26 November 2017

11 Things I'm Thankful for

"Thankful" posts are all the rage around this time of year. It's as predictable as the pumpkin-spice-everything phenomenon, and almost as tiresome. However, this year I'm going to break with my tradition of not adhering to tradition and participate. After all, as they say, never let yourself be outdone in the gratitude department. Well, okay, they don't say that; I just made it up now. (It sounded plausible.)

Here is a belated sampling of things for which I'm thankful. (I've tried my best to keep it well out of cliche territory.)

1. I'm thankful that my dog always thinks I'm wonderful, even though you and I know the real truth!

2. Even more amazingly, my husband seems to think so too -- and he is much, much smarter than the dog. So either I've done something right more often than I think, or he is just very kind. (My bet is on the latter.)

3. I'm thankful for steak and seafood and all other kinds of meat. I've heard it said that we won't eat meat in heaven -- in which case, fingers crossed that at least some of the plants taste like bacon.

4. I'm thankful that the glass I broke in the sink today was a dirty one instead of a clean one. At least then I didn't have to wash it.

5. I'm thankful that my washer and dryer make enough noise to drown out the neighbors.

6. I'm thankful I haven't gotten any colds so far this season. Excuse me while I go find a piece of wood to knock on...

7. I'm thankful for that tasteless burger and much too greasy fries I had for dinner tonight. It still beats having to stay home and cook. I'm thankful for any day I don't have to cook. If you've ever tasted my cooking, then you're thankful for this, too!

8. I'm thankful that most people are nicer than I am. At least, I'm pretty sure this is the case. All the time I find myself getting frustrated with people who don't know how to say "no", people who avoid necessary confrontation, and people who don't do what they want because they're worried about someone will think of them. When asked why, what's their answer? "Oh, I just can't. I'm too nice." (Boy, if that's what nice is, I hate to think what that must make me! Attila the Hun? PeeWee Gaskins? Still, I'm sure those nice people manage to make the world a better place to be than I do.)

9. I'm thankful for my hardwood floors. I'm sure that too-gross-to-be-mentioned dog mess would have left me with a permanent souvenir if it had happened on carpet.

10. I'm thankful for friends who make a fuss over me on my birthday, even though I'm way past the age for getting excited about that. (Not that it stops me anyway.)

11. I'm thankful for that most unique and valuable piece of real estate in the universe: the human mind. I'm thankful for everyone who gives me the honor of inviting me into theirs by allowing me to share some of mine. I always try to make it worth your while!

22 November 2017

4 Random Things

1. My mother always hung dried, pressed autumn leaves on the kitchen cupboards every fall (and paper snowflakes in the winter). This year I wanted something fall-and-festive too, but was short on ca$h and too lazy to go shopping for decorations anyway. At the risk of making my kitchen look like a kindergarten classroom, I hung up some inkjet-printed colored leaves in honor of fall. And you know what, it actually does make it feel more like fall. The edges are even starting to curl up, just like real leaves.

2. If you like apple pie filling but don't want to bother with making a pie, frying apple slices in a pan with butter, cinnamon, and a spoonful of honey is just as good and a whole lot quicker. Mmmm....

3. My Gmail username must be very similar to a lot of others; I get emails sent to me in error all the time. I've gotten RSVPs to my four-year-old daughter's birthday party in Mullaloo, Washington, reminders about tax rates on my vacation property in Palm Beach County, an invitation for me and my wife(!) to attend a poetry reading at Western Michigan University, and a notice of limited warranty updates for my Jeep Cherokee, among other things. A couple weeks ago an itinerary for a trip to France landed in my inbox, and I guess it synced to my Google calendar even though I deleted the email. So this weekend my schedule was pinging me with reminders about my upcoming stay at the Marriott Opera Ambassador Hotel on Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. If only...

4. There's a scene in the 2003 version of Freaky Friday where Ryan says to Tess, "You put the kids first. That's the way it should be." Then there's the scene in almost any sermon you'll ever hear about marriage and family where they'll tell you that's wrong -- you should put your husband or wife first. (Suck it up, kids.) So. What's the answer? Whom should you treat as more important, your spouse or your children?

To be honest, I don't believe this is a question that deserves to be asked. It's faulty, because it begins with the assumption that members of the family unit are fundamentally in competition with one another. That's not the case in healthy families, or at least I don't think it automatically needs to be case. I am open to correction on this point, but I don't see anything in Scripture that makes a clear case for either the spouse or the kids to hold default "top priority" status. What we do know is that God is supposed to come first, and if He does, then we'll love each other and put others' needs before our own. Sometimes you'll have to put your kids first, especially at times when they're sick or struggling. Sometimes you'll have to preserve "alone time" with your spouse and tell the kids that you'll be available for them later. The point is that the specifics of how "love your neighbor" plays out practically are largely up to us to work out. We actually have a lot of freedom in this regard, when you think about it.

20 November 2017

Contentment vs. Complacency: A Quandary

This is another "Versus" post, where I like to give my take on a difficult question, or explain the difference between disparate notions that are often wrongly conflated. This one, though, is going to be quite different. I've labeled it "A Quandary", because this time, the truth is: I don't know the answer. I sense that these two things -- Contentment and Complacency -- are different, but I'm still in the process of discovering wherein the nature of that difference lies.

Here's my trouble: Sometimes, when I'm telling someone about a problem, idea, or desire I have, they tell me that I shouldn't concern myself with it, that instead, I should just be content. If they're a person of faith, they will sometimes throw in for good measure: "God will give you better circumstances once you learn to be content with the ones you have."

I'm never sure exactly how to respond to this. Nowhere in the Bible does God tell us (or even hint) that life changes hinge on our feelings about them, or that we are in our present situation because we care about it too much.

I can't simply make myself not care about something. That's not a Christian idea anyway, that's Buddhist non-attachment philosophy. Besides, it backfires: Trying not to care about something makes me care about it more. It's like if I say, "Don't think about pandas", what's the first thing you thought of? Probably pandas. Trying not to think about something doesn't work very well, and trying not to care is even worse.

Do they really mean that I'm supposed to settle for less, and not work toward positive change in the area in question? Maybe not, but there's nothing in what they're actually saying that would prevent me from arriving at that conclusion.

Don't all good changes in the human life begin, in some way, with a lack of acceptance of the status quo? What would the world today look like, for instance...

If Christopher Columbus had been content to stay in Spain, or the American settlers had been content to stay in England?

If John Wycliffe and William Tyndale had been content to keep reading the Bible in Latin?

If Harriet Tubman had been content to remain a slave?

If Amy Carmichael and Mother Teresa had been content to stay in their respective homelands instead of going to India?

If Thomas Edison had been content to keep using candles?

Those are just a few scenarios off the top of my head, but there are many, many more. My own daily existence would be much poorer if the inventors of computers, air conditioners, airplanes, and antibiotics had all been "content" with what they had. If they had not wanted anything more than what was available to them in their time.

Some people differentiate the two by saying that complacency is just laziness, while being content means that you're happy with where you are. I don't see these as mutually exclusive, though. Couldn't you be happy with your laziness? I know some who are.

In fact, I think this is more of a possibility than most of us would like to admit. As harsh as it sounds, almost everyone I know personally who describes him/herself as content, is really just not particularly ambitious and/or has no definite goals in life. Mundaneness doesn't bother them. They're perfectly satisfied with their day in, day out routine, and they don't want anything more. If this works for them, then more power to them. Not everyone has a strong drive for change, and that is okay. But this lack of drive is a personality trait, and it irritates me that they try to pass it off as a virtue.

My other issue with the contentment rhetoric is that your life can pass you by while you're just "being content." Before you know it, you're at the end of a decade or even at the end of your life, and you don't have much to show for it. Contentment and getting out of your comfort zone don't often go hand in hand, but the latter is necessary for growth, for achievement, for positive change.

All of which are good things, which is why, I'm thinking, they can't be fundamentally at odds with God's idea of what it means to be content. But I can't say for sure that I know what that is, exactly.

The Apostle Paul said, "I have learned to be content in whatever state I am." (Boy, I wish I could say the same. I never did learn how to be content in the state of South Carolina. Shame on me. But Paul also said that he wished everyone would remain unmarried like he was, and I obviously failed on that account as well. So maybe he was only speaking for himself.) He was content no matter what happened, and you'd be hard pressed to find someone who accomplished more than he did. Contentment for him was most certainly not complacency.

If I ever find the answer to this problem, I will be sure to post an update. For now, though, it's mid-afternoon, I'm sleepy, and my coffee cup is empty. This is a state of affairs with which I am decidedly not content, so I'm going to go do something about it. Au revoir for now...

15 November 2017

Advice for Social Moths

If you're not a "social butterfly", then chances are you're like me, a social moth.

Social moths are not recluses or hermits, and they're not antisocial. They're just people who, for whatever reason, aren't typically at their best in the company of a crowd. They may try too hard to get others to like them, or maybe they don't try at all. Or, as in my case, social gatherings make them feel like they're in a play where everyone else knows the lines and the choreographed moves, but they're clueless and ad-libbing and dancing badly while desperately hoping nobody notices.

If this is you, here are two things you can do to have an easier time:

Listen. Listen much more than you speak. When in conversation, ask the other person questions about what they do and what they're interested in. Not so many questions that you come off as creepy or prying, and obviously nothing super personal, either. There's a balance here that you'll have to get a feel for.

Try to draw them out with a series of questions that tie in to each other. This shows you've been listening, and you're drawing on what they've said previously in order to formulate your next question. For example, follow up a question about their new job or school with "How do you like it?" or "What would you change if you could?" (If that's relevant, of course.)

Do not fire out questions like a machine gun on full auto: "How's your new job? How's your family? What do you do for fun these days? What are your plans for the future? Are you seeing anybody?", etc. We all know people like this, and they sound more like talking wind-up toys than human beings. It's exhausting to be around them. Remember: you are having a conversation, not taking a survey or performing a cross-examination.

Always act interested in what the other person is saying, even if you're not. This isn't dishonest or disingenuous, by the way. It follows the principle of "acting the way you want to feel" (to use Gretchen Rubin's term for it), and you will feel much more present in the conversation if you show interest. You might even learn something new that does genuinely interest you.

I do this all the time -- not because I'm selfless or because I'm such a great listening ear, but because it takes the pressure off me to be entertaining and winsome. Meanwhile the other person is engaged in an activity they very much enjoy (talking about themselves), which makes them happy, and all the while they're unconsciously associating those good feelings with me. They leave the conversation thinking I'm a wonderful person, but I've done nothing at all except listen to them talk.

It's stupidly easy.

Next is...

Don't gossip. Not because it hurts others (it does) and not because you might pass along some bit of information that's exaggerated or flat-out untrue (you might). Not even because your listeners will suspect that since you're a gossip, you're probably also talking behind their backs (they will). You should, at all costs, refrain from gossip because...

It makes you boring.

There's a saying: "Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." This is so very true. No matter how riveting the news itself might be, the price you pay for participating in gossip, as a gossiper or even just as an absorbed listener, is that you label yourself as small-minded and petty. Gossip does not show intelligence or intellectual curiosity. It also tells everyone that your own life has nothing interesting going on, so you have to live vicariously through someone else's. If you're a true social moth, then you have enough working against you as it is without adding this complication to the mix. It also leaves people out of the conversation who might not know personally the individual or situation being discussed, which is kind of a downer for them.

Expounding on ideas and theories is a far better bet and will make you sound highly educated, even if you're not. If that doesn't appeal or isn't appropos of your audience, then talk events -- whatever comes to mind. The world is a big place, and there's no lack of subject matter at hand: travel, entertainment, technology, favorite recipes, cars, the price of fuel oil, how to sell a house fast and make money on it (if anyone figures this one out, please let me know)... Even the weather works particularly well if you're in an area prone to hurricanes...

So there you have it. These two things are enough to make you interesting. Or at least, to make everyone think you are, which if you ask me, is good enough.

09 November 2017

Thoughts on an Autumn Day

I love autumn. I even love the word: "Autumn."

I don't love the term "Fall" nearly as much. I think this is because fall has several negative connotations, with "sharp contact with the ground that can result in broken bones" being chief among them. If you have elderly parents or grandparents, this is one word you don't want to hear in association with them. "Fall" is also the term commonly used to connote the descent of humanity from a state of innocence to a state of depravity as per Genesis 3, for the theologians among us. You feel the fallout of this event every single day, as the evening news is only too happy to remind you should you ever forget it.

I do, however, like the ingenious way "fall" is used in this limerick:

There was a young fellow named Hall,
Who fell in the spring in the fall.
'Twould have been a sad thing
Had he died in the spring,
But he didn't -- he died in the fall.

Someone asked a friend visiting us from Brazil if his country had four seasons like in America. His reply: "Yes, we have four seasons: Hot, Very Hot, Hot as Hell, and So Hot You Want to Kill Yourself."

It's much the same in the south, which is why summer isn't my favorite season anymore. The constant summertime here somehow manages to be even more depressing than C.S. Lewis' "always winter and never Christmas" in a Narnia sans Aslan, so I guess I've just had a bit too much of a good thing. In a way, admitting this feels like treachery to my younger self, who basically lived for summer and impatiently counted off the days of every other season while waiting for June to come around again (the fact that school was out had a lot to do this).

Anyway, I enjoy this season so much more now that I'm a grownup and autumn no longer signals the beginning of the school year. Enforced indoctrination education and cold temperatures were really what ruined it for me. I measured my life by what was in season in our gardens, and when the zinnias popped up, that meant that the end of freedom was nigh. When their petals began to be tinged with frost, school was back in full swing. It also meant my long lazy days were over till the next year. No more swimming. No more chasing fireflies, no more fresh lemonade or barbecues or s'mores or fireworks. The tourists would arrive in New England in droves to see the "fall foliage", but I wasn't moved. Compared to the loss of my freedom, what consolation could xanthophyll and carotene possibly offer?

"But fall has its own fun activities," you say. If only I'd appreciated that fact sooner! Alas, the activities that make fall a pleasant time of year everywhere else just don't work in hotter climes. Like leaf jumping, for instance. I suppose I could rake palm branches in a pile and jump in them, but I doubt it would be the same. And then there are sand spurs, a scourge by which the north remains blessedly unafflicted. The same with leaf rubbings -- palmetto leaves just won't fit on one sheet of paper; I tried already. I suppose you can have a bonfire, if you don't mind the extra heat on an already sweltering hot day.

I can still make pumpkin pie, at least. My local supermarket does its best to ensure that we have some sense of seasonal changes around here by only carrying canned pumpkin around Thanksgiving. I guess this is their way of trying to reassure expats like me that we have at least one autumn-related thing to anticipate each year.

But the season I'm really looking forward to? Winter, of course. I can finally turn my A/C off!

01 November 2017

10 More Things That Make No Sense

1. "Back to School" sales in late June/early July. Imagine you're on a ten-day cruise in the Caribbean, and the boss starts calling and leaving you relentless voicemails on day three about all the work you'll be expected to do when you come back. Would you be ticked? Yeah, probably. Well, that's what it feels like to the poor kids these days who barely have a week to enjoy their summer before they get "Back to School" shoved in their faces by over-eager advertisers.

2. Bacon packaging. There must be a trick to this that I haven't caught on to yet. When I buy a package of bacon, it doesn't have a readily obvious "opening" spot, so I just make a cut somewhere on the end, and then that flap at the top on the inside makes it hard for me to get the bacon out, and then I can't close up the package without it getting slimy. If this is a ploy to make me eat all the bacon at once, I can tell you, it's working.

3. Multicolored dog food. You know whatever dogs once ate in the wild didn't come in shades of rainbow. No doubt the visual effects are more for the owner's benefit than the dog's, as dogs don't really care what color their food is. Come to think of it, it doesn't actually benefit the owner either, as artificial colors have been shown to increase hyperactivity in dogs.

4. Vow renewals. Why would you have to renew your wedding vows? Did they expire?

5. People who say their baby was a "surprise." Alright, people. I hate to be the one getting personal and saying this out loud, but somebody's gotta. You wouldn't be "surprised" when following the directions on a box of cake mix results in a cake. So if you have followed the baby-making manufacturer's instructionsthen there should be no "surprise" when this process results in a Baby. Okie dokie?

Speaking of children...

6. People who use their kids as their family Christmas card picture. Please explain this one to me, Parents of Small Children. Why do you absent yourself from family photos after procreating? Is that old wives' tale about how daughters steal their mothers' beauty really true? Or are humans like fish and bugs: after you've successfully reproduced, you've outlived your usefulness, and nobody cares about you anymore?

7. Oven mitts. Make no mistake, a thing that protects your hand so you can retrieve stuff from a blisteringly hot oven is a great idea. I just wish they were more like gloves, not mittens. It's harder to grip the pan or handle or whatever, if your fingers are entrapped in a thick mitt. I have some interesting grease burns on my feet that make a good case for this.

8. "Limited time" products. The companies are spying on you. They know the exact moment when you fall in love with something. Then they spirit it away, never to be seen again. Because, you know, it's bad marketing to sell a product that people love. Apparently.

9. Wasting time on Facebook. I hear of people spending hours per day on Facebook, and I wonder what in the world they're doing. What is so interesting? I would actually really like to know. It can't be Farmville, that I'm pretty sure of.

10. Microwave tomato explosions. Everything I put in the microwave stays put on the dish or in the bowl, except tomato products. Tomato products are unruly. Soup, sauce, salsa, any of that stuff -- flings itself to the sides and top of the microwave, every time. It's only tomatoes. Of course it has to be, because it's bright red and extremely noticeable and will make my microwave cruddy if I don't clean it immediately.