There are ornaments. And then there are ornements.

Most of the English-speaking world would say that they hang ornaments (noun - lovely, decorative adornments) on their Christmas trees. But not all of them. The following label ripped from a recent dollar store purchase proves the point --

The Chinese manufacturers of this lovely, decorative adornment could not have known that they were actually referencing the down-home version of the word ornament that is used here in the southern United States, as in:

"VERN! Git up 'ere and hang them ORNEYMENTS up high on the tree!"

But then, things could always be worse --


Please Write on Our House

Last weekend we invited our friends to come out on Sunday afternoon to write on our house.

Permissible graffiti. We were asking for it – everywhere. On the floors, on the walls, on the ceilings, and over the doors. We brought the sharpies, cookies, and drinks. Our friends brought their graffiti A-games.

It is all soon to go away from sight, because the sheet rock will soon go up, the flooring will soon go down, and fresh paint will forever hide the precious autographs that were once there.

But maybe someday, decades from now, another family living in our 2012-era home will decide to strip everything out to make way for the latest and greatest trends in Extreme Home Makeover style, and will find – maybe to their puzzlement - sharpie-scrawled God-promises all over the wood frames.

Nothing superstitious about it. Not even a little bit stitious as Michael on The Office would say. No magical abracadabra pixie dust being sprinkled. Just an affirmation of the faith in our hearts as we wrote, and affirmations from friends and loved ones who blessed us as they penned for us the reminders of ancient words.

“Write them [these commandments] on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates,” said God in Deuteronomy 6.

So why not?

Even when the sheet rock goes up, we will remember what is underneath. And thanks to these pictures, we will even remember where. That old hymn “Standing on the Promises of God” doesn’t have to be just figurative anymore.

The ten feet that are soon to inhabit this place will be standing on them for real.

i am with you
2 samuel
psalm 91
our brother
before I formed you
mawmaw verse
love never fails
God Bless This Home


Punkin Muffins for Remedial Cooks

I cook to live. To provide sustenance for my family. Not for the sheer love of it. I wish I could stir up in my heart a great love for mixing, sauteeing, roasting, grilling, and baking, but alas, it’s just not there. Sometimes the things we eat to live are righteously good. Sometimes marginal. Sometimes fit for the garbage disposal.

But just like the next person, I like to make people think I’m a super good cook. My husband got a phone call recently from a family friend who needed my phone number because she wanted the recipe for my deliciously moist and perfect chocolate brownies. He chuckled on the inside, since he knew the truth, but gave the lady my number anyway so that I could be the one to sheepishly explain to her that she could find the Duncan Hines Dark Chocolate Fudge Brownie Mix in a box on aisle 5 at the Winn Dixie.

These are the reasons that this is not a cooking blog.

But today, for the first time ever, I’m posting a recipe because it’s so easy and yummy that even a remedial cook could do it. It came to me by way of my friend Amy Dorsey, and it came to her by way of someone else, so therefore I do not claim to have authored these instructions of pure autumn goodness.

Here’s what you need to buy for Perfect Pumpkin Spice Muffins. 

This -
DSCN2806 And this -
That’s it! Just a can of pumpkin and some spice cake mix!
Then, you mix them up like so:

Looks a little thick and muddy, but not to worry. I do recommend doing a better job than I did of getting those little white clumps of cake mix smoothed out.


Spoon into greased muffin cups and bake at 350 for 30 minutes, then presto! Punkin muffins that your friends won’t know had only two ingredients! Unless you sheepishly explain.

Pure. Autumn. Goodness.


No Longer a Four-Letter Word

When is a door not a door? 

When it’s ajar?

No, silly!

When it’s a decorative entry system.

The door catalog that I’ve been studying today, in preparation for the intimidating front door selection decision that must be made soon for our new house, replaces that tired old word door with some delightfully fancy, frilly terminologyToday, we need to give some credit to the person who came up with the immensely descriptive phrase decorative entry systems. 

I imagine the door people sitting around a conference table brainstorming names for their catalog, and one poor schmuck says, “How about just “Doors?”

His door colleagues shake their heads.  “No, no, no, Jim!” another guy says. “That’s so 2011. We need something with sparkle. Something flashy. Like, Gateways to Happiness. Or, wait! Wait! It’s coming to me. Yes! Decorative Entry Systems!” he says, with a faraway look in his eyes.

“Decorative. Entry. Systems!” he says again, pausing between the words for emphasis, and punctuating each one with hand gestures that practically christen them with glitter dust.

And so, the following is born.

door catalog

You’re on the phone with a friend and you hear a knock. “Oh, excuse me! I have to go. There’s someone at the decorative entry system. Call you later.”

Your husband comes in late from work. “Hi honey, welcome home! Remember to lock the decorative entry system behind you, please.”

Political correctness is has already consumed us. But no longer are simply concerned for women, minorities, and certain religious groups. Now we also need to protect our front entryways from disparaging talk. So remember that next time you cross the threshold to your humble abode.

Dignify with its proper title that thing you have to open to get inside. It is no longer a four-letter word.


One Hundred and Fifty-Nine

road sign Serendipity.

Such a fun word.  It means happy accident or pleasant surprise.

I got a serendipitous phone call this morning from 911.  It’s interesting when you say hello and find out that 911 is calling you, as it’s especially nice that it’s not the other way around.

They were calling to give me the address for our new home that we are building.  “It’s 159 (street name),” the lady said.  I told her that sounded good to me, thanked her, and hung up.

Then (BAM!) I had an honest-and-true flashback, no lie.  Just like in the movies when somebody remembers something and they see it replayed.  It was a couple years ago, and we had a (then) 3 or 4 year old son who was learning about numbers – how to say them, what they mean, how they can combine together in hundreds, tens, and ones.  We had a little family joke back then because Little C somehow developed a fondness for a particular number.  He enjoyed saying it frequently because he knew it would make his parents and his sister giggle a little, since it was always a funny answer.  If you asked him how many cookies he wanted, how old his mommy was, how many miles we had to drive, how many fingers and toes he had, it was always the same…

“One hundred and fifty-nine.”

hee hee hee, giggle, snort, chuckle.  It was the funniest joke ever invented, to him.  And by extension, to the rest of us.

And then, this morning, 911 calls to tell me that, of all possible numerical combinations we could receive, it’s our future house number!  The most hilarious number ever invented!  The punch line of endless jokes!  159!

No, I’m definitely not superstitious or numero-stitious or anything like that.  I just love serendipity, which, when you get right down to it, is a little wink from God.

159!  I can’t believe it!  I’m still cracking up.

And winking back.


The Right Kind of Toys

One of the reasons that children have been put on the earth is to teach adults. I get schooled frequently by mine. They don’t know it.
Last Saturday, my six-year-old son arrived home from a full day of playing at his friend’s house. He flopped on the couch in a funk, sat there for a second, then headed off to his room. I assumed the funk was occurring because he would rather still be at his buddy’s house. That was only partially true.
Several minutes later, he returned to the living room, bottom lip jutting out. 
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I don’t have the right kind of toys!” he moaned.  “We played Army all day, and I don’t have any army stuff!”
Never mind 10,658 soldiers…
Two Hummer/Jeep things…
A pretty cool camo plane…
camo plane
This black-ops guy from a Burger King kids’ meal…
And the all-purpose Nerf gun weaponry…
nerf guns
At that moment, I was obligated to fulfill my parental duty of launching into a monologue of “yes-you-do-have-toys-you-have-a-million-and-some-kids-in-the-world-have-none,” which is basically a variation on the classic theme, “there-are-starving-people-in-the-world-so-eat-your-peas.” The monologue usually includes a contrasting reference to Veruca Salt, the “I Want it Now” brat from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who has served as a convenient object lesson for children over the decades. She, above all, is the kid you do not want to be. Be instead the anti-Veruca.
He considered my logic for a minute, and it sufficiently silenced him enough to begin a foray into some other activity besides Army.  I shook my head, mentally adding up all the Christmas and birthday detritus accumulated over six years that currently litters my house.  The wrong kind of detritus?
And then I got schooled.
Because this little thought entered my head: Do I ever complain that I don’t have the “right kind of toys”?  Who, me? Why, no! Of course not. I don’t play with toys! 
But, I will just confess, I may have been known to open my closet and hear the words, “I don’t have anything to wear!” escape my lips, as racks of clothes stretch out before me.  Which is pretty much the same thing.
We of the sophisticated adult world may not play with army toys, but we do like - Stuff. I like to window shop - and real shop - and gaze longingly at Pinterest. In fact, I had to quit Pinterest because, unlike the folks who actually use it for ideas, I found myself using it to create pin boards of stuff I wished I had or did or made - but knew I would never actually have or do or make. In essence, I was constantly reminding myself that I did not have the right kind of toys.
It is the goal of marketing to remind us that our current “toys” are not good enough, not convenient enough, not stylish enough, and not functional enough. To create some gap between the status quo and the much more attractive idea of what could be. In other words, why are you playing with matchbox cars when you could be playing ARMY? Why are you using an iPhone 4 when you could be using an iPhone5? You need better toys!
But the law of nature is this, and it’s true for children and adults: when you finally do get the toy you want, the thing’s status then shifts from desired item to status quo item.  The novelty inevitably wears off.  And without thinking about it, you’re looking for the next toy. Lather, rinse, repeat.
If I’m launching into parental monologues about being happy with what you have, then I guess I better make darn sure that I am living it myself.
It’s not all about the toys, anyway. 


Ghosts in the Sanctuary

ghostbustersLOGO1 “Hey!  There’s ghosts up there.  Upstairs.”
“Nuh-uh.  No there’s not.”
“Yeah!  For real!  Up in the sanctuary.”
It was an evening church fellowship dinner in the basement of my grandma’s little country church.  Bright and happy checkered tablecloths, adults chattering, forks clattering, kids running around through the downstairs Sunday school rooms.  I was little.  And some mean older kids were taking the opportunity to fill my head with some horribly unsettling claims.
I knew that nobody was up there.  No humans, at least.  I also knew all the lights were off, and that meant the stained glass windows and the organ and the pulpit and everything would be…scary.  Way scarier than in the daytime.  I could picture it.  And now, thanks to these jokers, I could picture transparent figures walking the aisles, too.
It was more than I could take.  Lip quivering, brow furrowed, I ran to my sweet grandma, who was sitting with the adults and finishing off a slice of whatever delicious pie had been brought for the occasion.  The words came tumbling forth – the ghosts up there, the dark, the sanctuary, the punk kids who said it all.
And with a gentleness that grandmas everywhere have somehow copyrighted, she smiled and shook her head.  “There are no ghosts up there, Jennifer.  Let’s go.  I’ll show you.”
I was shaking in my Mary-Janes.  But if grandma was brave enough to go, then I would be, too.  So I took her hand, reluctantly, and we climbed the steep, winding staircase up from the basement, away from the bright checkered tablecloths, and into the terrifyingly dark upstairs. 
When we reached the top, she turned on the light in the foyer and the hallway just outside the sanctuary, which created just enough indirect light to flood through the doorways of the big room without turning on the heavy fluorescents.  We walked into the big room.  I gripped her hand with white knuckles.
“This is God’s house, Jennifer.  He is here.  Just Him.  No ghosts.  You don’t have to be afraid.”
Against all that I had expected, she was right.  There were no transparent figures, no bumps in the night. 
We walked around on the platform.  “Here is the organ where Ms. Juanita plays,” she said.  I ran my hand over the plastic keys and the bench.  “And here’s where the preacher preaches,” she said.  “See his big black Bible?  These are the offering plates.  Here is where the choir sings.  Now let’s walk around down there.”
We ventured past the pews, past the stained glass windows, all the way to the front door of the church and back.  Looking fear in the eye with a hand to hold, I saw that it had no power.  And when I was calm and satisfied, we went back downstairs and had more pie. 
As an adult, I must still recognize the powerlessness of fear.  To pay no attention to those fears behind the curtain.  Especially those irrational, falsely manufactured flim-flam fears.  The Lord is the one who says, “Look, now.  See?  I am here.  I am with you.  Put those away now.  Hold my hand, and we can face this.”
And then, once again, I’m a child peering into the sanctuary, filled with the peace that there are no ghosts.  And there never were.
Pass the pie.
Psalm 56:3: “When I am afraid, I will trust in You.”


Noodles from On High

After playing blog hooky for two months, I’m suddenly intimidated by this blinking cursor.  Blink, blink, blink.  Relentlessly compelling me to peck out something.  Does it have to blink like that?  I wonder if it’s one second between blinks.  Can you adjust that setting somewhere?  It should be longer so that the thing isn’t so insistent

What, you think I’m stalling?  Maybe.  It’s been a while.  I’ve got to warm up.

Most of you know by now, we are joyfully expecting another little Farris, Number Three, to enter our family in 2013.  Three months down, six to go.  With the advent of pregnancy came a heavy case of writer’s block like none I had ever known.  All my fun thoughts and ideas got swept into the current of More Important Things – things that I might share, one day, but for now am treasuring up in my heart.

And floating around in the current of More Important Things were two of my old companions from the first two times around the block, Nausea and Fatigue.  I hope to bid them goodbye soon, but they don’t seem to want to leave just yet.  The return of Nausea forced me to recall Pregnancy Number One back in 2003, when a particular episode happened that I figured I would include in my memoirs one day.  And I figure this is it.

This is gross, just so you know.  Rated PG from here on out.  But you’re big boys and girls, I think you can handle it.

In ‘03, my husband and I were living in a little 3rd-floor seminary apartment in Louisville, KY.  The morning sickness was worse than I had feared, and the terrible part about it was that I had absolutely no control.  Smells would hit me the wrong way – loaf bread in the bag, a candle, hamburger meat frying, the AIR in general – and I would just toss my cookies right there, wherever I was.  Forget running to the bathroom.  Garbage can?  Only if I was lucky.  Obviously, we didn’t get out much.

I KNOW, that’s gross, but I warned you.  I’m hoping I can make it through the end of this post, myself.  (Hey, this is kind of like The Monster at the End of this Book!  Remember that?)

lemon_slices So anyway, one evening, early on, I choked down some Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup for dinner in front of the TV.  And not surprisingly, I start to feel green shortly thereafter. 

Cade, noticing my expression, begins to offer me lemon slices, lime popsicles, and saltine crackers in a gentle manner, with alarm lurking just below the surface.  I shake my head no.  He then encourages me to get to the bathroom.  Pronto.

“I just need to get some AIR!” I say, adamant that the foregone conclusion will NOT happen this time.  I step outside on our front balcony.  The stairs and balconies in our apartment complex, formerly comprised of rotting wood, had recently been replaced by steel grates.  So you could look down and see people right under your feet.

I am pacing back and forth on the balcony, taking deep breaths, fighting it…fighting it…regretting my decision to distance myself that much further from garbage cans and bathrooms.  And on a balcony, of all places.  Stupid!  Stupid!  I’ll never make it back inside in time!  No control…

And there it went.  Through the floor of the 3rd-floor balcony and on to our 2nd-floor Korean neighbors’ doormat.  Noooooo!!!  Why did I not stay inside?

There are only three things one can do in such a situation.

1.  Walk downstairs, knock on the neighbors’ door, and explain that I just threw up on their doormat.  So sorry, don’t mind me, I’ll get you a new one.  Promise.  How embarrassing!

2.  Just get them a new one.  Never explain.  But they would wonder why!  They might even ask us!  How embarrassing!

3.  Clean it up yourself. 

And number three, my friends, is what my husband – armed with latex gloves, a bucket, and a vast array of chemicals – did in the dead of night for me in Louisville, KY.

I have not touched Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup since.  Come to think of it, I don’t think he has, either.


When Pocket-Dialing Gets Creepy

What are the odds?  WHAT ARE THE ODDS, I ask you?

My dear friend from my old town was coming to visit me, along with two 8-year-olds – her son and a friend.  I was thrilled.

The Sunday night before their visit, the interior of our house looked like it had been bombed.  It always does on Sundays.  It is what happens to the house of a preacher’s family, without fail.  I can’t figure out exactly why.  I mean, other families go to church on Sundays, too.  And I’m sure their houses look pristine and all, but ours becomes absolutely covered in household detritus.

Detritus - noun  - 1. accumulated material or debris, 2. disintegrated or eroded matter. 
(We have both kinds.)
No single category of detritus takes over, other than just the general type.  Various THINGS strewn EVERYWHERE.  Just be aware of that, dear people, if you ever stop by to bring us a pound cake or such.  (Hi, Mr. Kicker!)

On that night, the night of possibly the most extensive Sunday detritus explosion ever, I remember having a conversation with my daughter that went something like this:

Her: “Mommy, I am soooooooo excited that they are coming tomorrow!!!”

Me (tired and fatigued after an extraordinarily long Sunday): “I know, me too, but look at our house, honey.  (loud, long sigh)  We have got so much to clean up.  This is awful!  You guys need to start picking up your junk.  Get out the clutter buckets.  No, I’m not doing it for you!  This is your mess!  You clean it up.  I still have to do the kitchen.  See all those dishes piled up?  That’s where I’ll be.  I’m setting the timer.  See how much y’all can do in 15 minutes."  (blah, blah, blah)

Fast-forward to the following day.  Our guests arrive, bearing Little Debbies, Cheez-Its, and other snacks aplenty, and I am ushering them in to the kitchen where my friend is setting the Little Debbies on the counter. 
She turns to me, laughing, and tells me that I pocket-dialed her number 4 times in a row yesterday. 
A pocket dial (also called pocket-call or butt-dial, keepin’ it real, folks) is a slang term used to mean an unintentional call placed from a mobile phone because the send button was accidentally pressed while carrying the phone in one’s pocket.  Pocket-dialing is an epidemic that is both hilarious and disturbing.  Here is some perspective: in 2010, New York City was flooded with 4 million inadvertent calls to 911.  That is 38% of all the 911 calls they received, an average of 10,700 false calls a day.

My friend’s name is AMY.  With an A. Her name is the first name in the contacts list in my cell phone.  Therefore, out of all my cell phone contacts, she has the dubious honor of being the friend who is most frequently pocket-dialed (or purse-dialed), usually once a week at the minimum.  I expect her to block my number any day now. 

So Amy tells me that she answered my persistent pocket-dialing, and in the background, she heard a little voice saying, “Mommy, I am sooooo excited that they are coming tomorrow!”

My jaw dropped, and I slapped my forehead.  I knew what she was about to say she heard next.  She heard my whole lecture about how awful the house looked, and she even heard me barking out the marching orders.  And then she said this: “Jennifer, you know you don’t have to clean up for us.”  To really freak me out, she should have called me right after she heard the Sunday night conversation to encourage me to leave everything AS IS.  I would have been flabbergasted by the timeliness of her sweet, mind-reading phone call.

The bottom line is this:  I was talking in the privacy of my own home about my friend’s upcoming visit, and she heard it! 

 It leads me to this provocative question - what if every time we talked about somebody, they heard it?  Every time we uttered their name, they got a little “notification?”  A cell phone call?  Like the little red box on Facebook.  Or your @-mentions on Twitter.  Isn’t that uber-creepy?

Not that it could ever really happen like that. 

But word to the wise: you never know when your cell phone might be calling someone when you least expect it.

I’m proof.

Have you ever had a cell phone mishap?  Share your comments here!


Preacher’s Wife Unplugged: Can You Keep it Real Without Being a Jerk?

Fake is out. Authenticity is in. And to prove it, there’s a popular catchphrase floating around: “I’m just keepin’ it real.”

It usually comes on the heels of statements that are shocking, gross, offensive, or extremely personal. But if ycoffeeou tack “keepin’ it real” on the end, you get a free pass to say it anyway!

Here are some examples of its usage:
“Sorry, I can’t make it to your Tupperware party. I’d rather have a root canal. Just keepin’ it real!”

“Ooooo, hey buddy! 1989 called. It wants those shorts back. Just keepin’ it real!”

“Man, my hemorrhoids are really acting up! Just keepin’ it real!”

So now that we have such a useful phrase at our disposal, we can over-share, say what we really think, and eliminate all vestiges of tactfulness without remorse!

Because nobody likes fakers. And nobody wants to be one. So let’s make sure that everyone knows we are the real deal by employing “JKIR” at every opportunity!

But I’m a preacher’s wife in a small southern town. Can you imagine what would happen if I were to “keep it real” around here on that kind of level? Oh, the calamity that would befall us all! I won't go into the possibilities here. That would be a little too…real.

Is that to say I’m faking it?

I hope not. In all seriousness, I do want to be real here in this town. Not necessarily in a “JKIR” kind of way. A better word is transparent, although “just keepin’ it transparent” does not have the same ring to it. My new friends sometimes make good-natured apologies to me for their own “realness” around me, their preacher’s wife, and I chide them for it. I don’t want them to put on an act because I don’t want to put on one, either. 

But being yourself can be risky.

Downton Abbey_1 Over the past several weeks, I have been fascinated by the PBS series Downton Abbey. It’s the off-season right now, but I have caught up by watching all the previous episodes online. It’s the story of a family of World War I era aristocrats in England who live in a palatial home, wear fabulous clothes, and are served by innumerable valets and maids and chauffeurs. Most British dramas are suffocatingly boring and plodding, but this one is captivating. 

It was an era of such civility and respectfulness - something to be admired, considering that it is no more. But it is so evident that the Downton crowd is so stuffy, so polite, so right-acting all the time, they experience all kinds of conflicts because of their constraints. The Downtonians, for the most part, do not keep it real or transparent at ALL.

So here are the top 10 ways I’m keepin’ it real on my blog today:

10. Playing the piano on Sundays is kind of fun. When my palms aren’t sweating so badly from nerves that my fingers slip off the keys. Just keepin’ it real.

9. No, my husband does not practice his sermons on me. That would be super weird and awkward. You’ve all asked me that, so now I’m keepin’ it real.

8. Sitting on the front pew every week feels pretty exposed. Kids beside me, choir in front of me, everybody else behind me. Another good reason to play the piano. Just keepin’ it real.

7. I have no idea about a lot of the church goings-on. Some things I do, but not all things. Maybe I should, but I don’t always. Sometimes folks think I know stuff, so if a question comes up and all heads swivel to me, I frequently shrug, smile, and shake my head. “Now, when is that church picnic again?” Uhhhhh…dunno!  (Smile.)  Just keepin’ it real.

6. There’s a good chance I know your face, but I don’t know your name. I want to. I really do. But I’m not nearly as good with names as you-know-who. Help me. Please. Just keepin’ it real.

5. I was on Facebook, then I deleted Facebook, then I was on Pinterest, then I deleted Pinterest, then I deleted my old twitter, then I started a new twitter, then I got back on Facebook. It’s all very complicated. We can discuss over coffee. Just keepin’ it real.

4. Yes, I really would love to have coffee with you. Decaf. I've got that mitral valve thing. Just keepin’ it real.

3. Yes, the rumor that I went on a cruise with the New Kids on the Block is true. I would be glad to discuss that too, although you might not be. Just keepin’ it real.

2. I am really bad at making tablescapes. Just keepin’ it real.

1. I did not grow up here like everybody else. But I am grateful to those who have welcomed an outsider with open arms. Even one who’s an Auburn fan. Just keepin’ it real…until next time.


Disney Doppelganger

I love the movie Tangled.  It’s cute, funny, touching, and beautifully done – all the required ingredients for a Disney blockbuster.  As we were watching it for the millionth time yesterday, I noticed something I had never realized during my previous 999,999 viewings.
Mother Gothel, the mean, scary lady who pretends to be Rapunzel’s mother so that she can exploit the fountain-of-youth powers of Rapunzel’s magic hair, bears a striking resemblance to a real-life person.
mother gothel cher b
No, really!  Look again!
Mother-gothel mad cher c
And isn’t it more than a little ironic that Cher’s hit from the 80’s, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” could most certainly be Mother Gothel’s own personal theme song?  If Cher had access to the fountain of youth, don’t you think she would take advantage of it?  Oh, wait - that’s what plastic surgeons are.
Just calling it like I see it, folks.
Turns out, I was right!  One of the directors of the movie revealed that Cher was, in fact, the inspiration for the villain.  "People keep coming back to this, but it's true!" he said. "I guess it's because Cher is kinda gothic and exotic looking and definitely she was one of the people we looked at visually as far as what gives you a striking character.  She is very tall, curvy and voluptuous…we're trying to say: this is not Rapunzel's mother."
Definitely NOT. 


Spelling Bee Grace

The National Spelling Bee finals aired on ESPN this past Thursday night, and we had a softball game.
No worries, though.  Thank you, DVR!  Bet you don’t know anyone else who DVR’d the Spelling Bee.
Those kids who compete, or rather, those adult-sized brains in kid bodies who compete, are fascinating to watch.  Intelligence shines from their eyes.  They each have their own mannerisms and habits as they carefully think through each word, some writing the word on the back of their hanging nametags, some writing it on their hands, some using their finger to invisibly write the word in the air, some remaining perfectly still until the very last second and then spitting out a string of perfectly correct letters before the buzzer sounds. 
They always ask the usual questions, “Can I have the definition please?  Can I have the language of origin?  Can you use it in a sentence please?”  And one kid even quipped, “Can you spell that for me, please?”
Even though the contestants may not have even heard the ridiculously difficult words before, they use the the answers to those questions as clues to help them figure out the correct spelling.  For example, one of the contestants knew that because “quattrocento” was Italian in origin, and not Spanish, it would be spelled “quattro” instead of “cuatro.”spelling bee
The 14-year-old winner, Snigdha Nandipati from San Diego, nailed “guetapens” to win, after her competitors misspelled “schwarmerei” and “schwannoma.”  In the run-up to the bee, Nandipanti studied 6 to 10 hours a day on weekdays and 10-12 hours on weekends.  And of course, she aims to be a neurosurgeon.  I guess if I had to have brain surgery, I would like knowing that the surgeon working on me could spell “shwarmerei,” wouldn’t you?  One of the contestants said that he reads 53 pages of the dictionary every day. 
Watching the Bee takes me back to sixth grade when I won the school spelling bee and the spelling bee for the area.  The words were a far cry from “schwarmerei,” but I was still proud, in my acid-washed denim skirt and white oversized sweater with large purple belt.  In the area competition, the other girl missed “aboret,” and I had to spell that one, plus “accreditation” for the win.  Then it was on to the Jefferson County spelling bee, where I remember being so nervous I almost puked, and where “piecemeal” was my demise.  Darn you, “i before e” rule!  I think I came in fifth place.  I was not national spelling bee material, but I got two cool trophies, and for a non-sports-playing girl, I was glad to have my “thing” that I did.
What I remember most about those Bees was the immense pressure for perfection.  In a Spelling Bee, there is no wiggle room.  No grace.  Either you spell it right, or you are immediately relegated to the loser’s bench.  One false letter, and you’re dead in the water.  You are not allowed, under any circumstances, to take a letter back once you’ve begun spelling.  If you have uttered it, it’s out there, and it’s either right or wrong.  That’s why I could not say, “Oops!  I’m sorry!  I meant to say IE!  Not EI!  You gotta believe me!”  Too late.  It’s all over.
Grace isn’t like that. 
In the course of a day, lots of “spelling words” cross our paths.  Think about it.  The kids are fighting.  You’re being asked to spell “PATIENCE.” 
“P-A-S-H-E-N-S!” you sputter and stammer in frustration and anger, seriously botching the word, and botching the opportunity to peacefully resolve the conflict before you.  BONK.  Wrong.  Sit down.  You’re out.
Your spouse forgets to do something you’d asked.  Spell “MERCY.”
“M-I-R-S-E-E!” you spell cluelessly, with your irritable response to him.  BONK.  To the loser’s bench you go!
Your co-worker ticks you off.  Spell “L-O-V-E.”
“Can I have the definition please?” you ask.  Stalling.  You know what the definition is.  But you still mess up and choke out an incorrect, “L-U-V,” as you tell everyone around you how mad you are.  BONK.  Have a seat.
You lie in bed and remember each way you fell short of perfection, short of the huge trophy, short of the scholarship that the amazing spellers get. 
But then…morning comes.
And instead of finding yourself still sitting on the loser’s bench, you remember this -
“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23
Because of Jesus, the fantastic news is that we get a clean slate.  A clean slate every morning!  We get new words to spell, and more chances to spell the words we botched yesterday.  The wrongly uttered letters are forgiven and forgotten.  We are still in the game.  One false step does not mean we have to sit down. 
It means we get to keep going. 
Even if we’re asked to spell “guetapens.” 


Small Town Sports Complex Means Business

As a follow-up to last week’s Little League observations post, I offer the following photo of a sign that greeted me when I recently walked my children into a neighboring community’s sports complex.  (I took the picture using my crummy cell phone camera, thus the poor quality.  Sorry about that.) 
woodland sports sign
Do we chuckle and applaud?  Or do we cluck our tongues and lament the fact that the sign had to placed there in the first place? 
Easy.  We do both.


Top 10 Little League Observations

I’m tentatively setting foot back on my blog, after having neglected it for over a month.  It's a ghost town with tumbleweeds blowing across it, and I am not even sure if anyone is still here.  But I have a perfectly justifiable reason for my absence this spring. 

Little League.

baseballs My husband and I are newbies at the kids-in-sports thing, but for those of you who are not, you know that it can be consuming, especially if you are toting more than one child to practices and games every night.

So, here are the top 10 observations I have made about Little League.

10.  Heads up.  Kids swing the bat at the plate and unintentionally (sometimes intentionally) let it go flying wherever it may land.  They’ll swing it playfully both inside the dugout and outside the field.  I saw one mom come this close to getting nailed on the head, just last week.  And if that’s not enough, foul balls frequently get hit backwards over the fence and outside the field, over by the concession stand.  Ordering nachos has never been so treacherous.

9.  Make sure your kid has easy access to sunflower seeds.  We once saw a kindergartener trying to get from third base to home with his hand in his back pocket as he ran, which made for a limping, awkward kind of run.  Everyone in the stands was puzzled, until the kid touched home plate and pulled a sunflower seed, obviously priority number one, out of his back pocket to shove in his mouth. 

8.  Crock pots are your best friends.  If you get home at 3 and you have to be at a field in another town at 5 only to return by 7:30 or 8, you better have some tasty slop simmering in the slow-cooker.  It’s either that, or Jack’s or Subway.

7.  Don’t fight over the ball, kids.  It never fails.  The ball is hit, and a minimum of 3 little outfielders all dive in together to scrap for it.  In their minds, forget all this, “We’re on the same team!” talk.  That ball is up for grabs, and they’ll be darned if one of their teammates gets to it first.

6.  Daddies help.  My daughter was terrified at first of the ball rolling her way in the outfield. What to do? So her dad stepped in as a helper coach – (that's the guy who stands in the outfield and says, “Throw it to second!”)  It gave her the confidence she needed.  My grandfather played baseball as a young man, and my mom says that when she played softball as a little girl, her dad stepped in for her, too.  Daddies are good for stuff like that.

5.  Parents, you need to chill.  There is nothing cool about an adult coming out of the stands and walking on to the field to chew out the umpire in front of the whole world.  There is nothing cool about screaming at your kid that they know better than to make a mistake like that.  Shouldn’t adults know better as well?  These are kids, and they are playing for fun.  Stop living vicariously through them, and for the sake of Pete, stop taking it so seriously.

4.  Keep unsolicited advice to yourself.  At my son’s first game ever, when his foot missed third base, someone sitting next to me told me that we needed to “work with him” on making sure he touches the base when he runs.  Oh, thankyoueversomuch for that.

3.  Don’t keep score publicly.  It’s much better if the parents don’t really know what is going on, score-wise.  Keeping us in the dark is for the best.  Winning is fun, but winning should not be preached to the exclusion of everything else, not at this age.

2.  Snacks are of paramount importance. The first question you’ll be asked at the end is not, “Did we win?” It’s, “Who brought snacks?”  Little Debbies and Capri Suns are the sugary fuel that keep these teams inspired.

1.  You can’t beat Americana.  Baseball is unashamedly American.  Watching a field full of kids in their uniforms and hearing the clink of the bat on a cool spring evening is just so – right.  It feels nostalgic, though I never played when I was a child and have never even watched my kids play until now.  But I do know the impact of the sport on our country, and I respect it.  My grandfather would be so proud of his great-grandchildren now. 

Lefty Omer  DSCN2148


Hunger Games Book One: I’m Quite Full

I have not seen The Hunger Games movie.  But I have read the first book of the trilogy.  And it was enough.

Before the movie came out recently, I had never heard of the books.  But now, everyone is talking about both, so out of curiosity (and because I wanted to do something with my new Kindle, and this book was at the top of the popularity list), I bit.  I wanted to know why this is all the rage.

I wish I hadn’t.

I don’t want to be a crank.  I cranked about Dick and Jane and Vampires, and I recently cranked a little about Stop Kony, and here I am, about to crank up again.  Cranking won’t be a habit here, but not everything is sunshine and rainbows all the time, and sometimes the things I get passionate enough to write about are the things that bother me. 

It’s my blog and I’ll crank if I want to, crank if I want to.  Sometimes ferris wheels need cranking.  Here we go.

crank man
If you haven’t heard, Suzanne Collins’ book is about a country called Panem (North America in the future) that is divided into 12 districts and ruled by a ruthless Capitol that keeps its citizens poor and hungry.  A massive rebellion failed at some point in the past, and as punishment, the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games, a horrific annual event in which two teenagers from each district are selected at random to “compete” in an arena and are made to fight one another to their deaths.  The Hunger Games are broadcast throughout Panem as a sick reality TV show.  Schools cancel classes so everyone can watch the horror.  The last one standing in the arena is the winner.


And I read this book…why?  Because I found myself hoping that before the “games” began, there would be a revolt and everyone would be saved and go home happy.  (SPOILER: It does not happen that way.)  But by that time, I was fully invested and had to slog my way through to the end.

I remember reading The Lottery by Shirley Jackson in my 11th grade English class (full text here.)  You don’t know the nature of the lottery until the last few lines of the short story, and then you realize the townspeople are about to stone the person that was selected at random as some kind of twisted harvest “offering.”  But then it ends, and you are spared the gruesomeness of what happens next.  No further detail needed, we get the point.

Lord of the Flies was another one with a similar theme that they made you read in school, and are probably still making kids read to this day, for reasons still yet to be determined.  That one put some mental images in my head that I wish I could delete.  As awful as that book is, the children in that story were put together by chance and by circumstance.  Not by design.

The idea of characters dropping out, one by one, isn’t new either.  Murder mysteries and horror movies use that device all the time. Hunger Games also borrows from the Greek myth of Theseus, in which 7 male youths and 7 female youths are selected every few years to go fight the ugly Minotaur.   But in that story, the youths are united against a common foe, a villianous monster.  Not each other.

None of those are as disturbing as the not-entirely-original plot of Hunger Games, which you’ll find in the young adult fiction section of your local bookstore, targeted specifically to the teenagers, who naturally want to read about teenagers, and who naturally want to read what all their friends are reading.  It’s the latest bandwagon, on the heels of Harry Potter and Twilight.  As one blogger pointed out, we all seem to be so anxious to head over the cliff like lemmings whenever there’s a new “phenomenon.”  I am not pointing a finger - I went over the cliff myself.  The difference is that this time, I regret it.

The popularity of a kids-killing-kids story where brutal violence is accepted and applauded and encouraged makes a statement about our culture, and that fact alone should make us extremely uncomfortable.  There is a school in Seattle that is taking its 8th-grade students on a field trip to the movie theater to see the film.  If everyone is so anxious to watch kids-killing-kids in the theaters for entertainment, isn’t that exactly what the book itself is about?   Insidious voyeurism boiled down to its basest desires. Even the Roman government believed that the best way to keep the masses at bay was to throw people into an arena for the purpose of killing each other in the name of entertainment.

But it’s just a story, right?  It’s not real.  So that makes it okay.  It’s not okay when we see it in living color on the evening news, far too often that we should.  You can’t tell me that art only reflects life.  Sometimes life reflects “art,” and that is what makes Hunger Games dangerous.  At one point, Katniss the heroine, who is a skilled animal hunter in her district back home, reluctantly tries to find her motivation for killing by trying to forget that the others are people. 

And that is why Hunger Games ends here for me.  No books two and three, no big screen.  I will never know if Katniss chooses Peeta or Gale.  That’s fine.

I’m quite full.


Heebie Jeebies

What we found in our backyard this afternoon. 
Quite enough reptiles for one day.
snake in the grass


Clutter Buckets

Clutter Buckets: a great junk-catching idea, in theory, that will soon be tested by the dull reality of real responsibility.

When one has a bunged-up knee with some kind of meniscus tear going on inside of it, one doesn’t much feel like going around and picking up everybody’s stuff that has been strewn all over creation.  Toys, clothes, school papers, DVD’s, shoes, and other generally unclassifiable junk somehow explodes, on a regular basis, all over the house.  Now that baseball season is here, the junk explosions are happening much more frequently.  Something must be done, or soon we will be swimming in a sea of our material possessions.

So to help matters, one goes to Tar-jay and purchases two large bucket-things with handles, made out of flexible plastic.  While there, one also grabs a few boxes of foam letters and decorative stickers with adhesive backing.


Then, with great fanfare, one announces to the two clutter monkeys that live in the house that we’re going to do a “fun activity!  Yaaaayyy!”  The bucket-things and stickers are presented, and the monkeys are encouraged to individualize their Clutter Buckets so that they can maintain possession of all their detritus.  The older monkey who is now wise to child psychology is skeptical at first.  But a bag of sequins and Elmer’s glue fortunately rallies some enthusiasm.  Sparklies always help, as every female knows.

lauren sweet carson's bucket


The idea is that the buckets will be carried around at various times, to be used as “collection mechanisms.”  It’s much easier to assemble junk in one place - and then unload it - than to carry it piecemeal to its various homes in drawers, cabinets, and toy boxes.  Even I use a laundry basket in times like these.

Maybe my basket needs some bling on it, too.

But the great question that remains to be seen, the great experiment, is this – will Clutter Buckets actually work?  Will they function as intended?  Or will the monkeys use them once, cooperatively, and then realize that personalized buckets are great and all, but they don’t really change the fact that you’re still having to clean up?

We shall soon see.

News at 11.

(Thanks, mom!)



Playground Drama: Act I, Scene I

The following playground scene occurred this week in our town, a scene that has been repeated on playgrounds since the dawn of time, a scene that won’t make the evening news – but one that has a profound impact on each child involved, nevertheless.  My child relayed it to me, and I know it all too well.  I can even see it in my mind’s eye.

ACT I : The curtain rises and lights go up on stage.

A small group of girls is happily playing together, the world of make-believe powerful enough to render them oblivious to any other children around them.  All is well.

Another girl approaches.  She’s “different” and not very well-liked for various reasons.  She is all alone.

“Can I play, too?” she asks them.

“NO!  You can’t!” says one of the girls in the in-group.  “BEAT IT!” she adds, for good measure, an extra-mean line that she no doubt picked up from TV.

Dejected, the “different” girl begins to walk away.  Uncomfortably silent, the other girls watch her go.

One of the girls feels a prick in her heart.  It’s not right, she thinks to herself.  But it’s easier not to say anything.  What if they get mad at me?  But I feel so sorry for her!
With the rejected one out of earshot, the conflicted one decides to stand up to the mean one.  “We should not treat her that way just because she is not like us.  We should let her play,” she says.  She walks over to the excluded one and reaches out to include her.

The curtain falls and the story ends, but only for that particular day.  Tomorrow they will all embark upon Act II, Scene I – awkwardly building on all the days that preceded it.  The girls in that drama are only just beginning to learn how to interact with others apart from adult intervention, an intense prospect indeed.  You can probably identify with one of those kids - or maybe even all of them at various times in your own life.

The Rejected One.  Uncool and overlooked. 
The Mean One.  Cruel and insecure.
The Timid Ones.  Intimidated and uncomfortable.
The Brave One.  A leader for the good.

Even adults act it out all the time.  Not nearly as overtly as the kids do, but the playground drama of old manifests itself in unexpected ways in the grown-up world, too, yet another way that children naturally prepare themselves and practice for what is to come…

…and it reminds me how much we need grace.

Grace for ourselves, and grace to extend to others.  At all times, and in all manner of circumstances.  Grace to bear rejection and trials.  Grace to soften harsh tongues.  Grace to give us courage to speak up and reach out.  And grace to follow through – because those who stand for the good are often maligned.  There’s only one place it comes from.

“But He gives us more grace,” says James 4:6.  God gives it!  A never-ending supply is in Him, a well of water to draw upon.  Without it, our inner resources run dry and crumple.  But somehow, in ways I don’t fully understand but have fully experienced, with His grace…we can stand. 

May you stand in His grace today.


Life is for Living

I am carried up and down on a ferris wheel. And up and down again.
I dismount for a break, discombobulated.
Still reeling from the rush of the up-and-downs, I stagger down the midway to the merry-go-round where I throw my leg over a friendly plastic horse tossing its mane, decked out in ribbons and bows.
That’s when the round-and-rounds begin.
GA_National_Fair_2006_149en Slow at first, then faster we go, as the piped-in calliope music approaches the threshold of annoyance. Will this horse respond if I pull back on the reins? I’m feeling dizzy. The up-and-down horses, coupled with the round-and-rounds, are taking a toll. I rub my temples. Throw in some cotton candy and funnel cakes and repetitive carousel music, and I am managing multiple sensory assaults at once.
A juggler nearby tosses apples into the air, and I catch glimpses of him at regular intervals, as the carousel allows. Down and up, down and up they go. Catch it, don’t let it fall. Keep it going, mister! You can do it. I’m holding my breath for you. He smiles and adds another apple to the mix. And another. He picks up the pace of the juggling with each increased challenge. The down-and-up apples don’t stop. And neither does he.
The ferris wheel is emotion.  The merry-go-round is circumstance.  The juggler is responsibility. They intersect there on the midway – where I am tempted to complain, where I forget the fun I am supposed to be having, where I feel overwhelmed.
But then I remember.  Life is for living.  On the ferris wheels and the carousels and in the juggling of endless demands, I find God’s blessing, not only in times of stillness, but even in the seasons of great activity.
Ecclesiastes 11:6 says, “Plant your seed in the morning, and keep busy all afternoon, for you don’t know if profit will come from one activity or another, or maybe both.” 
What a funny little verse!  It says, you never know!  In the course of each day, you simply don’t know where the profit will come from!  Not necessarily the monetary kind.  You never know what impact you are making, what purposes are being carried out in the midst of the doing, what people you are meant to meet, what memories you are storing up in both the eventful and uneventful times.  And because you don’t know, you’ve just got to plant anyway.  Plant, plant, plant.  It all matters.
Spring is here, and with it comes a whirlwind that I can either shrink back from or embrace. 
I’ve got my ticket in hand.  Let’s go.


Stop Kony: the Disturbing Amazingness of Viral Media

The past few days in the social media world have been fascinating.
A non-profit group called Invisible Children launched a well-produced, 30-minute youtube video that made an emotional appeal to stop Joseph Kony, the Ugandan war criminal responsible for enslaving over 60,000 children as military combatants over the past several decades.
I watched the video after it relentlessly kept showing up on my twitter feed, and after a celebrity I follow implored everyone to watch it and, in an unabashed yet effective bribe, vowed to follow everyone who re-tweeted it. With 48 million hits on youtube and vimeo in two days, you’ve probably seen it too.
Kony2012-620x380 I clicked play. Since everyone was talking about Kony, I wanted to know who he was and why I should care. The slick video made the case against Kony, a case not hard to make, and it did so a gripping manner, crescendo-ing in a dramatic call to action to “make Kony famous.” It implored viewers, especially several targeted celebrity “culture-makers and policy-makers,” to make their voices heard so that the U.S. government will support the Ugandan government in its efforts to capture Kony. If I remember correctly, because I’m not going to watch it again, it encouraged the purchase of an action kit that includes two bracelets (one for you and a friend), stickers, posters, and a T-shirt. It named a date in April as “Cover the Night” – a specific night to plaster every corner of the world with “Kony 2012” posters. And of course, it asked viewers to donate a few dollars a month to the organization.
Critics of Invisible Children have charged that the video oversimplifies the complexities of the strife in Uganda and that clicking a re-tweet button is not the answer. The Ugandan government is responsible for plenty of atrocities themselves and is a questionable ally in the fight to stop Kony. The finances of Invisible Children have also been called into question, as only 30% of each donation goes directly to the actual work on the ground.
Proponents of the movement say that the more exposure the cause gets, the better, regardless of what criticism may come. That it’s all about raising awareness. Making Joseph Kony a household name. If that was the goal, then social media certainly accomplished it in a stunningly short matter of days. Earlier this week, nobody knew who this guy was, and now millions have lent their support to finding him and stopping him, evidence for the fact that people want to join a meaningful cause. Everybody wants to be inspired. Everybody wants something to live for. And everybody wants to do what everybody else is doing.
That is what has me scratching my chin in contemplation. The disturbing amazingness of viral media.
I have asked this question here before, but now I ask it again: where is all of this going? Of course, without question, this Kony villain is a low-life who deserves to have the world against him. No one should debate that point, and if somehow viral media plays a part in putting him away, then good. So in one sense, I respectfully admire viral-ness, with its lighting-fast efficiency and power. But in another sense, for some reason that I cannot quite articulate, it’s somehow unsettling and weird to me. I am not completely confident in the ability of the world as a whole to wield that power responsibly. I don’t know that I can always trust the bandwagon effect. If it’s used for a noble purpose here (raising up throngs of emotionally charged young people who are ready to march into the night armed with posters and duct tape), then might it also be used for less-than-noble purposes? Down the road, someone could produce an equally impressive, emotionally stirring video that is completely untrue, and it could go viral in a matter of minutes or days, and millions of people could get on board and believe. Just like that.
I am not a conspiracy theorist. I only know, because of what I’ve seen this week, that it is no longer beyond the realm of impossibility. And that should give us pause.
Some of my friends regretted jumping on the bandwagon when the criticism began to surface. Some did not, and they stand by their tweets and re-tweets and facebook posts, confident that they have played a part in contributing to a greater good. I am standing back and watching this phenomenon play out.
I will be observing future events like this carefully and with great interest.

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