Monday, December 27, 2010

Advent Failure/Christmastide Success

So this year was going to be the year that our household went full throttle on Advent traditions. I planned the advent calendar. I planned the advent wreath. I planned the advent meals and fastings and weaving in all sorts of historic advent traditions.

And then we did none of that.

I was so busy and stressed (a good kind of stress) from getting used to new work hours, the commute and the job itself that I just couldn’t work up the energy to go gangbusters on Advent. The opportunities passed us by. We didn’t even have time to go to but one small Christmas party.

As far as Christmastide (i.e. the 12 days of Christmas which begin Christmas day and go through January 5th) and the Epiphany, we typically celebrate on Christmas day with the traditional presents and meal with family/friends and then hold an epiphany dinner on the 6th of January. The Epiphany Feast celebrates the coming of the Magi to the Christ Child.

This year I indulged in more research on the traditional celebrations of Advent & Christmastide in our Christian faith heritage and found out to my delight that celebrating over the *entire* Christmastide period is called for. As advent is traditionally a time for preparing for Christ with fasting, solemn prayers, etc, Christmastide is a time for celebrating Christ. You need more than just one day for such a glorious occasion, especially to balance out the quiet preparations of the heart over the advent weeks. Hence the TWELVE days of Christmas.

We are celebrating the 12 days of Christmas with a dinner party each evening in our home. On the second day of Christmas, we had two people at our table in total. Today is the third day of Christmas and we will have three people. And so it will continue through the 12th and final day of Christmas. Each meal will be fun and fabulous with a casual celebratory ambiance. We will still hold our traditional formal Epiphany feast on the 6th of January with the fine china, fancy food and high ceremony.

The older I get the more I find comfort and peace in Christian rituals such as these. Rituals should not substitute for faith but can add to our faith practice, pointing us toward God as we engage in them joyfully.

Yoga and the Christian Walk

I don’t subscribe to the common thinking surrounding the practice of yoga.

Some eastern religious traditions use yoga in an attempt to empty the mind and quiet the thoughts. There is nothing in our Christian tradition that validates this as a desirable goal. God created us as active thinkers, not passive vessels that need to be emptied. There is no model of mind emptying in our scriptures and attempting to empty the mind leaves one more susceptible to brainwashing.

In India, yoga is prescribed as a method to facilitate communication with the Hindu gods. As Christians we are explicitly  told to abandon the worship of false Gods and turn to the one true God only.

Many new age philosophy adherents claim that regardless of attempts to empty the mind or fix it on the supernatural during yoga, just by putting the body in certain postures and breathing in certain ways can open the physical body up to other dimensions/spiritual realms. This spiritual awakening is why they turn to yoga. A portion of conservative Christian leaders believe this to be true also and assert it is the reason why yoga should be shunned by Christians.  We know there is no other god but ours, but there are demons they remind us, waiting to pounce.

The way I see it, there are three possibilities here with yoga movements and the supernatural:

1. The poses and breathing do open up a spiritual door to the Hindu gods.

2. The poses and breathing do open up a spiritual door where demons can creep in and influence our mind.

3. The poses and breathing do not open up a spiritual door, this was a misinterpretation of the physiological response that Hindus experienced. The yoga movements and breathing affect our neurological system in a way that other exercise does not. They do not affect our spirituality directly. If anything perhaps they open one up to a slightly more suggestive mental state (much milder than transcendental meditation) due to nerve interactions in the brain that could be manipulated but highly unlikely unless you actively practice brainwashing alongside in the form of chanting, emptying the mind, etc.

Obviously as a Christian I can reject the first possibility immediately as there is no other God but Jehovah. Even though some Christians (incl some I respect) hold to possibility two (yoga as a spiritual door) as truth, I just can’t find any evidence to support this.  Therefore, with no facts to prescribe against it, I'm currently attending a weekly yoga class for the physical benefits (lower resting heart rate, increased flexibility,etc). I also use the yoga stretches before running to loosen up my muscles so that I don't pull something during running. I've never felt a spiritual door open and I've never tried to open one during yoga- to God or to anything else. I've tried to focus exclusively on the exercises themselves. Yeah my instructors sometimes spout out the typical new age nonsense during the class but I just ignore it the way you would when you hear undesirable advertising on the metro, on the tv, etc. No thank you, I don’t need your philosophy I have my own.

However, I’ve still been challenged on my yoga practice by other Christians who believe as I do: that yoga does not open any spiritual doors. They claim it still should be shunned. Why? They believe it could cause others to stumble on their Christian walk. Weaker Christians might not be able to shut out the spiritual claptrap the instructors typically try to impart (brainwash) during the session. One blogger said:

… the truth of the matter is that regardless of your intent, to the outside world you look like you are condoning yoga - all aspects of it. Your actions could very well be a stumbling block to others and causing others to fall into the trap of occultism, new-ageism and idolatry.

"For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ." - 1 Colossians 8:10-12

What do you think? As a Christian, have you ever practiced yoga? If so have you attended the classes and worked diligently to block out the spiritual nonsense the instructor speaks so that you could just focus on the exercises, or do you practice it independent of an instructor so that you don’t have to work so hard to block out the new age philosophy that comes along with it? And in either case have you ever felt anything akin to a spiritual door opening during yoga? To god, or to something more sinister?

2011: The Year of the Written Letter

I’ve decided that 2011 shall be the year of the written letter in my household. I used to write cards and letters frequently because I enjoyed crafting special correspondence reminding friends and family they are loved and thought of and also because I loved the art of writing itself. Somewhere along the way I abandoned this pursuit as email became widespread in the mid 90s and evite.com came on board to offer electronic invitations.

I think there is something of value in hand written letters. I lost this ‘something’ by turning my back on letter writing and I aim to pull it back into my life in 2011. What I look to gain:

1. A sort of quiet peace as the pace of conversation must ebb and flow with the postal schedule.

2. A sense of directed thoughtfulness as each letter represents time focused on specific friends and family.

3. A reconnection with the physical pleasures of writing: choosing beautiful papers and writing instruments (I collect Italian glass pens among others), decorating the envelope, etc.

4. The joyful anticipation of postal delivery, knowing that a letter may be waiting for me in return. Receiving mail might be pleasurable again instead of just the dreary work of sorting through ho-hum bills, netflix movies and advertising.

On Consulting

I promised more details on my new job and so here we are. I work for CSC as a Senior Consultant for their Federal Consulting Practice (FCP). In some instances, I may consult on projects the FCP has negotiated directly with the US government, but typically I am asked to step in on federal govt projects that CSC’s North American Public Sector (NPS) is already managing.  This means at a practical level that I consult to one division of CSC on behalf of another division of CSC.

CSC is a very large company (92,000+ employees) and it has fashioned itself into several divisions to handle different market segments. For example, it has a large division devoted to commercial work both domestic and abroad. It also has a major division devoted to US government work. This division or entity provides services to the US government under contract. The FCP division was created to maintain a pool of expertise to drop in to NPS projects as needed. This benefits the company to keep a supply of techie-geeks on hand at all times and benefits the consultants because our employment is not bound to any specific contract. Instead we are permanent CSC employees who don’t have to worry about finding a new job when a contract concludes. A win-win for everyone involved.

Currently I am consulting on a project CSC NPS manages for a government agency. They’re utilizing my SAS admin skills and I am learning a lot along the way. The implementation version on this project is SAS 9.2 whereas previously I’d learned and worked the ins and outs of 9.1.3. There have been a lot of changes to the application but nothing so far I cannot wrap my mind around or keep up with. My first few weeks on the job I’ve managed to resolve a pressing issues that was previously deemed “unsolvable” by SAS so I am feeling pretty confident.  And while it’s a bit tricky as a consultant to manage three circles of influence (the govt client and the CSC NPS employees I am consulting to along with my CSC FCP managers) I am enjoying the pace.

I live in a cube farm in DC during work hours.  While it was a rough transition in terms of managing my daily schedule after working from home for the past few years (see my previous blog post) it’s actually more enjoyable then having a big office all to myself (which I had when I first starting working for my last employer Orizon). The amazing office with a beautiful view was exciting for the first couple of weeks- look at me, I have an office!- but when the pride wore off it was just lonely. I am a social creature and cube farms are lovely. I enjoy the neighborly interaction and the quiet murmur (sometimes not so quiet) of work and conversation going on around me while I work.

One thing that has been vastly different about working at CSC versus any other previous employer: their attention to detail. There is a formal written policy for everything: even the fridge clean out schedule/rules is codified in policy. It’s not bad; it’s just very different and super organized.

CSC invests heavily in career planning for their employees. Every year there are two main career building activities. The first is KRA objective planning. This is sort of like your standard ‘work goals for the year’ section of your typical employee review, but on steroids. It took me a couple of hours to watch the instruction videos, learn all the lingo and understand the methodology CSC uses for the process. In the end, an employee ends up with approx 5 ‘Key Result Areas’ that they commit to accomplishing during the year on the job that should further their project, the company overall, and of course their own goals and interests as well.

Besides the KRA, CSC also requires all employees to complete an Individualized Development Plan (IDP). The IDP is designed to plot out your continuing education over the next year, keeping in mind your long range (greater than a year from now) career plans and goals. You have to conceive where you’d like to be in a few years (working the same job in the same division? working a different job in the same division? working the same type of job in another CSC division? working another type of job in another division?) and then plot out how you are going to work toward that this year. Deciding what I want to be doing in two years was the hardest part for me. I mean I freeze up when presented with 31 flavors at Baskin Robbins (so many choices! what to pick, what to pick?!). Imagine how hard it was for me to plot a course to set sail for the future in a company with nearly 100,000 job opportunities of all different kinds. As an employee, you also have to keep in mind (and work into the plan) skill development for any of your current job title competencies that you aren’t 100% developed on already. For example, one of my job title competencies relates to team management (even though I’m not currently managing a team on this consulting project) so I might elect to take some management courses. To complicate things just a bit, I have a job title description with competencies and I also have what equivalents to a seniority title description with competencies as well. For those familiar with the federal govt, think of a seniority title as GS levels. So you might be a programmer at GS10 or a lets say for illustration a programmer at GS11. You’d have the competencies expected of a programmer and also those expected of any GS11 employee, regardless of their job specialty.

As part of my blog audience you’re probably feeling a bit overwhelmed by now just reading about these complex processes, but just imagine how it feels to be the new employee having to work through them! The good news is that the story has a happy ending: I finished my KRA and IDP work before the deadlines and I was fortunate enough to still be on the bench (working for CSC FCP but not yet on a consulting assignment) during the tasks so that I could devote my full attention to them.

I’m getting along well with the govt client reps, the NPS staff and my FCP colleagues and it’s great to be back to work feeling useful and purposed again. If you happen to be job hunting (especially in IT) I encourage you to consider CSC as your next employer.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Putting the Pieces Together

Prior to the start of my new job, I had a somewhat regular daily routine established. Mornings I’d wake up and after getting groomed and dressed, check email/facebook and then sit down with my bible to go over my morning devotional. Then breakfast, downstairs at the table. Work would follow punctuated with errands and projects. Afternoons meant lunch in front of the tv watching Law and Order reruns and then cleaning occasionally. After that I’d exercise, shower and start dinner. Sometimes I’d remember to do evening devotionals, sometimes not. Every 2 weeks I’d borrow a work afternoon to do finances and carve out time to grocery shop.

So I started working for CSC and all hell broke loose with my new schedule. The first week just the stress of getting up at O’dark o’clock (4:30AM!) was enough to exhaust me. Add in new trainings on the job, new people to meet, new tasks to do/learn and the general anxiety of wanting to make an excellent first impression and GAH. In the mornings I was to tired to open my bible, check email or even eat breakfast. I drove half asleep to the VRE station and slept on the train. This meant I was starting to feel hungry and awake just as we would pull into Union Station so I’d go out for breakfast every morning. Of course after work I was very tired and had no energy to clean, exercise or even make dinner. And forget about replying to emails or facebook posts. So now dinner was either out, leftovers from the freezer or something like pasta with jarred sauce (I hang my head in shame! shame!). Gone were the gourmet meals that led Jon to exclaim how proud he was to be married to me and to enjoy cooked meals at home when so many cheat and go out to eat all the time. And of course no energy to pack a lunch so I was wasting money on going out to lunch each day also.  In summary all I did that first week was work, sleep and eat at restaurants.

Week 2 of my commute (week before last) I worked back in facebook and email and stopped feeling like a zombie all day. Last week I worked back in cooking dinner most nights, breakfast, and a few nights of exercise. I went grocery shopping for the first time since starting the new job. This week I worked back in morning devotionals and packing a lunch to take to work. I have yet to push back in cleaning. The house is a disaster! My weekends have been no respite from the busy schedule as I’ve had activities scheduled every weekend of the month. First weekend: baking day/party at my house. Second weekend: mile run to SEA. Last weekend: Mile run to Orlando. Next weekend: Christmas. I haven’t had to work this hard in years. It’s kinda nice on one level to  feel a sense of purpose and pride in my work again. But  man it’s a bitch to adjust to a new busy schedule.

Books

With my new job comes a new daily commute to/from DC on the VRE train. One hour and ten minutes in each direction which approximates to three novels a week. This month the best things I’ve read include:

The Laments

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Laments told the story of a family continuously replanting themselves; always searching for something to satisfy. Along the way we come to know the characters in depth. Rich in plot and character development, I really enjoyed the text.

Year of Magical Thinking is a non-fiction account of writer Joan Didion’s grief experience after her husband (also a writer) unexpectedly died. I learned a lot about sadness and longing from her piece.

Guernsey is a fictionalized WW2 tale  centering on one of the Channel islands. It speaks to the impact of war and terror on a community and on strangers. I found it to be a moving story and learned a bit more about the war in the process.

Girl is the sequel to the much acclaimed “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. It’s a most excellent crime suspense novel and I couldn’t put it down. Even better than the first book in the series, I’d say. I’m thirsty for the next installment in the series: “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”.

Person Y

I can’t even give Person Y a gender descriptor such as Mr. or Ms. I can only report that Person Y was confirmed alive on Tuesday when I saw them last and is likely mentally ill based on the evidence laid out before me. Evidence: several wool blankets piled on top of Person Y as they slept on the sidewalk in DC. Our capital has an open door law which requires all shelters to take in every walk in when the temp dips below freezing. No one can be denied and if space runs out the district will open reserved emergency space in other public buildings. Shelter reps and other concerned residents do regular sweeps in the evenings and transport any homeless willing to go to the shelters. There is also a hypothermia hotline to report folks you see in the cold. Result: the only people remaining on the streets are those who actively refuse to go to the shelter or walk away from them. And in those cases the caring are left to only drape them with wool blankets and move on. Refusing shelter when it’s below freezing is a certain sign of mental illness to me. As to evidence of life in Person X I observed his/her rhythmic breathing under those blankets while he/she slept. I felt helpless. What are we to do God; tell me what to do! My tears do not fix anything.

Generations ago the public response to such illness was to let the suffering die. People were just too busy trying to survive themselves. Other periods in history the well intentioned do-gooders built huge fortresses of mental hospitals and locked the sick away, putting their dignity and freedom away just the same. When I worked for ARC in New York the directors tried to impress upon us that it was better for society to let the mentally ill remain integrated into daily society and to suffer the reckless deaths of some of them left to their own care in sacrifice to the principle of maintaining free will for the population as a whole as much as possible. Because when you strip freedom from individuals and give control to others abuse is the most common outcome. Even “good” people can fall into monster behavior when given total control over another human being. So we shut down most of these hospitals in the 80s and 90s and and let everyone out to wander “free”. Oh but what a burdensome “freedom” for those imprisoned in their own minds by illness. The whole situation reminds me a bit of our differing approach to animal welfare over South American countries: we lock up the unwanted animals who cannot care for themselves
(and usually euthanize most of them) while the South Americans let them wander free in the streets to “make it or break it” per the laws of survival of the fittest. Sad either way. I feel utterly helpless. I need God; I need God to fix this. It feels callous to go about my life in joy and peace with so much suffering around me but what good does my pity and tears do? There is so much misery in the world and in my own circle of influence even that I cannot fix. And I even call into suspect my own motivations. Do I want to fix it because I love these people like the Lord does? Or do I just want to fix it to spare myself the suffering of feeling guilt, pity and helplessness? I can’t untangle my feelings from what’s best for these people or what God might ultimately desire.

I just fall instead on my knees in prayer and ask God that his will be done.

Mr. X

“You can’t save the world Jenni”. This is what Jon said to me recently when I told him my offer to Mr. X was rebuffed. Mr. X is currently sleeping his nights at the Manassas VRE station, in the waiting lobby. A buffer from the cold, the lobby is perhaps 50-55 degrees. The outside temps are in the low to mid 20s this week. I met Mr. x last week while I lulled about waiting for the 5:50am train to DC for work. He sat on one of the benches staring straight ahead. We exchanged a friendly hello and a smile. I saw him again the next morning but he was slumped over sound asleep and I didn’t want to disturb him.

When I got to work that morning I called our church. “What can we do for him?”, I asked. “Is there a shelter I can take him to?” Answer: no. There is only one shelter in Manassas and it’s over capacity and not accepting new walk-ins. Our church used to put the homeless up in hotels but after a few got destructive the local hotels barred the practice. I was certainly hesitant to bring home a stranger into our home to sleep- he could be violent or prone to unpredictable behavior or morals. So what to do? I put out the word on facebook but none of my male friends were willing to take in a stranger either.

Seeing him again earlier this week I studied him while he slept. I tried to imagine his dirty capped hands cleaned from a hot shower. Tried to imagine his unruly hair trimmed and his face shaved clean and proper. Tried to imagine his clothes washed. He awoke and our eyes met. I said hello and he smiled. I asked him if there was anything I could bring him next time we met, perhaps a blanket? His brows furrowed and he snapped a sharp “no” at me. My attempt to help was clumsy and ineffective and I was sad. His eyes softened again and he offered me his seat on the bench- a true gentleman.

I think of Mr. X and I think of the thin line we walk between having and not having. Between mental illness and health. Between war and stability within our communities and between nations. Many of us are blessed not to know hunger, homelessness, mental illness or violence when its the default state for many peoples of the world. I don’t know Mr. X’s story. He was gone yesterday morning and I wonder where he is. I’d like to think a spot in the shelter opened or he found refuge in the home of a friends. But I don’t know.

Update: Mr. X reappeared this morning in the station. I wish there was something I could do for him without impugning his dignity. 

Ruining Children

(written on Sat 12/18/10)

Today I felt rude and stabby as I waited for my shuttle bus outside MCO (Orlando airport). 30 minute wait. Argh. Maybe it was the wait that was agitating me most, maybe it was the dreary rain or maybe it was just leftover bitterness from my brush with the older woman at DCA this morning who was extremely rude to me while we waited for our plane. I should have confronted her perhaps. In any case I was cranky. And then, as it typical, my inner voice reminds me it is my civic and spiritual duty to be kind to others even when I don’t feel like it. Manners are a simple expression of love for others.

Suddenly with this thought I am pulled back to the time I explained this concept of love-as-demonstrated-through-manners to a particularly unruly child at church once. A child with a difficult home life who had likely never seen good manners modeled for him at home. Now I panicked – had I, in that moment, been the stranger who confirmed for him with one casual sentence his deepest fear –that his parents didn’t love him (b/c they didn’t show good manners)? Did I ruin a child and give it no thought until a year later? Oh my goodness.

Shaping the minds and hearts of children is such a delicate task. One wrong word and you can probably break a child forever. This is why I don’t have children: I can’t be trusted to be delicate.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas is Around the Corner

First there was the season of advent, and soon the season of Christmas will be here. Joy to the world!


Although the secular market is ready to put the holiday away after the capitalist consumption has culminated in unwrapped presents on the 25th, the holiday traditionally lasts for a much longer period of celebration. This year our household will celebrate the full 12 days of Christmas (begins on Christmas day and is capped with the epiphany). I encourage you and yours to do the same and keep the focus on Christ our savior. This will be a time of shared dinners with friends for me and little ways to make each of the 12 days memorable. Perhaps a party as well.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Swiss Chard and Parsnip Soup

Adapted from a recipe of the same name published in Oxygen Magazine in June 2010. My version adds white wine, spices and a bit of butter. Made this for dinner last night and it was fabulous. A really good way to sneak in greens for husbands/kids who are anti-veggie. Over 100% of vitamin A and over 600% of vitamin K. Fantastic!

2 T olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup white wine

2 T butter

3 parsnips, peeled and thinly sliced

4 cups chicken stock

1 bunch Swiss chard, rinsed, stems trimmed, chopped

2 T balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup skim milk

1 tsp caraway seed

1/2 tsp ground celery seed

sea salt and pepper to taste

1. Salt the onions and saute them in olive oil over medium heat until soft. Remember to heat the pan first, then add the oil, then add the onions once the oil is hot.

2. Add garlic and parsnips and saute for 5 minutes or until parsnips are golden. Add wine and cook until most of wine is evaporated. Add butter.

3. Add stock then bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes until parsnips are soft. If  soup has reduced from boiling, add more water to return to original quantity.

4. Add swiss chard and let wilt, about 2 minutes. Add vinegar, milk, salt, pepper, caraway and celery.

5. Use and immersion blender to puree until smooth.

Serve with fresh bread. Approx 250 calories per bowl.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Delta Business Elite Menu Review ATL-MUC

I really enjoyed the service and menu offered on our recent Delta flight from ATL- MUC. We were booked in the Business Elite cabin. Our flight attendant was this lovely woman (Annie) from somewhere down south in the States with a smooth motherly voice; should I ever fall ill I’d love to have her by my side to ease the agony.

People have often complained about how awful airline food is but I’ve never had a bad meal yet on any airline, even in coach (tip: always go for pasta or seafood in coach).

For our dinner the starter was presented as follows: seared tuna medallions aside roasted red peppers and goat cheese with a seaweed edame salad. It doesn’t read in print as appetizing as it tasted (it was delicious!). A simple green salad followed for the second course. I chose a fruity white wine which was promoted as “no oak” to pair with my appetizer and salad and I really enjoyed it: Boulder Bank Savignon Blanc 2008. (While I’ve never loved wine for it’s own sake, I have always loved good good and discovered over the summer that a well chosen wine can enhance the tastes of ingredients on the tongue.)

The main course offered an option of fish, pasta or beef and in a departure from my strategy to “always go with the pasta” I opted for the filet of beef. Tender and served medium, it was accompanied by green beans and mashed potatoes. It was very good. I chose a medium bodied merlot (Souverain 2006) with ‘plum undertones’ to pair with my entree and it was absolutely fabulous. My palette is not sophisticated enough to taste the fruit undertones nor the “smoky vanilla” but the wine tasted very buttery to me which I really love. My wine friends tell me that white wines can be described as buttery but it’s not an appropriate description for red wines yet that is what my tongue tasted and was happy to taste: buttery goodness. It reminded me a lot of the smooth buttery reds I had sampled in Andorra last year.

Dessert was a classic hot fudge sundae and an absolutely pleasure.

Dateline: November 21, 2010 2pm

Here’s another thing that annoys me: Pittsburgh. We took off for our European trip from PIT this morning b/c Delta is offering double MQM promo for all flights out of PIT. We drove into downtown Pittsburgh last night from VA and encountered a crowd of 20+ people milling about on the sidewalk in front of a bar that was about to open for the evening. They were almost all wearing Steeler jerseys (Steelers are the PIT football team). Must be a game tonight I thought. We walked a few more blocks, passing more Steeler attired fans. Into our restaurant for the evening – Fat Head’s. I saw Steeler scarves, Steeler hats, Steeler pins, Steeler t-shirts, Steeler sweatshirts, Steeler jackets. I saw Steeler earrings and even a Steeler tattoo! Middle aged men, kids, senior citizens, dogs, all dressed to support the team. Now, the shocking fact: THERE WAS NO STEELER GAME. Turns out this is just regular evening wear for 3/4 of Pittsburg residents. I found it ridiculous. Ridiculous!

Then I spotted the sandwiches coming  to the tables around us and my blood really began to boil. Massively huge sandwiches! Makes me ashamed to be an American huge. The “way we Americans all go to the all-you-can-eat-buffet side of the restaurant overlooking Niagara Falls but all the foreigners go to the smaller portioned sit-down side” ashamed. The “way we cheer for Smarter than a 5th Grader contestants” ashamed (if you lose you look like an idiot, if you win you’re only bragging rights are that you can intellectual best a 12 year old; dear God why do people champion this show?!). But I digress. Pittsburgh! Giant sandwiches with descriptions like “mounds of meat”, “piles of”, “mountains”, “layers”. Sure you can pick off all but a respectable portion of meat but then you’re paying $10 for a normal sandwich which is sort of like paying $12 for a Moleskin notebook.

I ordered a simple cheap grilled cheese sandwich to avoid the overstuffed meat versus overpriced sandwich and was still disappointed . Massive and greasy and served with enough potato chips to fill a whole bag, I picked at it while Jon worked his way through a kielbasa sandwich. And don’t get me started on how much they mix meats on their sandwiches!!!

So we leave the restaurant and pass legions of PIT Steeler adorned adults. It was really irritating me even though I can’t put my finger on the reason. Sports fanaticism? Group think? I don’t know but by the time we left the hotel for the airport in the morning and the body count of PIT fans had continued to skyrocket I was livid. Actually livid. Then we arrived at our gate and the Delta gate agents were wearing PIT jerseys over their uniforms.  I KID YOU NOT.

THERE IS SOME SORT OF PATHOLOGICAL SICKNESS IN PIT AND IT IS CENTERED ON GIANT SANDWICHES AND STEELER PARAPHENALIA. The whole thing has made me cranky. Or perhaps it’s just internet withdrawal rearing it’s ugly head.

Dateline: November 21, 2010 1pm

I’m terribly annoyed with myself this afternoon. I’ve just purchased a trendy (read: overpriced) Moleskin brand notebook at the Cincinnati airport because I could not quickly find any simple and cheap alternatives before we had to board our flight. I feel the fool for trading in twelve quality dollars for what should be a $1.29 notebook if I were buying it at any standard office supply store. The ridiculous pricing of these notebooks is not lost on the author of the cheeky “Stuff White People Like” franchise (which mostly pokes fun at middle class Anglos). He describes the enduring hipster affinity for them among the rest of the nonsensical trends of our culture. To read the description of the notebook listed on the promo sheet provided with the purchase you’d expect that writing in a Moleskin will elevate you to a higher spiritual plane. Pffft.

I wish I’d remembered to bring a notebook from home and then I’d not be faced with this choice of no notebook versus overpriced notebook. But bringing along paper and pen is not typical of me- I usually rely on my memory to capture the events of the day and then transcribe to my laptop each evening of a trip.

For this trip however I’ve left my laptop at home. Further I’ve left even my blackberry behind. My first untethered trip since I’ve owned a cell phone or laptop! Why: Since my new job does not require me to be on call during vacation (first job EVER that hasn’t) I’ve taken this opportunity to break my internet addiction. It’s become a real problem. I check my favorite internet sites (facebook, flyertalk, livejournal, dailymile, foxnews) and my email as soon as I wake up each morning- before I do anything else. I check email constantly during the day on my bb and facebook on every work break. A good solid hour goes to the internet every evening and it’s the last thing I do before bed.

I never even realized I was addicted until I read an article that reported on internet addiction in the USA and noted with great disdain how many people check email before even going to the bathroom in the morning. Guilty as charged, but so what? These are the kind of people the article alleges that cannot pull themselves away from the net for even a day. In an effort to prove the idiocy of such claims made by crank old technophobes I recently decided to step away from the internet for 24 hours. I failed. Miserably. Ahhhhh, the ding of new mail notifications are as intoxicating a drug as they were when Meg Ryan’s character expounded on the topic in the movie hit “You’ve Got Mail”. My longest stretch internet sober this week was less than an hour. An hour!

But you can’t expect the drunk to turn down temptation if he takes his liquor bottle with him now can you? And THAT’S why I’ve decided to leave my blackberry and laptop at home for 8 days of internet sobriety. It’s been a hard time of it my first day. My thoughts drift to check my email frequently and every time I observe something clever my fingers itch to post it on facebook or twitter. I’m hoping the withdrawal symptoms lessen as the trip continues.

And now I have to buy a watch at the airport because I’ve just realized I’ve no way to tell time without my blackberry. Gah.

High Self Esteem Versus Healthy Self Esteem

Coming as a surprise to many education administrators and counselors who are tasked with shaping our children within the school setting and preparing them for adult responsibilities, studies are now out showing that promoting high self esteem as a cure-all has been a lot of baloney.  The experiment has failed to elicit the changes promised and instead has created a worse problem: narcissism on grand scale (across an entire generation; maybe even two).  Turns out an unrestrained sense of self-worth is pretty dangerous.

One of the psychologist bloggers on the political right that I follow has provided interesting insights on the studies; on narcissism; and on the risks of raising children with superegos (dictator training 101) or, at the other extreme - with such a deep sense of worthlessness paired with idealized view of others that they’re willing to sign up for enslavement to the state or jihad crusades.

Her essay is here: http://drsanity.blogspot.com/2007/02/narcissism-and-self-esteem-gurus.html

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Human Rights

Regardless of one's political slant, there is a bit of logic askew to deem education or healthcare a human right. Here's why. In order for something to be a right- a fundamental human right that others cannot take away from you, it cannot involve forcing someone else to do an action. It *can* involve preventing someone from doing something (like killing you; the recognized right to life for example prevents people from killing you without punishment) but it can't compel others to do something otherwise you are stomping on *their* rights to abstain from that activity.

The problem with making a good or service that cost $$$ a right means that someone has to pay for it. And, in theory, you cannot force people to work. If you cannot force people to work (that would be against their human rights i.e. forced labor) then you have two problems- one you cannot force someone to teach others or force another to write the curriculum and two you cannot force the general population to work in order to provide taxes to pay for the education. Therefore, education cannot be a right because in the abstract it requires compulsive labor. Same with healthcare or any other good or service.

Monday, November 1, 2010

This and That: fourth qtr 2010 edition

In September I penned a lengthy update providing a general overview of the happenings in our family. Here we are in the last quarter of the year and there have been a lot of new events since that post. Thus begins a new blog tradition: quarterly updates, filed under ‘This and That’.

Work

In September, I put in my notice at my federal contracting job to coincide with the end of the contract. I had lined up a new job with another contractor – SAS admin work again (yay) for a different agency than the one I’ve been working with the past 4 years.  Regardless of whether my previous employer would win the follow on contract or not, I was ready to move on. My decision was validated when it was announced at the end of September that a competing company had won the follow on. I patted myself on the back for being prepared with a new job and approximately 10 seconds later it (the new job) evaporated as they too lost their contract that I was to work on. Oops.

So it was back to job hunting. I made myself available through Dice.com and started fielding calls from recruiters. It was down to two companies offering competitive SAS admin positions. I agonized over the decision and prayed God would give me a clear sign of which one to take as they each represented a great opportunity. He did: one of the companies was not able to make good on their original verbal offer due to budget constraints – taking the job would have meant a pay cut from my previous position. That put the other company over the top, and they are now my employer (I started mid November). The best part is that while I will be representing the company as one of their consultants for a federal agency contract, I am not hired to that contract; I am hired to the company permanently as a free floating consultant. My job is to be an “expert” who consults on my areas of expertise across various contracts. I’m very excited about this new role.

When things get rolling (right now I am being paid to complete addl training and waiting for paperwork to be processed) I will be working in Washington, D.C. every day, commuting on the VRE. This means I will be very well read in 2011, with 2 hours of commute time a day on the train.  I should be able to make a lot of head way through the bible and best seller lists with all that available reading time.

Christian Walk

Jon and I have fallen in with the folks at Grace United Methodist Church here in Manassas. We really feel at home in this congregation even though we are very new to it. Everyone is so welcoming and for me the best part is that the members reach out to you as a new visitor and help you find ways to plug in and get involved right away. We’re currently attending the contemporary Sunday evening service @5pm, but I reserve the right to drag Jon to the traditional morning services occasionally when I want to feel especially reverent or to hear the grand pipe organ.

I’ve taken a strong interest in incorporating  long standing Christian traditions and rituals into our day to day spiritual life. I’m into my second week of daily devotional readings in the morning and readings/prayer before bed. I start in the morning with the daily thought from Oswald Chambers famous collection ‘My Utmost for His Highest’. Then I’m using this reading calendar for guidance in selecting passages to read and consider prayerfully: Daily Scripture Readings from CRI. Also, this is the first year that we are really going to put our hearts into Advent rituals such as the Advent wreath (and associated readings and prayers), Advent calendar, fast before Christmas, etc. I think ritual and liturgy can be a great part of one’s religious practice (so long as they don’t become shallow or empty; it’s important to keep the focus on God and avoid legalistic attachments to the rituals). I’ve been using one resource in particular to learn more about the religious traditions and rituals of our Christian faith and put them into practice: 'A Continual Feast' by Vitz.

Travel

I marked the first day of my unemployment at September’s end with a trip to Las Cruces, NM to visit family and friends and pick up this year’s supply of fresh green chile. I had a great time seeing everyone and visiting our ‘home’ (where we go married) church. It’s always amazing to touch base with younger adults, now in their 20s that I have known since they were in my Sunday school classes when they were 5 or 6. I also got a chance to sit down and have lunch with my flower girl (also all grown up now and married) and catch up with her. So many wonderful memories and friends still in Las Cruces. I think we may make an annual chile run every autumn as the freshness of the chile flown home (versus shipped to us whole and then roasted here in VA) is unsurpassed.

The next week (first week in October) Jon and I piled a bunch of our friends into our cars and headed for upstate NY to enjoy the autumn leaves. We made it up to CT by Friday evening and crashed for the night at a Hilton.

Saturday morning we were up and exploring New England, spending the afternoon at the Yankee Candle Factory before winding our way to Troy, NY via VT. There was a mandatory stop at Stewart’s to take Jonathan back down memory lane (and to give everyone a chance to try their famous ice cream). We escorted everyone to one of our old favorites- Latham 76 diner- for vittles on Sat night before checking in to another Hilton (this time in Albany, NY) for the evening.

Next morning we made more memories together as we attended church services out at Brunswick Presbyterian (the church we attended while we lived in NY). It was a joy to see all our old friends in the congregation and the pastor. That afternoon we had pizza in downtown Troy at our favorite joint, I got to see my friend Kerry, and we all went apple picking at Indian ladder farms. Our last stop before heading home was Napoli’s bakery. YUM! 

Our group shared a lot of laughter and stories over the weekend and I really enjoyed getting to know everyone better. It was fun to find out that Ryan had a place in his heart for hip hop and that Chris collected old signs. I also was thrilled to have a chance to show our friends what we love about and what is so special about New England.

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Jon, Dani, Tanja, Lauren, Chris, Ryan

Another weekend in October I took a friend from the NoVA Travelers group up to NYC for my annual culinary tour. Changed things up a bit this year, dropping lunch at the dim sum hall and replacing it with a meal at Momufuku, which worked out fabulously. We also actually had time to stop at the East Village Cheese shop this year, and I could kick myself for not doing it on previous tours. Brie for 99 cents a pounds and other steals were to be had in every corner of the shop. They buy wholesale cheese overruns (top quality) and so are able to offer rock bottom pricing. We even had time on Sunday to make our way out to Coney Island. It was a great trip and I love traveling with this particular friend as she always puts me at ease and is a joy to be around.

I’d almost forgotten that I also escorted Literary Elly May on a surprise trip to Assateague Island recently to see the wild ponies. She was very happy to take it all in and the whole day worked out beautifully (except the part where I left my purse hanging on a chair back in McDonald’s in Manassas and only realized it a half hour later on the road and had to call Dani’s husband to go get it for me but that’s another story).

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Wild Pony of Assateage Island

We just returned from our most recent trip yesterday. We spent the week of Thanksgiving in Austria and Germany at the Christmas Markets and I’ve got so much to tell you about it all, but you’ll have to wait to read most of it until it’s published in early December for a travel company site. 

Fitness

I’m in the last week of Couch to 5k, which is where I was before we left for Europe. I just didn’t run at all in Europe; I knew the miles and miles of walking each day and sightseeing would be enough to tire me out and I didn’t want to pile more effort on top of it. I’m hoping to get my last 3 sessions in this week and be a graduate by this time next week. A long hard road, but it has been great. I ran my second 5k race in mid October and did alright, considering the hills (ugh: hills).

I’ve also been swimming and participating in fitness classes at our gym each week, but I need to be more self-disciplined about keeping to my routine and classes even when I don’t feel like going. Consistency is key!

Up and Coming

I will spend this quarter attempting to relearn how to balance work and home life now that I will no longer be working from home where I could easily co-mingle the two when it suited me. I’ve been hatching plans and strategies to keep myself on schedule and focused on what matters. I’m trying to incorporate regular routines into my life for stability and discipline.

The new job offers three weeks of vacation each year, but I’ve got to accumulate it before I can use it so other than Thailand in March I don’t see any major trips in my immediate future. Maybe a few weekend jaunts here and there. Plus of course being out of work for a month and a half hit our savings pretty hard and now we’ve got to put our extra money into building the emergency savings back up instead of gallivanting around the globe every other weekend. I do have two upcoming flights in December but they are straight mile runs (flights to earn miles with no other purpose) and have no sightseeing built into them at all. For example, one of them involves an out and back flight from PIT-ATL-SEA on a Saturday. My total time in SEA will be 40 minutes on layover at the airport. And flying out of PIT of course b/c Delta is still offering the double MQM promo for all flights out of PIT (a 4.5 hour drive from here).  

Tuesday is the Michael Buble concert in D.C. and I’m pretty excited about that. Jon picked us up tickets and we’ve got decent seats.

The rest of our time for 2010 will be filled with the Christmas holiday- shopping, baking, parties, gift wrapping, standing in line at the post office to ship, etc. And all done to the soundtrack of our favorite Christmas carols of course. One of the best times of the year and I’m feeling really festive after attending the holiday markets in Europe and prancing in the snow in Bavaria. This is going to be a great Christmas!

Today is All Saints Day

All Saints Day is a rather nuanced holiday for Christians, depending on your global location and denomination. Eastern Christians celebrate the holiday during an entirely different season of the year so we will leave them to that. Western Christians join together to celebrate it on or near today but each denomination has a different understanding of just what “it” is.

Traditionally, most Catholics hold up the day in honor of dead saints who have achieved beautification (completed the process of becoming a saint by the church’s definition, which includes performing miracles from beyond the grave, etc. Incidentally they hold up tomorrow as All Soul’s Day to celebrate dead saints who have not achieved beautification yet). Some Catholics hold up the day to honor all dead Catholics who are in heaven (and reserve tomorrow for the dead in purgatory).

Because the definition of ‘saint’ in the Protestant denominations is generally widened to all Christians, the only variations between protestant congregations in the celebration is (1) whether the celebration is held in honor of dead and living saints or reserved for just our departed brethren and (2) whether the honor is observed strictly on Nov 1 or on a Sunday and if so which Sunday near Nov 1 (some celebrate the Sunday before; some the Sunday after).

Presbyterians celebrate the holiday the Sunday before Nov 1 (unless Nov1 falls on a Sunday) and is celebrated concurrently with Reformation Day (a day set aside to honor the leaders of the reformation).

Methodists celebrate the holiday the Sunday after Nov 1 and reserve celebration specifically for the saints that were in Jesus time (such as his mother or the disciples) or are mentioned in the bible (such as Paul) and also give prayers of remembrance for saints in their own congregation that have recently died.

As one who was raised Catholic, became a disciple in the Presbyterian Church and is now living out that discipleship in in Methodism you can imagine I’m a bit confused with regard to my observance of the holiday. Therefore, I’ve decided to mark today in honor of all our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ; especially those who are diligently laboring for Christ. I will take time to pray for our missionaries, our pastors and lay leaders and my fellow congregants. I will also respectfully observe moments of quiet reflection on those that were martyred for Christ in ages past or otherwise contributed greatly to the kingdom of God. I am not iconifying people per se, but celebrating their acts of faith (just as we all celebrate Abraham’s) for the glorious effects those acts had on the whole body of Christ. Whereas at Pentacost we celebrate the church as a body, today I am focused on individual acts of faith and the holy act of giving of oneself to God; that is the essence of sainthood. I celebrate that God calls us into relationship with him in this way and I celebrate (for the sake of God’s kingdom and the sake of their souls) all of the individuals that have stepped out in faith to enter into that relationship and go where God leads them.

For All the Saints
Earl Nelson
1864
 
For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!
For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Australia Trip Report

My first published travel article to add to my portfolio:

http://travelguide.affordabletours.com/Article/120/

*squee*

All pictures alongside article were all taken by myself or hubby.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book Review: Random Magic

Publisher: Beach Books

Author: Sasha Soren

In this novel, Ms. Soren weaves a tale of adventure from the threads of common cultural references (Alice in Wonderland, book jumping, a bit of Harry Potteresque magic, etc). Alice in Wonderland has gone missing and Professor Random has appointed one of his students to find her. Along the way mischief and mayhem ensue. Eventually everything is resolved and wrapped up satisfyingly in the end.

Random Magic is available on Amazon.com

 

The plot is detailed, inventive and interesting. Combined with Ms. Soren's precision in utilizing adjectives and adverbs in nearly every sentence it would do well as the foundation for a witty screenplay. However, while professional actors can benefit from the abundance of adverbs and likewise set designers will be right on track with the numerous adjectives, the constant barrage of descriptions tires the novel reader. Likewise, the subtle British humor, innuendos, and doublespeak would play out beautifully on stage or on screen but can fall flat in print. (Imagine reading a Monty Python screenplay presented as a novel). This is unfortunate as otherwise the plot really shines. Perhaps a polished editing with the next publishing can improve the presentation. Alternatively, Ms. Soren might strongly consider transforming the piece formally into a screenplay and shopping it among producers.


A final note: Is Nicole Kidman aware that her likeness is gracing the cover?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Pressing On

It's been several weeks since I've posted about my couch to 5k progress. I have been on the mat so to speak wrestling with the program. It took me 6 tries to nail w5d3 and that was my hardest goal to accomplish in terms of number of tries up to that point. On to week 6, I switched from the time goals to the distance goals so that I could master a 5k by graduation. D1 and D2 of W6 went by smoothly but it took 7 tries to succeed at D3. Seven tries! The distance goal was 2.25 miles and took me approx 28 minutes of running. Still, I refused to give up and I faced each session with a new dose of determination. It never occurred to me to consider quitting.


Then....then I went out to tackle W7d1 (2.5 miles) and failed spectacularly. I cramped up before even a mile. I was going backward in progress! So I tried again and made it just 1.5 miles. And again going 2 miles. Just the week before I'd done 2.25 miles and now it was a struggle to even get to 2! What was going on?! I was frustrated, but dug in and keep trying. I was now in New Mexico on vacation and dealing with higher elevation and regressed back down to a HALF MILE before I had to resort to addl half mile intervals. UGH PATHETIC. Next try, in NM, did a mile. I was so disgusted and angry with myself. The rest of the tries ranged from 1.2 to 1.6 miles before I felt frozen- either my calves were burning or I felt dizzy and pukey. I tried different routes and different times of day but nothing made an impact on performance. Every failure led to more anger and frustration. I felt completely defeated and would burst into tears as soon as I reached my wall and cry all the way home cursing myself. Running was stressing me out, when it's supposed to clear your mind and be restorative. I was so close to quitting.


Sat was a running rest day but I try to cross train on such days so I did a zumba class at the gym. Felt like a loser there too because while I've worked to isolate my hips and move them well independent of my abs I don't have that ability with my shoulders at all. I move like a stiff robot and wherever my shoulders go my abs follow when they're not supposed to. SO FRUSTRATING. I did a half hour of strength training after that and then came home. I was in an emotional funk all weekend. At some level that day I had totally given up on being able to EVER do c25k even though I'd not said so out loud yet and it made me sad and hate myself a little. I spent most of Sunday crying and feeling sorry for myself.


This morning I woke up and physically felt great. I really can't explain why. I don't think I suddenly did anything different. I went out to run but refused to get my hopes up that I could make it. I tried to pretend I didn't care and display a 'this means nothing' attitude. I told myself I was going to just run for 30 minutes regardless of the distance it would mark. And i did it. And still had oomph so I kept going until I got to 2.5 miles. I won't say it came easy, but I never hit a wall today. So of course I am feeling a renewed encouragement and a sense that I.can.do.it as long as I don't give up. Ok, so it might take a million tries but I.will.do.it.


My hope is that this long and winding monologue will not only expose a little bit about what makes me tick, but also encourage you not to give up on your fitness goals. I want to offer up a different perspective from all of the rah rah rah running is great and easy if you stick to it articles. Running is hard work. You have to push yourself to break through your goals. And you have to find a better way to dissipate your emotional responses to bad run days then I do - because I can assure you first hand that turning on yourself in anger and frustration just makes it worse and builds up stress. Obviously I am still working on that.


I'm on dailymile.com (sort of like facebook but focused on fitness and you can share your workout details) if you're using the free site to track your workouts and would like to add me as a friend: http://www.dailymile.com/people/jenniparks

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Feeling Discouraged

Today I am feeling very discouraged about my personality.

I’ve always been a bit ‘different’. This difference is not just some imagined phenomenon wrought out of an emotional ‘nobody gets me’ teenage angst. It’s a well documented set of traits objectively observable by others around me. My husband told me while dating that it was my sincere and open/vulnerable kindness (a kind of sweet naivety in his words)  that drew him to me as he found it to be unusual. Friends often tell me I’m quite different than most others.

According to Myers-Briggs testing I am an ENFP, which is less than 8% of the population. ENFP summary: I wear my heart on my sleeve; I’m very passionate about things that spark my interest (and very unmotivated to tackle things that don’t); I have the strongest need to be liked/loved out of any of the personality types; I have a directed sense of purpose and require that my relationships and job work toward that purpose in order to feel ok with life; I am intelligent; I am kind; I don’t “do” sarcasm; I genuinely am an optimist; I trust people easily; I sincerely like people and hate confrontation. Yep, ENFP sums me up perfectly.

What I’ve come to realize over the past few years is how polarizing my personality actually is. I’m not sure if this is true for other ENFPs, but when people are exposed to my personality they either seem to become an immediate fan and *really* like me, or alternatively, they react with disgust and repulsion and can’t stand me. It’s so dramatic and black and white. Those that like me tell me that they find me inspiring and joyful; energetic and kind; refreshingly open and vulnerable. Those that have an aversion don’t often tell me why but occasionally I have been smacked in the face with their comments when they’re on their way out of my life: I’m too nice, too naive, too simplistic, too talkative,  and too optimistic and generally annoying. I have even developed some quick correlating variables- the chance that someone will like me is inversely proportional to how much they like the movie Office Space, appreciate sarcasm, consider themselves cynical or “realistic'”, and hate traffic jams and dealing with customers from a service perspective. Strange but true.

So today I have been feeling sorry for myself and wondering how I can be less polarizing. While I’d like to earn the respect or appreciation of the cynical “cool kids” crowd, at this point I’d settle for at least having a lukewarm personality that didn’t inspire NOR aggravate anybody. I did a quick google search to help me get ideas on how to change and adopt a more realistic, sarcasm loving cynical “adult” personality and it depressed me even more- the number of people who post on the internet that nice people make them sick is tremendous. There is even a facebook group devoted to the dislike of  ‘overly nice’ people: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2256074450 

I’m really tired of feeling different and disliked but I realize that I really don’t want to change myself to fix it.  I wish instead people could bend to my outlook. I wish everyone was nice and said what they meant in a kind way instead of relying on sarcasm. I wish people looked on the bright side more and committed to the principle that there is good in everyone and actively looked for it. I wish that people would be more trusting and be willing to be quicker in establishing intimacy in friendships. I wish that people would express a genuine interest in the customers they serve instead of dismissing people as idiots. I wish people would take the time to swing on swingsets and laugh more and curse traffic jams less.  I wish people would not be mean or harsh.

I wish for too much and feel sorry for myself that I don’t fit in. I don’t fit in with others in key ways that will always lead to people trying to treat me like a doormat and bullying me.

Friday, October 8, 2010

National Novel Writing Month and Life Decisions

This year I have decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The annual event occurs in November and the objective is to write a fiction work consisting of at least 50,000 words within the month.

I have begun to brainstorm plot constructs and thinking that it’s best to start from a base of ‘what-you-know’ I have decided to write about a woman’s life that followed the alternative path to mine. Then I got stuck trying to decide where to veer my character’s life off the course of mine. To make the decision easier, I sat down and mapped out (in decision tree form) all the major life decision points I’ve gone through so I could play with alternative choices.  While I’m sure there is truth to the claim that even the tiniest inconsequential decision can alter our lives irreversibly, I wanted to focus on the major choose-your-own-adventure moments.

Here is my tree. Here are over 30 decisions I made which changed my life. When I look back over these decisions I have some regrets of course. I also wish I could reach out to the hurting girl that I once was who  seriously contemplated suicide but passed on it only because she was too afraid of disappointing God. I’d reaffirm the value of her life and point her toward the future.

It has been a long and difficult journey just to get from where I started to where I am now and there are many more decisions yet to be considered as I progress toward my life’s end. Putting it on paper has helped me to see how God has carried me through everything all along and provides encouragement to keep striving.

If you have the time to carve out for this project, I hope you’ll consider doing so. I think it’s a useful self-analysis tool.

 https://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0B0AAu5mdlc_lOTg1MDA4NGUtZjY4MC00ODk4LTliMmYtZTc2MDkxOWIxMjhj&hl=en&authkey=CPf2gOcF

edit: I also realized post publication that there have been some other decisions that affected me deeply that I left off the first draft of my chart such as deciding to move my parents to VA and deciding to commit to fitness.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Breaking the Cycle of Misery

It breaks my heart the way the enemies of God are able to leverage the little agonies and injustices inflicted by the spiritually broken to perpetuate the brokenness over generations of a family. Look at such a situation from the outside and it seems helpless but I know that with God nothing is impossible. God is stronger than any of his enemies and he can break the inheritance of brokenness within us.

I pray frequently that God will affect this miracle in myself.

In Flight Philosophy

There is something deep and philosophical about flying above the clouds. As we cross over oceans, we have a chance for meaningful fellowship between ourselves, our God and his sky. Just like the plane hurling forward, our lives advance in an irreversible march toward our final destination. ‘Trapped’ in the modern metal cabin we are given the chance to reflect on what we really value. And when we eventually land halfway across the world and spend time in the local culture we realize (if we’re lucky) that our travel has broken through many of the artificial constructs of who “we” are (versus “them”) and shown us that we are all fundamentally people.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book Review: Naomi and Her Daughters

Publisher: Zondervan

Author: Walter Wangerin Jr.

Many Christian readers are already  familiar with the story of Naomi and Ruth. It's often touted as one of the most beautiful stories of friendship in the bible. The sad recounting of the Levite who gives over his wife to the sex crazed mob in the book of Judges to protect himself is also known to most readers although structurally these story lines are presented as unrelated in scripture. Wangerin weaves them together brilliantly in ‘Naomi and her Daughters’, providing a back story of events in Naomi's life that propel her and Ruth together on a journey to Bethlehem.

Throughout the novel, Wangerin uses an italicized typeface whenever he directly quotes the bible. This is helpful for the reader to discern Wangerin's beautiful fictionalized embellishments from what's been lifted out of the Word of God "as-is".

Fictionalized accounts of historical events prove justice to their story when they draw interest so severely that the reader is provoked to research the story further. Wangerin accomplishes this with ease and I repeatedly compared his account of the events of that time against what is recorded in Judges and Ruth, finding it to be accurate in essence. Wangerin forces his readers to consider these historic events from a new perspective, personalizing the characters in a way that leads us to identify with them; to care for them; to realize the similarities of character that persist in man throughout the span of generations and geography.

From the beginning, Naomi is presented as utterly practical and wise. In chapter three she tells her son (who is heading off to war against the tribe of Benjamin) that she won't cry for him but will consider him dead until she hears he has come through the battle alive. And when the civil war seems to be lost despite God's urging that the men aligned against Benjamin continue, she reflects on the matter-of-fact truth that at that point God had simply told his people to go up against the tribe of Benjamin in battle; he had not ever promised it was to be their fortune to win. Still, she is balanced in character with a nurturing love for others. After her return to Bethlehem with Ruth she sets in motion a resourceful plan to provide for Ruth's future and her family's legacy. She also tends to one who is extremely undeserving, showing grace and mercy.

Wangerin is able to illustrate how the people of God in that time are fixed in their resolve in a way that baffles modern mindsets. They stand beside their traditions to honor and protect male house guests even though innocents will be brutally sacrificed by the action. They stand by their fields to harvest even though they are consumed with worry for their men who have gone off to war (Chapter 5, pg 36). They stand by their oaths made before the Lord, even though they were made in angry haste and will bring great pain to themselves or thousands of others. In this way, parts of the novel that seem to be the most unbelievable are actually the most representative of the corresponding passages in Judges and Ruth. As if in response to our suspect disbelief in such foreign reasoning, Wangerin gives these words to Naomi in Chapter 42, where Naomi is expressing the importance of recording and recounting her stories and what could happen if they are discarded: "God will be lost. People will think that love is all - a kindly, grandfatherly love. They will build their idols along the lines of niceness. Mercy, compassion. Not death. Not the requirements of covenants."

Perhaps the most well written chapter is number 38, within which Wangerin places the reader right alongside Ruth as she steps out bravely to embrace her destiny. Her trembling fear as she completes a daring and irreversible act that places everything at risk; her joy in the risk rewarded - these feelings easily transfer onto the reader who cannot help but be moved by the raw emotions of the scene.

Overall a great novel that spurs the reader to not only open the bible for a rereading of the corresponding passages but also Wangerin's other published pieces.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Purpose Statement

Have you ever crafted a mission or purpose statement for an organization? Have you reflected on the purpose of your life and set about to craft a personal mission statement?

I have been keeping a personal goal journal since 1999 (when I was 22), which I call my 'Life Project Book'. I record all my goals in it and track my progress in achieving them. I felt that I had explicitly established a partnership with God at that time whereby I agreed to thoughtfully detail a mission statement that was scripturally based, construct goals following from that statement and then pray over my goals. For his part he would provide guidance, direction, and connection+correction to mold me toward perfection in him for his glory. I know that he is working to do all of these things in me because there are numerous scripture references that state so.

Originally when I began the journal in 1999 I thought that developing my character was the single most important accomplishment I could effect in order to be useful/ready for God when he calls me into service (as I viewed service to God as my ultimate purpose for it's own sake). Over the past 11 years I've come to realize that while service (love your neighbor) is an important directive (second only to loving God) it's actually (along with loving God) a subset of the ultimate purpose: to glorify God.

My revised Statement of Purpose follows:

Our essential purpose as God's holy creation is to glorify him.

References:

1 Pet. 4:11. "That God in all things may be glorified."

1 Cor. 10:31. "Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God."

Prov. 16:4. "The Lord hath made all things for himself:" that is, "for his glory."

“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”

Westminster Shorter Catechism

How then do we glorify God?

  • God calls us into an intimate and loving relationship with himself (to be begun by confessing our need for salvation and then praying to ask God to abide in us).

References:

John 17:3 "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent"

Deut.6:5. "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."

  • God calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves (passionate service/love) and spread the gospel to them (evangelism). This flows out of loving God as he created all of our neighbors and loves them also.

References:

Galatians 5:14. "The entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

Matt 22:39. ... "Love your neighbor as yourself."

1 Corinthians 9:16. "For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel."

  • God calls us to be good stewards of what he has entrusted to us (our talents, our relationships, our finances, our time, our bodies as his temple). This flows out of loving and respecting God as he created everything we have.

References:

Matthew 25:15-30. Parable of Talents

Genesis 2:15-20. (Wherein God appoints man steward over creation on earth).

Luke 16. Faithful stewardship.

Romans 12:1. "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship."

1 Tim 6:16. "Command them [the rich] to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share."

1 Tim 6:20. "... guard what has been entrusted to your care. "

Good external reference on stewardship: http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/spiritua/spirit12.htm

  • God calls us to obey his other commandments (which all proceed from loving him, loving our neighbors, and being good stewards) and lays out the qualities of a good disciple (this is spiritual/character development)

References:

John 14:15. "If you love me, obey my commandments."

1 Tim 4:7 "Discipline yourself for the purpose of Godliness"

Colossians 1:10. “Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work.”

  • God calls us to  joy and recreation. This proceeds from our recognition that we are created in the image of God and delight in joy and recreation as he does.

Phil 4:8. "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things."

Deut 5:12. "Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you."

Jeremiah 29:11. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

Genesis 1:31. "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. …"

Every goal that is worthwhile falls under the scope of one of these five avenues of glorification.

I track subcategories under each avenue (for example, ‘Stewardship of my Body’ under ‘Stewardship’ . For each subcategory I list an objective (or objectives) which is/are qualifications of what it means to be in compliance with progress in that avenue.  Then, following good goal setting principles, I translate the objective(s) into measurable goals. (A common failure in goal setting is to fail to define measurable goals for your objectives, preventing you from being able to rationally/objectively define when you’ve met the objective.) Finally, I create action steps which, as they are completed, will bring me closer to completing the measurable goals. These action steps can usually be conveniently scheduled in outlook with the calendar or task manager.

I want to add a final note to remind blog readers that while this method of qualifying and quantifying the Christian life appeals to me (perhaps I truly was born to be a Methodist who prefer a methodical and systematic approach to theology, which is the denomination I have found myself in these days) it’s not the ‘only’ way to approach life in Christ. In fact I am sure many may find this systematic approach as complicated, overthought, and overwhelming. I once heard a pastor report that his goal list boiled down to ‘find the next wholesome thing that needs doing in your circle of influence and do it’.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Why I Don’t Like Abstract Art

Today while meandering with my husband through the Norman Rockwell temporary exhibit at the American Art Museum (works on loan from the private collections of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas) I realized what I don’t like about modern art: it lacks a storyline. Artists such as Rockwell, Monet and many of my favorite Flemish artists are masterful storytellers and through their art they craft amazingly rich tales in a single frame. Modern abstract art instead typically attempts to convey an emotion [or several] or a philosophical/political statement. Frankly, I’d rather be pulled into a story than a statement.

Another powerful realization that came to me this afternoon is how much of an impact American art has the world over. One of the visitors to the exhibit signed the guestbook and provided his personal testimony to Norman Rockwell: as a child growing up in poverty in Columbia he glimpsed the bright and beautiful America that Rockwell depicted in the Saturday Morning Post and knew he was destined to be a part of it. (His father had brought back several years of the Post with him from a visit to New York City.) His mind was filled with the stories told by Rockwell’s art and he dreamed often of being in our country where one can relish the four freedoms - according to FDR these are:

The first is freedom of speech and expression.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way.

The third is freedom from want.

The fourth is freedom from fear.

This young man from Columbia set his life about the goal of migrating to the States and becoming a citizen and in the 1960s his dream came true. His entire life – changed forever by the impact of an American artist. What a beautiful story.

The Rockwell exhibit is on display until January 2011. If you get a chance to make it to the Washington D.C. area before then, I recommend you make time to take in the collection.

Workout Schedule for Autumn 2010

  Cardio Flexibility Strength
Mon Run ------------------- -------------------
Tue Kickboxing
or
Swim
or
Power Step
------------------- -------------------
Wed Run Pilates (week A) Weight Machines
(week B)
Thu --REST-- Yoga (week B) Weight Machines
(week A)
Fri Run ------------------- -------------------
Sat Zumba
or
Spin
or
Bike Ride
------------------- -------------------
Sun Run
or
Swim
------------------- Weight Machines

Friday, September 17, 2010

Working the C25K Program: Tips

Consolidating these here for the many people that have asked my advice for going from couch potato to runner on the C25k program:

1. Make sure you have decent running shoes. Other equipment that I have AND LOVE: wicking socks [asics], running skirts to look good while running and prevent chafing or riding up [skirtsports.com], wicking sports bra and tops [any sports store], garmin fr60 watch with heart rate monitor and shoe pod [the only way to objectively measure gains in cardio fitness- as you move through the program your resting hr should go down, your ability to stay below 170bpm during cardio should increase, your return to resting hr after workout should quicken, etc. also tracks mileage, pace, time, etc. you can buy on amazon.com]

2. Make sure your form is anti-injury: midfoot landing [versus heel strike] and try not to push off with your feet so much as lift them up using your leg muscles for each stride.
3. Make sure you stretch stretch stretch before each run. I do 10 minutes of yoga stretching before I run.


4. Make sure you warm up walk enough. I have finally gotten to the point where I can run after just a 5 minute warm up walk, but for the first gazillion sessions of this program I had to do a 10 minute warm up to get my muscles ready to run or I had hip flexor pain on my right side.


5. HYDRATE. I hit a wall early in the program b/c i wasn't drinking enough water. i used to drink like 1 glass a day, now I drink 50-80 oz a day. makes a big difference- if I forget, my ability to run the next day goes down the toilet.


6. Don't give up. Don't think you have to accomplish each session goal in a single day. My method is to keep repeating a session until I achieve it.  Almost every session is a challenge in pushing myself past where I think I can make it.

7. Unless you can actually keep a 10 minute mile pace, you will have to switch over to the distance goals sometime late in the program, otherwise at c25k graduation you won't actually be running a 5k.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

This and That

From Zechariah Chapter 1, verse 4: ‘Therefore tell the people: This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Return to me,' declares the LORD Almighty, 'and I will return to you,' says the LORD Almighty.’
I read this verse last night (I’m making my way through Zechariah) and it really jumped right off the page at me. After everything God’s people had done to each other and to him he extended this invitation. They murdered, they blasphemed, they lied, they cheated, they worshipped idols and turned their backs on God stubbornly. And yet, God wanted them to know it was as simply as turning back to him and he would respond with love. It’s the most beautiful love story.
Aside from reading scripture verses that get me emotional, I’ve been filling my time as of late with work, exercise, and trying to manage my very hectic to-do list.
The government contract of my primary employer’s ends at the conclusion of this month, so there is a lot of tasks to be completed related to that, especially a lot of technical writing (which I love, so it’s been very fulfilling). It’s been a great four years, but I’m ready to move on to something new and look forward to what God has lined up for me.
With regard to exercise, I’m still working the couch to 5k program and currently *still* battling the goals of week six, day three, making slow but steady progress.  Previously I was following the time goals (which only overlap the distance goals if you run 6mph or a 10 minute mile pace) whereas beginning with week 6 I am following the distance goals. As I’ve written about before, this is so at program graduation-week 9- I will actually be running a 5k distance; If I followed the time goals I’d be running 30 minutes at graduation, but not a full 5k. So to go from the previous longest time goal- 20 minutes  (week5d3) to the time required to run the week6d3 distance goal (2.25 miles at my pace = about 29 minutes) is going to take awhile, and I’m realistic about that. So far I’m up to 23 minutes. I lost my groove for about a week and a half as I was traveling overseas (trip report on Australia is coming soon!) and it disrupted my entire physical environment (eating patterns, sleeping, etc) but I got it back this week and am feeling great about running again.
I am now logging all my technical data about my runs and a detailed description of every workout over at Daily Mile (http://www.dailymile.com/people/jenniparks). It’s a workout community online where you can meet other runners (and hikers/bikers/swimmers/walkers/etc) and share your workouts and give each other feedback. I really like the layout and social interaction of the site and decided my blog readers here are probably tiring of the detailed workout posts clutter hence the move. If you *are* interested in the details of my workouts (how far i went, how i felt, time, etc) you can read my updates over there at any time. They’re also being syndicated to my facebook account so you’ll see them show up in your feed list if you’re on FB and friends with me there. Otherwise, I will still post general progress updates over here with regard to where I am in the program overall and any significant physical milestones or emotional revelations that come through running.
I don’t think I noted it before, but Jonathan and I joined a new fitness facility in Manassas. The new gym is the same price as our old one, but has two swimming pools, jacuzzi, and hundreds of cardio and fitness classes every week. It’s also just about the same distance from our house as the old gym so it works out perfectly.
As always, I am juggling a lot of activities and projects (besides work and exercise described above). I’m still leading the NoVA Walkers meetup group and need to get some hikes scheduled on the calendar for autumn (will carve time out to do that this weekend). I’m organizer of the NoVA Travelers meetup group and we have several trips upcoming: New England Fall Foliage Tour, NYC Culinary Weekend, Spa Weekend in Vegas, Christmas Lights in Austria, and a two week trip to Thailand. A lot of amazing journeys, which means a lot of detailed itineraries for me to plan for the group’s enjoyment. And there is always a myraid of social activities planned with my friends – movie nights, dance classes, horseback riding, etc.
There’s a bit of turmoil at our church; the men who had been pastoring for the past few years have either all died or been transferred (local congregation does not have control over pastor assignments in the Methodist church) and we now have two new pastors. The lead is a charming older gentleman (voice twin of Dr. Lynn Ames, so it’s a bit eerie) who presents a lot of thoughtful sermons punctuated with a nervous chuckle(toastmasters could swoop in for a rescue training perhaps).  The associate pastor is a granola type who is all about living in peace and harmony with each other and the earth and fellow animals. She’s very nice.  Still, we realize that we’ve haven’t yet been able to make a solid connection to our fellow congregants (other than our Monday night group of folks our age) or the church ministries in the 5 years we’ve been attending. We don’t think it’s all on us. There’s something slightly broken about the church’s operations that’s not facilitating ministry and mission and get-involvedness. I couldn’t tell you exactly what’s wrong or how to fix it but we are thinking of moving on to another church home that isn’t broken in this way. So we’re going to try out Grace United Methodist (just down the road from us in the opposite direction of our current church) and see how we fit. We briefly considered attending the Manassas Presbyterian Church but they are so blatantly politically liberal it’s nauseating.
Our families are hanging in there. Jon’s family is doing well (as usual- they’re pretty put together and rarely have any major problems). My parents continue to decline in health and I find myself pulling away from them more as required to protect myself from their dysfunction. 
I got to spend a few hours with my uncle Lucien while we were on layover in LA earlier this month and that was very pleasant. He’s nothing like my dad, despite being his younger brother. He shared some insights with me about my father that I found troubling. It seems my grandmother was *exactly* the same sort of parent as my father in terms of impossible standards and constant air of disapproval and disappointment.  Hard to believe my father incorporated all of that into his parenting style when he had first hand experience of how awful it was to be treated that way.  Uncle Lucien was exposed to that parenting as well, but rejected it. He would not grovel and self-abase to please his mother and perhaps the most interesting thing that came of it is that my grandmother was nicer to him than to my father. That makes me very sad for my father. It must have been hard to be ridiculed and jump through hoops to please and never be good enough while your brother who refused to play the game was lavished with praise and love. People act so strangely. I cannot find a way to explain my grandmother’s behavior toward her sons, nor my father’s behavior toward me. I’m just glad we decided not to have any children so that there is no danger of perpetuating the dysfunction. 
I keep loosely in touch with most of my sisters and brothers (there are 8) and most of their lives are very different than mine. I wish those of them that don’t know God could find their way to a relationship to Christ and receive  healing.
Our dogs are doing as well as could be expected. Jenna (13.5 years) is moving much slower these days and now can only walk as far as the mailbox before tiring and needing to come home and rest. Her arthritis is starting to hurt her more we think and we need to get her on pain meds from the doc soon. Julia (either 5 years or 6 years depending on whether you ask Jon or I) is really behaving better since Jon started running her 5k every morning. Guess she really needed the exercise to be happy and healthy.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

My First 5k Race

This morning my husband and I both ran our first 5k race together. (Technically he ran a race or two as a kid but that was a long time ago).

With regard to the c25k program, I am currently on week 6, able to run 2 miles with a 3 minute break in between, or able to run 1.75 miles straight through.

We got to the race location and I had a bit of anxiety that I wasn’t expecting. Before arriving, I just assumed it would be like any other run session; I didn’t know I was going to feel jittery and nervous about the race. I hadn’t seen anyone write about that before in the running communities (maybe it’s unique to me then?). The net effect was that my heart rate was up to 125bpm before I ever started running!  (Normal resting hr is 74 for me). My second surprise was the pace at which everyone took off from the starting line. From reviewing previous year’s race results I *knew* I would not be the slowest in the pack, but when I started off with everyone else and saw my Garmin was reporting my start speed as an 8.5 min mile I panicked. I was already toward the back of the pack and I didn’t want to be last but i knew there was no way I could maintain that kind of pace. Not when my normal run pace is just under 13 min/mile. After a third of a mile I had to slow to near my normal pace and was relieved to see plenty of others had slowed down as well also.

As expected, I was not able to run the 3.10 miles straight through- there was some walking intervals involved. However my run times were faster than ever before, giving me an overall pace of a 12:47 min mile. I placed second in my age group (30-34 and, yes, there were actually more than 2 of us in the bracket) and although toward the back of the back for most of the race am relieved to say I wasn’t last in the race (probably about 6-8 people behind me). 

Also it turns out that my first 5k was not actually a 5k but a 5k + .06 miles. Since it was organized by a church the theme was the 3:16 Freedom Run (as in John 3:16) and the actual distance was 3:16. This kinda screwed me up at the end b/c I launched into a sprint at the 3.05 mile mark at a pace of 7:30 min/mile. Would have been able to keep that up if the race had actually been a 5k, but with the surprise .06 at the end I had to slow back down. I nearly stopped and collapsed just before the end except that a good friend happened to be there (who is a teacher and coach by profession) and he came over and ran with me, cheering me on the last little bit. For this I was very grateful. My husband also ran beside me at the end too and that was awesome.

My husband performed spectacularly. He finished right around 23 minutes and placed first in his age bracket. He was in the top 10 finishers overall also. He is amazing and I am so proud of him!

Our next 5k is in October on halloween.