A Monk, A Little Person, and a Crazed Fan Walk Into a Bar…

This week’s Top Ten List from The Broke and the Bookish didn’t sound hard at first glance, but every time I started to pick one, I remembered I’d already used the character in a previous “best of” post. (Many of them were “literary crushes“.) For this one, I tried going to books I loved and selecting the second bananas, the third wheels, and those often overlooked in favor of the leading men and their ladies. However, sometimes I failed and went for one of the more obvious choices because they were too good to pass up!

Top Ten Favorite Characters

1. Tom Bombadil (The Lord of the Rings)Though he only appears in three chapters and is briefly mentioned by characters in a few others, I’ve always had a soft spot for the old “moss gatherer.” After all, he speaks in stress-timed seven beat lines, refers to himself in third person, and can sing trees to sleep. So old he claims to have seen “the first raindrop and the first acorn,” he is one of those characters like the Entwives who is destined for obscurity. As Tolkien put it, “Even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”
 

2. Bast (The Kingkiller Chronicle)—I still don’t know exactly how I feel about Bast. I know that he honors Kvothe and that he wants him to come back to himself. It’s the “why” question that’s bugging me. He’s Fae, after all, and he might have something up his magical sleeve. Still, he’s beautiful, mysterious, fiercely protective, and impish in a way that is utterly irresistible. If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, for the love of pete, get started!

3. Pearl (The Scarlet Letter)—How can you not love a character who is, until the last few chapters, a symbol rather than a real person? Yes, until Dimmesdale claims her as his child and dies on the scaffold where he should have been when the novel opened, she is the living embodiment of the scarlet letter Hester wears on her breast. Mercurial, merciless, and (at times) creepy, she never leaves a reader wanting for action.

4. Prior Phillip (Pillars of the Earth)—I know he’s not a “minor” character in this work, but compared to Jack Jackson, Aliena, and Tom Builder, he has a lot less screen time. Phillip is such a moral character that he sometimes frustrates what should be simple, but his motive of restoring Kingsbridge is so laudable, I sometimes found myself less frustrated with him than I might have been otherwise. Even when he did something I didn’t agree with, I knew it was never done out of malice. That’s hard to pull off in a character….especially in a work this dense and complicated. Industrious, clever, and not above a political play when it helps the people he loves, Phillip is quite the engaging monk.
 
5. Tyrion Lannister (The Song of Ice and Fire)—If you’re watching the TV series on HBO or are currently reading the series, kindly skip over this one as there will be some spoilers. Go on, shoo……. Okay, folks. He’s a little person in a world that is built on and run by strength, yet he survives and somehow manages to be near the seat of power at all times! Seriously, he shot his own father in the stomach with a crossbow while he was on the toilet!! How’s that for cutthroat!? As the books have gone on, he has become one of the most dynamic characters, sliding from creepy evil to almost neutral bordering on good. I have a feeling that he’ll still be on the board when this epic series comes to an end in two more books.
 
6. Marvin the Paranoid Android (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)—Chronically depressed and bored because he has “a brain the size of a planet,” Marvin is one of the characters in Douglas Adams’ universe that isn’t always in the center of the action. However, we’d miss him if he weren’t there. I’ve only read the first book in the series, but I adored him in it. How can you not love something that so intelligent that even the most complex task is no match for him and everyone who tries to access his brain ends up suicidal!?  
 
7. The Wife of Bath (The Canterbury Tales)—Chaucer’s lady was way ahead of her time. Running her own fabric weaving business and on the hunt for husband number five on this famous pilgrimage to Beckett’s shrine, the lovely Wife of Bath knows how to tell a good tale and flirt up a storm with any and all available men on the journey with her. She’s one of the reasons I’m sad Chaucer never got the chance to finish this masterwork; we only get one of her stories and no hint as to which man she might have bagged before they returned to London.
 
8. Frau Totenkinder (Fables)—Again, if you haven’t read this series, break open your piggie banks and go get as many of the trade paperbacks as you can! In this series, fairy tale characters are real and have been pushed out of the Homelands by the Adversary. Snow White, Rose Red, and every other character you can think of call New York City (and a small farm in rural New York) home. It’s clever, creative, and amazing because Bill Willingham and his team of writers and artists manage to take stories you know and turn them on their ear. For instance, Prince Charming is the same guy from all three fairy tales (he has married Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella), and don’t get me started on Jack (the amalgamation of all “Jack” stories like Jack and Jill, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack Frost, etc. He’s a totally awesome trickster figure.) But on to the sinister Frau Totenkinder. She’s the leader of the magicians in Fabletown and, like Jack, is an amalgamated character who represents many of the unnamed witches in the tales and legends. She looks like an old lady, frail and weak, but the truth is she is one of if not the most powerful characters to escape from the Homelands. She’s not all sunshine and Gummy Bears though; you can’t always trust her!
 
9. Colonel Christopher Brandon (Sense and Sensibility)—This awesome character is the epitome of both words in the book’s title. He is practical, good at solving problems, and tactful, but his heart is sensitive to the needs of others. (Though I wouldn’t cast him as a member of the cult of sensibility that Marianne belongs to). Unlike the cad John Willoughby or the daffy Edward Ferrars, he’s a force for good and an altogether perfect gentleman of means and substance. It’s always so lovely to see him get what he wants in the end…though why he would want Marianne has always been beyond me. 
 
10. Annie Wilkes (Misery)—Again, not a ancillary character by any means, but when her name popped up, I had to go with her. I mean, really, who hasn’t wanted to grab an author and cut off his foot for killing off a favorite character? Seriously! There’s something so marvelously wacky about Annie Wilkes–she’s prim and proper and hates all the “cockadoodie” words in Sheldon’s new novel, but she has no trouble whatsoever in running a state trooper over with a lawnmower. That’s a real dichotomy to have in one character. Evil and weird is always such a winning combination!
 
***I will gladly pay anyone who can tell me why some of my blog posts go all single spaced and italicized without me telling them to. It really gets on my last nerve….that and the fact I STILL haven’t won a Freshly Pressed Award!***

Yours, Mine, and Ours

By nature, most kids aren’t inclined to share. Whether it be toys, the backseat of a car, or even a box of Cheez-Its, the chances are better than average that at least one fight is going to break out over the desired object in question. That’s why I find it so odd that my brother and I have no trouble whatsoever sharing a birthday. We’ve always celebrated the day together on April 21st.

If memory serves, I believe we're seven and four here. I'm rocking those 80s Coke bottle glasses!

But here’s the wacky thing….we’re not twins. Nope, I am three years older than my lil’ brudder. But do you want to hear something even stranger than the fact that we were born on the exact same day? We were also born on the exact same minute—3:38 AM—and in the exact same room in the hospital. Yep, three years later to the minute, my mother found herself in the exact same awkward, painful, and compromising position. According to this thread at physicsforum.com, there is a 1 in 525,600 chance of two people in the same family being born like we were, and that’s just pretty John Brown awesome if I do say so myself. That’s why I’ve never known what it’s like to have my own party, my own cake, or my own day; Jarrod’s just always been there right beside me. When I started school, I remember thinking my classmates were weird because they didn’t celebrate their birthdays with a baby brother or sister!

Judging by the perm, we hadn't escaped the 80s yet. That would make me eleven here and Jarrod eight.

There were a few differences between our arrivals. For instance, my brother was born breech (because he’s a show off) while I came into the world “in the usual way” as Harry Chapin once wrote. Also, our dad was present for Jarrod’s birth but not for mine because no one, including fathers, was allowed in the delivery room in the 1970s. We were both late, but Jarrod was only ten days behind schedule. It took me an extra eighteen days before I was ready to make my appearance. He’s a left handed weirdo; I’m a righty. He’s great at math, which makes my head hurt, and I’m the whiz when it comes to language and literature. We might not quite be as “country and rock and roll” as Donny and Marie, but you get the drift.

I think this is birthday fifteen for me and twelve for J-Rod.

This year, we turned 34 and 31 respectively, and it was one of those birthdays that called for a moment of contemplation because quite a bit has changed since the last time we attempted to simultaneously blow out candles without spitting on the cake. I changed career fields and moved into a major metropolitan area. Jarrod one-upped me by getting married and buying a house. We’re both “grown ups” now for lack of a better term; we work in full time jobs, pay taxes, buy insurance, and do all those other less than stellar activities we never even knew existed before we went to college and were required to make something of ourselves. How we both managed that successfully I’ll never know. 🙂

I'd like to think that the fact we're holding this in our teeth is proof we haven't totally grown up yet!

This was also the first year buying gifts for one another was relatively difficult (at least for me) because we don’t spend as much time together. When we were living under the same roof and were constantly involved in the other’s business, we knew what movies, music, hobbies, and collectibles the other one had on the brain. We were even roommates in college, at least until I went and got myself married in 2000. However, now that we live six hours apart and communicate once a week rather than once a day, it’s harder to keep up with that kind of stuff. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just different—one more piece of evidence that times they are a’changing—and it makes me a little more melancholy for birthdays past.

Judging by the fist pump, I guessed correctly with the collectible Voltron figure.

Our family has always been close-knit and loving, and we are both blessed beyond measure to be part of it. However, we are all getting older, and life just keeps on getting infinitely more complicated. For instance, our grandparents are now in their 70s and are dealing with health issues that are altogether new to them. The way they live their lives has changed, and it’s a little jarring when you have it presented to you in such sharp contrast to previous years.

This was the also the first year I can remember that our father couldn’t be present for the festivities because he had to conduct his store’s yearly inventory. Our  only cousin on this side of the family also couldn’t be there because he was in Orlando at a state level math competition. Despite all the joy of the day, I found myself thinking the same question Jo asks in Little Women, “Will we never all be together again?”

Yes, it is a Cardinals themed birthday party for two thirty-year-old people. We aren't proud.

It’s things like this that make me truly realize how short life is and how quickly things can change. A few years ago, Alex (the aforementioned cousin) was all chubby cheeks and totally hooked on Barney. Now, he’s a junior in high school, driving a car, and starting to apply for college. It just hit me that, this year, he will turn seventeen, the same age I was when he was born. It puts things in perspective, that’s for sure.

I can’t stop anyone from getting older anymore than I can tell the moon to stop changing its shape. Time is going to soldier on like it has for centuries, and life as I knew it will always be changing. Before long, I’ll be an aunt and will attend birthday parties at Jarrod’s house for children that seem utterly impossible because, to me, he’s still a child himself.

I suppose that’s why I’m grateful to have a brother to share a birthday with, and I can’t imagine what life is like for people who don’t have a similar arrangement with their siblings. No matter how many other things in life change, this is a constant we can rely on. Even if we’re miles apart and can’t celebrate it together one year, we know there is another soul somewhere on this planet who is thinking about us and wishing us well that April 21st. Our shared day isn’t an inconvenience or a hindrance; it’s a privilege God allows us to share. And I, for one, wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Mamie and Bobo in 2012.

The Body of Christ

Here’s the newest multi-author article I was privileged to play a part in writing for In Touch Magazine! May’s focus is on the church as the body of Christ, and this piece is meant to be a list to help folks who are looking to join one. Dear reader, I’ll give you one guess as to which piece is mine. 🙂 If you enjoy this, please leave feedback here and on our homepage. Also, you can get your own free copy of our magazine each month by visiting our subscription page.

Feeling Fine and Bloggy

Do you dream of being rich and famous? Do you want your name to be known all over the world? Do you want people to hang on your every word and fall at your feet?

Image from paxtonholley's flickr account.

Well, writing a book blog is not a way to fulfill all those narcissistic desires. However, it is darned fun to do, and you have the chance to meet with folks who geek out over books as badly as you do. You swap recommendations like you once did Garbage Pail Kid cards, discover authors you might never have had the privilege of reading otherwise, and you’re compelled to spend time even more time in bookstores and combing your own shelves looking for unique books to up your blogging cred.

This week, the geniuses at The Broke & The Bookish thought outside the box and asked us to list our Top Ten Tips For New Book Bloggers. I’ve only been posting book blog posts for a few months, but here are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up in that short stretch of time.

1. Use Goodreads—I had an account on this page for a long time before I really put it to good use. Now, I can’t imagine how I ever kept track of my reading habits without it. If you’re like me, you skim a book in the store but don’t have the money to buy it, so you put it down and promptly forget the author and/or title. With Goodreads, you can put it on your “to read” list (which can be sub-categorized into lists you design). Download the free app, and you can add books instantly using information or by scanning bar codes with your smart phone. When the time comes for a new list or selecting a new read, you’ve got plenty to choose from. There’s also a reading challenge you can enter and a bevy of widgets to use on your blog!

2. Incorporate images, videos, and photos—Books are about words, sure, but when it comes to blogs, sometimes a few visuals can go a long way and help your words be more engaging. For instance, one book list I did recently was about books you’d recommend to people who say they don’t like to read. Rather than pick ten books, I chose one central theme—my husband (who doesn’t like to read). Being a good sport, he was willing to pose for photographs to go along with the blog, which made it fun for me to write and for my readers to see. I highly recommend an account on Photobucket or a similar site to keep your photos and images safe and orderly. Three great blogs that do this almost exclusively with Microsoft Paint are Hyperbole and a Half, Fathertrek and Live, Nerd, Repeat. I laughed so hard at Hyperbole and a Half’s post “The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas” I almost hyperventilated.

3. With lists, always write a short paragraph about each work—Whenever I do my top ten lists like this one, I always try to give my half dozen readers more than a sentence or two. If you recommend a book and only tell people, “It was really good. I enjoyed it so much!”, you’re not really giving them much to go on. Tell them about the engaging characters, the airtight plot, or the highlights that made it enjoyable (or awful) for you. Authors only make money if folks read their work, so I make sure to tell people about books I stumble across that are worth the read by showing why I enjoyed them.

4. Read book blogs others have written for ideas—Not only do you find great books to read, but you can also can borrow other bloggers’ ideas for your own future book posts. For instance, I’m always inspired by the posts I read over on Never Done It That Way Before and The Warden’s Walk. As a teacher, I lived by the C.A.S.E. model (Copy And Steal Everything). You don’t always have to spend all your energy dreaming up new ideas; use that time to craft your own version of theirs. Trust me, they’ll take yours and return the favor in kind.

Image from http://aptdesignonline.com

5. Write honest reviews for the books you read— When it comes to book reviews, honesty is indeed the best policy. I can say with 99.9999999999999% certainty that no one is paying you for your writing. Therefore, if you didn’t enjoy a book, tell your fellow readers why. You could save them some heartache and cash! For instance, everyone I knew waxed poetic about Eragon, comparing it to Lord of the Rings (not even close) and other fantasy classics. I was sorely disappointed by Mr. Paolini’s work, and I was out the cost of a hardback book because no one was willing to be frank. If more folks who disliked it had come out, and folks who had been on the fence had been more honest, I could have saved myself the time and trouble of reading it.

6. Vary your diet—Writing a book blog is a great way to make you read outside your “comfort zone.” If you tend to read only fiction, use the blog as a reason to explore memoirs or even something like graphic novels. You can choose books that are on the same topic you enjoy but that explore it from a new angle. For instance, if you normally love CSI-type fiction, you could broaden your horizons and go for the classics (Sherlock Holmes) or non-fiction (Stiff: Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach). Biographies about famous criminals, detectives, and mysteries are also great.

Image from goodreads.com

7. Explore the edges—You don’t just have to write about books. You can explore anything and everything beautiful and bookish. For instance, maybe you want to talk about great places to sit and enjoy a book in your area. You can do a how-to blog that teaches readers how to make handmade bookmarks. You can write profiles about your favorite local bookshops or even local authors. I highly recommend the blog For the Love of Bookshops if you’re looking for a good place to start. You can even write reviews of films based on books you’ve read.

8. Write consistently—One thing that’s great about The Broke & The Bookish meme “Top Ten Tuesdays” is that it happens each and every week. That means I’m guaranteed a writing topic at least once a week. Typically, I get at least one new follower or reader per book blog, and every little bit of notoriety helps. I don’t have to exhaust my brain thinking of a topic, only the books I want to put on that list. If I can’t think of anything, I do skip that week or make up my own, but doing these posts has compelled me to blog more consistently, and not just about books.

9. Don’t give away too much in your reviews!—Yeah, I know this contradicts what I told you back at number three on this list, but there’s a slight difference. I once had a professor who said that a book is like a virtuous girl; it doesn’t give everything up on the first date. He also advised that an essay (or, in this case, a blog) should be like a girl’s skirt—long enough to fully cover the topic but also short enough to be interesting. (He really isn’t a creeper. These two quotes weren’t so odd when they were in context.) Suffice it to say, you shouldn’t rob your readers of their fun by telling them too much before they read the book. I know how you feel; you’re excited and want someone to talk to about this amazing read. You’ll just have to wait. Telling someone about the plot twist in the middle (even if you don’t tell what it is) robs them of the surprise. Sometimes, the moment when a book slaps you in the face like is the best part.

Image from http://blogs.edweek.org

10. You have a personality. Use it!—Sure, you’re writing about things that other people have penned, but there’s no caveat that says you can exercise your writing chops when you’re talking about books. I try to write in such a way that my voice comes through. What I say is important, but how I say it is also key. People like people who are like them, so finding new word nerd friends and devoted followers means you have to show them the goods. If you’re humorous, let that come through. If you have a great vocab, use it to your advantage. Teach people, engage them on a personal level. You’ll find that you are also a writer who is worth reading. Who knows? Someone may be blogging about one of your books one day!

Black & Blue

Because I’m an overachiever who likes making too much work for herself, I volunteered when the instructor of my creative non-fiction writers’ workshop asked for three people to provide material for a feedback session this week. We were asked to chronicle our most embarrassing moment (I assumed in graphic, gut-wrenching detail). Here’s my rough draft. Let me know what you think! 🙂 

Also, I can always use more writing ideas. Would you care to share your most embarrassing moment below in the comments section? I’d love to hear them!

***

Black and Blue

I’m crippled by stage fright, but not in the traditional sense. My phobia has nothing to do with bright lights, a sea of unfamiliar faces, or the heart-thumping panic caused by forgotten lines. No, I’m perfectly at home on a stage. The stairs I have to use to ascend to and alight from it are what make my stomach hula hoop around my spine. And like other fears, this one was gained by a moment of phenomenal public humiliation so severe it deserves a Ken Burns documentary.

In 1996, I auditioned for Tri-State Band, a once-a-year instrumental extravaganza held in Tallahassee for teenage ninja music nerds from Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Each of the three hundred students who attended had been nominated by directors and had had their permanent records (those sinister files written in the blood of truculent ne’er-do-wells) scoured by the committee to check our academic fitness. Once we passed that “smell test,” the last hurdle to leap over was the audition for chair placement.

I had tried out at Florida State University the summer before for their institute, and I had pulled the musical equivalent of a hat trick—earning principal French horn for gold ensemble, first chair for brass choir, and primary horn for the brass quintet selection process. Seriously, if I’d done any better, Tonya Harding might have gotten jealous and had someone bash me in the face with a crowbar. Riding high on the fumes of my previous success, I made a critical miscalculation and assumed I could repeat that trifecta, sans practice.

My previous audition had been with a handsome young teaching assistant who had flirted shamelessly with me, but when I saw a horn player run out of the audition room in tears I knew he was nowhere near the place.

Another player nearby who bore a striking resemblance to Steve Buschemi whispered, “What’s with her?”

“She must have been kapped,” another replied.

It was at this moment that the large bubble of self-assurance I’d been riding suddenly popped.

Kapps…as in Dr. William Kapps, FSU’s Professor of Horn, Fullbright Scholarship winner, and member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, would be judging my audition. I knew the man only by reputation and had heard him described as a buzz saw with a moustache who handed out tongue lashings so severe they made the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition shake their heads in astonishment. No twenty-something libertine with a ponytail and a thumb ring awaited me today because a man I had long imagined as Hermann Gӧring would be sitting there instead.

Auditions, for those of you who have never endured one, are like gaining an audience with the great and terrible Oz. You stand outside the door in your new ruby shoes, your eyes dyed to match your gown and your sweaty palms nervously gripping your instrument as you wait for the bulbous, flaming emerald head to address you. However, more often than not, your adjudicator is like the man behind the curtain, a kind soul, or totally silent.

I’m sorry to say that this was the exception to the rule.

Most of the five minutes we spent together is a blank—a PTSD-induced hole in my memory I’m not keen on piecing back together. Notes danced on the page, elusive and impossible to read, and I forgot every scale I’d ever manage to poke in my gray matter. Needless to say, the Titanic went down with greater grace than I. When the rankings were posted later that afternoon, I wasn’t surprised to see I was on fourth part—at the bottom of the section. But I was a bit taken aback when I saw one poor schmuck had actually endured a worse audition. I’d been spared the indignity of sitting last chair at least. In that moment, I experienced something akin to the relief of a red-shirted ensign sent down to the planet’s surface with Captain Kirk, the one who wasn’t blown to pieces by a Klingon or feasted on by a Gorm.

I sulked silently throughout the three days of rehearsals, plotting ways to give the ten horn players who separated me from first chair the Black Death…or at least a severe case of food poisoning that’d leave their bowels loose and so terrified of high notes they’d beg me to take the part. But alas and alack, they remained as impervious to disease as a platoon of sparkly, cold-chested vampires.

So I decided that if I couldn’t steal the stage with my instrument, I’d rock it with a dynamic fashion statement. This is more difficult than it sounds for a musician because, well, we can wear any color we want—as long as it’s black. Thankfully, I’d packed an entire suitcase of ebony attire that would’ve made Morticia Addams jealous and filled the extra pockets with the best costume jewelry Claire’s had to offer as well as an ample selection of hair gewgaws.

After a whirlwind try-on-a-thon in the dorm room I was sharing with two other participants, I ended up selecting an ensemble as flashy as it was ill-advised—a pair of three-inch heels (something I’d never worn before because I already stood 5’11” flat footed), a clingy side slit skirt, and a long sleeved kimono top. A hair-do held in check with chopsticks and enough spray to erode a large portion of the ozone layer above Florida along with a dramatic dash of make-up completed the look.

It would have been perfect had I not had to walk. Or sit. Or play my horn—all normal tasks rendered impossible because I’d dressed myself like a monochrome, precariously balanced piece of sugar art. I slogged through the evening, grateful for the less challenging part and a seat in the very center of the orchestra because I spent a majority of the concert blowing stray pieces of my coiffure away from my eyes and playing a spirited game of tug-of-war with my skirt.

But that’s not the embarrassing part. Oh, that it was.

After the mass ensemble played, the stage had to be reset for the smaller groups and soloists who had been tapped to perform. That meant we had to gather our horns, sheet music, and anything else we could carry and head for, you guessed it, the stairs. Carrying only my nickel-plated horn, Brigitte (named after the French sex kitten, of course), I wobbled my way to the stumpy staircase located stage left.

Six steps. That’s all it boasted, a half dozen zigzagging plateaus of garnet carpet made shabby in the center by countless feet. It was no gauntlet by any stretch of the imagination, yet, for some reason known only to God, the moment my left foot touched down on the first one, it found the single millimeter of slick space to be had. Gravity handled the rest.

You’ll remember that, at this moment, I’m carrying a French horn, one of the most unwieldy instruments in the civilized world. Seriously, putting two dogs in a burlap sack is less onerous. Carry it by the top and let in hang by your side, and you’re begging for a dent in the bell. Clutch it to your chest, and you have only one arm to negotiate tight spaces and open doors. This is why most horn players choose to carry it under one arm with the bell facing backwards; it keeps it close and frees up the second hand when necessary. This is where Brigitte was nestled when I felt myself begin to fall.

Allow me a brief pause in the action to explain something about musicians and how protective we are of our instruments. I once knew a trombone player who said you could tell how old a trombonist was if someone tried to, as he put it, “kick ‘em in the coin purse.” The rookie protects the nards at all costs while the aged player sacrifices his twig and berries instead of the horn because, once a slide is bent, a person stands a better chance of proving String theory than he does getting it straight again.

Simply put, bones heal. Metal doesn’t.

This is why, rather than try to catch myself and sling my horn around like a kettle bell, I let the fall happen and spent the time between take off and landing shifting the horn to my chest. I was clutching it squarely when I landed on my ample rear in front of a thousand people and, like some macabre Slinky, plopped down the stairs with my teeth knocking together in my head.

Other than a few poorly raised children whose parents apparently never told them it was rude to point…or to laugh uncontrollably at another’s pain, no one reacted to my failed dismount. (In retrospect, I can’t blame them. It’s pretty damned hilarious to watch people fall; millions of YouTube videos attest to this.) It goes without saying I was mortified, but not as much as I would have been if I had sacrificed my instrument to save myself a few bruises or what remained of my dignity. However, when I looked up at the sea of black clad figures around me, all I saw were smiles of approval. Unlike those in the audience, my fellow performers hadn’t noticed me taking a tumble. They only saw a musician executing choreography worthy of Bob Fosse to protect her axe. And I like to think that if they hadn’t been cradling their own, they would’ve applauded my virtuoso performance.

Getting in the Boat

Have you heard the one about the Christian fundamentalist and the approaching hurricane? Well, if you have, you’ll just have to bite your lip and think about something else like grilled cheese sandwiches or the steps involved in mitosis because it’s the controlling metaphor for this blog post, and I can’t start without telling it. So here we go….

Hurricane Klaus is approaching the south Florida coast, and the flood waters are rising. A man is sitting on his front porch when some friends come by in a Jon boat to offer him a ride to safety.

“No thanks,” he tells them. “God will save me.”

Several hours later, the water has risen to such an extent that he’s been forced to sit on the roof of his house for safety. However, this time, a boat from the National Guard comes by and offers to rescue him.

“No thanks,” he says again. “God will save me.”

Finally, when there’s nothing left but the rapidly dwindling ridge to stand on, a rescue helicopter comes by, drops a line down, and offers to pluck him, like Moses, from soon to be biblically epic waters. His answer? It’s the same as before.

The Christian fundamentalist drowns, takes the HOV lane to heaven, and when he stands before his Maker, asks, “God, why didn’t you save me?”

The Father’s reply? “I sent two boats and a helicopter. What else were you expecting?”

How could he resist such a SWEET ride!?

The joke is unrealistic (for the most part), but it does make me think of people who pursue a “prayer only” method for healing and reject any and all medical avenues for curing an illness. Am I saying that prayer is powerless? Nope. If you or someone you love is ill, you pray fervently, expecting that God has already provided the solution (See James 5:14-16, Psalm 5:3, and Mark 11:22-24.) However, you should also visit doctors because God’s solutions are sometimes more cerebral and less, shall we say, celestial in nature. It’s not that miraculous healing doesn’t happen nowadays; if the Creator of the universe wants to do it that way, He will. However, He usually has other plans in mind.

For example, I have a friend in his late twenties who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer less than a year ago. Doctors weren’t sure about his prospects, and after an exploratory surgery where it was decided they could not remove his lung, he was put on a very aggressive regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. He has spent more days than not feeling like the floor of a New York taxi cab, but he has continued to trust God and to be his beautiful, ebullient self through it all.

Many people around him have witnessed God’s unbelievable goodness because of what he has endured, and through it, his faith has been strengthened ten-fold. He’s been able to witness to people who might otherwise never have heard the good news of Jesus Christ. And I think that’s what God had in mind all along. By the way, his doctors have found that the tumor has shrunk dramatically, and in another month or so, he will be reevaluated. Don’t tell me miracles don’t happen.

The truth is that God doesn’t need all the attention and hubbub a display a healing like that would produce to get the results He wants. I think He’s benevolent and chooses instead to use us instead to carry out His plans, to be His hands and His feet.

These “get in the boat” moments aren’t only reserved for big ticket life events either. I recently had one myself that was job related. One of my tasks at work is to write articles for In Touch Magazine, which is both exhilarating and terrifying. Why? Well, writing is like walking a very taut high wire. One wrong word can throw off the flow of a sentence, and one unclear idea can mar the meaning of an entire piece. Writing is a lengthy process of moving words and phrases around until only the best ones remain in the perfect order. It’s very easy to miss the mark, and more often than not, it is also very lonely work.

When I struggle with a piece, I have to remind myself that I don’t have to work in my own strength. I can rely on the Holy Spirit to put the words He would have me say onto the page. But how does one do that exactly? Do I simply sit there and take divine dictation in a psychography session with my heavenly Father?

I think, once again, God’s way is simpler than that. I only need to be sensitive to what He wants and use the spiritual gifts He’s blessed me with to make it happen. Instead of twiddling my thumbs waiting for inspiration, I must constantly seek God’s will and search for the answers He has provided both in the Word and in the world around me. If I can always be cognizant of His presence, what I say and write will be directed by Him in a way that feels effortless.

Take the men who wrote the Bible for example. Those sixty-six books were penned by different people from all walks of life, but each word was inspired by God. That’s why there are no mistakes in it and why so many books, chapters, and verses written centuries apart are intricately interconnected. (One has only to look at the four gospels, portions of Isaiah, and Psalm 22 to see evidence of this.)

However, despite the fact that God provided the information, I can still see each writer’s personality and tendencies in their books. Each book is a beautiful marriage of the Almighty and a mortal scribe who was blessed to capture His truth. That’s why, as a former doctor, Luke’s contributions (Luke and Acts) are highly logical and rational and why David’s passion for God fill each and every psalm he penned. Likewise, Paul’s personality is also very obvious in each of His letters. For instance, he consistently uses questions and answers them with the phrase, “Certainly not!” His thoughts are deep and dense–full of information and written using the rhetorical methods he learned as a Pharisee.

All of my official training until now has been in academic writing and fiction/poetry. I have crafted a few non-fiction pieces in the past, but my body of work is limited. I also have little to no experience in journalism. Simply put, I have the passion, but I need practice—time behind the keyboard if you will— to get my writing chops in better shape. For awhile, I hemmed and hawed about what to do, thinking that if I simply waited on God to provide the right words, my writing would improve without any outside effort on my part. However, I came to realize that’s the literary equivalent of passing on the Jon boat.

That’s why I enrolled in a creative non-fiction certificate program at Emory University that began this week and will take me a year or so to complete. I believe working with an instructor and other writers who offer constructive feedback will help strengthen my skills, tell better stories, and write more compelling prose. I’ve gone into this grand experiment with the mindset that, in the end, I will be a more effective servant having honed my talent using the whetstone He’s provided. Rather than doing this to be famous or make a ton of money (which is highly unlikely given my choice of career field), I’m attempting to follow Paul’s advice to Timothy—“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

Just as the hurricane of stress appeared on the horizon, the pieces of the solution fell into place. To me, that’s the kind of everyday miracle only God can provide, and I am grateful to serve a King of such flawless wisdom and perfect judgment.

Sweet Game of Youth

From our fascination with the mythical Fountain of Youth to a desire for the latest anti-wrinkle treatment that renders our faces incapable of expressing emotions, it’s not hard to see that we’re a culture obsessed with staying young.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I didn’t give it much thought; I just shoved the topic into the corner of my mind as unceremoniously as I did the clothing I was too lazy to fold up and put away. However, now that my hair is changing color of its own free will and I’m running into more people who think Hall and Oates is a brand of organic grains, I’ve been confronted with the brutal truth that time soldiers on whether I want it to or not. (It also doesn’t help that I’ll be turning 34 in less than two weeks, but I digress.)

But I have found that there is a source of eternal renewal. Like the trees outside my home, it comes to a glorious finish of color and pageantry in autumn, lies dormant like a bear in winter, and returns afresh and anew every spring. I’m not talking about a garden full of flowers or a flock of migratory birds. No, it’s something altogether more beautiful and majestic than than either of those things.

I’m talking about baseball, the most glorious of all sports. The game that leaves me each November only to return as faithfully as a well-chucked boomerang.

I spent a good deal of time wallowing joyfully in Opening Weekend, which was as rejuvenating as a dip in one of Ra’s al Ghul’s Lazarus Pits. I’ll be the first to admit I’m blessed because, last year, my team did the improbable (and hacked off a good number of fans and sports writers around the nation) by winning the World Series in grand fashion.

Yes, for an entire year, I get to relive that series that no one, and I mean NO ONE, thought we’d win. Game six alone was like that “Pit of Despair” machine in The Princess Bride; it took two years off my life and left me in a laughing, crying puddle on the floor. But man, was it worth it.

David Freese, hometown hero!
Motte closes the door on the Rangers.

However, that confetti-drenched moment doesn’t matter now because it’s 2012, and everyone is in the running once again. Every team from the billion dollar juggernauts like the Yankees to squads like the Astros that are in a rebuilding year has the exact same chance of grabbing the brass ring like we did in 2011. Do some teams stand a better chance? Sure. But it’s never guaranteed. That’s the beautiful thing about baseball. The season is long enough that any number of X-Factors can change the make-up of a division or even a league. There is no clock. There are no time-outs. Very little is up to official review (and may it stay that way). One lucky catch or hanging breaking ball can have a huge effect on momentum, and the later it happens in the season, the wackier the run to the playoffs gets. Every one of the “Boys of Summer” is reborn in the spring and given the chance to once again prove his mettle and emerge victorious.

TA DA!

I also relish the re-boot each season gives me and my family. We couldn’t go this year because we’re so poor we make church mice look like Rockefellers, but we usually get to travel down to Florida and savor the game in its purest form—Spring Training. Like the players, we observe more than a few rituals during this brief sabbatical. For instance, one Teppanyaki meal must be shared per trip, autographs must be sought, and we must spend at least one hour before the gates open on the back fields watching the players warm up and perform drills.

Once we’re inside the park for the first game, we always climb the stairs simultaneously so we get to see the most beautiful sight in the world—the geometric spectacle of grass that is a baseball field–together. Sometimes, we say a few words, but more often than not we stand there in silence enjoying the sight like it was the first time. On a side note, I actually get to games early so I can watch the field crew groom it. I’m not lying. Watching them dampen the infield and sketch out the dimensions of the batter’s box is better than Zoloft.

Likewise, there are things we eschew in the name of purity. For example, we never show up late or leave early. We never participate in “The Wave.” And we never ever ever get up in the middle of an inning. Decorum demands these things, and we’re sticklers for it. I won’t even wear a pink jersey; it’s my team’s colors or nothing.

Me in the visitor's dugout at Turner Field during this year's open house.

This sport has united three generations of my family. It’s something–like brown eyes and a penchant for peskiness–that we all share. I remember watching Ozzie Smith’s back flips in rapt fascination, falling asleep listening to Jack Buck calling games on the radio, and spending time with my grandfather learning how to keep a scorecard.

It’s as much a part of who I am as the language I speak and the places I’ve lived in my three decades on this planet. To call it “a game” is both true and somehow trivializing in my mind. But, truth be told, that’s what it is…a game. It’s the same one I grew up watching on television, and while many things in my world have changed, very little about it has. Sure, the powers that be try to “keep it interesting” by adding designated hitters or a second wildcard team, but at its root it’s still comprised of nine innings and twenty-seven outs that each team is given to do the most with. There is still the poetry of the double play and the thrill of the suicide squeeze to enjoy. There are still hot dogs, peanuts, and Cracker Jacks to feast on, foul balls to catch, and stretches to perform to organ music in the middle of the seventh. I swear, it’s like the Elysian Fields the Greeks once imagined.

I love the game for its beauty and grace, the absolutely perfect timing it requires for a hitter to put a tapered piece of wood on a diminutive leather ball and for a fielder to arrest that same ball mid-flight. I love it because of men like Dizzy Dean, Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter—aptly named players who were characters in their own right—and the unique language we’ve all learned to speak where a cement mixer can become a frozen rope or can of corn that leads a team to hang a bagel. I love it because of quirky things like the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Sausage Race, and Chief Noc-A-Homa.

But most of all, I love its timelessness and how it temporarily helps me forget how quickly the years pass. Each season, I can still feel the way I did when I was eight and walked into Busch Stadium for the first time, my mouth agape and a new pennant clenched in my sweaty fist.

Me and my favorite teammate!