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
"...no 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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On Ferguson

It's a quiet day at work - most of the office is on vacation this week for Thanksgiving, and (at least for the moment) all the systems I look after are up and running, sans issues.

500 miles away, though, I know today is not a quiet day. It has not been a quiet week. And I imagine for many there is not much apparent cause for "thanks-giving." 500 miles away, there are protests, some peaceful, some not. 500 miles away, there is hurting, on all sides of a complicated story, and on all sides of larger, deeply complex issues.

I do not have a well-formed opinion about Ferguson. I recognize that with my white-male privilege in a society that promotes white-maleness, it's difficult, if not impossible, for me to understand much of what's going on. However, mere impossibility does not absolve my social responsibility to try anyway. So for now, I'm reading. Most of what I'm reading comes from my friend Elle's Facebook feed. She's one of the church-affiliated people marching in Ferguson, and someone who's opinions I respect a great deal. Whether your mind is already made-up, or you're searching for understanding (like I am), I invite you to check out these pages that I thought were well-presented.

The confrontation: Different stories
If you're behind the times like I was and just need a basic primer of what went down, start here.

When they yell: "F@#$ the police" What would Jesus have me do then?
Reflections from a clergy member involved in the protests. Very insightful and well-thought-out blog post.

Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress

Ferguson Protesters Guard Stores From Looters
Not all protestors are being destructive.

Self-Segregation: Why It's So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson

Ferguson Grand Jury Evidence Reveals Mistakes, Holes In Investigation

Clergy Work Through Night, Day Calling For Justice With Peace In Ferguson

The National Bar Association Responds to the Grand Jury's Decision not to Indict Police Officer Darren Wilson in the Shooting Death of Michael Brown

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Audiobook reflection: Insurgent

Insurgent (book).jpeg

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

Divergent (book) by Veronica Roth US Hardcover 2011.jpg

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

TimeTravellersWife.jpg

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

WillGrayson.jpg

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 ├╝ber-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!

(Updated to include the remainder of 2014's books)

Title Author Length Date finished
Looking for Alaska John Green 7:06:57 11/29/14
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions Dan Ariely 7:22:57 11/24/14
Allegiant (Divergent Trilogy, Book 3) Veronica Roth 11:51:15 11/15/14
Insurgent (Divergent Trilogy, Book 2) Veronica Roth 11:22:30 11/6/14
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.




One addendum for tax season

For the 2014 tax year (and hopefully for future tax years), you can get up to a $200 tax credit for installing a new high-efficiency furnace and high-efficiency fan. See IRS form 5695, lines 22b and 22c.




Photos: old furnace and air conditioner





Photos: during installation





Photos: new furnace and air conditioner