Saturday, December 31, 2016

Books I read in 2016

In 2016, I read eight old-fashioned paperbacks, and listened to 77 audiobooks, beating my personal record from last year's reading accomplishments. I also achieved my goal of reading at least 5 classics this year (by my definition of "classic," which includes classic sci-fi as well as more traditional literature, I read ten; I've marked these with asterisks in my list below).

The average length of these audiobooks was 8 hours on the dot. My average amount of listening per day was 1 hour and 42 minutes.

My "most influential book" awards go to The Blue Zones, the second half of 7 Habits, and a re-reading of Boundaries.

Walden wins my award for most rambling and least able to retain my attention (though Emma, The World Set Free, and the first half of 7 Habits also get honorable mentions in this category; Invisible Man would have taken the award, but I abandoned listening because after a few hours I couldn't stand the narration any longer).

Only counting non-Star Wars books, The Rosie Project was my favorite listen from this year. It was my wife Alissa's recommendation, being one of the only novelized romance stories she can stand, and I loved it. A close second was My Sister's Keeper, coincidentally (truly) also Alissa's recommendation.

This year also included 26 Star Wars audiobooks (of course it did; this is up from last year's 22). Of these, my favorite was Lost Stars, which tells the human-level stories of Imperial cadets as they grow up and serve in the Empire during the timeframe of movies 4-6, raising absolutely fascinating moral/ethical questions about loyalty to a cause vs loyalty to its leader vs loyalty to friends and family. I loved the book primarily though because it puts a face on "the other side." For instance: the main characters both had a best friend who perished on the Death Star during the Rebel's "terrorist" attack. We as a society struggle to understand the "other" - there is so much fear and mistrust created by our political parties both nationally and internationally. I think this is a great book which helps encourage the reader to consider the "other's" viewpoint, and does so in an accessible approach whether you're a Star Wars fan or not.

And of course, I also loved reading the Star Wars paperback novel Ahsoka, because she (along with Jaina Solo and Mara Jade) is one of my Star Wars universe crushes :)

And here are the lists of books:

TitleAuthorAudiobook length
Star Wars: BloodlineClaudia Gray12:14:47
Star Wars: Dark Forces Collectors Trilogy
Soldier for the Empire, Rebel Agent, Jedi Knight
William Dietz5:28:59
My Sister's KeeperJodi Picoult13:41:15
The Dark Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft, Volume OneH. P. Lovecraft3:30:15
The Merry Adventures of Robin HoodHoward Pyle10:36:35
The Rosie ProjectGraeme C. Simsion7:32:00
The Zimzum of LoveRob and Kristen Bell2:12:18
Total RecallPhilip K. Dick1:00:00
Full Heart LivingTom Glaser5:40:00
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanJ.K. Rowling11:48:08
A Brief History Of TimeStephen Hawking5:47:20
I Am Number Four: The Lost Files: Zero HourPittacus Lore7:47:27
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneJ.K. Rowling8:17:00
The World Without UsAlan Weisman12:04:32
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective PeopleStephen Covey14:03:00
Of Thee I SingBarack Obama00:16:15
Star Wars: Dark Empire IITom Veitch1:54:19
Star Wars: Dark EmpireTom Veitch2:37:21
Frankenstein*Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley8:42:00
Radio Free AlbemuthPhilip K. Dick7:45:02
Kisses from KatieKatie Davis8:52:57
The Scarlet Letter*Nathaniel Hawthorne9:28:00
Beyond Lies the WubPhilip K. Dick00:21:04
The Island of Dr. Moreau*H. G. Wells4:07:32
Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsJ.K. Rowling9:24:16
Star Wars: Aftermath: Life DebtChuck Wendig15:32:00
Watership DownRichard Adams15:53:32
Emma*Jane Austen15:18:00
The World Set FreeH. G. Wells6:38:00
The Minority Report and Other StoriesPhilip K. Dick5:33:25
An Invisible ThreadLaura Schroff7:02:44
The Blue ZonesDan Buettner7:39:17
A Journey to the Center of the Earth*Jules Verne9:17:23
King Lear (BBC Radio Shakespeare)William Shakespeare2:37:52
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde*Robert Louis Stevenson3:06:46
As You Like It (BBC radio collection)William Shakespeare1:59:45
NightElie Wiesel3:38:42
Star Wars: Crimson EmpireMike Richardson and Randy Stradley1:32:45
I am MalalaMalala Yousafzai9:55:03
Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi: Dark Lord of the Sith (Full cast audio drama)Tom Veitch2:18:00
Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi (Full cast audio drama)Tom Veitch2:42:00
America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the bridge to a new AmericaJim Wallis10:09:58
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl*Anne Frank9:55:21
Hamlet: a fully dramatized audio production from the Folger TheatreWilliam Shakespeare3:32:49
A Voice in the Wind (Unabridged)Francine Rivers21:26:43
Fire Touched (Mercy Thompson book 9)Patricia Briggs10:07:00
BoundariesDr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend11:00:03
Star Wars: Outbound FlightTimothy Zahn6:18:00
Star Wars: The Force AwakensAlan Dean Foster10:05:57
The Great Gatsby*F. Scott Fitzgerald4:53:29
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Radio Drama, as heard on NPRNational Public Radio3:12:15
Star Wars: Battlefront: Twilight CompanyAlexander Freed13:40:57
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Radio Drama, as heard on NPRNational Public Radio4:22:08
Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama, as heard on NPRNational Public Radio5:55:36
The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-PoohA. A. Milne4:27:00
Star Wars: Journey to Star Wars The Force Awakens: Lost StarsClaudia Gray11:26:01
Dragon Blood (Hurog duology book 2)Patricia Briggs9:34:24
Dragon Bones (Hurog duology book 1)Patricia Briggs8:56:56
Star Wars: Journey to Star Wars The Force Awakens: Smuggler's RunGreg Rucka3:22:07
All's Well That Ends Well (BBC radio collection)William Shakespeare2:14:47
The Great DivorceC.S. Lewis3:22:50
Star Wars: Heir to the JediKevin Hearne9:02:20
The Invisible Man*H. G. Wells6:13:47
Star Wars: Millennium FalconJames Luceno10:06:04
Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable JesusJohn Ortberg7:40:50
Star Wars: Apocalypse (Fate of the Jedi book 9)Troy Denning16:30:00
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (Unabridged)Dan Ariely7:22:57
A Grief ObservedC.S. Lewis1:50:52
Star Wars: Empire and Rebellion: Honor Among ThievesJames S. A. Corey9:52:49
Walden, and, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience*Henry David Thoreau13:50:56
Star Wars: Empire and Rebellion: Razor's edgeMartha Wells9:57:19
Star Wars: Ascension (Fate of the Jedi book 8)Christie Golden14:44:14
Scary CloseDonald Miller4:07:38
Star Wars: Dynasty of Evil (Darth Bane book 3)Drew Karpyshyn9:22:33
Star Wars: Conviction (Fate of the Jedi book 7)Aaron Allston12:57:30
Star Wars: Vortex (Fate of the Jedi book 6)Troy Denning14:29:25
Star Wars: Allies (Fate of the Jedi book 5)Christie Golden13:23:57

And the paperbacks:

  • Star Wars: Ahsoka, by E. K. Johnston
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi, by Michael Reave and Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J.K. Rowling
  • A Practical Wedding, by Meg Keene
  • The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse, by Brian Farrey
  • Star Wars: Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, edited by Kevin J. Anderson
  • A Practical Wedding Planner, by Meg Keene
  • XKCD: What If?, by Randall Munroe

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Second Noel

He's finally asleep.

J and I are exhausted. I suppose I didn't think birthing and raising a child would be easy, but, I never imagined the sleep deprivation. I don't think I've slept in a year. This baby might be my future Messiah, but he still cries and poops like every other baby I've seen. I need rest.

And we've also been on the run. J had a dream, a vision from God, telling us we were in danger. So we left. Decamped that very night, and headed to Egypt. We were welcomed, I suppose you could say. I mean, no one here has been overtly hostile to us. But it's not home. I miss home. I miss my parents, my brothers and sisters, my friends. I haven't seen them or heard from them in well over a year.

J and I are getting along better now. It was a rough start for us. I suppose some girls my age would think it romantic to be swept away by their husband-to-be, but, truth be told it was just awkward. We barely knew each other. Even though everyone else our age was getting betrothed, I think we were too young.

But it's getting better now. Even away from home, away from our Community, we are ... dare I say, thriving? We used some of the gold gifts, and sold some of the myrrh, and that got us through a lot of the months. Now that we're at least somewhat settled, J's been able to find work. There's always a demand for carpenters, and J's really good at what he does. I'm so proud of him. I'm so grateful for him. I can't imagine raising this baby without him.

This baby.

Today's his first birthday. To think of where we were one year ago, desperate for a place to rest. Now he's resting comfortably on my lap. He's so serene. I treasure these quiet moments, because I know eventually he will grow up, and life will be more complicated. But for now, when I look into his face, I see Peace.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Runaway Sheep

Close call. Woke up this morning and one of the sheep had run away! We spent all day searching. I thought for sure he'd been eaten, or wandered all the way to Egypt. The others always say I'm the pessimist. Maybe they're right.

Well anyway, we found him. The sheep. Now he's watching the sunset with all his sheep friends. Looks like it'll be clear skies, a good night for star-gazing.

I wonder if sheep think like we do? They're all staring at the sky like it's the strangest thing they've ever seen. I wonder what they're thinking.

Now wait, what are they staring at? It's getting brighter. But how? It's night. There's a... it looks like a man floating in the sky, dressed all in white, and, he's glowing?

Shepherd #2, do you see what I see? Oh, good. That means I might not be going crazy. But that also means it's real! I'm scared. Do you hear what I hear, too? This, ... Being - he / she / it - is speaking! "Hark, fear not," he says. ("fear not," yeah, right) Good news, he says. Town of David, cloths, manger, Messiah - it's all a lot to take in at once. Now there are more of the... Beings. They're singing. It's beautiful. We sing to the sheep, but I've never heard music as moving, peaceful, hopeful as this.

They're gone. The heavenly intervention comes to a close. We're all dumbfounded. Was that real? It's hard to imagine we'd all have the same hallucination, if that's what it was, but... would YHWH speak to us in this way? Us, lowly and humble shepherds? I guess there's only one way to find out: we need to start stumbling toward Bethlehem.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Post-Wedding FAQs, November edition

How's "married life"?

This has been, far and away, THE most frequently asked question over the past two weeks, which is awful because I don't have a quick answer, and I get the impression most people are looking for a quick answer. For a variety of reasons Alissa and I did not live together before the wedding, and so for me, part of "married life" has involved growing accustomed to having a permanent roommate living in what has, for the last ten years, been "my" space. While yes, I've had non-romantic roommates off and on before, never before has that involved someone whose "stuff" was co-mingled with mine. (Speaking of "stuffed", I am very happy that Alissa's stuffed animal moose, Thidwick, has come to live with me now, because he's quite cuddly and adorable :) And so embarking on this journey of sharing space and time and possessions and finances, is exactly that: a journey.

Largely, the past two and a half weeks have been consumed by post-wedding "todo"s, such as unwrapping multiple layers of tulle from the light strings we'd hung over the length of the gym, or putting away gifts, or adding Alissa to my credit cards and checking account and insurances, or dealing with change-of-address updates, and so on (by the way, to date, we have made progress on all, but completed none, of the aforementioned tasks). We also have appointments over the next several weeks to deal with updating my will (and creating one for Alissa), as well as meeting with financial advisors, and continuing couples therapy, which we've found immensely helpful in aiding us to communicate effectively and lovingly.

We also continue to stumble through figuring out what "routine" looks like anymore. As one comical example: we have different sleeping habits - she sleeps with the light on, which of course is just WEIRD; whereas I require absolute darkness to sleep. Morning routines are working okay so far, since I leave for work earlier than she does, and so we haven't experienced bathroom timesharing issues. And I was ecstatic that, even in week 1, on Wednesday night (aka Jeremy's "me night"), Alissa went from work to a coffee shop to church small group, giving me the evening to myself. As we'd agreed during budget negotiations, it is SO worth a $5 coffee for me to have that recharge time to myself.

And we're sort of falling into a frequent habit of making dinners together and watching part of a movie while we eat. Since Alissa's vegetarian, our joint cooking adventures are aided by my recent decision to begin minimizing meat in my diet to once per day, which typically has been lunch; this makes it easier for us to cook meals together in the evening. To clarify a common misconception: my decision to minimize meat is health-related and came after watching a documentary titled Forks over Knives; Alissa (while happy about my choice) had not attempted to sway me in either direction. But, because of my choice, she's introduced me to veggie bacon, which, as much as I can't believe I'm saying this, I actually find quite delicious. Om nom nom.

When are you going on your honeymoon?

Following the wedding reception we took a short (two night) vacation to the Outing Lodge in Stillwater, got back in time for church Sunday morning, but then took Monday off work so we could relax a little longer, and finish opening cards and presents. Since Alissa works in a school, taking extended time off during the school year isn't really viable, so we are planning a European odyssey for June. If I get my hopes, we'll spend a couple days at the start going to museums in Washington, D.C., which will have the added advantage of subtracting one hour off our jet lag. My other dream destinations include Scotland and Greece. While we don't have any specific plans yet, the general plan is that we'll take three weeks to do "all the things" in Europe. I'm sure that should be plenty of time.

What happened to all the sandwiches from the reception?

Instead of a dance, our reception guests made over 3200 sandwiches for Catholic Charities to distribute to people experiencing food scarcity, poverty, or homelessness. Aaron, my contact at Catholic Charities, tells me that all 3K sandwiches were distributed that same weekend, half at the Dorothy Day center, and the remainder by various partner organizations around town.

Check out my previous blog post for pictures of the sandwich making!

Did you raise enough money to pay for the sandwiches?

If you recall from my blog post a few days before the wedding, we had a small debacle regarding sandwich supply cost, for which I ended up spending an unexpected $1500 on meats and cheeses. A Thrivent Financial "Action Team" grant cut that cost by $250, and an incredible outpouring of generosity from coworkers and friends paid off another $1,000+!! As of this writing, our out of pocket expense remains only $167.54. I feel so blessed by all the support we've received.

Where can I see pictures of the wedding?

Huge thanks to Randy Baranczyk, our wedding photographer. I've posted the photos on my Facebook page. If you're not my friend yet, send me a friend request or an email!

What's in those MATTERboxes you handed out at the wedding?

We invited all our guests to take a MATTERbox (produced by local NGO MATTER, where my good friend and groomsperson Joe happens to work), which are small boxes filled with non-perishable food. The boxes are meant for handing out to panhandlers you might come across on street corners or freeway exit ramps. No one (not even Joe) is quite sure what's actually in the boxes, though, so I decided to open one up and document the un-boxing:

Disclaimer: this is simply the contents of one single box. Based on the varying weights between boxes, I'm pretty sure each box has a different adventure waiting inside.

I'd like to buy more MATTERboxes for myself or my organization! Who should I contact?

You should contact my buddy Joe at MATTER, who's in charge of the MATTERbox distribution!
Joe Newhouse
(952) 737-6093

Your reception food was amazing! Who was your caterer?

Short answer: Abi's Cafe in Minneapolis.

Longer answer: Months ago when we first started thinking about caterers, I wanted to find one with ties to either a shelter or food shelf, so the leftovers could go to people who really needed a good meal. In that search, I came across these news articles about Abi's Cafe: nydailynews, abcnews, and asked Alissa if we could go check out the restaurant for one of our date nights. We loved the food, and also loved the idea of supporting a local business, owned and operated by a young immigrant woman who was our same age. Abi worked so hard for us, and quite gracefully handled a lot of me asking "oh, can your staff do this, too?" She even closed her restaurant for our wedding day, so she and her staff could focus exclusively on us. We can't say enough good things about her, so if you're ever looking for some Salvadorian food, please drop by Abi's and tell her you heard about her from Alissa and Jeremy's wedding!

If I want to mail you a card, what salutations should I use? (a.k.a., what's Alissa's last name now?)

The answer surprises a lot of people, but it's actually quite simple: nothing has changed :) Alissa is still "Ms. Alissa Carsten", and I am still "Mr. Jeremy Gustafson". If you're addressing a card or package to both of us, we have no preference on whose name is listed first, so you can either address to "Jeremy Gustafson and Alissa Carsten," or, "Alissa Carsten and Jeremy Gustafson."

Now if you're thinking, "oh shoot! I sent you a card/check/package to 'Jeremy and Alissa Gustafson,'" it's okay, you weren't the only one, and I think all newly married couples need to have a lot of grace helping friends and family navigate the salutation issue, especially when doing something non-standard like we have. But now you know!

Do you REALLY have 850 Beanie Babies???!!!

Yep. And probably a few more. I have 828 Beanies (2 were wedding gifts :) and Buddies and Teenies that I've inventoried on my spreadsheet. I also have a box of several dozen unopened Teenie Beanies, still in their original McDonald's packaging (so that they're worth more :p ), bringing the total somewhere between 850 and 900.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Wedding Reception: The Sandwich Project

You may recall my previous blog post about the meat & cheese acquisition debacle. Well now it's time to share how it all turned out!

The support of my workplace in contributing to offset our costs was incredibly heartening, uplifting, and encouraging: we had a God-sized dream to pull this off at our reception, and God showed up (via coworkers wandering by my desk and throwing money at me) to help make it happen. I just need to share how incredible this is: I started with a $1,473 out-of-pocket expense for the meat and cheese; $250 was covered by a grant from Thrivent Financial, and now to date, I've received an additional $1,045 from co-workers and friends to help offset the cost, leaving my out-of-pocket at a mere $178. That, to me, is a "wow" moment.

I shared something related to this in my last post that I think is worth sharing again:

I've had three separate people offer me donations today because of my FB post. I've teared up each time.

I'm sharing this with you to say, *we* *are* supported. The unlikeliest people (well, and some likely ones, too) are stepping up and offering suggestions, tangible help, and even money, to help us do our sandwich making service project. And the ones who can't help (a few of the nonprofits/businesses I've called asking for donations) still say "what a neat and cool idea" to do instead of a dance.

Also, this is a practical lesson for me about what my Jesus Calling devotional has been talking about today and the past couple days: relying on God, rather than my own abilities. The idea of shelling out an un-budgeted $2000+ to make the sandwiches happen, was a bit overwhelming to me. Now money and help are coming out of the woodwork. God is providing. God is teaching me that God provides. God is teaching me that God works through people I wouldn't have expected God to work through. And it is beautiful.

At our reception a week and a half ago, the service project got off to a slightly bumpy start, largely due to my not-fully-thought-through logistics of distributing aprons and gloves. But once people got going, they really got going! We made over 3200 sandwiches in less than an hour, and everyone (at least seemingly) truly enjoyed the project. I and my family heard innumerable unsolicited comments about how much fun people had had, and how meaningful it was that Alissa and I would choose to spend our special wedding day focused on serving others.

In addition to the sandwich project, we purchased 300 MATTERboxes - boxes full of non-perishable foodstuff - and invited every guest to take one or more to then hand out to panhandlers they might encounter. This had the unintended, but wonderful, side-effect of sparking conversations among the church staff about considering a similar gift for their parishioners. As well, we hope by both the MATTERboxes and sandwich project, that we have not only encouraged our guests to consider the "outsider," the less fortunate, the outcast whom Jesus loves, but also pointed them toward God and a heart of service beyond just our wedding day.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Wedding Vows

In a few hours, Alissa and I will make some life-long promises to each other. As a lead-up to the big moment, I thought I'd share some backstory about our vow-writing.

(side-note: we realized yesterday during rehearsal that we never say the literal words "I do" anywhere in the service - hopefully the marriage will still be valid anyway!)

A couple months ago, I reached out to a long lost friend to ask her about a phrase I remember she and her wife had used in their vows. It was something to the effect of "until one of us breathes no more", and the specific way they had phrased it I remember thinking at the time was particularly beautiful, and so I wanted to plagiarize that one sentence in my own vow. Kathryn, who has always been wiser than I, took a few days to ponder my request, and then responded she was choosing to decline sending me that sentence. Instead, she encouraged me and Alissa to do something like what she and her wife had done in their own vow-writing process: visit a coffee shop, and while sitting on opposite sides of the room, contemplate what exactly they were wanting to promise each other, what was important in their relationship. Then after a while (an hour? more? depends on the couple), they came together and, in their case, merged their thoughts into one vow that they would both read.

Alissa and I liked this idea, and so we did our own version of it a week or two ago (though instead of combining, we are each reading our own unique vow). Alissa had written her first draft some months earlier on a sleepless night, but for me this was my first shot really focusing on what I thought I might say. Sitting in Dunn Brothers (they had buy-one-get-one-free that night, so Alissa got a black bitter water and I got something tasty), I went through numerous notes accumulated over years of attending weddings.

Sadly, the promise "I will never leave you in a zombiepocalypse" didn't make it into my final draft, nor did any Taylor Swift lyrics. I also couldn't find a place for my favorite quote from Boy Meets World: "I do my thing and you do your thing. You are you and I am I. And if in the end we end up together, it's beautiful."

At the end of writing, I think my only plagiarism was a phrase lifted from my friend Kayla's vows: "I promise to communicate with you and always work on improving our communication. I promise to listen well and actively." Since communication is something Alissa and I discuss frequently, this seemed fitting.

The rest of my words were largely "Jeremy-isms," such as love being a choice, and my long-held believe that saying "I love you" also means acknowledging, "I will eventually cause you hurt." I also included a generic, though I think poignant, line about holding each others' hands in the doctor's office. Neither of us is sick right now, so it's not anything to panic about. But it comes from this story: years ago, as I prayed to God about a different relationship, I had a mental vision of the woman I loved coming home to me from a doctor's appointment, looking me in the eye, and me instantly knowing without her saying any words, that the test had come back as cancer. God asked me, "if this were to happen, would you love her and care for her even through that journey?" I've always held that in the back of my mind as one of my definitions of "love." And so the doctor's office in my vow may be referencing that, or it may be if we need to visit a fertility clinic for either one of us, or it may be me getting my next colonoscopy (coming up in February/March, oh yay :/ ), or who knows what. As I said it's generic, but for me, powerful in that generality.

The other big one for me is a single word I tucked into this phrase: "I promise I will be yours alone, faithful to you physically, visually, and emotionally." When hearing the word "affair" most people probably assume a physical affair, though in recent years I would say our society has become more open to acknowledging such a thing as an emotional affair, as well, even if it never becomes physical. Going beyond these two, it was as important to me to promise Alissa I would not have an affair with my eyes, either. Like most human males, my sexuality is turned on by visual stimuli, and I live in a culture where it is very difficult to avoid hyper-sexualized print-advertisements, television, movies, etc. Thinking back to a book I read years ago called "Every Man's Battle" (at least, I think that was the book; might have been "Every Man's Marriage" in the same series), the authors discuss "bouncing the eyes" away from provocative ads - as they allege, this "starves" the mind of any sexual arousal other than one's wife, which in turn makes her even more attractive because your mind isn't caught up comparing her to billboard and magazine models. Alissa and I have had some good conversations around this point, but even if we'd never discussed it, I would still have wanted to include the promise in my public declaration.

And lastly, on a less-heavy note, there are a few light-hearted "laugh points" as I call them. For example, "I promise I will try to solve all your problems, and then afterward remember that sometimes you need me just to listen instead of act." If you happen to read this blog post pre-wedding, you have my permission and encouragement to laugh/chuckle/giggle/make a random noise at that point during the vows, because while it is truth, it's also meant to be amusing.


Love is an emotion, and love is a choice. I have told you I love you in my heart; today I promise to choose to love you every day.

Love is a double edged sword, because saying “I love you” is also promising “I will say and do things that hurt you.” I will make selfish decisions, and we will have fights. Knowing I cannot promise we will have a strife-free relationship, I will instead promise to be there every time to work through the conflict and hurt.

I promise to communicate with you, and to work continually on improving our communication. I promise to listen well and actively. I promise I will try to solve all your problems, and then afterward remember that sometimes you need me just to listen instead of act.

I promise to learn how to make you coffee, to wake you up on mundane days. I promise I will have fun with you, to bring joy into our adventure together. I promise to be your cheerleader when you feel overwhelmed by your career, graduate schooling, or life’s unpredictable doses of chaos. I promise to hold your hand in the doctor’s office while we wait for test results. I promise to respect you and cherish you. I promise I will be yours alone, faithful to you physically, visually, and emotionally. And I promise to encourage you, and challenge you to grow, in your faith walk and relationship with God.

These promises I make from this breath forward, until one of us breathes our last.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Wedding prep insanity, or, "the meat and cheese debacle of '16"

As you may have read in previous wedding-related posts, instead of a dance at our wedding this Friday, Alissa and I will be hosting a service project for our guests to make 3000 sandwiches for distribution this winter to people experiencing homelessness and food scarcity.

Originally, I had been told we would be getting deli meat, cheese, and bread for pennies on the dollar, so I [mistakenly or not] did not budget for this expense. Unfortunately, a week ago (just 11 days before the wedding) I found out my source's source for mass quantities of those steeply-discounted products had dried up and was no longer available.

Thus began the most stressful week I've had in over four years (sadly I do remember the last time I was this close to a nervous breakdown), and yet at the same time it has also been a week full of watching God at work.

Last Wednesday morning, I posted a plea on Facebook, and also to our internal office email list, explaining my plight, and asking if anyone had suggestions for where I might source 400 pounds of meat and 130 pounds of cheese* for the sandwich making.

To say I was blown away by the response would be an understatement. By day's end, two dozen coworkers had replied with advice/suggestions/leads, as had half a dozen friends on FB. But what humbled me even more, were replies of people expressing their desire to contribute money to help defray my unexpected costs. First was an acquaintance from my filmmaking days years ago, followed shortly after by a friend I haven't seen in probably almost a year (and whom I'd forgotten to even invite to the wedding, oops! [that has been fixed now, and he's attending]). The amount of networking happening fell simultaneously into the realms of awesome/hilarious/kinda-crazy, as, for instance: one coworker called his cousin at a meat factory who talked to his manager who then talked to their VP, trying to get some donations worked out. Another called a long time friend who used to own a shop who was going to call the new owner. And another coworker put me in touch with his wife who runs a restaurant and so has access to the Restaurant Depot, which is basically Sam's Club on steroids. I kept thinking of that old joke about "I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy...".

The reality was I had too many suggestions/leads and too few hours to follow through on them myself (remember, I still had other wedding-related tasks on my plate, too!). Acknowledging to myself my own time deficit, I reached out to the wife of one of my close coworkers to ask if she'd be willing call around on my behalf, and so she spent an entire afternoon+evening last week calling various stores and non-profits, trying to find me meat and cheese donations. As the week went on several other friends and coworkers helped in this endeavor, as well. There were so many options in flight it was quite the mental exercise trying to keep everything straight.

In the midst of all this efforting (which for me was extremely exhausting and draining), the easy thing to do would have been give up and say we'll not do the sandwich making project after all. But my stubbornness, and if I may be so bold: the feeling that God was backing us up in this sandwich adventure, kept me from giving up. Instead, I allowed myself to feel the support of Community, all of whom wanted to see us succeed in doing Good (capitalizations deliberate).

Over the next days at work, I was asked frequently if I'd gotten my meat issue solved yet. As I explained my predicament (lots of leads, haven't had time to follow through on all of them, still likely that I'll have to end up purchasing from Sam's Club simply because in-kind donations require longer lead times than the one single week we had), I was continually blown away as more and more coworkers offered, "if you end up needing contributions, I'd be willing to donate some money." It was humbling, and heartening, and reaffirming. As I wrote to Alissa in the midst of this all:

I've had three separate people offer me donations today because of my FB post. I've teared up each time.

I'm sharing this with you to say, *we* *are* supported. The unlikeliest people (well, and some likely ones, too) are stepping up and offering suggestions, tangible help, and even money, to help us do our sandwich making service project. And the ones who can't help (a few of the nonprofits/businesses I've called asking for donations) still say "what a neat and cool idea" to do instead of a dance.

Also, this is a practical lesson for me about what my Jesus Calling devotional has been talking about today and the past couple days: relying on God, rather than my own abilities. The idea of shelling out an un-budgeted $2000+ to make the sandwiches happen, was a bit overwhelming to me. Now money and help are coming out of the woodwork. God is providing. God is teaching me that God provides. God is teaching me that God works through people I wouldn't have expected God to work through. And it is beautiful.

Un-relatedly, a day or two before this chaos began, I'd started keeping a gratefulness journal - writing down (aka typing into a Google Spreadsheet) at least one thing each day for which I was grateful. My spreadsheet was soon being filled with sandwich-related gratefulnesses as more and more people not only affirmed me, but then offered to do what they could to help. For instance Monday morning arriving to work, I hadn't even made it to my desk yet and a coworker handed me a check from him and his wife, because they both believed in our project and wanted to support us.

As I mentioned I (and many others) poured a lot of energy into solving this, including coordinating a trip to price-check meats & cheeses at the Restaurant Depot (huge thank you to Agnes and Keith!), figuring out if we bought the unsliced meat there, where I could slice it and how much that would cost ($1/pound is the answer, turns out), how much time that would take, all the logistics of refrigeration between now and Friday, etc. My contact from Catholic Charities (who will be taking/distributing the sandwiches) also spent hours on the phone talking with me, various Sam's Clubs, possible in-kind donors, and so on.

In the end, even though many vendors would have loved to help, the reality became that there wasn't enough time to clear all the approvals or even to physically ship the necessary quantity of meat and cheese we needed. So, yesterday, Aaron met me at Sam's Club in Eagan, and we loaded up two shopping carts FULL of 399 pounds of ham & turkey, and 130 pounds of cheese.

Now when I say "loaded up," I mean we cleaned them out of two different meat products and half their stock of a third, in order to get all 400 pounds (and it turns out trying to math when you're tired is hard! I don't know how many times we had to re-count the meat in our carts). We had a manager digging out meat from behind the refrigeration units and pushing it through the fridge door to us, while we loaded the carts from the customer-facing side of the fridge. We talked with another manager, who agreed to give us a $25 discount in order to price match website price of the cheese from another Sam's Club (funny side-story: she radioed up to the front to tell the checkout mangers that "two men with a lot of meat and cheese will be coming you way in a minute..."). And when we were pushing the carts from the fridges in the back of the store up to the checkout, we got a healthy dose of strange looks from passers by :)

To anyone and everyone who would listen, I told them Alissa's and my story about wanting to do this 3000-sandwich service project at our wedding reception. The poor cashier who got stuck with ringing us out (193 items total), thanked me, multiple times - I don't know her story, but hearing about our project really touched her and I think made an uplifting difference in her day. She also told me that we were the second largest purchase she'd ever seen come through her line at Sam's.**

While we were ringing out, another manager came up and asked Aaron, "are you the guy I talked to on the phone earlier about the meat?" When I explained what we were doing, she got a little misty eyed and asked, "that's really amazing. Can I hug you?" We both gave her a big hug.

Roughly an hour after arrival, we'd loaded all the meat and cheese into Aaron's Catholic Charities van, and he left to put it into their refrigeration units. At long last, my week of endless efforting had a resolution. At long last, my elevated resting heart rate could return to normal.

Some thoughts and reflections. At first I thought I needed to find in-kind donations, grocery stores willing to give us 10 or 20 pounds of meat here and there, in order to minimize financial cost. In retrospect, I think the week was more a lesson about the love and support of Community. While it would certainly have been nice to get all the meat and cheese for free, I think I spent a lot more time and energy than I should have, trying to pursue that. Had I last Wednesday instead decided, "this is unfortunate, but I'm just going to go to Sam's Club and take care of it," I could have spared myself a lot of stress.

At the same time, in the midst of that stress, I kept listening to two particular songs over and over. In the first (a particular live rendition of "King of My Heart"), the singer improvises some prayers in the middle of the song, and sings full of joy that "He's come to overwhelm the thing that's overwhelmed you this morning." That encouragement kept me going in the middle of my most stressed-out days. A reminder and acknowledgement that God's got this. Not just a platitude of "God's got a plan" or something trite like that. I truly saw tangible reassurances that God was working in this thing I called a "debacle," and when I thought about how many people were helping alongside, how could I not see God's providence in that? This related strongly, I think, to the second song that kept coming back to mind: "God is on the move." Wednesday Thursday and Friday last week, I basically kept these songs on repeat on my headphones, because even in the extreme stress, I still believe in their Truth.

* These poundage numbers are corrected here from my original Facebook and email estimates.

** UPDATED: Our total cost at Sam's was $1472.54. Of this, $250 was paid for by an "Action Team" grant from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. $25 was discounted from Sam's Club management as described above. Another $495 was paid for by contributions from friends and coworkers. And at our wedding, an additional $370 was gifted to us for this project. If you feel so led and would like to contribute toward offsetting the remaining $332.54, please let me know!