Monday, December 28, 2009

Prayer #94: Goodnight Grace

Photo by North60

Prayer #94: Goodnight Grace

For the food piping hot, I give thanks to You.
For the folks who have not, I ask of You.
For the day that has passed, I hand to You.
For the dreams coming fast, I rest in You.
And for graces from this grace -- I trace to You.

Amen.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas play just for you

Watch this Nativity scene courtesy of the movie The Bells of St. Mary's. Possibly the best, most sincere, and truest rendition of the miracle of Christmas I've ever seen.

May the peace and joy of the season be yours forever! Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Britt Bravo features my (shorn) Locks of Love on WETV.com

How do you guarantee a good hair day? By chopping it all off and giving it to someone else. That's how I spent my unexpected snow day on Monday as I made good on my promise to get my long-nurtured hair off my head and onto those who need it.

With my original appointment canceled due to inclement weather, desperate times called for quick thinking. Quick thinking led to me roping my long-suffering roommates into misguided adventures. Which found the three of us crowded in my shower stall, with Sus cutting off my braids while Jacob recorded it for posterity.



Don't worry, I then walked right over to Hair Cuttery and got it styled.

I thought the story would end there. Cut twice, mail once, and start the process over. But as I tweeted about the haircut and put the pictures and video up on Facebook, responses began to pour in.

Some were about my sassy new 'do, but most were about how great Locks of Love is. The organization's powerful story -- that people commit to growing out their most visible renewable resource so kids can have real hair again -- resonated with everyone. And I felt blessed to help spotlight its terrific mission before a fresh audience.

I was especially excited to widen that audience exponentially when prolific social good blogger Britt Bravo (of Have Fun * Do Good, BlogHer, and more) featured me on her WETV.com post about donating to Locks of Love. Check out her post here. (Thank you, Britt!)

So what can you, the prospective donor, learn from my hair-raising adventure? Note the following:

* Keep your hair healthy while you're growing it. That means semi-regular trims to keep the split ends in check.

* Hair does not grow as quickly as you might think. It took me two years to get my own locks long enough. This endeavor is NOT for the fickle follicle. Prepare to commit.

* Donating before a holiday amplifies the do good/feel good spirit of the season. (It also is perfect timing for your relatives to ooh and ahh over your new look.)

* It truly is the kindest cut you can make.

The more people hear about Locks of Love, the more I hope they'll feel inspired to turn themselves into do-gooding Cousin Its. The brave kids who get these wigs deserve every strand.

Besides, how else will you get your roommates to play hairdresser in the bathroom?



Check out Locks of Love for more information!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Prayer #93: Fade to White


Snowpocalypse 2009 -- Arlington, Va.
Five days before Christmas

Prayer #93: Fade to White

Scholars debate the month and season of Your birth. Did snow fall outside the stable? Would the shepherds have tended their flocks? Was that cold winter's night really so deep?

Here's my question: Who cares?

Around this wide world, people in every clime, every temp, every zone are preparing to herald Your grand entrance onto our rocky sphere. Some watch in wonder. Others anticipate sorrow. But we all know You are coming.

And when You do arrive, kicking and screaming and hungry, You will fulfill a promise made in time immemorial to a broken creation. You will bring us a gift that far outweighs the frankincense, myrrh, wreaths, drums, ornaments, and cards we lay at Your feet.

You will bring us peace.

Peace that rivals a starry night on a mountaintop that disappears in the dawn.

Peace that trumps a beach at sunset, with vibrant palettes that wash out to sea.

Peace that surpasses bare desert dunes vanishing into the horizon.

Peace that envelops a hushed curtain of snow, waving aside only to melt away.

This peace is within You, of You, through You -- indestructible and indescribable. It's peace exactly as You promised.

No wonder we rush to wait.

Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

This I Believe #6: Why You Should Date a Girl With Cooties

Photo by ZakVTA

Sixth installment of my unofficial This I Believe series.

My open letter to all the boys I haven't kissed yet worked. One showed up. And he really does want to kiss me.

In fact, this long-distance fella signaled his intentions several ways. He made the first move (and then the second, when I was too oblivious to pick up on the first). He introduced the terms boyfriend/girlfriend into our conversations. He even talked about coming to DC next summer for his internship so we try out living near one another.

Note: Summer is a whole SIX MONTHS away. He's planning for me. Cue swoon.

But amid the giggliness and excitement, I have a problem: me. Because somewhere between college and today, I caught cooties.

Cooties, as you may remember, refers to a mysterious, non-medical "infection" that inhabits the opposite sex. Anyone affected is presumed undesirable and untouchable. You save yourself by staying as far away as possible and pointing fingers across the school yard.

I contracted cooties after my first (and last) serious relationship ended sophomore year of college. That time of life brings a great deal of self-discovery, and mine collided headfirst with young love. The former walked away with minor scratches; the latter ended up in traction for seven years.

With love and its cohorts (emotion, vulnerability, connection, etc.) so laid up, I was free to focus on other important things, like figuring out who I was, what I stood for, and what I wanted my life to mean. I earned my own paycheck. I made my own decisions. I matured.

That's when the cooties moved in, keeping dates and boys and other such romantic attachments well at bay. Not that I minded (much). My cooties were excellent arbiters of personal taste: They sent incompatible men packing to the other side of the playground, and invited the similarly infected over.

But what happens now that someone has crossed into the red zone? Does he really know the extent of my cootie infestation? Will it intimidate him if he finds out? Should I get rid of them?

I hope not. I like them. They're tiny yet immense. They whisper or shout, depending on how I need to hear them. Their presence means I'm never alone -- instead, 30 million intimate friends surround me, each reflecting and refracting an infinitesimal part of my unique DNA.

No, the cooties stay in the picture. We're going to experiment on how infectious they really are. And a big thank you to my new fella for his willingness to participate in this groundbreaking study. Such a venture takes courage, optimism, confidence -- the very stuff, in fact, that cooties thrive on.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

10 unusual Christmas wishes (recession-style)

Do you have a particular tradition that kicks off the holiday season? Maybe taking a picture with Santa, hanging lights on your house, or seeing decorated department store windows? Well, for me it's a Word document. And not just any old Word document. I'm talking about my brother's annual Christmas wish list.

Fans of last year's list will be pleased to know my sib took this year's economic roller coaster to heart and crafted a list that reflects our current financial hardships. So read on, and if he moves you to contribute or even fulfill one of his wishes, please leave a comment with more details. (See? I'm saving you valuable postage!)

Francis Rocchi’s Annual Christmas List 2009: Recession Edition

1. Perhaps some warm gruel and old bread, sir? So hungry, so very hungry. (Funnier if read aloud in the voice of a Dickensian street urchin)

2. Fear and Loathing in America by Hunter S. Thompson. Anything that will quell my desire to take some acid, rent a convertible, and go on a no-holds-barred road trip through the American Southwest

3. A lock of hair off the head of the blonde violinist from Celtic Woman. With the right technology maybe I can make a clone of her. And make her mine.

4. A rich, elderly patron that I can dote on until they kick the bucket and name everything to me in their last will and testament.

5. Some polo shirts.

6. A wench. Preferably one that makes mead.

7. A job. If it involves a whiskey distillery, video games, or strippers assume it is the right job for me. Look for a whiskey distillery run by strippers, powered by the heat that emanates from used Xbox 360 consoles.

8. Socks. They should go to about mid-calf. And include strippers and whiskey.

9. Seriously though, some warm socks would be nice.

10. Another book. Think contemporary male author that was never in Oprah’s book club.

11. A medical report explaining how Dick Cheney is still alive ...

12. Some article of clothing that makes me look like less of a schlub.

13. Hire Sam Waterston to narrate my life for a week.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Prayer #92: In the Bleak Midwinter

Photo by jpc101

Prayer #92: In the Bleak Midwinter

I pray today for get-up-and-go.

I pray today I sally forth.

I pray today is once more unto the breach.

Because my chilled bones are weary. I yearn for Vitamin D. My very skin hurts to flex. I strain to fulfill everything You call me to do, yet I only end up frozen and discouraged, with nothing to show but shopping bags beneath my eyes.

Soon the man-made hours will reverse course, and your God-made rhythms will return light to my life. But until it falls on my eyes, drape it across my heart pane to dispel the tar-like shadows, and restore me to sunlit glory.

Amen.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Prayer #91: Locks of Love

In two weeks, I will lose all my hair.

Well, not all of it. About 10 inches. But still, when you've wrestled with long, thick hair for nearly two years, and nurtured each strand to keep it strong and healthy despite your infuriated brushing, losing 10 inches can make you feel like Al Roker.

The day my strands meet the shears will also mark the second time I'm donating to Locks of Love, a well-known non-profit that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children suffering from long-term medical hair loss. I've always had hair to spare, and knowing my stubborn waves will be reborn on the head of a child who just wants to feel normal again more than blunts the trauma of paying for a new hairstyle in a major metropolitan area.

But before I paint myself as the DC version of the follicularly blessed St. Agnes of Rome, I must reveal my ulterior motive. When I cut off this mane in two weeks, I will also sever the year that was. When the trimmings fall to the floor, every tangle, knot, and bad hair day will sweep away with them.

This cut will be more than a new look; it will be a new attitude. No more frumpy outlook. No more hesitating to change. No more constant weight on my shoulders (and on my head, and on my back, and occasionally in my eyes ...).

I won't forget the good times I had under this mop top -- beach breezes, dress-up curls, "show hair," and more. But it's time for new times, good or bad, and my fresh coiffure will remind me to accept growth in all places.

To the child who gets my crazy hair: Enjoy it. Take care of it. And when you outgrow the wig, pass it forward in great faith and appreciation. That's all I ask for the shrub, and all you can ask of yourself.

Prayer #91: Locks of Love

Beautifying God --

Take scissors to what I've long held dear, and help me shed the nasty tangles clogging my drains.

Show me not split ends, but clean starts that let me look in the mirror with confidence and hope.

Give me a snip, a trim, and a little off the top until I'm back in style -- Your style -- the unique style You crafted for me before I even had hair, and that You wait with eager eyes for me to request every time I show up in Your chair.

To the Stylist who always listens --

Amen.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Word on the street: Bird Feeder

The scene: Pop-Pop DePaul is sitting downstairs in his house watching his "story" (his word) on TV -- aka, Law and Order. His son Lou and granddaughter Emily are visiting.

Pop-Pop: Ya know, they don't carry guns. Those two detectives can solve these cases without guns! They use words.

Emily: Really? No guns. Hmmm. They always seem to get their guy though.

Pop-Pop: Yep. They do. And they're good friends. Only handcuffs they carry. [to Lou] Do I still have to feed those birds all winter?

Lou: (shocked) Yes! The winter is the best time to feed them! You'll get all kinds of birds in the winter.

Pop-Pop: Welllll, I'm only feeding the small ones. I'm getting all sparrows now and they mess the food up and drop it all over the ground and then the squirrels come and I have to trap 'em.

Lou: Well, what food are you using? The sunflower seed food?

Pop-Pop: Yep. That's the one. I bought new food.

Lou: That's sparrow food ...

Pop-Pop: It's ridiculous! These birds eat more than I do, ya know! I'm too busy to feed the birds!

End scene. (Thanks for sharing, Em!)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Quiet desperation: How to follow up after an interview

Photo by monkeyc.net

Sending a thank-you note post-interview is the easy part. The hard part? Gnawing your knuckles to nubs as you stare at your phone for the next two weeks, waiting for your potential employer to make an honest woman (or man) out of you.

The good news is, you can save those knuckles with a little proactivity. Because while you can't control the employer's schedule, you have total autonomy with yours. Here's how to make the most of it.

Step 1: Be at home with the range.

Did your dream job say they'd be in touch in 2 hours? One week? Anywhere between 5 days and 7 months? Doesn't matter. Give them until the very end of their range, and then follow up if I haven't heard from them. This strikes a balance between appearing desperate and showing you're still interested. Plus, it respects the timeframe they need on their end.

One exception: if you've fielded another job offer with a much shorter range, and you need to reach a decision quickly. Then you have a stronger bargaining chip when you call before their decision deadline.

Step 2: Give voice to your interest.

When you do follow up, either phone or email works. Use your previous communication as a guide; if you're spoken mostly through one medium, you can stick with that.

Personally, at this critical stage in the game, I think a well-timed phone call shows a touch more initiative and polish. That said, you also risk putting the employer in an awkward position or fielding a rejection directly when you catch them on the phone. So consider the risk/reward ratio before dialing.

Step 3: Turn your impatience into improvement.

If you absolutely can't wait until the range ends and MUST do something before you explode, try this tactic: Drop the prospect an email and ask, "Can I provide any additional materials or answer any questions for you as you finalize your decision?" At most, an update comes with the response. At least, it keeps your name in front of them.

Step 4: Don't hold your breath.

Word of warning: Don't get your hopes up you'll hear when they said you would, even after you write/call/email for an update. Companies tend to give a rosy response forecast, somehow forgetting that crises and hiccups have a nasty habit of disrupting their hiring process.

I think I was supposed to know about my current job two weeks before I actually did. I was impressed I heard so close to the projected date at all. Fact of life, and one worth accepting for your own sanity.

Step 5: Soldier on.

What if after all that waiting, the gig doesn't come through? You might be disappointed. You might not feel like working on the search for a few days. But I promise you, the not knowing is far worse than not getting the job. Really.

You can deal with and respond to known reality. It's harder to operate with nebulous what-ifs. So take stock of what's working well for you. Reevaluate what next step is most appropriate. And proceed from there. By putting one foot in front of the other, you'll arrive where you want to be.

* This post is dedicated to Francis Rocchi, a fine young man and stellar writer you should hire immediately.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Prayer #90: Advent Sure

I ask you again ... does fear reverse faith?

Prayer #90: Advent Sure

I'm not so sure about this. Or that. Or anything, really, if we're being honest here (and I trust we are).

Sure, everything looks rosy and lovey-dovey right now. But who are we kidding? I'm sure it won't go uninterrupted. My rose-colored glasses will break in several places when I sit on them, and then I'll see the stark truth: It's a gray, harsh world, and I'm condemned to slog through it, alone and unsure.

Then again, I'm not so sure.

It could be the specs expose the world's vast potential. Instead of masking fear, they mitigate it. And maybe they're exercising my eyes with little bright bursts of truth along the way, so when the big reveal comes, I'm sure-footed enough to handle the blinding wonder.

Yet ... I'm not so sure.

So let's meet halfway, God. We are, after all, in the season of uncertain certainties, when folks were sure a Messiah was coming, but not so sure when ... if ever.

I offer to live in doubt and belief (depending on the weather) so that my faith is fortified. I will try hard not to pre-worry, and I will do my best to pre-rejoice.

In return, please help me live out this adventurous life Advent-sure, so I may better strike the fragile, essential balance between cautious optimism and instructive weakness.

Because when we work together, surely hope will carry the day.

Amen. (aka, Sure!)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Blame it on the rutabaga: A Thanksgiving reflection

Photo by karenwithak

If I'm defeated by a rutabaga this Thanksgiving ... so help me God.

I'm standing in the supermarket produce aisle at 10:30 pm on a rainy Tuesday before Thanksgiving because frantic holiday shoppers make me misanthropic, so I'm choosing to lose sleep than murder a dawdling old lady with my shopping cart.

I'm tired, and I'm damp, and I'm cranky. But I have only one item left on my list: rutabaga. And then I'm home-free, ready to rock and roll, all set for Thanksgivingpaloozafest '09.

Except for one problem. I don't know what a rutabaga looks like. I've never grown, cooked, or tasted one. I'm not even sure which section of the produce aisle to hit. (It is produce, right?)

All I know is that this rutabaga has a bounty on its head. Its fate lies in my cornbread dressing, and I am NOT leaving this store without the mystery root vegetable locked in my grubby fist.

You can run, rutabaga. But you can't hide. Not from a first-time holiday hostess.

Oh, I've done plenty of dinner parties -- many a successful feast with good home cooking and candle arrangements and even an artistically placed napkin setting on occasion. But this is big. This is a HOLIDAY. It has expectations attached.

I mean, the Pilgrims and Indians managed to get along on this day, so I have to hit at least an equal level of satisfaction. Because if guests don't walk away happy from Thanksgiving, I haven't ruined their night -- I've ruined their year.

Just consider all the moving pieces for Turkey Day. First, the menu. You must plan a variety of dishes that complement one another in flavors, textures, colors, nutrition, and preparation timing. God forbid you have a food allergy in the mix -- your head might explode.

Then the turkey is in a class by itself -- the poultry personification of peer pressure. An imperfect bird signals your inability to provide for your family. So tent it, marinate it, deep-fry it, brine it, make it out of tofu, just don't dry it out. In fact, do everything to that bird but wring its neck yourself. And even that you should handle if you get the opportunity.

Then comes meal execution, where you purchase ingredients (ahem, rutabaga), cook the food, serve the dinner, clear the table, clean the kitchen, and have Poison Control on standby just in case the time-honored family mashed potatoes recipe is sending everyone to the family plot in your less-than-capable hands. (Though according to my Betty Crocker cookbook and episodes of Mad Men, it appears I can salvage any situation with a well-made highball.)

Oh, and let's not forget the hosting. What time is everyone arriving? Where are they sleeping? Have you dusted? Vacuumed? Wiped the banisters? Changed the hand towels? Refilled toiler paper? Made enough ice? Hidden the vibrat -- I mean ... um ... moving on.

But here's the kicker element: guest dynamics. For my first holiday I'm hosting the long-held parents and the newly minted fella. Which leads to such agitating trains of thought as, "Will Dad wear pajamas under his robe? Will Mom take her bra off in front of Fella? Oh god, is Fella allergic to rutabagas? I don't even know! I'm a terrible girlfriend! I DON'T DESERVE LOVE!"

The stress is enough to make a girl go food-shopping at 10:30 p.m. Oh wait. It did. I am.

It makes me wonder how people who never cook or clean or have civil conversations with their families survive these ordeals. Because I love cooking and hosting and visiting and ensuring hygienic living spaces, and even I'm overwhelmed by the societal pressures of a holiday feast.

I blame it on the rutabaga. Damn you, rutabaga. Damn you.

I can't hold out any longer. I have to do what I never do at the grocery story, my second home: ask for help. So I head over to the nearest employee, who is stocking shelves with unnatural vigor given the hour.

Me: "Excuse me, what are -- I mean, where are the rutabagas?"

Employee: "I don't know. Why don't you tell me why you're masquerading as a capable, sophisticated hostess with refined tastes and savoir faire, when all you're really capable of is Easy Mac mixed with tuna, and that's on a good day?"

Me: "Wait ... what?"

Employee: "Near the carrots, next to the turnips."

I go to the carrot section. I see a pile of strange vegetables poking out from behind the parsnips, looking part-turnip, part-Ernest Borgnine. I pick one up and hold it out to the store clerk.

Me: "Is this the rutabaga?"

Employee: "GOD. YES. Get out of my STORE, you shameless poser!"

Me: "Wait ... what?"

Employee: "Yep, you got it."

I nod, half-smile, and look down at the rutabaga. It's rougher than I expected. Some dirt sprinkles onto my hand.

I expected to feel more triumph in this moment. But now that I've made my conquest, I simply feel ... relief. Good. I don't have to go to another store. I have everything I need for my menu. And for the first time, I believe I can master this holiday, one root vegetable at a time.

That is, as soon as I figure out how to peel a rutabaga.

***

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Here's a prayer for your own feasts (and preparation thereof).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Prayer #89: Virtual Theology



Prayer #89: Virtual Theology

Game on, God.

You want me. I'm right here. But first You have to track me though multiple levels of increasing difficultly, each with new villains and daunting obstacles and floating manna that racks up points when You jump to grab it.

You want me. I'm on the move. You call me to come back, to rest, to wait for You. But oh no, I'm too clever for that, Player. Think I'm just going to sit here and let You get me? Wrong! Poof! Gone.

You want me. I'm hidden. Keep hacking the vines. Ford the moat. Scale the gate. Leap the chasm. Where will all Your daring get You? I'm tucked away in no-man's-land, comfortable, wondering if You'll ever catch up.

Game on, God. It's solely in my power to hit pause and give You a breather. But I don't know if I'm ready to risk that. Because when You catch up to me ... will it be game over?

Amen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Prayer #88: Ends of Days

How is there a plural form of apocalypse? Isn't that it?

Prayer #88: Ends of Days

Apocalypse now? Later? Sometime next Tuesday?

I don't care. Bring it. Because I've got 8 million gajillion things to do, and frankly, it would be easier if You pulled the plug on the whole shebang.

Hence my prayer for the ends of days. For that precarious point after work and before dreams when the mortal coil wraps around my neck. For my hubris in thinking those few hours can somehow add up to more than 24. For the steady calendar movement that insists on marching even if I'm stumbling.

And if You are seriously thinking about ending it soon, then please prepare me for acceptance. Prepare me for accountability. Prepare me for awe.

But if we've got some time left ... can you just prepare me for bed?

Amen.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

How to add tension to your writing

Photo by wildphotons

No one likes an impotent story. Even worse: an impotent story that thinks it's all that in the sack.

Of course, no one used these words today at The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference I attended, because they're all too nice. (Exception: presenter and author Steve Watkins, who joked about condoms and gave us tips on how to kill characters.) But it's basically what we were talking about: impotent writing.

The good news is, you can bring back the magic by adding tension. Not sure how to do that? Check out this handy primer courtesy of literary agent Linda Pratt, one of the presenters at today's SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference.*

* My first real SCBWI event. I'm on my way to fame, fortune, and endless school visits, baby!

Enjoy these helpful notes distilled from my obsessive nerd-like furious scribbling during her presentation. And then work hard on coming up with creepy, incongruous writing metaphors of your own. Trust me, it adds tension.

1. Diagnosis that tension is indeed missing.
* Get feedback from others whether your work lacks tension.

* Keep in mind that agents and editors have different ways of sharing that information. There's no uniform vocabulary for this important story element. So you're more likely to hear phrases such as "too soft," "quiet," "I wasn't vested," "or "I didn't connect emotionally."

* Note: You can have a soft narrative arc and still incorporate tension. Hard action does NOT equal tension (more on this later).

2. Accept your diagnosis.
* "We don't want to hear it, especially when we think it might be true." [Sing it, sister.]

* Linda evaluates books by current market standards, and one such standard right now is tension. So keep that in mind as you're writing.

* Don't try to find example of stories without tension to justify your own. Just fix it.

3. Adjust to your new condition.
* Ask yourself, "How am I going to do things differently [in my story]?"

* Understand what tension even is -- a balance maintained in an artistic work between opposing forces or elements.

* Create empathy "without having feelings and thoughts communicated explicity." This means NOT saying, "He got mad." Show, don't tell.

Linda also pointed out that different genres have unique pitfalls, and shared technique-rich toolboxes for overcoming them:

Pitfalls: Picture Books :(
* When the lesson drives your story. If your primary goal is to preach to the child, your story will fall flat. Clear, straight lines lack tension.

* When you forget plot. Remember, you need conflict and resolution to add some zing.

Toolbox: Picture Books :)
* Remember and practice that less is more.

* Text is most effective when it sets up illustration. The reader's brain should anticipate the illustration.

* Use page turns to highlight tension. One tip: Dummy (read: mock up) 32 pages of scrap paper to test out the text placement.

* Start with the story. Avoid starting from the point of teaching.

Pitfalls: Young Adult Novels :(
* When you protect your characters. You're probably already planted the seeds in the characterization and plot to kill them. Be gutsy; pull the trigger. Allow things to happen to them.

* When you confuse action for tension. Great example of an author/book who strikes the critical balance (says Linda): Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Again, you don't need to explode buildings or kill characters to create drama. Focus on crafting empathetic characters. Be selective about who receives the reader's emotional investment. This will give you more freedom in whose decisions/actions drive the tension, and the story overall will resonate more with the reader.

Toolbox: Young Adult Novels :)
* Step outside of your work. Chart the character arcs. Are the characters changing, growing, maturing? If the line's not budging, introduce some new traits or events to incite change.

* Play "ifstory." Also known as "keep asking what if." These two little words can keep opening up new brainstorms and new possibilities for your narrative and character arcs.

* Embrace character flaws. Perfect characters are wooden characters. Give them a trait you don't like so much to force different actions/reactions within the plot.

* "Feel it." Stuck on a particular emotion in a scene? Forget the novel for a sec, and write separately about a time you felt as the character did. In writing out that memory, you can reconnect to your character's feelings in a similar situation.

Done all this, and you're still stuck? Break this technical glass in case of emergency:
* Reread books and scenes that accomplish what you're trying to accomplish.

* To quote Linda: "Art is about stealing." Reverse-engineer what works, and duplicate the process in your work.

* Once you can articulate hits and flops in other work, you can better execute your own. Bone up on your editorial understanding.

Writers and editors out there: Any tips to share with our viewing audience? Oh, and thanks for a fun and informative day, SCBWI! More craft-oriented posts to come based on today's lessons.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A tale of three veterans

Today's post starts with a story -- a story from Grandpop Taraborelli.

The scene: My grandparents' living room. My cousins and I are playing on the green shag carpet. Grandpop is sitting in the armchair. I am 8 years old.

Grandpop: Kids. Kids! C'mere. Did I ever tell you about the time I fought the Japs? When I was in the war?

Kids: Nooo! (we scurry over and sit at his feet)

Grandpop: Well I tell ya, it was the scariest thing I've ever done. First we had to hike to camp. It was 100 degrees out. And we got caught in a blizzard.

Kids: Oooooooo.

Grandpop: And we had to walk uphill. Both ways.

Kids: Aaaaaaaa.

Grandpop: But then we saw them. The Japs. Our enemy. There were hundreds of 'em.

Cousin: Whadja do, Grandpop?

Grandpop: Well, I only had one bullet. So I asked all them Japs to line up in a straight line. And I put the gun on my shoulder, and I took real good aim, and POW! I shot that one bullet through all of 'em.

Boys: WOW.

Girls: Eww.

Grandpop: (shakes head) But I wasn't fast enough. (he rubs the side of his torso)

Cousin: (gulps, whispers) Why? What do you mean, Grandpop?

Grandpop: One of 'em got me. He stabbed me real good with his bayonet. Right here. In my side.

Cousin: Nuh-uh, Grandpop. You're LYING.

Grandpop: Oh yeah? Then take a look at THIS!

Grandpop whips up his shirt. We see a jagged scar on his abdomen. Grandpop wasn't lying.

Kids: AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!GRANDMOM!

End scene.

This, ladies and gentlemen, was my first exposure to World War II.

At the time, I didn't know that you couldn't shoot one bullet through 100 people. I didn't know that Japs was a derogatory term (my parents cleared that one up real fast). And I definitely didn't know that Grandpop's scar was from his appendix removal.

As I got older and learned about the war, the gaps in the oft-repeated how-I-got-this-scar story filled out. My grandfather had been in the CBI theater. He told me he was a mechanic and a foot soldier. He spent time on board a ship where they pranked the officers during the night. If he actually killed Japanese soldiers, he's never said. (I assume he did. I also assume it took more than one bullet.)

I heard my grandmother's stories too, told to me as I thumbed through her rations-centered Victory Cookbook. She moved in with my great-grandmother once Grandpop left. Their oldest child -- my uncle -- cried when Grandpop came home on leave because he didn't know what to do about the strange man sleeping with his mother. Grandpop went AWOL once so he could spend more time with Grandmom. She reused everything, saved everything, cut corners on everything.

And there was a third story -- this time from my Grandpop Rocchi. Except it's a non-story, because he never talked about his experiences. All he revealed was his station (Panama, Pacific Theater). It was the historical equivalent of a job reference who can't speak kindly of a candidate: "Yes, Mario was here."

How can this be, I thought. Why are Grandmom and Grandpop T. so ready to share, but Grandpop R. won't peep? Didn't they see the same things, fight the same fight? There I was, gobbling up every sepia-toned story I could find, and he was just sitting on a treasure trove of knowledge, not budging an inch.

This Veterans Day, I find myself replaying my grandparents' stories and silences, and my adult perspective casts a different, sharper light.

For example, I now see that my younger self had latched onto the era's romance. I thrived on the human dramas, sorrow, and celebration. To this day I can't stand in Philadelphia's 30th St. station without picturing Grandmom T. climbing onto one of the benches and waving so Grandpop could find her when he disembarked, home for good. War in my young mind was not a march toward death and destruction; it was a ticker tape parade preceded by a mere scuffle.

I've learned more about war since then. History classes showed me the arc from traditional to modern warfare. I watch the footage and read stories from our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I walk through Arlington Cemetary, where only a fraction of our soldiers are buried. The crosses stretch, it seems, for miles.

I've learned more about life too. Everything about World War II seemed so pat, so cut and dry when I read about it in books. But now I see the complexity of international conflict and diplomacy, how it's never just one issue or one country.

In WWII's case, I'm astounded that the whole world could topple into conflict like that, as if a master hand had laid out the dominoes for a quick game and ended up knocking over the walls. The war's course was a labyrinth of complicated human decisions. A mere whim could have changed civilization's history. It still could. The enormity of that idea leaves me breathless.

This would be an excellent point to reveal why Grandpop R. was silent about his service and bring this reflection to a dramatic, profound conclusion about human nature in the face of conflict. Except I don't know. I never got an answer before he died, and I've never followed up with anyone else about it.

But I don't think I need one. My grandparents' opposite expressions of wartime capture the triumph, fear, and ambiguity of such conflicts. What's more, it reminds me that each soldier (whether on the battlefield or homefront) views these events through a unique lens comprised of their past, their morals, their decisions.

Once and future history books cannot impart such varied and expansive versions. Only those who were there can. Only veterans can fill between the lines and reveal the truth about peace, war, and the chaotic spectrum they bookend.

So today I think about my grandparents, their fully lived lives, and how much I will never understand because I wasn't there with them. I'm thinking of the people who are living similar sacrifices and choices right now, and how I stand a better chance of understanding if I ask, listen, and stand beside them.

I pray that one day war is a sepia relic and the term 'veteran' is outmoded. Until then, I say thank you to all who serve our country, and I hope you tell your grandchildren your truth.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Prayer #87: Cantcentrate

Photo by fotologic

Burning physiological question: If you're concentrating on your concentration face, will your head explode?

Prayer #87: Cantcentrate

My mind is hopping. It started the week over there, and then it skipped around over here, and then it turned in circles until it got so dizzy it collapsed. Now it's lying in a heap in the corner, twitching.

I wouldn't mind my loss of mind so much if it didn't mean my heart followed suit. Stupid heart. Such a copy cat. The minute the mind fidgets, it perks up, saying, "Hey! Whatcha up to? Can I come too? Wheee!"

And then it scampers off behind my errant brain, blissfully ignorant that it has its own beat, own rhythm, own purpose.

I would prefer my heart had a mind of its own. I'd get much more done.

But that's not the way you constructed us, is it, Lord? We are mind and heart and soul and sinew. We are a solid unit, seamless. Cog A affects Wheel B. Lever C bends on Fulcrum D. And so our psyches whirl, with no beginning and no end, accomplishing mighty things, sometimes in spite of themselves.

Mechanic God, I give myself over to Your engineering. I will let my brain run its own route, and allow my heart to romp behind it. I will permit my body to creak and sing. I will give my gut a room to call everyone together in the end.

And I will listen to all they tell me along the way, for they are Your kinetic megaphone, moving me toward concentrated revelation.

Amen.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Prayer #86: Gone Voyage

You know, this all would be much easier if you had just come with me.

I could tell you how I stood among ruins and reached out my hand toward snow-capped peaks, so large and looming they appeared within my grasp.

I could tell you how my legs burned when I clambered up the mountain, how the thin air stole the little breath I had, how soundly I slept in the cold night, five inches from ancient soil.

I could tell you how I bore witness to a world that was nothing like yet exactly the same as the comfortable bubble I left. How I cried with homesickness. How I exhaled in wonder.

But I'm not sure it would mean anything. Odors and movements and sensations don't pack well. And pictures only say so much.

This prayer, then, is for that frustration. It's for when 'wish you were here' becomes 'yes, I was there.' It's for my loneliness in having been there without you.

Prayer #86: Gone Voyage

Lord, why did You put so many wonders in the world, yet not give me the capacity to absorb them?

My body is fighting to regain its footing. My routine is struggling to return. How then, in the midst of such corporeal upheaval, am I expected to deliver on the emotion of all I saw, experienced, and witnessed?

It's all a drop in the bucket to You, I know -- nothing You haven't seen or heard or created before. But for me, it's revelatory. And I need your help in expressing it.

Unknot my stubborn tongue so I can share the stories with others. Relax my tense muscles so I can embrace the events. Lend clarity to my now-memory, and space to my history, so that I can best explain why -- and how -- I changed.

In the name of He who needs no passport to cross the universe --

Amen.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

[WHILE I'M AWAY] Burnt wedding toasts

"While I'm Away" could also be called my "I'm in Peru and can't blog" series. Enjoy the trip down memory lane!

Today's post: proposed wedding toast styles -- you know, to add a little class and pizazz to the proceedings.


Burnt wedding toasts


Next weekend I am maid of honor in my dear friend's wedding. That means I get to adjust her train. And take pictures with her all by myself. And -- brace yourself now -- give a toast.

I know. Me, writing, marking occasions, speaking before large, anonymous groups of people? It's like opium to a Chinese whore.

But it turns out writing a toast is harder than I thought. On one hand, you don't want to be too schmaltzy and send everyone into diabetic shock. On the other hand, you don't want to downplay the significance of the day. And on the mutant third hand, you don't want to incur my father's communications wrath about the sad, sorry route to Hell most modern wedding toasts are traveling along.

Worse, creativity isn't necessarily rewarded in a toast. Have you ever heard a wedding toast haiku?

1.
Congrats on the hitch!
Don't get her pregnant too soon --
it kills all the fun.


2.
Let's talk honeymoon.
We all know what they're up to,
But we'll turn blind eyes.


3.
Love, many splendored!
Cupid's arrow did not hurt?
Shoot one my way then.


Or a wedding toast limerick?

1.
May you always be true to your wife,
And spoon with her all of your life.
But don't be a dork
And go off and fork
Another, or she'll slip you the knife.


2.
At the risk of inducing a coma,
I now hand you both "Love Diplomas."
You've earned nothing but praise --
Just look, Ma, all A's! --
Now get thee to Oklahoma.*


* You try finding a rhyme for diploma.

Or wedding toast Facebook statuses?

1.
LINDSAY is OMG, soooo000OOOO00ooooo happy for her friends! You guys are the best -- guess you're the real BFFs now, LOL. Keep it real! ;););)

2.
BRAD just wants to say hey man, I love you, and I'll never tell Janet about that hooker outside Wichita. Or was it Boise?

Or wedding toast tweets?

1.
We all know what Bob is doing right now ... SYLVIA! Oh snap! Best man FTW. ;)

2.
Bawling my eyes out on the altar. Kelly's so beautiful. Wish I had stuck some tissues in my bra. Oh wait, I can't wear one in this dress.

Or wedding toast skits (acted out by the bridal party)? Or wedding toast stand-up (performed by the drunkest guest available)? Or wedding toast Powerpoints (in case the food's not ready or the DJ is suffering a heart attack)? Or wedding toast text messages (because love ain't free)?

Sigh.

I could just write a regular toast, I suppose. You know, talk about how I never worry about the health and longevity of their commitment. How they give me hope that good, kind, well-matched people can still find one another in our hyper-networked yet sorta lonely world. That they exemplify for me the most enduring, constant elements of a mature adult relationship -- trust, faith, friendship, good humor, and humility.

That I love them both, and love that they love each other even more.

...

Nah. It'll never play. Wedding toast interpretive dance it is!

Image by ceoln

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

[WHILE I'M AWAY] Should we save newspapers -- or journalism?

"While I'm Away" could also be called my "I'm in Peru and can't blog" series. Enjoy the trip down memory lane!

Today's post: a blog lit review of the "journalism is dying!" discussion, with my own two cents thrown in.


Should we save newspapers -- or journalism?

It began with a Twitter chat ...
@RocchiJulia: Why we can't let newspaper journalism die: http://tinyurl.com/cfyknv

@spurdave [aka Dave Svet of Spur Communications]: Should we save journalism or newspapers? I would like to see journalism have a sustainable economic model.

@RocchiJulia: Good distinction. I think we need to preserve in-depth journalism. I agree, the model and delivery should change with the times.

@spurdave: Thanks. My Dad was a newspaper guy. Watching this is killing me. We can't mourn the death of journalism. We won't be safe.

@RocchiJulia: I think the shifting models have caused laziness -- biased reporting, lack of research, etc.

@spurdave: I think a lot of the lack of quality in current reporting is due to budget cuts and a thirst for ad $. Impartiality went away.

... and ended with me making a thinking face. (Which, for those of you who don't make these often enough, involves furrowing your brow and tapping your finger on your cheek in contemplation.)

Without a doubt, the institution of newspapers is dying, dealing another psychological blow to our bad-news-weary nation. Shrouds, wailing, and hand-wringing are rampant. But what should we really focus on resuscitating -- newspapers and their outmoded business models, or journalism itself?

Before we answer, let's have a quick lit review:

* First, the actual news about the news, best exemplified by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's move to digital-only format. Here are woeful and upbeat takes on the announcement.

* Then, the dire situation cast with fine doom-and-gloom panache by Albert R. Hunt. Key phrase: "... maybe when the economy rebounds, newspapers will get a bounce, too, although the structural problems predated the financial crisis. And there may be costly casualties in the interim. That may not matter much for a vibrant economy. It matters a lot for a vibrant democracy."

* After that, a look at Arianna Huffington and her model-shifting Huffington Post, credited for seeing the newswriting on the wall (or perhaps blamed by some for holding the pen).

* Immediately following, a glimpse into the future of the newspaper industry. Will it be a for-profit model a la GlobalPost? Or will we (brilliantly? awkwardly? inadvisedly?) combine two worlds with a service such as The Printed Blog?

* Now we're at the reigning champ of all these discussions, Clay Shirky's Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. His key takeaway here:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.


* And finally, the end, with a strong summary from Mark Bertils (hat tip to Andrew Savikas at TOC):
Journalism is the act. Newspapers are the artifact. The infrastructure around the artifact is imploding, never to be replaced.

So what should we save? Journalism, of course. Its delivery vehicle is simply a straw man, one that can (and will be forced to) adapt with our Web-driven times. And what that will look like ... well, it doesn't seem anyone knows.

But we do know that our world continues to be tangled, confusing, even dark. Now more than ever, we need skeptics, watchdogs, interrogators, and gumshoes. We need eyes and ears in all the places and situations we fear to tread.

What's more, we need to support our journalists to ensure their essential service to our society continues. And we must hold them accountable to the highest possible standard of reporting and integrity, because in the end, their quality and content will be the only deciding benchmark of who survives the revolution.

Thinking faces on, everybody. There's more to come.

Monday, October 26, 2009

[WHILE I'M AWAY] Interviews: The professional confessional

"While I'm Away" could also be called my "I'm in Peru and can't blog" series. Enjoy the trip down memory lane!

Today's post: my take on the interview process, with some tips on how to sail through them and go straight to employment heaven.


Interviews: The professional confessional


You enter a small room. You feel nervous, self-conscious. You sit face-to-face with the person in charge. You share personal information about yourself and your deeds. And in the end, you hope to receive acceptance and absolution.

No, I am not talking about Confession. I'm referring to Interview, a necessary and nervewracking stage in any job search process.

Believe me, I'm not complaining about interviews. They validate all the hard work you've done at your previous jobs and in your search efforts. They prove your cover letters, resumes, and contacts are effective. And they mean that if you smile enough, speak clearly, and don't wet your pants, you might end up on payroll.

I was in one of these coveted meet-ups yesterday when I experienced an out-of-body experience -- the sense that I was indeed confessing. For those of you unfamiliar with the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, here's a brief lay person's primer:

1. You sit in a booth or a room opposite a priest. Screen optional.

2. You fudge tell him how long it's been since your last visit.

3. You detail all your sins while wiping your sweaty palms on your jeans and trying not to think about that one time, at that bar ...

4. You listen to comforting words of counsel and understanding.

5. You say the Act of Contrition or completely make it up if you're me and have a huge mental block with this particular prayer, receive absolution, say Amen, and leave to go back to that bar.

And no, people do not enjoy artistic cinematography with light through the screen or hide in there for sanctuary or pose as priests to gain access to secrets. That's just in the movies.

It's still intimidating, though. Even the Church's semantic crusade to emphasize the kinder, gentler phrase "reconciliation" -- rather than the harsher, more accusing "confession" -- doesn't diminish the fact that it's tough to be on display.

Interviews are the same way. Despite the understanding that you're scoping out the organization too -- a mutual grilling, if you will -- the fact remains you are under a microscope.

No wonder people get nervous. You become acutely aware of your image and responses. You feel your faults pricking right beneath your skin, begging for a misstep or tongue slip, a chance to reveal themselves. You learn anew how intense it is to answer probing questions about your decisions and actions for two hours.

At least in Confession, you know God's going to accept you at the end, because, well, that's His job. But the same guarantee doesn't exist in an interview. You can only prepare and pray and try your hardest, and hope in the end that it's enough to get you into employment heaven.

I think we need a professional variation on the Guide for Examination of Conscience (the questions that help people ready their hearts for Reconciliation) to help alleviate some of the stress. It could go like this:

* Am I committed to the quality and integrity of my work?

* Did I represent myself honestly and accurately in my resume, cover letter, and interviews?

* Can I admit my shortcomings, and take steps to address them?

* Can I recognize my strengths, and make full use of them?

* Do I believe in my own dignity and worth, and understand that others' hiring decisions do not necessarily confirm or negate my value?

* Do I know what I'm talking about?

* Is my fly zipped?

... and so on.

If we are prepared to be transparent and authentic in interviews, then chances for acceptance skyrocket. And if all else fails, and your interview is a disaster, then pull this out:

Bless me, employer, for I have applied ... it's been three weeks since my last interview ...

Photo by xmascarol

Friday, October 23, 2009

[WHILE I'M AWAY] Critical career lessons I learned this week that you should know too

"While I'm Away" could also be called my "I'm in Peru and can't blog" series. Enjoy the trip down memory lane!

Today's post: the one where I finally get some important truths about the workplace -- and my place in it -- through my thick skull. Please read so you don't suffer the same fate.


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)?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

[WHILE I'M AWAY] Word on the street: English as a second love

"While I'm Away" could also be called my "I'm in Peru and can't blog" series. Enjoy the trip down memory lane!

Today's post: one of my favorite Word on the street entries. Love indeed is everywhere if you just listen for it.


Word on the street: English as a second love

The scene: St. Matthews ESL program over at 18th and N. I helped out with hospitality -- fancy word for opening doors and serving snack -- during the summer session. What follows is a conversation between me and one of the level one students who always seemed very happy to see me ...

It's snack time. I sit at the table, taking money and dishing out snacks. The level one class comes down. One of the students is Ermelindo, a young man who looks about 19 or 20. He is smiling and stammering as he approaches the table.

Ermelindo: Hola.

Julia: Hello.

Ermelindo: Do you speak Spanish?

Julia: Only a little. I studied it in high school, but haven't practiced it since.

Ermelindo: You have to speak Spanish.

Julia (laughing): Why? You're here to learn English.

Ermelindo: You have to learn to speak Spanish so we can talk because I love you.

Julia: (stunned silence)

Ermelindo: Ok?

Julia: Um. (gropes for Spanish vocab)Ummm ... come se llama?

Ermelindo: Ermelindo. You can say Lindo. It means ... wonderful! And handsome.

Other student: No. Guapo means handsome.

Julia: Yeah! I thought lindo meant cute, as in 'aww, look at the 'cute little boy'!

The emphasis does not translate. Ermelindo continues beaming and stammering. The other students leave. He remains.

Julia: Lindo, you have to go back to class.

Ermelindo: I can't.

Julia: Why?

Ermelindo: I have to stay here and protect you.

Julia: Go!

He grins all the way up the stairs. It needs no translation. I'm grinning too.

Monday, October 19, 2009

[WHILE I'M AWAY] The Advent of Lent -- and of my prayer series

"While I'm Away" could also be called my "I'm in Peru and can't blog" series. Enjoy the trip down memory lane!

Today's post: the one where I decide to start writing prayers. And though I didn't write 40 in 40 days, I have written nearly 90 since then and created a favorite weekly tradition on my blog. Gotta love positive outcomes!


The Advent of Lent

In the beginning, there was prayer.

Well, that's not entirely true. In the beginning, there was prayer. But there was also procrastination. And avoidance. Hiding. Excuses.

As a result, the beginning never ended. It had no middle, no growth. My New Year commitment to regular prayer expired after a week and a half. My last post is dated in November '06.

This Lent, I intend to change this. This Lent, I am giving up excuses. No more claiming there is no time in the day for prayer. No more protests about tiredness. No more indulging in laziness, or worse, apathy.

After a year of thinking about it, I'm going to do it. This Lent, I will write 40 prayers in 40 days, all based on the young adult experience of God and faith.

If the resolution and sacrifice succeed, I will continue past 40 days. But for now, one liturgical season at a time will do. Can't turn a sinner into a saint in one afternoon, and can't turn a stubborn girl into a blogger any quicker.

So in the beginning, there is prayer. And here it is.

Prayer #0: Give up chocolate? Or your self?

No merciful God ever asks you to give up chocolate.

Cursing, yes. Pornography, yes. Lying and cheating and stealing, yes. But not chocolate. Oh no. God is too generous, too kind, too loving for that.

So what can I do this Lent to return such magnanimity? Surely not give up chocolate. It must be something bigger, better, more important. It must be something I've come to rely on, something I use as a crutch, something that prevents me from being my full self.

I know. I'll give up excuses. You know, those oh-so-reasonable reasons I concoct to avoid writing at home. To not bother blogging in my spare time. To pass on that book and watch TV. To skip out on my journal. To put off calling an old friend. To hide my face in the pillow at night without saying a prayer.

Lord, I give you all my excuses. I give you my rationalizations. I give you my arguments. They are all weak and empty, and they're making me weak and empty, too.

I lay them at the foot of your cross this Lent -- your cross, Jesus, where you did not equivocate or waffle, you simply did. You didn't say, "Oh come on, I did good for the past 33 years. Cut me some slack. I deserve some time off, as in, off this cross entirely. Let me have a long nap, a glass of wine, and we can forget the whole thing. What do you say?"

Instead, you said, "I'm ready. The time is now. Bring it on." And you opened your arms, and embraced every excuse-addled mistake of every sin-riddled person for the next infinity or so.

In that moment, you became exactly who you were destined to be. By shedding my excuses, and baring myself to the truth, I hope to achieve the same.

It will not happen in 40 days. Maybe not even in 40 years. But that's no excuse not to try. Remember? I'm giving up excuses. That's my small Lenten sacrifice in honor of your great one.

Let the writing -- and the healing -- begin.

In your name, now and always -- Amen.

Friday, October 16, 2009

[WHILE I'M AWAY] Change, change, chaaaange -- a reflection on adaptation

"While I'm Away" could also be called my "I'm in Peru and can't blog" series. Enjoy the trip down memory lane!

Today's post: the one where I riff on a Guy Kawasaki post and think about change in our lives -- how to accept it, handle it, embrace it.


Change, change, chaaaaaaaaaaaaange ...

Spare change. Noun. The coinage and assortment of other small metal objects found in pockets/couch cushions/tip jars around the world.

Now try this on for size: Spare change. Verb. To use life's shifting events frugally or carefully. To avoid the full experience of new decisions or circumstances.

Or this: Spare change. Adjective. Bare, as referring to life. Lacking in amplitude or quantity. Plain, unembellished, and just plain boring.

Do you really want to spare change in your life? Do you want your picture next to these definitions? Ariane de Bonvoisin wants to make sure both your answers are NO.

She and her book -- The First 30 Days: Your Guide to Any Change (and Loving Your Life More) -- were the subject of a Guy Kawasaki interview earlier this week that caught my eye in my RSS travels.

Maybe my own recent life changes were still fresh in my mind. Maybe two separate conversations with my Philly BFFs about new directions and doubts kickstarted the train of thought. In any event, I read the article, and discovered the nine principles that make people good at change (straight from Ariane's mouth):

1. They have a positive belief about change and are generally optimistic. I call these people "change optimists."

2 They believe in the change guarantee: that something good always comes from change.

3.They know that they possess a "change muscle"--that they are strong, capable, powerful, and intuitive enough to handle any change that comes into their lives or that they want to initiate.

4. They refuse to become paralyzed by "change demons"--negative emotions that arise during change.

5. They don't resist change--choosing instead to accept the reality of their situation.

6. They understand that their thoughts, the words they say and the feelings they allow themselves to experience during change have a direct affect on how easily they move through the transition.

7. They believe that life has a deeper meaning than what can easily be seen or felt, that something greater is at play, and that no change is arbitrary.

8. They surround themselves with a support team to help them move through change.

9. They refuse to get stuck during change. They keep moving and take care of themselves mentally, physically, and emotionally.


You can view these principles through a few prisms -- spirituality, pragmatism, philosophy, and so on. Whatever your context, though, the truths remain the same. Change happens to you, within you, and through you. All three steps must be present for change to succeed.

So don't be stingy with change. Grab it, gulp it, glory in it. Otherwise, the only thing getting lost in the couch cushions will be you.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

While I'm Away: A time-capsule series from your Peru-bound author

Photo by pmarkham

By this time tomorrow, I will be on another continent. South America, to be precise.

By this time tomorrow, I will be in another country. Peru, to be exact.

By this time tomorrow, I will be in another city. Lima, in particular.

And by this time tomorrow, I will be on my way to a much-anticipated, grand adventure -- a two-week tour of southern Peru with Jacob, where we land in Lima, fly over Nazca, putt around Puno, cruise through Cuzco, and march up to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail.

I expect llamas, picture-taking, haggling attempts, and mild intestinal distress. What I do not expect is consistent Internet access with which to chronicle my adventures and make you wish feel like you were there with me.

So, IMS is going to have a little series to keep you busy until I get back to regale you with slideshows and stories of allergic reactions to alpaca wool. "While I'm Away" will feature some of my favorite posts from the past two years, reprinted for your enjoyment.

For you regular readers, I hope this will be a pleasant trip down memory lane. And for the more recent among you, I hope it gives you a glimpse in IMS's evolution since its inception -- and my evolution as a blogger.

In any event, posts will be all-new and some-Peru in two weeks when I return from my jaunt abroad. Until then, please say a little prayer that Jacob's constant practicing of the phrase "mi compaƱera ha desaparecido" does not come to fruition. ;) And enjoy the new/old posts!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Prayer #85: In Good Times

Cartoon by gapingvoid

Prayer #85: In Good Times

I don't trust the good times.

They're too special. Too comfortable. Too reassuring.

Too good, in short, to be true.

I'd rather live through bad times. Then at least I'm not sitting around waiting for my certain demise. Because nothing good lasts forever, nothing bad lasts forever, and this cycle is just a fact of life that only foolish people ignore.

Ascensions are easier to anticipate than downfalls.

But I want to have faith in the good times, Lord. I want to have faith that joy is an undercurrent, not a darting ripple. I want to have faith that when hiccups and bumps and roadblocks come again (because they will), they do not crowd out happiness, but coexist with it. Not erase it, but illuminate it.

You are a God who does not differentiate the cause of tears -- only that we feel enough to shed them. Please share this understanding with me too, so I can better live in -- and live out -- the good times.

Amen.

Friday, October 09, 2009

If at first you don't succeed ... tri, tri, triathlon!



Want to learn humility? First, wear a bathing suit that makes your body look like your Italian grandmother's. Next, cram your bushy hair into a silver swim cap. And lastly, throw yourself into a lake in Middle-of-Nowhere, VA, and watch your sink-or-swim options quickly dwindle to sink.

By 'sink,' of course, I mean 'experience abject terror and panic that sucks the breath out of you and makes you doggy-paddle for dear life.' Because that's what happened to me in Lake Anna last weekend during my first sprint triathlon.

I went in quite confident, if I do say so myself. I had trained for two months with a real triathlete coaching me. My friends were there. The water was even warm. Perfect conditions for an easy-peasy lap around the lake, right?

Wrong.

Problem was, I hadn't yet done an open water swim. So I was not prepared for choppy water slapping my face, other participants kicking all around me, and awkward sight lines. Yet there it was -- sheer pandemonium -- forcing my body to pick fight or flight.

It chose flight. Which is hard when you're in the middle of a lake where you can't see or touch the bottom and yes-sweet-jesus-a-fish-just-jumped-next-to-my-head.

I tried to get into a rhythm, calm my breathing. I dropped to the back of the pack so I could have some space. Screw being a hero, I just didn't want to get pulled from the water.

(Side note: In this instance, my solid Catholic upbringing served me well, because a) I could immediately launch into a Rosary decade to beg for salvation; and b) the imagined shame of being the one sputtering loser propelled me toward the finish line as all other bodily functions shut down.)

After what seemed like 8 years, the first buoy passed on my right. But I was only a quarter of the way there and I was already exhausted. I felt like I hadn't even bothered training -- I couldn't alternate my head, count my strokes, nothing. Surely this was a recipe for drowning. I couldn't continue safely.

That's when I heard it. The unmistakable sound of cheers coming from the shore. A familiar voice -- no, two familiar voices shouting my name.

"Julia, you're doing great! You're right there with the group! Look at you go! You look awesome! Woooooo! Keep it up, keep it up!"

My roommates. My teammates. Above all the cheers and splashes and megaphones, they sounded like they were right there in the water with me. They were tossing me an emotional lifeline. So I grabbed it and held tight, pulling myself through the rest of the run.

If this were a sports movie, I would have grown gills and raced toward the finish line, submersing others in my wake. This is not a sports movie. I struggled nearly as much for the remaining 3/4 as I did for 1/4. I was so tense that I got a Charley horse and pulled a muscle in my neck. I swallowed so much water I was mistaken for a pink buoy.

There was one key difference on the last legs, though: I stopped doing it for me and did it for my teammates instead. We were in this together. I couldn't let them down.

And wouldn't you know, the breathing did get (a little) easier. The heartrate (sorta) stopped mimicking a hummingbird's. I (barely) made it back to the holding area. But I made it. In 19:38, no less -- that same amount I'd been swimming in the calm, clear, and lined pool.

So what have we learned from this ultimately petrifying edifying experience? Several things:

* It's not worth panicking. Have faith in your abilities and preparation, and take your time. Your 19:38 will be much more enjoyable.

* That said, don't shoot yourself in the flipper. Try an open water swim before you are expected to complete an open water swim.

* I have no desire to do a full triathlon on my own. However, I would love to improve in the swim and be an excellent teammate should my roommates ever want to do this again (hint, hint).

* Then again, betcha I could do a full one on my own, given the diversity of ages, shapes, and fitness levels among all the participants. If the 74-year-old man can do it, I hope I could too.

* Then again, who would want to go it alone? Having my buddies there turned the day from an event into a lifelong memory. I can't imagine having any fun without them at my side.

* I hate running. I didn't even have to do it. Jacob did. But I still hate it.

* Do not -- I repeat, do NOT -- drink coffee before a race. Bad news. Very bad.

* Coming in 12 out of 15 is perfection, really. We're not discouraged from trying again, and we have something to aim for. Plus, we're spared the embarrassment of muttering under our hand that we came in dead last.

* Without a doubt, my strengths are mental rather than physical. Exhibit A: the fine piece of copy that was our team name (Team Bump That Ass Up). When Sus went to sign us in, the volunteer gasped and said, "I've been waiting for you guys to show up! I wanted to meet you." True story. I can't make stuff like that up. Maybe I should just be a designated namer.

So there you have it. One tri down, untold millions to go. Not bad for a girl who falls on the treadmill. Now when are YOU going to tri one on for size?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

To my questioner, so she might rest

I don't know what to tell you.
And even if I did know,
believe me --
I'd tell myself first.

Your whos and whats and whys
must have bounced off the walls
of my heart,
they echo so familiar ...

And your whens and hows and ifs --
How many dreamy nights have those same
question marks
stolen from me in this life?

If only I knew. (You'd know too.)

If I knew only. (And felt never.)

If I knew only this. (Our nights would fill again.)

When we're tracing deep wrinkles,
maybe that's when the answer will
emerge. And
then we'll laugh, talk of other things

because it won't be so impressive
after all

and we will realize that we
always knew.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Tazewell Garden Project, part 5: Life finds a way!

Six months. Can you believe it? It's been six months since we conceived of our square-foot garden project. Four months since we planted the seeds. Three months since summer kicked in. Two months since we mourned the blight. One month since we gave the experiment up for dead and turned instead to our CSA.

But in that month, something miraculous happened. The little garden that we considered kaput made a last stand. The severed tomato plants burst into bloom. The one-and-done pepper plant popped five more. The transplanted basil flourished. The Swiss chard filled two squares to the brim.

Our experiment was a revelation! Despite blight, wacky weather, easily distracted owners, and the vagaries of natural existence, the life we put in that dirt won the day. No crying here, it seemed to say -- you put us here for a reason, and we intend to fulfill that expectation.

That, I think, is the best lesson from the Tazewell Garden Project. Sure, it's nice to know the correct times to plant things now, and how to prevent blight from spreading, and how much water to give certain plants. But it's even better to know that when we seem down for the count, rallies can -- and do -- and should -- happen.

So our garden bloomed again. We cooked one last dinner. And it was good.

Until next year, little garden. And for you garden fans, here's one more batch of pics to leave the taste of summer lingering a little while longer on your tongues ...

Note on slideshow: Click on "full screen" icon in lower right and then "show info" in upper right corner to see the captions.