December 31, 2010

Tim Team

I figured I'd share this video with the world. I enjoy it. No one was seriously injured in the filming, although our wipeout was pretty serious.

I spent much of yesterday at Grace Adventures, hanging out with some Tim Team-ers from this past summer. It was great to be there, as I'm a big fan of those kids, each and every one of them. And besides, it's a blessing to my soul just to be there. I have many fond memories there, many that are with me everywhere I go, and some that only seem to pop up when I'm on the grounds. I don't know if there's another place on earth that has such an emotional context for me; just being there is an escape, in a way. I could drone on sentimentally with my whole history, but I won't. I wrote an article for their newsletter a while ago (find it here, page 4) that sums it up fairly well, if you want to read it.

Tim Team was a huge part of why I came back to be on staff, and why I'm involved in ministry today. I can't remember working harder or seeing the value of service more than I did my first week of SALT camp in 2000. It was an honor last summer to be involved in the program, and I hope these kids will come back to be on Tim Team again, and eventually on staff. If not at Grace, somewhere where they'll grow.

December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

It was about a month ago when I decided that I needed to come home for Christmas. I had been planning to put it off until later in January, just to come home for a visit. But it's an odd thought to think of your family, thousands of miles away, incomplete, eating homemade waffles for breakfast and later devouring a Christmas feast without you, reading Luke 2 before getting to the gifts. And so it seemed a much better idea to fly home and be there for Christmas. I didn't tell my parents.

Well, I sort of did. There was a bit of deception on my part, for which my parents have already forgiven me. I think. I told them I'd be home in January - check, cuz I'll be here until January 1. I told them I'd come home on the 21st. I flew into Grand Rapids December 21st. No harm done. Jon was my inside man, he picked me up at the airport. He also ran an errand to fetch my credit card about a month ago. I tried to be vague in phone calls leading up to my return, but even so, I assumed they must have suspected. But that wasn't the case. Mom and Dad were shocked. My sisters and brother-in-law were surprised. My sister-in-law sorta suspected because she sorta overheard a phone conversation with my brother that sorta alluded to it.

When I returned, I held my niece, Mae, and she just looked at me and smiled, and it looked like there was disbelief in her 18 month old eyes. I can't say whether or not she fully understood what was going on, but she filled me with joy. When I saw Elli, my other niece, she was tired and cranky and overwhelmed, and she screamed. She seemed to feel a little better today when I saw her again.

Today, my Christmas stocking is somewhere in Puerto Rico, in a package my parents sent for me. That's okay - it will be waiting for me when I return New Year's Day. It was worth it to be here, to hear Luke 2 (which is much shorter now than when I was 9), to make annual use of the family's waffle iron. We sat and played Balderdash and Uno, and frustrated as I was with the new rules that either I didn't catch or they didn't explain, it was a lot of fun. There was a huge blast from the stereo in the living room, with Mae sitting in front of it, suddenly terrified and bawling, having found the volume knob before the power button.

I've got another week here, with some time planned and some time blessedly open and empty, which I intend to keep that way and which makes it, in a way, planned. Then next Sunday, I'll board a flight and head back to Puerto Rico, away from the cold and (sparse) snow. And this time, I really have no idea when I'll be back here, when I'll see my family again. It's much easier for me to get here than it is for them to get down there. But that, I guess, is the tradeoff of doing good work in a beautiful place.

December 20, 2010

Christmas in Puerto Rico

Doesn't feel like Christmas here yet. Something about 85 degree weather everyday makes it hard for a native Michigander like myself to get into the holiday spirit. I don't have any decorations up, no lights, no tree, nothing of the sort. (For the record, my lack of decor isn't indicative of my grinchy-ness, it's mostly due to, uh, budgetary constraints.)

I, however, am just one sunburned Michigander on an island full of people who love Christmas. Puerto Rico is mostly Christian (and most of that demo is Catholic), so Christmas is kind of a big deal here. Just because I'm not decorating doesn't mean everyone else down here isn't. Downtown Ponce is decorated with beautiful Christmas lights. Lots of houses in the barrio put some Stateside displays to shame.

Like the states, Black Friday was a stay-offa-the-roads kind of day that left the retailers trashed. Even now, Walmart is a zoo and must be avoided at all costs.

There are all kinds of non-English alternatives for carols. Ever wondered how Silver Bells sounds in Spanish? Come visit. This means that I have not heard the usual barrage of Christmas classics since Thanksgiving like the rest of ya's. So I can still handle me some Perry Como.

Actually, Christmas here goes beyond Christmas in the states. It officially starts with Thanksgiving and goes until Three Kings Day, January 6, which corresponds with the Feast of Epiphany. I didn't know anything about Three Kings Day until I got here. The town of Juana Diaz, just up the street, is Three Kings Day central, apparently. Crowds from around the island come for the spectacle, and I heard they send people to Rome to meet the Pope in preparation for it.

December 11, 2010

No Comprendo, part dos

It's all good when I'm trying to buy groceries and the lady at the check out and I can't have a conversation. All she has to do is scan 'em and bag 'em, and I'm outta there with another week's worth of grub.

And it's not so bad when I order something off a menu without knowing exactly what's on it, because my taste buds have gotten used to making the most of mystery meals. (Sidenote: I am currently paying the price for an experimental meal from Monday, the leftovers of which I finished on Thursday and subsequently banished my appetite thenceforth. I'm too embarrassed to tell you what all went into my mac and cheese remix.)

But when you need to relate to someone, to help them feel engaged and at home and comfortable - and this is a big part of my nature, to make people feel included - lacking language skills poses a problem. This weekend, we had our service retreat, and one guy showed up who didn't speak English. He was the first to arrive, and I had a nice enough conversation with him in my broken Spanish, but we couldn't really understand much of what the other was saying. When you can't understand their words, it's nearly impossible to read a person. That whole "90% of communication is nonverbal" thing flies out the window when there's a language barrier. Think about it: You hear someone's words, and only then do you start to gauge their tone, their sincerity, their comprehension. (Hey, that General Communications degree is starting to pay off!) When you're not getting the words, you're not getting much of anything that goes with 'em. Or against 'em. Reading people is something I think is a strength of mine. But I cannot read people when I don't understand their language.

I spoke to a (small) group today for the first time, and had to use a translator. I talked about submission to God and trusting Him fully to meet your needs. I had a few pages of notes - read that as "a meticulously wordeed transcript." I knew when it took us a whole minute to get past the first paragraph that the transcript was gonna have to go because we'd be there for an hour. So it flew out the window. Also, there was the smell of a wet dog coming from a cage behind me, and really loud salsa music coming from next door, and that whole mac and cheese remix thing that I had to contend with. When you have to stop yourself to wait for translation every sentence, you can't find any rhythm, and neither can your listeners. I've never been very good at feeling out an audience though, so they may very well have gotten what I was saying. I think, though it was tough, it was a success.

The hardest part about learning a new language is listening. We get the urge to translate things, but I don't think you're supposed to do that. It's not efficient. We think in English, but to truly speak another language, you need to find a way to think in it instead. It has to do with this:

Words aren't really things.


Words are symbols of things. What we call an orange isn't really an orange, it's a thing we symbolize with the word "orange." It's the same thing that Puerto Ricans call a "china" or a "naranja." Since I think of things as English words, when I hear spanish words I try to put them into English so I can understand them. Bilingual people take that step out. I told Julio that it was hard to speak with a translator and he agreed. He doesn't like translating. He thinks in English when he's talking to someone in English, and he thinks in Spanish when he talks to someone in Spanish. I'm not there yet. I need to learn a lot more words before I get there. This, I think, is why vocabulary is important. I can think in little Spanish phrases and words. "Yo creo que" - I think that... "Hola" - Hi. "No necesito..." I don't need... Those are little things that I don't need to put into English to say.

This concludes the cognitive science lesson for today.

How about a video of me getting bitten in the ear by a lizard:

December 5, 2010

Ministering in Culture Shock

Over the weekend, we had scheduled a service retreat for college aged kids to come, serve, and pitch in by helping some people in the barrio.



This was to be my first sponsored program, my first gig on staff. I wouldn't really be running the show, but it was still a big deal because I hadn't seen us put on a retreat yet.

The week leading up to it, I asked Teresa if we knew how many people would come, but nobody had RSVP'd yet. That's typical, she told me, people usually don't RSVP but they show up anyway. So we made our preparations - booked a band, assigned times to speak, lined up some projects in the barrio. The cooks bought food. And Friday came.

From whenst this feedback came, I'm not sure, but I think it was largely through Facebook and word of mouth that we discovered "Lots of people have finals can't make it. A few said next weekend would be better."

Oh really. Huh. How many do we know for sure are planning on coming?

One. For sure. And the band.

Sooooo.... We maaaaay have a lot of people, we may not. Our team put our ears to the ground, er, phone, and did some digging. Lots of calls were made and a conveniently consistent picture was painted that if we moved the retreat to next weekend, people would come. And maybe bring friends. Hopefully bring friends.


We decided to hold off. We made more phone calls, sent a Facebook message (how did anyone get the word out about anything before Facebook?) and an email. We canceled with the band, and put off the work projects. As for anyone who didn't get the memo and showed up anyway, they would learn a valuable lesson about the importance of RSVPing, particularly for service retreats.

In the end, one person came that night (not the one we knew about before), took the news pretty well as I understand it, and just went home with a little extra free time. We lost our band, and we need to find a new one, and soon. There will still be yards in need of cleanup and fences in need of painting this weekend. And we'll be there, ready to serve.

On Friday, when this whole thing went down, I wasn't really shaken by it. I'm usually pretty steady and chill, unless there's a microphone in front of me. I assume that displacing a retreat in the states would probably take an awful lot more string-pulling and rearranging. People plan more. College kids have too much going on. High school kids - actually, all kids - have soccer and ballet and band and debate and winter ball and theater and tutors and all kinds of other stuff. They have some of that here in Puerto Rico. But there are far fewer pieces to rearrange here. It's more laid back, more chill. Like me. In that sense, we fit each other quite nicely. People tend to deal with things as they arise, which means they often wait until the last second for things, as well. I'm guilty on that one, too.

And yet, this poses some serious challenges for long-term as well as short-term planning. Not every retreat will be so easy to reschedule. We can't always allow our plans to align with the uncommitted, and we can't always hope the plans of the uncommitted fall our way. This is one of the clear challenges of ministering in culture shock.

When I figure out how to handle that, I'll let you know.

Tonight's sunset, put to two different musical styles:

November 30, 2010

Living with open windows

Category: Things Jim hasn't figured out.

Turns out this is a broad, broad category with many, many things of various shapes, sizes, and importance. Importances? That can't be right. Add basic grammar to the list.

One of these things is Puerto Rican weather. It's still very hot. It is the tropics, after all, but I don't know if this is going to last forever. Maybe it gets comfortably cooler someday. In Juana Diaz, the average high drops from 91 in summer to 87 in winter. Apparently, that's enough of a change for Puerto Ricans to shy away from the beaches and buy jackets at Old Navy when they put 'em on the racks. But: I'm learning what it's like to live with your windows open, all the time. I sleep with the windows open, the atmosphere creeping in through the shutter slits.*

When people nearby are burning things, I smell campfire. When someone starts their car in the morning just outside my window, I get a deep breath of exhaust. And each morning, there comes this point shortly after I come out of deep sleep but long before I need to get up, when my sense of smell brings me out of my dreams and back to the reality that I'm living by the ocean, and as I lay there I can smell the salt in the air and there's a peace about it. And I hear everything: The ocean, the cars whizzing down PR-1, cats fighting mere feet away from my sleeping ears. Turns out the Marshall cat is a bully.

Add Going to the Movies in Puerto Rico to the list. Yesterday, Julio and I went to see Unstoppable. Fantastic movie, by the way. A timetable:
2:05: We sit down, and there's nothing on the screen. iPod touch time.
2:15: Posted showtime. Still nothing on the screen. No music. Nada.
2:17: Commercials/previews begin. They're mixed in with each other.
2:48: AFTER 31 MINUTES OF COMMERCIALS AND PREVIEWS THE MOVIE FINALLY STARTS. I thought maybe something was wrong. I wanted to go find someone and ask them why there was no movie, why we were only seeing previews and commercials when I had paid $3.50 to see Denzel Washington race against time to stop a runaway train carrying toxic chemicals in this non-stop thrill-ride also starring Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson. All the while, we were freezing. You would people living in a tropical culture would prefer keep the thermostat a little higher, like out of the 50s. People bring sweatshirts and coats to the movies. Maybe ones they bought at Old Navy. Also, it was too loud. But I don't want to complain.

Really, I don't.

I am not a curmudgeon. It's a Grace Adventures-ism to choose your attitude, because when you begin to be cynical and skeptical, you can only view the world through that lens, and everything gets flavored a little more sour than it really is. I feel compelled to tell you I like it here a lot. But it's the peculiar stuff that is worth mentioning. After all, no one wants to hear that I spent Sunday afternoon lying in a hammock between two coconut trees, reading the Hobbit. Without a fruity, frozen beverage.

People who get to come here for a few days or a week usually can only take a handful of reactions home. A few that are easy pickins': The people are really crazy, dangerous drivers. They only eat rice and beans. It's so hot. There are lots of fast food places, and they're not fast. There are lots of bugs, and some of them are really big. The movies start late and they crank the AC so you freeze. There are mangy dogs everywhere. Some of the cats are mean.

Those might very well be the first things on kids minds when they return home and are asked about their mission trip. But I hope they've had much deeper reactions than a few natural and cultural oddities. That's not why they come, that's not we host them, that's not what missions are about.



Speaking of things I don't have figured out... But that's a topic for later.

*Not to be attempted as a tongue twister, ever.

November 24, 2010

No comprendo

I have lived here for two whole weeks and I still cannot speak Spanish.

Before I came, people gave me mixed advice as to how well I'd get along here with my level of Spanish. I know a little bit. Not a lot, but enough to be dangerous. And little enough to be dangerous. A guy from the Dominican told me I'd be fine.

Lawrence, a missionary who's been here for a long time, told me you're never lost in Puerto Rico. There's always another English speaker around, no matter where you are. All of the government documents are supposed to be in English and Spanish. I think they're supposed to provide an English translator if you have official government business. That's not always the case, though. At one government office, Lawrence was told "We speak Spanish here."

Kids learn English growing up in school. So anyone who's been educated should, in theory, be able to speak it, at least a little bit. But there's a reluctance to pick it up. People don't always admit it when they do know it. They would rather speak Spanish than stumble through a conversation in English, and I can't really blame them for that. I've had a few encounters which begin something like this:

Me: "¿Hablas inglés?"
Them: [shakes head]
Me: [unintelligible, grammatically barren Spanish mumbling]
Them: "Jeez. I guess I can help you with that."

Now, this doesn't always happen. I actually can get a few thoughts across. I'm getting pretty good at telling people, in Spanish, that they need to speak slowly because I'm bad at Spanish. Hablo muy terriblé. And when people speak slowly and deliberately, I can pick up what they're talking about and usually formulate a response.


When I'm all alone, and someone says something to me in Spanish, my brain's first response usually isn't to translate, it's "Holy crap, Spanish. Whaddaya gonna do?" And so even if they say words I know, I don't hear them. The other day I was at the mall in Ponce looking for some flippy-floppies (I was in my swim trunks.) The clerk behind the counter said "Buenos Tardes." (Good afternoon.) I panicked. "Bien, ¿y tu?" (Good, and you?) The next thing she said was, in English, "You don't speak Spanish, do you?" I hung my head and said no. It's simulataneously hilarious and humiliating. But I do. Sort of. I can read it, I can hear it fairly well. I just can't hardly speak it.

There have been a few interactions in which I, much like a Puerto Rican who'd rather just not mess with an awkward conversation in the wrong language, just confess I don't speak Spanish. Someone will rattle off long, mumbly phrases that I don't understand. "No comprendo," I said, once.

I've heard that before. It's kind of the cliché phrase you'd hear in the States from an immigrant, often from Latin America. "No comprendo."

I haven't always handled it well. It's frustrating to hear when you're trying to convey something. Oh jeez. another non-speaker. If you're gonna live in the country, ya better learn to speak the language.

But there's something really humiliating about confessing that. I live here and I don't speak the language. I'm suddenly something people have to accommodate. When I first said "no comprendo," I immediately thought about immigrants who have to say that in the States, and how they must share my humiliation. I can never, ever, hear that again without feeling great empathy.

I've never been one to rage about the fact that you need to press one for English and extend your phone call for another 3 seconds. Some people throw a fit over that. This is America. We speak English here. Most of us do. Some of us don't. We all probably should eventually, but it takes some time.

Either way, language is a huge barrier. If I'm going to live here and serve people, and relate to them, I had better be able to speak their language. My job requires it.

In other news:

They have Black Friday here, too.

Speaking of Thanksgiving-related chaos, here in Puerto Rico they have the Turkey Run. Like our lame-duck day-before-a-holiday school days, kids show up to school and don't really do anything. They eat breakfast. Then they have a race and the winner gets a Turkey. I went this morning to check it out at the school down the road. And since I still can't figure out how to embed the video and have it fit right, video is HERE.

November 18, 2010

How I came to have a dead roach in my sink.

I don't consider the following to be a particularly harrowing tale, nor do I consider my foe to be a particularly harrowing foe. He (she?) is but one of many roaches I will encounter here in Puerto Rico, and I suspect I should encounter larger, stranger bugs under even more precarious circumstances later on. But the roach in this tale has the distinction of being the first living roach I encountered. So he (I'm going to make assume for the purpose of brevity that it's a male) gets his own blog entry.

I was cleaning and reorganizing my kitchen a bit. I had just replaced the liner in my garbage can. It was pristine and unblemished, its mouth stretched wide, the plastic pure and white and clean down below. If you happened to, say, deposit the last bit of toast or fruit inside, one could still retrieve and consume it without much apprehension.

My dishes and food items had heretofore been somewhat intermingled between kitchen cabinets and open hanging shelves. I had decided, for wont of avoiding insect-related contamination, to place the dishes in the cabinet and the food items (properly sealed, of course) on the open shelves. Time would tell if this was a wise decision or not, but at that point I'd shuddered at the idea of dishes out in the open, crawling with the massive bugs I'd been warned of by those who'd journeyed here previous to me.

I had seen bugs. Why, just that day I'd encountered more than a fair allotment of mosquitoes, whipping weeds as they ignored my exposed and Off!-greased limbs, penetrating to my shoulder blades through the defense of a single t-shirt. I would later inspect the damage and find each shoulder blade tragically festooned with dozens of bites. And of course, in my weed-whipping I'd made enemies of several fire ant colonies, effortlessly lopping off the tops of their habitats and watching as they gushed forth to repair the destruction I'd left. I'll stop short of promoting the theory that all bugs are in cahoots. But I have my suspicions. I have reason to believe that a certain cockroach was sent my way.

There, behind a humidity-crusted Gatorade can left by an intern who lived here before me, he lay in wait until I began my domestic duties. I began to transfer the goods. And as I moved the can aside he emerged, bold and surprisingly mobile, shocking in his agility. He skittered off behind the nearest defensible position, an empty tupperware container. I leaped back.

I stood there for a moment. This is it. It's going down. Me and him. At least, I hope it's just me and him. He better not have friends. Don't roaches always have friends? How many am I dealing with here? Assess the situation. One small cupboard. One small roach. It's time to move.

I approached the cupboard. I removed everything from the left of his position. Then everything to the right. I searched nearby for a non-cooking-utensil that was blunt and capable of flattening a cockroach. I settled on a broom. And then: Quickly snatched the tupperware from the cupboard. He fled to a corner and stopped.

I stared at him. He stared back at me.

Get the camera. No, he'll be gone.

I stood there for a minute longer. Not time to smash him yet.

How do roaches like fire?

There was a lighter nearby. I flicked it again and again, increasingly closer to him, illuminating the cupboards. He cowered. I was clearly the one in charge here. He'd gotten himself in way over his head. Barring some last-minute death-defying heroics on his part, I was going to win.

With a sharp jab of the broom handle, I squashed him into the corner, and he fell to the bottom of the cupboard. Victory. I jabbed him again. There was a stain of roach goo on the wood behind him.

Those who have encountered roaches before will know it's far too early to call this match.

Very soon, the roach popped up again, skittering in a circle, less agile but every bit as quick. I leaped back again.

I cannot say how he did what he did next, only that he did it. In his limp, half-smashed condition, he managed to get up over the lip of the cupboards and get airborne. Flight, blessedly brave, courageous flight. Now, when a thing manages to get itself launched like that, it is beyond the realm of reason and nothing can be assumed about his capabilities. As his flight carried him downward, I instinctively stepped back and tried to guess what his trajectory would be upon landing. He came to a hard landing on the lip of the sink, and stumbled clumsily toward the drain.

And there he stayed, exhausted, his antennae waving in the sultry Caribbean air, waiting for me to end it.

Very slowly, I raised the handle of the broom, and brought it down with a crunch, halving him over the grate of the drain.

And that is how I came to have a dead roach in my sink.

I fished him out with a plastic bag and tossed him into the garbage can. And there he presently rests, wrapped in a plastic bag, the sole occupant of an otherwise pristine garbage can.

November 15, 2010

Cueva Ventana

We work Saturdays. We get Mondays off.

Yesterday, Julio and I drove up through the mountains to Cueva Ventana in the northern part of the island. Along the way, we stopped at an oft-visited spot called The Jump, where you can dive 25-35 feet into the water. I was man enough for the 25-foot jump. Not the 35. Yet. Afterward, we visited a roadside stand for some Domplinas, which are like meat pies. Mine was chicken, and it was amazing, and I want another one. Then, onto Cueva Ventana. The picture and the video won't do it justice, but here they are anyway:

[click to embiggen]

Find a video here.

This is the first video I ever put on YouTube. It's kind of a big deal. Now, if only I can figure out how to fit the video into this template....


November 12, 2010


The ground here has been saturated by recent rainfall. When I arrived, there were puddles everywhere. And Campamento del Caribe sits near a big swamp (maybe a few big swamps) so when the rain comes, it swells. There's another bog that overflows and streams across the road, around camp, and finally into the Caribbean. So there's a lot of water. And there are a lot of mosquitoes. They are particularly bad today, enough that I need to run from my apartment to the office.

Julio told me putting on bug spray would be part of my morning routine – shower, dry, deodorant, bug spray. I resisted at first, but he was right. Even when I put it on, I find myself covered in bites. They're persistent too. There's no sense in wearing multiple layers, it's too hot. And these bugs are very capable of biting through a single t-shirt. So you can overdress and sweat through the tropical heat, or you can underdress and hope to avoid the bugs. I favor the bugs over the heat. For now.

Tropical life is a whole new reality. I'm not nearly so enamored with the palm trees as I was when I came here for a week 12 years ago. The ocean right out my back door is nice. But it doesn't feel like paradise, doesn't feel like vacation. It's not vacation, it's not paradise. It's life. It's work. It's permanent. And that's not a disappointment.

I haven't had an “I'm really here!” moment yet. Moving somewhere on an airplane is so abrupt.

You start in an airplane terminal in a major city. You step into a tube with wings and semi-comfortable seats and a whole bunch of other people and complimentary beverages. The tube leaves. A few hours later, it lands. You leave the tube and find your suitcase, just as you'd packed it (in theory). And then you step out into a new world. So just like that, in a matter of hours, your reality distinctly changes. There's nothing gradual about it. If you drive, you see the landscape subtly transform. Your route lets you see where you've come from and where you're going. It's gradual. And gradual is nice, it lets you take your sweet time and observe and muster your courage and test things out a bit. Gradual is safe.

But you can't drive to an island. You can't get here gradually. You have to jump in. You don't get to test things, to observe. You're confronted with things that take some getting used to.

There's spanish with a lisp - “Como ethta?” There's the constant sound of fans, as long as the power is on. The other day, the power was off because of a recent thunderstorm. Julio said he laid down on concrete floor to cool off and fell asleep and Evi, his dachshund, came and licked his fingers to make sure he was okay. I'm used to a morning routine, but here you end the day covered in sweat and bug spray and sun block, and nobody should crawl into their sheets in that condition. So now it's pm showers only. Then there's Reggaeton. I brought distaste for it with me. I sat next to a reggaeton production supervisor on the airplane. People here love it, apparently, but I haven't met anyone yet who doesn't seem to hate it.

None of this, of course, is insurmountable.

November 9, 2010


Note 1: Travelogue. Hmm. What is a travelogue? Figure this out because whatever this is, it might not be a travelogue. Maybe it's “travel log.” That makes more sense than tagging on the -ue and making it all frenchlike. I have no love for the French. Well, travelogue or travel log, gotta write something useful.

Note 2: I used to like airports. I used to be fascinated with them. Less so, now. Too big, too busy, too anonymous. Less enamored with the fact that these people, unified by geography, are about to splinter out over the globe. Exotic locales are a little less enticing when you're about to move there for a year. It strikes me that I've done a lot of traveling alone in the last few years. That's good and bad. Bad because there's no one to watch your stuff when you need to make a trip to the can. Erm, garbage can. You're essentially tied to your stuff, one all-inclusive unit. I am my guitar. I am my bulky backpack. How new-agey. On the other hand, traveling alone is good because there's no one to wait for, to decide with, to argue with over where you buy your overpriced airport lunch. Today, it was Au bon pain. Au Bon Pan? Maybe. Upon finishing my meal ($13 for Mountain Dew, chips, and a sandwich. Yikes.) I wished it would have A) Tasted better and B) Cost less. Nothing I can do now, except make better budgetary decisions.

Note 3: Mom encouraged me to bring my guitar. I hesitated at first, I'd just assume leave it behind and borrow one from someone else when I get there. But she said she'd pay for me to bring it and it ended up being free anyway as a carryon. Now, there is something cool about walking through a crowded airport with a guitar. People can only assume that you're an accomplished musician. Really, I can play half of blackbird and a passable version of Vincent, and if I had a chord book I might be able to play some camp songs. But nobody knows that. I am the ultimate poser. And posing, it turns out, is kind of fun. But I learned one lesson: If you are going to bring a guitar and stow it above your seat, you had better make an attempt to be one of the first people on the airplane. Since they charge for bags now, everybody stuffs a carry-on bag to the point of herniation with a full suitcase worth of clothes. As a result, all the overhead bins are full, without failure. So, while everyone is seated, waiting to leave behind the airport and its overpriced sandwiches, you're fumbling to stuff a guitar case into a bin above someone else's seat waaaay at the back of the plane. I broke a sweat and just barely (I hope) maintained my composure. Awkward city. When I boarded, there was one flight attendant who said, “Try to put it up above and if you can't we'll see if we can fit it in the closet.” I thought, and if you can't fit it in the closet? I didn't ask this. I was the last one to sit down. One flight attendant, who was either in charge or on the bottom of the totem pole because she was the only one willing to assist me, at least came over and offered some suggestions. I believe I was the last person to sit down. We took off ten minutes late. Whether or not it was my fault, I do not care to find out.

Note 4: Uncapitalize the title thing if you're going to blog it. You could do it now.... Eh, do it later.

Note 5: ATL to SJU. There's nothing remarkable to remember about this flight. Which is a good thing. The guy next to me assumed possession of the armrest early. They showed Salt, which is exactly the type of movie I guess I expected to see on an airplane. In all of the flights I've been on, I've never been any good at sleeping. Or reading. I mostly look out the window and count down the minutes until we land. Which, when you're flying over the Atlantic at night, there's not a whole lot to see. So this was a boring, slightly uncomfortable flight.

Note 6: San Juan. The first thing I saw next to the airport in San Juan: The Golden Arches. Turns out Puerto Rico has every single fast food joint West Michigan does. So, if comfort food is how you cope, you're going to be fine in Puerto Rico. Julio picked me up. I stepped out of the air conditioning of the airport and into the sweltering, thick, nasty air of San Juan. I will not leave this behind, night or day, save for an occasional cold shower, for the next year. We stopped at Wendy's. Because they don't feed you on three hour flights. Puerto Rican Wendy's is the same as Wendy's in the States except you order things from the English menu to people who (claim they) don't speak English. And it seems to take longer for them to get it done. As we drove south, up into the mountains to cross the island, I saw countless Burger Kings, Wendy's, McDonald's, Church's Chickens, and Subways. Puerto Rico remains very much unique and separate from The States, but like us they have embraced the Dollar Menu.

November 3, 2010

I submit:

I can reach way back into my childhood and find the first little prompts that I should become a missionary. Our church hosted missions conferences, and the missionaries who were home on furlough would tell stories and show videos of their exotic, exciting foreign lives. I latched onto the sorts of things that any kid would - images of crappy roads, rustic churches, big bugs and palm trees... being a missionary would be awesome.

Or I can look back at my family history and see that more than a few of my aunts and uncles were missionaries at some point, a point driven home by some of the missionaries I was with in Zambia. "It's in your blood" they told me. Maybe it is. Maybe this whole thing precedes my birth. It's exciting when I think that God had these plans for me long before I was born. Before my family was around. Before the world was around. Okay, I guess I need to reach back to the dawn of time.

Before God created the world, He knew what He'd have me do. It's like, part of His master plan. It's like, cosmic. It's like, whoa.

Okay, let's not get too excited here. But God did have this in store for me from the beginning. It just took me a long time to figure it out.

I considered Bible college when I was in High School. But there was this persistent voice from inside and outside that said: you're smart, get a job, make money. I honestly thought, I love missions but somebody's got to stay here and make money and give it to missionaries. So I went to a big school, and then another big school, and spent five years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to figure out what I was gonna do with my life for a career. I spent my summers at camp. Then I graduated and tried to find a job. And I still spent my summers at camp.

Five years ago, I went to Africa because a friend told me to talk to a missionary from there. Two years ago, I went back again because some missionaries from there invited me and it would have been rude to turn them down and besides, I wanted to go anyway and couldn't get it out of my mind. I think I went for the adventure, to be honest. When I was there, that was when missionaries told me that it was in my blood. When I was there, that was when I realized that the yearning to be a missionary had been in me for a long, long time. When I was there, that was when I decided it I would go and be a missionary for longer, someday.


Even then, even when I knew I'd go back, I still had reservations. I was going to go home for a while, keep the crazy missionary pursuits in the "Somedays." There were three things that held me back.

First, a career. If I was going to be a missionary, I would need a trade. I didn't have formal training in missions or evangelism or even ministry. I wanted a trade, a way to make sure I'd feel helpful. A way to justify my being there, a way to feel qualified. Like, I could be a teacher or a builder or a radio guy or a doctor, except not a doctor because that would take a long time and would involve cutting people open.

Second, money. Again, five years of college adds up, and I wanted to be unshackled from that debt. Taking time to pay off debt would allow me the opportunity to stay stateside, to stay safe, to be around my family and, just maybe, work on that third thing - find a wife.

Maybe it's just me, but when you are 24, 25, 26 and single, people start to worry for you and want to hook you up with their friends and start posting Greek Mail Order Bride links on your Facebook wall. You might not feel concerned at first, but the worrying that others do on your behalf is contagious, and you begin to do the math and envision scenarios where you're 40 and alone with cats. I can't have that. I'm allergic to cats.

All three of these things are legitimate concerns. A career, financial freedom, and a spouse are examples of the need to feel useful, to feel free, and to feel companionship. There's nothing wrong with any of these. But naturally, I placed the burden to meet those needs squarely on myself.

I'll go someday, I told myself, but I can't see how I'll ever get along once I come back unless I have a career to come back to.
I'll go someday, I told myself, but I want to pay these bills first, because I can't see how I'll be able to do that when I'm out there.
I'll go someday, I told myself, but I can't see how I'll be able to find a wife if I'm a million miles away.

"I'll go someday, but I can't see how...."

What a thing to tell yourself when you're thinking about working for the kingdom of God! You can't serve God while building up your own safety systems in case he doesn't come through. Either He is sufficient or He is not. Jesus sent his disciples out with nothing. How can you trust Him to do big things in other people's lives if you don't trust Him to do small things in your own?

It dawned on me about a year ago that I was struggling with faith. I believed that God was there, sure, but I wasn't so confident that he'd take care of me. I wanted to take care of myself before I went. Of course, that hasn't worked out too well for me over the last couple years. I got a start to a career to pay down debt. I don't need to go into details, but it was a mismatch and I often felt miserable. And I'm still single. But I'm gonna go anyway.

This summer, I submitted to give up the search for a career and any worries over my debt and single-tude, and consented that I would indeed go forth and serve in ministry. The funny thing is that this specific opportunity centers around camping ministry, the thing I did to fill time in college. I've heard the saying for a loooong time that God does not call the qualified, he qualifies the called. And that was my prayer when I submitted. I'll go. I'm not ready, but you are who you say you are and I trust you with all the other stuff.

October 15, 2010


I'm on vacation, sort of. I have a few weeks of beautiful transition time, which I think is what I've needed for a long time. A month off does a lot that a day off, or even a week off, cannot do. Until I take off for Puerto Rico, I will sleep late, read, write, hike, photograph, deliver a few pizzas to tide me over, and play Euchre. You can't, and shouldn't, live like this forever. But transition times - Sabbath times - help you get your soul back.

Today I went to McDonald's. My cup, with its missing (read: losing) Monopoly pieces, offers me the chance to WIN a Beaches Resorts Caribbean Vacation* and take the family to paradise! (*Collect IL, IN & KY to win a trip to Turks & Caicos or Jamaica for 2 adults & 2 children 15 yr or younger, ARV $7,000, for the record.) I didn't win, and that's fine. I'm going there anyway. This is where I would insert a "suckers!" if I were the sort of person to rub it in. Which clearly I am not. Also I'm not going to Turks and Caicos wherever in the Caribbean that is anyway. I don't know the first thing about Caribbean geography. Actually, I don't know a whole lot about the Caribbean.

Most of what I know I've gleaned from TV commercials and magazine ads (and, I guess, McDonald's cups), pretty much all of which describe it as a paradise with sugar-white beaches, palm trees, and fruity drinks with umbrellas. I've only been to the Caribbean once, in 8th grade, on a mission trip to the very same camp I'll be living at for the next year. I got stung by a jellyfish, painted a dorm, and ate lots of rice and beans. It was hot and my antiperspirant failed me. It was not paradise.

But there's a lot of the Caribbean I haven't seen (like Turks and Caicos) and it's a huge vacation destination. I'll confess, there comes a point each February when the frozen snow mounds and perma-gray Michigan sky get to me and... I want to go to there. And seek shelter under a palm tree. On a sugar-white beach. With a fruity drink with an umbrella. It's just the sort of place people crave when they're miserable. People take trips or cruises to the Caribbean for a week or so of much needed relaxation, escaping their cubicles and day jobs. For them, it's a happy place, one they associate with joy, rest, simplicity and fun. All good things. But like all vacation destinations, or paradises (paradi?), there are people living there who think it's anything but.

I think that's one of the weird things about vacation spots. We have these limited interactions with them when we go there, and we only get one side. It's a mirage. There's a myth attached to every getaway place, because behind the curtains there are a whole bunch of people who work hard so others can enjoy themselves, and most of them aren't making a whole lot of money. It's a rare person who works in paradise and gets to enjoy it.

Your favorite restaurant is probably full of miserable employees. I don't know anyone who has given a good report about working at Cedar Point or Disney World. Oceana County, MI brings in more than a million people each year to cruise the dunes and jet ski around Silver Lake. But it's also one of the poorest counties in Michigan.

Buzzkill, right?

That's not what I'm going for. Vacations are good. Cruises are good. Restaurants and sand dunes and jet skis and amusement parks are all good things. It's important to get away sometimes, and it's even more important to relax. But all of these things are temporary and fleeting, because real life is going to drag you back eventually.

When I lived in Orlando for a summer, I realized that there are some places that are great to visit and some places that are great to live, and few places that are both. To me, Orlando is a great place to visit, but not necessarily a great place to live. West Michigan probably isn't a great draw for visitors, but I think it's a wonderful place to live.

I've always scoffed at the idea of "Stay-cations," where people stay home and spend their vacation dollars around town rather than dropping the money elsewhere. But maybe the idea has some merit. Living here, right now, with lazy mornings and leaves changing color and skies like paintings... this is pretty good.

October 5, 2010

And it was time to learn Spanish

I'm moving to Puerto Rico.

The hugeness of this whole thing has yet to dawn on me, because for now I'm not scared, not grieving the departure from my family, not savoring sweatshirt weather. I'm not packed. I won't for a while. I'm not ready.

But that's okay, because there are lots of things you just can't be ready for, least of which would be moving to a different country*. You can't know what to expect, you can't coach yourself through it. Packing my bags is about the only thing I can do. I can't mentally prepare for this. The best analogy I can think of is jumping into cold water, like I did last week in Upper Silver Lake. Something about being in an inland Michigan lake in October is very very wrong. Made me realize I never, ever want to go Polar bear-ing. I'll try almost anything once, but that's one thing I don't feel the need to ever do. I've heard that when you jump into icy water, your body does crazy things without you telling it to. Like, you lose control of your limbs because all the blood rushes back to the center of your body to keep it warm. And I can't begin to guess what my poor lungs would do. I really see it as a worst-case scenario: no control of limbs, lungs exhale, I sink, you all wear black to my funeral. Hence: Never gonna try it.

Anyway. At camp last week, I stood on the shore, knowing the water was cold but that I had to go in it, and eventually the point came where I had to just go, and accept whatever chills might follow.



Any remnant of comfort was soon supplanted by cold, penetrating deep to my bones. And: It really wasn't that bad. Soon, after shivers and shouts, I was pretty much accustomed to it, and went about my business of removing The Blob from the waterfront (and thenceforth, draining, deflating, inflating, mopping, drying, deflating, folding, and stowing it.) I could have stood on the shore forever, thinking it through, trying to get psyched up, analyzing, and weighing the circumstances. But that wouldn't have changed anything.

And that's kind of how I'm going to Puerto Rico. It's a big adventure, one I'll love and hate, but I can't really wrap my mind around it for now. There's not really a whole lot that I can do to be ready. Of course, I have to pack.

And I need to brush up on my Spanish. But then again, I've always heard the best way to learn a language is to need to learn a language. And I've got three semesters (college semesters, mind you) stowed away somewhere in the back of my brain.

*Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm struggling with how to say this, because Wikipedia tells me that Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. Yeah. So, not a different country. But if Alabama seems like a different country, I can certainly refer to Puerto Rico that way. Also, I don't need a passport. And neither will you.

September 12, 2010

There is no God like You, Part two

(continued from before)

It doesn't jive with that whole "conversation" thing very well. I know a lot of people who embrace diversity, especially in regards to religion. For them, other faiths and approaches to God or god or gods or the deeper meaning of life are fascinating indicators of the brilliant spectrum of people and ideas on our planet. Buddhism is cool. Baha'i is cool. Islam is cool. Everything is cool. And yet, Christianity - specifically American Christianity - is too accessible, too status quo, too passe. It's decidedly uncool. We've had our moment and - it seems - it must be time to let the others in.

Having grown up in West Michigan, I was raised in a Christian world. We were the majority, even in high school and college. Either I didn't see it or I surrounded myself with enough Christians to be ignorant of it, but it turns out this world is not a Christian one. Once I entered the workforce, I was suddenly surrounded by people who definitely didn't have a Christian worldview. I'm surprised at how much of a surprise it was for me to meet people who not only weren't Christians, but who outright rejected Christianity.

It also might be surprising that none of this has really had an influence on my faith. In many things, I'm apt to second guess my own standing in the midst of opposition and dissent. "Well, all these people can't be wrong," I tend to tell myself, and as a result I've lost a lot of arguments when I've been right. But here's the thing: the popular opinion on something has little to do with the reality or legitimacy of that thing. In other words, Christianity should be neither accepted or rejected because of its coolness.

If Christianity is embraced because of its established-ness, or if it's rejected amidst the diversity of competing faiths, then its core has been sorely missed. There is only Christ crucified and resurrected. That is the one narrow gate through which any evaluation of Christianity has to pass. If the resurrection happened, and I believe it did, the whole world can be wrong and it doesn't matter. His resurrection remains.

Of course, I want the world to be right. It's just that we can't all believe different things and still be right. And there, again, is that pesky, intolerant worldview.

There is no God like You, part one

I made the drive back to camp tonight with the radio on. Sometimes, music is perfect for the drive; other times, I need some dialogue, another human voice in the car. Tonight it was the latter. I love radio preachers. So at first, it was Dr. David Jeremiah, telling me about mercy - mercy is God withholding what I deserve. And grace - Grace is God giving me what I don't deserve. I like that summary. I'm a big fan of grace.

His sermon ended, they teased me with a Chuck Swindoll promo. I love that guy. But the next show wasn't his, and they moved onto something else less preachy. So I moved onto another station: NPR.

Sunday nights, they broadcast Speaking of Faith, "a conversation about belief, meaning, ethics, and ideas." I'm a fan of this conversation. So I listened. The show is about to change its name, so I guess it makes now a good time to play some snippets from its last epoch before the big change. Over the years, they've spoken to lots of people about lots of things. Buddhists, Yoga Instructors, Desmond Tutu, all part of the conversation searching for some deeper meaning to life. I'm sufficiently convinced that the meaning of life comes from Jesus Christ, God's son. All of these opposing viewpoints point out just how strikingly intolerant my worldview is. But then they played a clip of a Kenyan woman singing a Swahili song with some lyrics I recognized. "Hakuna Mungu kama wewe," was the line - they would sing this while they were planting trees, the woman on the radio said. It was a refreshingly beautiful, enlightening moment, hearing how someone raised from a different culture would worship. She sang it again and again, unwavering, confident. I'll break it down for you:

Hakuna - If you've seen the Lion King, you've know from Pumbaa and Timon that "Hakuna Matata" means no worries. Hakuna means "No," as in, "There is/are no"
Mungu - God
Kama - like
Wewe - You.

There is no God like You.

As in, You're the only one.

What a strikingly intolerant worldview.

(to be continued. Soon, I swear.)

August 29, 2010

after the long silence

Let's see.

[looks back at previous blog posts.]

I haven't blogged since May. Silence since then. Big silence, long silence, full of learning and big stuff and important lessons and millions of other things. So it's okay. Sometimes things are overtaken in importance, blogging is one of them. Especially when you haven't done it regularly in a while. It was easy to push blogging aside in favor of the constant labor and noise of summer camp and the required rest that goes with it. In the last few years, my topics have slowly shifted to more poignant, serious matters - an honest pursuit of truth, I guess - though that doesn't necessarily reflect a shift in my demeanor. I have no interest in ever taking myself seriously or becoming an adult, or anything like that. Still, it was hard to find something to return with, some all-encompassing, amusing, back-and-better (read: wiser) perspective on life, the world, etc.

And so I've had to ask myself just what I want this blog to be. The first one, and everything after this, too, I guess. I've never wanted it to be an extension of Twitter - what I did, with who, when and where. I don't want it to be a proving ground for my creative writing.

And yet, I have to come back to blogging, to writing things that people - people I know, people I don't know - will read, and will want to read through. And so I've had to ask myself just what I want this blog to be. I guess these are essays about my life. I never thought I'd do that - write essays for fun. But that's what this has been for a while. What with that whole overstated honest pursuit of truth thing I just mentioned, this has always just been my way of making sense of the world. I think I started blogging in 2002. I just haven't done it a whole lot lately.

So here I am. Back, sorta. Not sure where I'm going, how often I'll be blogging. Maybe I have more to say after the silence, maybe not. Like I said, it was a big silence, long, important, full of lessons learned and millions of other things.

May 28, 2010

The Number 26

Last Tuesday, I sat on a coffee table in Josh's apartment and gave him a formal schooling in Dr. Mario on the Nintendo. I dominated. The TV was sitting on the floor, in the corner, one of three in the living room for Fred's upcoming Midtown Tetris Challenge. I wouldn't be in attendance for the Tetris Challenge, but I had thrown my full support behind it. Later, Fred came back and proudly showed off his new Fender Rhodes electric piano, a relic from the 60s or 70s on which Radiohead's Everything in it's Right Place can be perfectly replicated. We tinkered around on it, they made me sit down and forbid me to play chopsticks, but nothing else would come to me. A few years of piano lessons and I couldn't locate anything but chopsticks and a few pretty chords. Don't tell my piano teacher.

When I was a kid, if you had asked me how I saw a typical night for me in my mid-twenties, I'd have pictured grown up things. Paying bills. Wife. Kids. Coffee. Harder crossword puzzles. Then I'd have gone back to the NES. And tinkering with a Piano.

Didn't work out that way. I think that when you're growing up you see a few discrete lines between childhood and adulthood. A driver's license, high school graduation, and a few big birthdays officially usher you into the land of grown-ups. You get bills, kids, coffee, and you suddenly know how to handle more stuff.

At 26, I've got the bills, but no kids, still can't stand coffee, and I still have questions for mom and dad about how to handle stuff. And I've lost the piano lessons. The world is every bit as perplexing as it was when I was a kid. Actually, it's more perplexing. It's weird to have time for Nintendo, and have friends who sponsor Tetris tournaments. So I still don't feel qualified for the whole grown-up thing. I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up and I still shudder at the thought of big responsibilities. Not in a worrisome way, but I'd rather not be the last line of defense between order and chaos.

And yet: Age has to carry with it some innate and automatic growth, despite my perceived lack of preparedness. I'm more grown up than I realize. I know some stuff. For instance, that the way I used to see growing up - with the clear, dividing lines between kid and adult - was wrong. It's a gradual spectrum, a gradual ascent (descent? assent?). We've all got some grown-up and we've all got some kid. Some of us spend it on video games, some of us - all of us - still have worry, some of us carry our love for high-school drama with us. Having time for the Nintendo and piano tinkering does not restore my adolescence, even if I wanted it to, but it's still a good time.

May 17, 2010


This morning, I went to the park to run. I stretched, did some sit-ups, and after the final one laid on my back and looked up at the trees, the sunlight breaking through, blue sky shining down, green grass tender on the back of my neck, my hands. It was 11:00 am.

You cannot do this at 11:00 am if you have a real job.

I did this at 11 am because I do not have a real job.

But Jim, you have a real job, you work at Whirlpool.

No I do not.

What? Explain.

Gladly. I'll share what I can.

I took a job at Whirlpool in October, last year. They found me - actually, Aerotek found me on Grand Valley's careers website and called me, the door opened without my doing. I interviewed, they offered me a job and I took it. I'm more impulsive than I realize. Whirlpool, it turns out, is a pretty good place to work. I'm not sure what all I can tell you about the workplace. Most companies, especially big ones, would rather you didn't blog about work. They don't want people divulging their trade secrets. Being a low-level support rep, and a contract employee, I wasn't privy to too much of that anyway. So they're safe. And I don't have an axe to grind or anything.

I'll tell you a few generic office things: they have a cafeteria in the middle of the building where nobody actually eats. Not once did I eat the cafeteria food. I mostly bought Lipton iced tea there. There are a few blind corners around the building, and some people walk like they have urgent messages for the President. More than once I rounded one of said blind corners nearly to collide with a staffer on a mission, and narrowly avoided a flurry of papers and awkward excuses. It took me a few months to realize that there are rounded mirrors to avoid exactly that situation.

It didn't take long for me to decide that this job was not one I wanted to spend these years of my life doing. But, I know that lots of people have to pay their dues at the bottom in order to work their way up, so I stuck with it. My brother told me he couldn't see me working in a call center. I kind of agreed. But, 40 hours a week in Michigan is nothing to forsake. I stayed for the opportunities and the money, hoping there might be something for me later on down the line. People would ask me how work was going. There's no good way to answer that question if you're not happy. And for whatever reason I couldn't just answer it with a polite, "Great, thanks." So, for future reference, don't ask that question unless you're sure they love what they're doing or are prepared for brutal, quasi-depressing honesty.

The past seven months have brought a lot of introspection. I thought a lot about being a grown-up, about who I am and who God is and why he brought me there. But you can analyze things to death and never understand them any better. So maybe one day I'll have a better idea of what happened in the last few months.

But going off my own gut reactions, I was lonely and unhappy and not ready to spend a lot of time in a cubicle. Even though I could do the job, and do it well with people I liked, there was something more I wanted, things that I need to get out of my system before I can settle down.

I hadn't planned to go back to Grace. Even when I saw that they had need for another core staff position, I was pretty sure I wouldn't pursue it. I was settling in at Whirlpool whether I liked it or not. I'd developed rapport with people in the office, had found opportunities on other teams, began to build relationships with some coworkers outside of work. Leaving would actually involve leaving something behind. But I knew I had to at least consider it. My aim for the next few years is to get back to overseas missions, to find an opportunity abroad. You need money for that. But experience is equally valuable. So as I weighed the opportunity at Grace and shared my thoughts with friends and family, the counsel was pretty consistently to follow my heart, which I discovered was increasingly leading me back to Grace.

I told Grace I wanted the job. I called work a few days later to put in my two weeks notice. Some co-workers were surprised, people were mostly supportive. I put in my last day on Saturday and moved home yesterday. This morning, I laid on my back at the park, looked up at the trees and the sky, and felt thankful that I wouldn't spend a glorious Michigan summer in a cubicle.

April 5, 2010

Benton Harbor Meijer Time Machine

It is the night of the NCAA national championship. It's opening day for Major League Baseball. The regular seasons for the NBA and NHL are drawing to a close, with their respective playoff races heating up. In times like these, I need to do what any red-blooded adult American male would. I'm going to write about grocery shopping.

For those of us who grew up going to Meijer, a visit to the Benton Harbor Meijer can be like a trip back in time. Every other Meijer in the world seems to have been updated and outfitted to modernity, with the accouterments to make grocery shopping feel like an event: Low lights, exotic fruits, rustic-looking muffin carts. For me, grocery shopping is an event, but not because of the rustic-looking muffin carts. I think it has to do with having an excuse to spend a bunch of money on food. I don't need accouterments. Which suits the BH Meijer fairly well, because it has no accouterments. It might not know what accouterments are. I'm not sure I do.

A few months ago, I was going to buy a TV. But I couldn't find them at the BH Meijer. I assumed they didn't have them, because they were nowhere near the CDs. A few weeks later, I found them. They were by the jewelry and houseplants. They still cram all their TVs into one narrow aisle, so you can't spot them from across the store and wander zombielike toward their warm, motherly glow. You have to take in the grandeur of a 50" Plasma screen from three feet away with a hook of coaxial cables digging into your spine.

The BH Meijer has the layout that every Meijer had before focus groups told them not to put the milk by the shoes. It's not pretty, but you can still buy a whole lot of stuff there. I would like to recommend that they conduct a focus group about the music they play. It's really terrible. Honestly, I know they haven't updated their floor plan, and that's fine, because I can still get great deals, but they can update their music.

Today, I started at one end with the frozen foods and meats. I realized as I began my cart-fillery that, depending on the direction I went at the beginning, I was choosing the people I would either be consistently stuck behind or crossing paths with once an aisle. In the end, this really doesn't make much difference because I inevitably skip whole aisles - mostly the ones with household cleaners and healthy stuff - and spend a long, long time debating which cheese I want, or whether or not the tomato sauce will make an acceptable pizza sauce.

The ice cream aisle tonight could best be described as a clusterphooey. Someone had been charged with rearranging the novelties - probably at the urging of a focus group - to a more modern arrangement. The Skinny Cows should not be with the Dippin' Dots. I thought, as I maneuvered my cart between tall stacks of hurriedly melting pints, that this was the sort of thing they should do when there aren't people around, like how they do road construction at 3:00 am. They should not be doing this at 8:00 on a monday, prime bachelor ice-cream buying time.

On the tea aisle, there were two women speaking with English accents. Whenever I hear someone speaking in an English accent, I get the feeling I am somewhere significant, where people from all over the world need to go for some reason. And I desperately wanted to ask these foreign women where they were from and what they were doing in the BH Meijer. I was genuinely curious. I also wanted to try to talk to them in my English accent and maybe get some pointers on how to improve it. But this is exactly the cliche kind of American thing to do, especially if you get it wrong. "Scuse me, gov-nah, ah you from Australia?" They would inevitably dismiss me as a stupid American. Of course, these two women were having the most cliche English conversation they possibly could be, berating American tea habits. "They drink it cold here," one said. "I don't like it cold," the other replied. I moved on.

The rest of my grocery shopping experience is pretty uneventful. I bought a mango. I saw the English chicks again, and there were a couple other foreign dudes buying a whole lot of booze.

There's one thing that the BH Meijer has that needs not be improved: The parking lot slopes gently down, away from the entrances. This makes it prime cart sailing territory, and with a good shove, you can easily coast right up next to your Honda Civic.

March 17, 2010

Just an average piece of fish

I don't eat much fish. But amidst a flurry of motivation to include more healthy stuff in my diet, while eliminating unhealthy stuff from my lifestyle), and in keeping with recent attempts to learn how to cook, I found a frozen tilapia filet at Martin's for $1.00 and decided to cook it.

The internet is full of useful and useless recipes. Not having much of a natural gauge (as yet) on what cooking tips are practical and impractical, I googled "Easy Tilapia Recipes" and did my best to condense them into one average method of cooking a piece of fish in a hot oven. This may not work with all things. Apparently, as you will see, it works alright with fish. Other things - like, say, how to cook a pastry, might not work so well. I wouldn't debate the tastiness of a hodgepodge average pastry, but it probably wouldn't be easy or marketable. Apparently, though, you can average the sum of all tilapia recipes into a passable fish-dish.

The internet seems to agree that if you're going to bake a piece of fish, you'd better do it above 350 degrees. And you had better do it for several minutes. In my limited experience with baking chicken (three attempts, all of which produced edible but rubbery results) you have to cook it for 30-40 minutes. For a single chicken breast. In those 30-40 minutes, you have plenty of time to debate just how worthwhile it is to devote so much time to a mediocre piece of chicken, decide against it, and drive to a place that will fry it and put it on a bun for you relatively cheaply. This is a debate I am prone to lose. This is where fish has an edge. A narrow tilapia filet - again, the internet agrees with this - can be baked in 10-15 minutes. This does not leave a lot of time for second guessing and debate.

Fish does not, however, have an edge in the category of fishiness. Tilapia, fortunately, is not a particularly fishy fish. No, wait... by that I mean to say that it doesn't have a terribly strong fish flavor. In my cursory tilapia research, it seems consensus that tilapia is a blank canvas of a fish, one with which a chef can show off a complementary sauce. I, however, am not a chef, and thusly am not into sauces that do not come in cans that say PREGO on the side. So I'm not about to flex my anemic culinary muscles.

So I went to Meijer and bought some lemon-pepper seasoning. This made the situation disappointingly easy, and therefore difficult to exaggerate into a witty blog post. To prep the fish, all I did was put down a piece of foil, rinsed the fish (and patted it dry because the internet said to), seasoned it and threw a few lemon slices and a pat of butter on it. I put it in the oven for 12 minutes - again, the law of averages. When it was done, I put it on a plate with some steamed rice and veggies, the kind that comes in a bag that you never have to open, just put in the microwave for five minutes. I think this is how the pioneers did it.

And the finished product (picture way down below): A surprisingly attractive, average piece of fish.

It actually tasted pretty good. This is somewhat of a disappointment because the whole point of me blogging about cooking is to be self-deprecating. And when something like this happens - I produce a plate of well-seasoned, juicy, healthy fish - it's not the car-accident that makes for good blogging. So, my apologies, but the fish was pretty durn good.

Scouring the interwebs for fish-cooking advice.

My extensive spice rack. That's right, Kosher salt. You may recognize the Drake's from my chicken-frying disaster. It has not been used since.

375 degrees. Also, that's a Whirlpool.

The setup.

Healthy stuff. For a buck.

I find that the healthier the food is, the more difficult it is to open.


Slightly less sushi-like.

Not sushi. Sorry for the obstructing oven rack. No, actually, I'm not sorry.

Finished product.

February 11, 2010

Me: Emerging cook, non-scientist… Hero?

Sometimes, new experiences can reveal your ignorance in delightful, tasty ways.

Lesson learned: If you let chicken get hot enough, for long enough, it will inevitably reach an edible state. It’s science. And science is proven.

For the record, the last science course I took was biology, and I got a B-minus.

I’m sure there’s a science out there that helps you get chicken to a tasty, edible and aesthetically pleasing state. This makes Rachel Ray and Martha Stewart scientists. Of that science. And I would fail in that science. Case in point:

I told you it did not go well. But how did I get here? Ooh, storytime:

Now, I hesitate to put all these pictures up because you’ll just look at the pictures and skim over all of my carefully chosen, meticulously crafted words. Oh, what the crap, you’ve already stopped reading and looked at all the pictures below. I don’t know why I even bother to write.

This is how it starts. Virgin chicken breast: Blank canvas, just begging the artist to craft it into a masterpiece. Except, I’m no Picasso. I’m more like a four year-old with a couple half-crayons, which will end up in couch cushions or up my nose, and a vague idea of what my final product might look like. No, as you already know, this poor chicken breast isn’t destined for a masterpiece. It’s most certainly doomed.

I would use flour. But the goose is so familiar and comforting. Besides, I didn’t have any flour. The box told me to put the chicken in milk.

Something about this doesn’t look right to me. But the box has ordained it. Also ordained by the box: repeated dipping in milk and Drake’s crispy fry mix. For the record, that is a very fat chicken breast, and this comes into play later. I’ll skip ahead to the frying pan. You’re just looking at pictures anyway.

Immediately, the chicken turned a pretty golden color. I swelled with pride. This whole cooking thing is pretty easy. I don’t know what I was so worried about.

I think 30 seconds went by between that first picture and this last one. After lots of probing and stabbing, I determined that the chicken had acquired a delicious cindery shell and maintained a raw pink center. I had chosen a poor method for cooking a very fat chicken breast.

At this rate, the inside would probably never cook. I decided that this was a failure, turned the burner off, and plopped the charred chicken on a plate.

I walked away with my head hung in shame. I reached for my cell phone and began to search for some pizza coupons, but something inside me whispered to me.

“Don’t give up,” it said. “This thing you’ve started: It’s bigger than you. This is a crossroads in your life. You’ve got a choice, Jim. You can whimper and retreat to a corner with a pizza box, and for the rest of your life approach a raw chicken breast as a mystery meat, leaving its mastery to others all the while growing increasingly dependent and subservient to those more culinarily inclined. You can let the chicken win. Or… Or you can overcome it. You can go back and… you can be a hero, Jim.”

Not being one to ignore inner voices that urge me to heroism, I set my cell phone down. I went back to the chicken and turned the burner on again. Breading be damned, I would get this chicken to an edible state.

And so I did. It took a long, long time. But as I flaked the charred coating of failure off the chicken, and each successive layer of burned shell thereafter, the meat did indeed reach an edible, thoroughly cooked state. Actually, that was kind of inevitable. It’s science after all.

Not pretty…

But edible.

January 27, 2010

Cooking for one.

Whoa. It's not often that I get a brilliant idea that begs to be shared with others, but every now and then my brain does me a solid and presents me with something useful.

I am living on my own and, for the first time in my life, I'm entirely responsible for every meal I eat. Actually, I spent a summer in Orlando and sort of cooked for myself, but I also had a job at Papa John's out of which I creatively effected 10+ meals a week. (See? Effect can be a verb. Sup.) The remaining meals were spread across toast, cereal, and various burrito places.

There are a few people I go to for cooking advice. My family has given me a few pointers. My friend Phill has seen, I think, every episode of Good Eats with Alton Brown and has a compendium of odd food-related knowledge. I would watch the Food Network more, but every time I do they bring out some cooking utensil I've never seen before, or a yucca plant, or something else that used to swim in the ocean. I get to feeling I am far more likely to fly a space shuttle than do whatever it is they're doing. I just want to make some tacos.

My tastes have changed since college. I am not content with a can of soup, or ramen, or microwaved - microwaved anything, really. So I've been trying to expand my repertoire. I intend to escape this period of my life with at least a few decent culinary assets on my resume. This experimentation has generally produced subpar meals and lots of dirty dishes. The buffalo chicken quesadillas were undercooked and floppy. Generally, omelets become "skillets" of burnt veggies and unevenly cooked egg.

It's all very funny and embarrassing.

Which brings me to my idea: I want to blog about it and share it with you. I'll take pictures. You'll like it. So in the weeks to come, look for me to expose my culinary ignorance to the world.

January 12, 2010

Conan, Jay

Far be it from me to say anything about late night television. In the past few months, I've found myself going to bed at an increasingly early hour. I demand to get my allotted eight hours of nothingness, and since I gotta work a 9-5, scratch that, 8:30 to 5, I have to retire before 11:30 to allow myself a proper morning primping. Which means, I haven't been watching Conan on the Tonight Show. I also haven't been watching David Letterman.

But Jay is on at ten now. So the whole going-to-bed early excuse goes out a very large, very early window. So forget that whole first paragraph. Except the part about ensuring myself a proper primping, that's key. Actually, forget that part too. Yeah, forget the whole first paragraph.

What I'm lining up here is the premise that you should not listen to me when it comes to matters pertaining to late night funnymen. So don't read any further. Go watch the new OK-GO video.

For those of you ill-suited to follow instructions, I'll embark on my late night rant.

Conan is great. Or at least, when I was watching late night television, he was great. He's comforting in a way, because he's a natural. Ever watched an open-mic comedy night? Then you know just how awkward and uncomfortable it is to watch an amateur on stage. I could never, ever tell jokes in front of people. But Conan is funny. He's an expert salesman, especially when the material is lackluster. He was born to be funny on TV. He belongs on the tonight show.

This is where you might expect me to paint Jay Leno as a foil, an anti-Conan. But he's good too. He's not quite as good a salesman as Conan, but he's miles beyond passable. He's a pro. He's good. I read an interview with him that won my respect a while ago. Leno strikes me as an honest guy. He's not nearly as unfunny as Conan fanboys might want to paint him. Conan's getting screwed, yes, but it's not Leno's fault. I don't know whose fault it is. I know it's not my fault.

Conan wrote the world a letter. Really, he did, he addressed it to the "People of Earth." This immediately hooked me. Because I am a people of earth. Person of earth. Anyway. It was eloquent, it was probably the right thing to do. And when you have to clear things up, you write letters. He's standing his ground. And apologizing for his hair. Godspeed, Conan. I'll watch you, wherever you go.

But really, this is the best thing to happen to NBC's latenight lineup since they, uh, messed with their latenight lineup. People are going to watch now. Controversy is great advertising. People are talking about it. Bloggers are posting about it on their lame blogs. NBC is kicking themselves for looking like a bunch of screw-ups, sure, but people are interested now. They're going to tune in. Just watch the ratings go up.

If I can add just one more thing, it's that Craig Ferguson is the best thing in latenight right now. Unfortunately, he's buried behind Letterman, next to Jimmy Fallon. He gives the same odd comforting feeling that Conan does, but with a hint of Scotch.

But what do I know? I go to bed at 11:30.

Conan's take on how The Simpsons should end: