Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Odds and ends: old and new

1. Last fall I noticed that my ten-year anniversary as a blogger was coming up (it was in December). I was going to try and think of some cool thing to do with that, but then I forgot about it in the holiday rush and didn't remember until about a month ago.

Ten years. I was surprised, it doesn't seem like it's been that long (for the record, I had two blogs before this one, which is why it's Aunt BeaN's Third Blog, you know). I've learned a few things over the years, and one of them is that when I start writing posts that sound like lectures, it means that I've learned something on an intellectual level but I'm avoiding learning it on a deeper level by thinking I should pass the information on to you. I think it comes with being a natural teacher (gifts again). As I'm learning something, I automatically start breaking it down for you guys: how would I teach this? But I haven't really learned it myself yet.

I've been learning things by the avalanche recently. Some of them I've passed on to you (see the Lent posts), but some of them I'm still ruminating on. I can't possibly tell you about radical self-acceptance until I get a little further along the path myself. It's a topic I first read about years ago when I ran across Tara Brach's book Radical Acceptance and more recently in Jim Palmer's stuff, but I'm not even close to really being there yet. Maybe I will feel more competent to pass along some thoughts soon, but in the meantime, check out Tara's blog or Jim's blog if it's a topic that interests you. Maybe you will be able to teach me.

2. Word geek moment: in the previous paragraph, is it "further" along the path or "farther" along the path? So I googled, and reinforced what I already knew--farther is for literal distances (six miles or six feet), further is for figurative distance. But the reason I was doubting is because "further along the path" is clearly figurative distance, but it doesn't sound right. Ah, the joys of being a word geek.

3. I somehow managed to completely wear myself out over the past couple of months. It snuck up on me. I've been in bed by 10:30 for two out of the past three nights with the light out by 11. You know what a night-owl I am, that is practically unheard of for me. Then this morning, I got up with MadMax at 7 so we could take his car in to be worked on. When I got back, I loaded up the dishwasher and started it, got a few other minor tasks done, and went back to bed. I slept for another hour and a half. Whaaat? Maybe I'm getting sick. At the moment, I'm thinking about going back and taking another nap. Why am I so exhausted?

4. Do you remember when I read and reviewed Gone Girl last year? For some reason I started reading reviews of it on Goodreads the other day, and was struck by how gleefully cruel they were. The ending of the book is sort of a slap in the face to anyone who would expect not even a happy ending, but any kind of resolution at all. That in itself is fine, although I didn't like it. Flynn made an artistic choice as to how she wanted to end her novel and it's entirely up to her. But what struck me was all these readers who were happily claiming that they loved the ending and it was just like real life, they knew it would end like that, etc etc. There are dozens of them. Are we so despairing these days? Have we completely lost hope that good ever wins, or even just that karma works? that someone who is awful will eventually be consumed by their awfulness? Are nice people, people who treat others with respect and courtesy and expect others to do the same, just patsies? It depressed me.

5. I've been thinking about one of my favorite things I learned in grad school. In environmental theory, we learned that in Western culture, for the most part we see the natural world as a backdrop to human actions. Almost like a painted scene in a stage play. There's the background, and then there's the "important" human stuff that takes place in front of it. It's a fun thing to play around with, sort of like dissolving an invisible curtain between yourself and the natural world. Go for a walk or sit outside and see if you can bring the environment to life around you, so it's not just a backdrop but your habitat. There are small noises, bugs and birds and the way the grass is slowly turning green, and you can feel yourself as part of it, not separate. (Actually, if you're just about anywhere else but here, the grass has probably been green for some time now.)(Remember #1 above where I lecture you about things that I haven't fully learned myself? This would be one of them.)

6. Lent report. I gave up sweets for Lent this year, and overall it was easy. The only time I had trouble with it was when I was in a social situation where everyone else was having dessert. (and the last two days. I craved sweets those last two days.) But the good thing is that--unlike other situations-- if you say you gave up desserts for Lent, no one pushes you to have any, which was nice. Overall it went so well that I've decided I should try to limit my sweet intake all the time. I've never been one to sit down and eat an entire cake at one time, but if there are certain sweet things in the house, I'll have a couple of bites after lunch, and then a couple more bites an hour later, and then snitch a bit more while I'm fixing dinner, and so on until it's all gone. It adds up. So I'm experimenting with this. So far it's going well.

7. Time for a new look around here. I'll probably do it this weekend, just thought I should warn you. And also I need to go back and label a bunch of posts, so apologies in advance. I know for those of you who use an RSS feed, it makes them pop back up in your feed. I'll try to do it over the weekend when pageviews are down.

And that's all for me. Maybe I will go take another nap.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Lent: WWJD? part two

OK, so in the last post we established that I find Jesus to be a difficult role model. He wasn't a parent, he wasn't a spouse. He wasn't female. He was an itinerant rabbi. He voluntarily died for his beliefs. He's a pretty tough exemplar.

It's occurring to me that I'm perhaps I'm being a bit too literal here. Which is odd, because the people who are literalists about the Bible don't seem to have a problem with this. I'm definitely not a literalist when it comes to reading the Bible, but I find it difficult to use Jesus as my moral guide because I just fall so far short of his example--maybe I take him too literally?? I can't live the way he lived.

What am I missing here?

Of course there's grace and forgiveness and God loves me no matter how far I fall short, etc etc. I may not always be good at really truly believing that, but I get it intellectually. It's pretty much the cornerstone of Christianity. I don't think that's the problem.

The problem is something in the way I think about Jesus. When I compare myself to him, all I feel is guilt for how little I do, how selfish I am, how often I want to blow off what's right and just do what I want. I'm not inspired by Jesus. Thinking about him depresses me. (probably this also goes back to what I described in last year's Maundy Thursday post.) So I tend not to think about him.

If you're still reading, thank you. This is not my finest hour.

So. Enter Jim Palmer's third book, Being Jesus in Nashville. You may remember that I've briefly talked about reading his first two, Divine Nobodies and Wide Open Spaces. Honestly, I don't always agree with him, and I find myself arguing with him or rolling my eyes at him almost as often as I am touched and inspired. But I'm starting to realize that's my favorite kind of book.

As a former Evangelical pastor, he's wrestling with many of the same questions I am as a preacher's kid and former Evangelical. Our perspectives are different because Palmer came to Christianity in his late teens after a non-religious childhood and left it in his thirties (I'm not sure I have those ages exactly right, but that's the gist of his story), whereas I was raised as an Evangelical and started leaving it about the time I turned 20. I haven't regularly attended an Evangelical church since I was in my early 20s. So sometimes Palmer will spend an entire chapter going on and on about something that is obvious to me, and I'm sure my musings about my childhood faith would seem equally irrelevant to him. But more often than not, he has insights that are mind bending, or perspectives to share that really, deeply help.

OK, so back to WWJD. The premise of Palmer's third book is that he spent a year trying to recreate In His Steps (the original WWJD book) --hence the title, Being Jesus in Nashville. The first few chapters were of the duh, obvious! type, but by the time he is standing next to a dying dear friend's hospital bed and trying to figure out how he can (like Jesus) heal him, I was hooked. I've done that--not with a dying friend, but I've tried to heal someone. Shouldn't we be able to? Didn't Jesus do it all the time? And like Palmer, I was unsuccessful. How do we deal with this?

Palmer has a pretty simple solution. He says that Jesus was completely and utterly dedicated to living his life according to his gifts and his destiny (except Palmer words it better than that). Jesus was fully himself. So rather than trying to emulate Jesus's actions, we emulate Jesus by following our own path, as Jesus followed his. We can discover our own gifts, and use them to the fullest extent (hence the previous post about understanding our gifts). "I wanted to 'be Jesus,'" Palmer says, "but I noticed that all Jesus ever did was simply be himself. Jesus was never trying to emulate someone else....[he] was simply present to the world."

Palmer also points out that although we tend to think that being "like Jesus" means always putting others' needs first and never having any needs of our own, that's not how Jesus acted. His death was the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, but in his daily life, he didn't efface himself. If he needed time alone, he went off by himself. If He was angry, he said he was (or strode into the temple and started turning over tables). He surrounded himself with people who loved him. He defended the women who performed lavish acts of devotion to him (washing his feet, anointing him with oil, listening at his feet)--he didn't blow them off and say he didn't need anything from them.

So there you go. After two and a half posts worth of setup, it took two paragraphs to type that out, but I can't tell you what a game-changer that is for me. It has fundamentally changed something in my head. I'm still working out the implications (and also I'm still reading the book). There may be more to come on this topic, but that's it for now. Thank you, Jim Palmer.

Happy Easter, or Oester, or Happy Passover-- or whatever version of Spring holiday you celebrate.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lent: WWJD? part one

I cringe to use that overworked four-letter cliché in the title of this post, because which of us doesn't cringe when we see it? But that's the topic today, so there it is.

The idea of emulating Jesus has been around since Jesus, of course, but this particular formulation of it started with Charles Sheldon's 1896 book In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? Even though it was published well over a century ago, it's still in print. It's one of the best-selling books of all time. (I confess I tried to read it years ago and I never got past the first couple of chapters.) It's a novel about a midwestern congregation that undertook to ask the question "What would Jesus do?" before they took any action.

But the question isn't easy to answer. First of all, because Jesus lived two thousand years ago. Would he carry a cell phone if he lived now? Would he have a Facebook page? Would he be a Luddite--spurning technology? Would he prefer CNN or MSNBC? or would he not want to know what was going on in the larger world so he could concentrate on the individuals around him?

The questions seem ridiculous. Probably most of us want to think that Jesus would be a simple man, eschewing the trappings of modern life, because Jesus exists firmly in our heads as a monk-like icon from a simpler time. But it's entirely possible that he was just as much a man of his times as anyone --although with a unique perspective on pretty much everything, as he expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. After all, we're talking about a man who befriended sinners, prostitutes, and tax-collectors (more or less the loan sharks of their time).

And then there's the fact that Jesus was an itinerant rabbi (teacher). He wasn't married, he wasn't raising children, and probably he would have been a little bit mystified by our current notion of what it means to hold a steady job with good benefits (as would any person from that era). He didn't have a savings account, he didn't own a home, and given the Torah's teachings against usury (charging interest), he probably would have been opposed to having a mortgage. He did few of the things that most of us would consider to be a mandatory part of a responsible adult life.

Interesting aside: when James Joyce was looking around for a role model for Leopold Bloom, the quintessential Everyman who is the central character of Ulysses, he rejected Jesus because Jesus never had to live with a woman. He went with Odysseus instead. (I know. Go figure. because Odysseus, mighty warrior and veteran of years-long absences from home, wasn't exactly your John Doe, either.)

So the question of "What would Jesus do?" is considerably more complex than the WWJD bracelet-wearers would have you believe. This came up in our small group a couple of months ago. Jesus's most direct life-choice instructions (Sell all you have and give it to the poor; "go, therefore and make disciples of all nations") imply leaving home for a Jesus-like itinerant life. They are ignored by all but a tiny minority of ultra-passionate Christians whom the rest of us secretly think are taking things just a little bit too far.

This whole issue is something that has vexed me for a long time. And honestly, my response for the most part has been to ignore it because I couldn't figure out how to resolve it. Like most people, I just try to figure out the best I can how to live a moral life. Although I'd like to be able to sugar-coat this a bit, to be entirely honest, my response to WWJD, I'm sad to say, has frequently been, what difference does it make? He was never confronted with most of the problems I face.

I can get behind "Love one another" and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I can learn from Jesus's radical perspective on power and materialism as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, but Jesus as a role model? What did he know about enforcing curfews for teenagers? When did he ever have a fight with his spouse? When did he have to decide whether or not to pay the extra 30% for organic groceries? First world problems, I know, but they're some of the ones I think about.

Huh. to my surprise, this is turning into a two-part post. I'm not sure there's enough for a second post, but this one is already plenty long. More to come.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

AB at the movies: Noah

I will confess up front that I thought this was a really interesting, thought-provoking movie. I went with all four members of our family, and that opinion was not shared by everybody. PellMel, for example, thought it was too dark and disturbing. We saw it a couple of weeks ago, and at the time I thought I would write a blog post about it. But then a bunch of other stuff happened and I forgot about it until I listened to some fellow church members criticize it today. So I will tell you why I liked it, and try to do it in such a way that I don't spoil the movie for you.

The main complaint, of course, is that it doesn't follow the Bible story, which is found in Genesis chapters 6-8. Here is a link to it if you'd like to go read it. It's not very long, it takes about 10 minutes to read it, so you can go do it right now. We'll wait.

There are obviously major differences between the Bible version and the movie version, no surprise there. But do they ruin the story?

1. "The Watchers." In the movie, the Watchers are enormous creatures made out of rock that were formerly fallen angels. They decide to help Noah and his family build the ark. They're a bit ridiculous, no question. In terms of movie special effects, they're sort of a cross between the Transformers, the Iron Giant, and the Rock creature from Galaxy Quest. I hope we can be forgiven for not-so-quietly quoting various different lines from Galaxy Quest while we were watching Noah ("Rock! Rock! Rock!" and "It's the simple things in life you treasure" and... oh, wait, I'm getting off topic.)

But you know, there are the Nephilim in the Bible story, and they aren't described. We know next to nothing about them. So I'm giving them a pass on this one. Sure, they took the idea and ran with it, but there's a base there in the original story. Anyway--and the importance of this cannot be overstated-- Noah is a story from the Jewish scriptures. The Old Testament is an important part of my understanding of my Christian faith, but this was a Hebrew story long before Christianity existed. The Nephilim are well-established in Jewish tradition as "those that fell from heaven." Watch the credits roll at the end of the movie and you will see that the creative team behind Noah has a number of Jewish names. I think they're allowed to interpret the Nephilim however they want--although of course also we are allowed to roll our eyes that they picked a way that happens to lend itself to big-budget movie special effects.

2. Methuselah. Methuselah does not appear in the Genesis story of Noah, but he's in the movie. So yes, they added him unnecessarily. But in their defense, they got the details right. Methuselah is indeed Noah's grandfather. If you want to read Noah's family tree, it's in Genesis 5. The writer(s) of Genesis very helpfully include everybody's ages in those family trees, so according to Genesis, Methuselah would have been 369 when Noah was born. Ancient of days, yes, but since Methuselah lived to be 969, he still had six hundred years to go. And since Noah was six hundred years old when the flood came (Gen 7:11), it isn't much of a stretch at all to surmise that Methuselah died in the flood. As far as I'm concerned, this is an acceptable change to the story--in fact, I thought it was even pretty creative and required a fair amount of attention to the details of the Genesis story.

3. Tubal-Cain. According to Genesis 4, Tubal-Cain was Cain's great great great great grandson (Cain is the son of Adam who murdered his brother Abel), which means he was probably long gone by the time of Noah. But since there aren't any ages given in Cain's family tree, it's hard to say. In the movie, Tubal-Cain is the representation of all that is evil about mankind and a great example of why mankind must be destroyed. So far, reasonable enough. But later in the movie (avoiding spoilers here), Tubal-Cain takes on a role that is completely superfluous to the story, and really--in my opinion--unnecessary. So yeah, I agree. The way Tubal-Cain is used later in the movie is a bad addition to the story.

4. Noah's sons and their wives (or lack thereof). In the Genesis story, Noah, his sons, and his sons' wives all go into the ark. In the movie, one of the major conflicts of the story happens because two of Noah's sons don't have wives. So, yeah, this one is just wrong compared to the Genesis account. But. It allows the movie to address the problem of human evil in a way that wouldn't be possible if they had stuck to the story. It puts the decision about whether or not the human race should survive directly into Noah's hands. Is the human race worth saving? And since Noah has to decide, the viewer ends up thinking about it, too. It's the moral heart of the story. I found Noah's dilemma and the way it was eventually resolved fascinating. (Although, yes, it's a bit facile to have Emma Watson deliver the morality-tale ending. But big budget movies are rarely known for subtlety.)

This change to the story also partly solves the part of the Noah story that is so distressing to people who weren't raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Those of us who learned the story in Sunday School when we were four years old tend to gloss over the part where God--the supposedly loving, merciful Creator God--kills off what must have been at least several hundred thousand people, people that He created, just because they were bad.

Noah and his family survive because Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord, but what does that mean? Noah, being human, couldn't have been 100% perfect, and human beings being what they are, probably plenty of those people who died in the flood weren't 100% bad. It's a pretty disturbing story if you look at it from that perspective. The way the movie-makers approach this in the movie meets the dilemma head-on instead of sweeping it under the table and jumping to the Sunday School version, where a sheepish, apologetic God slaps a rainbow up in the sky and promises he'll never, ever do it again.

So all in all, I liked it. It made me think, and I even had a minor a-ha! moment while considering the conflict between exacting justice for wrongdoing, and extending mercy to imperfect human beings. Although there are plenty of big budget special effects, unlike the typical blockbuster special effects movie, there is no black-and-white distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. It made me think about good and evil, and justice and mercy. Go see it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

'tis a gift to have gifts

I've been thinking about gifts, the way each of us is gifted. In the New Testament, Paul talks about "spiritual" gifts, which are a result of being filled with the Holy Spirit, but clearly this idea doesn't apply just to Christians. Everyone has their gifts. There are several lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament, including wisdom, knowledge, administration, preaching, teaching, healing, and so on. Some of them are even a little quirky--like the gift of mercy (is that why some people find it so hard to show mercy? they don't have that gift?), and my favorite, which the King James version translates as the gift of "helps."

Christian or not, those lists are hardly exhaustive. A few that are left out: music, visual arts, cooking, writing, crafts and needle work, design, encouragement, engineering, building, computer/technological expertise --there must be dozens more. The gift of humor. The gift of entertainment--you know how some people can mesmerize a crowd by telling stories of their college days? The gift of loyalty and support--the people who make you feel better just by being around them. Some people have the gift of adventure, both of going on wild, amazing adventures and also of making adventures out of everyday experiences. The gift of play, which I don't think I ever had.

One of the reasons I've put off writing this post is because there didn't seem to be any way to do it without saying what I think my own gifts are, and that's a little scary and embarrassing. But that's silly, so here goes. I think my gifts are writing, teaching adults, helps, and a side serving of knowledge. Also I can be a leader, but it's not a major strength of mine--it only comes to the fore when I'm in a group that doesn't have someone with stronger leadership skills.

The cool thing about this is that once you figure out what your gifts are, you can maximize your time and efforts. When you play to your strengths, not only do things go more smoothly, but you enjoy your work more, and you can avoid wasting time on things that are never going to work. It helps me understand why when I am in a group, people respond to the information I present (teaching) but not to my vision for what our group or their lives could be (preaching/exhortation). And why I am not the one who ends up organizing and delegating tasks (administration), or charting a course for the future (vision). And why years ago when I was in a women's spirituality group, it didn't work to change our leader every time we met--some people just don't have the gift of leadership.

It also helps me understand some situations I've been in. An example--a couple of years ago I was working on a project with a friend where we needed to present some information to a group. It wasn't until long after we finished the project that I figured out why we were having such a hard time agreeing on how the information should be presented. I think her gift is exhortation (inspiring people to bigger and better things in their lives), but my approach was from the standpoint of a teacher--how do we break this information down so that people can understand it? If we'd seen that earlier, it would have given us a blueprint for how we could mesh our different styles.

and for the record, having a gift and being proficient or good at it are not necessarily related. At least I don't think so. I'm a perpetual beginner in writing, learning more and more about it all the time. The more I learn the more I realize how much I don't know. but conversations with other people over the years have convinced me that most people don't have this need to write things down, to get thoughts and ideas out of my head and put them down in words. (I almost said "on paper" but when was the last time I wrote anything other than a grocery list on paper?)

When I started typing, this was a setup post for something else. But you know how often I never get around to the "next" post. we'll see.

So what about you? What are your gifts?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

What we did on vacation

What did we do on vacation? Not a lot, but it was a good one. Sometimes the low-key ones are just what you need. We drove over to a hot springs near Bozeman and spent a couple of nights, and then spent a night at PellMel's apartment in Bozeman, and then drove back.

The hot springs where we stayed are near Yellowstone. So we drove down there twice. We went to Yellowstone in the fall, you may remember, but although we had a good time then, it was the end of the season and we didn't see much wildlife--just plenty of spectacular scenery.

This time we saw wildlife in droves. As in, we had to slow down and wait for bison to cross the road. We had to stay in the car so we were safe from the elk. We saw mule deer, whitetail, big horn sheep, antelope, a bald eagle, several sandhill cranes, and a whole bunch of waterfowl that Dean and MadMax could identify but I can't. But mainly there were hundreds (thousands?) of bison and elk.

So I took some pictures for you. The rest of the Lent posts are firmly lodged in Never Never Land at the moment, in spite of several attempts to write them out, so maybe they will eventually appear, maybe they won't. But at least you can see buffalo roaming in the meantime.

Big horn sheep (without big horns, the two facing the road are female with
short, less curved horns, the others are still young)

Where's the bison?

This is the Boiling River. We were all set to soak in it when--not kidding--
a BUSLOAD of teenagers from California showed up. We left and came back later. :-)

Friday, April 04, 2014

Food on Friday: Chopped Salad

I like vegetables. Some of them, anyway. Carrots, broccoli, green beans, zucchini, corn. Okra, if it's fried. Spinach in salads. But not all vegetables. In spite of all the different ways I've tried them, I still have never found a brussel sprout recipe I'd make again (and yes, that includes several that say "even haters love them cooked this way"). And I'm still learning to like greens. Kale is growing on me.

But I've known since I was teenager that for the most part, I'd rather eat veggies raw than cooked. In fact, other than okra and green beans, all of the veggies I said I liked in the previous paragraph I prefer raw. So when I happened to pick up a serving-sized container of "chopped salad" at a Whole Foods store a couple of years ago, it occurred to me that maybe that's the way I should eat vegetables.

Chopped salad has become a staple around here, any time I remember to stock up on the right stuff and have the time to do all the chopping. Honestly, it doesn't really take that long--I just made one and it took about twenty minutes. It isn't so much a recipe as a method, but here you go anyway.

Chopped Salad

Choose six or eight of the following:
Any firm, choppable veggie: zucchini, crookneck squash, broccoli, carrots, jicama, celery, cucumber, asparagus, bell peppers, etc.
(corn can be fresh, or drained canned, or frozen--which you don't have to thaw, just throw it in and 10 minutes later it is fine)
Greens: spinach, kale, chard, beet greens, collards, etc., and any type of lettuce or cabbage
Tomatoes, any type or color (grape, cherry, plum, regular)
Fresh fruit: apples, pears
Dried fruit: cranberries, apricots, cherries, blueberries, raisins
Beans: black, pinto, garbanzo, or black-eyed peas
Herbs: basil, oregano, thyme, cilantro
Nuts/seeds: pumpkin, sesame, pecans, walnuts, almonds, peanuts
(you can also start with a bagged chopped salad and add to it)
(also you could add cooked diced meat, cheese, hard boiled eggs, tuna--but I usually just do veggies)
(I think onions are too strong for this, but if you like raw onions, add them, too)

The key is to chop every thing somewhere between 1/4" and 1/2" in size. Broccoli and kale pretty much disappear if you chop them small enough. If you have a good sharp knife, it goes pretty fast. Dump all the chopped vegetables in a bowl, then add your favorite salad dressing (or olive oil and a splash of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar). Salt and pepper to taste.

Here is the one I made this week. It has carrots, zucchini, kale, asparagus, a bag of "southwestern chopped salad" (which included a pouch of sunflower seeds and cranberries), a can of rinsed and drained garbanzo beans, and about a dozen halved grape tomatoes that I had leftover from earlier in the week. Kinda pretty, isn't it?

(Mom brag: note chopping board MadMax made in woodshop last week!)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

odds and ends: March madness

Well, my bracket is trashed. I had UVA and Wichita State in the final game. I'm not even telling you who else I had in the final four. This is the first year in forever that I haven't had at least one of the Final Four teams. And the teams we have some emotional attachment to have been out since Thursday night. Our only comfort this year is that the Tar Heels lasted longer than Duke.

The ice on the pond melted off almost entirely in one single day (today). Yesterday it was still iced over, by the end of the day today, there was only a thin skin of ice over about a third of the pond and the rest of it was gone. Now we just have to wait and see if any of the fish survived the winter. Last year we had a bunch of fish survive, but this was a much harder, colder winter.

I had my last day at the tax place today. It has been remarkably slow the past two weeks. I guess everyone is waiting for the last minute. I think I will do it again next year. It ended up being a fun thing to do, and you feel like you're being really useful. People are so grateful. Of course, we did have the occasional angry encounter, but overall it went pretty smoothly. I will be out of town the next two weekends, so I'm done, but I'm a bit surprised to discover that I'm disappointed to miss the final rush.

In other news, I finished my second Jane Austen class this week. We did Emma this time. It was a great bunch of students, and surprisingly satisfying. Emma is a beautifully constructed novel. Every time I read it I admire it more. The first time I read it--30 years ago--it seemed like a straightforward tale of a mean-girl being schooled by her handsome, perfect, older neighbor. But the more you read it, the more you realize how strong Emma is, how much she stands up to Mr. Knightley, and how much Mr. Knightley has to learn from her. Even though she is a petty, arrogant snob at the beginning. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

So, my class is done, my volunteering is done, MadMax is on vacation-- sounds like spring break, doesn't it? And indeed it is. Dean is working this weekend, and then we have a few days at home. Then we're headed to the Bozeman area for a few days to see Mel and check out some cool stuff. I have a stack of books to read (I'm deep in another Laurie R. King at the moment and so far it is really good) and I am happy. I know this sounds like I'm about to say I'm taking another blogging break, but I don't think I am. I have three or four half-written posts in my head that I'm trying to get motivated to type out. I didn't realize until I looked just now that it had been two and a half weeks since the last time I posted (before the Lent one). How did that happen?

Enjoy the rest of the weekend, and I hope your bracket fared better than mine. Oh, and if you're looking for something to watch this weekend, I can recommend both of the recent BBC productions of Sense and Sensibility and Emma. Part of what these Austen classes were about was watching various film adaptations of the books to see how they've been reinterpreted in the present. Neither production is perfect, and in fact, I didn't like either of them at first. But they grew on me. Both of them are worth watching. Here are the trailers:

If you're a bit of a Jane Austen nut, as apparently I am, you could spend hours picking and choosing (Marianne and Willoughby from the Emma Thompson version, Elinor and Edward from the BBC version, and etc etc ad infinitum). But that's probably just because I've spent so much time over the past two months watching these things. I ended up watching five versions each of both S&S and Emma. Not kidding. I don't recommend it, even though in hindsight I'm already feeling a bit nostalgic of being in a position where I needed to sit and watch Jane Austen movies by the hour.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lent: this one really is about Lent

You may remember that the church tradition I grew up in didn't celebrate Lent. Lent is an adopted tradition for me. And to be honest, I have pretty mixed feelings about it. In Christian theology, the whole point of Jesus's death on the cross is so that we don't have to suffer for our sins. It's called "substitutionary atonement" if you're interested (and I just googled that and found a fascinating wikipedia article. I had no idea there were so many nuances.)

Technically speaking, Lent--like Advent--is a season of preparation for the celebration of a major church holiday (Lent for Easter, Advent for Christmas). But popularly speaking, most people use Lent as a time to identify with Christ's suffering. They give something up to identify with Jesus's voluntary surrender of his life. We suffer because Christ suffered. The 40 days are symbolic of Jesus's 40 days in the wilderness, mentioned briefly in Mark and described more fully in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, or the 40 years the Israelites spent preparing to enter the Promised Land.

There's a problem here. If Jesus's death is supposed to substitute for us so we don't have to suffer, trying to take on some of his suffering or identify with his suffering is completely missing the point. And there's no reason at all to use Lent as an opportunity for wallowing in how awful we are, we are mere worms, etc etc. That kind of hair-shirt attitude changes the focus from gratitude for Christ's sacrifice to making it all about me.

So I have lots of mixed feelings about Lent. But I do appreciate the rhythm of the church calendar: the intensity of focus on the spiritual life during Lent or Advent, followed by weeks of "ordinary time." It works much better for me than the year-round intensity of some churches I've attended, which sometimes feels to me like we are trying to whip up a frenzy of religious devotion every week. (not that there's anything wrong with that, it just doesn't suit me as well as the church calendar version, which is why we can all be grateful that there are different denominations for different people.)

Usually for me, Lent is a season of learning. This year I took a continuing ed class on the Jewish origins of Christianity, focusing on St. Paul. It was fascinating. I will tell you more about that another time.

But having said all that: here's something else. This year I gave up sweets for Lent. It has nothing at all to do with identifying with Christ's suffering, and everything to do with me taking advantage of the season to do something I wanted to do anyway. (Who's mis-using Lent now?) I didn't give up sugar, which is in all kinds of things like salad dressing and barbecue sauce and fruit yogurt. Just sweets--cookies, candy, cake, pie, and the like.

The first ten days were easy. So easy I was surprised. I should have done this months ago, I thought. But the past ten days have been a little harder. I built in an escape hatch--I could have a few bites of something if it was a special occasion--and I've taken advantage of that twice. But mostly this has been about me figuring out how it feels to not have sweets in my life. So far, so good.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

there's no place like home. there's no place like home.

It's true, you know. There is no place like home. But we had to keep reminding ourselves of that on Monday. We were sitting in the sun in SoCal Sunday morning, 80 degrees, nice breeze, gorgeous day, then we got on a plane about 4:30 in the afternoon, arrived home on the midnight flight, and woke up Monday morning to about 34 degrees and raining. Ah, Montana. And it rained, or snowed, or sleeted, all dang day long. Normally we are really happy to get home after a trip and see the animals, sleep in our own bed, etc. But it was a tough transition this time. I might not have been entirely cheerful about it.

We did have a great time. Our 30th anniversary is this year, so we wanted to go on some kind of mini-trip to celebrate (the actual date of anniversary is in May, but the weather around here is nice in May--we wanted to go away while it was still cold and gray). So last fall we started looking around for someplace to go, and we decided on the BNP Paribas Open, a pro tennis tournament that is held in Indian Wells, California, near Palm Springs. It was really fun. It's a major tournament, so all the big names were there, but it's a much smaller venue than many of the other majors, so you get to see a lot more of the players.

Our favorite part was watching them practice. They post the practice schedule pretty early in the morning, and you can sit about 12 feet away from your favorites as they warm up for their matches. It was so cool. We were shameless gawkers. We saw Federer, Wawrinka, Nadal, and Li Na in the first 15 minutes after we got there. It was hard to know where to look. Later we watched Djokovic and Andy Murray practice. We also saw several matches, including Nadal's near-loss to Stepanek in the second round (and since Nadal had a bye in the first round, it was his first match of the tournament). Then last night he did lose to Dogolopov (I'm not entirely sure I spelled that right), but we had to watch that on TV since now we are back at home. It's also really fun to watch doubles--we saw several of those, too.

Why am I telling you this? I have no idea. The best part was just sitting outside, soaking up sun and gentle air. We both really wished we could stay a few more days.

Let's see what else is new around here. Oh-- I keep forgetting to tell you that I got braces. It brings back lots of memories of high school, but unfortunately, I don't look like a cute teenager anymore. More's the pity. I'm told you can barely see them. I don't know if that's really true or if my friends are just telling me that. They don't hurt as badly as I remember them hurting. Fortunately, they're only on top and I only have to wear them until Thanksgiving.

My second Jane Austen class, this one on Emma, started last night. I wasn't sure we would have enough to talk about since I only had them read the first three chapters for the first night, but we ended up running out of time to do all the things I wanted to do. If you haven't seen the new BBC version of Emma (with Romola Garai as Emma), it's pretty good. Worth checking out.

That's everything I can think of right now. We had thick-as-peanut-butter fog this morning, but once it cleared off, it really did look like spring. Now we just have to watch out for flooding while all this snow melts.

Remember I promised you a picture of green? Here you go. Not the world's greatest picture, and I guess it's more blue than green, but I took it right as we were getting in the car to drive to the airport and head home.

And here is that same view off our deck on Monday when we got back. At least the snow is starting to melt.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Food on Friday: The Cooking Grinch Strikes Again

For awhile now, we've bought a quarter cow from a local rancher, i.e., one-fourth of one of his cattle. I'm not up on cow terminology--is it a steer? a cow? I have no idea. But we get a quarter of it. Not exactly a quarter--it's not like we choose the left back quadrant or something, but he sends the ... um... whatever-you-call-it off to a small, local processing center, and they divvy it up fairly equitably so that we get some steaks, some ground beef, and some roasts. Then I go pick it up. Sometime I will tell you more about going to the processing place to pick up our meat, but that's way off topic for today, which eventually will be a recipe for sugar cookies. Ha.

So anyway. Last year we didn't get one because PellMel the vegetarian was here and we already had a backlog. We always go through the steaks (yum!) and the ground beef, but roasts? I am just not a roast person. We probably have two years of roasts stashed down in our freezer. So this winter I decided I was going to do better. Once a month I've been hauling out a roast and figuring out something to do with it.

So this morning, there I am chopping a chuck roast into large chunks for beef stew and wondering about things they say in cookbooks. After dredging the meat in seasoned flour, you're supposed to brown the meat "on all sides." I'm assuming that means more than just top and bottom, because if that's all it meant, wouldn't they say to brown the meat on both sides?

So there I am trying to prop these pieces of meat up on their sides. The last time I did this I actually stood there and held them up on their sides with a pair of tongs while they browned. Hell with that, I thought this time, and just did top, bottom, and then sort of lined them up in a row so they held each other up on two of the sides, then decided I was done with it. They're now browned on two-thirds of their sides and they're tucked into the crock pot with sliced onions, red wine, and various seasonings. I'm out of carrots, but I can't imagine it will make a material difference in the outcome if I throw some carrots in there later this afternoon after I've been to the grocery store. If it will, don't tell me.

I know from experience that Dean and MadMax will love this, and I will eat a half serving and remember why I am not a big fan of roasts. I could never be a vegetarian (steak! bacon! cheeseburgers!) but I could go the rest of my life without having pot roast or beef stew and I would never notice.

Here is another silly thing I read in a cookbook. I actually got the cookbook out so I could type it word for word (this is from Desperation Dinners, which in spite of its un-appealing title is one of my all-time most used cookbooks): "When you have no idea what to cook, fry an onion. I do this a lot, and without fail, family members sniff their way into the kitchen clamoring to know what's for dinner."

Whaaaaat? How in the world does that make sense? You've now got a fried onion, no dinner, and people in the kitchen demanding to know what you're going to feed them. That is, hands down, the dumbest line I've ever read in a cookbook--even though I love that cookbook.

But the real reason I broke down to type another Food on Friday post (which I'm scheduling for while we're out of town) is because after years of searching, I finally found a sugar cookie recipe that works. MadMax adores sugar cookies--they are almost the only cookie he will eat (although he has on occasion shown an unreasonable fondness for Chips Ahoy Chunky White Fudge). I've tried probably eight different sugar cookie recipes in the last few years and never found one that was worth the trouble, since the sugar cookie mix that comes in the red pouch from Betty Crocker is actually pretty good.

But he was jonesing for sugar cookies last night and I didn't have the mix, so I pulled out one of my oldest cookbooks, one I bought not long after we got married, found a recipe for sugar cookies in the index, and voila (which in our house is almost always pronounced voy-la), the best homemade sugar cookies I've ever produced. These are the big, soft kind, not the thin crisp ones. So here you go, the recipe as written and then the way I modified it.

(attributed to Nancy Cheek in the 1982 edition of Chapel Hill Favorites)
3 C sifted flour
1/2 t nutmeg
1 t soda
1 C margarine
1 C sugar
1 egg
1 t vanilla

Cream margarine and sugar. Beat in egg and vanilla, add dry ingredients, mixing thoroughly. Chill at least two hours. Roll dough out, cut with cookie cutters, and bake on ungreased cookie sheets for 10-12 minutes at 325.

Which is both a bit appalling (does anybody use margarine anymore?), not to my taste (I've never been a fan of nutmeg, which I know makes me an unsophisticated slob, but there it is), and too much work. So here's what I did last night, which turned out pretty damn fabulously if I do say so myself.

2 1/2 C all-purpose flour
1/2 C whole-grain spelt flour (or barley flour, or just use 3 cups regular flour)
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 C butter (1 stick), softened slightly
1/4 C shortening
1/4 C unsweetened applesauce (you could probably use 1/2 C applesauce and skip the shortening, but I haven't tried that)
scant cup of sugar (probably about 7/8 of a cup)
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt

Cream butter, shortening, applesauce, and sugar for 3-4 minutes. Add the egg, salt, and vanilla, and mix thoroughly. Add the dry ingredients half a cup at  time. Drop the cookies onto ungreased cookie sheets, using about a quarter-cup per cookie. Flatten them into thick disks three-ish inches in diameter. Bake for 14 minutes at 325 or until just barely starting to brown. Do not overbake.

What's the dumbest line you've ever read in a cookbook?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Lent: give me strength for round 5

Lent is upon us. Some of you are probably still recovering from Mardi Gras, which I completely forgot to celebrate this year. We did make it to our church's Ash Wednesday service tonight. Every year during Lent I think more than usual about religious themes, which I know is not of interest to some of you, so I'll put "Lent" in the title when that's the case. The posts won't be specifically about Lent. Or at least I don't think they will be, I've only got two planned at the moment. And just 40 days to go.

Awhile ago I decided--as I periodically do--that I should make yet another effort to come to terms with the evangelicalism of my youth, this time by reading books by evangelicals. So I looked through the Christian bestseller lists and the awards lists and picked out eight or ten books that looked promising. Most of them I pitched right back into the Salvo box after a few chapters, but I made it all the way through a few of them.

I left Evangelicalism behind thirty years ago, so I am not new to the effort to define my beliefs by comparing them to my past. I've had decades now of figuring out what I believe and how it differs from the way I was raised.

For the most part, I am pretty unconflicted about this. I have no desire at all to be an Evangelical again. There are so many things that bother me about Evangelicals these days it's hard to know where to start: the intertwining of faith and politics; the lack of questioning of consumerism and materialist values; the willingness to reduce the New Testament message of love, joy, peace and mercy to a couple of harangues on maintaining 1950s middle class morality. As a friend of mine said a couple of weeks ago, we've come to the point where people see the church as "exterminators of sin" instead of "dispensers of grace," and I think Evangelicalism is the primary culprit in that.

But that's not to say that all Evangelicals are like that. There are still things I can learn from them, and learn I did from a few of these authors. But over the past couple of days I've realized that my reading had an unintended and unwelcome side effect: it re-awakened a voice in my head I thought I was done with. It's the voice that just-below-the-level-of-consciousness tells me over and over again that I can't trust myself, I can't trust my experience, my ideas aren't worth anything, and it's a little ridiculous to think that my opinions are valid compared with the weight of all those other opinions out there, isn't it?

It's a voice I learned at least in part from being raised Evangelical. It's clear to me that not all Evangelicals have this voice, but I am naturally a person who asks questions, and the answers to my questions were often that's not how it is or accept our beautiful system of belief and stop asking questions. Or simply: you're wrong. I learned very early to keep my questions to myself and not rock the boat.

I hate rocking the boat anyway. That's why I post my opinions here in this little blog that only about 30 people read, and I make very little effort to increase my readership. Because even though I love to ask questions and to consider what I think and believe, I also hate to cause problems. I like peace. I like it when people get along. I enjoy listening to a lively discussion, but if it turns into an argument, I head for the door. I hate conflict. I am a wuss.

So anyway, for a minute--ok, maybe for the past month or so--that reawakened voice in my head caused me to forget that I do trust myself. I do value my own experience and my own opinions. (ha, and suddenly I'm remembering the post from last week that was also about learning to trust myself. This seems to be a theme.) My opinions may not be orthodox, and I may not be able to write down a logical defense that will convince anybody else, but that's OK. That's not the point.

When I finally realized what was going on, it was like a load of bricks falling off my back. Oh, yeah, I remember now. I'm OK. I can let go of that bit of legacy thinking that insidiously tries to tell me that I have to rely on an authority to tell me what to do and think. And THANK GOD for that. Literally.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Chickens (not) in the snow

Chickens are pretty tough. Ours don't like snow, but they don't seem to be a bit bothered by the cold. Of course, we close them in their coop when the temps plunge down into single digits or below zero--it's usually around 45 degrees in there. But the other day when the sun came out and it "warmed up" to the mid-twenties, they came right out and were cruising around the yard.

We've heard stories that chickens that are bored start attacking each other. So on the days when they are, um, cooped up all day, I try to take them something interesting to eat for entertainment. Interesting is in the eye of the chicken, though-- they love any kind of bread or certain leftovers.

It is dang difficult to get all five of them in one shot-- but see the fifth one over in the mini-door?
Here they are earlier this week when it was about 2 degrees above zero--the red light is their heat lamp
We haven't been getting as many eggs, though, usually one or two per day. They're almost two years old now, so they are due to start slowing down on the laying anyway. It will be interesting to see this spring if their production increases. Dean is pushing to get 2-3 new pullets when they have them at our local livestock store in a few weeks. He wants blue eggs (these all lay brown eggs).

We've also had visitors to the feeder that is inside the chicken yard fence, but not inside the coop. The only sign is footprints in the snow. One set we're pretty sure are pheasant. I tried to get a shot with chicken prints and pheasant prints in the same picture so you could see the size comparison, but it's been so cold this week the chickens have barely poked their heads out of the coop.

Sadie's foot print for size comparison--these are way too small to be chicken prints, probably pheasant?
Then a few days ago there was something new. I have no idea what this is--maybe a mouse or vole, dragging its tail behind it? Whatever. We are happy to feed the local wildlife. (this is a terrible picture, I hope you can see the little footprints--click to enlarge. that's my footprint off to the left for size comparison.)

Anybody know what would make this kind of print?
And here is the picture from our deck about an hour ago--the same shot that I've posted several times in spring and summer with the pond and the mountains in the background. The white dots, of course, are falling snow. It doesn't look like much in this picture unless you know that poor Dean had shoveled off the deck about an hour before I took this picture. Ahhh, winter--you can go away now.

So, you can see why we are sincerely hoping that March has come in like a lion so it can go out like a lamb. We've had about enough. When we get back from our weekend away, I will post a picture a green-filled picture for contrast. I hope. :-)

Sunday, March 02, 2014

black hole of need, part 2

I deleted the end of the previous post because no matter how hard I tried, it came off sounding like either let them eat cake or I am so awesome that I help people less fortunate than myself. There is no good way to talk about what I was trying to say. I guess it boils down to this: there is unlimited need, but each one of us has limited resources. You have to figure out how to manage this gap, this huge, ocean-sized gap, between the amount that you can realistically do, and the need that is out there. And if you're going to help, you have to be sure that help is wanted, first of all, and that you can give it without condescending. And without doing it just to pad your resumé, so to speak--so you have credentials in the "I help people" conversation.

It occurred to me later, as I thought of all of you--at least those of you that I know read here--that maybe most of you already know this, because it seems pretty damn obvious once you state it like that. You don't do anyone any good if you burn out, or if you're forcing yourself to continue to help when you're feeling bitter and resentful. Also there is a way in which charity can make make people more victimized than they were when you started, i.e., you reinforce the gulf between helper and help-ee by the way you help. Sometimes people need to help themselves.

We've started a conversation in our church recently about how we can be more involved in helping those in our community who need help. And while at first I was entirely enthusiastic about this, the more I hear about it, the more I've thought to myself that sounds exhausting. I'm already doing more than I really want to do--not just at church but in other venues as well--and how am I going to add a bunch more on top of that?

And I guess the answer is the same as it's always been. You just have to figure out what you can do. I do think that "good works" motivated by guilt, ought to, and should are the proverbial clanging gong from 1 Corinthians 13. If you aren't acting out of love, joy at the opportunity to help, gratitude that you are able to help, are you doing more harm than good?

And yet sometimes you do just have to suck it up and help someone because they need help, even when you don't want to, even when your motivation sucks, even when you are all out.

I really need a vacation, and thank the lord one is coming up-- Dean and I are headed south for a four-day weekend next week. I can't remember the last time I needed to get away as badly as I do right now. But my handy-dandy ever-ready guilty conscience helpfully tells me that people who are poor, or mentally ill, or victimized, or whatever, don't get to take a break. They don't get weekends away to recharge so they can come back prepared to fight the good fight again another day. But I do.

Ack. I'm just getting myself tied up in knots. I've been taking pictures of the chickens tiptoeing around in the snow that I will post before I go so this mangled mess of a post won't be on top. :-) Hope the weather is better where you are-- we've had either a blizzard or a winter storm going for the past five days running now.