December 19, 2011

Building stuff

It dawned on me a few weeks ago that I might like a coffee table for my living space, so I decided to build one.

I don't yet consider myself especially handy, but I've built stuff before. I built myself a functional but ugly desk a few years ago. No screws, no glue necessary. Just interlocking pieces and a back that screws in. (Oh, I guess there were some screws involved. Regardless...) I've got some experience, I know how to cut wood. I don't hold a circular saw at arm's length and wince and tremble like it's dying to hack me to pieces. Anymore. Wood glue, finish, polyurethane, this guy has at least a cursory understanding of what goes where and when.

I like working with my hands, building stuff that will last a while. They say you get your best ideas when you're building, tinkering, when your hands are busy, not when you're deliberately trying to think up brilliant stuff. Everyone should be able to do that somehow. And if I can have a lasting piece of furniture and build a skill in the process, it's an even better use of time.

I'd like to one day reach a level of comfort with woodworking so I can build stuff that looks at least passable, or even "kinda nice, in the right light," as opposed to that desk I built. The finish was nice but - what's the saying? A face only a mother could love? Yeah, that applies to that desk I built, I'm sure. Also, camp has all the tools I need, so I figured now was the time to do it while I have easy access to them.

So I started looking for woodworking tips and found ana-white.com, which is full of easy-to-make stuff and helpful ways to make it without hurting yourself. It's noobie-friendly. I found plans for this so I decided to build it.

We had some old broken trolleys (4x4 logs with ropes attached, used for team-building exercises) that couldn't be used anymore. I wanted to use those for legs. It gives the table a little bit of history. I bought the rest of the wood at Home Depot. I dropped about $40 on wood and screws, all said and done. Stain, foam brushes, and Polyurethane ran about $20 more. So I sunk about $60 into the project.


Once upon a time, those were building teams. Now they're holding up a coffee table in my living room. But first, they went through this progression. (there were more, but my Droid X2 likes to mess up/lose pictures for some reason. What gives?)




[this is where pictures my phone ate would go...]

Ta-da!!!


A real, live presentable coffee table. Took me a few nights of work spread over about two weeks. It's not too shabby, really. I learned a bunch - this thing is definitely not perfect. If I built another one (any takers?) I would build it better. I might build myself a matching end table next month - who knows?

December 16, 2011

falling water

Rain patters on the windshield of the van, making me nervous. We've been driving for 90 minutes, the last 20 of which on roads the locals will later tell me not to take. If the locals say the roads are bad, listen to them. There's some uncertainty, we've made no phone calls, no reservations, nobody is expecting us and, at the moment, nobody is coming to greet us at the gate.

I've talked this place up. I've sold it to them. We better get in. I don't have their phone number, no way to contact them. I honk the horn. After a minute, a young man comes bounding down the driveway under and umbrella. He greets us with English that leads me to believe he knows how to speak it. He doesn't. I think my Spanish is better than his English.

He knows why we're here - this piece of property lies adjacent to Rio Fajardo, which spits out of the rainforests of El Yunque toward the Atlantic. This is a base camp for a short hike to a sort of natural waterpark a quiet, secluded spot where the water falls down a chute like a waterslide, pools up under rope swings, with high rocks on all sides, deep so you can dive.

A rainy day means a surge in the river, which can make this place dangerous. We navigate a brief conversation about the rain, that it's not a good day to use the upper spot with the high jump and the waterfall, but the pool with the rope swings is fine. He sends me off to park the van up the hill.

We tumble out with stiff knees into the damp coolness of the rainforest, the canopy overhead cancels out the rain. It smells like Spring and rain and - and wet dogs. A sign nearby warns of perros peligrosos - dangerous dogs. They sniff us and leave us alone. Their only danger is their odor.

Another older man comes out, greets me in English, except he really does know English. I hand him some cash before he can ask for money, hoping he'll just accept my lowball offer. It's their property and they like you to pay to park and have the mud washed off your feet when you get back. He takes a quick head count.

Two dollars each. How many are you?
Fourteen.
I hand him some more, overpaying just a little. We'll keep coming back here; we want to curry favor with them.

He and I have another conversation about not using the waterslide or the jump next to it. He tells us to stay at the low part.

If there's a sudden surge, he says, stay off to the safe side and don't try to cross. Each year we have some bodies wash up here below. If you're stranded, we'll send a helicopter to rescue you.

The warning fills me with more curiosity than worry.

The path up through the jungle is rocky and uneven, slippery, lined with thick layers of thriving green plants of all sizes, and a few abandoned structures that nature hurriedly reclaimed. Waterfalls tumble from out of sight, birds and coquis chirp all around us. Soon, we descend the rocks toward a landing in the river.

Here.

This is the place, the quiet spot in the jungle where it's just you and the birds and the trees and the water and the rocks, the place you'd be stupid not to drive 90 minutes to, the place some people would drop everything to fly to, the escape, the place by which all other future escapes might be judged. It's rainy, the very worst of conditions save for a hurricane, and still - it is near to perfect.

We slip into the cold water, and clamber over the rocks and dive and jump and splash and play for hours. The sun falls behind the mountain and the light starts to fade.

I dive in, deep, wondering how long I can stay there, until I return slowly, reluctantly to the surface. There, I draw a deep breath and lay back as my arms and legs and torso float on top of the water. Everything slips away, and I stare up at the treetops and the waning daylight. My ears drop below, and I hear nothing but the distant, muffled roar of a waterfall.


November 26, 2011

Until

The nature of spiritual growth is such that you have to learn things again and again that you thought you already knew.

For example: "You have to trust God."

Amen! Yes, of course!

Or if I'm being honest: Duh.

I've been hearing that since life got real, since I was confused and self conscious in Jr. High, since I was in High School, since I was in college, since I graduated, since I decided to move to Puerto Rico. That last one, especially.

I remember speaking at our service retreat shortly after I moved here last year, about finally trusting God with three things when I decided to come here: Relationships, finances, and my career. And I believed it and I thought I understood it because I had been hearing it for so long and by now it had just become common sense. Leaving life behind was a leap of faith - I was abandoning any hopes of establishing a career path in my 20s, or erasing any of that big dark cloud of debt that (still) hangs over me and my wallet, or keeping up with others who were getting married and establishing families. Also, I was leaving my immediate family again. Double-whammy on the relationships.

I said to God, "You're putting my life on hold, and I'm okay with that. Sure I'll go." I knew he'd provide. I knew that if I had no money, there would be food. I knew that if ever I felt unqualified or unprepared, things would be okay. For the most part, yes, I trusted him.

But trusting God is no temporary thing.

"...You're putting my life on hold."

No. That is not how this works. No matter how big or crazy or different or life-altering your decision might be, it doesn't work that way. Obedience and trust to God are not temporary things. You don't put your life on hold.

You abandon it.

And so every time I sit here and plan my next move, and consider what job offers might come up, and daydream about Sunday football with my family, and start to silently spend the imaginary money I'd make at my imaginary job, and wonder why I'm not on the normal schedule as I see my friends get married,it shows that I am still missing something, that there is some little or big piece that my sinful little heart does not yet believe God can handle.

God has not brought me here to be normal. Normal was gone a long time ago. Stop expecting normal. If you want normal, you might as well go home now.

I read a verse a few years ago that shook me. I thought I understood it then but apparently I didn't because I'm still discovering it, and I'm still working on it.

Psalm 71:18: Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, until I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come.

That "until" in there, it's significant, it's heavy, it's bold, it's scary.

Do not forsake me

Until

I declare your power

Until

I've done your work.


Then, I guess... do whatever you want with me. If I'm reading the Psalm correctly, forsaking is on the table. You don't owe me anything. Totally up to you.

...And how could anyone ever believe the Creator of the universe owes them anything? He has no debts. We're the ones with debts.

In the very least, David's asking God not to let him get feeble and old and gray and useless until he's totally spent (broken, spilled out) doing God's work.

In recent weeks, I've spent a lot of time deliberating my future, wondering how long I'll stay here, how long I'll stay in camp ministry, or in ministry in general. If you'd have asked me a few months ago where I thought I was going to be in a year, I'd have told you I'll probably be in Grand Rapids working, paying off debt, back with my family and friends and life will be...

Normal.

But enough people have pushed me to question that, some on purpose, and some not. And I think there are enough people praying for me that God must be having mercy on my soul and teaching me, again, those things that I probably should have known by now, that no one could ever have told me, in ways no one else could have taught me.

And so now I don't know where I'll be in a year. But I believe that I am nearer than ever to genuinely trusting God. I picture myself with my face hidden, covering my eyes, having long held stubbornly to my own neat ambitions and plans, holding one hand aloft offering the last of them to God, the fingers one by one losing grip on them as he gently takes them, takes my future, and in doing so allows me to truly live as he has planned all along.

I haven't left life behind. Relationships, careers, finances... I've begun to see that being single has allowed me to be free. I thought I abandoned establishing a career path but it's more accurate to say I've started one. I have known very little hunger or need since I've come here, and that cloud of debt is shrinking ever-so-slowly.

While accepting this goes a long way to calm my present anxieties, the greater comfort comes in the realization that God is calling me to greater trust and deeper faith.


November 23, 2011

Iowa

It's flyover country and I love it.

I once had a teacher who ripped on Iowa, saying there was nothing to see there, nothing to do except drive through it. I came to its defense, said there were wonderful things there but you just had to get off the interstate.

I'll stand by that. For me, I can't have a Thanksgiving and not think of Iowa. I'm in a bit of a different setting this year, just as I have been a few years. But when I was a kid, it was an annual pilgrimage.

Exciting, far away.... Iowa.

About this time each year, my parents corralled four kids into a station wagon or minivan and headed west to Tipton, Iowa where my Grandma lived. To me, it was exciting - far away, different, exotic. For Dad, I know it holds a particularly special meaning. Enough to tolerate the freeway around Chicago and the endless straits of freeway over the Mississippi River into his home state. That's where he was born, where he grew up. And because it's part of his history, it's part of mine too. So I can't let anyone rip on it. And I have to support the Hawkeyes, unless they're playing the Spartans.

I can picture all of it:

Tipton, the island of a small-town in the middle of nowhere. Grandma's old house on 2nd Street, with its unplaceable, inimitable smell and the football player wallpaper in the bedroom upstairs. The enormous old library and its huge yard right across the street where we'd play baseball. Her little church a few blocks down. The butcher behind her house, where every so often they had an animal awaiting its conversion to meat. The Tractor Dealership where we'd go and stand inside the huge tires. The gas station where somehow we were could still get Pepsi and Mountain Dew in glass bottles. Happy Joe's pizza. The mile walk to Walmart when we got bored.

And Thanksgiving Dinner, with the gathering of all of the cousins, aunts and uncles we usually only saw that time of year. Turkey, Rolls, Stuffing, Jello Salad, the usual, the bubble bread, and Aunt Helen's turtles (I don't suppose those would survive a shipment to Puerto Rico?) The seemingly eternal devotion from Our Daily Bread after breakfast. A rousing game of Chinese Checkers. Dated toys. That weird, aged exercise bike. A newspaper from 1903 that I kick myself for not asking Grandma for.

The occasional trip out of town to Mechanicsville, where Uncle Joe lived. Or Center Point, where Aunt Carol and Uncle Larry live. The admittedly more exciting trips to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, where we wandered onto the field at Kinnick Stadium or the court at Carver Hawkeye Arena, where my soft spot for Iowa Athletics was born. The way there on roads surrounded with outstretched fields and demarcating trees, and the farm houses and silos and barns, and small towns where everyone just has to know each other.

You get off the freeway, and Iowa's not so bad.

The world has seen many wonderful ladies. I'm just not sure any of them stack up to my Grandma Gamble. She did what Grandmas are supposed to do, always overflowing with kindness, you couldn't not love that lady. She sent a birthday card each year with a one-dollar bill in it. She had a little sign on her door that said, "In this house, you can sing and pray, but please don't smoke and swear." She was a gentle woman but an aggressive Skip-Bo player.

You know what? Grandma was awesome.

Thanksgiving, Iowa, Grandma Gamble, they're all neighbors in my brain.

November 21, 2011

CDC Men's Retreat 2011

Here at CDC this weekend, this happened:



We hosted our first ever Men's Retreat and some of the guys went on an Iguana hunt. No, we didn't eat them, but we would have tried if we could have gotten the meat off the carcass. And before you cry foul for killing off ugly but exotic animals without getting some protein from 'em, they're an invasive species and you're supposed to shoot 'em. In case you don't know how big an Iguana can get, that shows you the scale. Each of those is about five feet from head to tale. They're heavy too.

Also there was some of this:


But it wasn't all high-flying chess action. There was also some of this:


That ball probably weighs at least 30-40 pounds. Look at the next picture and you'll see Lawrence Trumbower, who has been a missionary here running the radio station for nigh 40 years. He's rocking Air Jordans. I've also seen him jump into a creek from a 30 foot cliff.


But of course, we had to get fed, and since we couldn't have Iguana, we had Pinchos. They're really just deliciously grilled meat on a stick. And what's a men's event without consuming burned meat? We thought, we have 20 guys, 50 pinchos oughta be more than enough. Not necessarily.


You cook 'em like this:


Taaaan sabrosa.

But we had to get fed in other ways:


Pastor Miguel Ortiz from Iglesia Biblica Juana Diaz spoke about being Men of Power.


...and we had some great discussion.

It was a great weekend. Men's fellowship is really important, and is overlooked far too often. We got great feedback from the guys who attended, and we'll definitely do it again, even better, next year.

November 14, 2011

The way to Bayamón

Saturday was one of those rare days when the skies were clear enough over the mountains so you could see the peaks and the radio towers and houses, and could be reminded that people actually live up there in the clouds. I drove up to San Juan, and the highway there keeps the mountains on your left and the Caribbean on your right until it veers left and juts right up into the hills.

I know the way up to San Juan by now, but I was headed to Bayamón, another metro area just to the west of San Juan. Never been there. As I left, I wondered - should I have brought someone along? I don't really know where I'm going. 

I replayed little sound bytes in my head of Julio and others talking about places you're not supposed to go. "What if I accidentally go there?"
"You won't."
"Well. Okay..."
They left it at that.

Also, the radio wasn't working* and the drivers side door of the pickup no longer closes. So I drove with my left arm out the window holding it shut, up to the crest of the mountains and then descended into Cayey, then Caguas, and into San Juan metro area.  

There, 52 becomes 18. You take 52 to 18 to 22 West to 2 West to 176 south. Not far down, on the right, there's a little purple building where they'll fix my projector. I know the numbers in my head, but I don't know the exits and I've never seen anything past 18. I had seen the map, and could actually visualize it in my mind. Years of pizza delivery helped me develop this skill.

52 to 18: check. Done this before a hundred times.
18 to 22: check. Now into new territory.
22 to 2: Oops.

There was a sign for 2 north, but nothing for 2 west. Well, crap. I know how the freeways here go. Like most places, it's easier to take the earlier exit and get back on if you're wrong, rather than pass the correct exit and have to double back a long way down. I dropped off early, directly into new territory with unrecognizable streets.

A note about streets in Puerto Rico: All the urban roads have numbers and names. Most maps have the numbers, but the signs have the names instead of numbers. Locals know the names. Also, this is not a flat island. There are no straight roads here. So while I can usually navigate pretty well, it becomes really tough when the road you're on winds all over the place and very soon, you might be heading the wrong way.

Here, I found myself on just such a road. Fortunately, even windy roads go somewhere. So if you stay on them long enough, you'll find your way to another busy road, which will probably take you somewhere recognizable. 

I like to say that I'm never lost, I'm just in a new place. And you really aren't lost as long as you know how to backtrack. Which is possible, but not easy, on windy roads.

I took the road to another major road and worked my way toward what I knew to be the general direction I wanted to go. But I didn't trust my instinct. I stopped at a gas station and went in to ask the clerk for directions. I wanted to be on highway 2. I didn't think I was. I asked the clerk if he spoke English and he said no. "No problema," I said and plopped down my map. "Yo quiero ir pa alla," ("I want to go there") and pointed on my map. "Donde esta carreterra 2?" (Where's highway 2?) He pointed outside to the road I'd just gotten off. That didn't seem right. I'd been on the right road all along? "Este calle aqui es carreterra 2?" (This street here is highway two?) I pointed out to the road. "Si!" he said. "a la derecha" (to the right.) 

Well. Okay. I got into the truck, held that door tight and wheeled out into traffic. Now, highway 2 goes all the way out of the city, to Arecibo and beyond to the northwest corner of the island. So when after one stop light this street, which the clerk had told me was highway 2, ended at a T, I knew there had been some communication breakdown somewhere. I took the T to the right (because why not? I had a 50-50 chance) and soon found a strip mall with a starbucks and a few cafes and a convenience store.

Two boys at the intersection out front were selling muffins and pastries. I asked if they knew where carreterra 2 was. They said no. Of course not.

I pulled into the parking lot and immediately found myself in one of the more nightmarish parking lots traffic jams I've experienced in Puerto Rico. After about 15 minutes, I parked. My transition from naive explorer into frustrated traveler was now complete. I went in and to get directions from a patron there. He spoke English. I handed him my map. He said, "Go out, take a right, take a left at the second light, go over the hill, and you'll be there at highway two.

"Great!" Sounded easy enough. "Thank you!"

I pulled out, took the right, saw no stoplights, and quickly found myself on a freeway on-ramp. 

Welp.

I recognized this freeway. I was going the wrong way, but I recognized it. I turned around at an exit, backtracked, found highway 2, and followed it to highway 167. After about 15 minutes, I landed at the small purple building. 

Now, I know where I went wrong in all of it. But the odds were in my favor. Had I driven around long enough, I would have found my way. I'm sure there's a lesson on stubbornness in here somewhere. But I can't find it yet. So for now, I leave you with:

This is why men never stop and ask for directions, and why we don't need to.



*The radio works. The rear speakers don't. Someone had the faders turned to those non-working rear speakers. I only discovered this today. I spent all day on Saturday driving without a radio, with only my thoughts to listen to. Sometimes that's not so bad.

November 8, 2011

One Year, Today


A year ago today, I arrived at CDC a little after midnight, tired and sweaty, with no soap. Dave gave me some, and today that same bar is sitting on the sink in my bathroom. Bachelor move, I know.

It's smaller now, cracked and discolored. But it still gets my hands clean and I think it'll be around for a while longer. I don't know how long a bar of soap is supposed to last. I swear I've been using it regularly. But things like that – the longevity of a bar of soap – make you realize a year really isn't all that long.

It looks a lot longer beforehand than afterward. For most people, it goes by and life changes imperceptibly. Not much is different when it's over. Your age is +1 and there are new songs on the radio and your nieces are talking a lot more.

Life kind of plods forward. That's true for the people back home who must think I'm living some crazy, exotic life, and it's true for me here. It's not everyday that I'm swinging off ropes over waterfalls into jungle pools. That was last Tuesday. It's not everyday that I'm rescuing baby sea turtles. That was a few weekends ago.

Leaving home is a sacrifice, no matter where you land. There are trade-offs. I would trade jungle waterfalls for just one afternoon of lazy football-watching with my family.

I still consider Grand Rapids my home and I'm realizing that, though I've only been in PR a year, I've actually been gone a lot longer. In 2008, I was in Africa. In 2009, I spent a summer and fall at Grace Adventures then moved to St. Joseph to work for Whirlpool. In 2010, I left St. Joe to go back to camp and then moved here to Puerto Rico. For much of the last three years, I've been away.

Gone.

Sometimes I get the feeling that while everyone back home is putting down roots and getting married and taking big, giant steps forward in life, I'm missing out on something. Most of my friends and family are back there, and most of the people I'm close to here are married or in a different stage of life. As a result, there have been some lonely days.

“Lonely,” for the record, is a terrible word. Just saying it, confessing it, affirms and exacerbates the feeling of it. But if I'm going to be honest, it's been a reality for me here that has colored my experience. I don't like being gone, being alone. But, you ask...

“How do you like Puerto Rico?”

Puerto Ricans ask me this all the time. It's usually a question rooted in pride in their island, especially for the older ones. I can tell that “You just love it, don't you?!?” is on the tip of their tongues.

Sure, I like Puerto Rico. I like 85 in February and never having to worry about icy roads. I like frappes and festivals and salsa and merengue music blaring from oversized speakers pretty much everywhere. I like waking up with the Caribbean lapping up just beyond my back door. I like exploring and the unpredictability and relaxed pace of island life. I like the creativity afforded me by a job that is directly related to impacting people's lives.

But there's still this big part of my heart that's stuck in Michigan, with its seasons and icy roads and – it's just home for me, and I've been gone for a long time. I can't help but look forward to returning someday.

My life hasn't synched up very well with everyone else's since I graduated from college. I've taken a different path, one with more miles traveled, more debt, less dollars earned. But I have to remind myself – don't take this for granted. These are good years and I'm hardly missing out. Someday, I'll miss the Caribbean and the salsa and jungle waterfalls, and I'll curse the biting wind and cold of Michigan in winter.

Tell ya what, I won't take this for granted if you, wherever and whoever you are, won't take yours for granted.



Scattered thoughts and further reflections on one year:

  • I thought I would know Spanish by now. I don't. Learning a language is a long and difficult process.
  • Top five frappes, in no particular order: Strawberry Oreo, Banana Oreo, Strawberry Cheesecake, Chocolate Coconut Banana, and Strawberry Kiwi (if the strawberries and kiwis are sweet.)
  • I really don't mind public speaking anymore. At least not when I'm flanked by a translator.
  • Dreaming and pitching new ideas is fun, but following through is far more difficult.
  • I will never stop hating plyometrics, but I'm slowly growing more and more fond of P90X. Thanks, Tony.
  • I cannot overstate the impact a package or letter has on me, no matter what's inside it. I've gotten a few from Michigan, one of which had a Tigers playoff towel that I will cherish and enthusiastically wave whenever the Tigers are playing or when I miss baseball, and a few letters from India. All of them were wonderful.
  • Nobody is perfect. Not even missionaries.

October 25, 2011

conTRAculTUra

(props to my brother Jon for the art)

Saturday morning, around 11 am, I boomed out Nicki Minaj's Superbass to a group of 54 high school kids  here at Campamento del Caribe. I then showed them a clip of Sophia Grace Brownlee singing the same song perfectly, belting that catchy chorus just like Ms. Minaj. It was the cutest thing ya ever did see.

But those lyrics... they're kinda nasty. In the very least, they paint an odd picture of what an ideal man should be. (Nicki's take: "He pop bottles... he's always in the air but he never flies coach, he might sell coke") And that's where we took our ensuing discussion. It's just a little weird having a discussion about naughty English lyrics with a group of Spanish speaking kids. Many of them were bobbing their heads and shot their hands in the air when I asked if they knew the words.

Discussing the dangers of pop music officially ushers me into one of the stages of adulthood between "permissibly cool grown-up" and "please stop, Dad, you're embarrassing me." I think the one I'm at the post-plateau coolness plummet. My trajectory is negative, no doubt.

But my own coolness aside, it was all part of our Contracultura retreat.

The point we were trying to get across was: Be different. Romans 12:2 tells us not to conform to the powers of the world, and we wanted to find some cool ways to get that point across to the campers. Part of that was our discussion that morning, dubbed "THE VOICE OF TRUTH." We compared various takes the entertainment industry and media have on subjects like men, women, God, Good and Evil, Success (we never got to sex and relationships, dadgummit) with the Bible. The format worked well - Clip, introduce topic, discuss in small groups, hear from a few groups, look at what the Bible says.

That discussion was one of the hardest things for me to plan - it only came together a few days before the retreat. Also tough: coming up with a name. Julio gets credit for that. He clearly has not plateaued in coolness, as I have. We kicked around a bunch of ideas, almost settling on a few others, until he pitched Contracultura. It was like, "Bingo." And it stuck.

Our high school camps have been really, really encouraging to me. Before the summer, Jon gave me a capacity number, and I looked at the previous summer and said there was no way we'd hit it. And somehow we did. We had a full camp, and the kids had a blast. And the energy at the end of the week was amazing.

So they seemed to carry it over into the retreat this weekend. Good numbers again, up from our last retreat in February. On Saturday night, Julio spoke and gave an invitation, and at least four kids went to talk to their counselors to accept Christ. Praise God for that.

I got to speak Sunday morning. I'm not nervous about that anymore, not here anyway. It helps when you know what you're going to say. And when you speak through a translator, you get a minute to formulate your next thought. Which really disrupts your flow, if you have flow. I am not a person who has flow. I don't think, anyway. But I was glad to get the chance to speak, if only for 20 minutes. It went well - I told an embarrassing story, shared a funny clip, and used a good illustration I learned from Francis Chan.

I really don't like to dwell on numbers, but it's a special thing when camp is full. Once again, parents were dragging their kids away from CdC. God is doing big things here.

I got to leaf through some of our evaluations from the retreat today, and the most common suggestion for improvement: Let us stay longer. The thing they liked the most: The teaching times.

That's why we do these retreats. It's great that they have fun and want to come back, but for them to leave with deeper understanding, strengthened in their walk... That's huge. Pray for those 54 kids, that they really would keep at it, and truly be Contracultura.

October 16, 2011

The things you find on the beach

Living on the ocean, you're at the edge of the world, it seems. So when garbage washes up onshore, I like to imagine it could have come from anywhere.

Glass bottle? Dropped in the ocean by a sailor decades ago. Obviously.

A barbie leg? A little girl somewhere in Venezuela is tailoring special barbie pants.

Plastic car parts? Some freighter from Hong Kong lost a crate overboard en route to Brazil or Detroit or Latvia.

Clearly I have no idea how the gulf stream works.

In reality, when the rain falls, it flows down the mountains and through the city streets and sweeps all the debris into the river and out to sea. And shortly thereafter, it washes up on our beach. So while the barbie legs and bottles and plastic debris - and a mountain of bamboo and sticks - could have come from a long way away, odds are they're from down the street in Pastillo or Juana Diaz or Santa Isabel. There are lots of familiar objects in there.

Yesterday, a number of kids were here at camp to pitch in and clean up the beach to earn a discount for our retreats the next few weekends. It's really more for them than for us. We even feed them lunch. We don't, however, give them swim time when it's all said and done, something that made me lots of enemies as I drove them home after we ate.

I spent most of our two short hours of work dragging a few of them back from the water cooler in the shade and encouraging them to keep helping while the others kept working. A lot of them haven't quite grasped the benefits of hard labor in the hot sun.

Builds character. Grunt. 

I'm 27 and still working on my attitude towards this kind of thing. So I don't know why I would expect an 11 year old to joyfully sift through all the junk on the shore. 

You never know what you're going to find.

Almost immediately after we started, one of them found a syringe.

She jokingly asked if it was mine. That's the brand of humor I expect from this particular girl. I shrugged it off and assured her it wasn't.

A minute later, she found a tiny baggie. She knew it had held drugs, and again asked if it was mine. I again denied it with a smirk. She explained to me with a few gestures and some basic Spanish what had been in the bag and what someone would have done with it, then threw it in her garbage bag.

Had I found that baggie, I'd probably have thought nothing of it. And had I found the syringe, I'd have quietly dropped it in my bag and then washed my hands for twenty minutes. It's the kind of thing you don't want kids to ask you about, that you'd rather them never know anything about. You'd like to protect them.

I stood there for a minute and spaced out. Here was a 13-year-old girl who lives right next to a drug point and has had far more exposure to drugs than I have. And she was making jokes. How do you protect them then?

When I was 13, I just wanted to watch Animaniacs and eat cereal.

October 7, 2011

The ALDS

Last night I stayed up in the office watching the Tigers beat the Yankees to advance to the ALCS. 

I settled in the office because my wireless reception was a little sketchy from my house, and I'd rather sit in an office chair to watch the game without interruption than recline on a couch and watch the game freeze and stop up every other play.

Take the first inning. I get the game going, kick back, watch Austin Jackson strike out (no surprise there) to make the first out of the game. Then - connection goes down. A little tinkering and I get it back up. Now the Yankee crowd is silent and we're suddenly up 1-0. I missed Don Kelly's solo shot. I do a fist pump. Sit down on the edge of the couch to watch Delmon Young bat. Ivan Nova goes to his windup and -

Connection down again.

Nope. Not doing this. I pack it up, move to the kitchen where my wifi signal is a little more reliable, set my projector and computer on my table and get it going again. Now we're up 2-0. Still one out, nobody on base. Delmon hit a solo shot too? Another fist pump. Miguel Cabrera strikes out and there's a murmur from the crowd. Victor Martinez grounds out. End of the first inning.

I sit there at my kitchen table and watch Doug Fister mow down the Yanks on my wall. This might work out fine. And then-

Connection down again.

No question, I'm not gonna put up with this. I migrate to the office, where I sit for the next three and a half hours in an office chair. It's not the ideal comfy setup but it'll do.

The Yankees trot out six more pitchers after the first inning, and each one of them is effective. The Tigers only get one more run and never establish a safe lead. 

But to me the story is the Tigers pitching.

Throughout the game, they let lots of guys on base, but strand 11 of them. Sometimes three in an inning. It's exciting and terrible and scary. I sit, shaking, heart palpitating, hands over my eyes, peering through the gaps like a child in a scary movie. I text my brother - "Can't. Watch." A thousand miles away, he's doing the same, I think. "Sickening," he says.

Scherzer gets Russell Martin to swing like the tinman at a pitch he clearly doesn't want. Joaquin Benoit loads 'em up and walks in a run, but leaves the bases loaded. In the 9th, Jose Valverde closes it out and gets Granderson and Cano to pop out. Then he strikes out Alex Rodriguez who, for the second straight year, ends the Yankees season by striking out. As a Tigers fan, it's beautiful.

I clap, and shout "YES!" - I can do this in the office without fear of disturbing anyone else. At home, the windows are always open and certainly Julio and Beth would hear me and think I'm ridiculous. 

Maybe I am ridiculous.

Soon, all my fellow Tiger-fan-friends are texting me and littering Facebook with Tigers-related statuses. This might be one of my favorite things about Facebook - it gives people far away from each other the chance to celebrate together. Otherwise, I'd have no idea just how many people are out there enjoying and celebrating this along with me. 

October 3, 2011

On Baking Cookies

I'll make no secret about my ignorance in baking cookies. I may have done it before... I know I've made brownies. I do have a sweet tooth, and odds are that at some point I baked some out of desperation.

Now, of late I'm doing my best to watch my figure as I creep toward 30 years old and the inevitable demise of my metabolism. So I'm trying to avoid unhealthy things. And yet, someone left me some butterscotch chips, a true rarity in these parts. And I'm on an oatmeal kick - oatmeal, brown sugar, raisins, check. What more do you need for cookies? Eggs? I've been known to fry or scramble them. Flour? I keep that around in case I want to fail at battering and frying something. Salt? Check. Butter? Obviously. Despite my bachelordom, I know these are essential for baking and I keep them all on hand anyway. I started thinking - cookie-baking is a skill I can further develop in my spare time here, and it just so happens I have the majority of the necessary ingredients. Gotta start somewhere.

And so it came to pass that I decided to bake some oatmeal cookies.

I located the following Betty Crocker recipe:

1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg
2 cups quick oats
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts

blah blah 350 degrees blah blah combine ingredients drop dough 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet, bake 9-11 minutes blah blah cool on a rack.

I don't have a cooling rack. I didn't think about this until the cookies were actually in the oven.


What I had to start with.

I had to plunder the Marshall's house for the remaining stuff. Since this was my first time baking since moving here, there was no way I was going to have vanilla on hand. I didn't have any baking soda that hadn't been sitting in a freezer for less than a decade. Also, I didn't have a mixing bowl. Also, I was out of eggs for some reason.



me, plundering the Marshall's house.


Everything you need for a breathtaking baking adventure


Dial it up to 350 for fun. No digital clock ovens in this house. Analog, baby. That's how I roll.


There they are. No turning back now. That's butter and sugar - essentially frosting. The butter, for the record, smelled and tasted a little funky. Not enough, though, for me to think it was unusable. A more experienced cook might have turned back at this point. But like I said - no turning back now. We're doing this.



Add eggs and vanilla and stir "until light and fluffy." I guess this is light and fluffy. Then combine all the rest.


Artist with art. Taking self-portraits and not looking like a doofus is very difficult. Poor framing. Meh.


That's definitely not the prescribed two-inches apart. No big deal, though, right? Who cares? It was at this point that I realized - what in the world are they supposed to cool on? My mom always put them on newspaper. I don't read newspapers here. Bare on the table? Nope. I had something:


Paper towel, baby. A few of them got a little close together and turned into squares. No biggy. I'll fast forward to the end here:


They really don't look too bad.


Now. Finished. I can enjoy a few of these, but I'm going to have to give a lot away. I tasted one two a few. I should have added more raisins. I don't think the butter-funk played a big role. A few taste testers will tell. 


All in all - not a bad experience. I followed the recipe. They look like cookies. They taste like cookies. I can chalk this one up as a success.

September 29, 2011

I have to talk about baseball

I can't imagine what it must be like to be a Red Sox fan right now. Last night was probably one of the most incredible nights in baseball history, but the nature of professional sports is such that for every incredible play, game, win, whatever, there's a loser on the other side. All they have today is heartbreak. They collapsed historically, wiping out a huge cushion with a horrible September, and then needing just one out - maybe one pitch - to make it to the postseason.

Look for the headlines from their papers at the start of the season, and you'll see they had lofty expectations. "best team EVER" one of them says. Not just the best BoSox team ever, but the best team. Ever. Then they started 2-10. And they finished 7-19. They bookended their season playing .237 ball. In between they played 81-43. If they had played that way all season, they'd have won 105 games and would have the best record in baseball.

But today their season is done.

Luckily, I am not a Red Sox fan. I can almost empathize. But not quite.

Like most Tigers fans, I've been waiting almost five years for tomorrow when we play a postseason game for the first time since 2006. Our hope is different - get us to the postseason and we'll see from there. When we miss the postseason - and we've done that a lot - we get to thinking about next year. It's always cautious optimism. We're not arrogant enough to publish a headline like "best team EVER." We've been humbled by some awful, awful decades.

We collapsed, hard, in 2009. Like the Red Sox, we blew a big lead in the division and let someone catch us. Unlike the Red Sox, we actually made it to the tie-breaker. That game, number 163, forever ruined the number 163 for me, probably. But it's one of the best games I've ever watched. Extra innings, a bunch of lead changes, it was incredible. We just wound up with fewer runs in the end. Season done. No playoffs, no world series, nothing.

Enter 2011. I'm living here in Puerto Rico. With my tax return, I spoil myself with MLB.TV. Suddenly, I can watch every. single. Tigers game. Ask the people here, they'll tell you I was often found in my man-cave, watching the Tigers projected up on my wall. They might remember the day I emerged and told everyone that Justin Verlander had just thrown a no-hitter. I know I do.

From the beginning, I had a good feeling about this season. And, thus far, some amazing stuff has happened. Justin Verlander threw a no-hitter and is a cinch for the Cy Young, even played well enough to force people to explain why a pitcher shouldn't be an MVP. Could still get it, for all I know. He'll definitely get votes. Miguel Cabrera won the batting title. Actually, that was kind of a big surprise. Our closer was perfect - everytime he came into the game with a close lead, we won.

But on top of all of that, we get to play tomorrow, in primetime, against the Yankees. There is nothing like seeing your team in the playoffs. (Hasn't happened with the Lions in a while but... who knows?)

And I like our chances. And I suppose I ought to make a prediction.

I favor: Us.

How could I not? I didn't watch all summer just to abandon hope in the postseason.

I honestly think our lineup can handle any pitcher out there. I think we'll get by the Yankees, then the Rangers. In the NL, I'm going to pick the Cards over the Phillies (This is just a gut feeling. Philly has incredible pitching, but they won't get enough offense) and the DBacks over the Cards.

I'm picking the Tigers over the Diamondbacks. Sorry, Tram and Gibby.

September 28, 2011

Not Just an Event

It's hard when your faith becomes your job.

The other day I was sitting there, just thinking. I do that sometimes, just sit there and zone out as my brain follows some long train of thought. Usually, just on the verge of some brilliant epiphany, I realize I've been sitting there zoning out and I snap out of it. I never reach that epiphany. Just a long string of thought, and often one that doesn't bear any fruit. That's okay. It's how guys defrag their hard-drives.

But as I sat there, I was thinking about my involvement in ministry. How did I get here? Why am I here? Why am I planning to be done with this in a year? How can I put a timeline on this? How am I qualified for this?

Most of us are unqualified, actually.

There are days when I get up and go back to the grindstone. I try to make decisions about new things, wait for people to call me back or email me so I can move forward on a project, or prepare stuff, or try to be creative by myself - am I the only one who sucks at this? Projects and budgets pile up and I stall on making decisions about more abstract things. Why does this feel like work?

We plan retreats, camps, and other events directed at reaching kids, in the hopes that they might go and be disciples. And there's a lot of work that goes into it. From coordinating artwork for a mailing to planning a menu to booking a speaker to updating a database full of names, it's easy to get overwhelmed with tasks.

You start to ask yourself - is this ministry, or is this a job? Couldn't anyone do this stuff? Is my faith really tied into this, or am I just an event planner?

As I was thinking, I started to consider some of the people who inspire me. Ministry doesn't usually look like work to them. They're so sold out to their cause that all they need is the fuel of the Holy Spirit to propel them forward. They run on It. They always love what they're doing so much that they would never dream of backing out of it, right? Why don't I feel that way? Here I am thinking my time here will be done in a year and I'll move onto something else. Why am I not surging happily forward in ministry, energized as though the Holy Spirit was coursing through my veins like caffeine? Shouldn't I love every minute of this?

Yeah, I don't think it happens that way. I think that whole utopian pipedream feel-good thing is a big lie, especially when it comes to ministry. The Bible definitely never paints that picture. Nowhere does Christ say "abandon your family, and it will be smooth sailing." Ministry is hard, and I suspect that the people for whom it appears to be so easy have days of drudgery too. Sometimes it's the work of the Holy Spirit just to get me out of bed and put me back at my desk.

We'll be doing our first men's retreat next month. It's new territory for me. Yesterday, I went to meet with Pastor Miguel, who will be our speaker, to pray about it and work out some of the planning. We prayed, talked, had a few good ideas, and as we wrapped up we prayed again. Though he didn't when we opened, He prayed in English this time, and I was glad because he used a phrase that stuck with me. "May it not be just an event..."

May it not be just an event. I grabbed onto those words and repeated them, rolled them over in my brain. They fit so well.

That is exactly the attitude I need to have.

It's not just an event.

September 18, 2011

background noise

Chickens are clucking, roosters are crowing, and dogs are barking around the barrio.

The breeze comes in with no walls to stop it. Fans above rotate slowly and help it along.

Javier stands up to read Psalm 23, in "a strong voice, like David."

From inside the house, a child erupts, crying. 

And it sets the dog off, and he starts barking and howling.

And a car rolls down the street with a deafening sound system, booming dirty lyrics for all of us in church to hear.

And I am the only one who seems to notice.

September 13, 2011

Maria reaches

Yesterday, I pulled the aluminum covers off my windows, protection from the threat of Irene a few weeks ago. She's long gone, and though hurricane season isn't over yet there doesn't appear to be anything upcoming. I want a breeze through my apartment. And Maria - she's heading north of the island, presumably to get lost and fizzle out over the Atlantic.

But ya see, hurricanes and tropical storms have these wings or tentacles that stick out well beyond the eye of the storm. The eye can pass close by, and the storm might not do a whole lot. But those darn tentacles can do damage all over. 

So with Maria cruising up the Atlantic, away from Puerto Rico, I went to sleep with a little drizzle outside of my window. By 1 AM, I felt just a little spray coming in my window. The wind had picked up and the slow, distant rumble of thunder had become decidedly less distant. Now it was flashing and crashing all around. There was a howl - not the freight train people tell me comes along with a real hurricane - as the wind began to blow in a constant. I began to wonder if something was kicking up. Probably, though, it was just a big thunderstorm.

If I had I left the aluminum covers up on my windows, I wouldn't have to worry about any rain getting in. But since I'd taken them down, just a little bit of mist was getting through. Outside the window, they were standing carelessly up against my washer. I got up and closed the shutters tight and laid back down.

A big gust of wind, and

WHAM

The sound was huge and unmistakable. They fell over and started banging and clanging around on the ground as the wind pushed them along the concrete beneath my windows. Roughly five feet from where I was sleeping, just a concrete wall with some tightly closed shutters was between me and them and the storm that pushing them effortlessly around.

I briefly thought I probably ought to go tie them down or something. Then, another crash of thunder.

Nope.

I rolled over and slept until, around 4:30 am, it all kicked up again. And it rained non-stop for several more hours.

When I emerged from my house from my apartment, I was met with this:



There used to be an awning covering the walkway to our dining hall. You can see the poles bent over, not knowing which way they're supposed to point. The thing they held up is way over there resting against that palm tree. On its way there, it roughed up our playground even more than termites and time already had. It needs a replacement. That's not the sound I heard. But you can imagine, that awning weighs several hundred pounds, thrown more than 100 feet.

This was more than just a little thunderstorm. Beware the long reach of Maria.

September 9, 2011

It's good to be a Tigers fan

I don't blame people for not being baseball fans. Unless you've got a dog in the fight, you really don't have a reason to watch. I could not sit down and watch a Padres/Astros game start to finish (This, I think, precludes me from the top tier of rabid baseball fans). But since I'm a Detroit fan, and I know all the players and keep up with them, I actually enjoy watching them play. It doesn't hurt that they're playing well and are very much in control of their division, about to claim their first championship in 24 years. It's an exciting time to be a Tigers fan.

Lots of baseball fans – ones more rabid than I - have ambitions of seeing a game in every single Major League stadium. For me... maybe one day. But for now, I'm going to try to check out all the parks within a few states of Michigan. I've been to Comerica a few times, as well as U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago and the more distant Turner Field in Atlanta (where the atmosphere will go a long way to convert non-Braves fans). I've been to a few retired parks too. I took in a game at the Metrodome where the Twins played until moving into Target Field last year. Several years ago, my dad took us to a game at Milwaukee County Stadium where the Brewers used to play. And of course, he took us to Tigers stadium too.

With Progressive Field just a few hours away in Cleveland and the Tigers playing well, my friend Josh and I drove there Wednesday to see them play the Indians.

Cleveland, it turns out, doesn't look too far away on a map but is still a five hour drive from Grand Rapids. That's twice as long as driving to Comerica in Detroit and it's not a drive you want to make very often, and it's definitely not one you want to make just to see your team lose. I had never been to Cleveland before, and I'm all about going to places I've never been before just to say I've been there.

Across from QuickenLoans Arena where the Cavs play, Nike had hung a massive banner that said “We are all witnesses.” It had a picture of Lebron James angelically throwing powder in the air, like it was magic or something. You may not have heard, but he quietly left them last year to play for the Miami Heat. They took the banner down and in its place there now hangs one that says, “Our home since 1866. Our pride forever,” and it has a picture of the Cleveland skyline lit up at night. They would rather have their identity in their city than in a guy who plays basketball really well. I respect them just a little bit more because of that.

Don't stake your hope in guys who get paid to play games.

We found a parking garage a few blocks away with parking for $10. We pulled in and the attendant at the counter was sleeping with her head against the window. The gate was up, so we pulled through, expecting that maybe someone else would be waiting for us to throw money at them while their coworker slept. Instead, there was another woman, standing, who just waved us by. We parked, a little bit confused, and left the building no poorer than when we'd arrived. Unfortunately, we took no notice of the level on which we parked. When we came back later, we had it a Seinfeldian parking garage search.



Progressive Field is a pretty nice stadium. I like Comerica better – it seems a little more spacious and open, where Progressive has a little more of a condensed, closed-in feel like U.S. Cellular where the Sox play. (Here, I'd like to point out that the Tigers recently swept the White Sox and effectively crushed any of their dreams of reaching the postseason.) The Tigers – I'm admittedly biased – are blessed with a beautiful ballpark.

For the record, I think Comerica is a little cheaper too. Not by much, but it is. The vendors at progressive will sell you a hot dog for $5.50, which the guy who sat next to me balked at but later caved in and paid. A jumbo hot dog is $8.50. They'll sell you a 24 oz can of Honey Brown Lager for $9.50. A two beer/two peanut combo is $27.

Don't do it. I can't imagine there are many people who deem this a worthy investment. Josh and I smuggled in ziploc bags of peanuts. Mine were gone before the first pitch. We tried to smuggle in Dr Peppers but they didn't make it to the gate.

I'll be as brief as possible reporting the goings-on of the baseball game because anybody who cares to know about it already does. And, as much as I might want to, I'm not gonna turn this into a sports blog. Verlander pitched. You ought to know his name because he's having an historic season, and doing it as a Tiger. Everyone in Detroit loves him, and there will probably be a lot of kids named Justin again. People drive a long way to see him play and pay lots of money for shirts with his name on them.

But he gave up a few runs. And the Tigers struggled to hit the Indians pitcher. Until the sixth, down 4-2, they loaded the bases, scored a run, and then Victor Martinez hit a grand slam to put the Tigers ahead 7-4. Even in the Indians stadium, there were enough Tigers fans there to be just as loud as the Indians fans. Justin Verlander won his 22nd game.

The first Indians fan that we saw that day was a guy who walked by us and said, “Good luck in the playoffs, guys.” We, of course, marked ourselves with Tigers gear, as any good and brave fan does in an opposing ballpark. We told him thanks and talked to him a bit, he was actually a really nice guy. All sports fans ought to be good ambassadors like him. We met another lady walking into Five Guys later on who said, “Sorry about your shirts.” But even she ended up being really nice too, and we admitted to each other we'd rather see the other team in the playoffs over the Sox or Twins. I'm still deciding whether or not that's true.

Regardless, it looks like it will be my team that will be in the playoffs. And since we got to see them win, the drive home was considerably more enjoyable.

Some heroes of the day:


Victor Martinez

Justin Verlander

August 31, 2011

The Upper Peninsula

I love the UP. A few years ago, I decided I hadn't been up there in too long and flew solo, going through the Pictured Rocks and the Porkies, before taking a route of questionable directness home through Duluth and Minneapolis. I saw no bears. Last year, I went up with my friend Josh and brother-in-law Jon. We again hiked the Pictured Rocks, but spent the remainder of our trip tooling around in the beautiful Huron Mountains northwest of Marquette, finding waterfalls and swimming in them. We again saw no bears. But I did come home with poison ivy.

And this year, it was Dad's turn to accompany me on what has now become an annual pilgrimage. Let me start off by saying we didn't see any bears. We did, however, see a coyote trotting off the road, and got a pretty good view of a bald eagle.






Dad, I think, had never seen one in the wild before and he was thoroughly impressed. I'd never seen one this close, but at camp a few years ago I saw one come flying in from a long way away, all glorious and majestic, wings flapping beautifully, soaring in the Michigan breeze, only to be annoyingly buzzed off by a couple of seagulls. It was beautiful, then disappointing. This time, though, we walked along the beach, pausing every few steps to get a closer picture. They really are beautiful birds.

The UP seems like a place where nature generally wins the battle. We stayed at Fort Wilkins, up at the tip-top of the Keweenaw Peninsula. If you take the road to the west, you can creep up Brockway Mountain and on a clear day see Isle Royale 50 miles out (we hit it on just such a day.)





(this view from Brockway Mountain does not show Isle Royale, which for the record is where I want my next venture to da UP to be.)

At Copper Harbor, they started a fort to protect the miners in Copper Country during the copper boom back in the 1840s. But it didn't last long and they shut it down. Everyone, it seems, got pretty bored. You get a real sense of this walking around the restored buildings on the fort grounds. The area is beautiful, but only if you're into that whole beautiful nature thing. There's not a whole lot else to do up there. The reputation of Michigan Tech, 50 miles to the south of Copper Harbor, and the rest of the UP for that matter, is that people drink for entertainment in the wintertime. They drink to stay warm too, I guess. This seems to have been true for the troops at that fort, judging by the stuff on the historical markers at the park. Yoopers have embraced it.

Apart from Marquette, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of commerce. The only thing to live on is what has been there for a really, really long time - natural resources. In the 1800s they mined copper. In the 1900s it was the iron industry and logging. Now, there's still a lot of logging (and paper mills to coincide) and tourism - people who pretty much just want to see nature. And lighthouses. (I still don't really see their appeal. Sorry, lighthouse apologists.)

The UP, I've heard, has 33% of Michigan's land and only 3% of its population. That means 97% of Michiganders are trolls (who live under the bridge.) You get a real sense for this as you drive the highways. First, there aren't all that many. There are huge tracts of land away from the highways that most people will never see without a snowmobile or a 4-wheeler. Second, the highways are lined with ghost towns, many of which have dead tourism efforts. And these, actually, are some of the most fascinating spots in the UP. Why did people ever live here? Where'd they go? What did they leave behind?

No question, I love the UP. As dad and I drove around, we realized that we were visiting some places that most Americans - and even most Michiganders - will never, ever see. I don't know many people who've been as far north as Copper Harbor, or as far west as the Porcupine Mountains, or hiked the trails of the Pictured Rocks. And that's kind of a shame because they're some of the most beautiful places in our wonderful state.

You should go see them.

August 18, 2011

Anecdotal evidence

Yesterday I got a call from Pastor Gary at Rush Creek Bible Church, the church I grew up in and the one I still consider my "home church," though I've been gone for years, it seems. Since tonight is the Men for Missions Steak Fry, they asked me to come and share a short story about what God has been doing in Puerto Rico. I told him sure, I'd be happy to - After all: Public speaking is no longer a big deal for me. (Sidenote: Public speaking is still a big deal for me.)

And so I immediately started to think about what I would share. I get one story, one anecdote from the summer, and I need to make it count. And as I cycled through my memories from my time so far in Puerto Rico, I started to realize that most of my big impressions have to do with my personal growth. I need to get up in front of these guys and share something about the ministry, a story about where I saw God doing big things in the lives of the kids, counselors, others around the ministry.

And the thing is...

I'm struggling to come up with one.

That doesn't mean God didn't do big things. It just means I didn't see a lot of them firsthand. Maybe there's a disconnect somewhere. I know our counselors have some big things they would share, and I wish they could be here to do it. As a program director, especially in my first year, I spent a lot of time planning, putting out fires, preparing the next thing, processing the last thing, recovering, sweating, cleaning, thinking. And that doesn't leave a lot of time to be actively involved in the present. In other words, not a lot of time in direct heart-to-heart perfect-for-a-story-back-home ministry. I spent a lot of time trying to make sure everything was right for others to do that, but not a whole lot doing that myself.

To some extent, that is the job of the director - you're supposed to make sure that the goals are met, let others handle the tasks. I would be a terrible micromanager. But I still think that somewhere along the way, I would have gotten a pretty good anecdote to share.

There are anecdotes. There are naughty kids, crazy games - and confusing ones, the kid who puked during Fear Factor, the darnedest things kids said, and other summer camp anomalies. Generally, the stuff that goes wrong makes for better stories. It's low-hanging fruit when it comes to reflection. But it doesn't always make for inspiring stuff for the folks back home.

And so I think, in the 2-3 minutes I get, I won't be sharing just one small touching anecdote, but one big one - that we had a good summer, that kids learned that they need to live fearlessly as followers of Christ, that a few made decisions to turn their lives to Him for the first time, and that they had a lot of fun doing it.

And, of course, that nobody got seriously injured in the process.

August 16, 2011

While home

I wondered if there was going to be significant culture shock being back in Michigan after being in PR for 7 straight months.

I am happy to report: Not really. Not that bad. I've been enjoying the lack of humidity. Michigan in the summer is a good place to be, though everyone tells me it was wicked humid a few weeks ago before I got here.

I have yet to get into Lake Michigan, and enjoy a body of water without salt creeping into all of my nicks and cuts and flavoring my lips.

I've been able to visit my home-away-from-home at Grace Adventures. And in so doing, pitched in at Unityfest where I manned the Gaga pit and did some belaying at the climbing wall before I saw the Newsboys. I almost met them afterward, and would have were it not for the fact that to meet them, ya gotta have some merch in hand for them to sign. Still, great show.

I also saw Willie Nelson in concert, and though that wasn't on my bucket list or anything, and I hadn't planned on it until the day before, you generally don't pass up an opportunity to see a legend in concert, especially when it's free. Willie Nelson, for the record, is short. And downtown Grand Rapids made for an almost-perfect venue on a nearly perfect day.

I shot 9 holes with two good friends yesterday. It my first time on the course in, I think, two years. I might have gotten out once last year. I crushed my first drive and finished with a 50. For the record I cannot remember ever shooting under 50, so I was pleased.

We went over to one of their houses after and watched the Tigers game. I'll be going to at least one and hopefully two while I'm home. This is a good year for them. I can't wait to see them in person again.

I'm trying, at the advice of a friend who has been overseas and come home for a month, not to do too much in the time that I'm home. I need some rest. Some me time. Some get-fed time - I'm going to have to make sure to spend some time in The Word. So this week is primarily an open book, get up when I want, get a little bit of work done - not too much - hit the bicycle to pedal around Jenison.

I've had the chance to answer "how's Puerto Rico?" about 100 times. I have a script in my head now. But being home, being away, gives you a chance to reflect on things in a way that you can't while you're in the thick of it. You only get really good perception after the fact. I added up my hours the other day for the month of July, just thinking about how much I worked. I figure I worked a 70 hour week, an 80 hour week, and a 95 hour week in there. I think I got two real days off that month. And I was wiped out at the end of it. It's no wonder our counselors were too. The hours, though.... That's part of the gig and you can't escape it. By design, summer camp is a crazy, busy season. I think I bankrolled a few days off in that time.

And so now, I'm taking much needed time off with some people I've missed. Just being at home at night, doing nothing... I think that fills me up.

August 10, 2011

Travelogue: August 9, 2011


Yesterday ended up being a rough day of travel, and I guess this is the sort of thing you're supposed to blog about. It definitely could have been a lot worse, but I don't know if the day could have been longer. So here's a timeline of my day:

5:30 am - Rise n' shine. I had wisely packed everything the night before, but had some trouble sleeping. When the alarm went off I got right up.

6:00 am - Hit the road. The drive to the airport from CDC usually takes about an hour and 20 minutes, but with San Juan traffic you should budget at least two hours.

8:00 am - Arrive at the airport. I promptly received a phone call that one of my flights had been cancelled, but no worries - they'd rerouted me through Detroit and would actually get me into Grand Rapids sooner. I passed through security pretty quickly - was treated to the full body scan - and on the other side, called my dad with the good news.

9:45 am - In the air. Open seat next to me = legroom. They showed Water for Elephants and, being the huge Robert Pattinson fan I am, I was riveted.

1:45 pm - Land at JFK, where they have this:



That's a Best Buy vending machine. I could have bought an iPod from one vending machine, taken a few steps, and bought a Fanta from another. I guess this makes sense as a business model. I mean, Best Buy wants an airport presence, but doesn't really want to staff it or pay a lot of rent, so cram a few things in a vending machine and let the disposable income roll in. I felt like a total hick standing there taking a picture of a vending machine, marveling at the technology and novelty of it. Of course I didn't buy anything from it. Turns out the JFK airport is a pretty expensive place.

2:30 - Lunch time. After surveying all of my options, I chose a meal at Wendy's. Cost: $10. Had I wanted a Snapple, that would have been an additional $3.69. I think it's the perfect storm of having a captive audience and being in a place where the cost of living is ridiculously high.

Also, JFK airport - at least the Delta terminal - is crowded and short on seating. Not a great experience for the average traveler. They're going to redo the terminal, and I think they're doing it with Snapple profits.

3:00 - I rest my eyes for a little bit in an empty corner of the terminal, but not for too long. Better to stay awake, lest I conk out and miss the boarding call.

4:50 - Original departure time for Detroit.

5:30 - Revised departure time

5:51 - Revised departure time again.

6:27 - Final revised departure time. All that while, I really could have left the airport. But how was I supposed to know? I spent those hours wandering around the terminal, watching my departure time get later and later, thinking that it was increasingly clear I'd never make that connection from Detroit to Grand Rapids that was supposed to get me into town at 8:40. Also, one thing they don't have in Puerto Rico is good brewed unsweetened Iced Tea. I found it at Starbucks for $2.40 which, compared to a $3.69 Snapple, seems like a steal.

6:35 - We actually board the plane. And we do it out on the tarmac. Walked out there, up the steps, not using some fancy gate apparatus. That's fine with me, though, because it gave me a chance to feel for the first time in a bunch of months an atmosphere not saturated with humidity. But then, even after almost 2 hours of delay in the airport, we spent the next two hours sitting on the runway, waiting for fuel and for traffic to clear up. The guy in front of me said this happens all the time at JFK. He was flying with his little cousin who kept asking if we had taken off yet, if we were there yet, that sort of thing. Finally he told him "We're not actually going leave today. We're gonna take off tomorrow morning."

8:30 - Lift-off. Finally, we're in the air on the way to my beloved Michigan. Not a terribly long flight, at an hour and a half. But had everything gone according to plan I would have been descending on Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids right then.

10:00 - We land in Detroit. DTW, for what it's worth, has a really nice Delta terminal. It's clean, wide open, the stuff there isn't quite so expensive, it's laid out pretty simply, and there are lots of seats. And they have a neat fountain. I've decided I appreciate DTW. Since I didn't have much time to make my connection, I sprinted to a monitor and found out that the last Grand Rapids flight, which was supposed to leave at 10:25, was departing from another terminal. More sprinting.

10:10 - I step up to a gate where everyone is just standing around with no sense of urgency. What I hadn't noticed on the Departure screen was that this flight was delayed until 12:10 am. They had a seat for me. I ask the lady if I can score a meal voucher because of the delays. She says no, they don't give them out if it's weather related. I won't hassle her. There were tons of delays on the day and I don't want to be the grumpapotamus demanding she put right what Mother Nature was largely - but not solely - responsible for screwing up.

10:20 - Suddenly with lots of time to spare, I find a customer service rep at another gate and give him a more detailed account of my day - cancelled flight, delay at the reroute, delay now here - and he was more than happy to give me $12 in vouchers for meals. The McDonald's employee encourages me to use every last dime of it, so I walk away with a full meal, two apple pies, and a Diet Pepsi for the road. Forgot the napkins, though.

12:15am - We board the plane to Grand Rapids. I'm in a sleepy kind of funk. I've been up for 19 hours. Just get me home.

1:00 am - We take off. They announce the flight is 19 minutes.

1:05 am - "Flight attendants, please prepare the cabin for landing."

1:19 am - We land. The terminal smells funny. It's a familiar smell, not a good one, but not too offensive.

1:30 am - Hello mom and dad. Lots of hugs. No balloons, no crowds, no singing, just a perfect little moment.

1:40 am - bags in hand, we walk out to the car. The air is cool. It's been more than 20 hours, and it's good to be home.

August 8, 2011

Excited to fly

Tomorrow, I get to fly the friendly skies, and I'm excited.

I get to visit the airport and witness the spectacle of thousands of people dispersing out into the world. Oh, the places they'll go! Where did they come from? Where are they going? What brought them here? What takes them there? (answer: airplanes. Airplanes do that.)

Check-in is super easy these days. Their friendly staff will keep the lines moving - all I need is my confirmation number.

The views from airplanes are always fantastic. On the first leg, I'll see Manhattan as I land at JFK. On the second... Cincinnati. Cincinnati, Ohio. Yessir, the 'nati. On the third, the fine, familiar streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I'll ride in mild luxury, my mind at ease as the trusty folks at Delta carefully and respectfully ensure that my luggage makes all of its connections. They'll bring me my complimentary beverage, maybe some peanuts or pretzels, and I'll drift off to sleep.

Maybe I'll get bumped up into first class!

Maybe I'll sit by someone famous!

Of course, all of that excitement will come crashing down tomorrow when I confront the reality of flying.

I'll rise at 5:30 am, shower, scarf down some breakfast, and hit the road with Markus and my bags, fight San Juan rush hour traffic to get to the airport by 8. After the check-in, I'll be at the mercy of the TSA agents. (I'm a big, bearded guy. I don't foresee any... problems.)

Once I'm through, I'll wait until we all bum rush the plane to claim overhead bin space. I'll crouch down in my seat - window seat, otherwise there will be people crawling over me to use the potty the whole way to New York. There won't be a lot of legroom, you have to pay extra for that now.

I'll visit four airports, two of which I have no business being in except for the fact the Delta says I can save $74 if I stop there.

The layover in New York is three hours. That's just enough time to go mad in the airport, but not enough to leave it. I'm gonna find some overpriced food court food. Airports have done away with free Wi-fi. I guess I'll bring a book.

If I start at 6 am tomorrow and count my two hours on the road, I'll spend 16 hours traveling, just to get from the Caribbean to the midwest. (For reference: A direct flight from San Juan to Chicago takes about 4 hours.) When I land in Grand Rapids, I'm going to be exhausted.

But you know what? At the end of the day, I'll see my family for the first time in more than seven months. And for that, I would glad endure tomorrow a hundred times.

I'm coming home.

August 3, 2011

Emily Disappoints

One of the things I hope I'll experience here is a hurricane. The locals, I assume, think I'm stupid. Hurricanes are bad, they're disasters. Don't wish for hurricanes. Don't wish for disasters.

I'd also kind of like to see a tornado. I've had lots of dreams about tornadoes. I rate them scarier and more unpredictable than hurricanes, based mostly on my experience with them in dreams. One minute, you're whitewashing a fence with your buddies from your little league team, then there are some raindrops, then you're driving home for shelter, watching the thing take shape in the sky, then you stop to see some people from your Biology class and, oh yeah, that tornado, gotta go guys, and it's bearing down on you from behind and you get to thinking - I'm finally going to see a real tornado in REAL life and it's not a drea-

Dang it.

Still haven't seen a real tornado in real life. My dad has, I think, but he grew up in Iowa where tornadoes grew on trees. So of course he has.

Tornadoes sneak up and destroy things, lots of things, whatever things they please. They'll devour a whole block of houses and leave a single one untouched. Because they can. Then they disappear. They're phantoms. They're loco, ese.

Hurricanes, they give you plenty of warning. (So I hear.) They start, get huge, then wobble a little bit and head toward land all big and dangerous. They wreck everything, stick around for a few days then burn out somewhere over Georgia.

If tornadoes are the crazy junkies of the weather-world, hurricanes are the big, depressed lumberjacks.

I guess.

But anyway, living in the tropics, the prospect of a hurricane roaring up on shore - I sleep about 40 feet from the Caribbean - before I head back to the Midwest is pretty intriguing. I picture it sounding like a freight train rolling through camp, everyone huddled inside playing monopoly by candlelight, bonding. Living through a hurricane would make a great story. People in Michigan don't know nothing bout no hurricanes.

So I really want to see one. And this storm showed up on the watch list, far away, 90% of the way to a tropical storm before reaching the Lesser Antilles - those little Caribbean islands people take cruises to, the ones that curl down to South America - with plenty of time to turn itself into a hurricane and find its way onshore here. I got my hopes all up. People poo-pooed it, saying it would most likely miss us. They usually do. Still, I knew there was always a chance. No telling what a depressed lumberjack is capable of.

She became a storm and got her name, Emily. They don't name boring storms, do they? This should be good.

She stayed down, crossed all those tiny islands and spilled into the Caribbean. So far, so good.

Then she stayed right out there to sea, almost out of sight, not doing anything remotely interesting. Her clouds brought us rain, but she didn't blow down any palm trees or anything.

Had I not had my ears intricately attuned to the scuttlebutt at the local watering hole (AKA El Frappe) and had I not been keenly watching the NWS Atlantic loop, I probably would never have known that whatever passed over us/by us was a tropical storm. Sure, we only got her slightest, farthest reach, but I saw enough to know that this was a supreme let down.

And so my thirst lives on. Hurricane season is yet quite young, and though I'm heading back to Michigan for a month next week, I'll be back for much of September and October.

I'll be waiting.

Watching.

I took this picture while PR was under a Tropical Storm warning (clicking makes it big):