Short 04

A man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before great men.
— King Solomon

Good, Better, Best

There are many standards for writing the "perfect" story, but every person sees and values it differently.

For some, the perfect story ends with man and maiden riding off together into the sunset, happily ever after.

For others, it's the Romeo and Juliet approach, the undying love that ends up dead.

Still others kill one lover but not the other, leaving a languishing lover in the lurch.

If "perfect" is in the eyes of the beholder, there are as many perfect stories as there are people writing them. However, many people pick one style and stick to it, however feeble and weak it becomes from use. George Orwell, in an essay entitled Why I Write, from 1946, said, 

I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it.

A lot of what we do could be defined as upkeep. We've reached a certain level of ability, and now we're working to make sure we don't decline. It's like this with a lot of things we're used to doing every day: driving, cooking, walking down the steps, conversational habits.

There are many artists who use this style in their art as well. The good painter already knows a style that works for him, so that's what he does. The good pianist likes Chopin, so that's who she plays. The good mathematician knows the answer to this type of equation, so that's what he works on.

Therein lies the distinction between the good and the great, for the great artist tries what he has never tried before, the great pianist plays who she is not used to, the great mathematician works to tackle the unsolvable problem.

And the great writer always tries something new.

Once you've perfected something, practice it and keep the skill—but don't camp on it. That's not how you become great.

#ittakescourage

Being an adult is an inordinate amount of work. When you're a kid, your mom plans all the dentist and doctor and optometrist appointments—when you grow up, you have to do it all yourself.

Consequently, on Monday I scheduled and went to an eye appointment.

I asked the girl who did all the initial tests if she notices glasses people wear. She said yes, and her friends tease her about it, but she didn't seem to mind. I asked the doctor if she liked her job. She was waving her hand around in the air to test my peripherals as she said yes, because she doesn't like sitting in a cubicle all day.

Everyone was very nice. Adult-ing isn't so bad, apparently.

But that's not the point.

I went to a LensCrafters at Macy's, so they had dozens of designer eyeglasses, each section sporting their own particular branding and advertising.

I looked past the Ray-Ban poster several times before I actually read it.

 
 

You can see why; it's busy, it's distracting, and it's not perfect. But it's an excellent advertisement.

In a culture that idolizes technology, the desire (and ability) to interact face to face is rapidly diminishing. Crowds of people stand silent, each person plugged in, isolated, staring at a screen. Simply stated, we like our phones more than we like each other. Phones are cool and screen light is distracting, and social interaction isn't always pleasant anyways.

But eye wear is still a priority because without it, so many people (we're talking millions) are handicapped. Eyeglass providers aren't likely to go out of business any time soon, and Ray-Ban is no exception. And while they had the opportunity (and funds) to pay a famous model and take hot shots of him or her on the beach sporting their cool glasses, they chose to push a bigger agenda.

People with "bad" eyes need glasses (or contacts), but Ray-Ban appeals to something deeper than poor vision. Our souls crave human interaction, though media and society both tell us technology is enough. Advertisements like this prove that maybe, just maybe, a few people are noticing that technology isn't the be-all-end-all.

This advertisement has two sides. There's the personal side of the human interaction that draws you in, and once you're invested, there's the dare. The personal side carries whimsy and emotion. Seeing someone who is looking at another person with any emotion (love, anger, hate, jealousy) is arresting, and instantly draws you in. And once you're feeling that connection, you're hit with the phrase, the tag, the challenge:

UNPLUG
#ittakescourage

The photo of the hot model says, "Try harder and maybe you'll be cool like me." But none of us really feel like we actually could, so we quickly forget. 

The photo (although edited) that calls for greater human virtues is memorable. It triggers the heart to long for more. It says,

Don’t just settle. BE someone. Do the great things, even if they’re hard.

Ray-Ban is making NOT looking at your phone the better thing when everyone else is selling apps, Virtual Reality headsets, and bigger, brighter, waterproof screens. Instead of saying, "Buy our cool glasses, famous people wear them," Ray-Ban says, "Hey, you're looking at your phone all the time. Cool people don't just look at their phones—they look at each other too. They make hard choices, they do big stuff, and they wear our glasses. You can do all those things too."

Two points:

The world needs people who courageously stand for what matters. Don't be afraid to be one of them.

Advertising doesn't have to be glamorous or overly complex to be good. Two words (four, if you're parsing the hashtag) and a simple picture, and you're thinking about it for the rest of the day. Or week. That's a goal met, for Ray-Ban.

PS. Check out Ray-Ban's full campaign.

 

20 Quick Rules for Writing

1. Write carefully to express.
2. Write thoroughly to process.
3. Write difficult structure to learn it.
4. Write actively (as opposed to passively) to encourage.
5. Write meticulously to remember.
6. Write clearly to communicate.
7. Write quickly to create.
8. Write simply to delight.

9. Write more first.
10. Write faster first.
11. Write louder first.
12. Write passionately first.
13. Write cleverly first.
14. Write angrily, miserably, joyfully, first.
15. Write messily first.
16. Write everything first.

17. Edit second.

18. Edit third.

19. Edit out %50-75 of the contents of 9—16.

20. Edit again.

Why Life is Like Editing

We bought a hamster and named him Winston. We spend hours watching him, because he's the cutest furry ball we've ever seen. We bought him a wheel because the one that came with his cage was too small, and I'm very concerned about his health and wellness.

Unfortunately, we made the egregious error of purchasing a metal wheel instead of a plastic one. If Winston was a basement hamster and we lived upstairs, it would be fine. Unfortunately, he's a living room animal in our one bedroom apartment.

When we went to bed we thought the squeaky wheel was cute. Each consecutive time the squeaking woke us up, we thought it was less cute. He (probably) ran at least 200 miles in the short 7 hour period we were (not, but supposed to be) asleep.

The next morning we took the wheel out of the cage, returned it, and bought a plastic wheel that runs on ball bearings, silently.

The sound of silence has never been so beautiful.

Life is like editing. If you do something poorly and you can fix it, fix it. Better to live with the brief embarrassment of correcting an error than the eternal shame of having left the wording messy, or the problem unsolved.

So Long, Last Year

2016

In January I started my first full-time job, and my last semester of undergrad.

February 1, I turned 21 (also, I am completely unashamed that my birthday is my favorite day of the year. Please send gifts.).

In March I rode my bike 7 miles to work with my helmet on backwards (yes, it was embarrassing that I didn't notice till I got to work), ate my first ever maple bacon donut (highly recommend), and picked out a wedding band.

In April my Grandma, who I loved very much, met Jesus face to face for the first time.

In May I sat in a crowded auditorium with 3,500+ people, 300-some of whom were also wearing funny black dresses and flat hats. I walked across the stage (without tripping, might I add), received a diploma, SHOOK HANDS WITH THE PRESIDENT (of the school), and became a college graduate. I also got my first speeding ticket (whoops).

In June I went to Idaho (once) and Indiana (lots of times), got a cover for my book, saw my childhood best friend for the first time in years, made an imprint for publishing my book, got in my first bike real accident (nothing broken, just bent and shaken up), and went swimming at the beach most days on my lunch break.

In July I became a wife, went to Massachusetts, and moved into a corner apartment in downtown Chicago. I also published the eBook version of The Cup.

In August I became the proud owner of a vacuum cleaner, a trash can, and a Kitchenaid (three things that officially make you an adult). I also got one more brother-in-law (Woot Woot!).

In September I changed my last name (which you know is a lot of work, if you've ever done it), got a new pair of running shoes, and started being creative again.

In October I published the paperback version of The Cup, and Curtis bought me a subscription to the Wall Street Journal.

In November we gave thanks to God for the past year of blessing, and five days later the sprinkler head in our apartment exploded and ruined our living room (The Day There Was(n't) a Fire).

In December the brake lines on our car went out, Curtis finished exactly half of his undergrad/grad school career, we celebrated our first Christmas together, and we bought a hamster (on a whim, because we could, and he's small and fluffy and very cute).

It was one of those milestone years, where every time I turned around something big was happening. Some of it was easy. Some of it wasn't. Looking back now, I see how all of it turned out good. Outside of my personal sphere, the world also experienced a lot of change. Some of it was good, some of it was bad, and much of it was very very hard.

Over our Christmas break, we went to see Rogue One. Critique of the actual film aside (it was decent, but there was minimal character development, which was a bummer), there were at least a half-dozen previews before the feature film began. Almost every single one was about humans fighting aliens, humans fighting super-villians, humans fighting crime, humans fighting other-worldly forces, but always, humans fighting. 

I had an epiphany: everything fights humanity.

Because we fight back.

We fight crime, we fight things that are bigger than us, we fight hurricanes and earthquakes and fire, we set ourselves up against insurmountable odds. We do it without question, because it's what we do (like eating and sleeping and hitting snooze).

We live in a world that is littered, left and right, with the evidence of sin trying to win, but we haven't given up. We fight because we are not programmed to back down, because we believe that there is good and it is worth fighting for. We fight because Jesus Christ fought first, fought the urge to choose the easy route, and gave himself be brutally murdered so that we are not doomed to losing eternally.

Humans are the chosen enemy of every fictitious and fantastical world, because we are the only ones who will oppose them, who will stand and deliver in the face of impossibility, who will get knocked down and get up, again and again and again. Humanity is, to the avid warrior, the best opponent, because the human spirit has unquenchable resiliency in the face of insurmountable odds. 

We keep on fighting. Because even when the tunnel is caving in, even when it's dark outside and the stars can't make it through, we cannot just give up. We have to keep trying, even if the victories are infinitesimal, even if it's one step forward, five steps back.

I'm not given to profanity, but 2016 was a h-e-double-hockey-sticks of a year for a lot of people. Really, every year is. But it was also full of hope, redemption, and little kindnesses.

And God was gracious, and let us live in His green world, day after day.

2017 might be a piece of cake. Or it might be even worse. History proves that every year has the bitter and the sweet, intermingled throughout. 

Either way, we'll keep fighting for the better, fighting because God made us to be full of courage, not fear. We fight because the landscape of eternity is much larger than we can even imagine, but what we do still matters.

We are fighters, and even after a year that knocks our wind out, we'll take a deep breath and surge into the next one.

It will be delightful, and there will be delicious moments and snapshots we'll treasure forever. 

It will be brutal, and sometimes we will wish to crawl into a large cave and hide forever.

It will be 2017, and we will fight to live it better than we lived 2016.

It's what we do.

It's Almost Christmas

The wonder of Christmas—the epiphany, the world shattering and heart-stopping truth—is that we're celebrating a Baby. 

He was born to a virgin, a teenager, who received the news of her pregnancy from a heavenly messenger. Over the next nine months, she must have spent time wondering over the child who was hidden in her womb, wondering who He would be, what He would become, and how He would be King.

She must have felt fear about being guardian of something so sacred, so great, so precious.

Joseph, engaged to be married, found his bride-to-be had conceived a child, and he was not the father. He planned a human response, but his course was changed by a heavenly directive. Instead of separation, he stayed with her and took care of her. The future was hidden, and he had no idea what it would mean to be the father of One who would save His people from their sins, but he was faithful.

Zechariah and Elizabeth, childless for their entire married lives, had been presented with the gift of a son, a man who would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. But they didn't know how it would happen, nor could they predict the cruelty of his death. The destiny of their baby boy was hidden.

Bethlehem, teeming with native residents summoned by census, was full to the brim. From all around, men brought their wives and children, and every bed in the entire city was occupied. Joseph, terrified by the prospect of an overly pregnant wife, begged and pleaded until he found an innkeeper who was willing to let him stay in the stables. They moved in with the animals, hidden from every eye around by the odor and the dirt.

Shepherds watched their flocks in the wild darkness, hidden from the city as their smell was too much and their manners not enough.

Angels, hidden in the backstage corners of heaven, waited for the greatest curtain call that has ever been made, that will ever be made.

Wise men, masters of astronomy and prophecy, examined the heavens and waited patiently for the king who was to come. Disappointed that he was still hidden, they still searched.

Anna in the temple, hoped for her hidden Savior.

Simeon, hoping, trusting, clutching to a promise that he would live to see his Lord, Who was still hidden away.

Suddenly, in the lonely darkness, surrounded by munching animals, Mary gave birth to the Baby the world awaited but wasn't expecting.

His future was hidden, his personality hidden, likely even his face was hidden in the darkness. 

He was the Child born to be King. But His entire entry to the world that He came to rescue was announced only by angels, and insignificant to all besides some smelly shepherds, a few rich men far away, and two old people hanging around the temple. His birth was hidden from the public eye. Wrapped in newborn's rags, He spent his first night in the world full of people he loved surrounded by the lowest of society.

He didn't come to be the conquerer, the conquistador, the lauded victor. He came to save His people from their sins, to be sin for them, that they might live.

He was hidden, but His birth and death was the most important gift we have ever received, and will ever receive.

He was hidden, but His life held the mightiest purpose.

He was hidden, but He was King.

For Him, we can be hidden, for He gave His life for us. For Him, we can say, "More of You, and less of me." For Him, we can celebrate this Christmas in the rich joy of knowing that all is not lost, that we were not forgotten, that we are loved and redeemed.

And for Him, we can be thankful. For at the very first Christmas, in a hay-filled manger surrounded by awe, God gave us His best.

His Son.

No Gas, No Brakes.

Last Friday, Curtis and I drove separately to a wedding rehearsal in southern Michigan. He left a few hours before me in our friend's car, as he was running the A/V for the ceremony and reception so he had to be there early, and I had to finish my work day before I could head out.

I was writing in my cubicle when he texted me.

 
 

He told me he was going to look for help, and that was the last I heard from him. I tried not to worry that he was going to wander back to a house in the woods and meet an untimely end.

He did wander back to a house in the woods, but instead of meeting his untimely end he met a wonderful mother and grown son baking Christmas cookies. The son, Jason, offered to take him to the gas station, and half an hour later he texted me again, telling me he'd made it to the rehearsal.

I'd left Chicago some time before, and was driving on the toll road a few miles west of Gary when the fuel gauge needle dipped into the orange and the dashboard started beeping at me. When I found a gas station 20 minutes later, the snowfall was thickening. 

Our gas cap locks. We have a few sets of keys for our car, but the set I grabbed in my hurry out the door didn't have the key to open the cap. I tried to pry it open in the blowing snow, but couldn't, so after a little pep talk in the still-warm car, I went inside and asked a friendly looking security officer for help.

He had a skeleton key in his set of tools, and after jimmying around with the cap for a while, watching a youtube video, and rubbing his hands together to warm them up, he turned to me with a broad grin on his face, holding the gas cap.

I thanked him profusely, then filled the tank and went on my merry way, texting Curtis.

 

I believe that God puts us in circumstances for very specific reasons. I had been planning to take the train to Michigan. My bag was packed and sent with Curtis, and he was going to drive the half hour back south to pick me up after the rehearsal. I decided at the last minute to drive, which resulted in the almost-stranded experience. I spent the second half of the drive wondering why I hadn't taken the train.

Sunday night, as we were driving home from the children's Christmas program at church, the brakes on our car turned very soft (If you've ever experienced this, you understand. You press the brake, and it keeps going down, and the car doesn't stop, and your foot goes so far down you feel like you're about to kick the engine, and still nothing happens.). Our stops took progressively longer as Curtis carefully navigated his way the last two miles home. By the time we got there it took almost an entire block to stop, even with the pedal pressed all the way down.

I have now realized why I didn't take the train to Michigan.

I use our car more than Curtis does in the city, mostly to go grocery shopping. If the car was on its last leg and I hadn't driven to Michigan, the brakes likely would have gone out while I was driving around the city, buying groceries at night after work, in the middle of the winter.

I like driving, but I have no love for driving a car that doesn't stop when I press the brake pedal. Curtis, on the other hand, was fine with it. Manly challenges are good for men.

Life is often not easy (The Day There Was(n't) a Fire), but God is kind. He directs our steps and decisions, to keep us safe. He cares about making the little things a little simpler. He loves us.

The more I dust for them, the more I notice sovereign fingerprints covering my life.

Better, Not Wrong

Yesterday for the first time in a few years (it's embarrassing, I know), I went to the dentist. I grew up getting my teeth cleaned routinely, enduring the shame of continual lectures about better flossing and brushing. As it had been a several year long hiatus since the last time I went, I expected the lecture to be prolonged (although I do brush my teeth regularly, and I even floss sometimes).

Instead of a lecture, they brought me back to the inner sanctum of cleaning rooms and gray chairs (which, incidentally, have always held a certain sort of awe for me), and treated me like an honored guest.

No one lectured me about my teeth.

No one told me I was doing anything wrong.

No one chastised me for being irresponsible or lazy in regards to my mouth.

Instead, the kind dental hygienist who cleaned my teeth told me they were nice, that they looked good, and to make sure I paid attention to the gums around my molars.

She showed me into another room to wait for the dentist, and there another woman offered me a bottle of ice cold water.

I met the Dentist (even though 'dentist' is a common noun, he was tall and had a red beard and red hair and shook my hand like a lumberjack would—he deserves an uppercase.), who showed me x-rays of my teeth and said they looked great. He asked me how my experience had been and if there was anything he could do for me, and promised to give a gift card to the person who had recommended me. He looked me in the eye, told me exactly what he was doing while he examined my mouth, and answered every question I asked quickly but clearly.

As I was leaving, the young ladies working the front desk were kind and cheerful, chatty but noncommittal. There was even a huge bowl (we're talking the circumference of a medium or large pizza from Papa Johns) filled with sticks of Orbit gum on the front desk, and there was coffee by the door.

I walked out, and to my surprise realized I wouldn't mind going back (which is good, because while I was there they scheduled my appointment for June. Who knows where I'll be in life in 6 months... But at least I'll have a sparkling smile.).

I used to spend days dreading the dentist; but not because I had bad teeth or lots of cavities or didn't like the taste of fluoride (although it's not my favorite). It wasn't for any reason besides that it was unpleasant, and I always got lectured or scolded or told I wasn't "taking good enough care of your mouth," and "teeth don't grow back when you mistreat them." I remember wincing in pain as the hygienist nicked my tender little gums with her tools, and I can still see the blurry ceiling through my teary eyes as I bore what felt like a dozen metal instruments in my mouth, all pricking and poking and jabbing. 

While my memories may be exaggerated by my youthful distate for the whole experience, I still carried some dentist-fear deep in my heart.

Until yesterday. 

I spent a lot of time thinking this week about how I like to be "handled," so to speak. Not physically, but in relation to my skills and talents and responsibilities, as a student. If every person is unique, each person has a different way they like to be taught. Most schools use the simple teacher/student method, because even if it's not the best for everyone, it's the most effective method to mass produce education.

In this method, teachers don't have a lot of time to devote to individuals, but often when they do it's for blunt correction and hasty set-straights.

In such cases as math and science and driving a car and playing the piano, perfect practice makes perfect. Letting someone practice wrong is doing nothing for anyone.

But in creative exercises, like writing and painting and photography and making pretty things, it's a more detrimental style of teaching. Bluntly telling someone that they've done badly at creating is as good as telling them not to try again.

In creating, I want to be told how to do better, not what I'm doing wrong.

Maybe it (the painting, the picture, the poem) is awful, not fit for human sight or consumption. But rather than a straight knock-over gale force wind, there's always room for the gentle breeze. 

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, wrote, 

You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too.

Yes, if I'm making an egregious error, I do need to be told. Please don't let me drive off a cliff because you don't want to tell me I'm holding the steering wheel wrong.

But if my work needs whittling and reform, plain and simple editing, I want you to tell me what makes a good writer and give me time to try again. And maybe fail again, but to keep trying until I've succeeded. It might take a little longer, but in the long run I'll own the lesson and the skill.

It's harder for the student, because it takes more work, frustration, and determination. It's harder for the teacher, because if you know something it's extremely difficult to hold your tongue.

But in the long run, the lessons that are worth learning are the ones you had to work for.

Like writing well, or being a better ball player. Or brushing your teeth.

PS. You should definitely ALWAYS brush your teeth. It is not a creative exercise—it is your only mouth. I am telling you to.

You Must Learn to Rise Above

The Wall Street Journal publishes a magazine for their subscribers every other month. In general, it is full of advertisements for expensive luxuries, and moody articles about different things. However, the written word still prevails, and in each edition, there is a Soapbox feature, a page where six people get to weigh in on one single topic, chosen for them by the editors. The topics vary from tangible to conceptual; the most recent issue covered Manners.

Laura Dern is an actress in The Founder, a film coming out in January, and in Big Little Lies, a miniseries airing on HBO in February. She wrote a particularly insightful blurb, saying,

"It's always thrilling when I meet people, particularly men, whose manners are beautiful. My earliest education in manners came from my Southern Grandmother and Southern mother.

I was raised to believe that a man opened the door for a lady; he walked down the stairs in front of her so that should she trip and fall he could catch her.

A properly raised gentleman considered how he could support a woman, not because she's more delicate, but because it was the right thing to do. So the presidential election has been a true education for me and for my daughter as well.

The most offensive quality is the quality of a bully. My grandmother taught me that even when you're angry, you must treat others with respect. You must learn how to rise above."

Even when someone is trying to pick a fight, even when no one is looking, you must learn how to rise above. 

It is a building block of character, and the ability to do so will be invaluable for the rest of your life.