Tuesday, January 24, 2012

1806 Halbert

This is a photo of the house I grew up in after it burned last week in a fire.  According to the news article, the fire started in the other end of the house, went through the attic and left the house a "total loss."  My parents haven't lived there in 20 years but just this Christmas, my siblings and I were talking about it, remembering our phone number and other details about the house.

As recently as three days ago, before I heard about the fire, I was "walking" through it in my imagination, remembering things like the textured wallpaper on the walls of the entry way and my brothers' homemade bunk beds and the spot in my parents' bedroom where I used to sit and talk to my mom while she got ready to go out with my dad at night.  My dad was a school superintendent and so chances are good that they were going out to a high school athletics banquet or an elementary PTA fundraiser but I always thought my mom looked so pretty and glamorous as I sat on the bed and talked to her in the little dressing area outside her bathroom.

My room was upstairs--the only room upstairs, actually.  I imagined it to be a writer's loft (like Jo's in Little Women, for you male readers) or pretended it was my own apartment as I got older.  Eventually, my little sister joined me there.  When I was a teenager, she was just a preschooler and we would brush each others' hair at night if she was still awake when I came upstairs.  We could sit on the desk and look out the big window and watch the fireworks at Ft. Hood on the Fourth of July -- the same window that my boyfriend threw little pebbles at in the middle of the night until I started yelling for my dad, not really getting the point.

Every boy I dated visited me in that house and we would sit in the game room for privacy if you can call it privacy when your parents and little brothers walk in every ten minutes.  Later, I would sit out in the car with boyfriends in the dark until dad would flick the porch lights on and off, signaling me to come inside.  When C and I went home for the first time after our wedding, that was the first time I had a boy in my room in that house.

I remember every detail . . . my dad's study with the tall bookshelves and the wooden desk, the chrome and yellow vinyl dinette in the  kitchen (guess whose job it was to clean the chrome?), the big nubby sofa in the den sideways to the TV that was only occasionally turned on.  I remember sitting on the stairs and reading the Chronicles of Narnia as fast as I could, hoping no one would call me to put my book away and come in and talk to the relatives.  I remember doing puzzles and playing games my senior year when we had almost a whole week of unheard-of snow days.

There were happy times in that house and unhappy times too but for me, there were far more of the one than the other.  Mostly there were the ordinary times of family life, an imperfect family full of genuine caring and faith, all doing the best they could.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A prayer

I've been feeling pretty melancholy for about a week now, just pervasively sad about the world (the big world as well as my little corner of it) and increasingly skeptical about my ability to make a difference in it.  I'm aware that this is a risk in my profession and I've been remarkably free from it for 23 years but the last week has been hard.  So it's in that context that I read this prayer this morning and it made me tear up and it made me feel the stirrings of hope.  (Also, this is a prayer written by Franciscans posted on Facebook by a Quaker and then copied by a Baptist . . . that right there makes me just a little happy.)  I hope it speaks to you as well.

A Franciscan Prayer

May God bless you with discomfort with easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.  Amen.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.  Amen.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.  Amen.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What's ice got to do with it?

Awhile back, I wrote about humor being one of my favorite things about C and about our 26-year marriage .  Here's another one:  cubed ice.

Every time I put my glass under the ice dispenser on our refrigerator door, I automatically get cubed ice.  I like cubed ice.  At home, it's my favorite form of ice.  C, however, prefers crushed ice.  Our refrigerator offers both crushed and cubed ice with just the flick of a lever.

So did you get the point?  Every time I put my glass under the ice dispenser, I automatically get cubed ice.  That means that every time C gets ice for himself, he puts the lever back on "cubed" because that's the way I like it.   He has never pointed this out to me or drawn attention to it.  It's just the way things are.

After 26 years of marriage and 21 years of counseling couples, I still don't really understand why some marriages thrive when others don't.  I'm pretty sure, though, that being the kind of person who moves the ice selection lever on the refrigerator door has a lot to do with it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Picking a president

John von Neumann was a brilliant scientist during the WWII era, contributing significantly to the Manhattan Project as the designer of the nuclear bomb "Fat Man," which destroyed Nagasaki, Japan.  After the war, he became a pioneer of the application of game theory to human conflict and a very influential advisor to President Eisenhower as the Cold War became more intense.

Von Neumann estimated that a major nuclear attack on the US would kill about 50 million people and that a similar attack by the US on the Soviet Union would kill about 100 million people.  Using that logic and the calculations of his version of game theory, von Neumann argued that the best strategy would be for the US to go ahead and perpetrate an unprovoked nuclear attack on the Soviet Union since the US would lose only half as many people as would the Soviets, constituting a "win" in his mind.

Although many other leading scientists of the day were horrified, President Eisenhower seriously considered von Neumann's ideas and even gave him the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Thankfully, he ultimately rejected von Neumann's advice.  Von Neumann later became the caricatured "mad scientist" in the movie Dr. Strangelove.

Take a minute and imagine the world we would live in now if the president of the United States had bought into the idea that a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union and a subsequent "win" in the Cold War was worth the deaths of 50 million Americans and 100 million Soviets.  Now keep that in mind when you think about the stakes of a presidential election.  Now think about the things that most Americans consider when voting for a president.  Now let me apologize if you can't sleep tonight.  Me either.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Are we having fun yet?

I used to really enjoy keeping up with politics.  In fact, our whole family did.  As the kids got older, it became a way to convey our values and stir up some interesting conversation.  It gave us ways to talk about the culture and about our country's history and about what we each believe is important.

We had a lot of fun with the last election and have stayed interested in a lot of the issues it raised.  Almost every conversation with Mowgli from North Carolina involved some political debate (well, is it a debate if you mostly agree?) and when Boo got back from Guatemala, she asked about the Iowa caucuses.

I have to admit, though:  I'm not having fun anymore.  I'm so tired of hearing hours and hours of commentary about strategy (how the candidates should spin the different issues to their advantage, what elected officials should say to deflect attention from what they are actually doing) rather than solutions (what we should collectively do to make things better.)

I stopped having fun, I think, when the panel of pundits on my favorite cable news/talk show spent an entire segment describing how the candidates need to spin the issues affecting the economy in order to make the president look bad and I had the thought, "Is anyone anywhere talking about how to actually solve the issues affecting the economy?"   I am less and less interested in the partisan rantings on both sides and more and more desperate to hear smart people in power talk about how we can address complex issues in meaningful ways.

Everything seems to be about talking points and gaffes and gotcha questions and gotcha answers and concealing one's own weaknesses while trying to expose the weaknesses of the opponent in the most hypocritical way imaginable . . . it makes me long for something resembling statesmanship or courageous leadership or even policy wonkiness if it would get us talking about solutions.

Once I realized that the politicians are just playing a game and that the political news is no different from the color commentary on ESPN, politics just hasn't been fun anymore.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The First Annual 2011 Wonderfully-Flawed Book Awards

Well, it was a great year of reading and it's almost impossible to choose between the contenders for best books of the year.  If you read the list backward, 2011 started with Radical by David Platt, which was a terrific, attention-grabbing book about everything I care about and yet it didn't even make the list of the top ten.  Here are a few that did:

Best fiction:  I read fiction for fun and relaxation and so I don't often choose the kind of literary fiction that real readers do.  Having said that, this year we have a tie between Room by Emma Donaghue and The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg.  Room is everything a novel should be--suspenseful, creative and engaging, with characters you wish you could meet in person.  Elizabeth Berg is one of the best in the world at describing the ordinary experience of mostly ordinary people, so that when you read this collection of short stories, you wonder how she got inside your head as you realize, "That's exactly how I think," even though just one second before, you didn't know that's how you thought.  We'll distinguish these two by noting that Room is a novel and The Day is a collection of short stories.

Best Biography or Memoir:  This is a tough category this year.  You already know how I feel about Real Live Preacher but I've decided not to consider it for an award because this year was about the fifth time I read it.  Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas told the story of the man and the Church during the Nazi years.  It is surprisingly suspenseful, considering that we all know how it ends, and deeply challenging as the reader can't help wondering, "What would I do if faced with that situation?"  Bossypants is hilarious, especially on audiobook, read by the author, Tina Fey.  That book helped me get started on the C25K program; back when I thought I was surely going to die, I gasped and sweated through Fey's memories and observations about life.  The Liar's Club by Mary Karr is hands-down the best written memoir I've ever read, as interesting as great fiction, with amazing characters and just the right amount of drama.  But the award goes to Evolving in Monkeytown by Rachel Held Evans because she perfectly described my own internal struggle with the evangelical faith I was raised in as well as many of the same uneasy conclusions I have come to (although not all).  Let me be clear:  I don't recommend that anyone else read it and if you are comfortable in your evangelical worldview, I strongly recommend that you don't.  But if you want to understand your heretical friends or if you yourself have had an unorthodox thought or two (and if you were raised in the hyper-evangelical world of the 80s and 90s), you might feel like you're reading your own story.

Best Professional Book:  I'm going to give the award to The Science of Trust, which is yet another stellar book by John Gottman.  This one has lots of actual conversations between couples and illustrations of the basic premise, which is that the key to marital success is the strength of the bond between a couple and how to keep that invisible connection strong.  It is really about the science of the art of love.  However, the runners up are also very strong: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero and A Door Set Open by Peter Steinke, both excellent books about family systems theory and spirituality.

Best Nonfiction:  Clearly, most of the books in the other categories are nonfiction so this category is reserved for nonfiction that is powerful enough that it changed something deep in me.  A Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp helped me to look at gratitude in a completely different way and challenged me to take it on as a way of life.  Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott provided an amazing follow-up to last year's book Crucial Conversations and laid out a blueprint for the kinds of conversations that allow us to "come out from behind ourselves" and have the kinds of conversations that really say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard.  I became immediately more courageous and authentic after reading this book.  The award, though, (drum roll, please) goes to the book Younger Next Year for Women for one reason:  A Thousand Gifts and Fierce Conversations helped me to experience change in areas that I was already at work in.  Even though it's not particularly well-written, Younger Next Year got me started on a path that I had never even thought existed for me and helped me sustain it for 7 months in a way that felt almost miraculous.

So what about you?  What books did you read this year that you would give an award to?  What books do you want to warn us about? What are you going to read in 2012?  I just downloaded Terrorists in Love to my Kindle and I can already tell that it's going to be on the list for 2012.  I'll keep you posted on what comes after that.