Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How to Solve a Lot of Problems

Let's face it: we've got problems.  Then again, so does everybody else.  If you are anything like me, there are days in which you look around and all that you see are problems.

No matter what problems you happen to be facing, you need to be willing to ask yourself two Very Important Questions: 1) what exactly is happening to me?, and 2) how can I make it stop?

For example, let's say that you are experiencing a searing pain in your head. You ask the Two Very Important Questions and realize that 1) what is happening to you is that your head is being gnawed on by a giant, mutant chipmunk, and that 2) you can make it stop by asking your friend to knock the chipmunk off with the aid of an aluminum baseball bat.

See? Problem solved!

Don't you wish it were always that easy? 

But it's not.

That's because there are some problems that--whether we'd like to admit it or not--are actually self-inflicted.  In such cases, we need to be willing not only to realize that 1) what is happening to us is our own fault, but also that 2) in order to make it stop, we must make some actual changes.


With that concept in mind, run your peepers over the following list of ways in which many of the world's pesky problems could be solved.

How to Solve a Lot of Problems:

1. Use things the way that they were intended to be used. If you decide to use a weed whacker any other way than its suggested use, you're in for a world of hurt.  When used correctly, a weed whacker will help you to leave your lawn looking trim and pristine.  When used incorrectly, it may whack your face off.  

The same can be said of the God-given institutions of the church and the family. When biblical principles are applied correctly, the church and family work together to provide a community with spiritual, social, and emotional care while simultaneously building its members and equipping them to meet the needs of those outside.  When principles are applied incorrectly, these two institutions devolve into something God never intended them to be: either as a social club, an enclave, a joke, a waste, or a tool of torment and repression. 

Want to solve a myriad of economic and social ills currently plaguing society? Use things the way that they were intended to be used. Get the church and the family back on track. After all, the church and the family are the foundations of biblically-ordained authority and the tools God intends to use to meet the problems of social justice. 

We cannot expect to maintain well-trimmed lawns painlessly if we insist on holding the weed whacker upside-down, and we cannot expect a painless, well-ordered society if we insist on abandoning or abusing God's basic institutions. 

Want happier kids, less crime, increased creativity, higher self-esteems, and a more stable society? Strengthen the family.1  Want aid for the poor, comfort for the elderly, and empowerment to the downtrodden? Strengthen the church.2 

 2. Clean up after yourself. This is one of the first principles that we learn in preschool, and one that will stand us in good stead throughout all phases of life.  After all, if you never clean up your house, you will wind up in one of those horrifying news stories about people whose homes have basically become glorified trash dumps.3 Fail to clean up after the choices that you make in life, and you will cause an even greater mess.  Although the results won't always be as visually revolting, you will have caused infinitely more pain.

Want to rid the world of a swath of emotional turmoil? Clean up after yourself. Take personal responsibility for your choices, whether they be good or bad.  (But especially when they are bad.) Admit your failings, ask for forgiveness, deal with the consequences, make amends.4

3. Love the life you have. The life that you have is much better than the life that you don't have in this one very important respect: you actually have it.  The life that you do not have may sound alluring, but it is important to remember that that life is not reality. It is fiction.5

You have people in your life. These people may not be perfect, but you have them.  Therefore, it is your job to love them6. There are benefits to being you: you may not fully comprehend what they are, but that does not mean that they do not exist. 

Want to circumvent some of the leading causes of discontentment, loneliness, and depression? Love the life you have! This is especially true if you are a Christ-follower. In that case, you have the added assurance that God intends to work everything in your life toward your good and His glory.7 You were created for a reason, and that reason is to bring glory to your Creator.  If that concept interrupts your very busy schedule of stressing, moping around, and/or bellyaching, all the better. God wants you to be busy letting His joy be your strength. 

So what if you may not be in a position to solve the world's problems.  Cheer up! You can solve some of them.  You can effect change in your own daily life and in the lives of those around you by using things as they were intended, cleaning up after yourself, and learning to love the life that you have.

NOTE: Yes, I understand that this post merely skims the surface of issues and has not taken everything into consideration.  Of course it hasn't. It's a thousand-word blog post that starts off with a rampaging chipmunk as its introduction. However, do not allow the cursory nature of this post to blind you truth of its arguments. 

1. See?
3.  Um, ew.
5. This is not to encourage fatalism or promote a passive acceptance of situations that can or should be changed. It is an encouragement, however, not to lose sight of the joy your current situation in life has to offer while you are busy pining for something that might come down the road or that God may not intend for you at all.
6. Jn. 13:34-35.Whether or not they love you is not the issue. 
7. Rm. 8:28 - Please note the conditions of this promise. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Summer Itinerary

summer 2012

With the school year fading and summer looming large and bright on the horizon, it's time once again for Tourist Ruth to pack her carry-on and wander into the wide, green world in pursuit of adventure.

5/28/09: Packing

For those desiring to keep up with my summer travels--hi, Mom!--here's the current itinerary:

June 12-19: Pennsylvania
June 25-29: Georgia
July 16-25: California
September: Scotland1

If you're living in or around those areas and wish to plan a meet-up, the time to contact me is sooner rather than later.
1. Okay, I realize that September hardly counts as summer, but because I'm already super excited about our Scotland trip, I decided to include it in the summer itinerary rather than face questions as to why we didn't have at least one international trip planned. Oh, and a few of you with detailed memories may be wondering what's happened to our projected New Zealand trip, and never fear: it's only been postponed by a year.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

How to Succeed at Using Technology

for Beef

We've all been there: I'm talking about that delicate intersection between loving technology for the advantages that it offers and absolutely loathing it for not working properly or in the way that we expect.

To all Luddites and technophobes amongst my readership: take heart. There is hope for you. Just bear in mind these three tips regarding how to succeed at using technology, and you will rarely, if ever, go wrong again.

How to Succeed at Using Technology:

1. Don't be under a deadline.  It's a well-established fact that if you are under a time crunch, everything will grind to a halt.  Planning to get your federal income taxes e-filed just hours before midnight? Your internet will go out for no discernible reason. Need to print something? You will be out of mauve ink, causing your printer to refuse to print anything at all, whether or not a hint of mauve appears on the document. If you do have enough ink, you will be out of paper. If you have ink and paper, your computer will refuse to communicate with the printer, and the error message will flash up as an "Unknown Error" and advise you to contact your Network Administrator, which is you.  Fun times.

2. Don't care very deeply about whether something works or not.  It never fails: your smart phone will work just fine all afternoon while you're deedling around on Facebook, listening to Pandora, and Instagramming pictures of what you had for dinner; however, the minute your roommate calls you and asks in a frantic voice if you have time to Google the distinguishing characteristics of brown recluse spiders--just in case!--you will suddenly be unable to connect to your network.  Then your battery will die.

3. Don't worry about whether excessive technology use is undermining your ability to think for yourself. Can't calculate the tip in your head? Don't worry: there's a calculator on your phone. Forget where you parked your car? Don't worry: there's an app for that. Feeling like taking a road trip without all the hassle of planning? Just log your destination into your GPS and hit "Go!" Never mind the fact that mental math is a strong indicator of healthy cognitive development,1 that dependence on time-and-memory-saving apps may be making us dumber,2  and that sometimes GPS systems make mistakes, sending us miles off course and causing navigation errors that we'd never have considered making if we'd even so much as glanced at a map.3

The truth is that, like most entries made on this blog recently, this post isn't really helpful. That's because "How to Succeed at Using Technology" isn't really the issue at hand. Rather, we need to be considering "How to Succeed at Life (with or without Technology)."4

2 - Probably.
4 - Yes, you guessed it: coming soon.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Why Our Mom is Amazing

On Mother's Day, every mom is amazing. While I respect that general concept, I'd like to beg your indulgence for a few moments to tell you a few of the many reasons why our mom is particularly amazing.

1. She taught us to read.

I'm not just talking here about the mechanics of reading, although she taught us those as well. More than merely teaching us how to string syllables together, our mother modeled for us the importance of reading. She taught us that a weekly trip to the local library could reveal unimagined vistas.  She encouraged us to read what we liked, when we liked, as much as we liked.

2. She taught us to be individuals. 

There are now four adult children in my family (spouses excluded). One's in business, one's a musician, one's literary, and one's a professional equestrian. As alike as we are in our shared backgrounds and values, we're each remarkably different in our temperaments and interests.  We were each fostered and nurtured in the areas of our individual strengths and interests, resulting in four adult children who are successful in vastly differing fields. The individual attention, care, and encouragement lavished on us by both of our parents, when paired with consistent discipline and the grace of God, helped to produce four adults ready to face the shocks of life with fairly bulletproof self-esteems.

3. She taught us the importance of laughter.

4. She taught us that to love God is to love others. Over the years, I've lost track of the number of people she's cooked for, cared for, comforted, cheered, prayed for, visited, counseled, and consoled. Through all of these practical considerations, her love for Jesus has been obvious. 

Thanks for everything that you do, Mom.  We love you.


Both of our parents are fantastic, and both model the characteristics listed here to varying degrees. But today's the day to highlight Mom's hand in our upbringing.  Dad's turn is coming

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why the Gym is Creepy

1. There are too many mirrors. Even if you manage to avoid staring at someone (or avoid being stared at) directly, the sheer abundance of mirrors provides multiple angles from which the inevitable staring can occur. 

2. Where there aren't mirrors, there are windows. This is so that those who are not actually in the gym, and therefore cannot take advantage of the many mirrors, can still contribute to the requisite quota of staring.  (A few weeks ago, an entire Hispanic family was lined up at the windows to enjoy the spectacular sight of me flailing around on the elliptical.  I tried giving the smallest boy a wave, but he continued to stare without even batting an eye.)

3. People wear odd clothes.  Most workout clothes seem to be designed for people who have already reached the pinnacle of physical fitness, not for those who are in most need of a workout.  If you're going to be stared at (either directly or via mirrors) by anyone, you'd rather not be stared at by a man wearing a cutoff shirt and/or really, really small elastic pants.  You'd also probably rather not be stared at by the guy at my gym who occasionally weight-lifts in a hoodie ...with the hood up, of course.

4. There's lots of weird breathing going on.  Enough said.

5. Others have passed this way before... and left their marks. Either someone spilled his Gatorade, the ceiling is leaking, or that's an enormous sweat-slick left behind by someone whose neck is bigger than his head. Either way, you're really, really sorry that you didn't see it before you sat down on the mat.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

How to Choose a Book

Ask most people if they read, and they will admit that they should probably read more. When asked why they don't read more, people generally give one of the standard answers: 1) "I don't have time," or 2) "I can't find something interesting enough to hold my attention all the way through," or 3) "Since that time when I gouged my own eyes out with a pin after discovering that I sealed my own tragic doom by accidentally murdering my own father and marrying my mother, I've found it difficult to read much of anything." 

Stuff like that.

Of the three problems, the second one--the problem of choosing a book to read--is the one most easily solved. (The first one's an excuse and the third one can only be solved with therapy.) Therefore, the remaining portion of this essay will be dedicated to helping you learn how to choose a book to read. And if you're not, by the end, completely clear on the steps that you must take in order to choose your next book, I will gladly eat my hat.1

First, though, we should cover a few aspects of how not to choose a book.

How NOT to choose a book:

1. Leave it to the Fates. Whatever you do, do not clasp one hand over your eyes while zombie-walking through the aisles of  your local Barnes and Noble, hoping against hope that the Fates will allow your hand to fall upon the sturdy spine of the book written just for you.  I just tried this method with my own personal collection and wound up with clutching a yellowed edition of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a book that I wasn't even aware that I possessed. Which just goes to show.  

Incidentally, it's also not a good idea to use a similar approach to Bible reading. To demonstrate what I mean, I just now pretended to be super discouraged and in need of comfort and guidance. I took out my Bible, closed my eyes, let the pages flop open, and plonked my index finger down, determining to take whatever verse I was touching to heart. It turned out to be Ecclesiastes 3:12: "I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and enjoy the good life," which isn't exactly the dreadful sort of example that I'd been anticipating. But you get the picture. My finger could just as easily been pointing to Leviticus 26:29 or Deuteronomy 25:11-12, and then where would I be?2  My point is that just as nobody (all right.... very few people) would leave their spiritual welfare to such sporadic methods, why would they do so with their literary pursuits?

2. Pick up whatever is under the "HOT BEACH READ!" sign at the book store.  No.  Just.... no, no, no.  Ditto whatever is touted as a "best seller."  Books are "best sellers" for one of several reasons: they deal with a trending topic, they've been written by (or ghost written for) a celebrity, or they appeal to the lowest common denominator of skill and interest levels. Not exactly such stuff as dreams are made on. This is not to say that all of these books are bad, per se, but that just because a book is a best seller does not mean that this book is for you or that if you don't like it, there is something inherently wrong with you.

3. Assume that any book that's been made into a movie must be a safe bet. After all, it must be good, otherwise it wouldn't be made into a movie... right?  It would be lovely if that were the case, but it's not.  Some books are made into movies because of their visual potential; some are made into movies because there happens to be a market for that sort of movie at the time. Other books are made into movies simply because they have been written by Nicholas Sparks, but that's hardly an endorsement. 

But I know what you're thinking. You didn't start reading this essay to be told how not to choose a book; you want to know how you should go about choosing a book for yourself.  Don't worry--I haven't forgotten. I'll be getting to that shortly. But first, allow me to indulge in a brief description of what goes on around here when it comes time for me to choose the next book I'm going to read.3

First, I heave a huge sigh. Next, I wander aimlessly into my room to look at the to-read stack next to my bed. Occasionally this will suffice, but unfortunately, there are times that nothing in that stack catches my eye.  In that case, I click through my Kindle to see if there are any downloaded-but-still-unread books on there that catch my fancy.  I consult the stack of glossy library books in the corner.  At that point, if I'm still unsuccessful, I begin to wander around the apartment ogling the bulging bookshelves, bemoaning the fact that I don't know what to read next. According to my roommate/sister, I also "whine about it" and occasionally flail around on the floor. In extreme cases, I venture into her bedroom to peer at her modest collection and bemoan the fact that I don't have anything to read.  

It's exhausting, really.  But not as exhausting as it would be if I didn't already know what I was looking for.  

"Yes!" you interject. "That's precisely what I want to know--what to look for! You promised that you were going to tell me how to choose a book!"

And indeed I will without further ado.

How to Choose a Book

1. Ask advice from a reader.  Don't make the rookie mistake of asking the reader what his favorite book is and then try reading that, though, because he may just be pretentious and say something like The Complete Works of Josephus just to impress you, and then you'll be saddled with the task of working your way through prose so dense that it's just this shy of collapsing into a black hole, all the while wondering what in the would would have possessed your friend to recommend it to you in the first place. 

The problem with this method of book-choosing is that you're asking the wrong question.  One of the ways in which I make reading recommendations to non-readers is to ask them what their favorite TV shows are and then make reading recommendations based on that. Just a little advice to bear in mind when you're asking readers for recommendations. If your favorite show happens to be, say, a crime drama, ask your reader friend if he's read any good thrillers lately. You get the idea.

2. Skim the first few pages. If it doesn't grab you within the first few pages, it's probably not going to grab you at all. Don't invest your money or a large chunk of your time in a book that you are unlikely to finish. I don't care how shiny the cover is or how popular the book may be. If it doesn't grab you, don't grab it.

3. Ignore consumer reviews. Reviews written on Amazon and Goodreads are all well and good for what they're worth, but it is good to remember that the vast majority who post in these forums are by no means literary critics. Bear in mind that the top review may have been written by a fourteen-year-old, leaving you to believe that Revenge of the Vampire Prom Queen4 is indeed the "Best b00k 3varrrrrr!" and that To Kill a Mockingbird is "a real snoozefest."5

In the end, the best advice about choosing books is just to keep choosing them. Eventually, you will choose one that seems to choose you back. When that happens, chase the magic: read everything by that author, or in that genre, or in the "similar to this author" column. 

Read, read, read, read, read.

1. It's made of chocolate. 
2. Look them up. You know you want to.  Don't worry. I'll wait.
3. Bear in mind that I go through this process a few times a week, although not all between-book moments are as agonizing as others.
4. Not a real book.
5. Real quote form a real one-star review on Amazon.com of a real and remarkable book.