Monday, February 16, 2015


Today is a "feel good about myself because I'm doing good things that make me look [from outside appearances] like a 'good person'" day. (please read that and the next few sentences tongue-in-cheek, with a hint of egotistical truth) Driving home from donating blood (because I'm a good person), I saw a panhandler across the intersection just as I was turning onto the freeway entrance ramp, and felt the Spirit nudging me to do something about it (because I'm a holy person). Using my GPS I went out of my way to backtrack and finally parked, grabbed a "homeless bag" of goodies (I really really need to rename those) and walked up to him.

David and I shook hands and talked for... maybe 15-20 minutes? It wasn't very long, but long enough for my ears to turn red (sorry Mom, I forgot to wear my hat), and my body to start shivering. As my friends know, I don't really wear coats, so I typically find myself ill-prepared for standing in sub-freezing temps for any length of time longer than it takes to walk from my car to a building. Anyway, I asked David to share his story. He started, then stopped abruptly and asked "you don't have a camera on you, do you?" I assured him I did not. (And funny aside: I actually forgot my voice recorder at home this morning, so I couldn't have been recording even if I'd wanted to!)

David is part (or wholly?) Native American, and grew up in "nord'east" Minneapolis, and in fact his parents still live here. I'm guessing he's mid-forties. He told me the reason he signs at this particular corner is because, for him, it's a memorial site, sacred ground. He had another friend experiencing homelessness who died last October, near this corner - the cops found him alcohol'd to death under a van in a parking lot, probably he crawled under there to stay out of the rain. David put a small bracelet on the fencepost at this corner as his own memorial.

I never blogged about it, but back in December I joined my friends JD and John to observe the Homeless Memorial March put on by Simpson House, a march down Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, during rush hour, to remember those who passed away this past year either while experiencing homelessness, or who had experienced it in the past. When David told me about his friend, I wondered if I'd heard his name read at the memorial service. (If you're interested in joining next year, here is more information about the March, scheduled for December 17, 2015).

I digress. David told me he just checked out of rehab (meth) this morning, and is staying on a buddy's couch for the next few days, and planning to move to Albuquerque in early March. "Good!" I said. "Get out of this cold!!" He told me about a typical day signing (this was a new vocab word for me - when you see someone on the side of the road holding a sign, they call that "signing". I hadn't known. It sounds much nicer than pan-handling, or, begging), shared some funny stories about *good* encounters with police officers, about how much he makes in a day (today so far, after 4 hours: $13. Other days, like Christmas, $170 in three hours), and about witnessing multi-car accidents on the freeway on some of the icier days. Oh, and something I found fascinating: he said when he's signing and there are several beggars there, they'll take turns, like swap out every half hour, to be fair with each other... and so they don't get into a fight :/

He told me about his friends and their tent city, and that they keep each other safe by sticking together at night. He told me his parents are giving him the "tough love" right now, and that's part of why he's moving to New Mexico. (aside: having read the book "Boundaries", if I knew more about his history and his parents, I might actually/probably side with them, but, that didn't need to affect our interaction for today). And he told me about his bouts with frostbite.

We talked briefly about faith - I'd mentioned it was a "God thing" that I'd stopped, and he agreed about how "God works in mysterious ways." David had grown up Catholic, and I'm Lutheran (albeit in recent years moreso Pentacostol-Lutheran, if such a thing can be labeled). I asked him if he was going to stay clean, now that he's out of rehab, and he said of the drugs, yes, of the liquor no. I confessed to him "man, if I were in your shoes, I'd be drinking, too."

Eventually I left. I got to leave homelessness behind, get back into my nice, warm, too-expensive car, and drive back to my house, to be warmed by my new furnace. For now I choose not to feel guilt over this, but I will at least acknowledge my privilege that I get to walk away from homelessness, and hunger.

For me, interacting with David was much less awkward than talking with Gary, mostly because David didn't have the physical limitations/issues that Gary does (by the way, no new updates from Gary, part 4, yet:(. And in fact, talking with David didn't seem weird. I mean, granted, it's not like he's my best friend and I'm going to open all my darkest secrets to him, but, he was honest. Every beggar I've ever talked to (Matt, Gary, and others just for a few seconds with my window rolled down waiting for the light to turn green) has always been incredibly straightforward when I've asked them "what's your story?" I suspect when your dignity gets beaten down that far, there's very little you care about hiding anymore.

Now, if I were in your mind, Reader, I'd be asking me, "Why? It's one thing to give a beggar a dollar, or even a bag with water bottle and cereal bars, but, why, when it's freezing outside, would you park, and strike up a conversation?"

If you've read many of my previous posts, you already know that to answer those questions, I'm going to re-quote Beggars in Spain, which has been the most influential book in my life, second only to the Gospels:

What the strong owe beggars is to ask each one why he is a beggar and act accordingly. Because community is the assumption, not the result. And only by giving non-productiveness the same individuality as excellence, and acting accordingly, does one fulfill the obligation to the beggars in Spain.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Gary, part 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

I saw you across the Hiawatha and 46th intersection, pan-handling from the median, as I turned toward home. Toward my fully furnished, food-laden home. I decided to be interruptible, to let this be a God-moment. I didn't know it was you yet - in fact my *expectations* were that you'd be a nameless stranger begging on the corner, that I could hand you a "homeless bag" (I really need to come up with a new name for those), and that when the arrow turned green, I could drive away, feeling good about myself because I'd stopped and acknowledge your humanity, but then not have to follow through in any depth. Those were my expectations, and if I'm bold enough to admit it, those were my hopes.

And so, uncannily reminiscent (in retrospect) of the night we met, I turned at that same corner, went down Minnehaha, came back on Hiawatha, and got into the turn lane.

I'm at a loss to fully describe what emotions took place when I started to recognize your unkempt, graying beard, and the eyes hiding above it. Excitement at the opportunity for redemption from my previous failures. (see "Gary, part 3") Dread at the reality that encountering you again might mean bringing you to church again. (see "Gary, part 2") Joy akin to finding a long lost friend. Relief that you were still alive and relatively "okay." Hope that our story, yours and mine somehow Divinely intertwined, was not yet over. Peace and a sense of resolution because I could finally hear what happened in the chapter after our last meeting.

I rolled down my window, and fumbled out what I think were truly genuine words about being glad to see you again. I'm pretty sure they were genuine, anyway. I'd reached acceptance from my failed attempts to contact you, but I still felt somehow incomplete. Enough "I"s.

You shook violently, muscles spasming, probably because the temperature was at the freezing point. The arrow light had just turned red, so we had some time to talk. You told me you'd been hit by a drunk driver 7 days ago. He drove for an entire city block with you still on his hood/windshield, before he was stopped by police. He's in jail now, while you spent a week in the hospital, recovering.

The light turned green. I turned and parked at Walgreens, and came back to stand with you. Why are you out here? I thought you moved into your apartment? You did. But you have no food. Your check from the VA won't come until the 15th - because of the snow out east, 1,500 veterans' snail-mail checks got delayed getting mailed, and you were one of them. You've set up direct deposit for next month, but that's no help right now.


And here my greatest worry this morning was running late to my car's oil change appointment. Thank you for the reality check.

I thought about offering to go grocery shopping for you, but before I could offer you said there's a woman in Des Moines who wants to give you a new kidney, and your sister is going to come down from International Falls to drive you there, tonight. Maybe. If she gets off work in time. Otherwise you don't know how you're going to get there. You've been waiting for a kidney a long time, and if this doesn't work out, you told your sister you might put a gun to your head to end it, because you don't have much (any?) hope left to keep you going. You weren't melodramatic about it, you weren't asking for a pity-party, for you this was just a matter of cold facts.

The doctors want you in Des Moines by 9 p.m. so they can get you checked into the hospital and prepped for a 3 a.m. start to surgery. I briefly considered what it would look like for me to drive you myself, but asked instead if there was a bus or train or something that ran down there. Apparently there is! It costs $45. Which is another reason you're out here begging today. No food, and no bus fare.

$45 is a lot more do-able than a 4.5 hour (x2) drive. I offer, "If you want to take the bus, I will buy your ticket." Unspoken were the words, "even though I mostly trust you, by buying the ticket myself I know exactly where the money is going." A gift with strings attached. You say they only take cash, something about no credit card readers on most of the busses, and the ones that do have them, the credit name needs to match the ticket holder's name. That's fine, we can stop at an ATM on the way; I re-iterate that "if you want to take the bus, I will do that for you." You agreed.

While we were standing on the median, a driver-by rolled down his window and handed you his pocket change. You told me later you knew him, that he'd only come off the streets recently himself. I don't know the right vocabulary right now for the emotions that evoked.

I'm also left to my own imagination wondering who may have been influenced, or who I may have indirectly ministered to, by the act of standing out on a median of a very busy intersection, talking to you for over a quarter of an hour. Who may have seen that and been moved, or a seed planted? I will never have that answer, and I'm okay with that, because I can choose to imagine at least one person was affected by what they saw. I hope, anyway, because if we're not spreading good, and if there are no hearts open to being changed, then that is a sad world indeed.

You jaywalk and I follow (is it mean of me to think briefly "no wonder you get hit by cars"?), you struggle up the grass to the parking lot where my car waits, blame me that you stumbled backward and fell to your knees (sorry, guess I'll stop trying to help), and finally we make it to my car. You warn me that your walker's wheels are muddy, so I lay down a blanket on my back seat before you fold it up and stick it inside the car. You're remarkably ... "proud"? might be the word? You don't want help, you want to do as much on your own as you're capable of. I guess I can identify. I'm impressed. You might be a beggar today, but with an "I can do this" personality trait, I don't believe you are by choice.

Standing outside my car, you light up a cigarette, and explain it's going to be your last one. Like, ever. Because you'll be spending the next 30 days in the hospital, and they won't let you out for a smoke break. Your New Year's resolution was to quit smoking, and today's the day.

All-told you were remarkably more coherent today than the last time we talked. Maybe it's the hope of a new kidney tonight? Or maybe it's that you're more comfortable around me after a few encounters?

We stopped at the bank for me to get cash, then onward to the UofM medical buildings. You tell me how you've been on anti-rejection meds for the past three months. You're generally excellent at giving directions, though we did have that one disagreement when you claim you said "turn left here" and I definitely heard you say "turn left up there at <street name>" but whatever. I learn your other sister is moving back from Germany soon to live with you in Minnesota and help take care of you. All in all it kind of sounds like your life is coming back together.

I dropped you off and got your walker out for you. You got out of the car all on your own, despite your weak legs. Definitely an encouraging sign. You've got fight left in you. I asked if you could ask the hospital in Des Moines to call me after your surgery, so I know how it went. Unspoken: "so I know if you survived." You said you would. Time will tell on that; who knows what rules they have, so even if you ask maybe they won't be able to. But I hope to hear. I ask you how much money you want, and hand you enough for the bus fare, and a little extra for food.

And somewhere in our parting comments, you mentioned how you liked my morning church, Jacob's Well, and wanted to come back. I told you to call me when you're back in town, and I guess I'll wrestle through the implications of that in a month.

I feel at peace with our story. Not just acceptance at my own inability to change the situation (as before), but true peace, a sense of completion, resolution. Maybe our story will continue, maybe not. But I do thank you Gary, because you have expanded my comfort zone. I mean, you still make me feel uncomfortable, but... less so than I did before. And I believe that's what they call "growth."

May God travel with you and bring you healing. Amen.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Gary, part 3

From January 18.

Part 1 | Part 2

You called and left me a voicemail at 6:30 this morning. (my world rarely exists that early). I'd wondered if you would call. I woke up and saw the voicemail from an unknown 612 number, and I figured it was probably you. The first of many confessions: I confess I dilly-dallied listening to my voicemails, because not knowing was infinitely safer than knowing that you had actually called to ask if you could come to church with me.

Eventually I listened to to your message; you said you'd be out at the usual place. And I struggled. Actually I struggled all morning not even knowing for sure what the voicemail was. Because I realized I want a safe life. I want a comfortable life. I don't want to be pushed outside my comfort zone, and you push me outside my comfort zone. When I'm at church I want to do the things that I want to do and see the people that I want to see. I resolved that if I did bring you today, I would be selfish and tell you "I'm going to help tear down today, and I'm going to visit with my friends" and the killer is, I know you would have been okay with that.

I left home later than I'd planned, and plugged in my iPhone and listened to two songs, Brand New Day and Lord of Lords, and I was crushed by their lyrics:

This is our time, this is our time
To make a new tomorrow
This is our call, this is our call
Can you hear the sound of change
Kick down doors, tear down walls, bring light to the shadows
Will you join me in the streets, living out what you believe,
Cause it's who you're meant to be
Will you love a broken world, til the people are restored
And His truth is reigning

followed by:

I am Your servant
Come to bring You glory
As is fit for the work of Your hands

and I knew the answer to "what would Jesus do?" He'd be out there on the corner with you, He'd be talking to you there, He wouldn't be questioning it at all, it would have been an automatic response, but for me it is so hard. Crying from and cursing my naïve prayers in which I'd begged for a Spirit-led life, I realized my "default" action (the action I'd end up taking if I failed to make a conscious decision) was: I had to pick you up. I drove down to 46th, drove past the gas station, and you weren't there. I was later than you'd expected me, so I drove toward your new apartment, supposing maybe I'd find you walking that direction. No joy. I came back, parked, poked my nose in the Burger King, in case you'd gone inside to warm up. I couldn't find you.

I must make another confession: I felt relief. In fact I was hugely relieved. And I am so, so sorry that my response to not finding you resembled joyful peace instead of lament. You are a human being, and you deserved better. Once again I found myself praying: "Jesus, I'm sorry I'm not You." The more I read the Gospels the more it has become abundantly clear that Jesus loves and cares for the poor and the outcast. How then can I call myself a follower of Jesus if I do not follow His model?

So here we are. I can't call you back, because you don't have a phone, and you've called me from a different number each time. (actually, I did try: one number was answered by a squealing modem; another turned out to be the corner gas station, and so I asked the attendant that, if he saw you, to ask you to call me; and the third was some random dude's cell phone who'd let you borrow his phone only once, and was quite flummoxed why I was calling [understandable, sir - I readily admit it's a weird introduction to say "Hi, my name's Jeremy, and I gave a pan-handler my number and he used your phone to call me, are you still in contact with him?"]).

I've struck out. I don't have much left in the way of options for finding you. Worse, I feel like I bait-and-switch'd you; while bringing you to church with me once may have been being the "hands and feet" of Jesus for that one day, I know my behavior after that fell far short of ideal, and I'm sorry.

Despite my failure, I will allow myself at least a little bit of Grace, because of this: Monday, the day after I didn't bring you to church, I had a phone call with one of the pastors about his upcoming sermon, and he asked about you. He'd seen us together last Sunday, and he said he was moved, and challenged, and inspired. It left him asking a lot of questions about his own walk of faith. And from the comments on my Facebook wall from my previous blog posts, I know he wasn't alone. I've long believed (and experienced) that God brings people into our lives who will inspire us at exactly the right moment, often in a permanently life-altering way. Gary, whether we meet again in this life or not, you were a rock tossed into my life's stream, causing a splash, causing ripples, and permanently altering the face of the riverbed.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Audiobook reflection: Looking for Alaska

At the end of November I finished another John Green novel called Looking for Alaska (John Green also being the author of The Fault In Our Stars [which I read in 2014 but didn't blog about] and co-author of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I read not long ago). The story follows teenager Miles (nicknamed "Pudge," because he's actually very skinny) during his junior year at a boarding school away from home. He befriends prank-loving fellow students Chip ("The Colonel") and Alaska, and they have many adventures... I make it sound like an after-school special, but it's not, I just can't say much more than that without giving away half the story.

This author has an hilarious and often hyperbolic writing style that frequently cracked me up, even though I was listening by myself. For example, this quote:

He told me this while ripping through his duffle bag, throwing clothes into drawers with reckless abandon. Chip did not believe in having a sock drawer or a t-shirt drawer; he believed that all drawers were created equal, and filled each with whatever fit.

When I heard that, I thought to myself, "this reminds me a lot of how the author in Will Grayson, Will Grayon described his characters." Then I remembered, oh, right, same author! Not that I'm the pickiest critic ever, but seeing as this is book #3 of his that I've read in 6 months, I think that says something.

Much of the book's conversations and inner-voice monologues revolve around these two central quotes: Simón Bolívar, "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?" and François Rabelais, "I go to seek a Great Perhaps." In a rather flippant way, I think those quotes aptly express the human experience: how do I deal with life, what is my Calling, what is my potential, where does it all lead?

While L4A can be vulgar, I agree with the author's comments that I found quoted on the Wikipedia article:

"Some people say, 'You wrote a dirty, dirty book.' But there are very old-fashioned values and even a lot of religion in it.... There are some adults who think that the only kind of ethics that matter are sexual ethics. So they miss everything else that is going on in the book."

The characters behave realistically, and more importantly, the story addresses some heavy hitting issues, like (spoiler alert) death. The book is divided roughly in half, with each chapter heading reading either, for example, "51 days before," or, "3 days after," with the central unifying event between those two halves being the death of one of the main characters' friends. Journeying with them on their paths toward healing is a powerful experience as a reader. I think this quote in particular captures something of what it's like to lose someone you care about:

I have lost something important, and I cannot find it and I need it. It is fear like if someone lost his glasses, and went to the glasses store, and they told him that the world had run out of glasses, and he would just have to do without.

What I really like, though, is that the author doesn't rush the characters through mourning. They get half the book to work through their five grief stages. I don't think enough stories give that necessary space.

On a last, happier note: I loved the religion teacher, Dr Hyde, who garnered a number of my favorite quotes (below). Also the narrator's choice of old-man voice for Dr Hyde was quite amusing, really helped sell his "get off my lawn" attitude.

My favorite quotes

"So this guy... François Rabelais. He was this poet, and his last words were, 'I go to seek a Great Perhaps'" That's why I'm going. So I don't have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps." - 5:05
He told me this while ripping through his duffle bag, throwing clothes into drawers with reckless abandon. Chip did not believe in having a sock drawer or a t-shirt drawer; he believed that all drawers were created equal, and filled each with whatever fit. - 17:08
Her library filled her bookshelves, and then overflowed into waist-high stacks of books everywhere, piled haphazardly against the walls. If just one of them moved, I thought, the domino effect could engulf the three of us in an asphyxiating mass of literature. - 23:36
"Have you really read all those books in your room?"
She laughed.
"Oh, God no. I've maybe read a third of 'em. But, I'm going to read them all. I call it my life's library. Every summer since I was little, I've gone to garage sales and bought all the books that looked interesting, so I always have something to read. But there's so much to do! Cigarettes to smoke, sex to have, swings to swing on. I'll have more time for reading when I'm old and boring."
She told me that I reminded her of the Colonel when he came to Culver Creek. They were freshmen together, she said, both scholarship kids with, as she put it, "a shared interest in booze and mischief."
The phrase "booze and mischief" left me worrying I'd stumbled into what my mother referred to as "the wrong crowd." But, for the wrong crowd, they both seemed awfully smart. - 33:03
You can say a lot of bad things about Alabama, but you can't say that Alabamans as a people are unduly afraid of deep-friers. In that first week at the Creek, the cafeteria served fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, and fried okra, which marked my first foray into the delicacy that is the fried vegetable. I half expected them to fry the iceberg lettuce. But nothing matched the Buffrito.... A deep-fried bean burrito, the Buffrito proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that frying always improves a food. - 37:55
"My name... is Dr Hyde. I have a first name, of course, so far as you are concerned it is 'Doctor.'" - Dr Hyde, 57:55
" may be smart, but I've been smart longer." - Dr Hyde, 59:03
This teacher rocked. I hated discussion classes. I hated talking and I hated listening to everyone else stumble on their words and try to phrase things in the vaguest possible way so they wouldn't sound dumb. And I hated how it was all just a game of trying to figure out what the teacher wanted to hear and then saying it. I'm in class, so teach me! And teach me he did. In those 50 minutes, the old man made me take religion seriously. I'd never been religious, but he told us that religion is important whether or not we believed in one, in the same way that historical events are important whether or not you personally lived through them. - 1:00:14
I learned that "myth" doesn't mean a lie. It means a traditional story that tells you something about people and their worldview, and what they hold sacred. - 1:01:41
"Jesus, I'm not gonna be one of those people who sits around talking about what they're gonna do. I'm just gonna do it! Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.... You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you'll escape it one day, and how awesome it'll be, and imagining that future keeps you going but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present." - Alaska, 1:42:25
[Alaska] said that it was sexist to leave the cooking to the women, but better to have good sexist food than crappy boy-prepared food. - 2:54:58
People, I thought, wanted security. They couldn't bear the idea of death being a big black nothing, couldn't bear the thought of their loved ones not existing, and couldn't even imagine themselves not existing. I finally decided that people believed in an afterlife because they couldn't bear not to. - 3:11:23
...he really didn't seem worth hating. Hating the cool kids takes an awful lot of energy, and I'd given up on it a long time ago. - 3:31:43
There comes a time when we realize that our parents cannot save themselves or save us. That everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow. That, in short, we are all going. So she became impulsive, scared by her inaction into perpetual action. - 3:50:40
I thought, that is the fear. I have lost something important, and I cannot find it and I need it. It is fear like if someone lost his glasses, and went to the glasses store, and they told him that the world had run out of glasses, and he would just have to do without. - 4:29:38
She had proved to me that it was worth it to leave behind my minor life for grander maybes. And now she was gone, and with her, my faith in perhaps. - 5:25:02
You left me perhaps-less. - 5:25:31
"Karl Marx famously called religion 'the opiate of the masses.' Buddhism, particularly as it is popularly practiced, promises improvement through Karma. Islam and Christianity promise eternal paradise to the faithful, and that is a powerful opiate, certainly, the hope of a better life to come. But there's a Sufi story that challenges the notion that people believe only because they need an opiate. Rabi`a al `Adawiyya, a great woman saint of Sufiism, was seen running through the streets of her home town, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand, and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, 'I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell. And then, I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise, so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.'" - Dr Hyde, 5:27:48
The Buddha said that suffering was caused by desire, we learned, and that the cessation of desire meant the cessation of suffering. When you stopped wishing things wouldn't fall apart, you'd stop suffering when they did. 6:11:21
We'd failed, maybe, but some mysteries aren't meant to be solved. - 6:41:46
"You need not specifically discuss the perspectives of different religions in your essay, so no research is necessary. Your knowledge, or lack thereof, has been established in the quizzes you've taken this semester. I am interested in how you are able to fit the incontestable fact of suffering into your understanding of the world, and how you hope to navigate through life in spite of it.

Next year, assuming my lungs hold out, we'll study Taoism, Hinduism, and Judaism together."

The old man coughed, and then started to laugh which caused him to cough again.

"Lord, maybe I won't last! But, about the three traditions we've studied this year, I'd like to say one thing: Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism each have founder figures, Mohammed, Jesus, and the Buddha respectively. And in thinking about these founder figures, I believe we must finally conclude that each brought a message of radical hope.

To seventh century Arabia, Mohammed brought the promise that anyone could find fulfillment and everlasting life through allegiance to the one true God. The Buddha held out hope that suffering could be transcended. Jesus brought the message that the last shall be first, that even the tax collectors and lepers, the outcasts, had cause for hope. And so that is the question I leave you with in this final: what is your cause for hope?" - Dr Hyde, 6:48:32
"After all this time, it still seems to me like 'straight and fast' is the only way out. But I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but, I choose it." - The Colonel, 6:51:08
He was gone, and I did not have time to tell him what I had just now realized: that I forgave him, and that she forgave us. And that we had to forgive to survive in the labyrinth. There were so many of us who would have to live with things done and things left undone that day, things that did not go right, things that seemed okay at the time because we could not see the future. If only we could see the endless string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can't know better, until knowing better is useless. - 6:54:46
Thomas Edison's last words were, "It's very beautiful over there." I don't know where "there" is, but I believe it's somewhere, and I hope it's beautiful. - 6:59:57
"I was born into Bolívar's labyrinth, and so I must believe in hope of Rabelais's Great Perhaps." - The Author, 7:03:03

Monday, January 19, 2015

Gary, part 2

From January 11.

Gary came to church today.

You called me last night around 9, asked if that offer to bring you to church was still good; I said yes, and you said you'd be in the usual place.

When I picked you up, I became grateful for my dull sense of smell. You had trouble moving, struggled again to put on your seatbelt. You hadn't had breakfast yet, so I gave you one of my "homeless bags" to munch on a cereal bar. You got to see me hand out a couple more during our drive. I got a quick update from you, too: you'll be moving into your apartment Monday morning - literally 24 hours from now your life will be different.

We got to church awkwardly early. No one at Jacob's Well shows up on time (granted: hyperbole), but we were like, 15 minutes early. I clearly miscalculated this. If I'm honest, I was hoping we could sneak in unseen. You wrestled your way out of my car. When we got in the door, I introduced you to ... was it Melissa? Someone. "This is my friend Gary". You mumbled something incomprehensible, because the band was still rehearsing and the music drowned your words. You meandered painfully slowly to the coffee table and poured yourself some of that black bitter water.

We found a seat in the corner where you could stretch out your legs. Is it wrong I'm grateful you didn't want to sit in the front row? I told you you were more than welcome to refill your coffee during the service; what I didn't anticipate was your difficulty navigating stairs - you less-so walked down and more-so fell-down them, but maintained vertical-ness with assistance from your bent and dented cane (apparently another taxi hit you in the last few days, adding another reminder of life's unfairness to your already-battle-scarred cane).

You talked to me a little too loud during the songs - or maybe, just maybe, I was being extra sensitive and fearful of people judging me. (why? because I'm overly concerned with other peoples' perceptions of my delicately crafted external persona; because I live in America and that's what we do).

I was eternally grateful when my friend Chris came and sat with us, so I wasn't alone.

In his sermon, Greg told us a story about his family driving back from Wisconsin 15 years ago. They were already running late, traffic was backed up, but they still stopped to help an old man change his tire on the side of the road. 15 years later none of them remember where they were coming from or going to or what happened because they were late, but they ALL remember stopping to help that man. This was, as Greg called it, one of those "damn you Jacob's Well!" moments :) Seemed timely. I think I just took a crash course on learning that lesson for myself.

Church ended, I wanted to catch up with a couple people, you said take my time, while you downed some more of that gross black caffeinated liquid. You handed me your cup to throw away, and said you'd meet me at the door. I came back to see you eyeing up the steps, bracing yourself, and performing your [scarily dramatic, Gene Wilder/Willy Wonka-esque] fall-rather-than-step act. Well, except I'm sure it wasn't an act. You stuck your landing, vertical still, a good 6 feet from the base of the steps. So awkward. I look around. Yep, people saw. Awkward awkward awkward.

Melissa came up and asked if you were new, and gave you a small bag of chocolates as a "welcome to Jacob's Well" gift. At which point you decided you couldn't wait 1 minute 'til we got to my car, but instead needed to stop walking, open the bag [agonizingly slowly] and eat them right there, in the middle of the exit pathway. I admit: I just wanted to go, I just wanted to get myself out of that situation. Because I much prefer ministering to people of my own financial class. It's easier, it's less scary, and it's less uncomfortable. You pushed my comfort zone.

I had to buckle you in and get out to close your car door for you. On our ride back you asked about my evening church; I tried nonchalantly to say "I'm meeting a friend beforehand for a movie," aka, 'please don't ask me if you can come with, please please please...' Because I was embarrassed. That whole comfort zone thing, remember? And you telling me about your medical issues, how much your stomach hurt, how you'd started bleeding again last night (don't know where, don't really want to know, just please don't bleed on my 1-year-old car! #firstworldproblem), and how you expected to end up in the ER [again] today, and maybe it's all hyperbole but it makes me uncomfortable and I'm not used to dealing with this!

Yet at the same time... I know that the Jeremy today has seen tremendous growth from the Jeremy of ten years ago. I remember in 2004 when I met my friend Matthew, he would stop and help people on the road, all the time. He told me he actually expected he'd die in the midst of trying to help people, like breaking up a bar fight and getting shot, or getting hit on the side of the road trying to help a stalled vehicle; for all his human faults, I have always admired about him his willingness and constant availability to offer help. I also always thought, "I can never be that, that would scare me too much." And now, slowly, I am becoming that person.

Last week, I was driving home, it was close to or past midnight, and I stopped to fill up with gas. A couple mid-late-twenties men approached me asking if I had jumper cables. Based on how they were dressed frankly I thought they were hoodlums looking to jump me instead of their car, but turns out they were actually nice people truly just trying to get their car started. I didn't have cables, but I did happen to have a portable battery jump-starter thing my Dad got me for Christmas, that I thought I'd never use. Well, two and a half weeks post-Christmas, on a bitterly cold night, it enabled me to help some strangers in need. Thank you, Dad.

So here I am, becoming who I want to be, inspired by people like Matthew, and Darrell. To some degree, living out Matthew 25:34-40 (the whole "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" thing). I still find myself praying, "Jesus, please forgive me, because I'm not You. I know You would have put your hands Gary and healed him, and invited him to Your home, You would have said 'let Me take care of you,'" and I couldn't bring myself to do that, because there's still a lot of selfishness in me. So, Jesus, I know I didn't ace this one. Probably only got a C-. But that's a few steps above an F, so let's call that progress, okay?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Audiobook reflection: Predictably Irrational

Way back around Thanksgiving I finished reading (aka "listening to") Predictably Irrational, a book about "behavioral economics," or, "human judgement and decision-making," written by professor of psychology Dan Ariely. For a more complete description of his experiments and conclusions from the book, check out the Wikipedia article, or the book's website,

Some points that jumped out at me:

  • Pulling bandages off patients slowly causes less overall suffering [for the patient] than ripping them "quick like a band-aid." (the author himself was once burned head-to-toe, so has personal experience, in addition to his scientific research, to attest to this)
  • The idea of a "hot state" vs a "cold state," with regards to anger, arousal, road rage, etc. (hint: always better to make decisions in a cold state, aka, not in-the-moment; this can be applied to interpersonal relationships as well as purchasing decisions)
  • Perceiving ownership: once you perceive ownership of a thing, it becomes a real loss psychologically to lose it, even if you never actually owned it. For example: bidding in an auction, you start to think of the thing as yours, emotionally disposing you to fight for it when another bidder outbids you - even though you don't own the item yet, you perceive a "loss" of the item when you're outbid. Other examples included having a 30-day free trial, or a money-back-guarantee.
  • Owners attribute higher value to an item than non-owners. For example, a house owner views his/her home with a higher value than a prospective buyer, partly because of their emotional investment. Same with a car. Dan proposed a goal challenging himself to approach everything as a non-owner. This is something I'll need to bear in mind next time I'm buying something expensive, or trying something out (such as right now, as I've engaged in a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime).
  • He oft used the word Orwellian, which is a phenomenal word and I must start using it more myself.
  • Regarding prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, " get what you pay for. Price can change the experience." (meaning psychologically, not in actual quality of the medicine)
  • They saw similar results in studies conducted with pain meds, drinking wine, and eating food - the presentation (such as using the right wine glass, or charging more for a brand-name medication) changes our perception of quality, even while in their double-blind taste tests of the same, participants reported no differences.

My favorite quotes

Humans rarely choose things in absolute terms. We don't have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly. For instance, we don't know how much a 6-cylinder car is worth, but we assume it's more expensive than the 4-cylinder model. - 22:27
Most people don't know what they want unless they see it in context. We don't know what kind of racing bike we want until we see a champ in the Tour de France ratcheting the gears on a particular model. We don't know what kind of speaker system we like until we hear a set of speakers that sounds better than the previous one. We don't even know what we want to do with our lives, until we find a relative or friend who is doing just what we think we should be doing. Everything is relative, and that's the point. Like an airplane pilot landing in the dark, we want runway lights on either side of us, guiding us to the place where we can touch down our wheels. In the case of The Economist, the decision between the Internet-only and print-only [subscription] options would take a bit of thinking. Thinking is difficult, and sometimes unpleasant, so The Economist's marketers offered us a no-brainer: relative to the print-only option, the print and Internet option looks clearly superior. The geniuses at The Economist aren't the only ones who understand the importance of relativity. Take Sam, the television salesman. He plays the same general type of trick on us when he decides which televisions to put together on display. A 36" Panasonic for $690, a 42" Toshiba for $850, a 50" Phillips for $1480. Which one would you choose? In this case, Sam knows that customers find it difficult to compute the value of different options. Who really knows if the Panasonic at $690 is a better deal than the Phillips at $1480? But Sam also knows that given three choices, most people will take the middle choice, as in landing your plane between the runway lights. So guess which television Sam prices as the middle option? That's right, the one he wants to sell. - 23:43
It has been shown repeatedly that the link between amount of salary and happiness is not as strong as one would expect it to be. In fact it is rather weak. Studies even find that countries with the happiest people are not among those with the highest personal income. Yet we keep pushing toward higher salary. Much of that can be blamed on sheer envy. As H. L. Mencken, the 20th century journalist, satirist, social critic, cynic, and free-thinker noted: "a man's satisfaction with his salary depends on" - are you ready for this - "whether he makes more than his wife's sister's husband." Why the wife's sister's husband? Because - and I have a feeling that Mencken's wife kept him fully informed of her sister's husband's salary - this is a comparison that is salient and readily available. Now that you know this fact, and assuming that you are not married, take this into account when you search for a soul-mate. Look for someone who's sibling is married to a productivity-challenged individual. - 46:37
...we can actively improve on our irrational behaviours. We can start by becoming aware of our vulnerabilities. Suppose you're planning to buy a cutting edge cell phone... or even a daily $4 cup of gourmet coffee. You might begin by questioning that habit. How did it begin? Second, ask yourself what amount of pleasure you'll be getting out of it? Is the pleasure as much as you thought you would get? Could you cut back a little and spend the remaining money better on something else? With everything you do, in fact, you should train yourself to question your repeated behaviors. In the case of the cell phone, could you take a step back from the cutting edge, reduce your outlay, and use some of the money for something else? And as for the coffee, rather than asking which blend of coffee you will have today, ask yourself whether you should even be having that habitual cup of expensive coffee at all. I am not claiming that spending money on a wonderful cup of coffee every day, or even a few times a day, is necessarily a bad decision. I am saying only that we should question our decisions. We should also pay particular attention to the first decision we make in what is going to be a long stream of decisions, about clothing, food, etc. When we face such a decision, it might seem to us that this is just one decision, without large consequences. But in fact, the power of the first decision can have such a long-lasting effect, that it will percolate into our future decisions for years to come. Given this effect, the first decision is crucial, and we should give it an appropriate amount of attention. - 1:31:36 can maintain the status quo with a 20 cent fee, as in the case of Amazon's shipping in France, or you can start a stampede by offering something free. Think how powerful that idea is. Zero is not just another discount. Zero is a different place. The difference between 2 cents and 1 cent is small, but the difference between 1 cent and zero is huge. - 2:05:51
Money, as it turns out, is very often the most expensive way to motivate people. Social norms are not only cheaper, but often more effective, as well. - 2:45:30
...understanding arousal's impact on behaviour might help society grapple with some of its most difficult problems, such as teen pregnancy, and the spread of HIV/AIDS. There are sexual motivations everywhere we look, and yet we understand very little about how these influence our decision-making. - 2:50:43
A recent study found that a teenager driving alone was 40% more likely to get into an accident than an adult. But with one other teenager in the car, the percentage was twice that. And with a third teenager along for the ride, the percentage doubled again. - 3:12:38
It may be that our models of human behaviour need to be rethought. There is no such thing as a fully integrated human being. We may, in fact, be an agglomeration of multiple selves. Although there is nothing much we can do to get our Dr Jekyll to fully appreciate the strength of our Mr Hyde, perhaps just being aware that we are prone to making the wrong decisions when gripped by intense emotion, may help us in some way to apply our knowledge of our Hyde-selves to our daily activities. How can we force our Hyde self to behave better? - 3:16:54
Interestingly, these results suggest that although almost everyone has problems with procrastination, those who recognize and admit their weakness are in a better position to utilize available tools for pre-commitment, and by doing so help themselves overcome it. - 3:29:48
Resisting temptation and instilling self-control are general human goals, and repeatedly failing to achieve them is a source of much of our misery. When I look around, I see people trying their best to do the right thing, whether they are dieters vowing to avoid a tempting dessert tray, or families vowing to spend less and save more. The struggle for control is all around us. We see it in books and magazine; radio and television airwaves are chocked with messages of self-improvement and help. And yet, for all this electronic chatter and focus in print, we find ourselves again and again in the same predicament as my students: failing over and over to reach our long term goals. Why? Because without pre-commitments we keep on falling for temptation. - 3:30:16
When it comes to medicines, then, we learned that you get what you pay for. Price can change the experience. - 5:30:46
If I were to distill one main lesson from the research described in this book, it is that we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver's seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the direction our life takes. But alas, this perception has more to do with our desires, with how we want to view ourselves, than with reality. - 7:17:22
A second main lesson is that although irrationality is commonplace, it does not necessarily mean that we are helpless. Once we understand when and where we may make erroneous decisions, we can try to be more vigilant, force ourselves to think differently about these decisions, or use technology to overcome our inherent shortcomings. - 7:19:22

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


Driving home from my lawyer, wrapped up in my own world's concerns, I drove past you. In fact I planned to blow right on through the next green light, desperately wanting to ignore what I knew already was the Spirit's nudge. Surrendering with an exasperated [and audible, to an empty car] "fine," I signaled right, pulled around the block, and found you where I'd seen you, leaned up against a sign pole.

I opened my passenger window and leaned over to hand you a bag of snacks; you leaned against my car to take it, shaking from the bitter cold. It's 2 degrees right now. Colder with windchill.

"It's too cold out here, man; you gotta get inside. Where are you gonna spend the night?"
"Don't know," you said, ignoring a snotsicle clinging on your mustache.
"I can give you a ride to a shelter," said I, foolishly and naively trusting. (thank you for not murdering me, by the way) You described your choices - one shelter was $15 for the month, another was free, over in St Paul. I said I'd pay the $15 if you wanted. You liked the one in St Paul better. Dorothy Day, you said it was called.

I unlock my car to you, a stranger, a stranger I picked up off the street. You stumble inside, battling unwilling legs, a dented cane, and layer upon layer of coats; I help you fasten your seat belt, because your hands are frozen, while my nose notices you've fill my car with the smell of smoke. But I guess that's your only relief from life, isn't it? I turn the fans on high, for the luke-warm air to thaw you; at least it's warmer than outside.

"You'll need to give me directions to the shelter, okay?" Huh. What you're describing sounds like the building I drive by every day on my way home from work. (and, turns out, it was)

What's your name?

Well, Gary, it's nice to meet you. You're a human being.

You said "thank God," and told me this was a God thing. You have no idea... or maybe you do... how right you are. I mean, I was ready to leave you behind, let you fend for yourself. Now I'm fighting back tears, my heart breaking as I listen to your story. You served in the marines, then the navy, for 19 years. Now for want of $25, your savings wasn't quite enough to pay your first month's rent at the new apartment building, and payday's 10 days away. You left your old one because you could smell the crystal meth they were making, and you've been clean so many years you couldn't let yourself go back to that lifestyle. So tonight you're homeless. But you're not bitter; and that amazes me.

Do you have a church you go to? No, but you're looking. What kind? A Baptist one. Hmm. I don't know many. You've been a Christian most of your life. Well... come check out mine?

Your stomach's starting to hurt. Maybe it's the cancer. I didn't quite follow all the details, just saw that you were in pain.

Nearing the shelter, I check my wallet. I don't usually carry cash, but I have exactly $25. Exactly the amount you need. It's yours. Yeah, I agree, it is a God thing.

You want my number? Here's my card. You say you'll call me tomorrow from the doctor's office, I think you want to prove to me that your story is real. I didn't say it to your face, but - I choose to believe you. I did say, though, that you're welcome at my church, and I can pick you up. Sounds like you might take me up on it.

As you leave, once again willing your legs over the rim of my car's doorway, you make it into a fully upright, and look back. I look into your eyes, again acknowledging your humanity. I sincerely meant it when I said it was a pleasure to meet you. Because you are an eye-opener for me.

I wait, watch to make sure you get inside without falling, then pull away.

Now I'm driving home. Run my hand through my hair. I don't know what to do with this experience. It affected me deep down, and I don't know how to handle it. I want to break down in sobbing. I want to fix it. I want to escape it because sitting with you in my [let's face it, rather luxurious] car was not just "kind of" awkward, it was full-on "my life's so easy compared to yours" awkward. My problems? I forgot all of them.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Sandwiches, and conscripting friends to help make bags for beggars

I saw a link on Facebook recently, titled "3 Ways to Responsibly and Compassionately Respond to Panhandling". If you can spare 5 minutes, take a hop over to read it (especially her suggestion #1).

Yesterday my morning church (Jacob's Well) had a "service service" where, instead of listening to a sermon, we made one thousand sandwiches for The Sandwich Project MN to give to people experiencing homelessness. With 100+ volunteers, it took only 20 minutes, and it was fun. Post-sandwich-making, we also watched a 5-minute clip about Allan Law, aka "the sandwich man", and a new documentary called the Starfish Throwers.

As I've written before, Beggars in Spain is one of my favorite books ever. The title refers to the conflict between productive and non-productive members of society, and within the book that conflict is manifested between genetically modified humans and those who aren't. Nevertheless there are parallels to be drawn to our modern day treatment of panhandlers and people experiencing homelessness. Life-altering to me were these quotes:

What the strong owe beggars is to ask each one why he is a beggar and act accordingly. Because community is the assumption, not the result. And only by giving non-productiveness the same individuality as excellence, and acting accordingly, does one fulfill the obligation to the beggars in Spain.
There are no permanent beggars in Spain. Or anywhere else. The beggar you give a dollar to today, might change the world tomorrow. Or become father to the man who will. Or grandfather, or great-grandfather. There is no stable ecology of trade, as I thought once, when I was very young. There is no stable anything, much less stagnant anything given enough time. And no non-productive anything either. Beggars are only gene lines temporarily between communities.

If you've ever ridden in my car, you may have noticed my back seat is always well-stocked with what I call my "homeless bags" (another name I've heard others use is "manna bags") - gallon ziplock baggies containing a water bottle, and various cereal bars and canned fruit. Near as I can tell, I started doing this around August of 2010, owing primarily to my discomfort of driving by a beggar on the side of the road and not being willing to give them money.

After leaving church yesterday, I planned to stop by Sam's Club and buy ingredients for another batch of 3 or 6 dozen bags. But my friend Matt had also texted asking if we could hang out. Since he's been gone the last several months I did want to spend time with him, so I was torn. Inspired by the service event at JW (and maybe a little inner-Tom Sawyer?), though, I told him what my plans had been, and suggested he could come over to help me put the bags together. To my surprise both he, and also our friend Joe, were happy to help! What would have taken me hours to do on my own, we accomplished in ... actually I didn't time it, but, way less time. For about $150, we made 70 bags.

Why do I write this? I hesitated because of Matthew 6:1-2, but on the other hand, service to others is integrally part of our Christian walk, and I think I've found one neat way of being those "hands and feet" we're always talking about (in our Christian-ese language). Because of that, I wanted to share it, and in turn, invite you, Reader, to contemplate where your own Calling is for service. It may or may not look anything like mine, and that's okay.

What I've found with the bag idea, is that very rarely have I handed one out and the person didn't appreciate it. A far more typical response is a deep and sincere "thank you". And oftentimes, I have a feeling they're thanking me for much more than the physical bag - they're saying "thank you for acknowledging I'm human," just like that article I linked to at the beginning of this post was talking about.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Celebrating my 29th birthday in Los Angeles

Earlier in December I visited friends out in sunny and warm California, and got to celebrate my birthday with them while I was there. This was the first time since college that I've celebrated my birthday away from home.

I've gone out to LA to visit friends at least once a year for the last four years, but this was my first at Christmas-time (usually it's been over Halloween) - I had no idea how beautifully decorated parts of the city would be! This trip also, I decided that rather than trying to see *everyone*, I'd focus on spending quantity time with my inner circle of friends, thus relieving a lot of stress I otherwise would have felt trying to schedule coffee and lunch dates with a dozen+ people.

During my trip, I had many great dinners with my close friends, many great conversations (me being me, we talked about God and theology a lot, of course!), saw some live music at the Republic of Pie coffeehouse, walked around the Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade, went to two church services and an international prayer service, hiked at two parks (Griffith and Millard Canyon), sat in the audience for a taping of Tim Allen's new show, "Last Man Standing", got a massage, went to the LA Zoo (twice - once in daylight, once for their Christmas lights show at night), went on the Paramount Studios backlot tour, saw part of Huntington Gardens, and meandered the Universal Studios CityWalk (sadly, my favorite street musician who plays Taylor Swift songs wasn't performing this year). Oh, and also spent one day on the couch with food poisoning. That sucked. But everything else was awesome!

A couple funny stories from my trip:

Room decorations

My first day, I landed early afternoon, grabbed my rental car, and found my friends Anne, Laura, and Brandon's new apartment. Anne was working that afternoon at Godiva, but Laura and Brandon were there to meet me. They showed me to my "room," a corner of the living room sectioned off by large foam panels and a bookcase. Inside was just enough room for a mattress and lamp, and then, of course, the shelves of the bookcase. It was pretty cool, actually. What made it awesome, though, were the decorations Brandon put up. Oh, sure, there was a nice photo of my friend Anne and myself from my first LA trip, but that couldn't possibly compete with these:

"Where is the tiger?"

After unpacking and grocery shopping, I left the apartment to meet everyone for dinner at the mall where Anne was working at Godiva. Bear in mind that made this my third-ever time driving this rental car, on basically unfamiliar roads (yes, I've driven them before, but that was over a year ago), and in rush-hour. While on I-5, barely a few minutes into my drive, my phone rings - it's my friend Janelle, who I would be hanging out with that weekend, and we needed to talk about plans. Now I knew that in California it's illegal to hold your phone while driving, so while going 60 miles an hour in traffic, I fought with my handsfree earbuds trying to untangle them and get them plugged into my phone, meanwhile I slided-to-answer and yelled at the phone, "hang on Janelle, I can't hear you yet", and also needed to take the exit to highway 134. Well, whew, I finally got the handsfree plugged in and got the phone switched back to maps so I knew where I needed to go.

It's been years since I visited the Glendale Galleria, and I don't think I drove last time, so everything was unfamiliar. I took the first parking ramp I could find, since I was still on the phone and traffic was heavy and I thought I was in the right place. Janelle and I finished our phone call, and I get out onto the sidewalk. Huh. I don't really see the mall. Checking my GPS, I see it should be a block away, so I start walking... then walk the other way because I was all turned around. I only vaguely remembered where I parked (a detail that will come into play later).

After a few minutes, I determine that the mall entrance must be behind the buildings I'm walking next to, and up ahead there's a street that goes between them. Aha! turns out that street is the Grove, an outdoor mall I remember from a previous trip, and I know it's right next to the indoor mall I'm looking for. I walk through it, admiring all the beautiful Christmas lights and water fountain synced with Christmas music:

Finally, I make it into the Galleria. At this point, I realize I don't know where Godiva is within the mall. No problem, I'll just find a directory.


After wandering back and forth over the entire first floor, I determine that Glendale Galleria has absolutely no mall directories anywhere. Dictating to Siri, I texted Anne:

ahhhhh I can't find a mall directory. Where is the tiger?
sigh. Thanks Siri. Where's Godiva not the tiger.

"Where is the tiger?" instantly became a running joke, to this day. Eventually I did find a directory (apparently there are only two in the whole mall), to discover I was, of course, on the opposite side of the mall, and the wrong floor, from Godiva. Upon arriving at the store, I meet up with Anne and Laura, and recount my adventure to them, wildly gesticulating as I demonstrate trying to untangle my earbud cable. At some point here, Anne had to grab something from the back room, and while she was gone, I became distracted by an ADORABLE teddy bear that Godiva sells, holding a bag of chocolates. You will see said bear in a later photo, because after the "incident of the grown man cuddling a Godiva plush toy," Anne bought him for me as a birthday present :)

"Where's my car?"

Our story continues. Anne and Laura and I leave Godiva, stop by a Lego store (oh my goodness there are SO many awesome Star Wars lego kits now!! Kids these days have it so good.), and I make a request that we go move my car, because I'm pretty sure the ramp I'm in is only free if you eat at one of the restaurants in the building it's attached to. Which ramp did I park in? Um. The one, you know, off the street, and there was a cross-walk by it.


We eventually found the right ramp, stopping at a nearby restaurant to validate my parking ticket, where the hostess didn't even bat an eye at my [factually true] story about being out of town and parking in the wrong ramp. In the right ramp finally, I tell Anne and Laura "I know I parked on the second level, but other than that, just keep an eye out for a white car." Immediately after saying this, I click my car remote, and a car not more than 10 or 15 feet away beeps at me. Oh. I guess we were standing practically right next to it. On the plus side, we found my car!

(side-note: I realized, driving the rental car, how much I miss my back-up camera in my car).

A tale in which everything is closed in honor of Jeremy's birthday

On my birthday (December 8), I met up with Bernadett and we got massages near her apartment, then grabbed lunch at this awesome build-your-own-pizza place (after returning to Minnesota, I learned from Joe that PizzaRev is a chain with locations in Minneapolis, but it was new to me at the time and I was giddy). Post-lunch everything became comically tragic. I drove us to the Getty Center (about a 40 minute trek), whereupon our arrival we learned they are closed on Mondays. I should have checked their website first, it just didn't occur to me. So we drove back to Burbank, and went to a Japanese friendship garden with a large pond of koi fish. The tea house in the middle of the garden, closed. The museum across the street, closed. I suggested, let's check out the zoo. We parked at about 3:30, got to the ticket counter at 3:45, and learned they would be closing at 5, and putting some of the larger animals away starting at 4. Stubbornly, I bought tickets anyway and told Bernadett "we are at least going to see some monkeys or something!" We ended up having a delightful time, got to see a LOT of monkeys (and none of them flung their poo at us!), giraffes, elephants, lions, koalas and wallabies (SO ADORABLE!!), etc. I do want to go back next trip and spend the whole day, but we closed the place down, and I felt vindicated that at least something had been open for my birthday.

Afterward we met up with Anne, Laura, and Melanie for my birthday dinner, where I received a surprise greeting card and gift card from my parents - Mom and Dad nefariously mailed it to Anne before my trip, so she hand-delivered it when we got to the restaurant. And this is also when Anne gave me the Godiva teddy bear, affectionately nicknamed "Tiger" :)

(Yes, my shirt does say "how to pick up chicks")

"Let's go for a hike by a waterfall"

My friend Jordan and I planned to go for a hike in Millard Canyon, where allegedly there is a cool waterfall. Our day started with some miscommunication about which gas station we were meeting at (literally, there were two 76 gas stations within a quarter-mile on the same road; for the record, I showed up at the right one). In retrospect, I should have recognized this ill-omen and suggested we go to Griffith Park instead, because I know the territory. Ignorant of the adventure about to befall us, we pressed on. I drove us to where both Google and Apple Maps said should be the entrance to the park. Except instead of a park entrance, we encountered a NASA guard station, where the kind gentleman informed us this land was now owned by NASA, and to get to the park we had to go a few miles around on a different road. When we got to what we thought was the other entrance, we parked and started walking, and quickly realized the mountain was at least several miles from where we were. Probably not at the right spot after all. Getting back in the car, we found a road that wound up the side of the mountain, in a residential area. Reaching the top, there... wasn't really anywhere to park, so we Googled, and learned that, again allegedly, the waterfall we were looking for was back down the foot of this mountain road, and up another one about 10 minutes drive away. I drove back down, stopped to take a picture (causing confusion for the car that appeared out of nowhere behind us), and we pressed on.

At long last, we found the "right" road, and proceeded up the twisty windy mountainside. Reaching the top, we came upon a small parking area, where we stopped briefly, determined we needed to drive further still to find this mythical waterfall, and so kept going. A very very short distance later, now driving down the backside of the hill, we found a spacious parking lot with less than half a dozen cars in it. We parked, and heard running water. Unfortunately we also spotted a sign that said "permit required" to park there. Seriously? Well, okay, where does one acquire said permit? Pulling up the park website, Jordan called their 800 number, and we learned we should have purchased a permit at a nearby gas station before driving up the hill. Already a little ill from motion sickness driving up the mountain, I was tempted to press our luck and risk a ticket, rather than driving back down and up again. The goodie-two-shoes in me won out, though, and we got back in the car.

When we came upon the first, smaller parking area, though, I suggested we stop and look for signs. Sure enough, there was no sign at all that said permit required. Now I was willing to risk a ticket, because if there's no sign, that to me sounds unenforceable. We were close enough to walk back down to where we'd heard the running water, and followed it for about 5 minutes. As I was saying "it sounds like it goes off to the right," we turned, and blocking our path was a fence, with a sign saying "area closed due to fire damage." But. But. But.

No waterfall for us.

We continued on the path a short distance more, and found, quite to my surprise, a family of deer:

Then, abandoning our original trail, we pursued one that appeared to go up the mountainside. Fortunately we didn't meet any bears, though we did find a couple random pieces of footwear, likely lost by the mountain-bikers whose tire-tread marks were carved deeply in the trail. An hour or more later, we happened upon a paved road. At this point, we had a choice: go back down the mountainside trail we'd hiked up, or take the paved road and see where it lead. I voted for the paved road, thinking we might have climbed high enough to be near where I'd parked. Sure enough, about 30 feet down the road, around a curve, we saw my car, thus creating another "Jeremy doesn't know where he parked and was practically standing right next to his car" moment. As an end to our hike, we found a scenic overlook near the car, so stopped for a while to chat.

After conversing a while, we departed and headed for lunch, where I was excited to be introduced to the Slaters 50/50 restaurant chain, known for their bacon-on-practically-everything menu (including, as I found out, a maple+bacon milkshake, which was DELICIOUS).

Those are the funniest stories from my trip. Here are some other photos:

Janelle and me at Griffith Park

(Hollywood sign visible immediately above my head)

Sunset from Griffith Park

Melanie's "welcome home" party

LA Zoo Light Show

As an aside, I actually went to the light show on my own, as all my friends were busy that evening. One of the life lessons I've learned is not to be afraid or feel shame about doing an activity by yourself.

Paramount Studios tour

Huntington Gardens with Anne

Universal Studios CityWalk

Monday, December 01, 2014

Audiobook reflection: Allegiant

Allegiant novel cover.jpg

Allegiant concludes the Divergent stories as, in my opinion, the most-quotable and thought-provoking installment of the trilogy, packed full of social commentary (not in a bad way), and with a reminder that no person is all-good or all-evil: every person / relationship / conflict / what-have-you has at least two sides to the story. It's also clear that Veronica Roth grew as a writer between her first and third books. This is not to say the first was "bad," it is simply to say her word choice and character development are significantly more advanced in book 3 than they were in book 1. Growth is a good thing.

Allegiant is the only book in the trilogy to alternate first-person narratives between Tris and Tobias, giving a new perspective into our characters. Without revealing too much in the way of spoilers, the storyline reminded me of a childhood favorite book of mine, called Running Out Of Time, as well as, again, the Hunger Games (though for different reasons this time than before). There was also an Orwellian (1984) element at play: whoever controls knowledge, controls history.

It took until 3 and a half hours into Allegiant before I finally caught the play-on-words of "Dauntless" and "daunting" (thanks to the character Zoe for cracking a joke about it, which finally clued me in after two and a quarter books of hearing the word; *hangs head in shame*).

Something I've loved about the Divergent series, that is particularly played out in Allegiant, is that [most] people are not clearly defined as good and bad. While some characters are clearly more good or more bad, even the most extreme characters have shades of gray, like in real life. For the ones who are "evil," you get to see a little bit into their perspective. Not that a rational person could justify their actions, but you at least understand their conviction and why *they* think they're doing the right thing. If I had to sum the book up into one "life lesson," I'd say it's about learning to see both sides of a conflict.

Speaking of conflict, I like that Tris and Tobias demonstrate what it's like to be in a "real" relationship: there are ups and downs and some days you hate the other person, but you still choose to fight to make that relationship work, and that is beautiful. And on a broader scope, the book drives home the bond of family and friends, reversing the oft-quoted mantra from book 1 that had proclaimed "faction before family."

Spoiler alert: a lot of people die in this book. Which leads to another point of interest: we watch two characters wrestle whether to drink a memory-loss serum that would cause them to forget their lives. For one character it's because he's ashamed of his past misdeeds; for the other it's to forget the intense pain of losing a loved one. It's a fascinating question: if you could forget all your memories of your loved one in order to make the pain go away, would you? (I guess there's already a movie about this, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind... which I hated).

In my opinion one mark of a "good" book is how emotionally connected I as reader become. I found myself grieving along with the characters during the story, and even after the book had ended - I ended up driving home almost in a state of mourning. Well done, Author.

As mentioned in my intro paragraph, this was the most quotable and thought-provoking book in the series. Holy cow did I pull a lot of quotes. Intended or not, I see a lot of commentary here about wealth and class inequality, political bickering and misdirection at the expense of serving society (I'm aiming at both sides of the aisle on that one), religious squabbling about issues of non-eternal relevance, and of course, good and evil. Not to be all Debbie-downer, though, I also see a lot of lessons here about what faith, love, patience, and forgiveness are about.

Allegiant ends with a world far from perfect, not the way I as reader would have wanted it to turn out, and yet full of hope. Life carries on, a new sense of normalcy is found again, even after deep losses. As in real life this doesn't mean you "get over it," but you can (and the characters do) find a new normal and ways to honor your loved one by pressing forward to live your life. In the quote list below, if you don't read all of them, at least read the final two.

My favorite quotes

Every question that can be answered must be answered, or at least engaged. Illogical thought processes must be challenged when they arise. Wrong answers must be corrected. Correct answers must be affirmed. - From the Erudite faction manifesto, 0:00:37
"I think I'd like to find a middle ground for myself," [Tobias] says. "To find that place between what I want and what I think is wise."
"That sounds good." I pause. "But what do you want?" - Tris, 0:42:00
New outfits can't erase the divisions between us. They are engrained. - Tris, 1:21:17
By the light of the flashlights I can just make out the tattoo of a hawk on the back of her neck, the first thing I spoke to her about when she administered my aptitude test. She told me it was a symbol of a fear she had overcome, a fear of the dark. I wonder if that fear still creeps up on her now, though she worked so hard to face it. I wonder if fears ever really go away, or if they just lose their power over us. - Tris, 2:05:59
It is all luck, or providence, depending on what you believe. And I don't know - have never known - exactly what I believe. - Tris, 2:11:50
"But there's so much that was a lie. It's hard to figure out what was true, what was real, what matters." [Tobias]
I take his hand, slipping my fingers between his. He touches his forehead to mine. I catch myself thinking, "Thank God for this" out of habit, and then I understand what he's so concerned about. What if my parents' God, their whole belief system, is just something concocted by a bunch of scientists to keep us under control? And not just their beliefs about God, and whatever else is out there, but about right, and wrong, about selflessness? Do all those things have to change because we know how our world was made? - Tris, 3:11:20
"It's the symbol of the Bureau of Genetic Welfare," she [Zoe] says. "The slab of stone is the problem we're facing, the tank of water is our potential for changing that problem, and the drop of water is what we're actually able to do at any given time."
I can't help it, I laugh. "Not very encouraging is it?"
She smiles. "That's one way of looking at it. I prefer to look at it another way, which is that if they are persistent enough, even tiny drops of water, over time, can change the rock forever, and it will never change back."
She points to the center of the slap where there is a small impression, like a shallow bowl, carved into the stone. "That, for example, wasn't there when they installed this thing."
I nod, and watch the next drop fall. Even though I'm wary of the Bureau and everyone in it, I can feel the quiet hope of the sculpture working its way through me. It's a practical symbol, communicating the patient attitude that has allowed the people here to stay for so long, watching, and waiting. But I have to ask. "Wouldn't it be more effective to unleash the whole tank at once?" I imagine the wave of water, colliding with the rock, and spilling over the tile floor, collecting around my shoes. Doing a little at once can fix something, eventually, but I feel like when you believe that something is truly a problem, you throw everything you have at it, because you just can't help yourself.
"Momentarily," she says. "But then we wouldn't have any water left to do anything else." - Tris and Zoe 3:24:52
"Do the colors of the uniforms mean anything?" I [Tris] ask Zoe.
"Yes, actually. Dark blue means scientist or researcher, and green means support staff. They do maintenance, upkeep, things like that."
"So they're like the factionless."
"No." She says. "No, the dynamic is different here. Everyone does what they can to support the mission. Everyone is valued and important." - 3:28:59
[During Tris's first plane ride:] And as I stare out at the land, I think that this, if nothing else, is compelling evidence for my parents' God. That our world is so massive that it is completely out of our control. That we cannot possibly be as large as we feel. So small, as to be negligible. It's strange, but there's something in that thought that makes me feel almost free. - 4:22:52
The division is based on knowledge, based on qualifications, but as I learned from the factionless, a system that relies on a group of uneducated people to do its dirty work without giving them a way to rise, is hardly fair. [Tobias]
"I think your girl's right, you know," Nita says. "Nothing has changed. Now you just have a better idea of your own limitations. Every human being has limitations, even GPs [Genetically Pure]." - 4:35:59
"Everyone has to blame something for the way the world is." - Tris, 5:07:09
"It's a little rudimentary, but this book helped to teach me what it is to be human," he says. "To be such a complicated mysterious piece of biological machinery, and more amazing still, to have the capacity to analyze that machinery. That is a special thing, unprecedented in all of evolutionary history. Our ability to know about ourselves and the world is what makes us human." - Matthew, 5:09:23
"Why do people come here, then?" I [Tobias] frown. "Why don't they just go back to the cities?"
"Here there's a chance that if you die, someone will care. Like Raffi or one of the other leaders," the guard says. "In the cities, if you get killed, definitely no one will give a damn, not if you're a GD [Genetically Damaged]. The worst crime I've ever seen a GP get charged with for killing a GD was manslaughter. Bullshit. ... It means the crime is deemed an accident. ... Or at least not as severe as, say, first degree murder. Officially, of course, we're all treated the same, yes? But that is rarely put into practice."
He [a guard] stands beside me, his arms folded. I see when I look at him a king surveying his own kingdom, which he believes is beautiful. I look out at the street, at the broken pavement and the limp body with its turned-out pockets, and the windows flickering with firelight, and I know the beauty he sees is just freedom. Freedom to be seen as a whole man instead of a damaged one. - Tobias, 5:49:24
She knew that the truth, whatever it was, would change our struggle, would shift our priorities forever. And here, now, a lie has changed the struggle, a lie has shifted priorities forever. Instead of working against the poverty or crime that have run rampant over this country, these people have chosen to work against "genetic damage." [Tobias]
"Why? Why spend so much time and energy fighting something that isn't really a problem?" I demand, suddenly frustrated.
"Well, the people fighting it now probably fight it because they have been taught that it *is* a problem. That's another thing that Raffi showed me, examples of the propaganda the government released about genetic damage," Nita says. "But initially, I don't know. It's probably a dozen things. Prejudice against GDs, control maybe? Control the genetically damaged population by teaching them that there's something wrong with them, and control the genetically pure population by teaching them that they're healed and whole. These things don't happen overnight, and they don't happen for just one reason." [Nita] - 5:55:20
" matter how smart, people usually see what they're already looking for." - Tris, 6:01:15
I know I'm fumbling for an explanation, one I may not really believe, but I say it anyway. "I guess, I don't see a reason to believe in genetic damage. Will it make me treat other people better? No. The opposite maybe. And besides, I see what it's doing to Tobias, how it's making him doubt himself, and I don't understand how anything good can possibly come from it." - Tris, 6:01:32
"...everyone has some evil inside them, and the first step to loving anyone, is to recognize the same evil in ourselves, so we're able to forgive them." - Caleb, quoting his and Tris's mother, 6:28:21
"You know what the Abnegation used to say about pride?" [Tris]
"Something unfavorable, I assume?" [Kara]
I laugh.
"Obviously. They said it blinds people to the truth of what they are." - Tris, 7:10:49
David sits in a wheelchair, his legs covered in a stiff material, to keep the bones in place so they can heal, I assume. He looks pale, and wan, but healthy enough. Though I know that he had something to do with the attack simulation and with all those deaths, I find it difficult to pair those actions with the man I see in front of me. I wonder if this is how it is with all evil men, that to someone, they look just like good men, talk like good men, are just as likable as good men." - Tris, 7:26:00
"If I was a psychopath, I would have killed you in your sleep by now." [Peter]
"And added my eyeballs to your eyeball collection, no doubt." [Tobias]
Peter laughs, too, and I realize that I am exchanging jokes and conversation with the initiate who stabbed Edward in the eye and tried to kill my girlfriend... but then, he's also the Dauntless who helped us end the attack simulation and saved Tris from a horrible death. I am not sure which actions should weigh more heavily on my mind. Maybe I should forget them all and let him begin again. - Tobias, 7:38:40
Evelyn tried to control people by controlling weapons, but Jeanine was more ambitious. She knew that when you control information or manipulate it, you don't need force to keep people under your thumb. They stay there willingly. - Tris, 7:58:54
"...anytime you mash two different people against each other, you'll get problems. But I can see that what you guys have is worthwhile." - Amar, 8:15:48
"I thought I was supposed to figure out if I could forgive you or not. But now, I'm thinking you didn't do anything to me that I need to forgive. Except maybe accusing me of being jealous of Nita.... If we stay together, I'll have to forgive you over and over again, and if you're still in this, you'll have to forgive me over and over again, too." - Tris, 8:31:14
They're similar, Kara and Tris. Two women sharpened by loss. The difference is that Kara's pain has made her certain of everything, and Tris has guarded her uncertainty, protected it, despite all she's been through. She still approaches everything with a question instead of an answer. It is something I admire about her. Something I should probably admire more. - Tobias, 8:44:01
"There is a difference between admitting and confessing. Admitting involves softening, making excuses for things that cannot be excused. Confessing just names the crime in its full severity." - Kara, 9:07:07
Just as I have insisted on his worth, he has always insisted on my strength. Insisted that my capacity is greater than I believe. And I know, without being told, that's what love does. When it's right, it makes you more than you were, more than you thought you could be. - Tris, 9:25:30
I cycle through the things you're supposed to say at times like these. The apologies and the sympathy. I don't find a single phrase that feels right to me. Instead I just let the silence stretch out between us. It's the only adequate response to what he just told me, the only thing that does the tragedy justice instead of patching it up hastily and moving on. - Tobias, 9:44:27
"Have you really forgiven me? Or are you just saying that you have because I'm about to die?" [Caleb]
I stare at my hands, which rest in my lap. I have been able to be kind and pleasant to him because every time I think of what happened in Erudite headquarters, I immediately push the thought aside. But that can't be forgiveness. If I had forgiven him, I would be able to think of what happened without that hatred I can feel in my gut, right? Or maybe forgiveness is just the continual pushing aside of bitter memories, until time dulls the hurt, and the anger, and the wrong is forgotten. For Caleb's sake, I choose the believe the latter.
"Yes. I have," I say. I pause. "Or at least, I desperately want to, and I think that might be the same thing." - Tris, 10:05:25
I know that change is difficult, and comes slowly, and that it is the work of many days strung together in a long line until the origin of them is forgotten. - Tobias, 10:44:47
Maybe just as skin on a hand grows tougher after pain and repetition, a person does, too. But I don't want to become a calloused man. There are other kinds of people in this world. There's the kind like Tris, who after suffering and betrayal could still find enough love to lay down her life instead of her brother's. Or the kind like Kara, who could still forgive the person who shot her brother in the head. Or Christina, who lost friend after friend but still decided to stay open, to make new ones. Appearing in front of me is another choice, brighter and stronger than the ones I gave myself. - Tobias, 11:24:15
There are so many ways to be brave in this world. Sometimes bravery involves laying down your life for something bigger than yourself, or for someone else. Sometimes it involves giving up everything you have ever known, or everyone you have ever loved for the sake of something greater. But sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it is nothing more than gritting your teeth through pain and the work of every day, the slow walk toward a better life. - Tobias, 11:25:40
"Sometimes life really sucks. But you know what I'm holding on for? .... The moments that don't suck. The trick is to notice them when they come around." - Christina, 11:49:17
Since I was young I have always known this: life damages us, everyone. We can't escape that damage. But now I am also learning this: we can be mended. We mend each other. - Tobias, 11:49:45