february 2014 books.

Ian McEwan
I see a lot of McEwan books in the used marketplace, so I picked one up to see if he was any good. The answer is yes, he is, though I'm not going to start seeking him out. The book was short, funny, and said true things about human nature, but it did not knock my socks off.

And this is what happens if I wait until the end of the month to write down what I thought about a book I read at the beginning of the month.

Christian Caregiving: A Way of Life
Kenneth C. Haugk and William J. McKay
My Stephen Ministry training involves a lot of reading. Between this and the book we are reading in Sunday School, I have a lot of dang church homework. For Stephen classes, we have two workbooks, which have pre-class reading and then in-class activities. We also have three other books, this being the first one. It's about how caring for someone is different when it's from a Christian standpoint. Spoiler alert: the answer is love. Christians are called to love everyone, and so our motivations as Stephen Ministers is following that.

To be honest, the thing that I am most nervous about this whole Stephen Minister thing is the churchy part. Yes, I have much church homework, but I am not in the habit of talking about faith, and I am generally kinda cagey on theological specifics. I'm even a little nervous about working with people who are outside my church - while we are very accepting of different takes on Christianity, I'm not sure that's true of the other congregations. I will be expected to pray with people, which I find terrifying. I'm just waiting for a greiving widow to ask me whether her husband is in heaven now, and...I mean, geez, lady, how should I know? I'm just a peer helper!

But most of this book and the whole program is about doing what Jesus said to do, that whole loving each other stuff, rather than knowing answers to the universe. I think I can handle that.

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption
Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, Erin Torneo
Our book club selection this month is about wrongful convictions. A lady is raped, and with her testimony, a man is put behind bars for the crime. Except it turns out he didn't do it, and eleven years later, he is finally released. The lady and the falsely convicted dude later become friends. The book raises a lot of questions about the reliability of memory and eyewitness evidence.

Interesting story, and it all took place in Burlington, NC, which is about an hour from Raleigh. The writing was sort of ho-hum, a straight-forward retelling of facts. But I am always happy for some light to be shed on the issues of incarceration.

A Room with a View
E.M. Forster
I read this as part of an online book club. Remember how I complain all the time about book club, because we never pick anything challenging to read? I joined the online book club partly because they pick two books a month, one of which is in the public domain. So it's old and has stood the test of time and chances are, either Josh and I already own in our extensive library. That's actually why I read Great Expectations last month. I read it and then did not participate in any of the discussions, which was still better than the month before, when I got the book off the shelf and then did not read it.

All that, yet I was not very excited about A Room With a View. I read Howard's End by the same author a few years ago. I do not remember very much about it, except that it was about high class society and how much it sucks to be a woman. I am always happy to see some feminism injected into literature, but honestly, those books can be pretty depressing.

This one also deals with high class society people and their high class rules, which I found occasionally frustrating. There was a lot of drama about people not following the high class rules, but the rules are so fussy and subtle that I wasn't always sure what all the tension was about. Part of that is the joke. For instance, there is a scene where a group of women are scandalized by the fact that a man used the word "stomach" around them. However, they can't even tell the story and use the scandalous word because there is a man in the room.

Isn't it wonderful to live in the 21st century, where we can refer to our innards around men? STOMACH! PANCREAS! SPLEEN!

The book associates different people with either rooms or views, with the clear message being that it's better to be a view. There is a theme of honesty - not just being truthful, but being open as well. The main character, Lucy, has a problem, but she lies about it to everyone as a way of lying to herself. She's not really even lying outright, but avoiding the real truth and running away to Greece (which is what you can do when you're high class). Luckily, she finds someone she can't bear to lie to, the truth comes all stumbling out, and she is saved from a lifetime of being a room. Being a view is about light and truth, while being a room is about darkness and deceit.

I found this book to be incredibly relevant to my Stephen training. While the Christian Caregiving book was sort of an instruction manual, this was a literary take on very similar subject matter. It's not at all explicitly Christian, in fact it's a bit humanist, but the lessons for life are pretty much the same: love! I wrote down a quote about an old man who does not fit into society because he is kind. Lucy remarks that we all try to be kind, and the response is that we do that "because we think it improves our characters. But he is kind to people because he loves them; and they find him out and are offended, or frightened."

I feel like I am in the state where I try to be kind because it improves my character, because I want to be a kind person. It's still about what I want to be, not about how I actually feel about other people. I generally like people, which has not always been the case (progress!), but I don't think I can say that I love people yet. I really want to, if that counts for anything.

The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov
I saw people all over the internet talking about how awesome this book is, and it really sounded like something I'd love. Russian - I love foreign writing. Magical realism - what fun! Retelling of Faust and Jesus - supernatural stuff is awesome!

And yet, I kinda wish that I had waited and read it later. I enjoyed it, because it's vivid and interesting, but I felt the whole time that there was something I wasn't appreciating, just out of my reach. Also, based on the commentary in the back, I would've benefited a lot by reading Faust first. It makes me a bit sad when this happens, because I may never go back and read it again. But still, how can one know when one is ready for a piece of literature? Sometimes things hit at just the right time, and sometimes it's too soon. Ah well, better too soon than not at all.

But let's talk about it, rather than just saying I maybe wasn't ready yet. So! We start out in Moscow, when the Soviets have outlawed Jesus. A couple of writers are sitting on a bench at a park, talking about the best way to write a poem about the non-existence of God when the Devil comes and sits with them. He predicts one of their deaths and tells a story about Pontius Pilate. Chaos ensues. There are parallel chapters throughout the book describing the death of Jesus (well, a Jesus, but not That Jesus), while events in Moscow often match tales from the gospels.

The thing that struck me about the Devil is that he seems to be more about mischief than evil. He has a reason for being in town, but it is never clear what the goal is or how it helps his ultimate ends. While he is there, the various members of his entourage cause a great deal of trouble, and many people go mad from trying to resolve what they are experiencing (which is frequently magical and impossible) with reality. A couple of people die, some fires get started, and fake money gets passed about, but it really seems like he's just spreading chaos. I feel like I don't understand who the Devil really is in this story. It's a Faust story, so he makes a deal with someone, but it seems to be a pretty reasonable deal. Bad things happen to people, but a lot of times it's due to their own actions - in this case, the Devil is more punishing people for evil they've done, rather than trying to coerce them into doing it. In the end, a lot of them are forgiven.

So, yeah, there is a lot going on in this book, and I didn't even mention the slams on the Soviet government. There are some truly magnificent scenes, and I definitely enjoyed it. I had to read more slowly than usual, and I was happy to do so. Just felt like I was missing something.

Unrelated note: Before I read the book, I looked up info about various translations. Some of them apparently miss the humor of the book. One disparaging comment about a particular translation says that "the cat doesn't even handle the firearms!" I mean, wouldn't you like to read a book where a cat handles fireamrs? Turns out he's a terrible shot.


coats of many colors.

For years, I have worn dark wool coats. A couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted something with a little more personality, you know, so people could see me coming from far off and leave if they needed to. I started looking for a brightly colored wool coat.

Most people, when they decide that a brightly colored wool coat is their heart's wish, go to the store and buy one. If their heart's wish is discovered during the summer, then they might have to wait a few months until the stores put out their winter stock again. When you shop at the thrift stores, however, you can't count on there being any wool coats at all, much less the bright purple one you've always secretly wanted. As it happened, there were a fair amount of brightly colored wool coats, but they were always shin-length and frequently stuck in the 1980s. For two or three years now, I've been hopefully looking through racks of coats, pulling out the colorful wool ones and then putting them back, disappointed.

Ah, but it's been a good winter for outerwear. I have acquired three, three!, exciting coats with lots of personality.

Coat 1: Upholstery
Here is the coat I'd be searching for! Well, it turned out to be the coat I bought.

Josh makes fun of this coat regularly, saying it looks like 70s upholstery. I tolerate his comments, and then smile triumphantly at him whenever I get complimented on it. Lots of people have recognized that while they may have seen this fabric on an unfortunate couch once, it clearly makes for a nice coat. I adorned it with a flower brooch I picked up at another thrift store.

Coat 2: Navy
One morning, Josh went out and hit a few thrift stores. He called me on the way home, obviously excited about some good finds. I cheekily asked him if he'd bought me any presents. He replied that he had.

What he bought was a black pea coat. I know, not brightly colored at all. But, it was formerly owned by someone in the Navy, and the arm patch makes up for the sensibility of the color.

I tried it on, and it fits just right, though it is rather masculine. I wore it a few times, Josh tried it out a few times, and then a few days later, Josh announced that I could have it. Apparently, he'd bought it, maybe with the idea of keeping it for himself, though noting my preference for pea coats. Then, when I'd asked about a present, he said yes and locked himself in.

The moral is to always ask if he's bought me a present. Or the moral is that when you're married, close to the same size, and you've both got like four coats, you can share the newest one.

It is seriously the nicest coat I've ever owned. The lining is thick and soft. It's just altogether sturdy, well-made, and warm. When the weather outside is too frightful for my upholstery coat, I wear this one. The lining is stamped at the bottom with the name "ROBERTS," who I assume was the original owner. According to the patch, he was a machinist's mate, petty officer, first class.

Coat 3: Cape
You know, I should not have even been in the coat section. I already fulfilled my need for interesting outerwear, so there was no need for me to even go to that rack and start poking through the selection. And it was completely unnecessary for me to see the bright royal blue wool fabric and then go pulling out the hanger.

But I did. And it wasn't a coat! It was a cape, with an attached scarf. I bought it, like immediately. I felt the need to hurry up and make the purchase before I came to my senses, because this right here is pretty ridiculous, even for someone who wears dated upholstery.

Having bought a cape, I need to wear it. I have several silly items of clothing in my closet that never get worn, but I only paid a dollar or so for each of them. I paid fifteen whole dollars for this cape, which means I need to make the price-per-wear cost worth it. At least, that's the kind of silly justification math I did while standing impatiently in line at the Goodwill.

I have been wearing my cape to the only place where that kind of fanciness is at all appropriate - church. And since I can't wear just any old outfit with a nice wool cape, my outfits have gotten snazzier, too. Josh usually makes me feel like a slouch at church, because while I put on pants and a sweater and call it done, he's going all out with a jacket and bowtie. He's even been talking about suspenders lately.

I dug deep into my closet and found some neglected skirts. Then I dug deeper and found a box of tights from my business casual days. With my cape and my coordinating tights, I AM THE FANCIEST. I've gotten several appreciative comments, but the best response I've gotten has been from Josh himself, who apparently loves his wife in a cape. He said I looked like a beautiful detective.

Just in case you ever see a be-caped woman out in public, and you think to yourself that she is wearing a ridiculous garment, I assure you, she knows. I feel like a Grade-A Crazy Person in that cape, even as I admire the lovely blue wool and the purple satin lining. Josh told me that his Mom once owned a winter cape, but she ended up getting rid of it because she did not like getting so much attention.

Now, I do not really care for public attention. However, I do wear things that get attention, for example, my penguin hat and now my cape. I do not wear these things because I want the attention, but because I like the thing itself. After buying my penguin hat, I was surprised and a little dismayed at how much notice it attracted, but I sure as heck was not going to stop wearing it. I can't argue with people who want to come up and tell me what a great hat I'm wearing. They are right, it is a fantastic penguin hat. So far, I can say that a cape gets less attention than a penguin hat. I think the only difference is that while I often forget that I have a penguin on my head, I am acutely aware of the cape at all times.

But I take it as a challenge. By having the social courage to wear my most excellent cape, I can encourage others to wear the capes languishing in their closets. Life is short, be fancy.

And now I will really stop looking for a coat. Promise.


sorry, ruth.

Today, driving back home a bit after noon, Josh asked what we should have for lunch. It was a marvelous day, and marvelous days make us want to use the grill. We've had several marvelous days this week, which is why Josh had grilled burgers for lunch on Wednesday and grilled chicken wings on Friday. This afternoon, he suggested burgers. The only problem was that we ran out of ground beef on the marvelous day that was Wednesday. I try to stock up on hamburger meat when it's on sale so we don't have to pay the regular price in case of a marvelous day.

"We're out of ground beef."

"Oh yeah."

"How about we make pimento cheese and have that on sandwiches with fries?"


We continued on down the road, with me feeling smug about having talked him into a cheaper option. We pulled into the parking lot of the Harris Teeter to pick up some potatoes for the fries.

"What if we grilled burgers and made pimento cheese? Pimento cheeseburgers!"

Clearly my optimism came too soon, though on the bright side, I would be enjoying pimento cheeseburgers very soon. I sighed and said that we could do whatever he wanted. But it was my lucky day, too - ground beef was on sale! Bring on the pimento cheeseburgers!

Anyway, this humdrum tale of marital compromise is just to tell you about my recipe for pimento cheese. Any readers from parts other than the American South may not even be familiar with this wonderful gloppy spread, but today is your lucky day. Round here, you can buy pimento cheese in a clear plastic container in the deli section of your local grocery store, and I seem to remember the prominent brand was Ruth's. The thing about Ruth's pimento cheese (and any other store-bought brand) is that it is sort of mysterious. Looking at it, you can tell that there are both pimento and cheese involved, but the rest of it is up in the air. There are questionable lumps. Your best bet is to encase it in a sandwich, where you don't really have to look at it and wonder what you're even eating.

The nice thing about making your own version is that you know what the lumps are. Not only is my version is less mysterious-looking, it also tastes fifty million times better. Sorry, Ruth. Aside from eating by itself on a plain sandwich or crackers, it's delicious on burgers or as the center of a grilled cheese sandwich. I have served it to many Southerners and heard nothing but happy eating noises.

A final note: I do not used pimentos in my pimento cheese. I used diced roasted red peppers, which makes a huge improvement in the flavor. And sometimes the peppers sort of smush in with everything else and turn the whole thing a bit pink.

Roasted Red Pepper Cheese

8 oz cheddar, grated
8 oz cream cheese
1/3 c mayonnaise
1/4 t onion powder
1/4 t garlic powder
1/4 t cayenne pepper
4 oz roasted red peppers, diced

Mix it all up real good. Eat on everything.


stephen ministry.

I have a friend who has been having a rough time of it recently. What is interesting to me is that we would not ordinarily be more than acquaintances, because we really don't have all that much in common. But she was having a crisis one day, and I was there. So I made use of my Peer Helper training, and we became friends. I've discovered that she does not have very many others to just listen to her. Her family members are not interested in providing emotional support. She has friends, but from what I gather, they are friends that you go out and have fun with, not ones who sit with you after a bad day.

It seemed like she had no one, except me, and I felt like an accident in the first place. Me, I don't have very many problems in my life, and I don't really talk about the ones I do have. But I know that if I wanted to, I have a long list of people I could call up. Which of us is the exception and who is the rule?

I found it amazing that something that was so simple for me to do was so helpful to her. I wondered how many other people are out there who need someone to listen to them. I tried to think of ways that I could do this for more people, like being a counselor but without having to get a degree. Maybe some kind of texting or instant messaging service? How could I find people who needed a shoulder and then volunteer to be that shoulder?

The answer was at church. Which sorta answered another question I had been noodling - where could I serve in the church? Josh joined everything that anyone asked him to, but I held back, waiting for something that was a better fit. I volunteered for the nursery a couple of times and hated it. I bake cookies once a month, which I like, but I wanted something a little more intensive.

Then I found out about Stephen Ministry, and it sounded exactly right.

Stephen Ministry is a nationwide program, active at 11,000 churches across the country. When a person is going through a difficult time, they ask for a Stephen Minister, who then visits with them weekly and just lets them talk. Okay, the Stephen Minister speaks a bit, too, but it's pretty funny how much of our training is about not talking. Most of what we say is meant to encourage the other person to talk more. We are encouraged to use open-ended questions and to never see a silence as awkward. During one class, one of my fellow trainees asked how long we should wait after a person finishes speaking before we say something. The response? "I don't think you can wait too long."

You can always tell a Stephen Minister. They're the ones sitting silently with a friendly expression and open body language.

Right now, I am just in training. I go to weekly classes that run through May, at which point I decide whether to commit at least two years to being a Stephen Minister. There are ten people in our class, mostly older women, but with one man and one eighteen-year-old young lady. Our church is not big enough to support its own program, so we share with local Presbyterian and Methodist churches. In the course of our classes, I expect to become close with my fellow trainees. Already, a couple of people have shared personal stories as they related to the material we were going through. Similar to my unexpected friendship, it feels sort of surreal to know how much will be shared between us, people who might not have much more in common than being interested in listening. Already I have shared things I wouldn't have otherwise. Not secrets, really, just regular daily stuff that I would have kept to myself ordinarily. It's a little scary.

The material so far is simple to understand, if challenging to always put into practice. Since I'm not yet a Stephen Minister, I don't have anyone assigned to me. But these are skills that can be applied to any relationship, and I'm frequently surprised at how relevant the information is to my daily life. I'm working on reading non-verbal communication and resisting the urge to respond to one thing when the other person wants to talk more about something else. It is hard, but now that I am aware of it, I can practice, and practice makes better.

I feel like this is the start of something new in my life, or maybe a continuation of what got started years ago in Peer Helpers. I am nervous and excited about where it will take me next.


dame peer helper.

When I was in high school, I was part of a club called Peer Helpers. To be in the club, you had to be nominated by other students as being a good person to talk to about problems. I was in a lot of clubs, because it was important to appear over-committed well-rounded to scholarship committees, but Peer Helpers was the only one I actually cared about. My reluctance to share seems to have made me ideal for listening. It turns out that other people really like to be listened to. Sometimes they like it so much that they nominate you for a club.

At the beginning of the school year, we peer helpers would go on a weekend retreat to the mountains, where we'd be trained in helping our peers. I am not an official Peer Helper Trainer™, but I'll give you the little of what I remember of my training.

First, listen listen listen. Do not give advice. Instead, ask questions that encourage the person to think out loud about their issue.

Peer talks about problem.
Peer Helper: What do you think you might do about it?
Peer talks about possible action.
Peer Helper: What do you think might happen if you did that?
Peer talks out the results of said action.
(Repeat until Peer has a workable course of action)
Peer Helper: Let me know how it goes.
Peer Helper: What happened with <your problem>?

This concludes your training. Now, go out and help your peers!

For the retreat, we were told to bring an object that was significant to us. One evening, we'd sit in a circle and talk about our significant item. A lot of kids brought pictures of pets or loved ones, one kid brought a shotgun shell from his grandfather's 21-gun salute, another kid apparently forgot the assignment and ended up talking a lot about his stick of deodorant. And then we'd keep going around the circle and whoever wanted to say something, about themselves or in response to something another person said, would talk. There was much crying, but it was the good, cleansing type of cry. It was strange to be so open and honest with people you might not ordinarily hang out with. There were popular kids and not-so-popular kids in there, but for one weekend, we were all just peer helpers.

We did not do much in the way of outreach. I remember helping with a bulletin board in the hall once, but who looks at those? The training was good, but I suspect that it was mostly used in the same way we'd gotten into the club in the first place - one of our existing friends would talk to us about a problem. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and the skills certainly can go beyond high school. Maybe the other Peer Helpers were consoling crying strangers in the bathrooms left and right, and it was just me that never reached out to anyone new.

I am oddly proud of being a Peer Helper, more proud than anyone should be of membership in a high school club. And just so you know, I was actually the President of the Peer Helpers during my senior year. I attribute my election to having made a bunch of sarcastic quips during the training retreat. But the pride is about being seen as caring and trustworthy and objective by some peer, possibly even multiple peers! I never tell anyone anything, so when someone shares with me, it's pretty much like being knighted. I dub thee Dame Peer Helper!


share and share alike.

A friend of mine sent me some funny internet list, 25 Frustrating Things About Being An Extrovert. She sent it as a joke and seemed to think that me and my fellow introverts see extroverted qualities as mildly annoying but generally lovable. I can't speak for others, but I find extroverts incomprehensible. To me, the list might as well have been titled 25 Things That Prove That Extroverts Are Just The Worst, For Real, Why Won't They Shut Up.

However, the list gave me a realization about something that happened years ago.

In college, I worked the breakfast shift at a restaurant on the weekends. In terms of making money, it was not a great job. There was a lot of downtime, sitting on the back patio in the foggy morning with the cooks and the manager, waiting for customers. One morning, I was doing just that with a coworker named Elisha. She was one of my favorite people that worked there. She was smart, funny, offbeat and cool, and just genuinely warm to everyone. She was having man problems and was telling me about the relationship drama that was going on in her life. It was juicy stuff. I felt really happy and flattered that she chose to confide in me. I was sure that it was a new era in our friendship, a step down the road to BFF-hood.

Throughout the rest of the shift, more of our coworkers came in and better yet, customers too. Elisha was working as hostess. I noticed that as I walked back and forth between my tables and the kitchen, I would pass by Elisha telling the same story to another coworker, in fact it seemed to be everyone working that day. After the fourth or fifth person, I'm pretty sure I started rolling my eyes, and at one point, I even said something about how she tells everyone her business. She looked startled and hurt.

I had not meant to hurt her. I never apologized, and our friendship was not the same afterwards. You'll never read this, but I am sorry, Elisha.

The thing is, I was truly hurt. I'd thought we shared some kind of moment, that she and I had a special intimacy. Then I realized that it was only special to me, that it was apparently just standard conversation for her.

Then ten years later, I read a stupid internet list and found out that this is an extrovert/introvert difference. Extroverts apparently tend to share their feelings with lots of people. That's how they process things. Did you know this? I did not know this.

I am not an open person. This blog is about the most open you will ever find me, and I'm doing it in a controlled environment, where I have ample time to compose what I want to say. I generally don't talk about something until it's over, and I've had time to process it. There are few comments, partly because I don't advertise that I even do this. There are people close to me who would be shocked to find out that I've been putting feelings on the internet for over ten years.

For a long time, I had a sense that I had learned to keep my secrets to myself from hard experience. When I think about those hard experiences now, I realize that it was more misunderstanding than malice. I would tell someone something, and because I shared so infrequently, it was a Big Deal to me. But there would be nothing in my manner or in the information itself that would indicate to the other person that it was anything important at all. And so when they would mention it to someone else or fail to react as if they were receiving a treasured gift, I would be hurt. I would think to myself that this is why I never share, because people can't be trusted or they don't even care. But really, just like with Elisha, it was a disconnect between us in the significance of the moment.

For me, it has been hard to realize that this is just a difference in the way people are, and not a moral difference. My tendency is to see openness almost as a form of promiscuity. Sometimes, it can seem like an overt play for attention, which I find distasteful. Neither of these impressions are accurate or fair. In fact, to be hurt when someone shares their own secrets is just dumb. It is not superior to be closed off, and it is just as bad to be too private as it is to be too free. Be prudent and mindful of who you trust, yes, but sharing our experiences and our feelings is one of the most important things we do as humans. Every relationship, from friendships to marriages to foreign policy, would be improved if we were all more honest and open with each other. One of the most wonderful results of the internet is the realization that we are not alone, that there are thousands, maybe millions of people out there who feel exactly the way we do. Look how it's helped me realize that extroverts aren't all shallow, attention-starved morons! Look what a poor job I'm doing of proving that introverts aren't repressed, antisocial jerks!

For me, sharing on the blog can close the significance gap that I feel when sharing in person. When someone does comment, either here or in person, it is only because it spoke to them, because they connected with me in the significance. If no one responds, then, whatever, it was just like writing in my journal. Yet I know that someone may have felt the connection without responding, and they felt special because I shared with them. The medium is such that it feels like a personal share, as if I had told you everything when we were sitting on the back patio at work waiting for customers in the morning fog.