Sunday, November 30, 2008

5 easy ways to survive Christmas

Alternate title: How to survive Christmas without (too much) alcohol or heavy medication

While on a drive with my mother Friday, I counted 78 wreaths, 56 Santa Clauses, 43 porches with lights, 11 inflatable snowglobes, 4 candy canes, 3 choo-choo trains, and some assorted “reindeer” of the unnaturally posed variety that I think the crazy people around the corner keep up year-round even though their “fur” is chipping.

All fun, all bright, all cheery. Except it's the day after Thanksgiving. And we were driving around at 11 am. Which means these households decorated for Christmas:

a) instead of eating Thanksgiving dinner with their family,
b) as the sun rose on Black Friday, or
c) in July.

None of those options is acceptable. Not because I don't think people have a right to celebrate whenever and however they please, or I'm a curmudgeonly Scrooge, or I have an aversion to high, seasonal-based electric bills. Their decorating is unacceptable because it stresses me out.

Here's where I start to hear tsk-tsking from you all. “Julia, it's no skin off your nose if people decorate early -- just more light and cheer to spread around, and you get to enjoy the view. Chill.”

Oh, but if it were only that simple.

You see, when these eager beavers decorate so early, I think of all the other holiday trappings they are probably handling months in advance -- cards, menu planning, gift-buying, wreath-buying, tree-picking, etc. And such careful planning and forethought only serves to remind me that I will be lucky if I make it to Christmas vacation alive, much less with wrapped gifts in tow.

Now, a note: I love Christmas. I love the religious significance, the goodwill, the brightest light in the darkest of winter, the carols, the peace, the togetherness, the waiting.

But I abhor Christmas commercialism -- Black Friday, gift “obligations,” overboard secularism, nonstop commercials, bad pop renditions of classic holiday music, the rush, the mania, and the idea that it all stops cold on Dec. 26.

The latter obstructs, clouds, and diminishes the former. I know few people who walk away feeling rejuvenated or restored. Most breathe a sigh of relief, chuck the wreath, and start jotting down New Year's Resolutions. (Item 1: Don't invite 62 people to Christmas dinner next year.)

The result: a neutered holiday that would pack 100x its spiritual and emotional punch if allowed to occur in its original, elegant, and essential simplicity.

After all, the first Christmas comprised a baby. A family. A star. Visitors. A few thoughtful gifts. Reflection. Music. Humble beginnings. And probably breastfeeding and a good poop. (The last two are totally open to personal interpretation and inclusion.)

So, in an effort to get back to basics this year, I'm declaring a state of Yuletide emergency. I will save my season from others' expectations. Indeed, no stress need occur for ANY of us with the proper precautions. For example:

1. Cancel Christmas cards. They're pretty to look at and good to stack in piles and useful in keeping the USPS in business. But unless you plan to write a personal message and an honest-to-goodness update in yours, don't bother sending them to me. I will not be sending them to you, because I'm spent all year keeping in touch with you and staying interested and active in your life. A card will not amplify and diminish that fact, so I'm not directing energy toward them – especially when I'd rather direct it toward YOU.

2. Forgo gifts. I hereby release you from buying me gifts this year. I am well assured of our love/friendship/respect/working relationship. Scented candles and lotions do not change your status in my life. Instead, put that money toward paying your credit card debt, making a donation, having me over for dinner, etc. I'll get more joy out of it, and so will you.

3. Remember time is of the essence. We are finite creatures. The one thing we cannot create on this earth is more time. This makes our coming together all the more special and critical. Set aside visits/trips/moments with those you love in 2009, and we'll all be richer for it.

4. Think propagation, not obligation. The first -- and greatest -- Christmas gift was an infant. (And yes, I do realize the Josh Groban backstage passes I so desperately covet do not begin to approach this in significance.) Reflect on what will help you feel reborn this holiday season. Is it service? Cooking? Gift exchanges? Travel? Prayer? Whatever it is, dedicate yourself to it and forget the rest. I certainly won't be keeping tallies on what you did or didn't do to mark the season. The world will notice only that you're so sopped with joy, you're spilling it on the rest of us.

5. Look at the calendar. See also: Read the news. Check your email. Call your mother. Christmas is one day. The season is a mere four weeks (unless you're a retailer, in which case it's three months). That's about 1/12 of a wild year in which we saw economic turmoil, an administration change, and the relentless march of world events. And let's not even try to calculate all the births, deaths, illnesses, graduations, weddings, divorces, surprises, fights, dates, meals, vacations, naps, lessons, workdays, and grocery trips that made this year meaningful for you.

So, in admiring recognition of your hard work at this thing called life, I release you from performing any activity you don't find fulfilling in this very short, intense, and manufactured period. Remember: Mary's son arrived despite her glaring lack of bed, roof, or doctor. So will life go on in splendid mayhem for you -- with or without six different kinds of Christmas cookies in your oven.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Prayer #43: The Turkey's Not Thankful

A blessing.
The blessing of God.
The eternal goodwill of God,
The shalom of God,
The wildness and the warmth of God,
Be among us and between us
Now and always.
{Anonymous -- Hat tip to S. Kathleen for sending}

Prayer #43: The Turkey's Not Thankful

God, in your wildness and warmth, grant us the invigorating grace of your presence this Thanksgiving.

Be with us in the mayhem of family.
Be with us in the bedlam at the grocery store.
Be with us in the fanfare of parades.
Be with us in the blare of football games.
Be with us in the clatter of dishes.
Be with us in the chatter of visitors.

Be with us in dark meat and white meat and cranberry can circles and the trappings and drippings of a holiday centered on eternal gratitude for all the things that might drive us mad one minute, but sustain us through the whole next year.

So this holiday, I'm most thankful for YOU, God, and for your being there behind and amid the nurturing chaos. Really. Thank you.

Amen.

P.S. One favor, though -- can you cut the turkey a break?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

This I Believe #1: Love Comes Cropped 3x5

I've been wanting to jump on the This I Believe bandwagon for a long time. These three-minute essays, which appear on NPR's All Things Considered, Tell Me More, and Weekend Edition Sunday, are at the heart of a national media project that gets people writing, sharing, and talking about the values and beliefs that guide their daily lives.

My plan: to write the rough drafts of what I believe here, let the ideas percolate, and then submit them down the line. Let me know what you think!


This I Believe #1: Love Comes Cropped 3x5

I get hung up on photographs of myself. I never look as pretty or slender as I think I do in the mirror. I never look fashionable or dramatic. I never look like the fascinating type of person -- you know, the kind who's not beautiful, but arresting -- that pro photographers are always putting in fancy exhibits as "Anonymous Girl #5" because of their undeniable, irrepressible character.

Yet, I love having pictures taken. I love grinning and posing. I love how beautiful I feel in that moment. I am addicted to the possibility of finally having the perfect shot -- the one image that could go in a gallery, sit on my grandchildren's mantles, and prove why a man could fall in love with me across a crowded room.

You can see what a tall order this can be. And you can see why I'm always hopeful, never fulfilled. Except, however, when it comes to the person behind the camera.

I am thinking specifically of my dear friend Mark. He has an artist's soul and eye, working magic and taking risks with his regular Kodak digital camera. In fact, he never stops snapping, to the point where I'm sometimes embarrassed that he's pulling out the lens at such inappropriate moments.

Secretly, though, I'm thrilled. Because if he's documenting my life in such ordinary detail, then chances improve that one of those shots will be THE one: the real, amazing Julia captured forever in time.

As a result, I have albums upon albums of pictures from Mark. Pictures of me laughing, singing, sighing, putting my hair up, appearing in reflecting pools, dancing, eating breakfast, rolling my eyes, making jazz hands, sporting pigtails and winter hats. Some are adorable. Some are unflattering. All are intimate, as they reveal the way my friend looks past photography as record-keeping, and instead uses it to amplify what I mean to him.

That's why Mark's photos are my favorites, despite my visible imperfections. When I flip through the images, I see my life through his eyes. Each frame shows the joy I am to him, and what fun we are having, and what adventures are still to come the next time he finds us bored and with camera in hand.

Turns out, that is the real Julia in the shots. I'm the goof, the drama queen, the co-conspirator, the friend. A shutterbug who didn't care wouldn't bother snapping me so much. Instead, I have one who cares in abundance, and who lends his perspective on my existence with every click.

And what do the final images tell me? That character trumps being photogenic. That every word, action, and expression I make shows others who I am -- undeniable, irrepressible. And that I will always be beautiful to those who love me.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Critical career lessons I learned this week that you should know too

Oh boy, has it been one of those days/weeks/months/years/lives. I got sick, my boss resigned, the sky fell down ... ok, the last one didn't happen, but in my more dramatic moments I wished it would. At least then I'd have a viable excuse to not show up at the office.

The good thing about times like these, however, is that they help refocus my energy on professional development. I reexamine what I'm contributing, and where my goals are now. And it forces me to remember -- or flat out learn -- the necessary workplace lessons that will keep me from:

a) pulling my hair out,
b) getting an ulcer,
c) losing my temper,
d) crying at the office, or
e) all of the above.

Note: All of these have happened already except the ulcer. And just give that one time.


So, here are just a few of the latest lessons:

* Your manager can hand in his two weeks' notice and really mean three business days. Plan accordingly.

* Figure out what constituted the happiest hour of your day at work. Do your best to make it happen again amid the unhappy hours.

* Your worst work-related nightmare can come true. And it will turn out it's not all that bad, and you'll just deal, because you're a big kid now and life goes on.

* Sometimes, you do have to ask "how high?" when someone says jump. The question is, are you having to say it all the time at the detriment of your professional satisfaction and growth?

* Some people are perfectly happy coming into the office everyday, doing whatever, collecting the check, and going home. My mentor calls this "making the donuts." They have no investment in the reach or effectiveness of their creative work. I don't understand this mindset. But I need to, because donut makers constitute a large part of the workforce.

* It takes a strong and desperate person to quit a job in this economy without another gig lined up. Conversely, this speaks volumes about the health of the environment he or she is fleeing.

* If your manager asks you to take a "leap of faith" and follow his lead, try to believe him. Why? Because if the leap pans out, then you've learned something new about your manager and improved the relationship. And if it doesn't, then you've saved yourself the stress of assuming responsibility that isn't yours to assume.

* You cannot reverse the Titanic's course by yourself. Don't kill yourself trying. State your concerns, do what you can to help, and then let it crash. Just make sure you're in a lifeboat.

* At the end of the day, you walk out of the office with only your interests in mind -- your career, your mission, your passion. The rest is ephemeral. Bend your work opportunities to your long-term vision. And when you can no longer bend them, take the skills elsewhere.

That's a lot of takeaways from a 42-hour week. So I'm pretty sure you've got some from your work experiences. What tips can you give this over-sensitive, over-committed young career woman to help prevent "e" (see multiple choice question above)?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mashed sweet potatoes in 10 minutes

Nine days until Thanksgiving, which means cooks everywhere are hauling out the big guns -- i.e. pots, peelers, and mashers -- to make their annual mashed potatoes. But this little chef asks, why slave over a hot stove burning your hands on taters when you can make a delicious (and much healthier) bowl of mashed sweet potatoes in the microwave instead?

This autumnal side dish hits all the high points -- nutritious, delicious, fast, and cheap. Hat tip to the Express yet again for keeping me not-fat, smart, and happy with such great recipes.

But before I give you the recipe, here are some fun facts about the humble sweet potato:

* People have been enjoying sweet taters since prehistoric times. How do we know? Sweet potato relics dating back 10,000 years have been discovered in Peruvian caves. (source) Thank God folks didn't clean up back then!

* Christopher Columbus brought sweet potatoes to Europe after his first voyage to the New World in 1492. (source) It seemed a fair trade for guns and pestilence.

* The English word "yam" comes from the African word "nyami," which refers to the starchy, edible root of the Dioscorea genus of plants. (source)

* Although the terms are generally used interchangeably, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that the label "yam" always be accompanied by "sweet potato." (source) This way, we never really quite know what's going on.

* One baked sweet potato (3 1/2 ounce serving) provides over 8,800 IU of vitamin A. This is TWICE the recommended daily allowance, yet it contains only 141 calories making it valuable for the weight watcher (like me!). (source)

* The sweet potato is not a potato or even a distant cousin. Potatoes are tubers; sweet potatoes are roots. (source) In other news, a chick pea is neither a chick nor a pea. Discuss.

* A sweet potato by any other name would taste as sweet, right? Here's what they're called around the world: batata, boniato, camote (Spain); kumar (Peru); kumara (Polynesian); and cilera abana,"protector of the children" (eastern Africa); kara-imo, "Chinese potato" (southern Kyushu, Japan); Ubhatata (South Africa); and satsuma-imo,"Japanese potato" (most of the other parts of Japan). (source)

But enough of all that. You just wanted the recipe, didn't you? ("More eating, less learning, Julia!") Ok then, here you go.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Ingredients

1 2-pound 8-ounce can sweet potatoes (usually called yams) in syrup, drained
2 Tbsp honey
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon (or to taste -- I sprinkled willy-nilly)
1/4 tsp nutmeg (again with the willy-nillyness
1 cup chunky apple sauce (go with unsweetened, no need for extra sugar. Smooth works as well.)

In a large microwave-safe bowl, mash the sweet potatoes with a potato masher or fork. Stir in the honey, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir in the apple sauce.

Cover the bowl, then microwave on high for 3 to 5 minutes, or until hot, stirring once midway through. I found five minutes did the trick.

It says it serves 6, but I don't believe the recipe. They would be very little servings, which is ridiculous, because as we LEARNED above, sweet potatoes are very healthy and can be eaten in decent quantity. So I'd say this really serves more like 4.

And that's it! You're done! I don't even have an opportunity to make snarky asides, because that's how fast and easy this recipe is. Enjoy!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Word on the street: Super Pollo

If you ever doubted the value of having a proofreader, here's a flyer from our local Peruvian chicken place that will prove why you should always have a native English-speaker someone else give your copy an eyeball:



Super Pollo -- Healty choice to eat
Its trully Fresh, Healthly and Naturally
Eat Freshly Cooked Food
All day Every Day
A Large Variety of Food
Chicken, Sub, Burger
Daily Special Food


P.S. Super Pollo means Super Chicken. In case the poultry in the cape didn't give it away.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

If you enjoy this blog, you might also like ...

Want to see inside my brain? Here's a cheaper option than a CAT scan: browsing my blog roll.

I just updated this list o' links today -- a long overdue task -- to better reflect what I'm reading, thinking about, and learning at this moment in time. But a list of links doesn't tell you much, so here's the 5-minute digest of what these fine bloggers can offer you.

Bizzlepix. I learned about this photo blog via Rich Levin (later on this list) via Joe Mezzanine (The Mezz). Gorgeous photos with a lot of humor and pathos. Great slice of Americana caught on film.

Andrea's Recipes. I had the pleasure of meeting Andrea at BlogHer in October. Her recipes are well-researched, well-tested, and well-written. A must-tastefor the foodie reader.

Bad Language. I've been following Matthew Stibbe's blog for a couple years now, and find it a great resource of writing tips and tidbits. Is now a good time to admit that I'd love to move to England and work for him someday?

Bob Sutton: Work Matters. Bob's blog appeals to the work/life balance nerd in me. Want to know about The No Asshole Rule? Bob's your man.

Brazen Careerist. Penelope Trunk (whom I had the pleasure of interviewing a couple years ago) is the bridge between Gen X and Gen Y when it comes to workplace issues. She's also an habitual oversharer and self-analyzer -- two traits that endear her to navel-gazing me.

Chris Brogan
. I'm late to the game on Chris's blog. Thank God blog posts archive so I can catch up. This social media rock star is an excellent example of the work, attention, and sleeplessness that it takes to become a thought leader in this space. I'm sorry he doesn't get much rest, but his insomnia is our gain.

Church of the Customer
. Another oldie but goodie on my Bloglines. Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell make a terrific marketing team, offering lots of useful case studies, interviews, and analysis. Good read for 21st century marketers.

CNN. All news is good news. Stay informed.

Copyblogger. When I need a reminder of how to write for online media, this is a strong place to start. Sometimes a tad elementary, it nonetheless provides fast, actionable tips for spicing up posts.

CREATIVE DC. I also met Amanda Hirsch at BlogHer and have been digging her blog since. DC-area readers: Follow her to gain access to some of the coolest and most under-the-radar art scenes in our nation's capital.

Escape from Cubicle Nation. Pam Slim gives me hope that one day I'll be my own boss and not starve while doing it. When I need to feel mothered via the Internet, her blog is a nurturing place to start. P.S. She's writing a book! Love watching her journey on this.

The Fluent Self. Um, I'm totally crushing on Havi Brooks's personal development-slash-yoga blog right now. Every time I read it, I find an application for the content in my life. Bless her for being a calm voice in the maelstrom of professional growing pains.

gapingvoid. Reading Hugh MacLeod reminds me that I'm not cool, but one day can be if I follow my heart now. Fans of art, cartooning, writing, and the creative process will love him.

How to Change the World. Another blog roll standby. I am just one little fan amid the thousands (tens of thousands? millions? everyone except your mom?) that follow Guy Kawasaki's thoughts, recommendations, and interviews. Offers clear steps for action and innovation in an unclear world.

Jeannine Norris -- Children's Author. Jeannine is my bestest's aunt, and therefore feels like one of my aunts too. (As if I didn't have enough.) Her first children's book, Tonight You Are My Baby, just came out! Beautiful Christmas story with portions of proceeds going to the At Least Kids Foundation. Truly the reason for the season.

Inside Lidia's Italy. In addition to wanting to be an author, social media rockstar, and font of work/life wisdom, I also want to be Lidia Bastianich. Or at least host an incredible cooking show with my mother and sing in the kitchen. Or be from Italy. Or eat. Lidia's blog lets me vicarously live all four. Tutti a tavola a leggere!

My Party of 6. Blogger Sue (another BlogHer attendee!) has me hooked on her honest, touching, and funny portrayals of life in the motherhood. I feel like I'm always over for coffee when I read her posts. So secretly it's a party of 7.

The Onion. You know it. You love it. You realize that its headlines sometimes aren't as absurd as real ones. Keep laughing -- it's the only thing that can save us.

Pat Rocchi. Shameless familial plug because if he weren't on my blog roll, I'd be disowned! Yes, Pat is my dad, and yes, I get my passion for writing from him. Unlike me, however, he has decades of experience and lots of awards. Check out his "been there, learned that" take on the evolution of communications.

PunditMom. Thank the Lord she went to BlogHer and I learned about her, because she proved indispensable during the election. Informed, smart, witty, and comprehensive political analysis -- nuttin' beats that.

PC Talk Radio. Shameless mentor plug! Rich Levin was the first boss who stole my professional heart. He updates only once a month or so, but the incredible in-depth interviews and exceptional audio quality are worth waiting for. Plus, Rich understood exactly what I meant when I coined the phrase "fundork," and is helping me spread the usage. Such dedication ensures eternal loyalty.

Smithsonian Channel blog. Lead blogger Andrea Michniak was at -- yes, you guessed it -- BlogHer, where I first found out about her blog. Fun, easy read for all history and social studies junkies out there.

Washington Post. No good DCer leaves home without it.

Why Am I Starting Another Blog? Shameless friend plug! My BFF-from-the-neighborhood Brian is living the red-haired, Philadelphia, B-school lifestyle and telling all. We like to comment on each other's blogs to spread the love. Spread it with me.

The Wind in Your Vagina. No, it's not a porn site. It's a fantastical take on life and love as we know it. What's fact? What's fiction? Who the hell cares? Just buckle up and let a writer/dad named Black Hockey Jesus take you behind the velvet rope and into his creative mind.

Yellaphant. Shameless friend plug! Old coworker and ardent Philly-ite Bridget Hanahan never regrets or apologizes, and you won't either once you read her. Some blogs go soup to nuts. Bridget's goes tampons to puppies to Chase Utley's butt. I can't explain; just read it.

Phew. Epic. Let me know what you think of these ... or if you have any recommendations for ways to distract me further reading.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Funny Baby Pictures: Snot what you think

Fridays are all about looking forward to re-creation over the weekend, when we delight in feeding our senses. So what better picture to send you off with than one that provides sensory overload:

1) Sight (brand-new glasses!)
2) Touch (face caress!)
3) Smell (as my mother put it, "note the nasal discharge.")

Happy chuckling, everyone!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Prayer #42: Button Your Lip

"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." {John 8:32}

But does it?

Prayer #42: Button Your Lip

Truth is subjective. Could be fact. Could be fol de rol. Could be a reachable conclusion, or a pleasant rhetorical trope.

Free's the same way. Does that mean inexpensive? Easy? Liberating?

Or lonely?

What I want to know is, if this so-called "truth" is setting you so-called "free," how do you so-called "know" it in the first place? I don't always know when I should be honest. I'm not always sure when to be frank. And I hesitate from speaking what I believe is true because it usually stands a good chance of hurting others -- or myself.

I mean, seriously, why should I go out a limb because one lame Bible author wrote one lame quote (though it is quite catchy, I'll admit that)? Knowing my luck, I'd be fired or dumped or burned in effigy. And to complete the irony, my "truth" wouldn't make a damn bit of difference anyway.

Super. Great sell, God. Don't forget to put it in the brochure.

And let's talk about that results spectrum for a minute, shall we? Some folks are punished. Others are celebrated. Still more simply soldier on, content they knew the truth and gave power to it, if only for a moment.

So what happens if you alone know the truth? What if you are alone in sharing the truth? What if you are alone after you tell the truth? What then?

And if this all weren't confusing enough, how do you explain why truth changes from person to person? No one's wrong, and yet everyone's right.

That's not freeing. That's noncommittal!

I'm sorry, but this is too nebulous. I'd like definitions please, and specific scenarios, and perhaps some case studies and a chart. You're not getting a peep out of me until You do.

Oh. Big surprise. You're leaving it open to interpretation. How wily of you, God. How clever. Leave me to stew over integrity vs. my paycheck and which has greater worth at this moment in time while You have a chuckle on a cloud.

I said, are you having fun?? Good, that makes one of us. You know, I've heard quite enough out of You, Mister. I'll tell You what You can do with Your truth ...!

...

Oh dear. Oh dear, I'm sorry, God. Didn't mean to get testy there. I'm just very stressed, you see, and trying to ward off this ulcer and potentially disastrous tendency to overeat when upset ... uh huh. Yes. Makes sense. Ahh. I get it.

Thank you. That's very helpful.

Though, I have to ask ... how I can be sure You're not pulling my leg?

Just sayin.'

Amen.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why Barack Obama is like Abraham

Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- the three religions borne of Abraham. But are they now the three faiths of Obama?

You can bet your Sunday School/Seder/shahada they are if the Christian Science Monitor has anything to report about it. Turns out people of all faiths made a pilgrimage to the polls last week, and Jewish and Catholic votes largely went to the Democrat.

Moreover, Muslims "overwhelmingly voted for Obama," according to Newsweek. And as if that weren't enough, the Washington Post says the President-elect also made a dent in the Republican stronghold of Protestants and Evangelicals -- about 5%.

So what does this mean for the spiritual face of our nation? As CSM notes in its article, "some theologians suggest that the religious shift signals the emergence of a faith-based coalition that will counterbalance or, perhaps, replace the religious right" that has been a pillar for the Bush administration.

If this is the case, I see three outcomes:

1. The separation of church and state is clearly stated and more closely followed. Example: the building buzz about Obama's likely moves to reverse Bush's decisions on embryonic stem cell research.

2. Our executive leadership will look and act more ecumenical.
Expect to see more faiths and denominations represented among the Cabinet, which in turn will (hopefully) lead to greater diversity of thought and pragmatism. Obama is Christian, Chief of Staff pick Rahm Emanual is Jewish ... now who else will join them?

3. Morality in government returns to its fundamentals. Following only one religious worldview without considering any others lets you get caught up in human-made details, rather than focusing you on greater spiritual truths. If government leaders of different faiths had to actively find common moral ground on issues, however, it can help them recognize universal values, and develop policy that reflects it.

Obama's biracial background has already become a symbol of America's diverse past and rainbow future. If he can now do the same for religion and spirituality -- move this hot-button divider toward a recognizable center -- then we will be one step closer to a truly united state.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

How to achieve emotional portion control

When life hands you asparagus ... throw it at the wall.



Asparagus being an metaphor for all the fears, doubts, inhibitions, barriers, setbacks, embarrassment, shame, missteps, and mistakes that choke our lives.

And the wall being a metaphor for, well, any place but your heart of hearts.

I struggle with putting this yucky stuff in perspective every day, and the struggle sharpens during bad weeks like this past one when I wonder what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks I'm up to. The trick, I've realized, is to emulate Lester Burnham from American Beauty.

No, I do not destroy my marriage and run off with a cheerleader floozy and dance among rose petals and inject melodrama into plastic bags. This is neither productive nor advisable nor formative.

Rather, I emulate the asparagus scene (see video above). Notice that Lester takes 2 or 3 pieces of asparagus off the plate before chucking the rest. He holds onto the food for only as long as he needs to absorb the health benefits. Otherwise, it's just another standard-issue plate under an easily replaceable side dish.

In the same way, we need emotional portion control. We can learn to recognize when our appetite for contrition and regret is sated, and we can get back to the business of building to the next positive step.

Havi Brooks over at The Fluent Self (one of my new go-to faves for life, liberty, and the pursuit of blogging) puts it this way in her post on procrastination (read the whole thing, it's very helpful):

Procrastination is fueled by guilt. Guilt and fear. [...] When you learn how to soften the guilt and the fear, what invariably happens is that you get very clear, very quickly.

Let's take that idea and look at it through the emotional portion control lens. As I see it, you have three choices:

1. Ignore the asparagus. You're ok if no one passes it to you. As long as you can push your problems to the side, not acknowledge your mistakes or shortcomings, and generally let your ears fill with sand, you're content to stunt your spiritual growth. You don't need to grow and be a kinder/better/richer/deeper human anyway. Leave that to preachers and Nobel Prize laureates.

2. Eat too much asparagus. Did you know that taking in too much folic acid (abundant in asparagus) can mask whether you have a vitamin B12 deficiency? And that if a vitamin B12 deficiency isn't noticed, it can lead to neurological damage? Same with your emotional wallowing. This is a great way to go out of your mind by beating yourself up over perfectly normal and expected pitfalls, and prevent yourself from moving forward and actually fixing the problem.

3. Soften the asparagus. One proven method is smashing it between plate and wall (again, see video). You can also sit boxes on it, bury it in the backyard, and run car tires over it. However you choose to do it, recognizing life's more uncomfortable lessons for the good they can deliver makes them more palatable, and thus helps you absorb the benefits -- in this case, wisdom. And as Havi puts it, this helps you get very clear, very quickly.

I'll be honest, I'm up to my ears in asparagus from this past week. Today is Sunday, though, and I plan to host a spiritual Sunday dinner to herald in a new seven-day set. Consider most of my plate on the wall tonight. But I know what I do eat will be much more satisfying.

Hat tip to Michael for inspiration.

Prayer #41: Stir the Pot

When what once made you certain now makes you doubtful ...

When behavior does not match words ...

When you can no longer discern intent ...

When questions go without answers ...

When you feel a little -- or somewhat -- or a lot betrayed ...

When a mistake (however honest) has consequences nonetheless ...

That's when we ask for courage to stir the pot, raise the issues, and act with love, compassion, and integrity to get at the truth.

Thank you in advance to one great Pot Stirrer -- Amen.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The once and future President Obama



Yesterday Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of our United States of America. He won the electoral and popular vote, which means the criminal farce that was the Bush administration is definitively behind us. Let the era of hope, respectability, and healing begin.

The most notable part of this election, of course, is that my generation came out in droves for a good leader who happened to be black -- not a black man who happened to be a good leader. This is the real dream of Martin Luther King Jr., fully realized. We judged not by the color of a person's skin, but by the content of his character.

And what character it is. Our president-elect has consistently put the mission of restoring this country -- and the credit for its success -- in everyday Americans' hands. He involves all in his goals. He is thoughtful, calm, pragmatic. And though there is no uncertain risk in his untested past, his performance to this point is reassuring.

Obama has been lauded/criticized for being a human Rorschach test -- something different for everyone, and thus nothing at all. But it's this chameleon quality that draws out the real, present, and future America. Just look at the people at his rally. As the camera panned the masses, you saw every hue, age, and gender represented.

This is how America really looks -- not the pallid whitewashed crowd represented at McCain's rallies. And now we have a president who reflects it and understands it -- a president for the modern and actual America.

In this way, Obama is relatable. It helps that he texts his constituents, and signs emails with his first name. I love that he got where he is with hard work, not handouts. And it doesn't bother me he shot so quickly through the ranks; he seems to know he can have the most impact from the highest office.

Of course there will be flaws and missteps. A Democratic majority in Congress and the White House might not offer the diversity of thought and productive bipartisan tension we need in critical times. Obama is inheriting one hot, hurting mess of a nation, and fixing it may be beyond even his abilities -- or at least only one term.

But those are all inevitable worries that I don't particularly feel like ruining today with. For today, I think only of his declaration that change has come.

I think God that a long, rancorous, and divisive campaign is over.

I marvel that exactly nine months after arriving in DC, I sat in an old friend's house alongside new friends to watch history unfold.

And I will always remember that when Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech, a soft, cooling, cleansing rain began to fall right outside the window.

Yes. Change has come.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Prayer #40: Select. Protect. Elect.

How fitting that my 40th prayer -- the goal set in Feb. 2007 as a Lenten exercise -- should happen (finally) on the eve of an historic election (also finally). I can think of no better way to celebrate the end of one journey, and the start of another.

Prayer #40: Select. Protect. Elect.

Beyond race. Beyond gender. Beyond war. Beyond honor. But beyond hope?

Long before it became a campaign linchpin and buzzword, hope was a proud American quality that kept the wind at our backs and the lift in our step. It did not belong to any party or candidate. Quite the opposite -- the American people had sole ownership and control. It was ours.

Yet hope has taken quite a beating in the past several years, and the situation is bleak. No matter who is elected, he will have an arduous fight ahead of him to restore our trust and faith. Is he up to the task? And are we up to the task of demanding the best of him?

Either way, the first step is following our conscience and casting a ballot that reflects our gut -- the synthesis of heart, mind, faith. Broadcast that voice to us on Election Day, Lord, and grant us the conviction to do not what is right or wrong, but what is best.

We are blessed to live in a peaceful, democratic country where power is transitioned without bloodshed, and even losing parties have a recurring chance to come out on top. May we be reminded of that redemption -- and of yours -- when we complete this cycle once again ... and be with us no matter the outcome.

Amen.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

This cat's on a very, VERY hot tin roof

I have lived in DC for almost nine months now, and while I have not taken the time to change my license, I have scoped out community theaters and found one where I'm planning to audition tomorrow night. (This should show you where my priorities lie.)

The play: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The theater: Arlington Players. The part I covet: Maggie "The Cat" Pollitt. The reason: she's a horny, sexually frustrated, power-hungry young woman described by the producers as "attractive, sexy, vivacious, and tenacious." Plus, she's married to a gay man. What's not to love??

Besides, I may or may not be harboring a small fantasy that if I'm cast as Maggie, the guy cast as Brick will look like this:


Or maybe this:


Or I'd even settle for this:


Complete and utter aside: Have you seen the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman? No? Go now. Rent it. You will realize anew how god-like Paul Newman is, and you will want him for your own. And that final scene when they kiss ... fire extinguisher, please! Who cares if it's a departure from the play? Depart, depart!

Further aside continuing on this topic: Is it just me, or do they not make movie stars like they used to? A man with a face like Newman's HAD to be a movie star. (I think it's written in the Producers Guild of America handbook or something.)

Seriously though, I can't think of a modern film star equivalent. Has acting changed to the point it no longer requires such manly men? Have men themselves changed? Have our standards of physical beauty and our sensibilities about manliness changed? If the answer is YES to any of these, change it back. Nights are too cold and lonely to be spent with ordinary-looking boys.


Ok, anyway, back to the audition. I haven't auditioned in well over a year for anything, and I certainly haven't auditioned in this area before. Still, the nerves are minimal. I'm approaching it just as I would any other venture: preparation, memorization, and a see-through low-cut top.

Truth be told, I'm a little bit addicted to the adrenaline rush that live performance brings. Yes, applause is very nice, as is the possibility of getting to kiss a Paul Newman-lookalike on stage who is actually NOT gay and wants to date me, but what I really love is the variability.

Every night brings a different audience, mood, and set of circumstances that demands my flexibility and attention. It works a different part of my creative brain that then fuels my writing and singing. And at its most basic level, it takes me out of my hum-drum routine, and injects a spirit of sex, danger, and spontaneity that often gets lost somewhere between the grocery store and church.

So if I can convey that sincere hunger for adventure in tomorrow's monologue, then I think this cat stands a pretty good chance of landing on that tin roof. After all, Maggie Pollitt is a determined and passionate woman, and that's something I've never had to fake.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Prayer #39: Elbow Grease

Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely. {P.J. O'Rourke}

Prayer #39: Elbow Grease

Today I pray for the lamp I broke while vacuuming, the back I broke while mopping, and the tension I broke by singing all the while.

May every day bring mending and cleaning made easier by rejoicing.

Amen.