Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wait, Why Am I Talking?

Which is worse: being in a group discussion where you can't get people to talk, or being in a group discussion where you can't get people to stop talking?

I often find the two conditions occurring simultaneously, which is quite painful.

It feels like being in a small boat caught in a rip tide.

I recently heard a trick I think might improve the conditions by subduing the verbalizers a bit, at least. Before you speak "WAIT."

It's an acronym. Stands for "Why Am I Talking?"

Read more here.

See also: How to Keep a Conversation Alive, and a series of articles on Better Listening Skills.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Moravian Daily Texts

Ever need a kick in the pants to get you thinkin', "Hey, what does the Word of God have to say about this thing I'm dealing with?" Here's something that's helped point me in that direction, even when I get out the habit of cracking open the book itself.

I've long been subscribed to a (human generated) verse of the day service and either read it on email or through my feed aggregator. Lately I've also had the Moravian Church's Daily Texts coming to my inbox.

Not to be all magical about it or anything, but sometimes these things just hit the spot.

Here's Sunday's edition from the Moravians. (I added the links.) It arrived when I was trying to work through a situation that raised all my insecurities.

What does God's Word say? It says he's got his eye on me. I don't need to look out for myself; I'm loved, secure, and free to reach out to other people.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Watchword for the Week

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.
Lamentations 3:22

Lamentations 3:23-33; Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

When I think of your ordinances from of old, I take comfort, O Lord.
Psalm 119:52

Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one.
Revelation 1:17-18

Gracious God, we thank you for the privilege and opportunity to gather in
worship with all your people. As we draw near to you, seeking your presence, we
pray that you will draw near to us, receiving our offering of faithful service
to your church. Amen.
By the way, I just added a "search this blog" function to my blog. So, if you're wondering what I said about the Moravian church before, type it into the handy-dandy search box and find out!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Forgive Us Our Trespasses...

While I'm pretty clever, my best stuff all comes from recognizing a good idea when I see it, rather than being truly creative or insightful, myself.

All the really fruitful things I've been part of are someone else's idea that somehow I've been in the right place to carry on to completion. With their blessing and encouragement.

As gifts go, I'll take it. I mean, if I can harvest ideas from dozens or hundreds of people whom I know, that's a lot better than just looking in my own head, right? And if I can come alongside other people and help their ideas get out there, and make introductions - to help people connect with each other and with the good ideas - that's a lot better than building a network just around myself.

But sometimes this hunter-gatherer behavior gets me in trouble. I recently publicized and passed around someone else's idea without thoroughly clearing it with him. I didn't really steal his idea; I gave him credit, after all, and wrote and asked him permission to do what I wanted to do with his idea. But I didn't hear back in time, so I plowed ahead without really lining up the permissions I should have had. Oops.

Now I need to figure out how to make an apology without making unnecessary waves.

I do that kind of thing; I cut corners, ethically. Sometimes. More than I should. I'm not a very strict rule-follower. I don't do things by the book, even when I really ought to.

I think that's part of what holds me back from growing in influence and responsibility. Not that people necessarily look at me and say: that girl, she can't be trusted. But I look within and say: that girl, she can't be trusted. So I say no to the promotion or responsibility or whatever it is.

I'd like to see that change. Wouldn't it be nice to have a clear conscience, all the time? To be worthy of the trust people place in us?

I suppose knowing oneself to be a humbug is part of the human condition.

It must be hard to be a parent, for example, knowing those kids think you can do anything.

Or to stand at an altar and make outrageous promises to someone you love but whom you WILL let down, no matter what you say today (because, dagnabit, you're selfish!)

What things really help?

- Learning to confess and apologize, quickly and sincerely, when you blow it.
- Avoiding making too many promises; know your own limits.
- Get feedback on anything about which you have doubts, before you act.
- Build a system of checks and balances (so that even when you DON'T have doubts, someone else will catch your questionable behavior).
- Oh yeah, and pray.

Anything else?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


“When you start stargazing with a telescope, two experiences typically ensue,” says Timothy Ferris in the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine.

“First, you are astonished by the view – Saturn’s golden rings, star clusters glittering like jewelry on black velvet, galaxies aglow with gentle starlight older than the human species – and by the realization that we and our world are part of this gigantic system.

“Second, you soon want a bigger telescope.”

Ferris says that three of the world’s largest telescopes sit atop a 14,000-foot peak in Hawaii, where astronomers can see clearly – but not, apparently, think clearly.

It is awfully difficult up where the air is so thin, and when you're there all night. Some of them turn to supplemental oxygen, and all have to be very careful not to make stupid mistakes. “The real thinking goes on at sea level,” reported one scientist.

A few of the telescopes have names that make me laugh, like Chile’s “Very Large Telescope.” The article doesn’t say how big that one is, though it mentions that today’s largest telescopes have mirrors about ten meters (33 feet) in diameter.

Bigger ones are coming, such as the European Extremely Large Telescope, which will have a mirror 42 meters across. This, says Ferris, is “a scaled-down version of the 100-meter Overwhelmingly Large Telescope, which was tabled at the planning stage when its projected budget turned out to be overwhelming too.”

The author sounded more like a philosopher when he said, “A telescope doesn’t just show you what’s out there; it impresses upon you how little you know.”

How often do our inquiries - into science, or art, into systems, people, and cultures - have that same effect?

>> Read the article.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Strange Cause of Intolerance

Maybe it's part of my rebellious nature, but I like to read history from different and slightly radical points of view - you know, "the untold story," the parts you never heard in your Western Civ. class.

Just now I'm slowly making my way through Philip Jenkins' latest work, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia - and How It Died.

So many - in both the West and the East - think of Christianity as a Western religion, but in the big picture of things that's quite an aberration. For much more of its history - and likely, its future - Western Christians have been a minority (among Christians). That's a big part of what this book is about.

Here's something though that really raised my eyebrows. In many times and places, for centuries, Christians and Muslims lived in relative peace, but sometime around the end of the thirteenth century that changed. Why do you suppose that is?

"We can identify specific political reasons for the new harshness to Christians. A reaction against Western crusading zeal played some role, but that is not of itself an adequate explanation," says Jenkins.

Turns out intolerance was on the rise, globally, and Christians lands were treating their religious minorities just as badly as Muslim ones were. England expelled all its Jews in 1290 and France followed in 1306; in the next few decades pogroms reached "appalling heights." The papacy formally listed witchcraft as a heresy in 1320. The French trumped up charges to shut down the Knights Templar. Everyone seemed to be hysterical and paranoid. Why?
"If we seek a common factor that might explain this simultaneous scapegoating of vulnerable minorities, by far the best candidate is climate change, which was responsible for many economic changes in these years, and which increased poverty and desperation across the globe.

"Populations had swelled during the warming period between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Europe's population more than doubled during these prosperous times, forcing settlers to swarm into marginal lands.

"In the late thirteenth century, however, Europe and the Middle East entered what has been described as the Little Ice Age, as pack ice grew in the oceans, and trade routes became more difficult both by land and by sea. Summers became cooler and wetter, and as harvests deteriorated, people starved. The world could no longer sustain the population it had gained during the boom years... States foundered, kings were murdered, and popular revolts and uprisings became commonplace.

"Whatever the religious coloring of particular societies, this was a world that directly attributed changes in weather or harvest to the divine will, and it seemed natural to blame catastrophes on the misdeeds of deviant minorities who angered God."

Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pp. 135-137
Also reading Jenkins these days, looks like, is a blogger I've been following named Steve Addison.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Refugees, What Is the What, and the US Refugee Resettlement Program

Did you know that Saturday was World Refugee Day? I don't think many in the US gave it much thought since this weekend is also Father’s Day here.

At church, a short-term team gave a report, and a ministry-partner from the Middle East was visiting, and a speaker who works with the poor gave an impassioned plea to the church to do something about the hungry and suffering children of the world. He didn't say anything about refugees, but did make the connection between Father's Day and so many of the world's children growing up without fathers.

It was all too much “missions” for me, to tell you the truth. I swim in this stuff all week long. When I come to church I want worship and Bible teaching. But maybe that’s just me!

Nevertheless, I do seek out this kind of thing on my own.

What Is The What

I’ve been reading Dave Eggers' lightly fictionalized account of the life of a Sudanese refugee. The cover copy sums it up better than I can:
"What Is the What is based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, who, along with thousands of other children – the so-called Lost Boys – was forced to leave his village in Sudan at the age of seven and trek hundreds of miles by foot, pursued by militias, government bombers, and wild animals, crossing the deserts of three countries to find freedom. When he finally is resettled in the United States, he finds a life full of promise, but also heartache and myriad new challenges."
S. is staying with us for a few days. She picked it up and read the quote on the cover from Khaled Hosseini (author of The Kite Runner):
“It is impossible to read this book and not be humbled, enlightened, and transformed.”
I rose to the bait, of course. “Impossible?! I bet I can do it… and come to work Monday not the least bit 'lightened! Nor humbled, neither!”

But what a world we live in. Such a blend of beauty and pain, goodness and injustice, each so huge at times it seems like that’s all there is in life.

When What Is the What opens, a man and woman have conned their way into Valentino's Atlanta apartment to rob him and beat him up:
"…my cheek resting in its own pooling blood, I know a moment of comfort, thinking that in all likelihood he is finished. Already I am so tired. I feel as if I could close my eyes and be done with this. … So I rest. I close my eyes and rest.

"I am tired of this country. I am thankful for it, yes, I have cherished many aspects of it for the three years I have been here, but I am tired of the promises. I came here, four thousand of us came here, contemplating and expecting quiet. Peace and college and safety. We expected a land without war and, I suppose, a land without misery. We were giddy and impatient. We wanted it all immediately….

"I have held too many menial jobs… Too many have fallen, too many feel they have failed. The pressures upon us, the promises we cannot keep with ourselves, these things are making monsters of too many of us."

What Is the What, pp. 7-8
What Can Be Done?

One of my ezine subscribers recently wrote to me,
"Please pray for the US refugee resettlement program, which is badly underfunded and in crisis at this time. While this humanitarian program is meant to rescue and provide stateside protection for those who cannot return safely to their home countries due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality or political opinion, the funding for the program falls so far below the needs to actually stabilize new arrivals once they are here in the US that we now see many refugees precariously close to eviction or homelessness in the US after only a few months here. This just isn't right.

"I have worked with refugees for more than 30 years, and have never seen the program closer to implosion than it is now, nor have I seen so many heartbreaking cases of refugees facing homelessness in their new country before they even have a chance to learn the language, learn how to use public transportation, or get reliable work (increasingly impossible in this economy.) Yet the numbers of arrivals continue to increase.
"No one wants to see the refugees remain in danger in their homelands of the neighboring countries to which they have fled. Yet the US government must invest more resources in the program if we are to do justice to those we bring to this country. Currently, the non-profit agencies that have agreements with the Dept. of State to resettle refugees receive just $900 per refugee to resettle them. This must cover the security deposit and first month's rent on an apartment, furnishings for the apartment (all the way from beds and tables to towels, bedding, lamps, etc.) PLUS the staff time to provide orientation to life in the US and take the refugee to appointments at the health dept., English classes, Social Security, Social Services, etc. Many idealistic young college grads take these positions - and soon become burned out. This is a shame.

"Currently, most refugees are arriving from Burma, Bhutan, and Iraq."
To get a picture of ways you can make a difference for refugees, read Mary Pipher's The Middle of Everywhere: The World's Refugees Come to Our Town.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Can't Complain

Writing a “team covenant” is a fairly common practice in this whole short-term mission biz in which I work (at least, in which I do some of my work).

So I was not surprised that the practice was given time and attention during the 3.5-day general STM orientation I was part of last week.

Seemed like most teams followed the lead of the staff by including statements in their covenant about how they were going to interact with each other through the course of the summer, like giving each other the benefit of the doubt, resolving conflicts quickly, going to the person you have a problem with instead of talking behind their back, and so on.

Sounds good. Maybe it would be hard to abide by, but everyone could agree that that was best and having put it down on paper would help them strive for it.

But there’s one bit I’m not sure how to evaluate... Two words it sounded like they were all putting in their team covenants:

“No complaining.”

Is it just me or is that asking a lot? Potentially abusive? The kind of thing, if interpreted strictly, that could isolate people and keep them from being able to deal with and grow through their struggles and frustrations?

On one hand, you don't want people feeling like it's perfectly OK to question every decision or to judge their leader and hosts and drag everyone down. Grumbling can be really destructive; we should, instead, look for opportunities to be flexible, to cultivate gratitude, to guard our hearts and relationships, to see why things might be the way they are and try to accept them.

But could you sign a covenant promising absolutely no complaining for 8-10 weeks? What if you were living in a radically different culture that you didn’t understand and doing things that you’ve never done before, fighting sickness and culture shock, and probably coming face to face with your deepest weaknesses and fears?

I don't know.

I didn't, uh, complain about the matter. I'm not sure I could defend my doubts persuasively, or come up with any more realistic suggestions along the same line.

Maybe those words, "Don't complain," are fine, just as they are. Teams can flesh them out as they see fit.

I did come up with one suggestion: I encouraged people to consider a journal/prayer diary as a good place to vent, rather than, say, breaking away to write long desperate emails to your most sympathetic friend back home, or yelling at your teammates. (Same catharsis, less debris.)

Those pesky verses from Philippians 2 kept coming to mind... "Do everything without complaining or arguing" (2:14; see it in context here).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Travel: First Class Mystique

More about air travel. I think what entertains me the most is the effort the airlines go to play up the mystique of “first class.”

They make announcements about it, apparently trying to be sure everybody in economy class knows that the first-class passengers are allowed to board at their leisure and have their own walkway and will not have to pull out credit cards to get a bite to eat, and nobody else is allowed to go to the front to use their toilet, no matter how long the line for the other may get, and so on.

And if you were a first-class passenger, you could have these advantages too.

I’ve never experienced it, I’ll give you that. But it doesn’t seem like a very good deal, especially for a short flight. You are still stuck on an airplane for a few hours, confined in a small space with a bunch of people you don’t know, even if that space is a little nicer. I think it would be easier to sleep in a first-class seat. But if you are the type who can sleep on planes, why throw around your money when you could dream dreams just as sweet a few rows further back?

You don’t get to your destination any faster, and if there are weather or mechanical or connection problems, you still face the same likelihood of not getting there at all, or not when they said you would.

What If…

What would happen if the movie theaters tried the same gimmick?

With your first-class ticket you’d have a separate entrance and be encouraged to go in first.

Someone would set up a microphone just so they could say, "AMC wants to give a special welcome to our Golden Cinema Members."

Maybe they’d give you a pillow, or a footstool. No: instead of a regular theater seat, a Lazyboy recliner!

It goes without saying that you'd have all-you-can-eat complimentary popcorn. And how about wine (what wine goes with extra butter?) Maybe a snack cart that came to you?

Would you pay $150 extra for a first-class ticket to your two-hour movie?

I’ll admit my comparison may break down when for the price I paid to check my suitcase you could sign up for Netflix and enjoy your movies and popcorn from your own living room. At the end of the two hours you won’t have reached Cleveland or Los Angeles, though. Instead - Is this better, or what? - you could enjoy all the comforts of home!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Travel: What Will They Think of Next?

One thing I like about air travel is how things are always changing. I suppose it could be – can be – unsettling, and stressful, and make you feel stupid when you don’t know how things work. But watching new technologies, policies, and approaches discovered, tested, rolled out, and sometimes rejected or surpassed is also entertaining. Especially if you frequent a variety of airlines and airports, you might not have the same experience twice. You can’t predict it.

Earlier this spring a security person asked me to walk through this sort of tunnel thing that shot out poufs of air at the customer. What was that for? I had no idea.

While many of my flights these days have no “entertainment” system at all, Saturday’s offered quite a bit of variety, and included access to wireless internet. I was too cheap to lay out $12.95 for a three-hour flight, but it was nice to know I could.

I feel a bit sorry for the airlines; do you? They still struggle to give us the same kind of rates we paid a decade or two ago. This time my goal was a round-trip trip to Florida for less than $300, and I had no problem getting it. Staying in business and pulling this off pushes the industry into a desperate and sometimes confusing mix of cutting corners and adding (billable) services.

So Delta charged me $15 for my bag, each way, and tried to sell me food, as well as the movies and wireless access. (Was it that long ago that dinner and a movie were included as a matter of course, on a flight of this type?)

To my surprise, Delta once again offers free peanuts; unusual not because they are free, but because so many have turned to pretzel-like substances instead. Seems like every other kid is deathly allergic to peanuts. (When and why did that happen?)

Some of my recent flights charged for disposable headphones (on top of the charge to watch movies). And all blankets and pillows had been removed in favor of a “sleep kit” you could acquire, for a price of course.

Nobody offered to cover the additional $80 in expenses incurred when my 2000-mile trip ended up taking 30 hours instead of six. I’m a bit embarrassed to try to reimburse it from the people from our headquarters in Orlando who paid for my ticket. So maybe I’ll just consider it a personal expense.

In the unlikely event that you are a glutton for travel details, here's what happened: On Friday my flight was rerouted to Savannah by storms in Atlanta. We spent a couple hours in the airport there before they could get us back to the big city. Most of many of us missed connections and were re-booked on flights for late afternoon the next day, so I found a random hotel. On Saturday my flight loaded and made it to the runway, then turned back with a mechanical problem that required us to change planes; we left about two hours late. Delta’s problem? Or the Atlanta airport's? Or just an act or two of God? At any rate, Delta was taking no credit for any of these snafus, and offered no vouchers or compensation or complimentary toothbrushes, just the cheerful, “We hope you’ll fly with us again!”

Friday, June 12, 2009

Pictures from my Expeditions: Italy (though I've never been there)

I always wanted a leather jacket.

But it seems, in my mind, like one of those sort-of special luxuries that is supposed to be a gift from your dad, boyfriend, or husband. So I never bought one for myself.

But my friend K. had no such qualms.

K. was part of the country-club set from childhood, and became a high-powered DC attorney; she used to make trips to Europe all the time. So it was no big deal to buy a high-quality leather jacket when she was in Florence one time. (That's Florence, Italy, not Florence, Oregon!)

When God redirected K's life toward ministry, she accepted a lower salary and standard of living; she was no longer buying leather jackets.

It was a bit hard for her at times. Not being able to order whatever she wanted at Starbucks as often as she wanted - having to budget - was one annoyance.

But she still lived fairly well. And she brought with her into that life the can-do attitude her previous life had given her. It's served her well.

However, she finally reached the point where she couldn't take the Italian leather jacket with her.

"My people group would not approve," she announced.

K was packing up to move to India. (She will be working with high-caste Hindus - you know, holy cow and all that.)

That's how I came to have K's leather jacket.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pictures from my Expeditions: SE Asia (2)

Know what this is?

It's a laptop fan. It keeps your laptop computer from overheating. And if you happen to be staying on the equator in a place lacking in mod cons like A/C - or, say, tables - and you are working with a computer on your lap - well, it cools your lap, too. Plugs into a USB port.

This one was a gift. I was visiting a group working in SE Asia last summer and they had a couple of these. I admired them effusively. So one of the guys went to "HyperMart" - attached to MegaMal - and shelled out the $7 so I could have one too.

Click on the picture for a closeup and see the three little fans. It also lights up. Bright blue. Bit eery, that.

This, I'll admit, is one of my prized possessions.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pictures from my Expeditions: SE Asia

While I certainly have a fair haul of stuff from overseas that is purely decorative, I usually prefer the practical.

If, for sleep apparel, you are the T-shirt-and-shorts type, or go for fleece and/or cotton, get yourself a pair of silk pajamas instead. They can't be beat for comfort. See how frayed these ones are, purchased a year and a half ago in Thailand? Guess if you wear them year around, just about every night, that's going to happen.

This week I have been hanging out with some people heading to Thailand for the summer. Think I can give them a $20 and get them to bring me back some new ones?

Monday, June 08, 2009

I See the Appeal...

...Of the Kindle. Sure would be nice to have a wide variety of reading material at hand, something for every mood, without being weighed down in paper. My roommate Deb was recently impressed by the sight of a young mother reading on the plane, sleeping baby in one hand, Kindle in the other. Nice. And my mom has said she'd like to get one if she makes any more long trips. It would make her carry-on much more manageable.

For me, they still seem too pricy - especially if I have to pay for both hardware and content.

On the other hand, there is a lot of stuff (content) out there on the internet that is free - including whole books and magazines. You can't put those on a Kindle, can you? But what about some other device?

I do already have a laptop, of course. When I went to Central Asia for a year, right after 9/11, I loaded up my laptop with classics from Project Gutenberg. Earlier this year I read some of the same sorts of things on my laptop from The Literature Network, but that required a live internet connection.

In terms of reading on the plane, neither of those options is halfway as graceful as the Kindle option. Battery power is one issue; size, another.

But I think there must be other ways. I'm not looking for the latest and greatest tech - but maybe an older Palm-Pilot device? Then I could load it up with public domain books and articles. What do you think?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Summertime / The Livin' Is Easy

Thursday morning I didn't go to work, at least not until the afternoon. I had a lot going on, knew I'd have to work through the next few Saturdays, and felt I should grab some personal time when I could. So around 11:00 I went to the rec center to work out.

When I got there I was surprised to see so many people of leisure hanging out at the pool and whatnot, on a weekday morning. But school's out, and lots of people don't have to get up and go to work this time of year. There are several large segments of America's population that get summers "off."

I find in myself responding with a mix of envy and resentment, but if it came down to it I'd probably still rather go to work. At least most of the time.

But this idea of summer vacation is relatively new, isn't it? Used to be that most people worked longer and harder in the summer, sunup to sundown; schools closed in the summer primarily because there was MORE to do then. It wasn't about giving teachers, students, and their families a break. The dormant time was probably in the winter when there were no crops to tend.

So, I guess it goes back to agriculture. Things like the industrial revolution, electric lights, and being less effected by the heat and the cold of the seasons have changed our connection with the earth, at least for most of us.

What percentage of the world still operates in the traditional way - busier in the summer than in the winter?

Pictures from my Expeditions: N. Africa

I was thinking about doing a series on some of my favorite things brought back from overseas, ala Paul's International Toothpaste Museum. Each one has a story.

I found this lovely ceramic bowl in Tunisia back in 2005. If it survived the journey home I planned to give it to one of the families that contributes to my financial support. It would look great in their house.

This family is super generous; even though we don't really know each other very well, they've given more than $70,000 to my ministry over the years in significant monthly donations as well as special gifts in the multiple thousands.

Of course there's no way I can repay them for allowing me to do what I do. But I can at least express my gratitude well.

When I saw this in a shop in the medina, I realized it was just the kind of thing they would like. But I kind of liked it for myself too. So I've never sent it to them.

Apparently, I'm not that generous.

Filed under travel.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Mystery of Family

I've been thinking about family, and particularly about the mystery of becoming one flesh. I don't know any other way to explain the persistent belief we (as the human race) have in a generations-deep, ingrained family identity.

"In our family, we do _______."
"That's not the _______ way."

Maybe it makes sense within a race, a culture, a tribe, to speak with some confidence of "our traditions." But why, in a family, can we say, for example, "This is what it means to be Johnsons... this is what is important to the Johnsons. This is what the Johnsons are like"? When every generation, just about every Johnson is going to marry someone who is not a Johnson and have children who are, biologically, only half Johnson?

Unless you are marrying cousins (which still happens in more than a few cultures) every generation is a new mix of blood, name, tradition, identity. How can Johnson-ness persist and endure? Or is it just something people like to believe in and project in spite of the evidence?

I recently read a book in which one of the characters lost his wife and is trying to figure out how to go on. She had liked to think her ancestors were watching over her and cheering her on, and he wishes that in the same way she too were with him, but of course she's not his ancestor:
"They weren't even related. But he kept forgetting that. He thought of the medical consultation where, briefly, a doctor had mentioned a bone-marrow transplant. 'She can have my marrow!' Dave had said, and only at the doctor's quizzical glance had he realized his mistake." (Digging to America, p. 127)
Then, of course, the one-flesh thing can be broken at will; what seems so strong is actually also quite vulnerable.

I look at the pictures I have in my living room and see it.

There's one my Grandma Smith and her siblings; it's a beautiful photograph. They are all gone now but for years they were among the most important people in each other's lives and probably identities as well, even though they married, changed their names, what have you: still Jacksons and always would be.

Next to that is a photo from the 1970s with my sister and I and our parents. I keep it out largely because it's a visually interesting photograph; it's a good picture. Meg and I were no more than six years old when it was taken. I remember the day. We'd all been arguing, and you can kind of see it in the picture. We're out in the woods. I am leaning against a tree and have a sulky, angry look on my face. Meg is looking down. Mom and Dad, sitting together on a log, are smiling but not touching, and you'd think they would be. I didn't notice any of this, not really, until my stepmother saw the picture in my house and commented on it. She's a therapist.

Fast forward a decade and a half or so, and there are two more pictures: one of my mom and stepdad, one of my dad and stepmom. So: the one flesh thing, the Smith family or whatever, it was broken, and everybody started over with different people. Now who is family? What does it mean to be a Smith?

Or is that even a meaningful cover term?

I don't feel sorry about this, not really: we have gone our own directions and found situations that are probably a lot more conducive to happiness. Even if none of us had turned away from each other, things would still change, because that's the way things happen, every single generation. A man leaves his parents and joins with his wife and the two become one flesh.


Monday, June 01, 2009


The tree in our front yard is a bit out of control this time of year.

Makes it hard to mow.

And I can't get in and out of the car if it's parked in the drive, without getting stuff in my hair.

It does give us a bit of privacy, which can be nice.

But I know I ought to trim it.

On the other hand, I think my next-door neighbor, Jorge, overdid things when he trimmed back this slim sapling in his front yard: