Wednesday, August 31, 2011


You know the temptation tunnel at Wal-Mart? The one shoppers maneuver through on their way to the checkout stand, lured to each side by candy, chips, lip balm, lint rollers, and all manner of stuff somebody is pretty sure we'll decide we need right now? That's where we recently found this:

Minty and fruity both in the same colorful package. It's gum for the indecisive!

Their slogan suggests something else, too:

UP2U. Here you always have a choice...

There is something about humanity that values choice. To choose is to exert power. That's why "Get your pajamas on" is often replaced by "Do you want to wear your red jammies or your green jammies?" -- offering children a sense of control in their world.

I wonder if that's what this gum is ultimately designed to do for adults, too.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


I have a humble little spiral notebook, made all the more humble-looking by the random papers with which it is stuffed, the scrawled writing with which it is filled, and the edges tattered from much handling. I dropped it recently, and the randomly stuffed papers went flying. I picked them up, and noticed this simple list on a "scratch" piece of paper:

I remember the day and the conversation which inspired this list. My attention was gently directed more toward God as we had talked. I realized His grace to a new degree, was emboldened by this reality, and sought to extend grace to others.

In all the activities, relationships, situations and encounters of life, some interactions in particular cause something good to take root, develop strength, and produce fruit. I am grateful for that day's good gifts, represented by my humble-looking little list. And I am inspired toward the character that leaves such memories with others.

Monday, August 29, 2011


NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The idea seems to be that pretty much anyone's first novel is going to be bad, so you might as well write it and get it over with by giving yourself permission to write "laughably awful yet lengthy prose." Making it a shared event is a lot more fun, too. So a bunch of people (there were 200,000 in 2010) sign up with their intention to write at least a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. That averages out to around 1700 words per day, which is perfectly doable for those with words to spare and a willingness to unite with others in foregoing perfection.

I love the idea. My husband is the one who introduced me to it, and he encouraged me to join in. He forgot something, though -- I don't have a novel to write or the desire to do so. Fiction is also beyond me, it seems, especially sustaining even a semi-coherent plot for that long.

And so, persistent and encouraging fellow that he is, my husband introduced me later to NaBloPoMo -- National Blog Posting Month. Like its novel-writing cousin, NaBloPoMo emphasizes consistency above quality. Fiction or nonfiction, short or long, sustained plot or completely disjointed, and all with a commitment of posting daily for just one month -- that I can do. I decided to try it. Yesterday marked one full month of posts, and I plan to continue through Wednesday to mark a calendar month, too. (That's like posting for two months, right?)

This discipline has pushed me to put words to experiences, and that has been good. Questions have come to mind along the way. Why do I blog? Where does this intersect with other writing, and where is it best to keep some separation? What is worth writing? And how much am I simply adding to the excessive digital noise of our culture? The questions themselves are good to ponder, too.

This paragraph is where I would put a conclusion, something to offer a satisfying conclusion to what has been written already. That's part of good writing, right? But I haven't reached a conclusion in much of this; there are still plenty of thoughts in process. Even more, I've got places to go and people to see, and that is a higher priority right now. And so, happily aligned with the philosophy of imperfect daily posting, I will declare this point to be...
The End.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Life Together

"Even though a gifted speaker can inspire people to change their lives, the long-term cementing of that change depends on more intimate and consistent interactions. It is in more personal interactions" that significant influence takes place. (MaryKate Morse)

I tend to enjoy workshops, seminars, conferences -- pretty much anything in my areas of interest that creates fodder for thought, especially if it also creates space for conversations with others about whatever is presented. I've attended a decent number of these events, often listening to an abundance of truly gifted speakers who speak inspiring thoughts and do so in inspiring ways. Such people have had some influence on my life.

There are other people in my circles who are not as well known, with whom I have more frequent and personal interaction. Not all are particularly gifted speakers, writers, or even thinkers. Each one is unique, and many use their abilities very well, but they don't necessarily stand out in a crowd. Many are quiet and few people -- themselves included -- really realize the magnitude of their impact. Still, some of these "average" (in areas more popularly discussed) people have had a significant influence in my life.

What makes the difference? Presence and proximity, interacting with them in everyday life and special circumstances and stuff in between. Seeing how they respond to things that come their way. A friend who has encountered struggles and faced them well has far more credibility in my mind than a ten-foot-tall disembodied head on a screen.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Photo Memories

CPE Graduation
A friend gave me photos from CPE graduation. Fun and serious, they document the event well. These photos show an occasion that matters to me and include people I love with both thoughtful expressions and happy smiles. What I love most about them is the memories they evoke.

That's really what photos do, I think. They often mark special occasions -- births, graduations, weddings, and the like. Cameras come out when people gather and we snap away, attempting to capture those moments so we can savor them again later. Images bring stories to mind, and those stories are far more three-dimensional than mere pictures.

This is us!
I pulled out our wedding photos this evening. Looking through that book brought smiles as I remembered the engagement, the marriage preparation, and the wedding planning. The ceremony itself was a solemn celebration; we were both serious and joyful. My mom got together with some of her friends to prepare the reception, which was both comfortable and beautiful. I am glad we have pictures from our wedding.

I was reminded of this mostly because my husband and I had a portrait session today, in honor of our anniversary. About the only photos we'd had taken in the past thirteen or so years have been for things like government-issued ID, so this was a special event. It is also an unfamiliar one, and we weren't quite sure what to expect.  But we moved around and smiled under Steve's direction as he checked lighting and made adjustments and did whatever other things that photographers do, and I look forward to seeing the results.

Photos capture pieces of moments and evoke memories, bringing to mind stories beyond the images themselves. It was fun to work with Steve and Alyssa today, and especially to be with my husband. For me, that contentment is the memory I savor.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Mindless Routines

There are days when everything just sails along smoothly, and all of my plans fall into place as expected. Today wasn't one of those days.

There are days that don't go according to the original plan, and little course corrections along the way keep me on track. Today wasn't one of those days, either.

There are days in which little deviations from familiar paths throw me off because I am following my routines rather than actually thinking complete thoughts. Today was definitely one of those days.

Because I allowed my attention to drift too much away from the routine moments of this day, I couldn't find a gas station, lacked the wherewithal to open the gas cap, left my laptop in the rental car when I returned it, didn't notice the missing computer for three hours, neglected to arrange adequate transportation for an appointment, and more.

Routines can be wonderful, allowing greater focus on ideas, relationships, and interactions rather than devoting much more thought to everyday tasks. Still, when I allow even good habits to replace attention in the moment, I usually wind up tripping over whatever itty-bitty little stumbling blocks present themselves.

I am hopeful this evening for the nightly routine of sleep -- ultimately demanded by our bodies, and also a welcome gift. It is opportunity to reboot my mind, reorient my soul, and start fresh tomorrow.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Being Alone

Sirius likes to be with his people. He's okay when we leave, but if we are home, he has always stayed pretty close. When we move from room to room, he tends to follow. He has mellowed with age and lies around a lot, but still prefers to be nearby and will usually move with us from room to room, then settle in again.

The Loyal Ground Crew
One of his pet peeves is when I go up on the roof to service the swamp cooler. It doesn't seem to be out of concern for my safety; he is just upset that I have disappeared. He stays on the ground with Mark (though he has tried to navigate the ladder a couple of times) and circles restlessly until I am done. He likes to be with his people.

On a recent evening when we were settled in the living room, Sirius meandered around the corner into the dining area. He circled a few times before lying down on the cool linoleum floor. He was content and comfortable... for awhile.

Then we heard noises. It wasn't really a growl, wasn't really a whine. It was just... concerned.  It was soft at first, then increased in intensity and volume, toward a bark. The tone worried me, so I got up to check on him. He was still flattened out on the cool floor, just like before, looking comfortable except for the sad face. When I walked into the room, he stopped making that pathetic noise, raised his wonderfully expressive eyebrows, and greeted me with a tail wag.

Apparently he had looked around and realized he was alone. His people were not around! And he was lonely.

Happy Sirius
He's done that again a few times. "Sirius," I reason with him, "You left the room and walked into here. You are the one who moved. We are fifteen feet away, just where you left us." And he wags, glad that I am talking to him, happier again with his lot in life.

Silly dog.

And yet, when I'm honest, I see that I've done that a few times, too. I have stepped back a little, for any number of reasons, and have sometimes forgotten to come back. Then, after awhile, I have felt too alone.

It is good sometimes to step back from relationships, even just for the benefit that can come through healthy solitude. And it is good, too, to be in community. My silly dog has reminded me of that lately.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

It's Not All About Me

During college, I had a summer job one year in food service at Mount Rainier. I had a great boss, good coworkers, fascinating people from all over the world and, of course, the incredible surroundings. I loved working there.

Of course, not all days are equally joyful, and not all people are equally reasonable. There was one time when the electricity went out because a big truck had run off the road and hit a power pole. It took a couple of hours to get it fixed, being on a mountain and all, so our cooking options were limited that afternoon. One guy came in with his family and ordered burgers. I helpfully explained that we couldn't cook burgers because we didn't have power due to an auto accident, but I'd be happy to make some fresh deli-type sandwiches. This was clearly not acceptable to him. "If we wanted sandwiches, we would have ordered sandwiches. We want burgers!"

He seemed to think that I would fix the problem if he just kept talking, loudly and insistently. He did pause expectantly a few times, as if to see if I'd started cooking yet. I listened respectfully, acknowledged his frustration, and offered other options for feeding his family. When it was clear that I wasn't going to provide burgers, he started yelling, escalating toward a full-blown temper tantrum. I thought he might throw himself on the floor, kicking and pounding. He seemed to genuinely believe the world revolves around him and his family, and anything that does not go his way is a personal offense.

This fellow didn't get the burgers he ordered, and it ruined his day. I don't want to live that way.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

It's All About Me

Good news -- two entire corporations have merged and reorganized just for me!

It wasn't in the Money section of the paper, probably because that would be too impersonal. Instead they sent me a special card in the mail:

It's about time somebody realized things should revolve around me.

Although there's some crazy lady on a pharmacy commercial who hasn't figured that out. She seems to think it's all about her! "At my pharmacy, it's all about ME. My name is Ellen," she says, "and this is MY pharmacy." I guess it makes sense she'd believe that, because even the store's sign says now that this is indeed Ellen's pharmacy.

I'll bet Ellen is surprised when she finds out I get telecommunications, and she just gets a pharmacy. Mine is much cooler.

Monday, August 22, 2011


Photo by Stefan Redel
The last load of laundry is tumbling in the dryer now. The laundry room holds piles of clothes, some still warm. It is a happy place.

With a washer and dryer in our home, I rather enjoy laundry day. There isn't a need to scrub, or even to hang clothes on a line outside. The machines do most of the work; my job is to sort and fold. It requires just a few minutes each hour, and then I can return to whatever other tasks need attention elsewhere.

By the time I'm done, unruly piles of dirty clothes have been transformed into fresh, warm stacks of clean items that we can pull from easily on a busy morning. Laundry brings order to my closet, order to my mornings and, in the process, order to my heart and mind.

I like laundry day.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Man I Married

"That's the person I'm going to marry" -- I've heard people talk about having this thought when meeting the person who would eventually become their spouse. I'm not one of those few. My husband and I met on our first day of college classes. It was a new environment, a new experience, a new challenge, and I was focused on all of that. I wasn't looking for a boyfriend, and certainly not for a husband.

Mark and I got to know each other over time. We took the same calculus class, played in the same band, enjoyed some of the same friends, had majors in the same building. Friendship developed. He started leaving the science building about the same time my Monday night lab ended, then he eventually waited more boldly just outside the lab room so he could walk me back to my dorm.

I liked his sense of humor, his quick mind, his creativity. He worked hard in his campus job and I respected his determination in tackling the various challenges he encountered there. When I accidentally deleted my entire hard drive, he told me how to fix it rather than dwelling on my mistake. I appreciated when he helped me in various ministries leading kids, especially because I knew it was a new experience for him. He even went roller skating with me and a bunch of 3rd/4th grade girls. I was drawn to his patient gentleness with the children. He treated his parents and mine with respect.

Eventually we began "dating" -- nothing fancy, mostly just more intentional about spending time together, and more honest about acknowledging the love growing between us.

And eventually, he proposed. He was not formal or flashy about it, and I did not squeal my response. It was just a simple, joyful interaction. Of course we wanted to get married!

It's been fifteen years, and through trial and error we have learned some things along the way. Now he lets me know when he'll be later than planned, for example, and I'm better at the balance of attentive nurturing and letting him rest when he is ill. We've established a mutually agreeable -- and flexible -- division of household tasks. We have learned to communicate more effectively. And when something breaks down between us, we have learned to offer grace.

I love my husband, and I am glad to be married to him.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reporting Unknowns

A short article on the front page of a local newspaper awhile back reported that police chased a robbery suspect near a mall, and at least one officer was shot.

There were other words, too, but they were pretty pointless.  They didn't add much actual information -- "up to two" officers shot, their condition "not immediately available," the suspect "may have" been injured, there was "a body" near the area (though nothing about whose body it was, or even whether it was related to the robbery or chase).  Sources cited were police scanner traffic and a hospital spokesman, not any interaction with the police department, suspect, witnesses, etc.

It had so little information that it wasn't really a news article.  In fact, it might be said to cross the line into rumor -- not really knowing what's going on, but talking about it anyway.

I wonder...  Why write even that much about that little?  And why put so much non-information on the front page of the paper?  Why not just give 1-2 sentences for breaking news stories and tell us that a story will be published when the story is known?  What does the general public really lose by waiting one day for reporters to learn what actually happened before trying to write about it?

I'm not seriously annoyed with the paper, mostly because the writing did consistently suggest/admit how amazingly little was known.  There was some honesty about it, and the nature of print media increases the likelihood that the healthy sense of uncertainty in the article will remain until further notice.

What bothers me about the article isn't the article itself, but rather seeing that kind of thing happen in conversations -- many words with little information, not really knowing what's going on in a situation but talking about it anyway.

It brings up a good question:  Why talk so much about so little?  It so easily drifts into interpretation which becomes rumor.  These conversations often fail to keep the honesty of the newspaper because human interpretations are often accepted or rejected before facts are known, and details become distorted further through further conversations.  Unlike a printed article which can be read many times by many different people without changing, conversational "reporting" tends to change the "facts" as it spreads.  Assuming for now that the conversation has the potential to be helpful in some way -- which sometimes is assuming too much -- what do we really lose by waiting to learn what actually happened before telling someone else about it?

"When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example.  Although they are so large and driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.  It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell" (James 3:3-6).

These are strong words, but considering the damage done through rumors, strong words are needed.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Would You Prefer...?

Would you prefer...
mild nausea or a bad paper cut?
listening to a personal story or telling a personal story?
country music or classical music?
a weekend with two friends or a weekend with twelve friends?
being two feet tall or being nine feet tall?
being eaten alive by lions or being eaten alive by ants?
working with computers or working with power tools?
skydiving or bungee jumping?
being a superhero or being married to a superhero?
camping or Disney World?
watching TV alone or doing chores with a friend?

I started a class discussion several years ago with questions like these. Apparently some folks have definite preferences about stuff like how they would prefer to be eaten alive.

A piece of our fence blew down in a strong wind a couple of months ago. I made some calls to fencing professionals so we could get it fixed. The ones I called don't serve our area, or didn't call me back, or called back but didn't come. Grrr.

We had never done fencing beyond replacing the occasional slat. It seemed like we should be able to figure it out, but getting that one post replaced seemed pretty overwhelming, mostly because of the cement. I didn't want to deal with it and didn't even know where to start. Argh.

But now look!

Friends offered to join us in the project, which added much-needed encouragement, effort, and expertise to the situation. What had felt like an unmanageable task became possible. And now, a full day and an evening later, we have a fence again!

Fencing is still not something we would do recreationally. Given a choice between building a fence together or watching TV alone, I'm sure all of us would have enjoyed some more television in the day. But with generous hearts and within good friendships, our friends chose to join us in fencing. And with grateful hearts and within those good friendships, we were very happy to work together. It was a lovely gift.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Veterans Memorial Park

I was at Utah Veterans Memorial Park earlier this week to honor a veteran who recently died and to serve those who have loved him. It was a significant time; I felt privileged to be there. There is much I could write, but not here. The story of this man and his loved ones is not mine to tell.

The grounds, though -- that is something different. I arrived early to prepare myself personally for the experience before addressing the final details with others, and spent a few minutes afterwards, too. It was important time, and I was grateful for that physical space.

The chapel's design draws the eye upward, as if to heaven. It stands in contrast to the grounds, as if quietly yet boldly proclaiming its presence rather than blending in. Death matters, and how we acknowledge it matters. This chapel creates space for that truth.

There is space outside the chapel to stand, sit, wait, talk. It is not very "practical," as it offers very little protection from the elements. But I see great symbolism in this overhead structure, as if quietly reminding me of how little separates me from this life and the next. And it is a peaceful spot.

Flowers are similarly "impractical" because they serve no concrete purpose, and then they die. At the same time, that is why they are important. They represent the fragility and beauty of life, the invisible fragrance-like influence surrounding each person, the hope and courage in continuing to move forward after loss. Flowers can communicate love and support like the gentle presence of a friend.

The courtyard outside the chapel entrance has a statue at its center which silently greets visitors. The salute portrays constant respect. Many are buried here long after their time in the military has ended, but their service is not forgotten. Men and women of the military, both past and present, need to know the gratitude of the nation for which they sacrifice. As a nation, we sometimes need those reminders, too.

There is a huge flag on the grounds, and smaller ones at some of the sites. It symbolizes the ideals which unite us as a country, not the policies which divide us. The flags suggest character and sacrifice, and their presence shows these in memory of men and women buried here.

Many people work here, caring for details of funerals, burials, and facility care. For them, I suppose the day-to-day functions may become mundane. But how they do their jobs is important to those whose loved ones are buried here, those for whom at least one gravesite holds special significance.

Like much in the military, the grave markers are pretty uniform. As I walked, I read the inscriptions. Most simply state name, service, and dates, but each represents one individual, one life.

And each life changes the world.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Good People, Attractive Companies

Paul Rolly
Paul Rolly's article in the Salt Lake Tribune today reports good news -- five happy stories of positive character displayed by regular people.

One of the stories highlights a check-out clerk at Smith's who knows a long-time customer by name and responded protectively when she saw his stolen wallet being used for a purchase. Another tells of a UPS driver who paused just briefly along his route to help a mom and her kids. A third tells of Jerry Sloan, whose name is still associated with the Jazz, fishing car keys out of a dumpster for a woman who had accidentally tossed them there.

It could be argued that the woman at Smith's was a liability due to the potential danger of taking something from the thief, and that the UPS driver used work time to do something other than his job. In some companies, these employees might be reprimanded for their actions. With that in mind, it is worth noting that Smith's, UPS, and the Jazz all look better because these three people took just a few moments to be kind.

Little kindnesses like these are worthwhile on their own; they can also be good for business.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Quiet Days at Home

From a prayer recorded in my journal in September 2003:
"God, today is Wednesday. I'm not very good at Wednesdays yet. But the laundry is going, the dishes are drying, and the kitchen is clean..."

Nearly eight years later, I still remember that day.

It was hard to quit my teaching job, and the transition from that daily life to a new one was challenging. Knowing that quietness and solitude are important, and abundantly aware that Sundays would not fit the bill at that time, I set aside Wednesdays to step away from work (that is, church-related tasks).

This was after I'd been teaching for six years. It wasn't a traditional schedule with summer breaks; this school had an additional summer term of classes required of all students. So when I stopped teaching, it was the first time in six years that I went home at night without lesson plans to write and/or grading to complete. Six years! In fact, because that teaching job had been my first after college graduation, it was really the first time in my adulthood that I went home at night without a big pile of work waiting to be done.

Truth be told, I didn't like this new quietness of Wednesdays.  There was something missing and it felt like a gaping hole in my life schedule. It was sheer determination that kept me from working on (most) Wednesdays. I felt agitated. Those days did not feel very restful. I redirected my energy into things like cleaning the kitchen and doing laundry, which subdued the restlessness just enough. It felt like a lot of work to be still.

Time has passed, and over time, I have become more comfortable spending days off quietly at home. It sometimes still feels like an effort to step away from work for a full day, but far more doable. And I find that it helps me to re-orient a bit, to see more clearly as I tackle the tasks on the other six days.

I am grateful for quiet days at home.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cleaning the Can and Keeping the Trash

I tend to function from a to-do list. Each week it has more items on it than I can manage during that time, and I don't actually expect to complete everything there, but it is a place to keep track of what needs to be done, what merits attention with less urgency, and which other things might be worth considering. When I look at the week ahead, I prioritize based on a variety of factors. It usually works pretty well.

Sometimes, though, my priorities list becomes a bit distorted along the way. I occasionally find myself focusing time and energy on tasks that are neither urgent nor important, simply because they are easy. Getting those tasks done allows me to tell myself that I have tackled things, without requiring much investment -- not inherently bad, except to the degree that it keeps me from focusing on what is most important.

While driving home recently, I saw a bright yellow truck with happy-faced cartoon trash cans painted onto it in several places, along with company information. From all that, I imagined a vehicle dedicated to washing out trash cans, and I laughed. It was a funny thought.

Turns out, it is also reality. Their business intends to "help you protect your family by making sure your garbage can remains sanitized and bacteria free."

It is indeed very important to protect families, and good sanitation is an important part of overall health. Germy trash cans probably fit in the category of potential threat, like the deer mice. Cleaning out mucky trash cans probably fits on the to-do list somewhere.

At the same time, there may be much bigger issues -- in families, in finances, in friendships, in workplaces, and everywhere else. It is sometimes tempting to become distracted into focusing much time and energy on relatively small issues in interactions because the little things are easier to deal with than the more difficult ones that could make a world of difference.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Old Fireworks

Photo by Emadrazo
We had some old fireworks. We're a little cautious about keeping explosives in our garage anyway, and even more so after they've had time for decay. But what to do with them? If they're unstable, lighting them on fire didn't seem like a good option. And if they're dead, lighting them might be pretty much impossible -- but we would have to get uncomfortably close to potential explosions before we could even mostly-know.

So... I called the local fire department. "Bring 'em in," she said. "We'll dispose of them."

And so I did.

The best part is that we live in a country that can usually appreciate glaring rockets and unpredictable explosions as celebratory rather than threatening. And then, when we've got potentially hazardous stuff we don't know what to do with, we have a local agency with the expertise and intent to deal with it.

We really are blessed beyond reason.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


"Blinkers don't turn cars; drivers turn cars!"

That's what my driver's ed teacher kept saying. Just because an oncoming car's blinker blinks does not necessarily mean the car will actually turn, and not-blinking cars still turn sometimes anyway. Make decisions based on the whole car, not just the blinker, and we'll be less likely to get each other killed. As one who spent many hours riding with teenagers learning to drive, he was quite personally invested in making sure we had the skills to stay safe.

Fast-forward awhile. I am married now and settled in a home with my husband. Home ownership comes with repair and maintenance needs, so we interact periodically with people who do such work professionally.  Companies like to talk about wanting us to be happy with the final product, answering our questions, and ensuring that we'll have full confidence in their quality work, but those are just words, like flashing blinkers on a car. Speaking the words doesn't make it true.

We had an installation job done recently at home. It involved three different employees, three different appointments, and several phone calls. Everyone I talked to said pretty much the same things about providing excellent service, blah, blah, blah. Here's the great part, though -- they actually did those things! Employees showed up on time for appointments. Calls were returned promptly. They answered my abundance of questions. Wayne was careful to keep from making a mess as he moved stuff from the house, then explained everything he'd done and taught me how to use the equipment before leaving for the day. Tony called back the next day to make sure the job he had quoted was done to my satisfaction. When one part hadn't been done due to a miscommunication, Mike came out the next morning to make the change. Through the whole thing, the various people of this company spoke and acted in ways that were aligned with each other.

The word "integrity" (related to "integer") comes from Latin and paints a picture of being "untouched, undivided, whole." A person with integrity has one whole self, and that one self shows up consistently. Words reflect values, and actions follow both.

That's the kind of person I want to be.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Persuasion vs. Understanding

I read an article recently from a woman stunned by the expenditures of a friend's wedding. The author writes about costs, values, priorities, and so forth. She says she won't talk with her friends about wedding expenses because the couple is apparently happy about their plans and comfortable with the associated bills.

The article was about values and priorities being reflected in wedding planning/expenditures. What captured my attention in the writing, though, was values and priorities being reflected in conversations. The author is not comfortable with how much people often spend on weddings, then states that she is "not going to say a word" to her friends because neither party will persuade the other to change perspective. "And since they're happy, the only result I can see from saying anything at all is putting my friendships in danger. So, I'm keeping my mouth shut." It might be considered impolite, and she is "certainly not interested in risking [her] friendships just to talk about money."

As a number of commenters pointed out, the author most certainly was not "keeping her mouth shut" by writing her opinions on a very public website, airing her opinions to the whole world about this couple's decisions.

The other part that caught my attention is the implication that persuasion is the only reason friends might talk about matters in which they see things differently. With that goal in mind, it is no wonder that the author fears a conversation might threaten the relationship.

I'd like to challenge the underlying assumption, though. What if understanding, rather than persuasion, is the primary purpose of such a conversation? (If nothing else, understanding should be sought before persuasion.) I could see talking with friends about what motivates their decisions. Learn in the process what matters to them, and why. Acknowledge their plans, share their excitement, enjoy their happiness. Ask about their hopes and dreams. Seek out what drives their decisions, and how those decisions reflect their fears, values, and priorities.

That could be a really good conversation, not to mention the makings of a true friendship.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


"There are times when good words
are to be left unsaid
out of esteem for silence."

(from St. Benedict)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Why I Write

Our friend Dan is a great photographer. I am not a great photographer, but I do enjoy taking pictures, and it is mostly because of what Dan has taught me by his example. It is similar to why I write -- as a means of intentionally seeking understanding and recognizing significant meaning in everyday life, both in the scenic moments and in those which seem more mundane.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Seeing Differently

These did not look like numbers to me...
We learned Roman numerals sometime in elementary school. I remember wondering why we needed to know this system, because I didn't remember ever seeing them outside of school. Everything else in math I could see being useful in some way, but not this part. Worse, when it came to actually doing things with numbers, these ones clearly defied all the rules we'd been taught, which seemed confusing and therefore counterproductive. The teacher explained that they were used a long time ago by people living far away, which did not help with my relevance question at all.

As an adult, my respect for Roman numerals does not come from their functional usage, but simply from the process of learning itself. As I struggled to work with these rule-breaking "numbers," I could grasp just a little bit better the conceptual nature of math underlying the mechanics of it. Through Roman numerals, I saw other ways to accomplish the same purposes. And I began to realize that even something so foundational as a numbering system had been developed over time. School was not just about memorizing stuff and figuring out how to follow step-by-step instructions; sometimes it is about creating something new or re-creating it better. It is about learning to think more thoroughly and more flexibly. And it is not just acceptable to discover others' perspectives, but a desirable skill.

I still don't see the point of actually using Roman numerals in everyday life, but from what I discovered in the process, I'd say it was good use of class time.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


I'll call him George. We've talked more than once, certainly, but one conversation from a couple of years ago has planted itself in my soul.

He had called me on that day with a task at hand and information to be shared. I was glad to hear from him... but not for long. I was caught off guard by some of his statements, became defensive, and had no idea how to respond. The more we talked, the angrier I became. The angrier I became, the less I spoke. The less I spoke, the more he talked. It became a downward spiral. I was relieved when we finally ended the call, though still not at ease because there was now a big barrier between us.

He actually would be pretty easy for me to avoid -- our paths generally do not cross unless we're intentional about it -- and I thought about just ignoring the conflict. After all (it seemed to me), I had tried to speak reasonably and George had responded unreasonably, and he sounded pretty adamant about his position. There wasn't much hope in continuing, right?

But I couldn't in good conscience just leave it alone. I also couldn't shake the feeling that his unreasonable-seeming behavior was not what I expected from what I knew of his character. And even if we could never find common ground on the issue at hand, we needed to restore the relationship. And to do that, we had to talk again. I'd have to call him.

I dreaded that call.

What would I say? I wasn't sure. In the end, it came out something like this:  We talked earlier, and I did not do well with that conversation. I'd like a do-over, at least on my part. Would you be willing to start over, too? Can we try it again?

George paused, just briefly. I don't know what was going through his mind in those moments, but when he spoke, his answer was a decisive and gracious yes.

And we did talk. Haltingly, authentically, slowly, patiently, awkwardly, kindly. I discovered his perspective, and what he'd said to me earlier made sense in that context. He worked to understand my perspective, too, and to make sense of how I'd responded. We tracked down a significant misunderstanding where our interaction had gotten off track, and we cleared that up. Beyond clarifying the miscommunication was an even greater need -- the need for reconciliation. I asked forgiveness for shutting him out. He apologized for the part he had played in the misunderstanding. It was plenty uncomfortable for awhile as we talked. By the end of that second call, though, the huge invisible wall between us was gone.

When I saw George again recently, I thought again of that memory and realized it is a distinctly peaceful one. It would have been very different if I'd tried to ignore it and hope it would go away. My path and George's still don't cross much, but when they do, our interactions are marked by genuine warmth, love and respect. I am grateful for the friendship and the influence of this godly man in my life.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Dog Smarts

Sirius has always been a little "off." Not unbelievably so, just enough to notice. For example, fireworks and thunder didn't bother him at all when he was a pup, but the shutting of a car door several houses away often triggered a round of fierce barking. Often we had no idea what it was that had him upset.

Occasionally, he heard noises at night. We'd be settled in and half-asleep when he would spring to full alert, loudly warning us of something dangerous beyond the bedroom door. We discovered that if we opened the door so he could go get whatever-it-was, he would run just a few steps into the hallway before looking back anxiously for us to follow, or maybe just hoping we'd get in front and take the lead. It was scary, after all. Rather than going it alone, he'd head back into the room and (eventually) go to sleep.

One night was different. When the dog went on alert late that night, I tried to shush him, and it worked about as poorly as usual. Finally I dragged my weary body out of bed to open the bedroom door... and the dog took off down the stairs.

I did not like this little development at all. Was Sirius chasing an intruder around the house? I wanted to know, but was decidedly unenthusiastic about actually going downstairs to find out.

When I heard the crackling in the kitchen, though, I knew where he had gone. Sirius had been eyeing a pile of leftover chocolate chip cookies since we'd brought them home earlier that day, and when he realized the opportunity, he bolted downstairs and grabbed the big plastic tray off the counter, scarfing cookies down as fast as he could before we caught on.

He looks like a Labrador retriever, but I'm pretty sure we've got an 85-pound weasel.

Friday, August 5, 2011


Susan Scott
Author Susan Scott drew my attention a few years ago to the common practice of using "but" where an "and" might work better. The conjunction "but" suggests two ideas (and subsequently two people) in opposition, while "and" generally escapes that flavor.

Scott coaches CEOs, so it makes sense that she uses a business illustration to reach her target audience. Consider the differences between these two statements:
  • I know you want more time to complete the project, but the deadline is looming. You want me to help out in Boston, but I only have a small window in which to make some critical things happen in Seattle. I'd like to help you, but I have no easy choices right now. You seem stressed, but I expect you to deliver this project on time with minimal involvement on my part.
  • I know you want more time to compete the project and the deadline is looming. You want me to help out in Boston, and I only have a small window in which to make some critical things happen in Seattle. I'd like to help you, and I have no easy choices right now. You seem stressed, and I expect you to deliver this project on time with minimal involvement on my part.
I imagine the first paragraph with increasing tension. In contrast, the "and" of the second acknowledges the reality of both perspectives, allowing more space for each and communicating greater respect in the process.

A few years later, I'm still thinking about it and find that examples abound way beyond the business world, too. Today's installment comes from a paragraph giving background on adoption in the culture to which the Apostle Paul wrote:

"The child... could now use the term 'Abba' ('Daddy'),
a strong but intimate word
used only by children with their father."

It's a sentence that could really use an upgrade from "but" to "and."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Looking at Mice

Mice found some food and nesting supplies in our garage a few years back, and took up residence there. The little mouse family grew awhile before we noticed, and it took a few weeks of strategic "trapping" to get rid of them. I don't want mice in the garage, and I am not against using force to get rid of them.

That said, they're really not hideous beasts. They are small, generally shy critters with soft fur and curious minds. Their bones are tiny and fragile. When they take up unwanted residence in the garage, they're just looking for a place to live, not being willfully destructive, bent on evil.

Such a message doesn't sell exterminator services, though, which is probably why the ad for a local exterminator included this:

The message? These creatures are like aliens with their weird names, bulging eyes, sharp facial features, and tails like a big snake. They'll eat lots of things -- they might even eat your children! And if they can't do that, they may poison or starve your whole family.

Good heavens. If we're willing to get this worked up about a deer mouse, it's no surprise when we see danger lurking in all sorts of pretty benign places.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


I stood with my feet in the waves at the ocean shore early one morning a few months back. Colors of the sky shifted perceptibly as the sun rose over the horizon. I listened to the waves, and it was like hearing them through my rib cage. It was glorious. I closed my eyes and stretched, saving the experience.

Yesterday at The Gateway, children were playing in the fountain, mixing their delighted squeals with the music playing through the speakers as they leaped around in pursuit of the dancing waters. One little guy, maybe two years old, stood with eyes and mouth wide open in joyful amazement. Adults stood back from the water, watching the kids, taking photos, smiling, laughing. The atmosphere felt joyful.

And I noticed the flowers nearby. On this beautiful sunny day, I imagined them leaning back, stretching their faces toward the sky with so many arms stretched out, soaking in the moment.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Communication Matters

I looked into learning biblical Greek awhile back. Probably not to become a scholar of the language, but perhaps enough to have some basic conversation about it. My science background helped during the alphabet part because Greek letters are often used in physics and such. But I found myself annoyed by the little accent marks as we went just a bit further into the grammar. I wondered: are those really necessary? Can I get by without them?

That memory came to me recently when I saw a headline in the paper:
'It's been an absolute joy,' retiring judge says

Consider what happens with a tiny shift in punctuation:
'It's been an absolute joy retiring,' judge says

Yep, punctuation matters.

This reminds me of a bulletin in our church awhile back. A couple which had been quite involved there for many years was preparing to move. An announcement in the bulletin read "They're leaving!" An exclamation point suggests emotion, but which one? Is it angry, joyful, distraught, relieved, surprised? I couldn't help but think of a whole list of interpretations.

A friend recently posted a Facebook status update: "We're outta here!" I wanted to "like" the post because I was happy for them, then got distracted from that as I realized that such a response is linguistically ambiguous -- happiness about their vacation vs. having them gone.

Some of this is arguably silly, overly concerned with others' perceptions. Still, I can't help but think of some decidedly un-silly encounters, like when a friend was angry with me about something I'd said to another -- and the heart of my statement was significant misrepresented even while the quote was close enough to accurate. Or when another conversation became a little tense after (we figured out eventually) my friend interpreted a pronoun to refer to something nearly opposite of what I'd intended. Or when I felt thoroughly discouraged and hurt by a voicemail that sounded (in the context of my day) like an accusation, left by a friend who actually meant something very different.

"What you see and what you hear depends a great deal
on where you are standing...
[and] on what sort of person you are."
(C.S. Lewis in The Magicians Nephew)

Our perceptions are always shaded by previous experiences, ambiguities in language, situational knowledge, expectations, worldview, personalities, and more. I appreciate people who offer me the benefit of the doubt along with a plentiful portion of grace, especially when I've communicated poorly, and I want to be that kind of person for others, too.

I want to check my assumptions and my perceptions, to consider from others' perspectives both as I listen and as I speak, and to ask clarifying questions, because sometimes I am quite mistaken (or mistakable) even when communication seems abundantly clear.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Seeking Validation

There was an article in the local Tribune several weeks back about reactions people have posted online about the verdict in a heavily publicized case surrounding the death of a toddler. As the article noted, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have "provided a platform and a large audience for a decibel level of vitriol seldom seen before." So there is clearly plenty online already about the case, the verdict, and the reactions, and I don't feel a need to add to that.

What most caught my attention in the article is one woman who "said she felt comfortable sharing her outrage with others online. 'It was a convenient place to vent where I knew people would mostly feel the same way as I do.'"

I haven't included the woman's name here -- partly because I'm about to make a tiny leap that might not be true of her and it is unfair to do that without more information than I have, and partly because her name isn't relevant to the greater picture. This quote from her is just an example, a starting point, because from what I have seen in this situation and others, the sentiment she expressed -- a desire to express herself primarily to those with similar perspectives -- seems pretty common, especially online.

My question is this:  Why? The quote implies that she was seeking out people who would support her position. Why was that validation important to her and, more significantly, why is such behavior so common beyond this one person?

My fear is this:  We tend to seek uncritical validation of our own perspectives more than we create space for others to offer different perspectives, and by doing this we avoid the hard work required in both ideological and relational conflicts which may occur. We miss opportunities provided by healthy challenges to our thoughts, and we miss the deeper relationships which could form in the process.

Maybe differences of opinion seem like a threat to relationships. Maybe differences of opinion seem like a threat to identity. Maybe it feels necessary to persuade others, and to not do so feels like failure. Maybe we simply don't know how to have these conversations well, expressing developed thoughts and genuine feelings in ways that are respectful of both ourselves and others. Maybe it's some of these things together, or all of them, and more.

I don't know.

But whatever it is, my hope is that we as a culture will discover the need and develop the skills to engage honestly and respectfully with others rather than just seeking out people who will tell us we're right.