Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Looking Back and Forward

Wow. If I post another 21 times before midnight, my post count for this year will equal the post count for 2010, which up until now was the year with the fewest entries. Yeah, I don't think I'll even try.

However, I do want to make one more post before ushering in the new year. One of my assignments for school this last semester was to write up my core values - that is, not ideals I aspire to, but what other people who know me would be able to put their finger on and say, "Yes, that's her. That's what drives her."

With a few tweaks, it's something I'd like to share, as an appropriate way to see out the year gone by. Rather than making resolutions, which I don't do anyway, I will end the year by reviewing what is constant. By understanding this, I can prepare for all the changes that are bound to happen in 2014. By verbalizing what holds sway over me, I can be aware of both my strengths and weaknesses, and decide what to do with them.

1. I value family

God has blessed me with an incredible family that I love and respect very much. The strong roots that my family has helped me to grow continue to connect me to my family even when we are separated by distance. Presented with the choice, I take my family over friends or other commitments pretty well every time. There is little I would not do if my family needed me to do it. I thank God for my family and consider it one of the greatest, if not the greatest, gift he has given me.

2. I value community

People are social beings and the people I choose to associate with are very important to me. Unity, harmony, and strong reliable bonds provide security, and this is something that many people sadly lack. Even when relationships come to a natural end, such as relationships with summer campers or team members on short term trips, I give my heart knowing I will be leaving part of it behind. The times I have most closely encountered God have been the times when people in my community showed him to me. Deep relationships with people inspire me to become more Christ-like and I believe that where community is strong, it can change a culture for the better.

3. I value service

I have made a conscious decision to serve God, people, and the world around me. I seek to contribute, rather than just benefit, from the people and places I find myself. Toward this end, I make a point to volunteer for various tasks and positions. Sometimes it is a formal role, such as being active within my church, and sometimes it is informal, such as regularly editing the school papers of my peers. In serving others, I learn that the world does not revolve around me and I come to appreciate all the more the things that people do to serve me.

4. I value commitment

When I join a group, that group becomes a priority for me. It is rare for me to miss meetings or shifts or services, or whatever form of gathering the group utilizes. More than just attendance, I aim to be a reliable member that starts off enthusiastic and ends well – someone who can be trusted to see what she started through to completion. Once I have given my word to do something, I see it as my duty to follow through.

5. I value respect

I work with the basic assumption that all people deserve respect and seek to give them that respect. This happens in various ways. For example, I dislike gossip, and seek to point out the good in someone when the conversation is negative. I prefer to use the titles that people have earned rather than assume that I may use their first name. I treasure the diversity found in other cultures and respect the ways they are different from mine. If and when I see someone being mistreated, I get truly angry - insofar as this goes, it could be said that I value justice. Further, I wish to be on the best possible terms with the people I encounter, and so I seek to recognize and respect both our differences and our common ground.

6. I value compassion

God has compassion on his creatures, and I seek to be one of the tangible ways people experience that compassion. Where sometimes it is easy to see merely right or wrong, I see hurt and suffering. When others talk, I listen, so that if I am unable to do anything else, then I have sat with them a while and shown them that they are not ignored or forgotten. I seek to understand the trials of the people around me because when I can see the larger picture, I can see how we are all one family. When someone allows me to share in their emotions, I consider them to be affording me one of the highest possible honours.

7. I value contemplation

There is so much to experience and learn and I do not wish to have someone else tell me what I am supposed to understand from it all. I seek to be open-minded and see things from the point of view of others, without being so open-minded that my mind figuratively falls out. I search for wise guides, and consider carefully the things I have been taught and the things that culture tries to instill. Spending time just thinking is not uncommon for me, and it is often time well-spent.

8. I value learning

I strive to learn more about God, about people, and about life. I am called to grow to be like Christ, and growth cannot happen without learning. Reading books, having good talks, and learning about the viewpoints of others all play a large role in my life. Whether I am in a formal educational setting or not, I endeavor to never stagnate, but always to be growing in knowledge and wisdom.

9. I value personal excellence

When I choose to do something, I apply myself to do it as well as I possibly can. Sometimes this means deep cleaning the fridge when it would be easier to do just a quick wipe-down, or it means re-editing multiple times something I have written. I strive to improve whatever I am working on, so that when something is declared finished, I can feel proud of my effort. I feel that I am cheating others when I do something for them that is less than I am capable of.

10. I value confidence

Confidence in myself is rootless, but my confidence is found in God. Because I know who I am in his eyes, I have confidence to live and act as I believe I should. I am not easily pushed around by those who surround me. I have not succumbed to pressures that so many struggle with, such as substance abuse or empty relationships, nor am I afraid to think against the grain. Since my identity in rooted in God, he helps me to stand strong in the face of winds that try to blow me in many directions.

11. I value potato chips

God has called us to be salt and light in the world, so I take my inspiration from salty, light potato chips. While others crave sugar, I crave the seasoned goodness of deep fried vegetables. I am known to do homework while curled up on my bed, my hand in a bag of Lays. Through snacks like these, my mouth has been prepared for the culinary tastes of cultures that prefer savoury flavours to sweetness. My preference for potato chips has made me ready to go boldly forth into the far reaches of the world where there is no chocolate.*

We live in uncertain times. I don't know what the next year is going to look like for me or for anyone, but there is something comforting about knowing who you are and who you will strive to be, regardless of circumstances.

May God walk with us all into the coming year.

"It is a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." J. R. R. Tolkien

*If you're wondering, I turned in number 11 only on the first draft, which was ungraded. 

Sunday, 22 December 2013

I am a Christian

A lot has happened during the relative silence on my blog. If I had to pick out the most important thing I can share with you, here it is.

One of the youth pastors I used to volunteer under has a young family; they’ve been a favourite of mine ever since his girls first sat on my lap in church. In addition to loving his family, I found that we agreed on many things theologically – more so than I usually agree with other Christians. Generally speaking, he impressed me. However, his family fell on hard times; I don’t know the details, but he and his wife were hurt by the Church. He swung more liberal and stopped putting up with conservatives. It made me sad to see the hurt and anger he was carrying, but everyone has their own journey. As he cut off ties with a lot of people in my church, I was still welcomed into their home.

A little before Remembrance Day this year, he made an announcement. “I’m not a Christian,” he posted to his blog and Facebook. This wasn’t a bait-and-switch thing that people online seem to love, one of those scandalous-title-with-an-inspirational-message articles. He renounced his faith. My brother saw it first and texted me to let me know.

Our friend has since blocked or deleted his blog and disabled his Facebook, so I can’t check the quote for accuracy, but the thrust of his message was that he still believes in God…for now… but as far as Christians are concerned, he said, “If it comes down to being with them or against them – I have to set myself against them.”

I cried inside all that day.

In chapel just that morning at school, our deacon had given a sermon on cynicism towards the church. He pointed out that as we study and develop critical minds, we also often develop critical spirits. We have higher expectations of our Christian compatriots than of random godless schmoes from the street. When we are disappointed by those in the Church, the result in us is cynicism and arrogance. He spoke about how Christian cynics isolate themselves from the community of the Church and end up becoming functional atheists.

He also spoke about how the antidote to cynicism is an active prayer life and more, not less, fellowship and worship with those in the Church. It’s not a matter of blinding yourself to the problems within the church, but a matter of being willing to learn and grow together. It’s a matter of being willing to serve the ones that drive you crazy and seeing that your distaste can turn into love.

I have noticed a tendency in myself to be critical and cynical towards the church. I came back to my dorm thinking, “I needed to hear that.”

And then our friend made his announcement.

It’s not that I don’t understand why he made the choice he did. I do. I understand so well that I guess I had to hear that sermon just before it all hit the fan. He and I tend to think a lot along the same track, though I’m not so far along the trail as he is. Our minds work in similar ways. But here, I guess, we diverge.

He renounces being a Christian. I choose to continue being a Christian - because I still love the Church, I still hope for it, and I still want to rise with it to be what it’s called to be. I can’t do that while I’m busy condemning it. In the past, I’ve tried to steer clear of labeling myself a Christian to the general public, not because I’m not one, but because I am ashamed of the baggage that goes along with the term. Yet, this season I have decided that I am not going to keep that distance anymore. I am a Christian, and both as tarnished and as blessed as the holy Church.

There is so much more I could say, but today I am first and foremost thankful for the people who surround me, challenge me, and encourage me in my walk. This semester has been incredible.

"Christ is the salvation of cynics and fools. Of all people, he had most reason to be cynical. He is the one who suffered in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and he is the one who gave himself over to a community that would only abuse his body. The salvation that Jesus brings to cynics is…that we meet Jesus himself as we persist before God and in the midst of the people who bear his name.” Dustin Resch

Monday, 4 November 2013

Call to Insane Productivity





Seriously, all those weirdos who believe Movember started up for charity reasons don't know what they're talking about. I swear, it's because guys realized they didn't have time to do everything, so they gave up shaving. Said the girl who was posting to her blog when she should have been researching a philosophy paper.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Douglas Adams

Monday, 28 October 2013

I Sneeze in Your General Direction

I am not dead. But, as you can probably tell by the silence on this blog, I am back at school, being assaulted by homework and commitments on all sides and I am trying valiantly to stay on my feet. Something has to give, and it's usually this blog. Which is too bad, because my most interesting thoughts happen at school.

This is probably not one of them.

I am allergic to something. I don't know to what, but it seems to have been building over the last few years, getting slowly worse. The last couple months have driven me batty. My nose is in a perpetual state of being rubbed almost raw. My quadmates are sweet and buy me Kleenex and stuff and don't complain, usually. But once, after I let out a few dramatic ones, my roommate hushed me and told me not to wake anybody up.

"Anybody in the next room will be awake for class already, anyway," I protested.

"Shh! There's a row of houses across the street," Heather retorted.

In an attempt to identify what makes my nose itch and run and sneeze, I have been taking note of when I do most of my sneezing:
-When I wake up.
-When I sit up from a mostly horizontal position.
-When it's time to go to bed.
-When I go into my dorm.
-When someone walks into a room.
-When someone walks past me.
-When I am with you and you are my cousin.
-When I touch freeze-dried blood worms.

I also get a runny nose sometimes when I am outside, or in a building, or standing up, or I touch my nose, or I think about sneezing. Anytime, really. And when I am sick. My current theory is that I'm allergic to life. And maybe to animal dander, dust, and mold.

On a side note, why is it that runny noses seem to stop when we fall asleep? I used to go to sleep concerned that my nose would drip throughout the night and that I needed pillow guards made of Kleenex. But I don't. What part of the body is it that decides to plug up the nose at night and how can we tap into this wonderful power?

Quadmate Lona: "Whenever Carla sneezes, it's like tiny missiles going off. It's quite exciting for me."
And later: "Carla sneezes constantly lately, so my life is constantly filled with excitement."

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Chinese Church: An Analysis

This summer, my teammates and I were able to attend an English language church service in China. Our team leader, Dave, had us dress up in “teacher clothes” so we didn't look like slobs, packed us into a bus, and took us to meet some of his friends. It was a super hot morning, and the church was located in a big concrete lot that baked in the sun. In fact, the church itself looked pretty much like a giant hunk of concrete. The congregants lined up two-by-two outside the church, in the shadiest place possible, waiting to be let in. A beggar woman moved in and out of the line, asking us for money. I gave her a few yuan.

First impression: Well, there’s no mistaking the purpose of this building.

Across the top of the looming structure were huge, bright red letters that proudly spelled “Christian Church” in both English and Chinese. There was no denomination attached, or a vague “unchurchy” name to act as a hook. It was just "Christian Church". China doesn’t deal with the plethora of denominations that the western world does. Apparently, it has only two kinds of churches; the option we attended was an official church, and the other option (which was not an option for us) is the underground church. As far as I understand it, the pastors of the official churches are assigned by the government, which means that sometimes they can be rather… patriotic, rather than Christian. But I didn’t get the sense that such was the case with this particular church.

We filed in, found our seats on some cushioned pews, and put our purses on a neat little ledge thing extending from the back of the pew in front of us. It made a lot of sense. Why do North American seating arrangements not feature this?

About this time, Dave, who tends to use a lot of sarcasm, got a panicked look on his face. “Wait,” he asked our young Chinese hosts, Jessie and Levi, “Is this an English service?”

“Yes,” they replied.

“Is it actually?” Dave questioned again.

“Yes,” we all replied.

“Oh,” said Dave, relaxing. “Ok.” It appears that he uses sarcasm so often that he believes everyone else uses sarcasm all the time, too. And if our hosts had been sarcastic when they agreed to take us to an English service…

Chinese people don’t usually use sarcasm. We understood the sermon.

Second impression: No Hillsong music!!!

The music section of the service began, and it felt very familiar. The worship team was pretty similar in composition (drums, guitar, keyboard, vocals…) and the words to the songs were projected onto the movie-theatre sized screen at the front of the church. I would venture to say that it could have happened in my evangelical home church in Calgary, with one change: the songs were Chinese songs. That is to say, there was no Hillsong influence apparent - or Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman or whoever it is that writes most of the stuff we sing nowadays. There were a few older English hymns, but otherwise the songs were translated Chinese lyrics and tunes. At least, they were mostly translated. I tried to put my pinyin reading skills to use to keep up with the Chinese portions of the lyrics when I could. I’d give myself maybe a 7 out of 10 rating in that endeavor.

Given the tidal wave that is Hillsong and popular Christian artists, I was pretty happy to see that Christians in China sing praises that are a product of their own situations and imaginations and not just ones that are exported from western culture.

Third impression: Female Chinese pastor – wha??

I guess somewhere deep down I had been expecting to find it a missionary church. You know the deal – a white missionary goes to a foreign country, starts up a church, runs the church, and ministers to the locals indefinitely. I know that’s not always what happens, but I had expected to see a lot of white influence in the church, especially given that it was a service being done in English. Not so. Please forgive my ignorance. The pastor was Chinese. Not just ethnically, either. Her accent was pretty strong; it was clear that she was born and raised in China, speaking Chinese. And neither was most of the congregation white. Most of the congregation was as Chinese as she was, though there were some white people sprinkled around here and there. This was literally an English service in a Chinese church, not an English service by the foreigners in China.

The pastor wore the traditional clerical collar, which makes her only the second woman I’ve ever seen doing so. She preached on suffering. The theme was “Opposition brings Opportunity” and was very evangelism-centric. I won’t go so far as to say that I’ve never heard a North American pastor speaking on Christian suffering, but it’s rare. And usually when it happens, it comes out sounding kind of like this:

“We’re Christians, so people persecute us. It’s hard, I know, but that’s what happens when you follow Jesus. People don’t like us and discriminate against us because they don’t like the truth. The very culture is against us, so it’s time to rise up and take back the culture!”

In this service, it sounded more like this:

“We’re Christians, so people persecute us. But, hah ha! The joke’s on them. Because when we’re persecuted, we scatter and spread the gospel to even more people! Hah ha! Chin up! Yeah, it’s hard, but be encouraged – it means God has found you worthy to suffer for him. So go and spread the gospel!”

Ok, I added the hah-ha bits. In truth, the pastor seemed quite emotional and nearly broke into tears when she spoke about wanting to encourage the church – and herself – to stay strong and bold in the face of suffering. I might add that the persecution in China is ramped up a few notches up from what North Americans usually mean when they talk about being discriminated against. The underground church still exists in China.

I was left with the impression that North American Christians (including myself) are kind of wimps sometimes. We may suffer, but one of those things we suffer from is a victim complex. We bewail our situation and think of ways to turn the tables. In this service, there was no woe-is-me aspect to the sermon. No sense that it was anything Christians shouldn’t have to put up with – after all, we are disciples of Jesus, and look at how much he had to suffer!

The pastor broke it down like this:
-It costs nothing to believe Jesus
-It costs something to follow Jesus
-It costs everything to be a witness of Jesus.

Fourth impression: Wow, it appears that the church building isn’t the only thing that’s huge!

This was obviously not a rare theme or a rogue pastor at this church. The congregation must have been pretty keen on evangelism, because the pastor announced that we should celebrate as this afternoon, there were going to be 180 new baptisms in the church! We did cheer. And we all sort of squirmed in our seats and eyed each other sheepishly when, during the sermon, she remarked on how some years ago, when this church had first been rebuilt (yes – “re”built; it appears persecution is a highly personal thing) , it was just a "very small" church of 400 or 500 people. But now it had over 8000 attendees, 15 pastors, and 5 services weekly! It had also recently sent a missionary to the Middle East, which we got to hear a bit about.

That being said, the pastor also announced that next week they would be starting a sermon series on love, relationships and family, which sounds a little more North American standard.

There were some other interesting things that I noticed. There was no offering collection plate passed around, for example. If you desired to give, you discreetly slid your offering into a box on the wall. They had evangelistic tracts to hand out with the sinner’s prayer on them – but the sinner’s prayer was actually the Lord’s Prayer taken straight from the Bible. Announcements came at the end of the service, rather than the beginning (and those were only in Chinese).

Oh, and we were welcomed as first-time visitors by being asked to stand up while the entire congregation and worship team sang “The Welcome Song”, which was a bouncy little song in a vaguely Happy Birthday-ish style. The lyrics were something like “Grace and peace – God bless you!” x10. Then they gave us info slips and church DVDs.

Oh, and Jaynette was preached to by an interesting local she met. He gave her a list of websites to visit so she could be sure of her salvation. Jessie apologized to Jaynette, saying that their church "attracts some strange people".

After church, we went for lunch with Jessie and Levi, who excitedly shared with us a dessert of shaved ice with red bean paste and gelatin. We politely picked at it. Then we went by taxi back to our hotel. That taxi ride was probably the single most nerve-wracking experience of the entire month abroad. When Rachel, Stephanie, Einar and I came out alive on the other end, eyes wide and fists still subconsciously looking for something solid to grip, we could do nothing but giggle.

For me, our visit to Chinese church drove home the fact that North America really isn’t the Christian capitol of the world anymore, if it ever was. There’s a lot we can learn from our brothers and sisters across the globe.

“You cannot just have a comfortable life. You cannot just have a Christian small group. You must go! May God bless all of us!” –the closing line of the sermon

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Culinary Horizons

I am back at school and this time, instead of having one quadmate and a room to myself, I have three quaddies, one of which is my roomie. I have no idea how we are going to share food. I suspect that it will be very... interesting. But probably not as interesting as the food I ate in China this summer!

We went to the night market, Wangfujing, which is in Beijing. Our team director, Dave, promptly took us to a food stall that featured tiny seahorses on a stick, giant starfish on a stick, and still-frantically-thrashing scorpions on a stick. I can't say that I very much like the idea of being still alive and skewered on a stick. I don't think the scorpions liked it much, either. We amended their situation quickly by having them deep fried and seasoned. Then we ate them. We also ate snake on a stick.

Here's the play-by-play:

First, I snapped the stinger part off the little dude, because I didn't want to risk getting stabbed in the throat. Then, I tried to stare it down because everyone knows that the longer you delay something scary by staring at it, the less frightening it becomes. Then I psyched myself up by pretending to be on Fear Factor. Then I put the WHOLE THING IN MY MOUTH AT ONCE.

"Yargghh!" cheered Nick, who was filming the attempt, "Crunch crunch crunch crunch!"

"Oh," I said, "It's not bad." Truly it wasn't, given that all I could taste was seasoning.

"Whoo hoo!" said Nick in encouragement.

It was about then that my having a scorpion in my mouth became a psychological reality. "Yum. Yum," I said to convince myself it was delicious. It was. Like I said, it was just seasoning. Seasoning with crunchy bits. But that didn't change the fact that it was a SCORPION in my mouth. My bluff seemed to convince Nick, though.

"What do you think?" he asked.

I just hummed to give the back of my mouth something to do other than gag.

"First reaction, how are the legs?" he pressed.

I continued humming.

Nick caught on. He changed tack, a note of concern in his voice. "Are you doing ok?"

I hummed.

His voice became a bit more urgent. "Are you doing-"

I swallowed. I opened my mouth to show off its emptiness. Nick cheered. I cheered. Mission successful, and I would totally do it again. It's like popcorn kernel pieces that get stuck in your teeth - completely gut-free. One team member, Stephanie, even said that she would prefer a bag of seasoned scorpions to popcorn for a movie night.
The snake on a stick was less insane. It tasted like meat.
I also had clam and octopus for the first time this trip. My team was less supportive of my endeavour with the clam than with the scorpion.

"Argh!" they exclaimed, "It's still alii~ii~ve! Look at the clam poop! Ewwww!!" But they did cheer for me in the end.
The octopus was an honest mistake. Heidi had thought she was ordering chicken. Unfortunately, I do not have any photo evidence of our octopus escapade, but it was a a team bonding experience. Josh made the tentacles dance and sing and go up his nose (we were starting to lose it; it was near the end of the summer). He tried to feed some chugga-chugga-choo-choo style to Rachel, but it didn't work. Though, she did end up taking a nibble when we enthusiastically chanted her name over and over and over.

The octopus was harder for me than the other delicacies. It was battered, which helped. The first tentacle I grabbed was actually two tentacles, so Einar volunteered to split it with me. As we tried to pull them apart, the batter slid right off, revealing the shiny purple skin and perfect line of suckers beneath.

Einar had compassion. "Actually, I think this one is just mine," he said, taking the whole two tentacles away from me. I took another one with all the batter still on it and bit off as much as could fit in my mouth. It was kinda rubbery, so I had to fight for it.

It tasted fine, but my mind categorizes seafood under sea and not under food. And on this occasion, I guess I forgot to hum. After my third or fourth gagging fit, Nick muttered that he couldn't watch and turned away. But I got it down and didn't throw up! One day, I will be able to do seafood, and I will enjoy it.

After our trip to Wangfujing, we went to McDonald's.

"It's bad luck to die on an empty stomach." G'Kar from Babylon 5

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Teachers are Coming

I am back from Asia and I am in one piece. I miss people.

Somehow, I did not get an intestinal bug and I did not suffer jet-lag either way. I was well-fed to counteract the weight I lost by sweating. I visited the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Silk Market, the Pearl Market, and the Wangfujing night market. Yes, I spent money on things. I used my Mandarin training to barter, to order from menus, and to try to talk to some Chinese girls that joined us for the Great Wall trip. And I got lost by myself in Beijing only twice. Over the course of the month, my culinary horizons were somewhat stretched. I don't think I ate dog, but I did try kalamari (deep-fried), clam, snake, octopus, and scorpion. I think the scorpion was tastiest.

Oh, and I taught students, too, but that was elsewhere in Asia and I can't post about it. But it was definitely the best part of the experience.

And now, it's time to prepare for being a student again. #studentclothes, anyone?

"A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, 'darkness' on the walls of his cell." C. S. Lewis

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Painting with Guys

Today, despite not being particularly prolific this year to begin with, I am taking a leave of absence from my blog in order to go to Asia to teach English for a month! I am very excited, but I will not be able to update until late August.

So, to pass the last couple hours before I must head to the airport, here's a little bit about my summer so far. I have been painting houses with lots of guys (zero females). Not with all the guys at the same time, though; they cycled through pretty fast. First there were Ken and Ivan*, followed by Gordon, Dilton, Leo, Scout, and Joss. And of course my boss, Tris. 

Because of the coming-and-goingness of the guys, I ended up being the most proficient house painter. I was the one most comfortable on ladders, the one most trusted without supervision, and the only one on my boss's team that knew how to use the spraying machine. Joss used the sprayer once, but it turns out he is literally colour-blind and can't tell what he's painted (hint: mostly the concrete sidewalk....)

Nothing too frightening happened during my time painting. Though, there was one job that required extending the 32-foot ladder to almost its full length. Originally, my boss had expected me to finish the job by myself in a single day, but I declined. The ground was extremely uneven and crowded in bush, so it took my boss and another guy to steady the ladder while I climbed to the top and stretched to paint a windowsill. I had already been climbing ladders all day, so I suggested that one of them climb while I helped hold the ladder.

"You're taller than I am, so you can reach farther," said my boss.

"I'm heavier than you are. You wouldn't be able to steady the ladder for me," said Leo.

"Fine," I sighed.

So we got into a rhythm. I'd climb, Leo would hold, and Tris would help when needed. Leo took to seeing me off with a, "Don't die," every time I started to climb.

"Just make sure you hold it steady," I would reply.

"I'll hold it as steady as the Berlin Wall," he said.

"Steadier," I requested.

He sniggered. "You know what happened to the Berlin Wall, right?"

I sighed and started climbing.

And then he'd greet me at the bottom again with a, "You didn't die!" No, I didn't die. Still here. Thanks for the encouragement, though.

Overall, I didn't feel like I had the time or the training to get really good at painting, but it seems that I impressed a few people. Tris said I impressed his boss. And Scout, who is a friend of Tris's and a painting manager himself also seemed impressed. At one point he gestured to some soffits on a second (almost third) storey roof.

"How did you mask up there?" he asked me. "Who did that part?"

"I did," I said, "with a ladder."

"Oh," he said, sounding a bit surprised. "I have a couple of guys on my team that are both terrified of heights. They refuse to go up even the A-frame ladders."

"That would make things difficult," I replied.

Who applies to be a painter if they can't climb even an A-frame ladder? Who hires someone to paint if they won't climb even an A-frame ladder? Half the job is climbing ladders. And moving ladders. And steadying ladders.

In fact, I even climbed a ladder onto a balcony as a thunderstorm approached. Scout slid the ladder up after me so I could reach the soffits. "You're not allowed to leave until you finish," he said, remarking on my captivity.

Fortunately, I did finish, and the thunderstorm seemed to take a detour, so Tris and Scout came and let me off the balcony again, which was nice of them. My boss was generally pretty nice. After the sprayer exploded on the side of a house, I briefly wondered whether it would get me fired. Instead, he had only kind sentiments. "Take a break," he said. "Have a beer. Go home." I think he meant, "Go home. Take a break. Have a beer." At any rate, he didn't fire me.

The thing about painting houses is you can't paint in the rain or in the wind. And it's not economical to paint in the blazing sun, either. Given the weather in Calgary this summer, you may question whether I managed to paint anything at all. The answer is yes, we got a few projects done. But now I am finished and headed overseas and that is considerably more enticing!

See you with the new semester!

"If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary." Jim Rohn 

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." T. S. Eliot 

*All names subtly changed to protect privacy

Saturday, 13 July 2013

My Favourite Things

These are little things that make me happy. Not in the sense that I think, "Oh, that's nice," but in the sense that they actually cheer me up.... ♫ and then I don't feel so bad. Or, if I'm already happy, make me grin like a goofy person. Not all the things, either, only some of the things. I tried to splice the items together to the tune of "My Favourite Things", but failed. So instead, to jazz up the presentation, I'm giving you a few picture examples where appropriate. Here are things for which I am extremely grateful:

-Birds chirping happily in the morning

-Super fat tiny critters, like chickadees in the winter or gerbils that don't know how good they have it. And also, corpulent frogs.
-Babies with intense facial expressions
-A stack of new titles I'm dying to read
-The sense of satisfaction that comes with having finished a good book

-A mix of bright vibrant colours that make beauty and energy, but not chaos
-Strong green tea. Real green tea that tastes like matcha. Especially if I'm drinking it out of a pretty cup.

-The smell of fresh rain.
-The smell of cedar chips.
-The smell of pine.
-The smell of books.
-The smell of faint lavender.
-The smell of sweet citrus.
-The smell of cinnamon.
-The smell of coconut.
-The smell of suntan lotion.
-The smell of newly cut lawn.
-The smell of gasoline on hot pavement
-The smell of campfire.

-Critters that have mistakenly got stuff on their heads
-Jazz or classical music to refresh my crowded mind

-Being able to share a knowing look with someone that nobody else understands
-When friends let me lie on the couch with my legs across their lap

These things don't make me squeal with happiness, but take my breath away in a good kind of way, and thus make my list of favourite things:

-Beauty where I don't expect it
-Staring at a vast, wide open prairie or the unending night sky

-The sound of running water, whether it be a babbling brook or pouring rain  (...so long as flooding isn't an issue)

God has a creative imagination.

"Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others." Cicero

Monday, 8 July 2013

#yycflood: Bits to Remember

Here, in no particular order, are some points of special note, or at least points that made me take note. As I've previously related, the whole experience has been rather disjointed for me.

1. Orphans in Cambodia donated $900 out of their own pockets to flood relief in Alberta. Orphans. In Cambodia.

2. Mayor Nenshi's popularity is soaring, partly because he stayed awake all night when Calgary flooded, partly because overall, he's done a good job responding to the flood, and partly because of this quote: 

"I can't believe I actually have to say this, but I'm going to say it. The river is closed. You cannot boat on the river. I have a large number of nouns that I can use to describe the people I saw in a canoe on the Bow river today. I am not allowed to use any of them. I can tell you, however, that I have been told that despite the state of local emergency, I'm not allowed to invoke the Darwin law."

3. Somehow, there were no water rations and no boil water advisories, though we were prompted to "conserve water."

4. Over a hundred thousand people were evacuated in southern Alberta. Over half the homes in High River are flooded, and given the current state of things, probably rotting.

5. The situation in High River is appalling. The mayor and the head of the RCMP in that area should both be fired and be held financially responsible for the damage since the initial flooding. That includes paying for the doors the RCMP broke down, the guns they stole, and the rotting houses they aren't allowing anyone to prevent.

6. Given the scale of the flooding, incredibly few deaths have been reported. As in, since I last checked, I could count them on one hand.

7. Kijiji Calgary swelled full of adds offering food, help, shelter. If you needed a stranger to come pick you and your family and your pet up and take you all to stay in their house with them and feed you for two full weeks, that offer was out there. If you needed a truck full of young men willing to drive across Alberta to engage in days of manual labour, all you had to do was give a destination.

8. The emergency response centres were not nearly as full as expected; our church was put on stand-down without receiving anyone. It's beautiful when a city can displace 75,000 people overnight and most of those people feel safe and welcomed enough by other people that emergency shelters are few and far between.

9. The fact that the homeless people weren't all forgotten when downtown sunk makes me a little warm inside. Apparently the homeless shelters filled really quickly, because they couldn't sleep under bridges, for obvious reasons, and then the staff of the shelters organized alternative accommodation.

10. Despite being located downtown, Distress Centre Calgary stayed up and running for a really long time during the flood. Not only did it keep taking calls, it took rerouted calls from basically every other crisis line that had to shut down. When it finally did have to evacuate, the main crisis line in Edmonton stepped in to take our calls, and 211 in BC managed our 211 line. A heartfelt thanks to both operations! I am insanely proud that I used to be a part of the DC team! 

From the DC -"The water isn't as high as our spirits here."

11. Our friend Sharon is not a crisis counsellor, but I think she'd make a good one. She was hired by the city to be a children's recreation director, but in the flood response somehow turned into a de facto crisis manager, wrangling people at response centres, answering questions, and helping them get their heads back on straight. Not in the initial job description, but keep up the good work, Sharon!



Sharon (out loud): Oh, that's awful! That's just terrible! I am so sorry to hear that. Ok, well, can you go to a different optometrist to get your glasses fixed?

Person: Ohh.... umm, yeah... I guess so. Thank you.

Sharon: I'll help you find one.

12. I left my rain boots in Saskatchewan for the summer. I figured the soggiest time of the year was over and what were the odds I'd need them during the two months I'm at home? Sigh.

13. Despite the state of emergency and my dim predictions, I don't recall hearing of a single instance of looting. Go Albertans!

14. The zoo, being located on an island in the river, was completely flooded. Over half the animals were relocated to the zoo's animal health centre, and a few were moved offsite completely. There was talk about moving some of the scarier animals, like the big cats, to the Calgary Courts jailhouse, but it doesn't look like that happened. What did happen, however, was that a man had to sit outside the hippo enclosure with a loaded large-caliber gun to ensure that the hippos didn't turn up 20 or 30 miles downstream to surprise people. In fact, one hippo did float out of its habitat... but got stuck in a narrow walkway. Zoo workers risked their lives to try to keep their animals safe.

15. Late fees are waived by the library as everything has switched to manual! Time to erm... check out a few books!

16. The motto of Stampede this year is "Come hell or high water". Appropriate, I should say, though I'm not sure how appropriate it is to be so focused on the getting the Stampede back on track when people, for example, in High River, aren't even allowed back into their homes.

17. The military actually had to show up to help in the emergency response. And Edmonton! The rivalry was put aside and Albertans banded together, in the flood zone or not.

18. My uncle lives in the Beltline, and my cousin lives near Memorial. Both areas flooded massively and were evacuated, yet they opted to stay home, as their particular apartments were not in danger. I hope they enjoyed camping. Maybe they got a lot of reading done? At least, during the day before they had no light, what with the power being cut off? Reading by flashlight, maybe.

19. Flood waters in Calgary have entered the Saddledome, according to one tweet: "Water is up to row 10 at Saddledome. Dressing rooms completely submerged. Jumbotron rm & all equipment destroyed." Multiple large concerts for Stampede have been cancelled.

A friend of mine said on FB:

"Update: Calgary Flames now a water polo team. Salvatore Tudda says they still won't make the playoffs. I remain optimistic."

A friend of his replied with, "The flame was finally extinguished."

I added, "I have their theme song, by Smashmouth: 'The ice we skate is getting pretty thin; the water's getting warm, so we might as well swim...'"

20. Despite the widespread devastation, from my very limited perspective, the 2005 flood was bigger. The river in Fish Creek seemed to come up higher in 2005 (although apparently Fish Creek is more badly damaged this time?) and some goon had left the storm drains in our area closed, which meant we had water halfway up our driveway before someone came to fix the problem.

21. Parts of the highway were completely washed out, but apparently it's all good again? Wow, it's incredible how fast people can fix things.

22. The day after the flooding, the difference between "completely impassable" and a "recommended route" on the main roads was a single lane of open traffic.

23. Also the day after the flooding, we drove past Fish Creek. The sign that points out the current level of fire hazard was set to "Moderate". Apparently the forest has to be literally under three feet of water before the sign gets set to "Low".

My heart goes out to the people who have lost so much. Stay strong and God bless...

And now, a very small selection of random flood photos:

St. George's Zoo:
 Oddly... beautiful?
 The highway:
 Inside the Saddledome:
 The Peace Bridge:
 Stampede grounds:
You may have heard this, but I kind of like it. In particular, I like it when I hear nice things about police instead of how they're misbehaving. I relate to you, with their own spelling, punctuation, and capitalization the short conversation:

A woman tweeted to the police, "what do we do about vagrants and questionable people roaming the streets in suburb communities because of the flood situation" 

The police responded, "Suspicious people can be reported by calling 403-266-1234. Homeless people may appreciate a sandwhich."

Saturday, 6 July 2013

#yycflood: The Narrative

Eight years ago, Calgary flooded. They said then that it was a hundred-year flood. This summer, Calgary flooded even worse. I guess that means we're set to be flood free until the year 2200.

There is altogether too much information to compile in one little blog post: the damages, the recovery, the political consequences. My family was barely touched; the day when our house goes underwater is the day the entire world stops in morbid interest to watch Calgary's demise. Nevertheless, this summer I have added one more point onto my list of life advice: never build your house on a flood plain. 

On Thursday night, my sister and I were at an awards ceremony downtown. The speaker introduced the night, explaining that his wife was at home, keeping an eye on the water levels. His philosophy was that if his house flooded, it would flood whether he was there or not.

A prominent local politician from a neighbouring town was supposed to be attending the ceremony; when one of her compatriots phoned to ask whether she was still able to come, she stated that her house was flooded, her clothes all ruined, she was stacking sand bags at the hospital which was being run by a generator, please don't call her any more because her phone battery was low on juice and - oh, a duck just swam by.

But the ceremony proceeded unhindered. And after the ceremony, my sister Brianna went to a homeless youth project she volunteers with and I, unaffected, went to my friend Holly's place to watch a movie. She lives in the community of Mission. Earlier in the day, Holly hadn't been sure whether they'd be evacuated or not, but gave the green light to visitors around nine o'clock.

We'd also started to hear of road and bridge closures prior to the ceremony, but sitting in Holly's living room, watching singing and dancing actors, it didn't seem like a big deal. A few times, after a particularly loud boom of thunder, I glanced out the window and said something about "I might have to leave early if it keeps raining this hard or it might be difficult to get home," but I ended up staying until the end of the movie.

Brianna came to Holly's place around midnight so we could drive home together. "Downtown is flooding," she said. "All the homeless shelters are being evacuated. Our place is sending the kids to a church."

Holly gave us directions out of the neighbourhood. "The bridge over the river was fine when I came home, around six," she said. "You should still be able to cross it." If not, she said, backtrack and cross it further north.

"Are you being evacuated?" I asked Holly.

"You're supposed to put a big X on your door when you evacuate," said Bri. "That way the police know you're safe."

"And also that no one is home so it's open for the looting," I said.

"Downtown will probably be looted tonight," said Brianna.

"I don't know if we're leaving," Holly said. "I don't want to be looted."

At this point, the concept of "flood" crossed the line in my mind from abstract idea to current reality. "Holly, do you and Jake need a place to stay?" I said. "You'd be welcome at our place."

"Thanks," she said. "We'll go to his parents' house if we have to."

Bri and I couldn't cross the bridge. The road was closed a block away from the river. We found an open bridge; the water was a foot or two beneath the roadway.

Windshield wipers going at maximum capacity, we drove down the arterial road trying to not aquaplane. As we passed the mall, dozens of police cars lined the street, some of them with lights flashing. "Maybe to ward off looters?" I suggested.

"You think they'd have more important things to do than protect a mall," said Bri.

We later found out that the police headquarters were underwater. The mall had become their emergency camp.

We got home without so much as a where-are-you-are-you-ok text from Mom or Dad, which surprised us both a bit. "Is it that bad?" asked Mom, watching a TV show on wedding dress shopping. "I know it's bad in some areas."

"It's pretty bad," we said.

Holly and Jake went to their parents' house in the wee hours of the morning. She texted me:

We got the idea when they cut off our electricity.

On Friday morning, it stopped raining. I dressed for work and checked the road closures online. It looked like I could still get to work normally, but I called my boss because I was concerned that if or when it rained more, I'd end up stranded.

"Ok," he said, "Alternate routes... you could take this other road north and cross through downtown-"

"Downtown?" I said. "Downtown is closed."

"It's closed?" he said.

"Yes," I informed him.

"Oh," he said. "It's that bad? It's sunny here."

About five minutes later he phoned me back. "I've done my research now," he said. "The mayor is asking everyone to stay at home, if they can, so we won't work today."

This is the impact the flood has had on me, personally: I missed one day of work. Over a hundred thousand people were evacuated; many had homes that were completely destroyed and many of those that didn't lost vehicles or had major damage to their houses. The surrounding towns are changed forever. I missed a day of work. And made up for it on Saturday.

In the afternoon, I got an email from one of the deacons at my church in Moose Jaw, inquiring about my safety and letting me know she was praying. It made me feel incredibly special, even if I'm really not one of the ones whose safety or property was threatened. Consider her prayers extended to all of southern Alberta.

My sister had to get to the airport for Saturday morning, and she was concerned about trying to do it in the wee hours like originally planned. Trying to navigate across a city full of flooded roads and street closures while on a schedule in the black hours of morning didn't sound enticing, so she opted to have us drive her out extremely early and sleep the night in the terminal.

On the way home, we passed a fish hatchery. It was a lake of rapids that licked the roadway. Dozens of cars were pulled over so that people could get out and gape. We didn't pull over; I gaped as we drove by and forgot to take any pictures. This is the best one I could find online:
We passed a golf course. It was an archipelago of manicured hills.
We crossed a bridge. "It'll be fine," said Dad. "This one's a particularly high bridge." And it is. Even so...
For the most part, Calgary seems to think that we're in recovery mode and no longer in danger. Though, just the other night, parts of the city flooded again in a major thunderstorm.

Next post, I'll relate some short points and observations about the flood that don't all have to do with what happened (or didn't happen) to me. For now, I'll leave you with a few more pictures. There's a huge amount of incredible pictures of the flooding all over the internet. These are a few of my favourites (they do not belong to me):

Just a couple blocks away from Holly and Jake's place:
 This one pretty much sums up the weather this year:
And finally, the joy in their faces on this one makes me think of the Arabic graffiti John Green quoted in his convocation address earlier this year, which will be the quote for this post:
Apparently, in a war torn city in the Middle East, on the side of a crumbling house, is painted the graffiti:

"Happy birthday, sir, despite the circumstances." 

Despite the circumstances, Alberta.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Utopian Crisis

It’s a point of pride in my life, however unjustified, that when I was barely eighteen, I was able to define the word “dystopia” on an English final by merely recognizing its similarity to the word “utopia” and knowing the general meaning of the prefix “dys”. But this is basically irrelevant.

What I actually want to point out is that, in the current onslaught of dystopian novels and movies, there is pretty well nothing on the other end of the spectrum. How many utopian stories have you encountered lately? I’m willing to bet a hefty amount that most, if not all, of the utopian stories you’ve encountered are actually dystopian stories in disguise. After all, if there’s nothing wrong, there’s no conflict, and therefore no story, right?

Or, could this lack of utopian stories have to the do with the fact that while we are very good at imagining all sorts of awful things, we really just can’t fathom what a utopian society looks like? Can you paint for me your idea of utopia? Does it have unicorns and rainbows and ponies that poop butterflies? Or does no one ever cry, get angry or sick, or make mistakes? What name have you given to your society? Carlaville? Happyland? Heaven? And here’s another question: if you can’t describe Heaven at all, then how can you use it as the balm for all of society's ills?

I was struck with the problem of designing a utopia when reading a passage from Plato's Republic. While Plato seemed to believe he was laying the framework for the best possible society, I would go to extreme lengths to try to avoid actually having to live in such a city. Different strokes for different folks?

My dad once described his version of a perfect society to me. Essentially, in his world, everyone would live in self-chosen communities, with rules of their own choosing for how to behave and how to deal with conflict within the group. If and when someone disagrees with those rules, they remove themselves from that community, and move to or start another one. Everyone has complete choice with regards to how to conduct their lives – total personal freedom – yet the conflict that arises from clashing individualistic values is basically avoided by merely walking away from it.

This wouldn’t work on planet Earth, due to limited space and resources, which would cause conflict between the various factions. But in a setting where resources and space aren’t limitations? Well, C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce describes pretty much the same society in an infinite, limitless setting, and he calls that society Hell, not Heaven. People, he said, would be forever spreading out, into smaller and smaller communities, progressively becoming more and more isolated. So, one person's heaven is literally another person's hell. By the way, my dad has not read The Great Divorce.

Lewis’s version of Heaven, however, also made me scratch my head. I don’t remember many details of it anymore, but the one that struck me the strongest was that people in Lewis’s Heaven were unable to feel any sadness or grief for all the souls in Hell - even if those souls belonged to their former family members or friends. Why? Because sadness and grief is bad, of course. And isn’t it? But the practical consequences of banning negative emotions, to me, seem bizarre. It’s like some kind of happy drug that either makes you deny reality or turns you into a cold and coarse, compassionless being. Wouldn’t compassion be a major necessity for a utopia?

My cousin recently directed me to a short story called Those Who Walk Away from Omelas, which illustrates more or less the opposite utopia to Lewis’s negative-emotion-free Heaven. In Omelas, positive emotions such as compassion, nobility, dignity, etc., are all possible because the citizens are aware of the one wretched, abused little child in their midst. They can appreciate what they have because they can see the pitiful alternative; helping that one abused child would cause their own golden civilization to fall. Never mind ideal. Is this card tower of perfection, built on the injustice done to one innocent child, even morally acceptable? I don’t see how a society built on injustice can itself be considered just. Certainly, atheistic Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov rejects such a claim – and his Christian brother backs him up. From the book:  
[Ivan said] 'Let's assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let's say the little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it? Tell me and don't lie!'
'No, I would not,' Alyosha said softly.
Everywhere I turn, I see commentaries on utopia, or rather, on the impossibility of having them. Even The Matrix weighed in, with Agent Smith remarking,

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program, entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.

So, does utopia have even a hypothetical existence? Western culture likes to draw hard lines between the good and the bad, isolating one from the other. Eastern culture, on the other hand, tends to view the two as intermingled and inextricably linked. It’s the concept of yin and yang; the world bound up in opposites. Even the Japanese children’s anime Naruto proclaims that so long as there is love, there will also be pain and hatred – though the title character himself very loudly denies this (and plans to bring peace through violence).

But if existence truly is about both the pleasant and the painful, the good and the bad… then how can things get better? And must we worry about them getting worse? It seems to me that things certainly can get better or worse – but are we concerned with quantity or quality of happiness? Or both?

You know… sometimes it’s hard to know how to try to change the world if you don’t know what your end goal is.

“An optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds and the pessimist fears this is true.” James Branch Cabell

P.S. May I also point out, as another tangential but mostly irrelevant note, that I’m not sure there are many stories that describe the descent from a “topian” to a dystopian society. Maybe it’s too depressing for a story? Maybe it’s too terrifying to picture it happening? The descent into dystopia strikes me as one of the more important things that we should be able to recognize and therefore hopefully forestall.

P.P.S. Our basement-dweller Rachel has moved back to Quebec for the summer. She will be back in the fall, but will probably not be living with us.... AND SHE SOMEHOW FORGOT TO GIVE ME A GOODBYE HUG!!! Seriously??

P.P.P.S Post on the flooding to follow soon.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Paint Face!!

Or, My Name is Smudge
Or, So Glad I Had Goggles On

I got a job painting houses this summer. We can't really work in the rain. My boss recently remarked, "You picked one heck of a year to paint." Well, he didn't say "heck", but you get the idea.

Today, for once, I was actually making good time on a house... until the spraying machine went kaBLAM and blasted big blobs of gooey paint all over the neighbouring house. And also onto my goggles and my face and my hair.
Well, the paint on my hat is actually a happy face, painted well before today's minor catastrophe. But you can see my nose and my cheek and my neck.... You can't really see my other cheek or the paint on my lips.

As for the consequences, well, it wasn't on my bucket list to scrub the side of a house with a toothbrush, but now that I've done it, I highly recommend it.

"My painting carries with it the message of pain." Frida Kahlo

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Celebrating One Century

Wow. I have been bad about posting this year. For some reason, my desire to write has been mostly funneled into an attempt at a novel, rather than into blog posts. As a placeholder, until I get real blog worthy material, here are some pictures from the photobooth of my parents' 100th birthday party.

This shot was just testing out the camera settings.

The birthday couple!
I have made it my goal in life to weasel into as many of my cousins' family portraits as possible.
I also got myself adopted into Ben and Tracy's family.
 Please note the Vulcan ears, the anteater puppet, and the two kinds of boas.
My auntie and I cast pixie dust on each other. I wanted to throw glitter for the shot, but the photographer thought that was a bad idea. 
My brother's dinosaur puppet eats my bunny puppet. I should have picked something higher up on the food chain.
And that is a sloppy version of the character for 100 in Chinese. It won't be winning any calligraphy contests.

Our photographer said that if everyone took as long to get under control as we do, she'd burn out.

"How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" Satchel Paige