Thursday, April 24, 2014

Poem in Your Pocket Day

For Poem In Your Pocket Day, here is my selection:

A Warning To My Readers:

Do not think me gentle 
because I speak in praise of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace 
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I 
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.

--Wendell Berry

It's not too late for you to grab a poem, print it, and put it in your pocket. Then it's ready for you to pull out during the day and read to a friend or to a stranger on the train.

What poem did you put in your pocket today?


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Hashtag FFWgr

Ninety-nine percent of you won't know what that title means--which is sort of the epitome of bad communication. Nonetheless, I'm starting there, because I ended there--at #FFWgr. 

#FFWgr, the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a biannual conference of writers and readers of faith: about finding faith, leaving faith, and returning to faith; about the connection between faith and writing. I make my pilgrimage there to find inspiration and motivation. I'm completely positive (in the ironic sense of those words) that I will eventually be one of the speakers there, talking to the little people about getting up at four a.m. and sitting down in front of the computer and waiting for God to show up.

Actually--that was James McBride's line. My perspective will be more of a p.m. perspective, because mornings give me hives; and my topic will be Why I Keep Writing Even Though I've Never Been Published; And As A Matter of Fact, Why Would You Even Listen To Me?

I'm going to give you two kinds of #FFWgr candy: motivational and/or interesting quotes from some of the talks I went to; and a reading list. I kept notes as I listened, and wrote down the names of books and authors that the speakers mentioned. I may have missed a few, but I've still got a pretty good list.

So first, the quotes, in order of their appearance:

Daniel Taylor:

"Everyone should write their own apologetics--how do you tell this story of faith to yourself?" This is a riff, he said, on Milton's idea that everyone should write his own theology. I tried to confirm that Milton actually said or wrote something like this, but could not. Internet, could you do me a solid and let me know a) did Milton ever say/write anything like that and b) what's the source?

The topic of Taylor's talk was The Use of Story in Apologetics. He said, "stories defend faith by making it desirable, powerful, winsome. Stories don't just tell truth. Truth can be a sledgehammer. Stories can make faith not just reasonable and believable, but also attractive."

"Stories are convincing; they require us to change, and tell us how to do it."

"Stories don't prove anything, but stories prove everything that's important."

"Don't just tell anecdotes, tell stories. Anecdotes are reduced; they lack personal experience and emotion." I'd like to learn more about this distinction.

"Look for evidence of the divine in the mundane and even in the profane." 

John Suk talked about something called "perspective by incongruity," an idea of Kenneth Burke's which I didn't quite get but will add to my growing list of Things I Want to Know More About.

(Sigh. #FFWgr always leaves me with the existential exhaustion of realizing ever more clearly how much I don't know.)

From James McBride

"Most of what I do fails. Learn to fail. Fail--then forget it." I'm not sure I believe this. Maybe it's hyperbole? I would like to know, operationally, what that looks like.

"I wake up at 4 a.m. and just sit there waiting for God to come into the room." Many speakers at the conference mentioned the productivity of the early morning hours, which discourages me a tiny bit.

"Skepticism is good, but cynicism is a killer of dreams." Ooooh, this was good. (And by the way, how do you spell "ooo" that rhymes with "mood" rather than ooooh that rhymes with "road"? Because I was aiming for the oo in mood sound there, but it just didn't look right without the h.)

Shannon Huffman Polson

"Grief and loss are lonely, but they connect you to humanity." I think this is why suffering is such a useful tool for an artist, writer, musician. Dammit.

"I wanted to suffer, wanted the pain of grief--because it would keep me closer to those I had lost." This certainly resonated with me, even though I remember when I said it to a friend, she looked at me strangely. I saw other heads nodding--and I was glad to see that this counter-intuitive feeling of wanting to hold on to the pain of grief was not merely a glitch in my otherwise well-adjusted persona, but that it had universal resonance.

"If the grief ebbed, did it mean that the love and connection were not that great? There is a lot of guilt in grief." This, too; both the question and the statement.

Andrew Krivak:

"Take small acts--actions outside of the interior life of grief and loss--and write them into your story." This is actually a paraphrase, but I like the notion that small acts have great value. I think he was making a reference to the book Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and Ingenuity Can Change the World. 
Peter Marty

Peter Marty (whose appearance reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer):

"If you want to be a better writer, become a deeper person." I wish he had offered Seven Steps to Becoming a Deeper Person.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"We keep on outsourcing our brains--we know and remember less. We externalize our knowledge, our taste, our experience, and our faith. We reference and rely on the faith and experience of others. In Genesis, by chapter three they stop talking with God and start talking about God."

"Is it possible for some people to miss their lives in the way that they miss a plane?"

"Tell me what you love, and I can tell you what you believe." Oof.

"We identify our center through suffering." More on this, please.

Anne Lamott:

"Life and writing are very, very hard. I don't think we're here to figure things out."

"There is perfect healing, but people die anyway. Frankly, if I were God, I would have a completely different system."

"I think if there is a God, he probably looks a lot like Isaac Stern. Or Bette Midler."

"We were taught to stay one step ahead of the abyss. If the abyss opens up at your feet, go to Ikea. Get an area rug."

"It's OK to admit that you're crazy and damaged. All the better people are."

Hugh Cook offered practical advice about writing fiction:

"Your character must desperately want something; but something thwarts her. She must make specific, decisive actions."

"Use dialogue not for narration or description, but to show your characters."

"Reveal your character's age early on."

Brett Lott:

Start a story with what you know, and head into "what if"--what if this happened, or that?"

Suzanne Woods Fisher:

"Answer the call to write; keep the calling at the forefront of your vision all the time."

"Living for the opinions of others is seductive; don't do it. Remember who you are."

I have no quotes from James Vanden Bosch, but his presentation on corpus linguistics was one of my top three sessions. Who knew. I might even sign up for the eight-week MOOC in September.

Miroslav Volf:

"Atheists point to ways that religion and Christians have failed and malfunctioned."

"We must listen to the voices of our brothers and sisters from around the world to penetrate our own self-deception. We must listen to the wisdom of saints and critics."

"We are restless for God; we reach for the transcendent. The orientation of our selves to the Divine is the primary function of faith."

This next quote is from an audience member who might have been quoting someone else, but it struck me as worthy of inclusion: "Christianity has become so sentimental and shallow that we can't even produce good atheists anymore!" This was connected to the part of the interview in which Volf said something to the effect that he'd take Nietzsche over Dawkins any day.

"I don't bemoan the marginalization of the Christian faith. There are strengths in the margins. When Christians were in the center of power we were used, and the faith was abused. Like the band of twelve followers on the outskirts of Jerusalem, we can testify to the beauty of Jesus Christ from the margins."

Rachel Held Evans:

"Every challenge--the challenge of writer's block, distraction, discouragement, fear, lack of ideas--is solved by getting back to work. In writing, that work is paying attention, naming things, telling stories." 

"Remember that God is generous, and grace is scandalous. God has called us to this work. There is no scarcity principle at work in writing--there's plenty of work to do, plenty of stories to tell."

Now, I bet you can't wait until #FFWgr2016! I know I can't.

Stay tuned for Hashtag FFWgr, Part Two: Reading List.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

God Is Good...Right?

A friend took a trip overseas, and was surprised and pleased to see that her bags had not gotten caught up in customs, but had arrived with her. She posted her happiness on Facebook, and noted, "God is good."

Another friend asked for prayer for her sick relative. When he recovered, she posted, "God is good. My dad is well. Prayer really does work!!!"

It's good to be grateful, and to thank God for the things in our lives that go right. But it bothers me when people of faith connect God's goodness to things going right. God is still good even if our luggage gets lost or dad is still sick. God is still good, even when the worst possible thing happens. 

Right? I believe this. I want to believe it. But in the middle of loss, grief, and sorrow, sometimes I struggle to believe it. "Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief."

If we only declare the goodness of God when things go our way, what are we saying about God? And about ourselves, and our faith? We seem to be saying that God's goodness is somehow connected to good outcomes. Of course this isn't what we believe--or at least, it's not what we say we believe, nor what the Bible says about the character of God. "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever" (Psalm 136:1). 

We believe that God is good all the time, that it is one of His immutable characteristics, like holiness, justice and omniscience. But we tend to only declare it when we feel it--and this tendency has two negative effects: number one, we are testifying to other believers that this is the primary way we know that God is good--by the good things that happen to us. And number two, the watching world might interpret our belief to be tied to or dependent upon positive outcomes.

I am a believer who struggles daily with outcomes that are disappointing, unsatisfying, painful, and sometimes downright evil. If I thought that God's goodness was tied to good outcomes, I would cease to believe in God. In fact, I suppose I would discover that I wasn't really believing in God at all--but rather, a made-up, Pollyanna version of God that exists to make people feel good about themselves and the world. This is not God at all--or at least not the God that reveals Himself in the Bible.

If I only see God's goodness in good outcomes on this earth, then when horrible things happen, I start to think that God has failed me or forgotten me, or that God has not kept his promises to me. But God does not promise us health, or happiness, or good-looking children, or financial security, or freedom from persecution. 

In fact, the Bible indicates that believers can be guaranteed that they will have trouble, hardship, sorrow, and persecution in this life. Jesus plainly said this: "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33)--but the rest of that verse gives us the promise: "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

I propose that we stop saying "God is good" when we feel grateful for a positive outcome, because it sends the wrong message and minimizes the actual goodness of God, which is the apogee of goodness, far grander and more awesome than on-time luggage or physical healing or any other positive outcome we encounter. 

Instead, when we experience the joy of a good outcome, we could say "I'm grateful for this good thing that God allowed," or just "Thanks be to God." And that might give us the freedom and strength when we face ineluctable suffering to continue to know and trust in God's unchanging goodness. 

In the wake of losing Aidan, I am re-learning how to be grateful. It is a painfully slow process, but in this moment, in the middle of relentless grief, I choose to believe that God is good. "Help Thou my unbelief."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hashtag Chiberia

Dining room ceilings across Chicago protest the
Narnian winter.
First it looked like this.

Frustrating. Water drip, drip, dripping through bubbling paint on the dining room ceiling.

I poked holes in the puffed out layer of paint, and yellow water streamed out. We positioned buckets under the leaks, and pressed on the separated paint layers to push the remaining water out.

But releasing the water did not solve the problem, and a few days later, we heard a loud PHHHHHLLLUUMMMPHHHHH. Mr. Peevie and I ran out to the dining room to see layers of plaster and insulation coating the table and floor. 

It was quite impressive. For a little while the hole looked like this: 



But Mr. Peevie kept looking at that uncollapsed corner and saying, "I think this is gonna go, too. Stay away from this corner, guys. It's gonna go." 

I admit I made fun of him for his pessimism--and then about a half hour later--PHHHHHLLLUUMMMPHHHHH! Down it came. Sometimes pessimism is another word for "I told you so."

Fortunately, Mr. Peevie did not listen to my Pollyanna outlook, and he had prepped for the second collapse by putting down tarps and bins, which caught a lot of the debris. We have made the first-ever claim against our homeowners' insurance policy since we bought our first house about twenty years ago.

We went through a similar experience with the water dripping through the dining room ceiling five years ago-- And guess what?

The last time Chicago recorded a high temperature below zero was Jan. 15, 2009 -- exactly five years ago. 

"The bitter temperatures follow several days of snowfall," the article reports. Almost twelve inches of snow fell at O'Hare that week--and almost nine of them in one day, breaking the record from 2005.

Apparently, this phenomenon is caused by ice dams that form on the edge of the roof, forcing melting snow back under the shingles, where it creeps in and leaks out inside the house. And it's not just happening at the Peevie homestead, either. It's happening all over Chiberia.

Five years ago, though, the winter was less Narnian than this interminable, tenacious, entrenched season that continues to break records. When I started writing this post, we had marked 75.5 inches of snow so far this season. then later that day we received another batch. To date, our snowfall totals have exceeded 80 inches--80.6 to be exact-- which obliterates the '69-'70 record (77 inches) and wags a warning finger at the '77-'78 second place record (82.3 inches).

I don't think we're going to hit the all-time snowfall record of 89.7 inches in 1978-79, which is a little bit sad since we've come so far. All we'd need would be another 9.2 inches of snow. 

Come on, snow gods! Sock it to us! Let's crush that record!

(BTW, in light of my previous post, the source for these snowy stats is the NBC-5 weather blog.)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cite Your Source

My kids learned at an early age that they couldn't convince me of anything just by saying it.

"Cite your source," I'd say.

One time, when Aidan was about ten or eleven, he told me I should stop buying gas at certain gas stations because the company owners hated America. At the time, he attended a tiny conservative Christian school where the popular consensus was that Obama was a socialist fascist dictator, born in Kenya and bent upon destroying the American Way of Life. Some folks were quick to jump on any McCarthy-esque rumor that popped up on the internet.

The inherent socio-political contradictions of that assertion aside, I wanted to teach my kids to respect other people's views, but also to think for themselves by looking at them with a critical eye. 

"Don't believe it just because someone says it's true," I would say.

So, when he told me about the gas station, I asked him to cite his source.

"Ringo's mom," he said confidently.

"She's a secondary source," I said, and then I explained to him the difference between primary and secondary sources. This explanation involved me defending myself against the charge that I thought Ringo's mom was a liar. 
Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt in
Mad about You; photo from TV.msn.com

"What source was Ringo's mom citing?"

"She read an article," he said.

Ah-hah. The definitive, indestructible "she read an article" defense.

(Mr. Peevie and I watched a show in the 90s called Mad About You with Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser. We still quote one of those episodes, in which Helen Hunt's character Jamie argues with her husband Paul, and he asks her how she knows what she's claiming. "I read an article!" she says--and it becomes a recurring theme. I squandered an hour watching Mad About You clips to try to find this scene, to no avail. This is how seriously I take my Green Room duty. You're welcome.)

As it turns out, the politics of gasoline are far more complicated than a simplistic anti-America rumor would have it. Snopes breaks it down. Notice the list of sources at the bottom of the article.

Sometimes, even sources that appear on the surface to be legitimate lack scientific rigor and should be source-checked.. See, for example, this article on the dangers of vaccinations from a secondary source called The Free Thinker (which looks like the Libertarian version of Huffington Post),written by a dude named Dave Mihalovic.

It all comes down to science and math: does the article cite (and more importantly, link to) legitimate scientific sources? The vaccine article referenced above makes many claims, none of which are sourced. The author cites "secret" CDC documents--but doesn't link to them or provide screen shots. There's no way for a thinking person to double check his claims--we're just supposed to believe him.

Um, no.

The first link in the article is to an article in another secondary source with equally shady credentials--not to an FDA document or a CDC memo or a news story, but to another article by the same guy. "Here," Dave Mihalovic is essentially saying, "you can trust me, because I said it again over here in this other article." Please.

In the third paragraph, the article quotes Brian Hooker, "a PhD scientist" about a CDC cover-up of the alleged risks of vaccinations. Who is Brian Hooker? What are his credentials in medicine, and medical research? What replicated studies has he conducted, and with what legitimate scientific controls?

The answers are, in order: He is a biochemical engineer who works as a consultant in the biotech industry.  He has no medical credentials, and has done no studies, that I can find. He's just a guy who is motivated, sadly, by the alleged vaccine-caused autism of his own child.

Regarding the claims in this article that the CDC has covered up data from their own Vaccine Safety Datalink database showing a "very high link between Thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism rates in children": Show me the proof, dude.

The article claims that there are "a number" of public records that back up this claim--but only links to a 20-page Congressional Record from ten years ago. This document actually contradicts the authors claims: "...exposure to less than the minimal risk level is believed to be safe" and "the minimal risk level would need to be multiplied by ten to reach a level at which harm would be expected through exposure." You can find this out for yourself by clicking the link, and then control-F searching for the word "risk" and looking at the 18th occurrence of the word. See? I have done all the work for you.

You're welcome.

Whatever. This is just one example of millions, and just one topic of dozens that we encounter every day in the news, on Facebook, or in casual conversation, which requests our uncritical acceptance of a questionable assertion. 

Don't do it. Be a critical, questioning listener--not just about gas stations and vaccinations, but about everything--things that cause cancer, things that prevent heart attacks, things that pastors say, things that politicians say--and not just the ones you disagree with. You get the picture.

Or, alternately, you could just trust the opinions here at The Green Room, and I promise, we will always provide primary sources.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Not the Worst Thing in the World, but...

Head lice. Pediculus humanus capitis.

I thought we had gotten through our parenting years without having to deal with this obnoxious, loathsome scourge--but no. The tenacious vermin made their stealthy entrance on Sunday night, after 18.5 years of vulnerability.

M. Peevie and I quietly freaked out, while Mr. Peevie calmly continued to watch Olympic lugers rocketing through frozen alabaster tunnels. I walked over and stood in front of him, blocking his view.

"I don't think you quite understand the seriousness of this situation," I said to my follicle-free spouse. "This is a family affair. We need you to join the freak-out." Mr. P. is a fast learner. He immediately hurled the TV remote across the room, grabbed his phone and leapt into virtual action, Googling "CDC + head lice." 

By the way--do not look at the images page that comes up when you Google "CDC + head lice," or you will have nightmares involving Egyptian-plague-level infestations for a long time.

"This says we need to wash everything on the hottest wash cycle," he announced, and started tearing sheets and pillowcases from the beds. Within minutes he had gotten the first load started, and offered to make a drug-store run.

I texted my friend Bella, who has dealt with this particular plague before, and had successfully defeated the tiny procreating pestilence. "Bella! Lice!" I texted. "Help!"

She, being a paragon of empathy and compassion, called immediately. "You have to go to Walgreens RIGHT NOW,"  she said. "Buy Rid, and start the treatment tonight." I could hear Mr. Bella in the background, advising me to stick with the harsh chemicals and not waste time with the homeopathic remedies. Bella also recommended a lice removal salon, "just to make sure you got them all." 

The nasty bug-killing shampoo smelled like we were dipping M. Peevie's head in a bubbling cauldron of chemical waste products. I thought it was within the realm of possibility that M. Peevie and I would both be lying on the floor, unconscious, at the end of the treatment, our brains liquefied by the harsh fumes.

But at least the bugs would also be dead.

Then came the hard part--the comb-out. Suffice it to say that, before I started combing, M. Peevie and I had a fairly stable, amicable relationship; but at the end, with her hair bobby-pinned up in pincurls of chemical gel, and my fingers cramped and burning, we were as adversarial as Holmes and Moriarty.

We slept, sort of. The next day we visited The NitPickers for head checks and treatments. Our technician/therapist (TT) regaled us with facts and stories about the persistent pests ("they feed on your blood!"), and reassured us that what she was seeing was very mild. She found about 25 nits on poor M. Peevie's head, but no live bugs. 

When it was my turn, I quickly realized that having your hair combed with a narrow-toothed nit-comb feels like getting your hair caught in a piece of farm equipment. This is why M. Peevie was so mad at me the night before! I really thought I was going to end up bald. TT combed and combed, and I wiggled and moaned like a toddler. "It really hurts!" I said, because I am a delicate flower. 

"You're a giant baby," I'm pretty sure she told me.

TT found some tiny flecks that she thought might be nits, but we weren't sure. A few minutes later, she wiped the comb on the white towel and said, "Look at this."

I leaned over, and saw my tiny crawling nemesis. "Aaargh," I moaned. "Ack. Damn. Oh. No. Damn. Damn." 

M. Peevie came over to take a look. "Are you mad at me, Mom?" she asked.

"Yes," I said, "You dirty, vile, disgusting child. This is one hundred percent your fault."

Jay-kay. I did not say that; and in fact, I said the right thing: "No, baby girl, I'm not mad at you. It's not your fault." But where did they come from? I wondered. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that infestations are common among children age three to 12 years. We were, statistically speaking, in the clear; and yet--here we were.

That same well-sourced article also affirms that head lice


make themselves at home regardless of the health, hygiene, or cleanliness of their unwilling hosts. They don’t spread disease. Really, all they do is create a disproportionate brouhaha, and their stigma is far worse than their bite. One of the worst effects of a head lice infestation is the psychological trauma that goes along with the diagnosis.

A "disproportionate brouhaha." I like that. I think it would make a good title for my memoir.

TT said we had to comb ourselves out every day, and come back in three days for a re-check. I found a few nits in M. Peevie's head, and one live nymph in mine yesterday. Today we were both clear. We head back to see TT tomorrow after school, and I am hoping against hope that this is the end of our Adventures in Peduculosis. (That would not make a good title for my memoir, but you can use it for yours if you want. No credit necessary.)

Because I'm all about giving, I'll send you off with some rhyming couplets about head lice, courtesy of children's book author Mike Allegra:


For the Love of Louse
On my scalp what do I find?
A little guest! No, I don’t mind!
Please live and breed upon my hair.
I am so glad that you are there.
Please eat your fill. Please bite away.
In case you care, my blood’s Type A.
I pray this time will never end,
My skeevy, parasitic friend.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Stop Saying This Word

I'm going to tell you why you should stop saying the word "should." And yes, I hear the irony.

Sometimes--especially around this time of year--we say that word to ourselves: I should lose weight. I should exercise more. I should read more books. I should drink less wine. I should be less crabby with my kids. I should call my mom more often. I should stop being a bad Christian.

We should all stop saying should to ourselves. I am trying to stop "shoulding" all over myself--but more about this in my upcoming memoir. (Props to my therapist, Doc, for that  nearly homophonic pun.) But this post specifically addresses the use of the word should when it's directed at another person.

Stop saying "You should..." to other people. It comes under the heading "Unsolicited Advice: Never Give it."

Don't tell your sister who has stage three ovarian cancer that she should feel grateful that she doesn't have stage four ovarian cancer. This is an important sub-category of Stop Saying Should: Don't tell any cancer patient--or any person with any illness at all--that they should feel grateful. In fact, just stop telling people how to feel.

Don't tell your overweight friend that she should try yoga or pilates or aqua cycling or pole dancing classes.

you should follow my advice / after all it works for me / maybe i'm not you. don't be rediculous
Thanks to Mimi and Eunice for the cartoon.
Don't tell parents who are dealing with a child that JUST WON'T SLEEP, "Oh, you should try Dr. Sleep Nazi. I did, and now my kids sleep perfectly!" 

Don't tell your son or daughter or friend or neighbor that they should spank their temper-tantrumming child, or that they should not give their children candy, or let them watch TV or play video games. Don't ever use the word "should" to your parenting son or daughter with regard to their parenting choices.

I know that your intentions are good. I know that you are only trying to be helpful. I understand that in your mind, when you offer an unsolicited "you should...", you are offering the benefit of your wisdom and years of experience.

But here's how it comes across: You know better than me. You would feel differently if you were in my shoes. You are better than me, and you would make different choices. It's easy if only I'd do it your way. You are trying to fix me.

Do you hear the condescension? That's how it feels. It's not helpful or constructive--in fact, it's counterproductive.

All of this is, of course, moot if your friend/son/daughter is actually asking you for advice. Then it's OK to make suggestions--although This Blog still recommends that you do it without using the phrase "you should." Try these alternatives: "Have you tried..."; "What worked for me was..."; or "I wonder if you could..." These phrases have a degree of humility and compassion.

By the way, I should people all the time. It's an instinctive reaction, I think--when we see someone we care about struggling, we want to help, to fix, to advise. One time I told my friend Roseanne, who was struggling with money issues, "You should cancel your cable subscription." To this day, I hear myself saying that, and I cringe. Who the hell am I to tell her how to live her life and balance her checkbook? None of us know enough about another person to tell her what she should or should not spend her money on--UNLESS SHE ASKS US FOR ADVICE.

What unsolicited shoulds have you received lately? And have you dished any out?