We need evidence. We need proof. We need the authentic Christ.

Whether or not you find this convincing… well, that’s up to you. It’s two thousand years later and the debate has evolved since then. Either way, you have to strip yourself of the chronological snobbery that insists these men who believed must have been hicks who had a fast one pulled on them. Jesus (and John) is interested in establishing himself as The Christ. He links his present glorified self with his previous mundane self by way of a continuity of miraculous activity. Here he has the same power to control nature, to step sideways from heaven into the fabric of spacetime and mess things up a bit.

This is a confrontational position. Common sense and received wisdom tell us the universe is a hermetically sealed box where every aberration can at claim at least some explanation. But this miracle isn’t the work of a cosmic clockmaker content to let the whole thing wind down in the other room: It speaks to a resurrected, present, and active Christ as the authentic Christ.

Of course, we’re not done with the echoes here. Jesus speaks to Peter in a way that echoes Peter’s own disavowal of Jesus. He asks him three times, an affirmation for each denial.

The content of what he tells Peter to do isn’t really the point, at least not for me right now. The structure is the point, the rhetorical point being made. Again, Jesus is concerned with authenticity. Jesus is pointing Peter in the opposite direction of his shame and cowardice, giving him a mission that he has to affirm three times.

It’s an amazing symmetry. It’s a sort of… turning around. The denial has been redeemed. The authentic Peter is not a Peter of denial. It is a Peter of affirmation. This affirmation then becomes a mission. And the mission itself echoes Jesus’ ministry: “Feed my lambs” gives Peter the mission of being a deputy-shepherd or shepherd-in-absentia.

The metaphor of echoes seems significant. I mean, I made it up, but it’s still kind of cool, because the echo of this affirmation keep going on down through the ages. It reached even me. I live inside that echo, as it were.

If John can do it, so can I: Here’s a coda. There’s a lot more to take out of this passage, a lot more that could be said. Echoes of the Eucharist, of the feeding of the 5000, talking about what it means to shepherd, of what it means to lay down your life for the sheep. Lots more. But we’ll have to wait for my mind to wander some more.

by D.S. Deboer at April 21, 2015 01:22 AM

April 17, 2015

Jeff H.

Bandwagon

I grew up on Mark Price, John Salley, Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott and other NBA greats. The first NCAA Tournament that I remember was the famous 1985 one when Villanova beat Georgetown, but also in that tournament Georgia Tech made a run all the way to the elite 8 before losing to Georgetown. I had a giant piece of paper up on the wall in my bedroom with the brackets meticulously drawn out. In 1990, I watched Tech beat Shaquille O’ Neal and LSU and then watched Kenny Anderson hit a last second shot (after the buzzer maybe?) to put Michigan State out of the tournament on the way to the Final Four. I used to practice free throws in the back yard and pretend I was making a last second shot to win the NCAA Championship. I took classes with Drew Berry and Matt Harpring. I participated in revolt at a couples’ wedding shower to sneak all the guys downstairs to watch Georgia Tech get into the 2004 Final Four. I have followed a lot of basketball in my lifetime.

There was another team in Atlanta, but I didn’t pay attention to them. I knew who Dominique Wilkens and Spud Webb were, but for whatever reason the Atlanta Hawks did not capture my imagination. I kinda disliked The Omni, and didn’t really have much interest in watching games there. The Hawks had a pretty good run in the 80’s and then again under Lenny Wilkens, but they never made it to the NBA finals and never stirred my interest enough. Ten years ago, the Hawks were bought by the reprehensible Atlanta Spirit, LLC group who also bought the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team. My low interest in the Hawks reached an all-time low when Atlanta Spirit left the Thrashers to wither on the vine and then shipped them off to Winnepeg. I vowed to never put a dime into the Hawks as long as they were owned by Atlanta Spirit and I have not been to a home game since.

In the last year, Atlanta Spirit managed to show everyone what a horrible group of owners they were with a series of revealed group e-mails between them. The e-mails fretted over things like whether the crowd at Hawks games was “too urban” (read: too black) and how they could attract suburbanites back to Philips Arena, clearly lusting after the disposable income that the Atlanta Braves were about to rake in by moving to Cumberland. The national media caught on to what we knew in Atlanta, the Hawks were owned by an incompetent group that was only slightly more progressive than Donald Sterling. However, Atlanta Spirit did do two smart things; they hired two smart people. The new CEO, Steve Koonan, has worked hard to make Hawks games entertaining again and brand them with a new image that reflects what Atlanta is now, a tension of urban and rural that actually can coexist and enjoy each other’s culture. The new head coach, Mike Budenholzer, brought an attitude that reflected the coach he worked under, Greg Popovich, and created a team that played smart and as a cohesive unit and to everyone’s surprise, they roared all the way to the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference this year.

Then the news I have been craving came out this year, Atlanta Spirit would sell 100% of their ownership in the Hawks As of this post, the Hawks have not been sold yet, but once they are I will lift my boycott (and I look forward to the new owner of the Atlanta Hawks, Dikembe Mutumbo, at least that’s who it would be in my dreams.) In the meantime, however, I’m on board for these playoffs. I’m going to watch all the games on TV and openly root for them through this post-season. Cheering for Atlanta sports is an act of humility as they inevitably disappoint (we are still hanging on to that one lone World Series championship in 1995) and my fandom most definitely will put the stink on the Hawks, but my expectations are low. A series win would be fantastic and a ride to the NBA finals would be greater than anything I could hope for, but let’s do this. Let’s cheer for #eventhehawks.

by jholland at April 17, 2015 02:18 PM

April 15, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Antivaxxers & evidence

So anti-vaccination types are pretty terrible, right? They’re backwards people, endangering the lives of not only their own children but other people’s children too. Etc.

I live in a sort of echo chamber where this is all I hear. I don’t get the other side of the argument because I don’t subscribe to those sort of news sources. That’s not terribly surprising.

I’m a pretty big fan of herd immunity. I really don’t like the idea of my daughter getting polio or whatever. So I think we should try to convince people to vaccinate. Again, this is sort of standard Western fare, nothing terribly interesting here. Heard this all before.

But no matter how many times we try and tell antivaxxers the truth (and I think the truth is pretty one-sided here), they don’t listen. It’s the strangest thing. No amount of facts and figures, no amount of cajoling and shaming works.

So why do we keep doing it? This is my question. Why do we keep trying to convince people who refuse to be convinced using methods that we know don’t work? Why don’t we try something else? How about a legislative (aka systemic) approach that makes opting out more difficult than actually getting the shots?

I dunno. I find this more interesting that vax-shaming. Maybe we’re not actually telling people to vaccinate because we care about vaccination or children. Sure, maybe we think that’s why we do it, but maybe it’s actually some kind of in-group signalling. Here’s my anti-vax screed! I’m hip! I get it! (I realise that saying I’m hip and I get it means I’m neither hip nor do I get it.)

Now that I’ve said that, I find the idea kind of annoying. Like, having written that, I was annoyed that I had written it. I don’t like to have my motivations questioned. Even by myself on my own blog. My mind is telling me “well of COURSE my motives are pure, I’m engaging in a kind of benevolence here!” Which I take as a signal that (as usual) I don’t know what I’m doing much less why.

I’m sure you’re different of course.

So maybe my point is this: Before we can figure out why people aren’t responding to the gospel of vaccination the way we’d hoped, maybe we need to figure out why we haven’t tried a different approach.

by D.S. Deboer at April 15, 2015 01:27 AM

April 14, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Asymmetrical relationships & the church

You have a boss. This boss is not your friend. But this boss thinks he is your friend. A pretty common scenario, right? I’m sure many of you have seen this sort of thing happen more than once, if not in your life, then in the lives of people you know.

The reason this just feels wrong is that you (the employee) can sense that your relationship isn’t on the same level. You might play on the same field but one of you is the coach… and it’s not you.

I call this an asymmetrical relationship, in that he signs off on your hours but you don’t sign off on his. Now there’s a certain strain of thought that says we should all be judged by our actions or potential, that bosses and parents and managers aren’t necessary, but let’s just leave that aside. The human condition being what it is means that asymmetrical relationships either will or must exist.

We’re all familiar with asymmetry in relationships — at least, we’re all familiar with a certain kind of asymmetry that we call “power”. And a lot of relational problems (but not all, not nearly all) are caused by too much or not enough asymmetry. Parents trying to be buddies, bosses trying to be friends, or the opposite where parents become cruel, or bosses become slavemasters. The worst case (at least for me) is a relationship that’s asymmetrical when it shouldn’t be, like a husband ruling and asserting dominance over a wife (or vice versa, though I’d say that’s much less common). None of this is to say you can’t be nice or good to your children or employees, or that husbands and wives can’t have different functions in their relationship, but that you should be aware of and respect the asymmetry or symmetry that’s always going to exist in your relationship. Essentially you need to authentic to the type of relationship you’re in.

But again, we all know that. So that’s not really interesting.

Instead I’d like to think about voluntary asymmetrical relationships (these tend to be troublesome), and asymmetry of motivation or intentionality.

Asymmetry of intentionality is why a lot of commercial transactions seem inauthentic when wrapped in something else. You get your name written on a cup at Starbucks, or employees of a chain of upscale grocery stores are mandated to refer to customer by name, or the employees at the restaurant sing a song, or the waitress flirts with you… the list goes on. I might just be particularly sensitive to this, but it seems to me there’s a real asymmetry of intention there. I want a good or a service. But they want… well they want to sell me that, plus something else, plus more in the future, plus a better tip… essentially they want to play-act into getting me to empty my pockets. Like a guy who hangs around a girl ostensibly to be friends when what he really wants is a relationship. It feels a bit creepy and weird. Especially when it’s a corporation.

And then there’s voluntary asymmetry. For instance (and I hate to break this to the church I grew up in) going to church and submitting to the authority of a group of elders or whatever power structure is in place is completely and utterly voluntary in this society. You can remove yourself from that authority without any consequences, no matter how much your church might wish that not to be so. This is true of any organization you attach yourself to. These organizations need to understand that: There’s no “power” structure here. The relational asymmetry is not that the church holds power over the individual, no, the asymmetry is the other way around. And unless you have a reason for people to stay (and despite what you might think, I don’t think “because we’re all Dutch immigrants” is a particularly bad reason), they just won’t. Sorry.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the church should be exempt from the marketplace, how we who show up should not be consumers who view the church as providing a spiritual product. I’ve heard people who I really, really respect and enjoy listening to say these things and I can’t help but think this is just a bit disingenuous. Every church has some kind of value. Again that might just be “because we’re Catholic and there’s nowhere else to go”. That’s the value your parish provides. It’s might not be a great or really very significant value, but it’s value nonetheless.

But again this comes back to being authentic to the asymmetry of your relationship. Your parishioners do most of the work and provide all of the money. Without them the church goes away. To be honest with them and with yourself is to say, “Why should you come here?” and then try to be that organization. You need to answer that question very carefully of course. If the answer sounds anything like “because we’ve been around for a while and would like to continue being around” maybe it’s time to close down shop. On the other hand if your answer is “We’re on a mission and we’d like you to be a part of it” and you mean it then you’ve got a good place to start.

You might think this is all a load of mercantile hogwash. And that’s okay. But if you’re part of a church that puts on a really good service every Sunday (and I’ll be very clear here, I think you should do that) you have to ask, Why the good music? Why the good preaching? Why the good venue? Why pursue excellence?

There are two languages you speak with these things, the language of words and the language of actions. You may say that you don’t do it to draw people in, but your actions say a different thing. And that’s okay. Different churches doing different thinks is what makes the Protestantosphere so vibrant, crazy, and interesting. (Yes I just made up a word; deal with it.)

I think I may have gone down a rabbit trail a bit here.

In any case. The key to this (as usual) is authenticity. You need to live inside the relationship you’re in, not pretend you’re in a relationship you’re not. This goes for churches, but for people too.

Now back to the dishes my wife, who is definitely my boss, told me to finish before I come to bed…

by D.S. Deboer at April 14, 2015 02:56 AM

Karibeth

searching for sunday by rachel held evans.

My first big church transition came about 12 years ago, when Mike and I slipped out of the back row of our nondenominational church and decided to try something different. After about a month, we found ourselves somewhere in the middle of an American Baptist church here in town (the back row was already spoken for). We were grateful to find a place to land so quickly, and Mike learned to turn the pages of a hymnal while I learned the rhythms of the church calendar. We discovered that there were strands of Christianity we had never experienced. It was a relatively uncomplicated shift, mostly out of sheer dumb luck. After the change of venue, we settled in for the long haul.

Twelve years is a long time, and we have grown and been challenged, served and been served. But we have also had the normal struggles of anyone who is a part of a community, and just before Atticus was born I began to feel that I did not know where my place was in the church anymore. Last year, during a particularly low point, I took a break from church. I skipped out for about eight months, missing all of Eastertide and Pentecost and Ordinary Time. It was a whole new world for someone who has been a churchgoer from the womb. I slept in on Sunday mornings, or put on my bathing suit and beat everyone else to the pool. And I decided, in the end, that I like going to church, and that I was ready to try again. I am not going to say that everything is perfect, but time and space did their work to heal many parts of my heart, and I have done a better job of participating than I was doing before. If that first transition was about needing a different kind of place, the second one was about needing to make some changes within myself.

searching for sundayIt was with these two very different experiences in mind that I read Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. It describes her movement away from the evangelical church which I would describe as a combination of the transitions that I have experienced – she needed both a change of venue and the space to work out some changes in her heart. I am a few years older than Rachel, and her writings have mirrored a lot of my own feelings but sometimes I have wished she was speaking to where I currently am instead of where I have been. With this book, I felt companionship as she asked questions about her place in the church and the church’s place in the world she sees around her. She uses the imagery of seven sacraments to speak with maturity about her relationship with the churches in her life, from her childhood experiences to a failed church plant to the Episcopalian church she attends today. I have enjoyed her previous books, but I was particularly taken with her voice in Searching for Sunday, as her love of God and the church comes through on every page, as well as the truth that those relationships can be complicated. She speaks with confidence and peace throughout the book and reading about her journey was a great pleasure.

I read a lot of books each year, but I don’t read many books more than once. You should know that I read this one twice already, the first time just enjoying it for myself and the second time so I could do more than just ramble on about how much I liked it. The one flaw that I found was that I wished the last two sacraments (anointing the sick and marriage) had one more section each, just to flesh out those ideas a tiny bit more. Those are both big topics! This is a minor complaint though, and I recommend Searching for Sunday without reservation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I received a copy of Searching for Sunday from the publisher but my opinions are my own, and even though they sent me a digital copy I purchased a physical copy for myself. If you buy Searching for Sunday this week, there are some fun free gifts for you, so check those out.

by Kari at April 14, 2015 02:19 AM

April 13, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

On being just a tiny bit skeptical

I’ve been thinking about “doubting” Thomas a bit lately. Mostly because that’s what we do after Easter, beat up on Thomas a little, but also because it gives me an excuse to listen to Nickel Creek.

But I’ve also been thinking a bit about the ancient Greek philosophers and how close they came to make a scientific method. So close! They just didn’t go far enough and were a bit too fond of inductive reasoning.

All this to say, I don’t like detoxing. I mean, I don’t not like doing a detox. I don’t like the concept.

I know how they got there. It’s a long chain of guessing that starts with “I feel better if I don’t eat a lot of sugar!” (or something) and ends with “I’m going to drink a bunch of cayenne pepper!”

It’s a strange sort of thing.

Or maybe it isn’t: What’s a cleanse other than a secular fast? The fast brings you closer to the spiritual (God) by breaking your dependence on the physical (food). The cleanse brings you closer to the ideal (good health) by breaking your dependence on the physical (“toxins”). Isn’t it funny how our secular society still hews so closely to its received forms? We recreate the creation myth in environmentalism, we recreate fasting in cleansing… You could probably get rich creating next year’s religious/secular crossover hit. I mean, you might worry there’s a man behind the curtain of Christianity, but you know, you KNOW there’s a man behind the counter selling you cleanses.

What I find surprising is the number of devout Christians who will do a cleanse but never consider doing a fast. (30 Hour Famine, the latest addition to the Christian Year is coming up soon, give it a try!)

This is all kind of beside the point. I’m a fat dude and you shouldn’t come to me for your health advice. My point is kind of higher-level than just debunking cleanses. Anyone can do that. It’s actually kind of lazy in that 14-year-old (actually or mentally) Atheist kind of way, where you can start thinking you’re some kind of countercultural hero. (cf astrology, horoscopes, etc.)

My point is more… Let’s be a little bit skeptical of things. Just a bit. If something seems to make sense, sure, that’s all well and good but it’s not evidence. It’s just a theory and maybe not even a theory so much as a wild guess. Worse it might be a wild guess someone is using to sell you useless crap. It’s worth asking “is this true”, even if all it does is save you $5 and a bunch of time gargling spicy saltwater.

by D.S. Deboer at April 13, 2015 09:12 PM

April 07, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Let’s build a house

Let’s build a house.

We don’t know anything about how to build a house. But other people have built houses! How hard can it be?

So to build a house let’s think about houses. We don’t need to actually look at any existing houses because we live in houses. How could you have a more expert opinion than than?

We’ve thought about houses for a while and now we have a fairly comprehensive idea (we think) of what a house should have, all the components and whatnot, written down on a napkin. Done with planning! Next, we build the house.

Now we could hire people who build houses for a living to build this house. We could. But they’re expensive. We could even hire their individual contractors to do the work. But they’re expensive too! Let’s do the whole thing ourselves.

So we start building the house. And progress is slow. But everything seems okay until we hit a snag. The foundations we poured are the wrong kind of concrete and are literally flaking away and falling apart. The concrete mix (which we guessed at, because who has time to read the concrete guide?) needs to be redone. But through process of elimination eventually we arrive at a decent mix that doesn’t fall apart right way, even if it’s not up to any kind of building code. It took quite a long time and was a pain in the ass, but if we ignore opportunity cost we probably (maybe) broke even vs a contractor.

We keep doing this. Each component of the house is slowly, painfully erected. Lots of mistakes. We tear down maybe more than we build. The results are never really satisfactory. Every once in a while a random person walks past and says “hey, why don’t you have an atrium!” or something like that. And we nod sagely. What a good idea! Let’s do it! And we pull out another napkin and go to work.

Eventually, some years, maybe decades later, we arrive at the finished product. It’s definitely a house of sorts. It sprawls more than we’d like, bits are always falling off, it’s unsafe, and not really a pleasure to live in. But it’s our house and we built it.

One day a house builder visits. He takes one look around and says, “This is one of the worst built houses I’ve ever seen!” He gives us some building tips, trying to save us from the inevitable implosion, but we don’t listen. He’s so negative! Why hasn’t he praised our accomplishments instead of harping on our flaws?

by D.S. Deboer at April 07, 2015 12:17 AM

April 05, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Magic Beans (a followup post)

Read this post. Then go have a look at Wikipedia’s Coffee Preparation page.

Notice anything about it?

I mean there’s a big notice at the top so you probably should have. No sources.

This is a huge problem in the “good coffee” industry. Lots of received wisdom, lots of talking heads, lots of blog posts, lots of “how to” advice, lots of expensive equipment “required” to make a better cup of coffee than the one you’re already making, you filthy casual.

(I also have a blog post… brewing… about what drives us to keep seeking out consumer perfection, but that’s a whole other thing for another day maybe. No promises.)

Here are a few choice examples of magical, unsourced coffee making voodoo:

Burr mills use two revolving abrasive elements, such as wheels or conical grinding elements, between which the coffee beans are crushed or “torn” with little frictional heating. The process of squeezing and crushing of the beans releases the coffee’s oils, which are then more easily extracted during the infusion process with hot water, making the coffee taste richer and smoother.

Well, the first bit of that is true. There are revolving abrasive elements. After that we’re back to proclaiming truth from the mount. Little frictional heating? Releases oils? More easily extracted? Richer and smoother? Really? Got any sources for that? Didn’t think so.

Many burr grinders, including almost all domestic versions, are unable to achieve the extremely fine grind required for the preparation of Turkish coffee; traditional Turkish hand grinders are an exception.

Those inferior domestic burr grinders. There’s no way a domestic grinder could make Turkish coffee! Again, note the lack of sources. Just some guy (almost certainly a guy, who owns a fancy, expensive foreign grinder) who says something.

Blade grinders create “coffee dust” that can clog up sieves in espresso machines and French presses, and are best suited for drip coffee makers. They are not recommended for grinding coffee for use with pump espresso machines.

Do a search for “burr grinder dust” on Google as a counterpoint. Find some forum post where someone (new to burr grinders) is wondering what they’re doing wrong. The responses will be “buy a better grinder” until someone honest comes along and says “well, all grinders produce some dust”. At which point the whole thing about consistent grind size is sort of debunked. How can your consistently grinding conical burr grinder be producing dust unless it’s… not really all that consistent after all?

Some coffee aficionados hold the coffee produced [by percolation] in low esteem because of this multiple-pass process. Others prefer gravity percolation and claim it delivers a richer cup of coffee in comparison to drip brewing.

Who are these coffee aficionados? Why is their opinion (which, even the coffee aficionado who wrote this has to admit, goes both ways) relevant to the article? Even if we agree that is is, which coffee aficionados? Where can I read these mysterious differing opinions? Why can’t they agree?

The coffee prepared by this [cold press] method is very low in acidity with a smooth taste, and is often preferred by those with sensitive stomachs. Others, however, feel this method strips coffee of its bold flavor and character. Thus, this method is not common, and there are few appliances designed for it.

Is it? According to whom? Where can I read a ph evidence? Where’s the study of people with weak stomachs? Who are the “others” who think this method removes “character” and “boldness”? Of course there aren’t any because this is just some coffee priest’s incantations, not actual reality.

The amount of coffee used affects both the strength and the flavor of the brew in a typical drip-brewing filtration-based coffee maker. The softer flavors come out of the coffee first and the more bitter flavors only after some time, so a large brew will tend to be both stronger and more bitter. This can be modified by stopping the filtration after a planned time and then adding hot water to the brew instead of waiting for all the water to pass through the grounds.

This doesn’t even really make a whole lot of sense. And much like the rest of the article it’s complete unsourced.

The AeroPress is another recent invention, which is a mechanical, non-electronic device where pressure is simply exerted by the user manually pressing a piston down with their hand, forcing medium-temperature water through coffee grounds in about 30 seconds (into a single cup.) This method produces a smoother beverage than espresso, falling somewhere between the flavor of a moka pot and a French Press.

I’d like to see a source for this. I’d also love for someone to tell me, without being condescending or talking to me like I’m a retard, what exactly they mean when they say “smoothness”. Is this a quantifiable thing? Can we measure some kind of chemical property of the coffee that we can call “smoothness”? Or is this yet another in a long list of religious terms the high priestly caste uses as a code to express their hidden knowledge?

by D.S. Deboer at April 05, 2015 03:46 PM

April 01, 2015

Karibeth

what I have been reading (spring has sprung edition).

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Play Music by Laurie Lake White (purchased a copy)

This charming novel (based on a true story) is about Viennese immigrants to America in the early 1900s. Hugo is a conductor, first for a hotel orchestra and later in a silent movie theater, and his wife designs costumes for the Metropolitan Opera. The way that the family lived and thrived through their creative work made the book stand out to me, as did the vivid setting of these operas and shows. I particularly loved how compassionate the author was with her characters. Peter, someone who makes a lot of bad choices that drive the second half of the story, was my favorite because of how kind she was to him about his failings. Recommended for: fans of historical fiction and charming things. And artists.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin (via the public library)

This won the Schneider Family Book Award for Middle School. (The Schneider Family Award honors books that present the disability experience for children and teenagers.) It’s about Rose, a girl who has Asperger’s, and her relationship with her father and her dog Rain. Rose is obsessed with homonyms and that plus her obsession with rules makes it difficult for her sometimes in school. There is no one universal experience of life on the autism spectrum, but I thought this did a good job of showing us what it was like in Rose’s head. Rose is wonderful, and this is also a great story for people who like dogs. As far as classroom use, I think it would not make for a good readaloud because of there being so many homonyms, but it would make for a good guided reading book. Sweet and heartbreaking (you know how books about animals are). I really enjoyed this one.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (via the public library)

I wrote about this one for my 28 Days of Books for Black History Month. It’s a great read about a true story.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (via NetGalley and then the public library)

I was approved for this on NetGalley after it was already archived so I had to wait for it at the public library. Do I think it will be popular with TFioS and Eleanor and Park fans? No doubt. But it also felt calculated to punch you in the gut without earning those emotions like the two aforementioned books did. I didn’t buy Finch and Violet’s relationship in a lot of ways (partially because he just seemed like quirky mental health weirdo and she seemed sad and affectless), I didn’t think they were fully realized characters that I could care about. It seemed like a YA version of Garden State (or maybe Elizabethtown) without even the saving grace of a good soundtrack. I am surprised so many people are so excited about this one because it fell flat for me. I would still tell my teenage friends about it if they had finished John Green and Rainbow Rowell and wanted another book, but it doesn’t shine like a lot of recent YA does for me.

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles (via the public library)

This won the Schneider Family Book Award for Teens and features two special ed high school graduates named Quincy and Biddy. They get an apartment together in the home of Liz, an older woman who needs assistance. Biddy is the softer and sweeter of the two, while Quincy is more savvy. They have both experienced terrible things and difficult things happen to them during the course of the story, but I came away impressed by the bravery of these characters. Recommended for high schools.

The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander (via NetGalley)

You may remember Elizabeth Alexander as the inaugural poet from President Obama’s first inauguration. Now she has written a beautiful exploration of grief and love following the death of her husband in 2012. Both her story and her use of language are worth a read. You might say that the idea sounds too sad, but I find reading about grief to be healing, especially in those moments when you recognize yourself and your own pain in someone else’s story. Pairs well with The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke.

Death Row Chaplain by Earl Smith (via NetGalley)

This is a pretty traditional redemption story – Smith was involved in gangs and drugs and then became a chaplain at San Quentin. He does a good job of taking the reader somewhere that most of us are unlikely to go, and had interesting and entertaining stories about connecting with the prisoners through baseball and chess. I also thought the book had a nice balance of talking about his own faith and beliefs without being preachy. One thing to note is his opposition to the death penalty, which I share, and which he explained with emphasis on his own experiences with people on death row and families of the victims. This book would be good for fans of Same Kind of Different as Me.

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont (via NetGalley)

The inciting incident of this story is that a daughter finds a box of personal messages between her father and the woman he is having an affair with. The effects of these messages are felt by every person in the family, though I was probably least interested in the father’s story and most interested in the mother. I didn’t feel a strong connection with the characters, nor did I feel that the effect of finding this box was resolved for the daughter (or the mother). As other reviewers have said, Part Two comes chronologically at the end, and I felt it took some of the air out of Part Three to have the story already known in certain ways. This was not the book for me and I am not sure who I might recommend it to.

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (via NetGalley)

3.5 stars. I am in the bag for Rebecca Stead but I was also pretty frustrated by Liar and Spy, which felt to me like a trick ending rather than an earned one. I kept waiting to find out what was “really” happening during this book, which took away from my enjoyment. Be assured that this one is a much more straightforward story about middle school students – friends who are growing apart in certain ways but who value their friendship as well as their independence. Together they struggle with things like divorce and social pressures. More specifically, a big plot point has to do with texting photos and how it can spiral out of control very quickly, and I liked how it was handled. My one problem with Goodbye Stranger (and it was a big problem for me) is that I felt that it was confusing. There are three separate narrators, and we don’t find out who one of them is or why she is doing what she is doing until right at the very end. I thought this needlessly complicated what was a very nice story. About 20% of the way through I was so frustrated that I wanted to stop, and I could imagine my students just quitting at that point. I don’t understand why that one narrator had to be kept in the shadows and I felt it could have been done differently. I am sure it would be a solid 4 stars on a re-read, but I wish I hadn’t had to fight so hard to read it the first time.

Some of these books were provided by the publishers. As always, my opinions are my own.

by Kari at April 01, 2015 12:28 AM

March 30, 2015

Brandy

The Dreaded Shame Spiral

It all started when I stepped on the scale and saw a three-pound increase. I know, I know. I am more than a number. It’s probably water weight. I should throw my scale away. Bladdidy blah blah blah.

But deep down, I felt something slip. A cup of confidence replaced by a cup of fear. “You’re amazing!” drowned out by “You’re going to fail.”

I got sick. I couldn’t work out. So, the next week, another three pounds.

Three is supposed to be the number of perfection. But when I gained another three the third week, the voices in my head were screaming the opposite of perfection. And I was losing the battle.

Every night, when I was home alone, I would eat until my jaw ached. I wildly alternated between sweet and salty, caught in an endless loop of pita chips and Hershey kisses. I hid candy wrappers at my desk, and for the first time in over a year, I found myself eating in hiding, letting chips dissolve in my mouth to hide the shameful crunching.

I was on a slippery slope paved with Oreo filling. And I didn’t know how to get off.

So of course, I stopped blogging. The mere title of this blog was mocking. Healthy and whole? More like weak and bloated. I couldn’t come on here and write inspirational posts about red pants and tell you about how much I loved eating vegetables when I changed into sweats immediately after work and wondered whether potato chips could maybe be considered a vegetable.

Yet, here I am.

Because, the spiraling does stop. The slope gets less slippery. My kind, amazing friends spoke truth into my life when all I could think was I had ruined everything.

They reminded me to have grace for myself. And when I couldn’t, they did.

And I’m telling you all of this, the Oreos and the chips and the self-hatred and the paralyzing fear, because I imagine you’ve been there too.

Maybe you’ve messed up at work and you think you’ll never recover.

Or you injured yourself and you’ll never run again.

Or you hurt someone and they’ll never love you.

Or you ate 20 Dove chocolates and you’ll never get it right.

You know what helped me to realize I was in a dark place blanketed with lies? The word never.

“I will never get this right.”

Never’s and always’s and everybody’s and nobody’s are all lies.

They crush hope and steal the light.

So, a week ago, I brushed the pita chips off of my sweatshirt. And I said to myself…

You haven’t ruined EVERYTHING. You’ve just need to recalibrate.

And NOBODY loves you anymore?

What about the people who encourage you and hug you and feed you soup and tell you that it’s going to be okay.

That’s a lot of love.

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by Brandy at March 30, 2015 10:54 PM

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Burr grinders, good coffee, and magical thinking

I’m not a huge fan of magical thinking, received wisdom, dogma, etc, etc. Sure, there’s going to be some value in received wisdom and we should have a bit of a think before tossing it out the window. But in general, unquestioning adoption of anything is a bad idea.

One place this kind of quasi-religious thinking shows up a lot is in cooking. Mostly, I think, because for a long time we knew that something did something but we didn’t know why. So people built up narratives about why because apparently we can’t say that seared steak tastes better without saying searing “seals in the juices” or whatever.

The worst of the worst, though, are a subset of cooking people, the coffee snobs. These people have turned a drug into a fetishistic individual or communal act. They know that your “average” coffee drinking prefers weak, milky coffee (maybe even with, gasp, sugar). These are the benighted, the heathens, who must (but frustratingly often can’t) be evangelized into the sacred cult of the good cup of coffee, whose sacraments are the fresh-ground bean and the burr grinder, the French press and the espresso machine.

Understandably, there isn’t much scientific data on whether or not any of this stuff really matters. Take burr grinders. There are two types of coffee grinders (leaving aside pre-ground coffee, that-which-must-not-be-named, the anathema, the Great Satan): Blade and burr. Blade grinders are essentially blenders. They’re what you use for spices. They whirl about and take a bunch of whacks at the beans until they’ve beaten them into submission. Burr grinders on the other hand gently caress the beans until they fall apart on their own. Or something.

Now as with most magical cook-think, the reasons not to use a blade grinder are many and change depending on who you ask. But there’s a general consensus that blade grinders produce a more uneven grind, tend to heat up the beans, and can’t make decent espresso grind. All these things are easily testable. But somehow no one has. Not really. And no one has tested whether or not an uneven grind makes a worse cup of coffee. Its seems like it should… but there are lots of things that seem like they should but aren’t. No one has tested whether a slight temperature increase makes a worse cup of coffee.

By the way, I’ve personally tested this, and I can’t tell the difference between burr and blade. I’ve been given lots of reasons for this (my eyes aren’t good, my equipment isn’t good, I’m too skilled a blade grinding, etc), but I see what I see. Lots of variability in grain size

And you can’t test this! You see the coffee nerds have constructed a completely test-proof ivory (but coffee-stained) tower where once we start a scientific approach they can say “oh but taste tests aren’t any good!” Why? Because the average people who do taste tests just don’t get it. The priests of the coffee cult get it, but some guy off the street isn’t good data. We’re not making coffee for them after all. The real reason is, of course, that no priest of the coffee cult wants to have their actual taste buds actually tested. They know what’s happened to the wine community with that.

I think at the end of the day, once there’s some science done here, we’ll find the same thing that we found out about wine. Everyone can tell the difference between terrible wine and decent wine. Very few people can tell the difference between decent wine and good wine. And almost no one can tell the difference between good wine and really, really good wine. I could be wrong. Maybe a lot of coffee snobs really can distinguish good coffee from really, really good coffee. Maybe they’re not using any kind of product or process signalling to make that decision. I could be wrong. But I don’t think I am.

This kind of investigation may strip the emperor of his clothes. But it doesn’t invalidate your personal quest to make the best cup of coffee ever. That’s your own hobby. Still, I think we can stop pretending that if only we could tell the unwashed heathens of the good news of Jesus Christ Aeropress or whatever that they’ll suddenly join the crusade.

by D.S. Deboer at March 30, 2015 01:35 AM

March 23, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Easter & the fear of death

I had A Thought while listening to the sermon on Sunday. Bear with me here and let me know in the comments if I’m full of crap.

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but Jesus starts off by talking about death. Well, glorification and then death. It appears that the path to glory is death. Jesus is going to die and the result of that death is going to be the opposite of death. That’s the point of the seed illustration, I think. It’s easy to read that as being about the church and the growth of the Christian faith, but I don’t know if that’s what he had in mind. The picture is marred by a bad translation. Many seeds should be much fruit. This changes the metaphor completely: Instead of being about creation of disciples, it’s about what happens in this death/glorification. Before the death, you are a singular seed. After the death, you multiply much fruit. And Jesus followers are expected to follow him into this death.

Most important here is Jesus speaking of what happens when you hold closely to life (or in the negative when you strongly avoid death). If you hold on to your life (or your self, your psyche) too closely you end up losing it. Or more to the point you end up devaluing it. The value you assign to yourself is inversely related to how much self worth you actually have. If you give it up, on the other hand, it gains value — infinite value, in fact. In terms of death avoidance, what’s more valuable than eternal life?

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?

Jesus is afraid. Like anyone would be in the situation of predicting your own death. It’s natural to fear death. Much of our behaviour is driven by death avoidance. He quotes David in the psalms here, but where David cries out for salvation, Jesus immediately rejects his own prayer. What Jesus says next turns our death avoidance (and all the sin that comes with that) on its head:

No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

The response to the death is, “Father, glorify your name!” Not the usual human response, to surround yourself with money and possessions and status and all sorts of stuff to help soothe that fear of death.

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

I’m interested in the idea of “the prince of this world”, alternatively translated “the ruler of this world”. This can easily be read to be the devil, however that would seem to come out of nowhere here. Maybe a more coherent reading is to think of “the ruler of this world” as death itself. After all we start this bit of scripture talking about death, the middle is about death, and it goes on after this bit to talk about death some more. Doesn’t it make sense that Jesus here isn’t referring out of nowhere to some Big Bad but instead to the concept of death? Or perhaps these are the same things, death being the personification of the devil. Hebrews says something to this effect: “…that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”.

As a side note (and this a bit of inside baseball, so if any of these words don’t make sense to you, feel free to skip this paragraph; it’s not as important as it sounds), it’s easy to read this passage in the usual satisfaction model of substitutionary atonement, but let’s be honest, that’s reading a lot of stuff into the scripture that isn’t there. A more plain reading is a Christus Victor reading, which I think makes more sense. It can also be interpreted from a psychological/existential standpoint, which I think the passage supports quite well.

Here we see Jesus dying and rising again to drive out death or the prince of death, however you choose to interpret that. The point is the same. We are in bondage: We die, and we’re afraid of dying. My natural tendency is to hold my life close and to be threatened and fearful in the face of anything that so much as reminds me of my mortality.

To fix this, Jesus dies. He inverts the whole thing. He uses death against itself. He is raised again and in that rising again he casts out the prince of the world. He breaks the backs of the powers that be. He shows us how to hold loosely to our lives, how to be willing to give our lives away, and how this changes how we engage with the world. No more do we have to subscribe to the death avoidance of our previous lives and all the sin that brings about. No more do we have to participate in the rat race. When we give away our lives we’re free to experience them as a gift. We experience our lives as grace from God.

His death isn’t about shifting beads around on some moral abacus or settling some artificial honour score. It’s not about God satisfying God. Jesus’ death actually does something. He defeats death. He wages war and wins. And that is the message of Easter.

by D.S. Deboer at March 23, 2015 11:42 PM

March 19, 2015

Daniel - OkayWhatever.com

Bullet points for a Wednesday evening

Sleep. The spirit is willing but the flesh is obstinately restless. I haven’t done one of these in a long time, so here goes.

  • The most important thing is to be really good. This looks different for different people. Obviously. Really good polka isn’t really good klezmer. Okay, bad example. It’s not really good pop. Which isn’t really good baroque. Which isn’t really good big band. But damn, can you ever tell Really Good from a mile away. Even if you’re not fluent in the nuances, you know?
  • Really Good usually comes from the top. If you want Really Good, you have to set the example, set the tone. If you say you want Really Good but you actually want Good Enough, trust me, people know.
  • The harder road is more impressive. It’s not for everyone. Most of the time it’s not for me. But I’m still impressed when other people take the road that means more work, more commitment, and probably more heartbreak. They’re investing a bit of their soul. You can usually tell too, because people making these kinds of efforts tend to be either extremely attractive (people want to be around them) or extremely repulsive (they killed Jesus) or both (again Jesus). You get to sweat bullets or blood or whatever. No one ever wrote a book about the guy who kind of did the thing well enough to get by.
  • Luck is important. But it’s not everything. Most turds get flushed, regardless how lucky they are.
  • The best meetings have an agenda and a time limit. That’s a hard agenda and a hard time limit. The leader (I guess they need one of those too), needs to start at the starting time regardless if everyone is there, firmly take things back to the agenda, and end at the time limit regardless of whether or not you’ve “finished”. Obviously there can be exceptions, but it needs to be the rule enough that people understand that n=n, not n+15.
  • How much time? 45 minutes. An hour. I’ve rarely (or never) been in a meeting that went over an hour long where I thought, “Yeah, I’m glad that meeting went on that long.”
  • How do get your meeting under an hour? You already know. There’s that one thing everyone does (coming in late, chatting for the first half hour, talking about stuff that isn’t on the agenda) or maybe just that one guy who does these things. You may have to be a jerk to stop this stuff from happening, but I hope that’s a cost you have to pay to keep from wasting a whole bunch of time.
  • Put a poll in the field. Gather anonymous feedback. The feedback you get from people face to face (especially in Canada) is all crap and you might as well trash it before it starts affecting your judgement. You’ll get the odd honest person, maybe. But the anonymous people will be assholes and tell you exactly what they think.

by D.S. Deboer at March 19, 2015 02:32 AM

March 12, 2015

Karibeth

what I have been reading (more reading than you ever thought possible edition).

It’s been a couple of months since I wrote up my reading list. So of course it’s ridiculously long.

School Shooters: How to Recognize Schoolroom and Campus Killers Before They Attack by Peter Langman (via NetGalley)

I work in a school and I know the chances of something like a school shooting happening to me are remote, but it is still a topic that worries me. I thought that this book did a great job of showing how many of the shooters lived in difficult situations and experienced abuse and neglect as well as the results of poverty. Some of them are psychotic (as in, out of touch with reality), and some are essentially narcissists or what we might call sociopaths who don’t experience empathy. Seeing that there isn’t a clear pattern actually made me feel safer, because the training we receive at school has taught us some of the warning signs. I appreciated the brief overview of each shooter that did not emphasize the crime in detail and instead focused on their background and the possible causes of each shooting. It wasn’t light reading, but it was helpful to me.

Where You End by Anna Pellicoli (via NetGalley)

I liked Miriam and found it believable that she had been reckless (in several different ways) and then would do anything to cover up her mistakes. A couple of problems I had were that Miriam was well out of her depth when dealing with the person who was blackmailing her and she seemed to get that somewhat at the end but that is not a story that is going to be resolved very easily. Also, I loved her guy best friend but felt that his story was kind of a distraction to Miriam’s growth. The book did a great job evoking a closed-in feeling of panic but the story was overall somewhat forgettable.

The Fringe Hours: Making Time for You by Jessica N. Turner (via NetGalley)

I really like Jessica Turner. I am less comfortable with a lot of the people she hangs with over at Dayspring’s blog. But I decided to give this book a shot because of Turner herself. I love that she is a work-outside-the-home mom and that she speaks from that perspective. I thought this book was strongest when Turner talked about her own experiences and weakest when her blogging friends gave their tips. Most working moms (and many stay-at-home moms!) can’t take midday hikes or midday naps like bloggers can. Turner’s tips from her own life were much more useful and realistic. Those parts I would recommend to moms with young children, especially working moms.

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God Made Light by Matthew Paul Turner (purchased from the author)

Speaking of the Turners, I got Atticus this picture book for Christmas. I enjoy most of what Matthew Paul Turner says on his blog, but I was a little worried about God Made Light because I am careful about what I want to teach Atticus about God and some of the people who blurbed the book are definitely not people whose opinions I trust or whose theology I agree with (see: Dayspring above). I reached out to MPT and asked him if there was a way to read the text before buying it, and he very kindly emailed me the text of the book saying that he understood my desire to be picky when it came to talking to my kid about God. The text and pictures are very sweet and, theologically, it’s probably a reminder that some of us might disagree pretty strongly but that there are some core beliefs about God that most Christians share and want to teach their kids. I wanted to give his kindness a shout-out as well as recommend the book. I think pretty highly of both of the Turners and you should support their work if you get a chance.

Religion in the Oval Office by Gary Scott Smith (via NetGalley)

This is a thorough look at eleven of our presidents: John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, their religious upbringing and personal beliefs and how those beliefs influenced their time in the White House. I skipped around a little bit and found the more modern presidents to be more interesting, but it was a fascinating look at all of them and how their faith affected their decisions. The two most interesting to me were probably Nixon and Bush Sr. The Clinton chapter was notable because he is so believable when he talks about Christianity and yet his actions don’t match up with what he says. This is an academic book, so it’s not a quick read, but I enjoyed the things I learned about the presidents and the ways that it humanized them for me.

When I was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds (via the public library)

I read this because I was considering it for my 28 Days of Books. I ultimately decided not to use it but I did like it quite a bit. It’s about a boy who finds himself in over his head at a party and what happens to him and his friends after that. It is one of those stories where a character breaks the rules for the first time and has something terrible happen, but it also showed how much more dangerous life can be for some people than others. Great characters and a strong sense of place (Bed Stuy in New York). The title is a reference to Ali, and the book does have some themes about boxing. A worthy addition to a high school or YA collection.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (from my own school’s library)

I wrote this up for my 28 Days of Books, and you should definitely read it if you haven’t! This year’s Newbery winner.

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley (via the public library)

This book won a TON of ALA awards this year, and I loved it. It’s set in Ireland in 1993, about a girl named Maggie who moves from Chicago to the small town of Bray in Ireland with her family and her new stepfather. Did I like it because I was also a teenager in 1993? Probably. But it’s still just a lovely book even if it doesn’t take you back to flannel and Nirvana like it did for me. It’s got a lot of references to music and culture that set the scene as well as being a story about young love and a girl coming to know who she is. Really sweet book for high school students especially.

Her Name is Rose by Christine Breen (via NetGalley)

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It’s about a mother, Iris, and her daughter, Rose. Rose’s father died a few years before, and he made Iris promise that she would find Rose’s birth parents so that Rose wouldn’t be alone if anything happened to Iris. When Iris had a breast cancer scare, she decided to follow through on her promise to track down Rose’s birth parents. There were very sweet moments in the book, but overall it was kind of a muddled mess. I liked that the ending was somewhat ambiguous, but I think that might put some people off. Just okay for me.

How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon

I wrote this up for my 28 Days of Books as well. Another one that I really enjoyed, and it’s timely as Ferguson continues to be in the news.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kokler (borrowed from a friend)

I enjoyed this true crime story about some young women whose bodies were found on Long Island. However, I have to admit that since there’s not much in the way of an answer about how/why this happened, the book feels a little bit too long. It should probably have been a long article rather than a book, and it definitely bogged down at the end with the discussion of which of the women’s families were and were not speaking to each other. Recommended for: true crime aficionados only.

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The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson

The third in The Name of the Star series, The Shadow Cabinet went in a slightly different direction than the other two, which had me on the edge of my seat. I read it on one of our snow days and enjoyed myself very much. Also I guess I will forgive Maureen Johnson for that awful cliffhanger at the end of the second book. Can’t wait for the next one. Hurry, hurry, Maureen!

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans (advanced release copy)

I got an advance copy of this one and sped through it. Definitely her best work yet – thoughtful and mature as well as a story that resonated with me pretty deeply. You’ll hear more from me about this one closer to publication date but I enjoyed it without reservation and recommend it highly.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (for my church book club)

A reread for my book club! A plucky and romantic coming-of-age story which you should read if you haven’t.

Some of these books were provided to me by the publishers but, as always, my opinions are my own.

by Kari at March 12, 2015 06:08 PM

March 02, 2015

Brandy

A time to push–a time to rest

It was a Tuesday night, which could only mean one thing. Boot camp. That hour of pushing my body so I can enjoy a week of limping and groaning every time I sit down. Just in time to do it again the next Tuesday.

But that night felt off. The quad in my right leg was screaming from the very first squat. Who am I kidding? Simply putting on my workout clothes made it scream. After I would do a set I would pace, rubbing my thigh with the palm of my hand, trying to work out whatever was causing the pain.

During the burpies and squats and weights, I tried to breathe through it. Trying to push past the pain like I always did.

Push past the pain.

It’s my MO.

(Closely tied to “I’ll just ignore it until it goes away.”)

In exercise it has been a mantra of keep going. Keep running, keep moving, don’t stop. And sometimes, that’s what I need to do. Keep going until I feel the pain loosen. Let my body do what it knows to do.

But not always.

That night, as I limped to my car, a fellow boot-camper came up and asked if I was okay. I shrugged, gestured at my leg, and said I just needed to work through it. She nodded and told me about some stretches that might help. But then she paused, shook her head, and touched my arm.

“I think you might need to baby it,” she told me.

I thought of her words a lot over the past week. I thought of them as I lay in bed with a water bottle and some ibuprofen. As I applied an ice pack to my throbbing leg. As I lay in a steaming hot bath scented with lavender. As I lay on a table and stared at the ceiling, my eyes watering in pain, as I told my chiropractor I needed his help.

“I can’t do this,” I said as he pressed his thumbs into my leg.

“You don’t have to,” he said calmly.

 

You don’t have to. I thought of those words this morning as I sat in my car, texting a dear friend about a tough season I’ve been in. About feeling sad and defeated. About the pain that has come along with my perceived failures.

“I just need to get back on the horse,” I typed and pushed send.

And then the three little dots that told me to wait. That she had something to say.

In the next few minutes as I sat in my freezing car in the parking lot at work, I read her words. She told me that it was okay to still be processing. That the pain and sadness were normal. That I could give myself time to work through it.

Give myself grace to work through it.

She gave me permission to baby my emotions.

I could curl up in my bed with my favorite book of poetry.

I could sit with a friend with a hot cup of coffee and talk through the sadness.

I could give myself the time and space to heal.

That my tearful “I can’t do this” could be greeted with “You don’t have to.”

 

It’s a fine balance. Knowing when to push through and when to hold off. But I think you know. Sometimes the pain feels good and motivating. Sometimes it feels terrible and debilitating. There are times I will push harder. Times I will slow my steps.

The main thing, though, is to keep moving. Whether with gentleness or sheer brute strength, keep moving.

 

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by Brandy at March 02, 2015 11:39 PM

February 28, 2015

Karibeth

28/28: Sons of Liberty

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageI have avoided books about slavery this month because my students don’t read a lot of them and I like to offer them (and wanted to offer you) books about the black experience that go beyond slavery as much as possible. I am making an exception for this graphic novel series, The Sons of Liberty. A few years ago I presented this to our school board as part of a celebration of school libraries and I described it as, “Django Unchained except okay for middle school.” Thankfully, I did not get fired. This book is about two escaped slaves who get super powers and use them to get revenge on their former owners. Part Django Unchained and part superhero story, these are insanely popular. If you need a graphic novel for this age, this (and the second one) are definite winners.

And that’s it! We did it! Twenty-eight days of books! Thank you for reading and I hope that I have made a resource that is helpful. Did I leave anything off that you love? There are tons that I didn’t even get to, and I am not as knowledgeable about picture books as an elementary librarian would be, so I would love some suggestions there. Happy reading!

by Kari at February 28, 2015 11:18 AM

February 27, 2015

Karibeth

27/28: The Port Chicago 50

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageHere is another amazing non-fiction story that needs to be more widely known. After an explosion at Port Chicago killed over 300 black sailors in July of 1944, over 200 more refused to go back to work until conditions were safer. After being threatened with a firing squad, all but 50 went back to work. Those 50 were charged with and found guilty of mutiny and have still not been exonerated today. This is non-fiction at its finest and offers a perspective on Civil Rights that goes beyond the 1960s. I am glad it was a National Book Award finalist because we need more books like this one.

by Kari at February 27, 2015 11:18 AM

February 26, 2015

Brandy

To Whom It May Concern: Running Edition

If you ever read previous iterations of my blog, you know how much I love writing passive aggressive notes to anonymous people. And that’s certainly not about to stop. So here you have it, the first bit of Healthy and Whole snark. You’re welcome.

Dear Redneck in the Pick-Up Truck,

I’m sorry. I fear you may have mistaken me for someone that you know? Because for the life of me, I don’t know why you found it necessary to honk your horn as you drove by me. I mean, surely it was a friendly honk of hello because you thought I was someone else? And when you shouted out of the window, “Hey, baby”…how old is your friend that her nickname is still Baby? Perhaps she is a fan of Dirty Dancing? Please know that my look of surprise and disgust were simply because this line of thinking reminded me how sad I still am about Patrick Swayze.

Sincerely,

Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner

Dear Bakery,

Thank you for being on my running route. Thank you for selling delicious cupcakes to me. Thank you for sometimes being the only reason I run. And thank you for not openly judging me for jogging out of your store while shoving said cupcake in my mouth.

Love,

I Eat Therefore I Run

Dear Dr. Scholl,

I know you are the poor man’s inserts. I know I’m supposed to go to some fancy running store and buy fancy pants shoe inserts. But between you and me, doc, I think you’re just fine. You keep my pronating feet from going all pigeon-toed, and I can still afford cupcakes. Win, win.

Your Flat-Footed Friend

Dear Beyonce,

Thank you for making up a good half of my running playlist. Thank you for singing songs that make me feel strong and empowered. Also, thank you for having real thighs. I bet you eat cupcakes, don’t you?

Love,

A Single Lady

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by Brandy at February 26, 2015 03:36 PM

No More Bikini Body!

It was a Tuesday afternoon and I was trying to will myself to hold a plank for 10 more seconds. My arms shook and drops of sweat made jagged circles on my yoga mat.*

From the screen in front of me a chiseled blond spoke chipper words of encouragement while I grumbled expletives under my breath.

And then she said it.

“You’ll have that bikini body before you know it.”

I dropped to my knees into child pose…the best pose for the temper tantrum I was about to throw.

No. No no no no no no. NO!

Yellow Polka Dot BikiniWhat is with this obsession with the bikini body? With this perverse view of perfection that is all about tan and taunt skin, with no space for stretch marks or scars. Bikini body is not about health—it is about jutting hip bones and waxing and perky breasts.

Well guess what? I will never have a bikini body.

I don’t tan, I burn.

Years of being overweight have left me with sags and stripes.

I have lost 80 pounds, and I am proud of that. Or, I should be proud of it. But a bikini will not make me feel strong and proud. It will make me feel exposed and embarrassed.

Hear me out. There is nothing wrong with wearing a bikini.

But here is my foundational issue with the term “bikini body.”

It is the implication that I should look good for the enjoyment of others. After a cursory glance at the mirror in the bathroom to make sure the girls are covered and the sunhat is firmly in place, I won’t see myself or my bathing suit-clad body again until I am back in the bathroom showering off the salt and sand.

A bikini body is solely for the benefit of those looking at me.

So did I just get healthy and lean and strong for the enjoyment of others?

Heck. No.

I did it so I can play with my friends’ kids, and maybe one day kids of my own, without getting out of breath.

I did it so I can go on hikes where I gasp, not because I’m overweight but because the view spread out before me is breathtaking.

I did it because I believe I am worth filling my body with good things, not garbage.

I did it so I can look in the mirror and feel good about the person looking back. Not because she looks good in a two-piece. But because she is healthy and happy.

So no, I don’t want a bikini body. I want a body that I’m comfortable in. Even if that means I wear a one-piece. With a little skirt. That shows off my pasty legs.

I just want the best version of Brandy’s body. Stretch marks and scars and all.

*Side note…community yoga mats are gross. I use them, because I don’t like schlepping my mat back and forth between home and the workout room at work. But seriously. Gross. When I look at the wipe after cleaning the mat, I literally gag. Anyway, back to the story.

 



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by Brandy at February 26, 2015 03:36 PM

Trapped Inside

There’s a post-it note stuck on my mirror. I see it every morning when I stumble into the bathroom, my face crisscrossed with sleep lines, my cowlick asserting itself.

I see that purple note when I lean in close to the mirror to put on my make-up, hiding and highlighting.

And I see it again at night as I scrub that same make-up off, staining my washcloth, soaking the neck of my pajamas.

The note has been on my mirror since December 31. A friend who was checking in at my house while I was traveling for Christmas put it there. And every day, over and over, I’ve had to fight myself not to take it down

Not to crumple it and throw it in the trash.

Because most of the time, the note makes me uncomfortable.

Its words make me squirm and look away.

The note reads “You’re such a gorgeous lady.”

I don’t feel gorgeous most days. Because I have a secret.

Losing weight doesn’t make all of your insecurities go away.

In fact, you might even pick up some new ones.

I used to look in that very same mirror every day and feel sad that I wasn’t taking care of myself. Sad that I wasn’t healthy or strong. Sad that the person I could be was not the person I was.

Now, I look in the mirror and see a stronger, healthier body. But there are still so many layers of doubts and fears. My feelings don’t always align with my reality.

Actually, my feelings rarely align with my reality.

After more than 30 years of believing I am not worthy, I know it will take my spirit a little while to catch up with my physical transformation.

So, I’ve left that sticky note on my mirror. Because I need to listen to the words of those who love me, instead of the lies I’ve so long believed.

I hope there is someone in your life who leaves you a proverbial sticky note on your bathroom mirror.

What message do you need to hear today?

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by Brandy at February 26, 2015 03:35 PM

Unwritten Symphonies

Today was a long day. It was a day full insecurities. I got so deeply into my own head that I just couldn’t see my way out. All day I felt like the slightest breath of doubt would send me over the edge.

And to my utter amazement, I found myself wanting to go for a run.

No. Needing to go for a run.

It was almost comical. Because if you had told me two years ago that my reaction to a stressful day would be to go for a run, I would have laughed and laughed. And then I probably would have eaten a cookie. And laughed some more.

I can’t explain to you when the change took place. When I switched from running because I needed to burn calories to running because I needed to clear my mind.

But what I can tell you is I rushed home from work today and changed into my running clothes.

I pulled a hat on my head, because I believe if it’s below 50 degrees, you absolutely need to run in a hat with a pom pom.

I pulled on my running tights (which I still don’t understand how they keep me warm, but I’ve stopped questioning it). My long-sleeved t-shirt. My puffy vest.

I laced my shoes tight.

And I was off.

Down the sidewalk, across the intersection, past the cold metal mailboxes dusted with crunchy snow. I concentrated on my breath, my stride. I kept my music quiet enough that I could still hear my feet pounding on the concrete.

Across another intersection. Cut through a muddy path that spits me out by the creek.

On the bridge my body finally feels like it loosens. As the mountains behind me grow navy blue in the twilight, I imagine my fears borne up on the frosty puffs of breath from my mouth.

I run into the park. Sometimes it’s filled with sledders cutting slick tracks down the hill.. Other times the field overflows with soccer players. But tonight it is quiet, a slim sliver of space where people are still driving home from work, children are doing their homework. I feel the best kind of alone. Like there are no witnesses to see the scales of sadness sloughing off of me. I imagine them shattering each time my shoe hits the sidewalk.

Up the hill, out of the park, across another bridge. I can turn right here, and almost be home. But instead I go straight, skirting icy patches that have formed under the pine trees. A right turn points me towards the mountains, darkened to inky purple.

The cars have their lights on now, and the shadows rush down the fences before sliding past me. My breath is ragged now. But I know one more hill, one more turn, one more intersection, and it is all downhill.

I just have to make it to the downhill.

There I will run faster and faster until I feel like I’m floating. Like the weight of everything that drove me to this run is scattered along my path.

My fear of loneliness fell off when I crossed from Dublin Boulevard to Rangewood Drive.

I left my crippling insecurity at the intersection of Downill and Flintridge.

And I shook off the last bit of second-guessing at the corner of Banjo Drive.

I don’t understand it, this new way of running. But I just know that when I untie my shoes with fingers numb from the cold, a weight has been lifted.

I hope you can find the thing that helps you shed the things that hinder you.

So you can run the race.

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by Brandy at February 26, 2015 03:35 PM

Retraining my Taste Buds (and a sorta, kinda recipe)

If you were to ask me to close my eyes and imagine the taste of my childhood, it would be Little Debbie oatmeal pies. That soft, ever so slightly spiced, oatmeal cake with the white cream filling that left your mouth coated with…something both chemical and delicious.

The taste of college? McDonald’s hamburgers and fries. Our cafeteria was, shall we say, lacking, so my friends and I often ventured down the street to McDonald’s where I would order the two cheeseburger meal, hold the cheese. The bread was soft, the hamburger was…meat-ish. And the fries were salty and crispy and, let’s face it, delicious. I can practically feel my lips dry out from the salt just thinking about it.

In my 20s, there was a lot of take-out. Food that tasted good precisely because it was not good for me. Lots of cheese and butter and pasta that left me feeling uncomfortably full, yet still vaguely hungry.

Suffice it to say, I haven’t always made the best eating choices. So in my 30s, when I began this journey to be healthier, the transition from processed and greasy and salty was a difficult one. Vegetables tasted like sadness. Whole wheat left my mouth coated in disappointment. Butter ripped from a recipe made the angels cry.

I feared I had broken my taste buds.

Maybe you’ve been there? That place where all you want is the grease and the fat because, dang it, it tastes good! But I want to tell you, good food can taste good too. Eventually.*

Finally, finally, I can appreciate fresh food. Even call it delicious.

It is complex.

It tastes like food is supposed to taste.

I just never knew.

How whole wheat toast, just this side of burnt, can taste like a camping trip, a sleepy evening by a dying campfire.

I never knew how creamy an avocado could be. How, when splashed with some lime juice, it could taste buttery and tart and like summer.

When that bread, topped with that tangy avocado, is finished with thin slices of turkey, the edges peppery, it would turn into this crunchy, creamy, chewy masterpiece. Sprinkled with salt, eaten open faced, balanced on fingertips still slightly puckered from squeezing that lime and a little crusted with stray salt flakes.

It’s simple. It’s real. It’s less a recipe. And more a way of life.

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(*It is here that I confess to you I am not a whole-food-clean-eating-fanatic. I like cooking with fresh ingredients. But I also like white flour and sugar and Diet Dr. Pepper (I KNOW). So please, know there is freedom in this. I am only a partial hypocrite.)



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by Brandy at February 26, 2015 03:35 PM

5 Tips for Getting It Done: Mealtime

I’ve had a lot of people ask lately how I get mealtime done after work. And first of all, I will say that cooking for one person is a bit easier than preparing meals for an entire family. First of all, I’m only thinking about my likes (bacon) and dislikes (olives), instead of trying to think through an entire family’s likes and dislikes.

Also, one dish can feed me for days because, yay leftovers!

But…I don’t want to discount the fact that it can be hard. I have nobody to help with the shopping, prep or clean-up, and after a long day, it can be really tempting to just eat a bowl of cereal.

Also, one dish can feed me for days, so sick of leftovers!

But, I do have some things that work for me. So I will share them with you :)

1. Meal plan. I can’t recommend this enough. Meal plan the heck out of your meals. Once a week I sit down with a bunch of recipes and try to figure out what I’m going to eat that week. Sometimes I cross-reference it with what’s on sale. Blah blah blah. Don’t get too caught up in the details, though. Make a list of dishes, make a list of groceries, take stock of your pantry. Once I’ve made my list, I usually do my shopping on a Saturday morning (or a weeknight at 8 when my Trader Joe’s isn’t bananas crazy). Meal planning works for me for a few reasons. One, I can plan the foods that take longer to cook for the days I can devote that time. It helps me to remember to thaw meats if I know what day I’m eating them. It saves me from going to the grocery store after work on a weeknight (always a terrible idea for me).

2. Use your slowcooker… I love me a good crockpot meal. And I love coming home to a complete, or nearly complete, meal. I’m hoping to post some of those recipes here in the coming months.

3. …and your freezer. As a single person, if I make anything over 6 servings, I can’t finish it. So, if I have a recipe that’s 8 servings or more, I will freeze half of it immediately. Or sometimes I’ll double a smaller recipe to freeze it. This works for things like chili and casseroles in particular. When I post recipes that are good for freezing (like this butternut squash lasagna) I will try to remember to include instructions for freezing. For most things, I can stick it in the fridge the night before and can cook it from at least mostly thawed, which cuts down on cooking time.

4. Don’t cook gross food. Seriously. This seems simple. But one thing that motivates me to cook is because I know it’s going to taste good. Use fresh ingredients. Use lots of spices and seasoning. Herbs are your friend. Please don’t be afraid of recipes with lots of steps and a long list of (simple) ingredients. Also, please stop saying you’re a bad cook. You may be an untrained cook. But that just means you need more practice :)

5. Shortcuts are your friend. This may seem to kind of contradict #4…but you can find shortcuts that work for you as you prepare that good food. You also need to figure out what works for you. Maybe you LOVE chopping onions. I love buying frozen onions when I don’t feel like sobbing over my cutting board. I actually buy lots of frozen vegetables (peas, corns, carrots, peppers, onions)–these are especially good for soups and stews since the texture is not as important. I also like to buy rotisserie chickens from Costco and chop/shred them and freeze them in 1-cup batches. This is great for casseroles and baked pastas in particular (I will even thaw the chicken overnight in the fridge or reheat it in a skillet with a little chicken broth).

Honestly, none of this is rocket science. Just a few things that have helped me not to stand in the middle of the kitchen, eyes glazed over, as I reach for the Cheerios.

But honestly, occasionally having Cheerios for dinner is not the end of the world :)

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by Brandy at February 26, 2015 03:34 PM

Karibeth

26/28: Chess Rumble

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageThis is a very cool story of a young man who uses chess to stay out of trouble on the streets. Besides being an engaging graphic novel, this book is popular with the members of the chess team at my school.

Other books by G. Neri that are great:
Ghetto Cowboy (a novel based on actual urban cowboys)
Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty (one of the most popular graphic novels at my school)

by Kari at February 26, 2015 11:37 AM

February 25, 2015

Karibeth

25/28: The Great Greene Heist

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageI wrote about The Great Greene Heist over the summer, and I highlighted its Ocean’s 11 cleverness, its diverse cast of characters, and its nerdy fun. All of that is still true, but I also wanted to say that I love it because it is a contemporary story that features black characters and isn’t set in an “urban school” environment. I love those books because my students can relate to them, but I also want there to be a diversity of black experiences on my shelves. Jackson Greene helps me broaden what I can offer.

I probably love this one a little bit more than my students because I am so familiar with Ocean’s 11, but if I can get them to watch the movie as well, then I am definitely winning.

by Kari at February 25, 2015 11:17 AM

February 24, 2015

Karibeth

24/28: Finding My Place

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageWe have three books by Traci L. Jones in my school library, and all of them are popular. I picked Finding My Place because I love the cover. It is set in the 1970s and features Tiphanie, whose parents move to the suburbs, causing her to be the only black girl in her school. I like that this is set in the 70s, which is a time period that my students are curious about, and it is a much more graceful portrayal of the difficulties of race relations than many (most) books for this audience.

Her other two books:
Standing Against the Wind
Silhouetted by the Blue

by Kari at February 24, 2015 11:17 AM

February 23, 2015

Karibeth

23/28: Drama High

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageDrama High is another crazy popular series at my school. You can pretty much tell what it is about (drama at a high school). It fills the same need for my students that Sweet Valley High filled for me (and I mean that in a good way – I loved Sweet Valley High in middle school). As students figure out who they are as readers, it is great to hook them on a series and be able to hand them the next one. Drama High really fills that need for me. I don’t always get my copies back, but I am often able to find used copies to supplement at the local used bookstore. Highly recommended for middle school girls.

Two similar series that are also popular:
Del Rio Bay
Kimani Tru
So For Real

by Kari at February 23, 2015 11:11 AM

February 22, 2015

Karibeth

22/28: The Bluford Series

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageThe Bluford Series is the number one most popular sdries in my school. It is a low-level/high-interest series that focuses on the different students at Bluford High. The stories intertwine, but the books don’t really have to be read in any particular order.

This was a series that was a little bit of a surprise to me when I moved from the public library to the school system. It’s one of those things that is well-known in schools but not as well-known outside of that environment. Townsend Press has a lot of great offers for schools, and the series is available for just $2 per paperback copy. The Bluford Series is not great literature, but it is great for your reluctant readers, both boys and girls. Did I mention it is the number one most popular series at my school?

Some of the Bluford authors also worked on the Urban Underground series, which is not as popular but which students will accept when my Bluford books are checked out.

by Kari at February 22, 2015 02:07 PM

21/28: What Momma Left Me

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageThis is one that I have not read but which is very popular with my students (which was one of my goals, to highlight what they are actually reading). Since I haven’t read it, I am going to quote the description from the publisher here:

Serenity knows she is good at keeping secrets, and she’s got a whole lifetime’s worth of them. Her mother is dead, her father is gone, and starting life over at her grandparents’ house is strange. Luckily, certain things seem to hold promise: a new friend, a new church, a new school. But when her brother starts making poor choices, and her grandparents believe in a faith that Serenity isn’t sure she understands, it is the power of love that will keep her sure of just who she is.

I do know from discussions with students and from the cover that a cake recipe is part of what her mother left her. And I just want to say that one thing I really like about many of the books that my students read is that the faith communities play a large role in the stories, as such communities do in their lives (and, in life in the Bible Belt). Sometimes church and religion are ignored in YA literature so I appreciate books that weave them in (though I could use more books about Muslim teens!).

Anyway, I’m going to make it a goal to read this one this spring! You should join me.

by Kari at February 22, 2015 03:09 AM

February 21, 2015

Karibeth

20/28: Bad News for Outlaws

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageSome of my favorite books, both for children and adults, take a relatively unknown true story and bring it to our attention. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book that comes to mind, or The Man who Walked Between the Towers. The book Bad News for Outlaws is a little bit like that, in that it tells an incredibly interesting story of a black deputy U.S. Marshal who worked in the Wild West. This is a great tale, plus it opens students’ eyes to a place and time they are not very familiar with. I recommend it as a read-aloud for all ages, because there is so much to talk about.

by Kari at February 21, 2015 02:33 AM

February 20, 2015

Karibeth

19/28: We Could Be Brothers

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

Do you remember what you liked to read when you were in middle school? I read a lot of books that focused on a particular after-school special type message, whether it was problem novels or Christian novels (or, my favorite, Christian problem novels). I don’t want to neglect some of the ones that my students like just because I find them to be a little bit didactic, so I am going to make sure and include them as we move into in the home stretch. Ready?

imageWe Could Be Brothers is about two boys who discover that even though their lives are very different, they have more in common than they might have imagined. It is constantly checked out, and I recommend it for middle school students. It has a lot of the topics you might expect, such as bullying and family issues, but it is also very, very warm-hearted.

by Kari at February 20, 2015 01:17 AM

February 19, 2015

Karibeth

remember your death.

We had some snow and sleet on Monday evening, and temperatures have been so cold that things remain closed and cancelled, including last night’s Ash Wednesday service.

Atticus has been enthusiastic about Ash Wednesday for the past few weeks (I would say “oddly enthusiastic” but he is my kid so I am raising him to be a church nerd. Of course he is enthusiastic), so we didn’t want to disappoint him. I checked with some churchy friends to see if applying ashes ourselves would be heretical and decided to stake my claim with the priesthood of the believers. We were fresh out of palm leaves, so Mike burned a piece of the Japanese maple beside our side door. I applied the olive oil to make it stick, and we were ready for business.

Except. Watching the minister put ashes on your kid (as in years past) is different than putting them on him yourself, telling him that he is made from dust and to dust he shall return. My heart froze up a little bit as I said the words. No, I thought, he was made from love and grew inside me. I repeated the words as I marked Mike’s forehead, and he repeated them for me.

The part that went unspoken is that today is my dad’s birthday. I never know how to mark these anniversaries, but I feel their presence just as I feel his absence. Talking to Atticus about his own death was made even more intense by that reminder of what my dad has not been present for. At the same time, remembering my dad made me less afraid. We talk to Atticus about death all the time, to the point that he knows where my dad’s ashes are. I am thankful that the church gives us a season to talk openly about death’s place in our lives as we prepare for the Resurrection.

As soon as I applied his ashes, Atticus ran to check them in the mirror. I won’t say that we did a great job pondering our mortality yesterday, but we did follow through on one of my most deeply-held values, which is allowing Atticus to participate in the activities of the church, whether he understands them or not. Even if they make us all a little uncomfortable.

image

by Kari at February 19, 2015 03:24 PM

18/28: The Snowy Day

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageLook, I know you know about The Snowy Day. We all know about The Snowy Day. But it is important to have stories with black characters, and it is snowy here this week, and you should pick it up if you haven’t read it in a while. There is a reason that it is such an enduring classic, and it’s a lovely and charming book to be reminded of.

by Kari at February 19, 2015 01:38 AM

February 18, 2015

Karibeth

17/28: How It Went Down

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageToday we were out of school for a snow day and I finished a book that I got over the weekend from the public library, How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon. It’s an incredibly timely book about a black teenage boy who is shot by a white man. It’s told from varying perspectives as the people around him try to understand the story. Was he in a gang or was he a holdout? Did he have a gun or just candy in his pocket? Did he steal something or was the clerk just trying to give him change? It was impossible to read it and not think of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but it also made me think of how we flatten their narratives and watch people insert themselves in the stories. I came away reminded that these lives matter whether these young men make perfect decisions or not. It also made me think a lot about how hard it is to really know someone, even our closest friends and family. Highly recommended for teenagers. I think it would make a great discussion in a social studies class as a framework for current events.

Kekla Magoon also wrote:
The Rock and the River, about a boy who feels pulled between his father, who works for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his brother, who is getting involved with the Black Panthers. Just as in How It Went Down, these complex issues are dealt with in a sensitive and thoughtful way. Also highly recommended.

by Kari at February 18, 2015 01:27 AM