Thursday, November 20, 2014

Audiobook reflection: Insurgent

Where Divergent felt coherent and driven, it's sequel, Insurgent, felt like reading about the Israelites in the book of Exodus: numerous semi-disconnected mini-stories, lacking a definitive destination. On the other hand though, and also like Exodus, sometimes it's nice reading chaotic, my-world's-falling-apart-around-me stories like this, because I'm reminded just how little I actually have to worry about in my life, and how even my most-distressing problems pale in comparison to what these characters face. I mean, yes, of course it's fiction, but still it's a nice reminder.

On the positive-feedback side: something that stood out to me in particular were the occasional references to God, and even a couple prayers. Hundreds of years in the future, faith still exists.

And I have a new favorite insult I hope I get to use in real life: "pansy-cake."

Lastly, I'm sure you've noticed every author has a favorite word or two that they overuse? Veronica's favorite (and overused) word is "breaths". Odd, but there it is.


My favorite quotes

"We have before us today an urgent question... how will we conduct ourselves in this time of conflict, as people who pursue peace?"
Every Amity in the room turns to the person next to him or her, and starts talking.
"How do they get anything done?" I say as the minutes of chatter wear on.
"They don't care about efficiency," Tobias says. "They care about agreement. Watch."
Two women in yellow dresses a few feet away rise, and join a trio of men. A young man shifts so that his small circle becomes a large one with the group next to him. All around the room, the smaller crowds grow and expand, and fewer and fewer voices fill the room, until there are only three or four. I can only hear pieces of what they say. "Peace." "Dauntless." "Erudite." "Safehouse." "Involvement."
"This is bizarre," I say.
"I think it's beautiful," he says.
I give him a look.
"What?" He laughs a little. "They each have an equal role in government. They each feel equally responsible. And it makes them care. It makes them kind. I think that's beautiful." - 26:45
The truth has a way of changing a person's plans. - 43:03
"It's wrong," he says [referring to Tris's parents' deaths]. "It doesn't matter if your parents are in a better place. They aren't here with you, and that's wrong, Tris. It shouldn't have happened. It shouldn't have happened to you. And anyone who tells you it's okay is a liar." - Tobias, 1:06:27
I read somewhere once that crying defies scientific explanation. Tears are only meant to lubricate the eyes, there's no real reason for tear glands to overproduce tears at the behest of emotion. I think we cry to release the animal parts of us without losing our humanity... - 7:28:11
"Spoken like a true Dauntless... It's either one way or the other. No nuances. The world doesn't work like that, Beatrice. Evil depends on where you're standing." - Caleb, 8:04:12
...it occurs to me that I might be meeting Tobias's true faction. They are not characterized by a particular virtue. They claim all colors, all activities, all virtues, and all flaws as their own. I don't know what binds them together, the only common ground they have as far as I know is failure. Whatever it is, it seems to be enough. I feel as I look at him that I am finally seeing him as he is, instead of how he is in relation to me. So how well do I really know him if I have not seen this before? - 8:58:51
All I can do is decide if I trust Marcus or not. And while he has done cruel, evil things, our society is not divided into good and bad. Cruelty does not make a person dishonest, the same way bravery does not make a person kind. Marcus is not good or bad, but both. Well, he is probably more bad than good, but that doesn't mean he's lying. - 9:08:31
I was worried she wouldn't want to come with me, but I forgot where Christina came from. Candor, where the pursuit of Truth is more important than anything else. She may be Dauntless now, but if there's one thing I've learned through all this, it's that we never leave our old factions behind. - 9:21:58
"When you are entrusted with all the information you have to decide how much other people should know." - Marcus, 9:29:33
"May the peace of God be with you," she says, her voice low. "Even in the midst of trouble."
"Why would it?" I say softly, so no one else can hear. "After all I've done."
"It isn't about you," she says. "It is a gift. You cannot earn it, or it ceases to be a gift." - 9:36:37
People, I've discovered, are layers and layers of secrets. You believe you know them, that you understand them, but their motives are always hidden from you, buried in their own hearts. You will never know them, but sometimes you decide to trust them. - 11:01:33
"Do remember, though, that sometimes the people you oppress become mightier than you would like." - Johanna Reyes, 11:10:50

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Audiobook reflection: Divergent

I'm stumped how I managed to remain oblivious to the world of Divergent for so long, but that changed a month ago when, in a craving for SciFi, I bumped the DVD to the top of my Netflix queue. As I reclined on my couch, teacup in hand, my friend Joe called and when I told him what I was watching, he emphatically informed me it was a great movie and I'd enjoy it. He was 100% correct. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I watched it two nights in a row. Upon learning from the credits that the movie was based on a book, I checked Audible for an audiobook, and in short order had acquired the entire trilogy.

Written by Veronica Roth and published in 2011, Divergent follows the life of Tris, a 16-year-old girl living in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, hundreds of years in our future. Her dystopian society is divided into five Factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite, each identified by particular traits and societal roles. For example, the Abnegation are selfless servants to the poor (the factionless) as well as government officials; the Erudite are the scientists and scholars; the Dauntless are the soldiers; the Candor are 100% honest, 100% of the time; and the Amity are peace-loving farmers. Tris is born into Abnegation, but on "choosing day," leaves behind that life and becomes Dauntless.

(Side-note: I just discovered the author, Veronica, is three years younger than I am. What am I doing with my life?!)

Divergent lives in the same dystopian family of books as The Hunger Games, a genre that may well be my favorite. My Candor opinion is that while the Divergent book was certainly good, it felt scattered when compared against its cinematic counterpart. What I appreciated about the movie over the book (in addition to an awesome soundtrack) was 1) a smoother, easier-to-follow flow of events, 2) they toned down the violence, and 3) they make Tris stronger and more heroic (for example, her refusal to be kicked out of Dauntless, which strictly speaking wasn't in the book). On the other hand, as is always the case, the book gives much deeper insight into character motivations, which you simply can't capture on camera.

(For a general list of differences between book and movie, check out http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Divergent-10-Big-Differences-Between-Movie-Book-42202.html and a complete list of all the differences at http://divergent.wikia.com/wiki/Divergent_Book_to_Film_Differences.)

I think one sign of a good book is whether it engages the reader to the point of asking, "where would I fit into this story, if I lived in this book's world?" (For example in Harry Potter I'd be sorted into Ravenclaw). I pondered this question as I listened to Divergent, and came to the conclusion my in-world aptitude test would yield either Erudite or Abnegation. Or, possibly, like Tris, I'd find affinity with both, and be labeled Divergent.

Unlike Tris, I doubt I would fit into Dauntless, although I do admire some of what the faction stands for. An excerpt from the Dauntless manifesto: (lifted from http://divergent.wikia.com/wiki/Dauntless)
We believe in freedom from fear, in denying fear the power to influence our decisions.
We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.
We believe in shouting for those who can only whisper, in defending those who cannot defend themselves.
We believe, not just in bold words but in bold deeds to match them.

One might argue those attributes are rather Christ-like. Which is a good segue here. Something else I loved about Divergent was that Tris's family mentions God, her father prayed before meals, and Tris's outlook on the world is influenced, to some degree, by this faith. At the same time, it's not overt and the author doesn't beat us over the head, it's just a tiny treasure tucked into the pages.

Lastly, I've noticed my mood is affected by the books I read, and Divergent in particular made me more willing to face fears. For example, my friends and I went to ValleyScare on Halloween, and other than my fear of un-enclosed heights on the PowerTower, the rides that used to intimidate me when I was younger, didn't; instead I was all, "yeah, let's do that!" Also I really don't like haunted houses, but I faced that fear as well (even tried asking out one of the cuter zombies for a drink of brainz, but she declined). Knowing my friend Anne dresses as a zombie performer for similar events out in LA, helped me keep focused that these were all just actors doing a job. I digress. Point being, in small ways, Divergent made me feel more brave.

And lastly lastly because I just remembered there was more I wanted to say: this novel carries important social commentaries, which I'm sure are dependent on each reader's individual worldview, but my takeaways were 1) a re-affirmation about how crucial is community (first quote below, which also reminded me of Beggars in Spain); and 2) a reminder about the complexity of society and how it truly "takes all kinds" to run the world - scientists, farmers, peacekeepers, caretakers, etc. No single faction of people has the complete set of skills necessary for a functional community.


My favorite quotes

"To live factionless is not just to live in poverty and discomfort, it is to live divorced from society, separated from the most important thing in life: community. My mother told me once that we can't survive alone, but even if we could, we wouldn't want to. Without a faction, we have no purpose, and no reason to live." - Tris, 27:59
"The houses on my street are all the same size and shape. They are made of grey cement, with few windows, in economical non-nonsense rectangles. Their lawns are crabgrass, and their mailboxes are dull metal. To some the sight might be gloomy, but to me their simplicity is comforting. The reason for the simplicity isn't disdain for uniqueness, as the other factions have sometimes interpreted it. Everything, our houses, our clothes, our hairstyles, is meant to help us forget ourselves, and to protect us from vanity, greed, and envy, which are just forms of selfishness. If we have little, and want for little, we are all equal, we envy no one. I try to love it." - Tris, 38:43
"My natural tendency toward sarcasm is still not appreciated. Sarcasm is always at someone's expense. Maybe it's better that Abnegation wants me to suppress it. Maybe I don't have to leave my family. Maybe if I fight to make Abnegation work, my act will turn into reality." - Tris, 39:50
"We sit at the table. We always pass food to the right, and no one eats until everyone is served. My father extends his hands to my mother and my brother, and they extend their hands to him and me, and my father gives thanks to God for food, and work, and friends and family. Not every Abnegation family is religious, but my father says we should try not to see those differences because they will only divide us. I am not sure what to make of that." - Tris, 45:43
"Would it be worth my effort to try to help her, if I know I'm too weak to do any good? I know what those questions are: Excuses. 'Human reason can excuse any evil. That is why it's so important that we don't rely on it.' My father's words." - Tris, 2:23:59
"I suggest you take this time to formulate a strategy. We may not be Erudite, but mental preparedness is one aspect of your Dauntless training. Arguably it is the most important aspect." - Four
He is right about that. What good is a prepared body if you have a scattered mind? - Tris, 3:14:16
"He is not sweet, or gentle, or particularly kind, but he is smart, and brave. And even though he saved me, he treated me like I was strong. That is all I need to know." - Tris, 6:35:14

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Audiobook reflection: The Time Traveler's Wife

The Time Traveler's Wife, written by Audrey Niffenegger and published in 2003, is a romantic drama about a time traveler and his wife (go figure). To fantastically over-simplify the plot: Henry has a genetic disorder called chrono-impairment, which forces him to travel through time, and he has no control over 1) when he leaves the present, 2) when he arrives in the past, 3) how long he stays there [though it's rarely more than a few hours/days], and 4) how much time has passed when he arrives back in the present. In his travels he is always drawn toward people and events that are significant in his life, for example his younger self, his parents, and his to-be wife, Clare, throughout her childhood. The first-person narrative alternates between Clare's and Henry's voices.

When I saw the movie years ago, I had no idea it had been a book first. After learning this, I was excited to experience the written rendition, since I loved the movie, and I know books are usually better than their movies. Upon finishing the novel, though, I think I've found another rare exception where the book !> movie.

My three primary complaints are:

  1. The book was just plain vulgar, much moreso than I expected from my memories of the movie. The author's favorite word started with an "f" and rhymed with "firetruck", which, even if it is vernacular, I generally view as a lewd lack of creativity.
  2. The book was in no hurry to get anywhere. While cutting the page count in half might sound extreme, I nevertheless left with the feeling the author had crammed a 10-hour story into one 17.5 hours long. (yes, you read that sentence correctly).
  3. (Spoiler alert) After Henry's death there is a heart-breaking scene where Clare is raped by her best friend's husband, and she's too emotionally devastated from losing Henry to resist this douche-tool's advances. This scene was omitted from the movie, so it caught me completely off-guard; and frankly I don't see why the author felt compelled to include it - the story would be no less complete without it.

On the other hand, things I did like:

  1. TTTW is a love story that happens to have a science fiction element, rather than the other way around. Once you accept the premise, the characters respond to each other realistically.
  2. Every chapter opens with a date and the characters' ages ("Henry is 32, Clare is 24"), which makes following Henry's time travel infinitely easier.
  3. From Henry and Clare's daughter I've collected another name for my list-of-possible-kids'-names: Alba. When we meet her late in the book at the age of 10, she's clear-spoken and wise beyond her years, and so I really like her character as a namesake. (as you probably know I'm hoping to adopt, in which case I don't think they let you rename the child(ren), but hypothetically if my future wife strongly desires bio-kids, then I'm keeping a list of names I'd advocate for).
  4. (Spoiler alert) The final scene in the book is beautiful, and a tearjerker. Clare, 82, stares out a window, waiting for Henry, waiting for a moment she knows will come because of a letter Henry left for her before his death. In his letter Henry implored Clare: "Until then, live. Fully. Present in the world, which is so beautiful." We are left to our own imaginations whether Clare ever fell in love again, married or raised Alba as a single-parent, or continued waiting on Henry. No matter Clare's path, the author gives the reader a gift of [partial] closure via this one last meeting of Henry and Clare. For anyone who's ever longed for a lover's return, the Truth and Hope found in this scene are palpable.

As alluded, both book and movie have sad endings, though it is sadness mixed with hope, reminding me of my emotions at the end of Bridge to Terabithia, Star Wars III, and The Fault In Our Stars (off the top of my head).


My favorite quotes

Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Clare is 30, Henry is 38.
I wake up at 6:43, and Henry is not in bed. .... In the living room, Henry is sitting on the couch with Alba cradled in his arms, not watching the little black and white television with the sound turned low. Alba is asleep. I sit down next to Henry. He puts his arm around me.
"How come you're up?" I ask him. "I thought you said it wasn't for a couple of hours yet."
On the TV a weatherman is smiling and pointing at a satellite picture of the midwest.
"I couldn't sleep," Henry says. "I wanted to listen to the world being normal for a little while longer." - 13:21:26
"Do you worry sometimes that all the really great stuff has already happened?" - Clare, 14:09:20
"Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas, I invoke you, almost-deadly birds of the soul." - Clare (remembering something Henry quoted), 15:45:30
"We will see each other again, Clare. Until then, live. Fully. Present in the world, which is so beautiful. It's dark now and I am very tired. I love you, always. Time is nothing. Henry." Henry's letter to Clare after his death, 17:06:50

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Audiobook reflection: Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Co-written by John Green and David Levithan, WGWG follows two high school boys both named Will Grayson, each of their narratives penned by one of the authors. By the second paragraph of the second chapter, I already was hooked by Will Grayson #1, and deeply loathed sailor-mouthed will grayson #2. (side-note: I listened to the audiobook, and so it's only now after reading the Wikipedia article that I've learned the second will grayson's name apparently never is capitalized). Despite my intense initial hatred of wg2, within short order the authors had captivated me, enthralling me in the emotional ups and downs of all the main characters, even beyond the two Will Graysons. The book particularly excelled at hilarious hyperbole: every metaphor surrounding Tiny Cooper (WG1's best friend) was delightful, to the extent of me giggling out loud more than a few times. Tiny Cooper, as you might expect from his name, is a physically ginormous human being, and the authors missed no opportunities to exploit humor from his gargantuan stature. Just one example: "I notice Tiny looking blankly at me, swaying back and forth like a skyscraper in the wind..." (31:35 in the audiobook).

Pencil-whipping here, but I'd argue one metric for defining whether a book is "good" ought to be: am I, the Reader, invested enough in the characters' lives that I care about what happens after the narrative ends? (coming to mind: Hazel Grace from The Fault In Our Stars yearned, longed, to learn the fates of her beloved characters from her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction). My answer here is: yes. If there were a sequel, I'd give it a listen. By the end even wg2 had weaseled his way into my heart. I was also proven wrong about Tiny Cooper, whom I'd initially pegged (and dismissed) as über-annoying and one-dimensional; the boy has wisdom beyond his high school years. Oh, and one more thing about Tiny: through the WGWG book, he's busy producing (and eventually starring in) a musical about his life. Coming up in March 2015 David Levithan will publish "Hold me closer: the Tiny Cooper Story," the complete in-story musical, which should be entertaining, and also, an excuse to keep hanging out with these characters I've loved.


My favorite quotes

I don't really understand the point of crying. Also, I feel that crying is almost like, aside from deaths of relatives or whatever, totally avoidable if you follow two very simple rules. Number 1: don't care too much. Number 2: shut up. Everything unfortunate that has ever happened to me has stemmed from failure to follow one of the rules. - 4:05
And I say, "you can trust that caring, as a rule, ends poorly." Which is true. Caring doesn't sometimes lead to misery, it always does. "My heart is broken," Tiny says, as if the thing has never happened before to him. As if it has never happened before to anyone. And maybe that's the problem. Maybe each new breakup feels so radically new to Tiny that in some way it hasn't happened before. - 28:37
He's still looking at me quizzically, when, sounding stone sober he [Tiny] says, "Grayson, something needs to happen." And I say, "huh?" And Tiny says, "because otherwise, what if we just end up like everybody at The Hideout?" And I'm about to say "huh" again, because those people were far cooler than our classmates, and also far cooler than us, but then I know what he means. He means, what if we become grown-ups waiting for a band that's never coming back? - 31:00

And what I appreciated most of all, came in the authors' acknowledgements after the closing chapter:

We acknowledge that being the person God made you cannot separate you from God's love. - 7:50:22

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Audiobooks

Since [re-]discovering the world of audiobooks three years ago, I've "read" 76 books, for a grand total of 777 hours and 29 minutes. I think "rediscovered" is a fair word to use because I know that when I was little I listened to Winnie-the-Pooh books on cassette tape, in fact so often that I wore the tapes out! My return came from lacking sufficient paperback reading time in my calendar, whereas with audiobooks I can listen while driving, doing dishes, mowing the lawn, and, thanks to a recent purchase of a waterproof bluetooth speaker, even while I shower. Combined between all these activities, I typically listen for over an hour every day. The books I've "read" have ranged in length anywhere between 5 to 20+ hours, though most are around 10-12. The complete stories of Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, will be 71 hours, when I eventually get around to it.

Past titles gracing my eardrums have included: the Hunger Games trilogy (my first listen in my re-introduction to audiobooks), the Star Wars Grand Admiral Thrawn trilogy (and numerous other Star Wars titles), classics like 1984, 2001, Fahrenheit 451 (irony?), and How to Win Friends and Influence People, theologically-oriented books by Rob Bell and Timothy Keller and others, and a large number of SciFi/urban fantasy novels, such as the Mercy Thompson series, and one of my new all-time favorites: Beggars in Spain. I'm currently reading Insurgent, the second book in the Divergent trilogy.

Lest you accuse me of cheating because I'm not risking paper cuts by turning physical pages, I will respond by pointing you to a blog post written by family friend and author Michelle Griep, after I asked her whether my affair with audiobooks could be considered a legitimate form of "reading": http://writerofftheleash.blogspot.com/2014/07/are-audiobooks-kosher.html.

We'll see how long I keep up with this idea, but I'm hoping to write a short reflection upon finishing each book. It may include some of my favorite quotes or just my overall impression, I'm not sure. I'd simply like something tangible to look back on in a few years when I ask myself, "I know I read it, but what was that book about?" Coming up soon: posts on my most-recently-read books, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, The Time Traveler's Wife, and Divergent.

And coming up immediately: a complete table of the audiobooks I've read to-date!

Title Author Length Date finished
Divergent Veronica Roth 11:11:43 11/2/14
The Time Traveler's Wife Audrey Niffenegger 17:38:11 10/28/14
Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green, David Levithan 7:52:14 10/19/14
Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness Jessica Valenti 5:16:47 10/16/14
2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke 6:42:51 10/13/14
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky 6:20:06 10/11/14
Boundaries Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend 11:00:03 10/7/14
I Am Number Four: The Lost Files: Hidden Enemy Pittacus Lore 7:55:48 9/21/14
The Revenge of Seven: Lorien Legacies, Book 5 Pittacus Lore 9:59:32 9/18/14
Star Wars: Darth Plagueis James Luceno 14:45:34 9/13/14
Star Wars: Clone Wars Gambit: Siege Karen Miller 12:42:09 9/3/14
Star Wars: Clone Wars Gambit: Stealth Karen Miller 12:08:49 8/28/14
Every Man's Marriage Stephen Arterburn, Fred Stoeker, Mike Yorkey 8:26:36 8/20/14
Mockingjay Part 2 Suzanne Collins 5:41:06 8/6/14
Mockingjay Part 1 Suzanne Collins 6:00:08 8/3/14
Catching Fire Part 2 Suzanne Collins 5:40:49 7/31/14
Catching Fire Part 1 Suzanne Collins 5:58:16
Beggars Ride Nancy Kress 15:31:03 7/20/14
The Hunger Games Part 2 Suzanne Collins 5:39:33 7/9/14
The Hunger Games Part 1 Suzanne Collins 5:32:05 7/5/14
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Mark Haddon 6:02:44 7/2/14
Every Man's Battle Stephen Arterburn, Fred Stoeker 6:45:12 6/27/14
Beggars and Choosers Nancy Kress 12:07:47 6/22/14
Kenobi: Star Wars John Jackson Miller 13:36:39 6/14/14
Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown Joe Schreiber 12:20:09 6/8/14
The Fault in Our Stars John Green 7:14:24 6/2/14
Allegiance: Star Wars Timothy Zahn 12:46:52 5/30/14
Vision of the Future: Star Wars (The Hand of Thrawn): Book II Timothy Zahn 26:16:22 5/19/14
Star Wars: Specter of the Past: The Hand of Thrawn, Book 1 Timothy Zahn 14:31:45 5/6/14
The Meaning of Marriage Timothy Keller 8:15:47 4/30/14
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas John Scalzi 7:41:56 4/12/14
The Book of General Ignorance John Mitchinson, John Lloyd 4:20:34 4/3/14
Beggars in Spain Nancy Kress 16:10:52 3/30/14
Night Broken: Mercy Thompson, Book 8 Patricia Briggs 10:06:01 3/20/14
How to Get a Date Worth Keeping Henry Cloud 7:08:12 3/14/14
If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat John Ortberg 7:51:15 2/12/14
Secret Histories: I Am Number Four: The Lost Files Pittacus Lore 8:23:36 12/22/13
I Am Number Four: The Lost Files: The Legacies Pittacus Lore 7:53:45 12/15/13
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Matthew Stover 13:39:13 12/9/13
The Lean Startup Eric Ries 8:38:46 11/7/13
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones R.A. Salvatore 10:21:19 10/8/13
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace Terry Brooks 9:33:59 9/11/13
The Fall of Five: Lorien Legacies, Book 4 Pittacus Lore 9:06:59 9/3/13
Halfway to the Grave Part 2 Jeaniene Frost 5:21:19 5/17/13
Halfway to the Grave Part 1 Jeaniene Frost 5:56:53 5/13/13
Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Book 3: The Last Command Part 3 Timothy Zahn 5:28:49 5/9/13
Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Book 3: The Last Command Part 2 Timothy Zahn 5:15:39 5/7/13
Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Book 3: The Last Command Part 1 Timothy Zahn 5:04:28 5/5/13
Star Wars: Dark Force Rising: The Thrawn Trilogy, Book 2 Part 2 Timothy Zahn 7:31:52 5/3/13
Star Wars: Dark Force Rising: The Thrawn Trilogy, Book 2 Part 1 Timothy Zahn 7:25:14 4/29/13
Star Wars: Heir to the Empire: The Thrawn Trilogy, Book 1 Part 2 Timothy Zahn 6:23:30 4/23/13
Star Wars: Heir to the Empire: The Thrawn Trilogy, Book 1 Part 1 Timothy Zahn 6:46:56 4/20/13
Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury 5:37:21 4/16/13
The Autobiography of Black Hawk Black Hawk 3:33:58 4/13/13
The Shack William P. Young 8:31:26 4/11/13
Fair Game: Alpha and Omega Part 2 Patricia Briggs 5:13:51 4/4/13
Fair Game: Alpha and Omega Part 1 Patricia Briggs 4:44:48 4/2/13
Hunting Ground Patricia Briggs 8:25:24 3/31/13
What We Talk About When We Talk About God Rob Bell 4:25:20 3/25/13
Cry Wolf Part 2 Patricia Briggs 5:16:44 3/18/13
Cry Wolf Part 1 Patricia Briggs 4:47:34 3/17/13
Alpha and Omega: A Novella from On the Prowl Patricia Briggs 2:25:11 3/14/13
Frost Burned: Mercy Thompson, Book 7 Part 2 Patricia Briggs 4:30:54 3/11/13
Frost Burned: Mercy Thompson, Book 7 Part 1 Patricia Briggs 5:32:08 3/9/13
River Marked: Mercy Thompson, Book 6 Patricia Briggs 8:54:38 2/28/13
Silver Borne: Mercy Thompson, Book 5 Part 2 Patricia Briggs 4:10:13 2/17/13
Silver Borne: Mercy Thompson, Book 5 Part 1 Patricia Briggs 4:55:38 2/15/13
Bone Crossed: Mercy Thompson, Book 4 Part 2 Patricia Briggs 4:32:22 2/12/13
Bone Crossed: Mercy Thompson, Book 4 Part 1 Patricia Briggs 4:36:22 2/6/13
Iron Kissed: Mercy Thompson, Book 3 Part 2 Patricia Briggs 4:33:04 2/3/13
Iron Kissed: Mercy Thompson, Book 3 Part 1 Patricia Briggs 4:39:52 2/3/13
Blood Bound: Mercy Thompson, Book 2 Part 2 Patricia Briggs 4:28:39 2/1/13
Blood Bound: Mercy Thompson, Book 2 Part 1 Patricia Briggs 5:34:33 1/30/13
That Is All Part 3 John Hodgman 4:58:32 1/27/13
That Is All Part 2 John Hodgman 5:39:19 1/25/13
That Is All Part 1 John Hodgman 6:00:14 1/18/13
Moon Called Part 2 Patricia Briggs 4:38:33 1/12/13
Moon Called Part 1 Patricia Briggs 4:36:32 1/10/13
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived Rob Bell 3:39:27 1/7/13
The Rise of Nine Part 2 Pittacus Lore 4:29:04 8/28/12
The Rise of Nine Part 1 Pittacus Lore 5:36:42 8/26/12
The Eyre Affair Part 2 Jasper Fforde 6:21:21 6/17/12
The Eyre Affair Part 1 Jasper Fforde 5:53:23 5/23/12
Ender's Game: 20th Anniversary Edition Part 2 Orson Scott Card 6:17:45 5/13/12
Ender's Game: 20th Anniversary Edition Part 1 Orson Scott Card 5:40:54 5/11/12
The Areas of My Expertise John Hodgman 6:57:19 4/26/12
A Monster Calls Patrick Ness 3:59:47 4/18/12
More Information Than You Require Part 2 John Hodgman 5:49:27 4/17/12
More Information Than You Require Part 1 John Hodgman 6:55:29 4/5/12
The Power of Six Part 2 Pittacus Lore 5:25:35 3/31/12
The Power of Six Part 1 Pittacus Lore 5:22:39 3/29/12
I Am Number Four Part 2 Pittacus Lore 6:34:54 3/25/12
I Am Number Four Part 1 Pittacus Lore 4:50:59 3/22/12
1984 Part 2 George Orwell 5:51:16 3/19/12
1984 Part 1 George Orwell 5:32:11 3/13/12
How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age Carnegie & associates inc 7:06:33 3/7/12
A Grief Observed C.S. Lewis 1:50:52 1/8/12
Steve Jobs Part 3 Walter Isaacson 8:40:10 12/23/11
Steve Jobs Part 2 Walter Isaacson 8:37:59 12/16/11
Steve Jobs Part 1 Walter Isaacson 7:48:00 12/4/11
Mockingjay Part 2 Suzanne Collins 5:41:06 11/22/11
Mockingjay Part 1 Suzanne Collins 6:00:08
Catching Fire Part 2 Suzanne Collins 5:40:49 11/18/11
Catching Fire Part 1 Suzanne Collins 5:58:16
The Hunger Games Part 2 Suzanne Collins 5:39:33 11/14/11
The Hunger Games Part 1 Suzanne Collins 5:32:05

Friday, October 31, 2014

New furnace and air conditioner

The short story

My parents frequently use the phrase "the joys of home ownership." My latest "joy" was replacing my furnace and air conditioner. If you yourself are in the market for a new furnace and/or AC and you live in or around the Twin Cities, then you can reap some benefit from my already-done research, and I'll include the quotes I received later in this post. Ultimately, I chose Sedgwick Heating, because they had a combination of the best price, good warranty, were recommended to me by a coworker, and are a locally-owned business. This last part was important to me because, in other words, their reputation matters more to them than it would a large corporation. Long story short: they did well, and I'm satisfied. If you end up using Sedgwick because you read this blog post, please mention my name, because I think I get a gift card or something for the referral :)


The longer story

Furnace

It all started when one of my coworkers mentioned he was getting quotes for his own furnace replacement, and I learned that furnaces ought to be replaced every 15-25 years (so I'm told). That got me wondering: "how old are my furnace and air conditioner?" Fortunately, both my units were still working fine, but I knew they were getting up there in age, and figured it might behoove me to start gathering quotes for replacements - after all, I'd much rather schedule that work proactively, leisurely, and on my own timing, than in the middle of January when it's negative 40 and the furnace decides to give up the ghost.

Turns out my old furnace was manufactured in 1987 and installed in 1988, so 27 years old, and my AC was installed in 1980, or 34 years old. I think my grandparents got their money's worth out of that purchase! That discovery reinforced my decision to look at newer, more efficient models. Autumn seems to be a popular time for furnace replacements, with lots of sales/discounts/rebates to be found, at least up until they hit the "busy" season (after the first hard freeze). I went in figuring, incorrectly, a ballpark of $5,000 for the work, which was a few thousand dollars short of reality. (as a result my bank accounts are currently depleted; no more big spending for me in the near future!)

All told I had five companies quote me for a full furnace and air conditioner replacement. Two of the companies were recommended by coworkers (including Sedgwick, the company I ultimately chose), one other I found from Google searching, one is a conglomerate energy company, and one is the company that installed my house's previous furnace for my Grandparents. I attempted to contact a sixth company that was recommended by another coworker, but they did not return my inquiry, and frankly by that point I already had enough numbers floating around that my head was a little dizzy.

Below is the breakdown of my five quotes. It's worth noting in a couple cases the actual paper quotes I received were near-undecipherable; some companies create quotes in an easy-to-read fashion, but some seem to rely on convolution in order to keep you from understanding where your money is actually being spent. It's also worth noting that, for two of the companies, I contacted the sales rep again after I'd learned more about different options, to ask for a tweaked quote with a better warranty, better air filtration, or a lower-rated air conditioner (more about those in the following sections), and that was no issue for them to generate revised numbers. Lesson being: if you want to change something on your quote, don't be afraid to ask - the salesmen were, in my experience, more than happy to work with you in order to try to win your business.

Company Brand Furnace Price Furnace Efficiency AC Price AC Efficiency Warranty
Labor / Parts
Total quote
(with air purifier, after rebates and any discounts)
Company 1: Single-Stage   $3,570 95% $3,330 13.5 SEER 1/10
(upgrade to 10/10 for $1,855)
$8,736
Company 1: Two-Stage Trane $4,395 97% $3,000 13.5 SEER 1/10
(lifetime on heat exchanger)
(upgrade to 10/10 for $1,855)
$8,636
Company 1: Modulating Lennox $4,695 98% $4,630 17.8 SEER 1/5
(upgrade to 10/10 for $1,855)
$10,211
Company 2: Two-Stage Carrier Performance $4,100 96% $3,505 16.5 SEER 10/10
(complete furnace replacement if it breaks in first 5 years)
$9,490
Company 2: Modulating Carrier Infinity $4,780 98% $3,810 21 SEER 10/10
(complete furnace replacement if it breaks in first 5 years)
$10,475
Company 3: Two-Stage York $4,225 96% $6,675 16 SEER 10/10
(20 years on heat exchanger)
$8,379
Company 3: Modulating York $5,200 97% $6,675 16 SEER 10/10
(20 years on heat exchanger)
$9,354
Company 4: Two-Stage Ruud $4,465 96% $3,738 14 SEER 5/10 $8,126
Company 4: Modulating Carrier Infinity $5,375 97% $5,080 16 SEER
2-stage
5/10 $9,162
Company 5: Two-Stage Goodman $4,710 96% $3,550 13 SEER 10/10 $8,006
Company 5: Modulating Goodman $5,750 98% $3,550 13 SEER 10/10 $9,232

If you're interested in names and contact information for any of these companies, email me


The poor guy first on the list had to explain everything to me, as I was [practically] clueless, but as each subsequent salesman visited, I got smarter and smarter. I learned furnaces come in several varieties: single-stage, dual-stage, and modulating (which is a fancy way of saying, basically, 65-stage). In I'm-not-an-expert lingo: a "stage" is how high the furnace comes on, like, 100%, or 50%, or somewhere in between. My previous furnace was a 100,000 BTU single-stage, which means it was either on at 100%, or off. (A BTU, or "British Thermal Unit", is approximately the heat you get from striking one match). This is different from a dual-stage furnace, which can come on at either 50%, or 100% power. A modulating furnace can come on at anywhere between ~35-100%. And a smart thermostat can figure out that, in order to heat the house X degrees for example, it needs to burn at 50% for 2 hours. My understanding is this doesn't really save you any money on gas, because you either burn at 50% for those 2 hours, or at 100% for 1 hour, either way you use the same amount of gas, but the house's temperature stays more even and less roller-coastery with a more-than-1-stage furnace.

The number of stages is different than saying "high-efficiency," which is another consideration. My old furnace was [allegedly] 80% efficient, meaning that for every dollar I spent on gas, 20¢ went up the chimney as wasted heat. High-efficiency furnaces range from 95-98% efficient, wasting only 2-5¢/$. You can get HE furnaces in single-stage, dual-stage, or modulating. After the first company came out, I didn't even ask for 80% quotes, because I knew I was interested in an HE furnace.

HE furnaces use a two-pipe intake/exhaust system, which in homeowner-speak translates "new holes in your exterior wall." Because the furnace is so efficient at re-using heat (which is how it gets to 95%+ efficiency), the exhaust air no longer has enough energy to rise up out of a chimney stack, necessitating the run of a PVC pipe out the side of your house. They run a second pipe alongside it for fresh air intake. There are rules about where these pipes can exit the house - not over a sidewalk, not within so many feet of another opening (like a window, or other vents), etc, but in my case we were able to run out the side of my house that no one ever sees (win!). Inside the house, the PVC pipe must angle down 1/4" per horizontal foot, so that any moisture runs back into the furnace instead of collecting in the pipe. This means it is to your advantage to run as short a distance as possible, so you don't have pipes hanging too far down from the ceiling. I was fortunate that my installers were able to cut two holes in my basement ceiling and run the pipes adjacent to the floor joists, above the sheetrock, so I don't have anything hanging down. This made me very happy.

As far as brands of furnace, what I've gathered is Trane, Lennox, Carrier, Goodman, and Ruud are all fairly good (some older models in some of those brands may have been not-so-good, but newer models are fine), and the only one to avoid is York. Again, this is "so I'm told." Researching brands of furnaces I and my coworker observed that, when you're reading online reviews, many of the issues people complain about would be better attributed to the installation / installers, than the furnace manufacturer. Therefore, read online reviews with a readily-available salt-shaker (grain of salt? get it? hahaha).

Lastly, I mentioned my previous furnace was 100,000 BTU. All five salesmen agreed that for the number of square feet in my house, that was overkill, and my new furnace need only be 60,000. I'm really hoping that'll help save on my gas bill this winter.




Air conditioner

In addition to furnaces, I learned a little bit about air conditioners, though not as much because I live in Minnesota, and I only get to use my air conditioner about 10 days out of the year. One of the salesmen drew this metaphor: if you're buying a car, and you only have to commute to downtown, it's not worth spending thousands of dollars extra to get a car with a few more mpg. But if you commute to Rochester (80 miles away), then spending the extra money for a fuel-efficient car is worth it in the long run. In my case, living in Minnesota, an air conditioner is the commute to downtown, and a furnace is the commute to Rochester - aka the furnace is where you want to invest the most money for efficiency because you'll see the most return on investment, whereas with the air conditioner it's okay to skimp a little bit.

Air conditioner efficiency is measured in SEERs, or "Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio." The state-mandated minimum for new ACs installed in Minnesota is 13 SEERs. (for comparison: I heard estimates anywhere from 4-8 SEER for my old 1980 AC unit). I decided to purchase a minimal 13-SEER AC, because I'm a little-old-gramma who's always cold and so I rarely use air conditioning - no sense spending extra thousands of dollars.

That's pretty much all I learned about air conditioners. Oh, wait, no, there was one more thing: when you get a new AC, ask your installer to replace the pipes, rather than clean the old ones. Something about the old vs new coolant. Google that for more information.




Air filtration

From each salesman I also asked for quotes about air filtration units. This is a big deal for me, who suffers from year-round allergies. Each company had different solutions which made it difficult to compare. In the end, my installed system includes a 4" MERV 16 filter, and a fancy UV light that kills mold and other biological junk. Additionally, the new fan is significantly more electrically-efficient than before, so I can afford (and it's suggested) to run the fan 24/7, continuously filtering my house's air. For practical numbers, my installers said the new fan should cost ~$4/month to run, where the old one would have cost ~$30/month (which is why I never ran the old fan - too expensive). My next electric bill will tell whether that $4 number is about right.

Prior to having my new furnace installed, I did have my ducts cleaned, something I learned you're supposed to do every 3-5 years. Oops! I moved in in 2006 and have never had my ducts cleaned. I wonder if that's been part of my allergy struggle? There are a bunch of duct-cleaning companies out there; the key factors are: it should take a couple/several hours, and they should use some sort of device that goes into the ducts and knocks junk loose, rather than relying only on air pressure. Ask your installer if they have a company they recommend, or if their company does duct cleanings themselves.




Thermostat

After deliberating and finally choosing a company and model of furnace+AC (as noted in my introductory paragraph, I chose Sedgwick Heating), my final big decision before the installers arrived was what kind of thermostat I would like. My original quote included a non-wifi Honeywell programmable thermostat, but I was tempted for several days by dreams of having a Nest intelligent thermostat (with the future potential of expanding into the Nest-brand smoke+CO detectors I've longed for). Money didn't need to enter my consideration, as the Nest was marginally less expensive than the Honeywell.

After a lot of review-reading, I opted against the Nest because I wanted fuller control over the scheduling - never having had a programmable thermostat before, and being a control-freak, this was my primary deciding factor. With that said, I admit I also experienced a bit of a "get off my lawn" moment in not wanting a thermostat that was wifi and/or internet-accessible, because I shared my coworker's opinion about the security risks of an Internet-connected thermostat. Which is too bad, because the Nest thermostat resembles HAL 9000, and that would have added some very nice geek-points to my abode.




Installation

My salesman, Dan, told me to expect the installation crew anywhere between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m.; the first installer arrived at 7:45 a.m., so right within the expected time frame. When I showed him the basement, he responded "ooh, nice and clean around the [furnace] area!" - I guess I did a good job moving everything out of the way! We talked about where I'd like the HE pipes run in the ceiling, and he said they should be able to finish by around 3 p.m. or so. He started tearing out the old furnace while he waited for his coworker to arrive with their second truck. I forget which man was which, but my two installers were Adam and Grant, and both were friendly and respectful. Whenever they came inside they changed shoes, thus limiting how much dirt got tracked into the house. They also laid down a rug at the top of my staircase where there is a patch of carpeting, though I did still have to vacuum that area at the end of the day. Not a big deal, because it was due for a good vacuuming, anyway.

Mid-day, I actually left to get my hair cut and meet a friend for lunch, but gave the installers my number in case anything came up. Lunch was literally only a block and a half away, so I could skedaddle home quickly if needed. Otherwise I just sat upstairs and caught up on emails all day. At one point I did wander downstairs to see how things were going, and saw parts strewn (in an organized fashion) all about, but they cleaned up very very well. We did our final walk-through at about 4/4:15 p.m., and they'd vacuumed downstairs and left it looking nice. By 4:30 p.m., I'd written the check (3% discount for paying cash), and they were gone. That sure beats the 12-hour install one of my coworkers had with a different company!

All-told there were only two "hiccups", neither of which detracts from my two-thumbs-up recommendation of Sedgwick. Hiccup 1: they didn't vacuum my stairs as part of their cleanup, and there was a small amount of dirt / outside debris left. That's okay, I needed to vacuum up all the cobwebs that had grown anyway. Hiccup 2: they were also supposed to replace a vent in my bedroom, but they didn't have the right size vent cover in their trucks (totally understandable - I know you can't stock every possible replacement part in a truck!). I said they could just drop one off and I'll screw it into place - that hasn't happened yet, I think they forgot about me, but I contacted my salesman Dan, and he said he'd get that sorted out. Seriously, those were the only things that weren't perfect, and if that's the *worst* I can complain about, I call that a well-done and successful installation!

Oh, and one other hilarious "hiccup," (hilarious because I work as a software-tester and so am used to this) : the programmable thermostat kernel-panicked while they were demoing it to me. The installer seemed a little flummoxed, whereas I laughed.




Photos: old furnace and air conditioner





Photos: during installation





Photos: new furnace and air conditioner


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Life Lessons I've Learned (or, a letter to my 18-year-old-self)

Dear Jeremy,

Ten years ago you graduated high school, and in that ten years your life has changed dramatically. You have grown physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. You have loved, and experienced loss. After ten years, you are still you, and you continue becoming more "you" every day.

Young Jeremy, from your older self, I want to share some life-lessons that you've learned. Maybe you (aka, any other 18-year-olds who stumble upon this letter) will be able to learn them faster than I was. Some lessons are pragmatic - specific tasks you can cross off a checklist. Most, though, are about your inner-character, and will take you a long time to develop. I should warn you: this is not a short letter. That's probably a good thing, because it means you've not only made a lot of mistakes, but learned from them. You have never stagnated.


Practical advice (things you can check off a todo list)

When you get into college, the sooner you lose your 4.0, the better. This is not to say "don't try" or that you should get *bad* grades, not at all. You should still give [almost] every class a fair shake. But the sooner you can stop worrying about meeting that impossible bar you've set for yourself, the sooner you can lose the pressure that comes along with it, and therefore the sooner you can focus on things that really matter: learning for the sake of learning (not for the grade), and investing time in people.

Take notes during sermons. Still now, by two hours after church you struggle to remember details from what the pastor talked about; even the worst sermon [usually] will have at least one valuable tidbit worth remembering, so whether it's on your phone or on paper, write notes as you're listening. This carries an added bonus of everyone else thinking you're holier than they are, even though you know it's not true.

Learn to play guitar. You started at age 20, only two years from now, but go ahead and start earlier, and try to spend more time truly worshiping as you play.

In a few years you'll hear about a guy named Randy Pausch and something called the "Last Lecture." Drop what you're doing and watch it. And then re-watch it at least once a year, if not more. In one hour and 15 minutes, you'll hear some of the most valuable advice and wisdom that has significantly changed the way I approach my own life. In fact many of the ideas in this letter originate from listening to Randy. Also be sure to watch his time-management lecture, again at least once a year.

Stop using breath mints (actually, at 18 you hadn't yet started, so, don't start). There's an ingredient in them called sorbitol that causes you very bad gastrointestinal distress.

Treasure and spend more time with your grandparents, because you'll only have them for a few more years.

Set specific goals over which you have complete, or relatively complete, control. For example, rather than saying "I'm going to get this particular job," say, "I'm going to apply for this many jobs." No matter the eventual outcome, your goal remains achievable completely under your own control, and is not dependent upon anyone else's response.

Alongside setting specific goals, practice "expectation management." For example, instead of saying "I hope [read: 'expect'] this date turns into a relationship and then marriage," say, "I expect that at my date tonight, I will eat dinner." I'm not exactly saying set your expectations low, I'm instead suggesting setting expectations that are [almost certainly] guaranteed to be met, which prevents you from leaving with a feeling of disappointment. This also leaves a large amount of room for expectations to be exceeded, which is a phenomenal feeling.

Those quarterly magazines you get from Minneapolis Community Education, you should check them out, because there are some pretty cool classes (ASL and Badminton to name two) for very cheap: ~$50 total for 7-ish weeks of class. Just be sure you don't over-schedule your calendar.

Audiobooks and sermon podcasts rock, especially when you're driving to work (or Iowa), mowing the lawn, or doing other chores around house. Sign up for Audible.com's largest plan, and each book will only cost about $9 - not much more than a paperback. And, if you buy a waterproof bluetooth speaker to hang in the shower, that's another block of time you can be productive "reading" while doing something else.

Make backup plans for life. If this job / person / housing situation / class / <generic possibility> says "no," what's your fallback? What's your fallback to your fallback?

And of course, relatedly, always back up your computer, because you'll have two laptops stolen from you in the next few years. Apple's built-in Time Machine is great for recovery, and Code 42's CrashPlan is great for on-the-go file access and unlimited offsite storage. The peace of mind is worth the money.

10 years later, people who are just meeting you think you're an extrovert. But you and I know the truth - you're an introvert, who also happens to like spending time with people. This means you need time by yourself to recharge. Schedule "me time" in your calendar and guard it. When you don't, you get crabby.


Financial advice

Mom and Dad taught me to save 50% of my paycheck. Admittedly, I have not kept to a strict 50% regimen, but still both this year and last I saved aggressively enough to max out my 401(k) and IRA contributions. My financial advisor was quite impressed with me. The sooner you can start saving for retirement, even if it's only $25 here and there, do it. You should also save for rainy days, like car expenses, property tax, and in a few years when your main sewer line will need replacing (welcome to home-ownership).

Find a financial advisor you trust, who will guide you through the financial arena of retirement savings. If you need a name, I can give you a recommendation.

Live within your means. I have at least several coworker friends from my current and previous jobs who are nearing retirement age, who are still struggling to make house/car payments, and will need to work extra years in order to retire. As much as I joke about my plan to "marry rich", the reality is you need to be financially stable on your own. And that boils down to day-to-day choices to live within your means, eat out less, have money deducted from your paycheck straight into a savings account that you refuse to touch, and not burning through every paycheck the day it hits your bank.

Live debt-free as much as possible. Pay off your student loans as soon as possible, and pay off your credit cards every month. All that said, work the system for all its perks - with some limited attention to detail, you absolutely can reap rewards from multiple credit cards offering cash back, sign-up bonuses, free airline miles, etc. For example, I haven't paid for a flight in 4 or 5 years, and I've received $100s of statement credits and cash-back on my credit cards, without paying a dime of interest or annual fees. (and my credit score hasn't suffered much, it's still around 800)

On a related note: Southwest is, in my current opinion, the best airline. I tell you this because I didn't discover them until I was 24 or 25, so I hope you'll check them out sooner than I did.


Interpersonal advice

Almost everyone has an interesting, if not downright fascinating, story, even if you have no common grounds of interest. If you can find out their passion, their excitement will move you. Also, almost everyone loves talk, I suspect because we as a culture have lost the art of listening. Train yourself to listen actively, and you'll learn so much from the people around you, not only to improve your own living, but that will later give you opportunities to share those stories and wisdom yourself.

Live in the present and the future, because dwelling in the past is not healthy. You'll meet a few friends / acquaintances who insist on living in the past, blaming others for their own non-successes, and never learning from their own mistakes. This traps them in a cycle of making the same errors over and over, and then, again, blaming someone else. You in fact, will get blamed by some of these "friends" because of their twisted logic and victim mentality. It's sad, but move on, let those unhealthy relationships go, and focus on moving forward. You can only control you.

Along with that, let go of grudges as soon as possible. They don't help anyone. And dare I say, it's even Biblical that I advocate forgiveness and reconciliation.

Asking someone for a first date is not a marriage proposal; take the pressure off yourself (and her) about finding "the right one" before you've even had a first date.

Age is just a number, in both directions. You can have a lot of years and remain young at heart (in a good way), and you can have only a few years and still have a wisdom and maturity beyond those earthly years. When it comes to pursuing relationships, draw a line at 18 (and later, 21), but otherwise, remember that age is just a number, and it's experience and personality that count.

Love doesn't always come instantaneously. Some people are blessed with the Disney sparks, most aren't. Don't pass early judgement about a relationship's potential, or lack, without giving it a chance.

Avoid prioritizing work over people. Remember the lyrics and music video for Casting Crowns' "American Dream". People and relationships are more important than work, and also more important than proving yourself right (though you're still working on that last one).

However, some "friends" will abuse your time if you let them. Learn to recognize those signs early on, and refuse to allow your time (or money, or talents) to be sucked into downward spiral conversations that last hours and lead nowhere.

Admit when you're wrong. I'm consistently amazed how many people claim they do this, and then don't.

When leaving a friendship / workplace / commitment / anything, try to leave as many doors open as possible, closing them only when completely unavoidable, or your conscience demands it. However, sometimes that is okay. My goodbye letter at Minnehaha probably closed some doors with those who chose to read it maliciously, but I have no regrets, because I know my heart, and that I was being true to me and true to the hopes I held for the school.

You probably won't stay in touch with most of your friends from high school. A few yes, but most will fall by the wayside, and that is okay - it's a natural progression, and you will make new friendships that are just as beautiful.


Personal growth advice

Chase your own dreams, and don't get caught up chasing the dreams of others. Some of the dreams you've chased that probably belonged to someone else rather than you were: wanting to...

  • learn sign language
  • become a full-time filmmaker
  • become a professional musician
  • work at an Apple store
  • work at Apple corporate
  • move to California
  • learn banjo/piano/bass

... and so many more. None of these are bad things at all! But spend time praying about your own dreams - first identifying what they are amidst a sea of other people's dreams, and then second, about how to pursue them, and then third, how to avoid distractions. You haven't mastered this yet, so don't put too much pressure on yourself at 18, just... work on it.

Don't be afraid to do things on your own, like go see a musical (incidentally, turns out you love rock-musicals, for example Wicked, Bat Boy, and Aida), or a concert, or a movie, or even take a trip. You don't need to wait until you have someone else to go with in order to have fun. (thank you to my friend Tom Ryan for this advice)

There are exceptions to every rule, but generally speaking, other peoples' opinions of you matter less than you think they do. Be yourself, not who you think someone else wants you to be. Don't hold back in a conversation because you think the other person will think less of you (and if there's a disagreement, look at it as an opportunity for a conversation).

Worship is, in large part, an attitude. While it is absolutely the worship leader's responsibility to choose non-sucky worshipful songs (for example, not "God of Wonders" or "This is the air I breathe"), it is your responsibility to prepare your heart for a time of worship, so that you can experience worshipful moments even if the leader does play "God of Wonders" or "This is the air I breathe". You own your attitude, good and bad.

It's okay to commit yourself to more than one church community, especially if the two services fulfill different spiritual needs for you (as long as the services are at different times, so you're not robbing Peter to pay Paul).

Don't mistake spending time at church, and doing churchy things, as the same as spending time with God. You need to foster that personal relationship as well. Now in fairness, I'm not saying I'm good at this, I'm just beginning to recognize it, and I wish I would have started on this journey sooner. So... ready, go :)

Fill your life with adult role-models you respect, who make you a better person just by letting you spend time around them, and who will call you out when you're being unreasonable (in so many contexts - work, relationships, anger, attitudes, opinions, theology, every area of life). Along with this, realize that the adults in your life now (at age 18) will become incredibly smart in the next 7 years. I know, it's hard to believe, because they're all dumber than a bag of rocks right now, but by the time you're 25 you will be shocked how much life-wisdom your parents and other adults have accumulated in that time, and how much they're willing to share. They'll consider it an honor, not an inconvenience, to mentor and guide you.

Among these trusted adults, find one or more who are willing to be an anger-management counselor for you. Whenever you sense yourself losing your cool toward someone or something (perhaps an idiot wrote you a stupid-person email), force yourself to wait at least one hour before writing a response. Not once have you replied in the heat of the moment and then failed to regret it later. In that hour, call your anger-management counselor and talk things out, then have them proof your email before you send it, and go through as many drafts as necessary. With only rare exception, you never need to reply immediately, and taking the extra time to cool down and write a calm response will help you, and your reputation, immensely as you work toward a resolution.

Your reputation matters; build a good one.

When making a big decision (whether it's actually a big decision in the grand scheme of life, and also for those that only seem like they're big decisions), listen to everyone's advice, then make (and own responsibility for) your own decision.

When possible, learn from other people's mistakes. When necessary, and a few times that aren't, make your own mistakes and learn from those, too. You will make mistakes. Just try to make different ones next time. Also know that sometimes there is no silver lining, it just sucks (citation: this phenomenal commencement speech by Dessa, recommended to me by my friend Mikaila).

Your value as a human being is not defined by:

  • your relationship status
  • your job / career / salary
  • the number of friends you have
  • your number of blood donations
  • the movie projects you've worked on
  • your skill (or lack thereof) as a musician
  • where you live
  • how many churches you're involved in

Your value as a human being comes from being a beloved child of your Most High God. Own that, and live it out. Every other metric is transient. Much as you [still] want to believe otherwise, you do not control every aspect of your life, because you cannot control other people nor nature nor spirits, and therefore any of those status symbols by which the world will judge your value, can disappear overnight. Strive to find your value in the eternal, which is what Jesus / God offers, because that cannot be taken away by life's happenstances.

Don't wait for the "perfect moment" to tell someone how you feel, or you might lose your chance. This applies with romantic interests as well as family / friends.

Your time is precious. If you're doing something because you think you "should", maybe reconsider.

This is a Jeremy-specific piece of advice, and largely inapplicable to any other youngsters reading: in a few years you will hear about this weird / crazy / awesome mime drama ministry based out of Des Moines, Iowa, called AWAKEN. Do it. Treasure it. And especially, as ridiculous as this sounds, treasure those moments hauling sand bags (read toward the bottom of this blog post for more thoughts on that).

Your college education isn't about learning and forgetting facts; it's about learning how to learn, and putting yourself out there for new experiences. Ask upperclassmen at your school (whom you trust and perhaps are similar to you) who the best / worst professors are, then register for classes accordingly. The seniors aren't as scary as you think they are, and the vast majority will be more than happy to give you professor & class recommendations.

Sometimes risks are worth it. I wish I'd been braver at trying new things (dancing, asking someone out, job interviews, new recipes, talking to a stranger, the list goes on).

Always ask yourself "what's the worst that can happen?" With a few exceptions, usually the worst that can happen is the other person says "no" or doesn't reply. The cliché "nothing ventured, nothing gained" applies. It almost never hurts simply to ask the question.

Your attitude toward life controls you, affects the people around you, and also affects who wants to be around you. As best you can, live your life as an optimist, finding eternal hope in your faith.

Never stop working to improve yourself. Ask your friends for feedback and listen. Sometimes they are wrong and you might choose to ignore their suggestions, but at least hear them. Also sometimes they are right and you just don't want to admit it. Also, even when people *are* wrong, you can still learn something about their perceptions of you, and work to improve your persona.

Realize that most change comes slowly. Start working now for what you want yourself to look like in two years. (for example, exercise, guitar-playing ability, faith-life, etc)

Try to fail as quickly as possible. I think this is something I heard in a behind-the-scenes of a Pixar movie, but citation needed. Anyway, the meaning being: if an idea / business / plot / relationship isn't going to work, figure that out as early on in the process as possible, before you've invested even more time / effort / money / emotion / etc.

Life won't be perfect. If you're significantly unhappy about some aspect of your life, spend time thinking seriously about what you can do to change it, rather than feel trapped by it. For example, if you don't like your job, look for another one, ask around, Google for openings, and ask yourself, "what do I want to be doing?" Make a conscious decision to choose your current employer, or to choose something different. For another example, if you're over-extended / over-committed (which happens to me a lot), it's okay to drop an activity. You need not subsist in a malcontent status quo.

In your faith, you can't and won't have all the answers. That doesn't mean you can't have faith, or that faith is illogical. It's merely an encouragement to spend time worrying only about the questions that actually matter, because the rest are just details. This is not to say all details are unimportant, they're just penultimate at best. The most important aspect of your faith is your relationship with God. And on that note, by the way, know that you CAN talk to God, and if you take the time to listen, God can speak into your life as well.

Miracles still happen in the 21st century. Check out a guy named Duane Miller and NuVoice ministries. You'll experience miracles in your own life, too.

Create win-win situations for yourself as often as possible. On the occasions when you recognize you're in a lose-lose, try to get out quickly, if possible. If you're in a good-good situation (for example, two job offers, both good opportunities), recognize it, and take the pressure off yourself because you can't make a "wrong" choice.

You will have many opportunities to minister simply by listening. Largely speaking, no one listens anymore, which leaves people desperately thirsty to be heard. Not only can you listen, but you have a quality about you that allows others to open up and trust you with their "stuff". You are not unique in this, and you'll meet others with the same gift, but my experience so far says there are few of you, making you each precious. (I think anyone can cultivate this spirit of servant-listening, but few do).

Finally, trust that God is working in and through your life. You will impact so many people in your journey, and many of those stories you'll never even know. I'm amazed looking in hindsight at the orchestration God's poured into my life, and how I've impacted others. Try to leave people better than you found them, and know that even in your mistakes, God can work out something good.



Blessings to you on your journey, during the emotional roller coaster highs and lows, the smooth and the bumpy times. Pray always, trust always. Welcome to your Adventure.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Why I Kissed Dating "Hello"

My friend Hannah just shared this article with me this morning:

"Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed," by Thomas Umstattd - http://www.thomasumstattd.com/2014/08/courtship-fundamentally-flawed

Myself being someone who, a number of years ago, read and loved (at the time) I Kissed Dating Goodbye, its mention in the opening paragraph grabbed my attention, and never released me. (for the record, I'm now in the camp of a newer book, How To Get A Date Worth Keeping, also written from a Christian perspective, but with a very different outlook).

I encourage you to read the article in its entirety, but if you don't have time, here are some of my favorite quotes:

"If I had only gone out with 3 or 4 guys I wouldn’t have known what I wanted in a husband," [the author's Grandmother] said.
This advice, when combined with the fact that “the purpose of courtship is marriage”, makes asking a girl out for dinner the emotional equivalent of asking for her hand in marriage."
I am not convinced that anyone is ever truly ready to get married. Readiness can become a carrot on a stick, an ideal that can never be achieved.
The courtship movement eliminated dating and replaced it with nothing. Or, put another way, they replaced dating with engagement. The only tangible difference between an engagement and a courtship is the ring and the date.
With Traditional Dating, asking a girl out on a date is no big deal. All the guy is asking to do is to get to know the girl better. Maybe this leads to a deeper relationship, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, the interaction is easier and more fun when it is not so intense.
Dating also trains people to continue dating their spouse after they get married. It is important for married couples to be able to have fun with each other.
When applying Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, to our lives, it is important to differentiate between Biblical precedent, principle and precept. Just because Jacob had two wives and a seven-year engagement does not mean that God wants all men to have two wives and seven-year engagements.
But the Bible is surprisingly quiet when it comes to laying out a system of courtship. Courtship Systems are cultural, and the Bible rarely advocates one cultural approach over another. God’s heart is that every tribe and tongue come worship him without having to surrender their food, language or other cultural distinctives in the process.
The benefit of traditional dating is that the lack of exclusivity reduces temptation. It also helps young people find out who they are and who they are looking for faster. Early marriage reduces the number of years a young person must resist sexual temptation through celibacy.
Finally, I should say this: Where sin abounds, grace abounds more. I understand Grace to be the power of God to do the will of God. The power of God is greater than the power of our sexualized culture. There is nothing new under the sun and no new temptation that is not already common to man. This is not the first time Christians have lived in a sexualized culture.

And the entirety of the "Suggestions for [Single Women|Single Men|Both Single Men and Single Women|Parents]" sections.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Harry Putter 1 outtakes, recut

Ever since my first short movie, "Harry Putter and the Sorcerer's Phone," premiered in 2007, I've wanted to cut together an extended outtakes reel that included ALL the outtakes. I've always felt somehow "incomplete" not having done this for my first movie, like I did for Harry Putter 2. Don't get me wrong, my editor Tony did a great job cutting a shorter outtakes selection for our DVD, I just wanted something more for myself. So, a few years ago, I set out on the long, and arduous, process:

Step 1: Watch all 10 hours of original footage, scene by scene, grabbing along the way every clip containing anything even remotely funny. This generated for me a 3-hour long timeline.

Step 2: Chop away the not-funny bits from each individual clip (all I did in step 1 was save entire clips, each of which often had only a few seconds worth keeping out of 1-or-more-minutes of footage; that left a LOT of extraneous material to trim).

Step 3: Re-watch each scene's clips together, and remove the less-funny ones. Sometimes I questioned my judgement from step 1 - "why did I keep this clip? It's not even funny". So I deleted those from the timeline altogether.

Step 4: Trim, trim, trim. My first pass from step 2 was "dec" ("half decent") and gave me a good starting point, but now seeing all the clips together I could delete even more seconds by putting repeated outtakes of the same shot next to each other in quick succession. For example: Hermione hitting Ron in the wand shop, Hermione and Pansy shoving each other in the sorting hat scene, the students reacting to Neville later in that scene, and Hermione and Draco walking away together in one of the final scenes.

Step 5: Lather, rinse, and repeat step 4.

Step 6: Adjust audio. I didn't want to spend too much time here, knowing how few people probably would watch the video, but, I still wanted to fix some of the audio issues, like, the glaringly distracting ones. These included instances of noticeably bad costume noises, bumping up many of Draco's quieter throw-away lines, boosting overall dialogue levels, and lowering the volume on any screaming.

Step 7: Re-watch the whole thing as a "last looks", then export, upload, and post on my website (and here on my blog). The entire timeline ended up being 1 hour and 14 minutes long.


Now you might ask, "was this the most important or urgent project to which I could have devoted my time?" No, of course it wasn't. That's why I only edited in my spare time, and only when I felt motivated to work on it. Which is also why it took multiple years. All that said, I'm very happy finally to have a finished product, and finally to cross it off my todo list! And, obviously, to watch the finished product myself and laugh and laugh and laugh.

When I shared the finished outtakes with my friend Shawn (who played the broom store clerk), he wrote back, "I had forgotten how much fun and completely unusable material we got from the broom store scene." Soon after, he posted a Facebook status about something he was grateful for: "Outtakes and bloopers. Many, many moons ago, Jeremy Gustafson made a movie about Harry Putter. (Kinda like Harry Potter, but better.) Jeremy's policy: keep the camera rolling and see what happens. The result? A fifteen minute movie with over an hour of outtakes and bloopers."

That about sums it up.

Enjoy!



Wednesday, July 30, 2014

This church isn't for me

My friend Drew and I have struggled in recent months with wanting more out of our morning church, Jacob's Well. We've struggled because Jacob's Well is a "church for people who don't like church," and... neither Drew nor I any longer fit that demographic; we actually like church, yearn for longer moments of worship, and thirst for deeper spiritual growth. Drew made the decision a few weeks ago to find a new morning church, and I 100% respect and support his decision. My journey's been a little less clear-cut.

In my view, Jacob's Well is a church from which you want people to [for lack of a more respectful term] "graduate". It's a phenomenal home for anyone who's doubting, or who's been hurt by the church/had a bad church experience, or who's never really been sure about this whole "God" thing to begin with - at JW, it is not assumed that just because you're in church, you necessarily believe in God. That, in combination with our willingness to ask questions without assuming we'll find definitive answers, I think makes us quite unique. I can say in my own experience, JW was a restorative and safe place for me to come each week, after a rather traumatic break-up with my previous church.

My needs are different now. I want to have a consistently deeper worship experience, grow spiritually, and be in a community that challenges me to read my Bible and actually care about that more than I currently do. I also want a community that believes in miracles, speaking in tongues, prophesy, and that God is still alive and actively working in our earthly world. By all those metrics, JW is not the church for me. Also, if I'm honest: I don't even like Jacob's Well right now - there are a LOT of things that need to change, so many things we can and should be doing better.

And yet, I still love Jacob's Well. Inspired by an article I read last year called "Marriage isn’t for you," I find myself pondering if the same lesson may also apply to church. I'm not getting much out of the deal right now (well, maybe that point is arguable - you could argue I'm getting opportunities to get better at sound mixing, at guitar playing, at occasionally leading a worship song, and of learning "patience" :), but maybe it's not supposed to be about me. (Or heck, maybe it is, maybe like everything else, I'm making too big a deal of this and at some point I'll realize that and go find another church.) But in the meantime, the understanding I'm reaching is that for right now, my Calling isn't to "get" from Jacob's Well, but rather to ask where I can give back. Where, if I may perhaps be so bold, I can be the one of strong faith helping encourage and challenge others in developing their relationships with God. Because ultimately what I wish for myself is the same that I wish for everyone else: that no one's faith is stagnant.

Drew is really enjoying his new church so far, and to be completely honest I'm a bit jealous. Maybe I'm feeling trapped? Maybe I still struggle with chasing my own Calling vs chasing someone else's? I don't know. In either case, I can't shake the feeling that my work at JW is not yet complete, that I still have some purpose in being there. Or maybe I'm just being stubborn, and not willing to give up on an entity that has been so meaningful in my life. The end result is, for now, I remain committed, with the understanding (resignation?) that this church is no longer for me, no longer about what I'll gain from it, but instead about what I'm able to do in [humble?] service.