Let Your Lantern Glow

29 Jun 2011

Let me tell you some things about my friend Lauren: she owns an alpaca finger puppet, a 1970s El Camino, and a head full of curly red hair. Also, I’m fairly certain her voice is what baby angels fall asleep to. And for a year in El Salvador her guitar playing was what I fell asleep to. There was this one instrumental song that she developed all year, the piece that would drift into our house in the afternoons when she would play out on our patio. That was the song she’d play for us almost every night when we asked her to put us to sleep with pretty music.

Then there was the song that became the anthem in my head when I was at my most discouraged and lonely. I was so happy today when listened to the newest recording of it on her site. I have heard this song hundreds of times now. Over and over she would play it for us (upon request). People would add things to it, play with it, interact with it. And once I got hold of a rough, fuzzy recorded copy, it played in my car and on my runs and during my quiet times.

Let your lantern glow, I will follow you forever.

With only food and clothes, you will be my every shelter.

I could picture, and still can, the glowing lantern swinging in the dark. It’s an image that makes walking in the blackness seem so warm and kind.

Now go find a dark, quiet room, light a candle, and listen to her version of Nothing but the Blood.

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2002: A Run Odyssey*

28 Jun 2011

Would you like to hear a pitiful story from my early high school years? Yes? Okay, then. Let me just flip through the many, many possible selections. Ah, here we are: Brenna vs. Sports.

Once upon a time I was a little girl who loved to tap dance. I could leap-shuffle-hop with the best of them. Aside from the fact that I had a lot of trouble distinguishing my left turns from my right (see: Brenna vs. Directions) I managed to stay near the top of the pack. I liked the leotards and tights. I loved pounding on the wood floor with my heavy taps. I liked watching my movements in the big mirrors that lined the room. The part that I did not like was my teacher and her harsh voice (see: Brenna vs. Scary Adults).  So by age 10 I had dropped dance and taken up art, where my sweet and gentle fairy-loving teacher would praise every stroke of my brush.

While all of my friends were starting their careers in club soccer and volleyball, I was building fairy treasure chests out of old match boxes. This was completely fine with me. I rode my bike and roller bladed with the neighborhood kids and walked the dog every day. I was active, just utterly uninterested in sports. We were a family of three girls, and the only sports I ever saw my dad watch were golf (aka “naptime”) and the occasional game of football.

But then came high school. Sports were now mandatory. I quickly learned in the first weeks of my freshman year that P.E. in high school is only for losers and stoners. Even the teachers seemed to be hating life, just waiting until the end of the day when they could go coach their real stars. I somehow managed to convince my P.E. teacher that I could replace all activities with long walks. So I found a couple girls who shared my disdain for basketball and tennis, and we’d simply spend the period walking around the field and talking. Public education at its finest.

But after one semester, I was over it. I wanted to take up a sport. I didn’t care which sport, I just wanted out. My selection criteria was simple. I needed something that 1.) required no prior knowledge or experience, and 2.) that my friends were also doing. In my mind this narrowed the field to two options: tennis and track. And then I tried to practice playing tennis with my dad. Track it is!

And so I practiced running for the first time in my life. I had run around, sure. But I had never “run.” After a few time trials my dad and I realized that I wasn’t fast, not in the least, but my stamina was fairly good. Distance running it is! I tried out, and made the team–just like every single other person who tried out. And to my great surprise, I loved it.

I was a bit daunted by this world of athletics that seemed to have all these rules and customs that I had never learned. How did they all know what kind of socks to wear? And what kind of running shoes? And what kind of food to bring to the pre-race potluck. But I still felt proud to be a part of something. Track is a great first sport, because my personal failures didn’t matter so much to the team as a whole. I loved sitting around at track meets eating snacks and talking with my friends. Girls would line up for me to french braid their hair. One of the schools we would race at three times a season was right on the beach, so after our events we would change into our bathing suits and lay by the ocean. Clearly I was in it for all the right reasons. But even the running part wasn’t so bad. It turns out you improve very quickly when you start from a base of “has never owned running shoes.”

My goodness, I did not expect for this story to have so much build up. So, the season is coming to a close. We only have a few meets left, and people are starting to drop out for illness/injury reasons. This is how I find myself on the starting line surrounded by girls who are much, much faster than me. Somehow all of the JV girls on our team are out on the same day, except for me. Not only that, this is a small meet, meaning they are having the Varsity and the JV girls run together. I feel sick from nerves as I size up the girls from the other team. “It doesn’t matter,” I think, “All I have to do is get through the race.”

The gun goes off, and we start. Rounding the first lap, I’m keeping up. But then I am not. It’s quickly apparent as we settle into our paces that everyone in this race has me easily beat. I breathe and focus on staying close to the pack. The stadium is packed on one side, the side with a huge concrete wall of bleachers. But the far side of the stadium, with the rickety metal bleachers, is empty except for a group of punk skater boys. I round the first turn of the second lap, quickly falling further and further behind. And then, as I go into the straightaway, I hear a voice yelling at me, “You! Are! In! LAST!” Then it’s the whole group, hollering, “You’re in LAST! LAST place!”And so they continued every lap.

My goodness, this story is depressing. I cried through the rest of the race, which made breathing rather difficult. Even so, I managed to P.R.

I thought about this story while I was running this past weekend. My sister and I are training for a half marathon in July, and the run lengths are starting to feel a little absurd. It felt like the cute ending of made for tv movie: here I am, thinking about that one time when those rowdy teenagers were mean to me on a run, while I’m on the kind of run that challenges my perceived athletic boundaries. But there it is. It’s fun to run far. It is the one and only sport I can do and it makes me feel good.

And those delinquents are probably in jail. Right?

The end.

*Matt titled this post.

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I heard a great snippet of a radio piece today about China’s new high speed rail line between Beijing and Shanghai. This new train will get people from Beijing to Shanghai in about 4.5 hours. For the sake of comparison, to get from New York to Chicago on Amtrak (about the same distance) takes 60 hours. Sixty.

Also, the project was finished a year ahead of schedule. Has that ever been said about a US civil engineering project ever in the history of time? I mean, the project was way over budget, but still.

That’s not the best part though. The best part was when the reporter mentioned that there have been reports that the rail line is such a point of pride that officials have chosen only the most attractive people to work as attendants on the train. The reporter’s voice takes on an investigative air as she questions a girl working on the train, “You are very attractive. Tell me, is it true that the government is only hiring very attractive people for this job?” The Chinese girl giggles, embarrassed yet reassuring, “Oh thank you. *giggle* Oh yes. Everyone that is working is very good looking.”

It was such an amusing moment because the tone of the reporter’s question was perfectly lost on the girl. In the US a positive response to that question would mean 1.) you’re fired, and 2.) your company is facing a lawsuit. But when your employer is the world’s largest “communist” government, this question receives an earnest response. For some reason it seemed so satisfying. It was as if a reporter had asked a buxom 23 year old working at Hooters if her employer chose people based on looks, and instead of hemming and hawing she replied, “What are you, blind?”

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It’s Local

26 Jun 2011

This morning at the farmer’s market a girl handed me a sample from a stand selling plums and nectarines and peaches. As I popped the plum slice into my mouth a woman walked up, “Excuse me, is this fruit organic?” Her voice had a bit of an edge to it.

“Well…actually the farm is in the process of becoming organic right now,” the sample girl answered.

“So, you’re saying that this fruit, right here, is not organic, correct?”

“No, it’s not,” the girl answered apologetically as the woman walked off in almost a huff.

I thanked the girl for the sample and shot her a smile that I hope expressed, “People, right? What’re you gonna do?”

In my head I was thinking of this:

“So this is local?”
“Yes, absolutely.”
“I’m gonna ask you just one more time, it is local?”
“It is.”
“Is that USDA organic, or Oregon organic, or Portland organic?”
“It’s just all across the board, organic.”

But what I really thought about this morning at the farmer’s market as I dug through piles of cherries and peas was the fact that I have a home. When we first moved up here, I lived for the farmer’s market. Aside from the crowds of people, it’s everything that I enjoy. Good food. Fresh smelling things. Ice cream. Delicious fruit. I loved filling my bags with all those bright colors and pretty shapes. Then Matt and I would drop off the bags at the car and walk around downtown drinking pearl tea and peaking into little asian markets.

It all felt good and right and comfortable at a time when my world felt a bit unsteady. I never thought it out so clearly, but I see now that it was so reassuring to have something that felt so “me” at a time when no one knew me at all. I knew where I fit, and I never missed a week.

And that’s what I realized this morning as I picked out my vegetables, it just doesn’t matter so much anymore. With all our various commitments, I don’t make it every week. I still enjoy it. It still feels peaceful to get up early and weave through the piles of fruit. But I don’t need it. I don’t feel the same pride in living so close to something so good.

It was almost comical today when we tried to go to a quiet lunch with friends. Half of our church had the same lunch spot in mind. Oh hello everyone in the world! Certainly, join us!

I don’t live in a fantasy land of artisan sorbet and heirloom tomatoes. I have a real world of people I like and people that annoy me. People that know me and people that are friends of friends. As much as I’m probably failing to express it, I don’t feel overly sentimental about it. It’s almost the opposite, in that it doesn’t feel surprising anymore. It just is.

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I am the opposite of a pigeon. I discovered this while I was listening to an episode of Radiolab called “Lost & Found.” During this episode, Dr. Charles Walcott, an ornithologist from Cornell, describes the magical mystery of pigeon navigation. If you take a pigeon, give it a sleeping pill (or however you knock out a bird), stick it in a dark box with artificial air, spin it around on a turn table, drive it out 100 miles from its home, and then release it, it will fly directly back home without any trouble at all.

Doesn’t that just blow your mind? How do they do it?

Scientists don’t really know, but they think it might have to do with the iron in the earth’s core. The iron is down there churning away, throwing off magnetism that might help birds navigate using magnetized particles in their beaks. Are you kidding me?

When I first got my driver’s license (9 a.m. the day I turned 16), my mom regularly fielded phone calls from her very lost daughter. “I’m at Target,” I’d say, “And I have no idea how to get home.”

“But that’s ten minutes away from our house. You don’t even know where to start?”

“Can you just help me? I don’t know where to go.”

“Just think about the roads coming from our house. How would you get to target from here. Now trace those back home.”

“Mom, stop it, I just want directions.”

In college I was equally hopeless, but was enormously helped by my little tiny town, and a large hill marked with a huge “P” on the campus. I would lose myself running errands two miles from the school, and then search the horizon for the “P” hill and aim my car in that direction.

And now, after a year in the town where I currently live, I’m proud to say that I can get to most of my usual places without the assistance of my smart phone guiding the way. But in those first few months the navigational help of my phone felt like an extension of my brain. I remember the panic when my phone died while I was on the road home from a city I had only visited three or four times, not because I feared needing to make an emergency call, but because I was afraid to get lost. “I know the way home. I know the way home,” I breathed to myself over and over.

I’m not completely hopeless anymore. I’ve worked really hard at studying maps and practicing cardinal directions and trying new routes to get to places I’ve been before. But even with all of that, I have learned that my internal directional instinct is not to be trusted. Ever. Even when I feel sure that “I’ll recognize it when I get close,” the truth is that I absolutely will not.

On the other side of the spectrum, my friend Joe is a pigeon in human form. We spent a year in El Salvador together (on a team, not just me and Joe), and his directional abilities are nearly unmatched. I swear you could drop him in the middle of a jungle and he would use his magnetized beak to intuit the right way home.

I say nearly unmatched, because Joe comes from a long line of pigeons. His parents came to visit El Salvador once during the year. The first night of their stay, we drove to our ministry director’s house for a welcome dinner. The streets in San Salvador are…eccentric. Our director’s house was on the other side of the city from the hotel where Joe’s parents were staying. Joe was sick and unable to attend the dinner. We drove over in the afternoon while it was still light out, taking the convoluted, trafficky, round about laden route required to get to our destination. When it came time to pile back into the cars to go home, a few of the guys in our group offered to give Joe’s dad detailed directions back to his hotel. “I think I got this,” he said. And then, without any instruction, he proceeded to drive back to his hotel without a single wrong turn. Unbelievable.

Why is my brain unable to lead me home from Target on a route I’ve traveled my whole life, while Joe’s dad’s brain can get him through endless loops and nonsensical turns in a brand new foreign city in the dark? I will never stop being astounded at the things our brains can do. And the things they cannot.

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  1. Dampen a rag with warm water.
  2. Add some soap to the rag.
  3. Sprinkle some baking soda around the shower.
  4. Scrub and rinse.
  5. (Optional) Spray shower with diluted bleach. Rinse.

I spent half an hour this morning searching through Christian homemaking blogs looking for the “right” way to clean a shower. Ridiculous. It’s okay, you can laugh at me. It’s just another aspect of my competence complex, meaning that I believe that shower cleaning is an inborn life skill that other people surely complete more effectively than I do. It turns out that, no, people pretty much just combine water, soap, and a scrubbing tool and make it happen. Just like me.

Often when people start reading about personal finance they are disappointed to find that every legitimate book on the subject contains basically the same common sense material. Spend less than you earn. Save the difference. From there it’s all pretty much just variations on the same information. There is no secret to wealth, just everything you already know put into practice.

I think that’s what I experience when I read about cleaning (which I promise is not often). I expect there to be some revolutionary method, but there is only water, soap, and rags.

*Feel free to clean your shower however you’d like. Or not at all.

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The Therapy Fund

16 Jun 2011

Question: Fish bones. Microwaves. Trains. What do these things have in common? My parents are the only ones who stand even a sliver of a chance of getting this right. Answer: These are three things they taught me to fear as a child. Actually, I think I’ll mostly blame my dad.

It’s my belief that every parent inflicts their children with a few odd phobias by the time they reach adulthood. My parents did it to me, and I will certainly, certainly do it to my own children. It’s like parents channel all their fear of the world, and their lack of control, into a few manageable spots until their children are terrified of water or electric sockets or stairs or fish bones. What can you do in a world that could take away your baby? You can tell them that people can drown in a tablespoon of water, so don’t you ever, ever play in the bathtub alone. You can block all the outlets with heavy furniture and make plugging things in completely off limits until your child reaches their teenage years. You can scrape all the meat off their fish skeleton and then hover vigilantly over their plate of snapper, ready to administer the Heimlich.

To this day I have a hard time fully enjoying any piece of fish that contains any bones at all. Salmon and tuna are no problem. Mahi mahi? Now we’re getting into evil tiny bone territory. I massacre fish with my fork, dragging it through the meat until I have a carefully prepared bone-free bite. I’ve actually never fully understood what I’m afraid of when I chew the fish deliberately, doing one final bone check. Choking? Esophageal laceration? I just googled “danger fish bone” and it appears that fish bones can get lodged sideways in your throat. Seems like it’s mostly highly uncomfortable, but not usually a cause of death.

It’s funny to me that the fear mongering was mostly my dad, because he’s generally a very laid back person. While my mom had trouble restraining her yips of fear when we were learning to drive around the block, my dad watched calmly from the passenger’s seat as I barreled down the freeway putting my dubious and theoretical lane changing skills into practice. My mom always made us wear seat belts, and never forgot to apply sunscreen, but it was my dad who would sternly warn us, with a gleam of fear in his eye, to back away from the microwave. He’s not the only father to instill this particular fear. A former roommate cringed watching another roommate peer into the microwave.

“Move your head back,” she chided. “It scares me to see your head so close to that door. My dad would always yell at us for that, like it was going to fry our brains or something.”

The fathers before them fought off bears and lions. And our fathers shielded us from microwave rays.

And trains. This hardly counts as an unreasonable phobia. We lived 50 yards or so from train tracks that were used to trundle lemons to and fro several times a day. Every morning after Sesame Street we would hear the bells ding as the crossing barrier went down. “The train! The train!” We’d shout, running for the door. We were allowed to run to the corner to watch it pass, but if we so much as put one toe into the street that separated us from the tracks we were all fairly certain that God would strike us dead before the train ever got a chance.

Matt loves to exploit this fear by walking slowly and casually across any train tracks we are forced to pass. “What are you so afraid of?” he says every single time. “Hurry, hurry!” I insist, pulling at his hand. And he laughs, indulging me with a mock run, mirroring the frantic look in my eyes.

You can’t protect against the danger, because it’s never the thing you think. But as Father’s Day approaches, I will say that my dad never let me get hit by a train. As far as I know, he never let me fry my brain enough to cause a tumor. And he never let me choke on a fish bone. It’s a different kind of safety that he gave us. It’s the the neurotic love of a dad who told us every time we warmed up a bowl of instant oatmeal that he that he didn’t want to lose us, that he would protect us.

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I just read this blog post about ridiculous marriage fights aloud to Matt and we laughed and laughed. Because yes. This.

What I hadn’t realized is that the Monty Hall problem was only an EXAMPLE of the real, ROOT issue in our marriage, which is “Theoretical Math” vs. “Actual Reality.” And when he tried to apply Theoretical Math to Actual Reality in the .333… vs. 1/3 thing, and then stood there asking calmly if I wanted him to show me the references that backed him up…well, that’s when it was clear to me that the only form of self-expression that would accurately represent my reply to that question was to smash something UP.

We can talk ALL DAY LONG about how IN A MATH PROBLEM you sometimes have to use .333… to represent 1/3rd, and that it’s the closest decimal equivalent of 1/3rd, and I will AGREE with that all throughout that same long day—just as I will agree that, with rounding, .345 is 35%. But if you say it IS THE SAME—well, we are going to lose a laundry basket in this argument.

Last Christmas Matt and I decided we were going to be a real family and put up some Christmas lights on our 5 square feet of balcony space. But I didn’t just want lights, I wanted the big multi-colored retro lights of my childhood. Except that no one sells those lights for less than a kidney anymore, and even the expensive ones weren’t exactly what I was looking for. I don’t want any of this power saving LED nonsense. I want softly glowing colored bulbs that send our electricity bill through the roof.

So at Thanksgiving I convinced my parents to release their Christmas lights into our care. Before passing them over I thought I’d test them to see if they were functioning. So I take the mass of coiled lights and move to plug them into the wall. “Stop!” my dad shouts as I move towards the socket, “Don’t plug those in while they are tangled like that. You need to lay them out flat or they could break when you plug them in.” So I heeded his warning and carefully unfurled the lights before testing them.

The next evening, back at our apartment, I heated up some hot chocolate and turned on our Bing Crosby holiday Pandora station while Matt pulled out the Christmas lights. Matt and I strategized about the best way to hang the lights on the balcony railing, and then turned our attention to the tangled bulbs (how they managed to re-entangle themselves overnight I have no idea). You see where this is going. Matt picked up a tangle of lights and moved to plug it into the wall.

B: No! Don’t do that!

M: Why not?

B: Because it’s a really bad idea to plug a tangle of old Christmas lights into the wall. I tried to do it yesterday and my dad stopped me.

M: But why is it bad? Like what would happen if I did it.

B: I don’t know, I think he said it would break the lights.

M: Break, like explode? Or break like not work anymore?

B: I think it was something about exposed wires touching. I’m just telling you, I think it’s a bad idea.

M: I understand that, I’m just trying to figure out the reason why it would cause an issue. I don’t think there is a scientific reason for why the lights being tangled versus laid out flat would cause them to break.

We go back and forth on this point for a bit, our hot chocolate growing cold as Bing croons in the background. And then this:

B: Fine. Do whatever you want.

M: *plugs in lights*


That was the simultaneous sound of the string of lights dramatically popping into blackness, and my brain exploding. I won’t recount what followed, but it was not our finest hour. There may have been accusations about someone ruining Christmas. It’s hard to say.

Matt would admit that in this particular moment, he was wrong to plug in those Christmas lights. He would not admit, to this day, that it is a bad idea to plug in a tangle of Christmas lights. The lights were able to be repaired, they just had a blown fuse. The fuse did blow again multiple times even when the lights were untangled. I still feel it’s better to lay out the lights first. He still believes there is no scientific basis to this practice.

The thing is, Matt’s engineer brain will not allow him to accept as truth things that have only been proven through experience or common knowledge. Efficiency and correctness must be proven at the conceptual and theoretical level in order for Matt to accept a piece of information into his truth bubble. Where as I feel that if I’ve done something one way 100 times with success, then I feel fairly confident that the thing I’m doing has proven itself. No further testing of any rigor is necessary.

But so it goes. I’m married to a man whose career is based on teasing out faulty logic. If I claim to have the most efficient way to pack a suitcase, I better be willing to submit to the scientific method.

This is marriage to an engineer. Or maybe this is just marriage.

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