A Good Mennonite Poem

One new little blog feature that I’m happy to roll out this year is a Good Reads widget that gives you a peek at what I’m currently reading.

(Yes, I said books, plural. I’m famous for reading several at a time. This is actually good practice according to Douglas Wilson, author of the cunning little writing book Wordsmithy. In his chapter, “Read until Your Brain Creaks,” he encourages writers to read widely, and he announces that it’s perfectly acceptable to have to have, say, twenty books going at a time.

I don’t quite have that many, but I DO try to follow his advice by reading a lot, dabbling in different genres, and bouncing between several different covers.)

Currently, I’m still digesting The Brothers Karamasov… then there’s Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth (a movie by the same name was released in 2014) about a young British scholar, who, after fiiiiinally convincing her Papa to let her go to college (and Oxford at that!), she abandons her studies to enlist as a nurse in the armed forces during World War I, after which, she becomes a staunch pacifist, due to her experiences on the front and the war-time death of her brother, her lover, and another friend.

A reader once pointed me to the biography of Lilias Trotter (after having blogged about the writings of John Ruskin), and let me tell you, Lilias Trotter’s testimony is phenomel (though much of the literature around her life is a bit lacking). A documentary of her life was made in 2015 (a little disappointing cinematically, but I made my parents watch it on Christmas with me, and we enjoyed her testimony, despite some of the movie’s slow pacing). Basically, John Ruskin, leading art critic of the Victorian era finds 20-year-old Lilias to be England’s next rising artist. Convinced of her artistic genius, he offers to tutor her, and they enjoy the kind of friendship that only the arts provides, until Lilias announces that she cannot continue to paint, but that she has another love–that of Jesus Christ, and as a young women, heads off to Algeria as a missionary. Despite her poor health, her inability to speak Arabic, and the fact that all missionary societies refuse to support her, she and a few friends leave on their own, determined to make North Africa home. Her slow, steady work and her approach to missions was uncommon for the time as she tried to reach the Arab world through the written word and the arts. Go google Lilias Trotter! Or better yet, read her biography A Passion for the Impossible!

I’m also reading The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil by Andrew Delbanco. (That’s pretty self-explanatory.)

And finally, I continue to page through one of my new favorite books, an anthology of poems (published by the University of Iowa Press and edited by Ann Hostetler, professor of English at Goshen College) called A Capella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry.

a capella.jpg

I picked up my copy at my favorite used book store in Goshen, Indiana for $9, only to go to the Goshen Library sale a few weeks later and find a copy for $1. (Lucky me. I gifted one to my roommate). And. We have been devouring Mennonite poems for days!

Who even knew that writing like this existed?!

Good Mennonite poems!

Good poems. The kind I read at university and dearly loved but never stumbled across ones that were about me.

I read the poetry of white British mothers, African American artists, Native American activists, political poetry from Guam, plays from Hawaii, Lakota cries, Cherokee voices, Argentine verse… but where was the story of me?

In Mennonite Voices, these poems are our story.

Probably the strangest poem in the anthology is this poem about cookies. It is my favorite poem of the anthology. If you read it here, and you don’t understand it, that’s fine. It’s probably not meant to be totally understood at the first reading.

The Cookie Poem
by Jeff Gundy

“Here are my sad cookies”

The sad cookies. The once and future cookies.
The broken sweet cookies. The cookies
of heartbreaking beauty. The stony cookies
of Palestine. The gummy and delicious
olive and honey cookie. The pasty
damp cookie trapped in the child’s hand.

Sad cookies, weird cookies, slippery
and dangerous cookies. Brilliant helpless
soiled and torn cookies, feverish and sweaty
cookies. Sullen cookies, sassy cookies,
the cookies of tantrum and the cookie of joy
and the sweet dark cookie of peace.

The faithful cookie of Rotterdam. The wild-eyed
cookie of Muenster. The salty Atlantic cookie.
Cookies in black coats, in coveralls,
in business suits, cookies in bonnets
and coverings and heels, cookies scratching
their heads and their bellies, cookies utterly
and shamelessly naked before the beloved.

Cookies of the Amish division, cookies
of the Wahlerhof, cookies of Zurich and
Stassburg and Volhynia and Chortitza,
Nairobi Djakarta Winnipeg Goshen.
Cookies who hand their children off
to strangers, who admonish their sons
to remember the Lord’s Prayer, cookies
who say all right, baptize my children
and then sneak back to the hidden church anyway.
Cookies who cave in utterly. Cookies
who die with their boots on. Cookies
with fists, and with contusions.
The black hearted cookie. The cookie with issues.
Hard cookies, hot cookies, compassionate
conservative cookies, cookies we loathe
and love, cookies lost, fallen, stolen,
crushed, abandoned, shunned. Weary
and heroic cookies, scathingly noted cookies,
flawed cookies who did their best.
Single cookies, queer cookies, cookies of color,
homeless cookie families sleeping the car,
obsolete cookies broken down on the information
highway. Sad cookies, silent cookies,
loud cookies, loved cookies, your cookies,
my cookies our cookies, all cookies
God’s cookies, strange sweet hapless cookies
marked each one by the Imago Dei,
oh the Father the Son the Mother The Daughter
and the Holy Ghost all love cookies,
love all cookies, God’s mouth is full
of cookies, God chews and swallows and flings
hands wide in joy, the crumbs fly
everywhere, oh God loves us all.

You Are Rare Art (Before I Met You)

Before I met you, you were already a rare piece of art. Grey background, yellow flourishes, black shadows, peach strokes, all overlaid with strands of gold.

You are rare, a type of art that takes time and talent to appreciate, to understand, to comprehend.

pollock
Jackson Pollock, Number 5, 1948

Sometimes I’m not in the mood for Art, though. I don’t want to spend the time. And that is the worst thing I (we) can do. To never take the time to take a step back and appreciate a good canvas.

When I’m not thinking artistically, I find myself sometimes wanting to add to the picture. Do you ever want to adjust a painting? (Maybe some people come to mind—your brother, a parent, perhaps one of your students.) Do you ever meet a new person and think, “Well if I could fix just this one thing, then they’d be a really nice person.” “I like her, but this Thing really bothers me about her.” “Such a nice guy, but did you know This?”

I learned something this week: Nobody asked you. Nobody asked you to change a painting. Nobody asked you to “fix” a “broken” picture. Nobody asked you to create anyone.

You know, people really are who they are, whether or not you affirm them.

But sometimes we get struck with a savior complex, and we feel like it’s our duty to change people. When I run up against this, it always turns out badly.

My own impulse to “fix” people, and my inability to see, to listen, and to understand, remind me of the impulsive and sensual Dmitri in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamasov, who in his love-stricken state, cannot bear the facts about Grushenka, a disloyal woman.

Dmitri reasons to himself: “‘If she’s sitting at Kuzma’s, she won’t go to Fyodor Pavlovich . . . if only she’s not lying,’ he added at once… His jealously was precisely of such a sort that, separated from the beloved women, he at once invented all kinds of horrors about what was happening with her, and how she had gone and ‘betrayed’ him; but, running back to her, and shaken, crushed, convinced irretrievably that she had managed to betray him, with the first look of her face, at the gay, laughing, tender face of this woman, his spirits would at once revive, he would at once lose all suspicion, and with joyful shame reproach himself for his jealousy.”

But she has betrayed him. And Dmitri cannot see the truth (rather he cannot accept the truth) because of his own selfish jealousy.

And Dostoevsky indulges us at length, with this explanation: “It is hard to imagine what some jealous men can tolerate and be reconciled to, and what they can forgive! Jealous men forgive sooner than anyone else, and all women know it. The jealous man (having first made a terrible scene, of course) can and will very promptly forgive, for example, a nearly proven betrayal, the embraces and kisses he has seen himself, if, for example, at the same time he can somehow be convinced that this was ‘the last time’ and that his rival will disappear from that moment on, that he will go to the end of the earth, or that he himself will take her away somewhere, to some place where this terrible rival will never come. Of course, the reconciliation will only last an hour, because even if the rival has indeed disappeared, tomorrow he will invent another, a new one, and become jealous of this new one. And one may ask what is the good of a love that needs constantly be spied on, and what is the worth of a love that needs to be guarded so intensely? But that is something the truly jealous will never understand, though at the same time there happen, indeed, to be lofty hearts among them. It is also remarkable that these same lofty-hearted men, while standing in some sort of closet, eavesdropping and spying, though they understand clearly ‘in their lofty hearts’ all the shame they have gotten into of their own will, nevertheless, at least for that moment, while standing in that closet, will not feel any pangs of remorse.”

In this case, it is ridiculous to feel shame but no remorse. This, truly is the jealous heart.

We need not limit Dmitri’s blindness toward (and jealousy for) his lover alone. How many of us, due to our own selfishness, or jealousy, refuse to really see a person for who they truly are? How many of us refuse to allow someone to live outside of “our box,” never bother to sit down and really listen to a human, especially if it’s a person who either makes you feel AWKWARD or really just flat out annoys you? (Distant children, difficult students, and new acquaintances come to mind. Or, in Dmitri’s case, a person whom you love very much…)

In every situation, be careful if you feel like the bringer of truth. Please pause and consider carefully: while we influence people, we do not necessarily recreate them.

People are not containers. You can’t “fill them up” with truth.

People aren’t boxes that you put things in.

They are canvases.

In your whole life, you may only get to paint one purple stroke or a green dot.

No need to cover them in voluminous red vomit.

Before you meet them, and after you are gone, they are rare art.

The Idol of Marriage

Guys, staaaaaap.
Why is everyone so curious what I, the outspoken blogger, thinks about marriage?

“Stats are booming!”

You wackos.

(But thanks. I feel the love!)

In my last post, I gave my exact thoughts about the topic of dating and marriage. In that post I shared mostly what was on my heart. I have, however, decided to throw caution into the wind (due to reader disappointment) and share a few thoughts. (This post has been percolating.)

Here are a few thoughts I have on the subject of marriage, some of which I may or may not have shared in my Practical Christian Living class.

In my opinion, marriage is an idol. Marriage, its place, and its importance have grown far too large in our minds due to our misunderstanding of what marriage actually means. And further, idolizing marriage leads to ineffective Christian witness both inside and outside the church.

100_7259.JPG

  1. First, a lot of people are confused about what marriage means.

Marriage is a metaphor created by God to represent the future union of God Himself to His pure, beautiful church.

The first “thing” is God and His church, not the other way around. Human marriage is not the “thing.” God one day receiving His pure, beautiful church—THAT is the thing. Marriage is temporary. The church is eternal.

Jesus Himself said, “When the dead rise, they will neither marry, nor be given in marriage, they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). (You know you won’t be married in heaven, right?)

Paul reminds us that marriage is not the ultimate goal by a strange inversion at the end of his comments on marriage in his letter to the Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (5:25-32).

Just when we think Paul won’t end his moral rampage about husbands, he flips the argument on its side, indicating he’s actually been talking about God and the church the whole time.  (This is not to say that husbands ought to be rude to their wives. Paul’s instructions regarding Christian love still stand.)

Paul’s inversion reminds us that we do not look at marriage and say, “Oh, this is kind of like God and the church.” No, we look at God and His church and say, “This mystery, so amazing, is reflected to me by the human institution of marriage.”

Let us not have such an earthly perspective that we do not see marriage as temporary or that we do not see the church as eternal.

  1. Second, the idolatry of marriage is evident within the church.

It seems like we in the church place great importance on marriage, sometimes at the expense of Kingdom work!

Why is it that many Christian young people find themselves secretly praying, “Jesus, don’t come back until I get married”? (Which is really the subliminal “Jesus, don’t come back until I have sex.”) (And honestly, this is a very common prayer, according to youth!)

Strange isn’t it, that we prefer getting our jollies over the return of our great Lord?

What is it about this marriage relationship or this intimacy that is of utter importance that we cannot imagine getting to the end of our lives without it?

(And married people can’t imagine it. Grown men who are happily married get very uncomfortable by the idea of being celibate for the rest of their lives.) (Though I can’t imagine why. We single people have been doing it for years.)

So where do we get this idea that ultimate satisfaction comes from a romantic relationship (or a marriage relationship)? Is it coming from the church? If so, why?

Or, perhaps, have we bought into the secular message that sexual expression = worth?

Strangely, we in the church forget that our ultimate goal is contributing to God’s kingdom on earth and living in relationship with His people. Building God’s kingdom through the church is the Gospel message, after all.

When people don’t recognize that marriage is a metaphor for something greater, and that marriage itself is not eternal, it can become an idol after which many people seek. People desperately browse the marriage market, follow and like their next new crush, safely marry, and then obsess over all their unmarried friends, attempting to lead them into “Christian bliss,” or marriage, the obvious path to spiritual maturity.

There are people (married or not) who cannot imagine a person living on one’s own (especially a woman living on her own). They cannot imagine “not being known,” as it were, emotionally and physically. They cannot imagine laying down their idol of marriage and instead fully devoting themselves to Kingdom work.

(We know after all, that that’s the whole point of singleness. Paul says in I Corinthians 7:28, 32-35: “But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this… I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”

Paul so clearly outlines the purpose of single living. (Did you hear that singles? We are just SO MUCH MORE SPIRITUAL than everyone. The Bible says so.)

And a side note, perhaps this is what I am saying to you, O gentle reader, who does not wish to be mimic Immoral Married Monica. Help us change the conversation about single people. Instead of the inevitable, “Are you dating?” “Why are you single?” “So have you found anyone yet?” I beg you to instead ask, “Tell me about your Kingdom work.” I know so many single people who have so much to say about how they are influencing the Kingdom of God… either immediate work, or dreams and goals. Can we not talk about these eternal things? Do we have to talk about your second cousin in Goshen who still single and what you would describe as “decent”?

There is a lot to be said about how the idol of marriage appears in church when it comes to preferring marriage to just about ANY other identity, but I’m running out of time, so let’s move on.

  1. This idolatry also creates problems for the church’s witness regarding relevant social issues.

Bellering about marriage convinces young people that they CAN get their jollies in the church, just find a right nice young fella and settle down. However, this does not take care of the problem of people idolizing marriage and refusing to find their identity in Christ alone and refusing to find meaning in Kingdom work. I do not need to explain to you how this could be problematic.

Christians, then, finding their worth in their marriage relationship, or in their partner, haven’t got much to say regarding the sexual revolution in which we find ourselves. You know we’re in a new sexual revolution, right?

How can Christians who find their identity in their partner have anything valuable to say to lonely divorcees? How can Christians who find their identity in being married have anything important to say to single adults, young or old? How can Christians who find their identity in something other than Christ alone have anything to say to homosexuals? How can Christians who find their identity in their partner, and not Christ, have anything to say at all about the fornicating teen who wants to get an abortion due to the consequences of her behavior? (We Christians love to condemn the sin of abortion without ever (or, okay, rarely) thinking about what sin, and what belief about identity, that sin proceeds from.)

It is my personal opinion that sexual the climate in which we find ourselves is in part due to the Church’s improper view of marriage. Perhaps marriage became too important. (In the 50s, maybe?) Then the Church failed to get something across in the 60s, and in the 70s, leading to even more sexual freedom, which led to boredom, which led to sexual experimentation, which led to still more boredom.

That boredom is today’s sexual climate. After all, virginity is on the rise.

Relevant magazine recently pointed this out in an article called “Why Aren’t Millennials Having Sex Anymore?” The article states, “Nearly 40 percent of college students claim they’ve never had sex. Only five years ago, as the Esquire editorial notes, a 25-year, ‘exhaustive’ study called ‘Sex Lives of College Students: A Quarter Century of Attitudes and Behaviors,’ found that college students who say they’re virgins made up only 13 percent. If both numbers hold up, that’s a startling, 27 percent jump in a really short time span. As counterintuitive as this may seem, it’s not totally new information. Earlier this year, data from Match.com—yes, Match.com publishes studies—indicated that one in three of all twentysomethings, not only those in college, are still virgins.”

And we ask, so why HAVE kids stopped having sex? What have they stopped believing, and how does it relate to the church? If sex is not the thing, then WHAT IS? Millennials are asking this question, and we better have an answer.

Back to the issue at hand: if we look to marriage or to sexual expression for our ultimate satisfaction, we will miss our ultimate meaning.

Allow me to quote from Christopher Yuan from his book Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope. In this book, Yuan hints at those ultimate identity markers which those of us in Christianity are offered:

“God says, ‘Be holy, for I am holy… God never said, ‘Be heterosexual, for I am heterosexual’…

Holy sexuality means one of two scenarios. The first scenario is marriage. If a man is married, he must devote himself to complete faithfulness to his wife. And if a woman is married, she must devote herself to complete faithfulness to her husband. The idea that I might marry a woman seemed like an impossibility—though God could do the impossible. But the truth was, I did not need to be attracted to women in general to get married; I needed to be attracted to only one woman. Heterosexuality is a broad term that focuses on sexual feelings and behaviors toward the opposite gender. It includes lust, adultery, and sex before marriage—all sins according to the Bible. God calls married people to something much more specific—holy sexuality. Holy sexuality means focusing all our sexual feelings and behaviors exclusively toward one person, our spouse.

The second scenario of holy sexuality is singleness. Single people must devote themselves to complete faithfulness to the Lord through celibacy. This is clearly taught throughout Scripture, and abstinence is not something unfair or unreasonable for God to ask of his people. Singleness is not a curse. Singleness is not a burden. As heirs of the new covenant, we know that the emphasis is not on procreation but regeneration. But singleness need not be permanent. It merely means being content in our present situation while being open to marriage—and yet not consumed by the pursuit of marriage.

Holy sexuality doesn’t mean that I no longer have any sexual feelings or attractions… So the question is, if I continue to have these feelings I neither asked for nor chose, will I still be willing to follow Christ no matter what? Is my obedience to Christ dependent on whether he answered my prayers my way? God’s faithfulness is proved not by the elimination of hardships but by carrying us through them. Change is not the absence of struggles; change is the freedom to choose holiness in the midst of our struggles. I realized that the ultimate issue has to be that I yearn after God in total surrender and complete obedience.”

When we do not find our identity first before our Lord, and when we do not find our ultimate satisfaction in Kingdom work, then perhaps we have some sort of idol.

I believe this idol keeps us from regenerative work both inside the church (in our ministry to singles, homosexuals, single parents, the divorced, the elderly) and outside the church as we seek to bring meaning and true identity to all who ask.

The Entire Presidential Race As Told by Characters in Macbeth

Let’s have a little fun, shall we? What if we cast Trump and Clinton as our favorite Shakespearean power-hungry couple, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

hillary

Trump, to the sixteen candidates he beats for Republican nominee:
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.” (Act V, Scene V)

Ben Carson, to Trump, after dropping out:
“Let’s briefly put on manly readiness
And meet i’the’ hall together. (Act II, Scene III)

Trump, when asked about proposed policy:
“Strange things I have in head, that will to hand
Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.” (Act III, Scene IV)

Trump, to no one in particular:
“I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.” (Act I, Scene VII)

The American public, upon discovering the two nominees for President:
“If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly.” (Act I, Scene 7)

News Reporter: Trump, how do you feel about Russia and North Korea?
Trump: “Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear
The armed rhinoceros, or th’ Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble.” (Act III, Scene IV)

Trump, to women: “Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.” (Act 1, Scene 7)
Trump: “What sound is that?”
Attendant: “It is the cry of women, my good lord.” (Act V, Scene V)

New reporter, speaking to Democrat: Any words on the Republican nominee?
Democrat: “Not in the legions
Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned
In evils to top [Trump].” (Act 4, Scene III)

News reporter, to nearby Republican: How do feel about the Democratic candidate?
Republican: “I grant [her] bloody,
Luxurious, malicious, false, deceitful,
Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin
That has a name.” (Act 4, Scene III)

News reporter: And your thoughts on the Republican candidate?
Women, Hispanics, Muslims, in unison:
“The devil himself could not pronounce a title
More hateful to mine ear.” (Act V, Scene 7)

Clinton, as depicted by Republicans (on hiding emails):
“Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” (Act I, Scene IV)

Obama, late in Clinton’s campaign: “Welcome hither!
I have begun to plant thee, and will labor
To make thee full growing…let me enfold thee
And hold thee to my heart.”

Clinton: “There if I grow
The harvest is your own.” (Act I, Scene IV)

Clinton, to the American public, on emails:
“Things without all remedy
Should be without regard. What’s done is done.” (Act III, Scene II)

Trump: You oughta drop out!
Clinton: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” (Act 5, Scene I)

Democrats, when the FBI announces more investigation days before the election:
“If we should fail?”

Clinton: “We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking place
And we’ll not fail.” (Act I, Scene 7)

Trump, upon hearing that Clinton has indeed been cleared for the emails:
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair!” (Act I, Scene I)

Republicans: “Let us seek out some desolate shade , and there
Weep our sad bosoms empty.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Democrats: “Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds
As if it felt with [America] and yelled out.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Young facebook activists: “What I believe, I’ll wail;
What I know, believe, and what I can redress,
As I shall find the time to friend, I will.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Pious non-voters: “Bleed, bleed, poor country!
Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure
For goodness dare not check thee; wear thou thy wrongs.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Disenchanted voters: When I go to vote, “yet my poor country
Shall have more vices than it had before,
More suffer, and more sundry ways than ever,
By him [or her] that shall succeed.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Half of America, day after election day: “I have lost my hopes.” (Act IV, Scene III)

How to Avoid Cooking

I made this, and I didn’t throw it away.

IMG_20161003_161755.jpg

My apologies, readers. You know I do my best to avoid cooking! And I’ll be doing so for the rest of time…‘til the cows come home… or Jesus comes back.

We might as well say, “That’ll never happen til Esther cooks.” It’s the same thing.

Some people always feel sorry for me that I can’t cook. When they find out, there’s this moment of death that comes over their faces. “But don’t you live by yourself?” they say. Then a look of unquestionable pity. Me over here? I’m like:

Xyrapvm.gif

It doesn’t bother me. But it bothers you.

I guess I feel the same way when I find out people don’t like running or reading books. I feel sorry for them.

Why don’t I cook?

  1. Because: time. Just like you, I’m really busy. And I fill my life with things that intrigue me a whole lot more than cooking does. Like fitness. And reading. Or sleeping. Add to that my (more than) full-time job, and when I get home from a 12 hour work day, cooking is the last activity in the world that I could ever be prevailed upon to… er, start.
  1. Because: money. I just moved into my own apartment, and my cupboards are still a little bare. Instead of spending money on like 17 organic spices, Le Creuset cookware, and shallots, I saved up and bought a microwave! Bacon, anyone? …And even then, you can live without a microwave. I did for two months. I’m amazed at the things I haven’t managed to buy yet. I’ve lived without flour or oil since I moved. Four months ago. #nonbaker
  1. Because: single. Cooking for one person is the worst. I mean, it’s great that it’s low-stakes (if I mess up, peanut butter and jelly is my favorite) but if something actually succeeds, meaning it’s not inedibly raw, it’s going to last for at least four meals. And I. Hate. Leftovers. Eating the same thing four days in a row makes me sad. Especially because I can guarantee you that it was pretty bland in the first place. Also, it’s sometimes hard to buy ingredients for just one person. Ingredients don’t stay fresh, and I end up having to throw away much more food than I intended. Therefore, I don’t “cook” in that traditional sense because it’s hard to keep everything fresh.
  1. Because: food allergies. Like some of the rest of you over-25ers, in the past couple of years, my digestive system went on strike, and I’m still in the aftermath of trying to figure out what my body will tolerate. Most of the time when I eat, I’m anxious to see that my body accepts it (instead of violently reacting, sending me to the floor in agony), rather than being anxious to see if it tastes good or not. So I find it hard to get excited about food-related activities.

Another cooking problem I have is that as a runner, I think of food as fuel, which doesn’t necessarily relate to fine dining experiences. I recognize that my main thought during the week is, “Did I eat enough protein today?” rather than, “Did I sit down and enjoy a good meal today?” Right now I’m content just knowing that I ingested a decent blend of lean proteins and carbs for the week, rather than figuring out how to plate them with any sort of culinary intelligence. When I fix my cooking problem (right before pigs fly and right after the fat lady sings), I’ll have to address the issue of food as fuel. Because sucking an energy gel on mile 10 while wiping your runny nose and mopping sweat is not the road to fine dining. No, it’s more the road to: how many pieces of pizza should I eat during carb-loading? Food as fuel is spoonfuls of peanut butter, forkfuls of beef, and handfuls of guilt-less bread indulgence. Two hours spent running on Saturday mornings is two hours not spent planning meals, organizing ingredients, and making a dish that tastes mediocre instead of terrible.

But this week I ran out of excuses of not cooking. Namely, I had nary food in the house. So I decided to go buy a bunch of meat and some general ingredients for cooking it in. One of my roommates in Indiana is famous for cooking chicken in red wine, so I decided to try this.

It was a surprise for me to find no alcohol at Walmart. Apparently Wal-marts in Pennsylvania don’t sell alchohol. But they do sell one kind of cooking wine. (I later found out that one NEVER EVER cooks with cooking wine. You should only cook with wine you would drink. Sigh. Nobody told ME.) I snatched up a cheap bottle. Returning home with my salmon, lemon juice, and spices, I turned to the chicken and red wine.

I lightly browned two chicken breasts in… blast, I had no oil. Butter would have to do. Removing the chicken, I sautéed mushrooms, then poured in about a cup of red wine, waiting patiently for it to “reduce,” whatever that meant. Basically, I just got bored watching the wine cook, so I just moved on to the next step. (The wine, cooking, had by now made my apartment smell like a back-country Kentucky still.) Next I added the chicken back into the wine and then scoured my cupboards for something besides salt and pepper to flavor it. I came up with garlic. And a bit of parmesan.

20161002_122837.jpg

(I would have added brown sugar, but again, I’m staple-less.) After a very long time, my chicken came out looking decent.

 

It had a nice flavor when paired with the mushrooms (ridiculously rich from the butter and wine), but the meat was dry and my mushrooms a little burnt.

I also had cooked some sweet potatoes and topped them with a special sweet sauce (otherwise known as pancake syrup).

Successes: Two meals—one fresh, and one for the fridge. The perfect amount for one person!
Failures: Dry chicken, no brown sugar, lame sweet potatoes.

But lest you think that I’m about to announce my resolve to learn to cook, here is a week’s worth of meal-planning options with NO COOKING INVOLVED!

Here are some ways that may help you get out of cooking:

  1. Eat out.
  2. Eat leftovers from eating out.
  3. Eat breakfast for dinner.
  4. Eat sandwiches for dinner.
  5. Eat salad.
  6. Eat a German bread dinner.
  7. Repeat #5, but add croutons.

Okay, I think I’m done. Now I look forward to reading all the comments about how “this would NEVER work in my family with my husband/kids.. blah blah.” Yeah, well, guess what? There are a ton of cooking blogs out there for people like you, serves six. But not a ton for single people. Get it?
#minority

 

You Think Language Isn’t Important? Microstyle Begs to Differ

One fantastic book I read this summer was Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little. I picked up this snappy writing guide at my local library because as a writer I think it’s important to read books about composition. I definitely hit the jack-pot with this volume, a book about successfully communicating in small spaces.

In today’s world, how do you capture a person’s attention in slogans, company names, advertising jingles, social media, and bullet points of blog-land? By carefully crafting your message and playing with linguistic patterns, says Johnson, a Berkeley-trained linguist, who has worked as a verbal branding consultant for Lexicon Branding, the naming firm that developed the names for Pentium, Blackberry, Swiffer, Febreze, and others.

An extremely successful linguist, Johnson PLAY WITH LANGUAGE FOR A JOB. I’ve always said that linguists have the most fun (and Johnson delivers with this satisfying read). And it IS fun, not uptight like that grammar Nazi friend of yours. Johnson writes, “Linguists are, quite simply, specialists who take a scientific interest in language. They want to know how language works, and they’re not interested in judging you. Prescriptive rules are among the least interesting things about language” (12). Oh Christopher, I couldn’t agree with you more! I despise when people find out that I have a job teaching English and inevitably remark: “I better watch my grammar.”

Johnson smirks at this reaction: “Prescriptivists are language poison sniffers. They pay little attention to what makes language delicious… I believe that people could genuinely love language more if they shifted their focus from judgment and insecurity to curiosity and appreciation. We do interesting things when we use language, whether or not we’re being “correct,” and we should all be able to relish and discuss those things without fear of embarrassment” (12). Grammar isn’t playful or poetical, but language is.

And we respond to it subconsciously, which means that if you’re using language AT ALL in your job as a business owner or working in marketing, some of Johnson’s insights may prove beneficial to you. He talks about why some brand names work better than others. Why some ad campaigns bring business and why others fall flat. In the book, he explains why “Apple” works as a business name, and why it is that we say “dry land” and “solid ground” but not “dry ground” and “solid land.” And, amazingly, WHY THIS MATTERS for writers and business owners.

A sampling of Johnson’s artistic writing tips:

When writing in small spaces, be clear, especially if you’re promoting a product.

Consider these ad slogans:

LISTERINE FIGHTS BAD BREATH

MILTON BRADLEY MAKES THE BEST GAMES IN THE WORLD

I JUST SAVED A BUNCH OF MONEY ON MY CAR INSURANCE (Geico)

It’s pretty clear what service is being offered. But not every business gets it right. For example, Johnson grumps about Twitter’s new description of itself on its homepage: “Twitter is a rich source of instant information. Stay updated. Keep others updated. It’s a whole thing.” Johnson quotes Steve Spillman from Slate magazine, “‘Seriously, Twitter, ‘It’s a whole thing’? That’s the way I describe Twitter, but I’m a 20-something New York hipster, or something close to it. And I’m usually not trying to get millions of people to sign up, or whatever you are trying to do with this. This doesn’t say anything about how Twitter works’” (49). While it’s sometimes okay to play with ambiguity, Twitter ultimately fails in its homepage description.

Another campaign slogan Johnson deconstructs is Google’s old Droid slogan: A BARE-KNUCKLED BUCKET OF DOES, whose failures include but are not limited to the verb “do” becoming the noun “does,” but possibly being scanned as the third-person singular of “do,” or even the plural of doe, as in the female deer, in which case, what is it doing in a bucket, which metaphorically refers to the phone, we presume, which is also “bare-knuckled” (?) A tragic case of mixed metaphor, to say the least. In small spaces, one can’t afford to be unclear.

When writing in small spaces, choose the right word.

Since microstyle depends on briefness, it is highly important to be choosy. Consider the company Reebok, who named one women’s shoe style the Incubus, which Johnson defines as “a demon from medieval folklore that rapes women in their sleep.” He concludes, “If you aren’t absolutely certain what a word means, at least look it up in the dictionary” (55). Truly, when it comes to writing in spaces as small as A SINGLE WORD, choosing the right word is critical!

When writing in small spaces, push buttons.

Writers effectively appeal to emotions to achieve desired effects. When Maytag employed the slogan OUR REPAIRMAN ARE THE LONELIEST GUYS IN TOWN, “they knew that we’d sympathize with those poor repairmen even though we knew they were fictitious, and that we’d remember their plight (73). For emotional appeals to work, they either need to be very subtle or especially over-the-top. However, some fall in between these two extremes, resulting in, well, unappealing appeals. (I simply loved all the moments when Johnson points out how writers sometimes just plain miss it.) Johnson complains, “CELEBRATE THE MOMENTS OF YOUR LIFE, the General Foods slogan for International Coffees, rings hollow with its bland coziness. Proctor & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company, claims to be TOUCHING LIVES, IMPROVING LIFE. Really? How are you touching my life, P&G? With a Swiffer?” (74). With emotional appeals, either go big, or go home.

Besides noting the intensity of the appeals, one might also be aware of the varying types of emotional appeals: self-actualization (US Army: BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE, Apple: THE POWER TO BE YOUR BEST), generational rebellion (THIS IS NOT YOUR FATHER’S OLDSMOBILE), and spicy (Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science). Johnson deconstructs that last one: “The… title connects eco(yawn)nomics to the titillating topic of nudity” (76). A title from the latter category that I’ve discovered on my own: Naked Anabaptist: the Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. Hmmm yes, I notice this appeal to sensuality. Apparently the idea of reading about Anabaptist theology is so mind-numbingly boring that the writers figured that the only way to get people to buy their book is to make it sound SEXY. (Seriously now. Aren’t you A LITTLE curious about these naked Mennonites?)

When writing in small spaces, zoom in on telling details.

Johnson opens this section by citing Ernest Hemingway’s six-word novel: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Talk about telling details. (Sniff.) In small spaces, you can’t tell the whole story, so you’re going to have to decide which parts to leave out and let the readers “connect the dots.” The problem lies in deciding what to leave out and in using metaphor inappropriately in the included details. Johnson includes one painful example: “Choosing the wrong way to indirectly evoke an idea can result in bad framing… In 2010, I saw a billboard for 7-Eleven with the following slogan: ‘Stuff your face with value.’ Pictured on the billboard were two pale, unappealing lumps that I believe were microwaveable burritos. That was the ‘value’ you were supposed to stuff in your face. This ad might appeal to people who enjoy taking their meals at 7-Eleven, but it certainly doesn’t appeal to me. Part of the reason stems from its peculiar use of metonymy. The word value refers to the food items that can be had at 7-Eleven. Tangible food is represented by the concept of the economic value you enjoy when you purchase it. But value, while desirable, lacks both specific sensory associations and emotional appeal” (88). Therefore, the details you include must be the ripest, freshest ones you’ve laid eyes on. You’re appealing to emotions, are you not?

When writing in small spaces, use ambiguity for good, not evil.

A sampling of newspaper headlines, which may have got it wrong:

GRANDMOTHER OF EIGHT MAKES HOLE IN ONE

PROSTITUTE APPEALS TO POPE

IRAQI HEAD SEEKS ARMS

RED TAPE HOLDS UP NEW BRIDGE

YOU CAN PUT PICKLES UP YOURSELF

MCDONALD’S FRIES THE HOLY GRAIL FOR POTATO FARMERS

This reminder of the possibilities of ambiguity had me giggling over here like:

When writing in small spaces, say the wrong thing.

Sometimes, saying the wrong thing will appeal to your target audience. And even if it sounds wrong, the implication can still be positive. Volkswagen did this with its THINK SMALL campaign. (I mean, we’re supposed to THINK BIG, right? Nope. Volkswagen is reminding us that sometimes compactness is more environmentally friendly.) The company continued this marketing trend with its UGLY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP campaign and WHILE IN EUROPE, PICK UP AN UGLY EUROPEAN (113). Here’s a smirk-inducing campaign: “Avis Rent  A Car System used to boast, ‘We’re number two. We try harder.’” (Hertz had run a campaign about being number one. Avis. Those little devils.)

When writing in small spaces, keep it simple (in relation to sound).

For the love of Pete, make it easy to pronounce. Johnson describes the problem of hard-to-pronounce names: “Stephen Merritt…decided not to keep it simple when naming the albums for one of his side project bands called the 6ths (itself a real mouthful). The band’s two albums are called Wasps’ Nests and Hyacinths and Thistles. This tongue-twisting names are a sort of a practical joke—a radio DJ’s nightmare. Just imagine having to announce one of these albums on air… Think of pronunciation as driving. Vowels are like cruising down the open road. Consonants are like city driving, with all its stops, perilous lane changes, and unexpected turns. Saying ‘hyacinths and thistles’ is like having to cross three lanes of busy traffic to exit the freeway, only to find yourself heading east instead of west” (125).

Indeed, I have found there’s a good many people who cannot pronounce “sixth.” It invariably comes out as “sikth” (INCORRECT) versus “sikSth.” (Please let’s include the “s” in there, shall we?) But due to the amount of consonants there (four total!), it’s hard to pronounce. And even Ed Sheeran can’t do it, using the incorrect pronunciation “sikth” in his chart-topping song “Photograph.” No wonder my students can’t pronounce the word. Nor can they correctly pronounce “especially.” Half of them insert an anomalous “k” sound at the beginning, articulating “EK-specially.” Poor dears. It’s “ES-specially.” From where do they get this “k”? They create more work for themselves by adding sounds that aren’t even there. This also happens in the word “escape.” For my students, it becomes “eK-scape” for some unknown reason. And they’re just stumbling over TWO consonants!

But we should take Johnson to heart. Too many consonants are problematic. (OH FRIENDS. My own domain name features multiplicities of consonants of which I am now very insecure. More than one acquaintance has given me a hairy eyeball when I suggested they check out my blog “Shshchtashtshsffphoaugh.” Announcement: blog name change coming soon.)

When writing in small spaces, break the rules (in relation to structure).

I’ve always said that good writers know the rules, but if they have a reason to break them, they do so confidently. Certain misspellings can be used to create a brand. (We’re not thinking KOA Kampgrounds or anything, but more clever uses like that of “Clay Shirky, the NYU professor, author, and social media commentator, [who] used the following bio on his Twitter profile: ‘Bald, Unreliable, Easily distracte’” (155). This sort of clever rule-breaking extends one’s message. There the misspelling augments Shirky’s message about his quirky personality. Indeed, the misspelling is not some far-flung pun attempt, like that of Ephrata’s local “Compleat Restoration.” The company’s logo features the curiously spelled “compleat” atop two houses and a cozy flame. (Google the image.) When I saw the logo, I assumed the company installed new heating systems (complete… compleat… heat). However, the company’s website indicates that it is a disaster restoration service, specializing in fixing fire and flood damage and that “compleat” is an Old English spelling of “complete,” chosen in order to “set the company apart.” Yeah, sure, as a company that doesn’t know how to spell! What do Old English, large houses, and cozy flames have to do with cleaning up after catastrophic infernos? If I were a consultant, I might suggest that the spelling is arbitrary, unhelpful, and (like in my case) just plain confusing. There’s too much explaining that has to be done on the company website with that one. And in small spaces like company names, customers shouldn’t have to do that much work.  The odd misspelling, in my opinion, doesn’t work like Shirky’s does.

And this is where Johnson’s work shows how a firm grasp of the language of microstyle connects to our society. His showing us where the rubber meets the road reminds us what we have always known but we’ve been scared to bring up about grammar: sometimes we focus on things which students will never apply, and we skip teaching the art of applied language.

When writing in small spaces, combine words artfully (in relation to structure).

Having a knowledge of word associations and figuring out how to combine these associations unusually is a sure-fire way to make your wording stand out. A Seattle web design firm named their company Blue Flavor. A pretty fetch name if you ask me. Johnson explains why: “Colors don’t literally have flavor, but there are certain canonical color-flavor associations. Makers of jelly beans, slushy drinks, and other artificially colored foods use these all the time. Yellow for lemon. Purple for grape. Red for cherry or strawberry. Orange for orange, of course. Green for lime or mine or maybe green apple. But missing from this list is blue… Blue Flavor names a mythical taste that doesn’t exist. Something you’ve never experienced before. It’s a great idea for a web design studio to evoke, and it shows the power of putting words—even just two of them—together” (175). Contrast Blue Flavor’s naming win with LiftPort, the name for a company building an elevator to outer space. Johnson bemoans the moniker: “Lifting is carrying, porting is carrying, a lift is a kind of conveyance, a port is a place of departure. Combining these words hits the same overly general and uninspiring meanings again and again, neglecting more interesting ideas like outer space, science fiction, and doing the impossible” (176). Too true! An elevator to space and “LiftPort” is the best you can do? Combining words is a delicious task unless you’re using old alphabet soup.

Finally, word combination has its limits. Don’t decorate a title which doesn’t need decorating. Be up front. Johnson jokes about “pre-owned” cars (they’re “USED” for Pete’s sake!) and other words and prefixes frequently used to ornament common things. Like the prefix “pre-.” “The most ridiculous euphemism I’ve encountered lately is pre-reclined, used by Spirit Airlines to describe the nonadjustable seats in its new Airbus A320s,” Johnson explains. “Just imagine a flight attendant dealing with a confused customer asking how to make his seat go down: ‘Sir, our seats are pre-reclined, which means you’re already comfortable!’” (178). Ah, language. I love it more than most people.

This is only a sampling of the best bits of Microstyle. If you’re in business, in marketing, or interested in personal branding, you’ll love this book. It uncovers some subtleties of language and makes suggestions for the kind of writing that many of us do everyday but for which we were never trained—writing in the small spaces of social media, personal branding, and advertising.