Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Kind of Numb Right Now

Yesterday an author friend, Cecil Murphey, lost his home, and far worse, his son-in-law, to a house fire. Cecil, his wife, Shirley, and their daughter, whose name I don't know, were able to get out safely, but his son-in-law was apparently trapped in the basement by the flames as he tried to keep the fire from spreading. Those of you who live in the Atlanta area likely saw footage of the aftermath on last night's news.

Cec is affectionately known as a curmudgeonly saint among many of us in the Christian publishing industry; I don't know of anyone who doesn't love him to pieces. He has given tirelessly of his time and talents to innumerable writers—both in the U.S. and internationally—through his teaching, mentoring, and encouragement. You may know him as the co-author of several New York Times bestsellers, including his most recent, 90 Minutes in Heaven with Don Piper.

Please pray for Cec and his family. If you'd like to help out in a tangible way, please email me or leave a comment to that effect, and I'll let you know what you can do. As far as I know, they lost everything, including their cars.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Love It...

Trust me, this is not your usual cute-church-sign-thingy, the kind of stuff people forward to your email account even though you've told everyone who has an ear that you don't want any junk mail regardless of how cute those people think those forwards are.

But I digress.

No, this is the beginning of one of several ecumenical conversations posted by the always enlightening Red State Mystic. If I'm not mistaken, he has three such conversations posted on his blog. Enjoy.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Want to Feel a "Warm Glow"?

That's what researchers at the National Institutes of Health say is likely to happen when you give to charity. No kidding. They go even further, suggesting that giving to charity results in the kind of buzz you may get from food, sex, or drugs.

The researchers gave volunteers a small amount of money along with the choice between giving all or some of it to charity or keeping some back for themselves. They determined that giving really did make the volunteers feel good. What's more, the NIH has the images to prove it:

NIH researchers used MRI scanners to observe patterns in brain activity in the participants as they made their decisions. When choosing to give charitably, the imaging study "strongly supports the existence of a 'warm glow' at a biological level," observed Dr. [Jorge] Moll, the lead researcher.

I love stuff like this, especially when it supports what I already believe. See, people who are cynical of charitable givers claim that donors give not to make a difference in the world but just so they can feel good. Now there are lots of reasons why people give to charity, some sacrificial, some self-serving. But according to the NIH study, the feel-good element isn't necessarily the motivation; it's simply a result of giving.

The most giving people I know have a peace in their lives that is enviable. They have very little to give in a material sense, but they donate their time and their talents and their wisdom to various charities.

And their "warm glow" is contagious—whether or not a scientific study can confirm that.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Fed Up with Partisan Politics?

Then join me at my new politics-only blog at We, the Purple. I'll still keep posting regularly on this blog, because I need a place to deposit all this random stuff that clutters my head. But I'm becoming something of a fanatic as an independent voter, and if I don't watch out, that fanaticism will end up taking over this space. Hence, the new blog.

But before I pull the plug on all things political here, here's a one-minute video that explains what independent voters are all about—and unless you're an independent yourself, that may not be what you think:

The video is a trailer for a longer documentary that clarifies lots of misconceptions about independents—that we're undecided, for instance, or that we're swing voters. Things like that would raise my hackles if I had any hackles left, which I seriously doubt. I just don't have it in me to get all hot and bothered over what amounts to a misunderstanding.

I do aim to correct all those misperceptions. But not here. Only on that other blog.

See you there.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Well, Can You?

asked this question yesterday: Can You Hear Your Eyeballs Move? The post refers to the story of a man who suffers from "an odd syndrome caused by serotonin and a little part of your brain called the nucleus accumbens…a horrid grating noise coming from his eyeballs." He continues with this reflection:
After I originally read this story, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this proves that our reality is nothing but electrical inputs, and how we trust our brains to interpret them correctly. It is our brain that will decide what is essential and what is not. But what if our brain does not interpret them in the way that represents what is really “out there”? What does that do to our sense of “reality”? So, is the world around you really like what you think it is, or is your brain wrong? I guess we will never know. But what can be learned from [this man's] incredible story, is what you think you perceive may not be “really” reality."

Oh yes. I do get this. Because I suffer from the same "odd syndrome." I too hear my eyeballs move in my head. No neurologist has been able to determine why I suddenly developed this disorder 10 years ago. One doctor had the good sense to put me on an anti-depressant (which regulates serotonin levels), and that did the trick. If I miss a dose, the sound returns within hours.

The really fun part for me is that the sound operates in tandem with nystagmus, a neurological disorder that causes the eyeballs to jerk involuntarily from side to side, which means the sound is relentless because my eyeballs are in constant motion whenever the medication wears off.

I've done a whole lot of research on this, and the easiest-to-understand article about it can be found here. The article says acquired nystagmus, the kind I have, is generally temporary; the ER doctor who diagnosed mine said it usually corrects itself after an hour or so—this, after I'd been in the ER for six hours. In my case, the disorder is chronic and will keep me on medication for the rest of my life, barring the discovery of some other treatment. As I commented in response to the Blog4Brains post, it’s maddening. But there are so many other challenges to my perception of reality that I do try to ignore this one.

So, can you? Can you hear your eyeballs move? If so, maybe we could start an online support group. Or not.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Chillout Music, For Sure

Last winter, while everyone else I knew and didn't know was dreaming of vacationing somewhere in the Caribbean, I was making plans of my own for a springtime holiday across the pond. Not in London or Paris, Rome or Madrid. No, my intended destination was far more exotic: Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.

I knew a fair amount about Iceland, enough to know I wanted to go there. A house fire disrupted my plans, which were actually never much more than wishful thinking, but I haven't given up hope of vacationing there someday. But now, there's an even greater lure calling me to Iceland, stronger than the glaciers that cover so much of the country.

That lure is the music.

And I don't just mean Björk, although—thanks to my daughter and www.last.fm—I've discovered a lot of her music that I'd never heard before, and I do like it. But my love of Icelandic music lies mainly with the incredible, spiritual sound of a group called Sigur Rós—"victory rose" in Icelandic. That sound is hard to define, so I'll take the easy way out and list some of the tags on last.fm that describe the music: ambient, post-rock, soundscape, electronic—even terms like heavenly, peaceful, dreamy, and the ever-popular and in this case, ironic, "chillout." You can download 11 songs, more than an hour of their distinctive sound, for free on the media page of their website.

Next week, the group is appearing in concert in Miami, a mere four-hour drive from my house, and at a fund-raiser in New York, a mere three-hour flight away. Forget it. I'll hold out and see them in concert in their homeland. Iceland in December? No problem. This could be the year of my dream vacation—on an island just shy of the Arctic Circle.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Feeding My Inner Nerd

As if I don't get enough emails, I willingly receive Michael Quinion's always amusing and entertaining weekly newsletter, "World Wide Words." Every Saturday he regales me (okay, not just me—45,000 other subscribers as well) with fascinating tidbits about the words we use. Want to know what on earth the phrase "with bated breath" actually means? Quinion's your man.

Today's edition referenced the word, um, "referenciness." For reasons that should be obvious to any member of the Colbert Nation, when I saw that I had to keep reading. Turns out that Quinion and others spotted the word last week in a story in The Guardian questioning the credentials of a British TV personality who purports to be a nutritional authority. In the article Dr. Ben Oldacre wrote:
The scholarliness of her work is a thing to behold: she produces lengthy documents that have an air of "referenciness" ... but when you follow the numbers, and check the references, it's shocking how often they aren't what she claimed them to be.
Goldacre acknowledged that Stephen Colbert's signature word—truthiness—was indeed his inspiration in coining the word "referenciness."

I want to coin a word. I want to create a word so clever, so witty, and so useful that it will make it into our everyday lexicon. I want to be cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first person to ever use this unknown word I have yet to coin. And I promise, when I do coin this word, you will be the first to know.

This is how I feed my inner nerd, ingesting random facts about words. (Oh, and watching The Weather Channel. Can't forget that.) Anyway, if you've come up with a great word but don't want to admit you're a word nerd, will you let me have it? I will forever express my gratitudiness.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Maytag and Medicare

If you're not immersed in health problems right now, one day you will be. I say that with complete confidence. Because even if you are in perfect health, have the best insurance on the planet, and have a roster of caring, compassionate doctors at your disposal for your wellness visits, someday someone close to you will face serious health challenges. And no matter what your circumstance, you will pay for our failing healthcare system, one way or another.

Our family has decent healthcare coverage. Not great, but it will do. And it beats not having any at all. But like the U.S. political system, the U.S. healthcare system is broken. It needs fixing, and fast. Normally, the last place I'd look to these days for a fix of any kind is Washington. But we're in a crisis. Neither the medical community nor the insurance companies are going to get us out of it. God help us; our only hope may be in D.C.

The other day, a glimmer of hope did begin to flicker, ever so faintly. Ten U.S. senators, evenly split between the two major parties, sent a proposal to President Bush that calls on Congress and the administration to immediately begin to work together to provide, among other things:

  • affordable health coverage (either private or governmental) for everyone

  • modernized tax rules for health coverage that will no longer favor the wealthy

  • coverage with an emphasis on wellness and prevention, specifically with regard to ridiculously inconsistent (my wording) Medicare provisions

  • improved access to information on the price and quality of health services. (The senators rightly point out that consumers can find out more about washing machines than about health services, and far more quickly.)

As a hospice volunteer, I took issue with one other provision, that more end-of-life options be made available so patients won't be "forced into hospice care." Oh my. We should all be so fortunate as to have access to hospice care at the end of our lives. Many of the families I deal with wish they had known about or taken advantage of hospice care earlier on.

Anyway, before the senators sent the proposal on Tuesday, Michael Barone wrote this column in U.S. News & World Report, expressing understandable surprise at Bush's State of the Union healthcare proposal. I suspect most people who are concerned about healthcare legislation are like me; we didn't expect anything to be done on the issue until after the 2008 election. But I agree with Barone and the senators: we can't wait that long. We need to start working now with what we have.

All well and good, but—let's all take a deep breath—I'll say it again: God help us.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

What Keeps Me Standing

One of the things I love most about being a writer is that it gives me carte blanche to research any subject to death. In researching my latest book, Finding Hope: Cultivating God's Gift of a Hopeful Spirit, I amassed a great deal of information and quotations on the topic of hope, much more than I could use. I found the following quote in What Keeps Me Standing: Letters from Black Grandmothers on Peace, Hope and Inspiration by Dennis Kimbro. I wasn't able to use it in the book, but it's worth reflecting on:
Hope. It is a marvelous emotion that bolsters the soul. Suddenly your load is lifted, your spirit is refreshed, and your eyes regain their sparkle. Something has changed. Winds shift, tides turn, and barriers are withdrawn. Hope tones up the body and invites you to press on. Hope is the secret weapon of the soul that allows us to persevere even when the facts seem damning and the truth unbearable. Hope can turn back the hands of time, renew the spirit of youth, and make dreams come true...Hope tramples over prejudice, spurns indifference, and overwhelms all obstacles. The optimistic will embrace it and the vain will overlook it. Without hope in the future, there's no joy in the present. Hope is the quality that breeds faith, self-control, strength of will, cheerfulness, and a handful of other life-changing virtues which the hopeless will never know.

Hope keeps us standing, keeps us going, keeps us from packing it in when life gets so rough that our faith has even started to fail. Kimro calls it "the secret weapon of the soul." Amen!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Taking Out the Technotrash

Am I the only one who truly detests jewel CD cases? I spent a good deal of the past few days freeing my CDs from that awful packaging. This has been bugging me for a while, and our upcoming move finally provided the excuse I needed to find a better way to store all those music and software disks. But as always happens, I created a secondary problem: a mountain of empty plastic cases that would end up in a landfill somewhere if I didn't find an alternative means of trashing them.

Enter Google, my default bailout service. I glanced at a few sites that suggested recycling jewel cases by doing all sorts of disturbing decor-related things with them. I persisted. Surely there's a better use for a jewel case than as a tacky means of displaying one or two collectible coins worth, oh, let's say hundreds of dollars.

Then I found it: GreenDisk.com, a Washington-state company that provides packaging and pickup of all manner of recyclable "technotrash"--computers, printers, CDs, hard drives, zip disks, floppy disks, cell phones, rechargeable batteries, empty printer cartridges, cables, cords, chips, boards--you name it. Yes, you have to pay for the service, but from what I can gather (I was too busy sorting CDs to read all the details), through an arrangement with the postal service, the shipping charges are minimal. You have the confidence of knowing that the hardware will be disposed of responsibly and that any sensitive information contained on data storage media like hard drives will be protected and disposed of securely.

I'll let you know how my GreenDisk experience turns out. Seems impressive, though. Even though there are other companies that provide some technology recycling services, I've yet to find one this comprehensive.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Maybe I'm Not a Misfit After All

So there's this group that threatens to strip me of my misfit identity. Sheesh! I've spent a lifetime feeling like a misfit, and I even came out of the closet with my 2003 book, Memoir of a Misfit. Two weeks ago, though, I attended a national conference for independent voters. And I experienced something I've seldom felt before: the sense that I actually belonged. Me! The perennial misfit! Among 500 political activists! I'm still reeling from this heady happening.

You have to love a conference that opens with an improv performance at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in midtown Manhattan. Is that a hoot or what? At that point, though, the conference hadn't officially started, so we all just went to the theater on our own. I didn't know a soul there, but that was okay. The performance was great. However, I wasn't at all enthusiastic about what was to come: a reception back at the hotel.

The word "reception"--along with words like "cocktail party"--sends shivers down my spine and back up again. I envision dozens of people mingling and talking and laughing, and me wandering aimlessly, searching in vain to find a clutch of people who will take pity on me and let me stand amid them under the tacit condition that I will not say one word.

Against my better judgment, I went to the reception--where people actually talked to me, listened to me, sought me out, introduced me to other people, never looked over my head trying to find someone more important to talk to (ever been to a church fellowship?), and in general, welcomed me with metaphorical open arms. They did the same to everyone. If you felt unwelcome in this group, I'm afraid there's no hope for you. They would have extended hospitality to the likes of elephants and donkeys, I'm sure.

The conference was organized--and impressively so--by a group called CUIP, the Committee for a Unified Independent Party. It's important to know that they kept the name even though they long ago gave up the notion of ever organizing a unified independent part. (They pronounce CUIP as "quip," which is certainly descriptive; they're witty and self-deprecating even as they go about the serious work of trying to fix a broken political system.) I was truly surprised at the turnout--500 leaders from 31 or 32 states, depending on who's counting. Remember, these are independent voters and therefore independent thinkers. The conference has been held every other year for 32 years, so I guess they’ve figured out by now how to get independents like me to stop being so doggoned independent long enough to get together once in a while.

The improv and reception were on Saturday, the conference on Sunday (more on the conference itself in the coming days). On Monday morning, when some participants had to go back to work, CUIP held a special session for those who could stay. What a treat! Actors from the improv troupe helped us hone our ability to think on our feet. How cool is that? They had the good sense to have us improvise skits based on a particular scenario (meeting with a member of Congress, in this case) rather than telling us we were going to role-play. Essentially the same thing, but a whole lot more fun with improv coaching.

I have this feeling CUIP is going to finally get the recognition it deserves during this next election cycle. But even if they don't, I've found one place on earth where I belong. Either that means that independent voters are misfits or that I'm no longer a total misfit. Either way, I'm happy. And totally psyched for what's up ahead politically. Bring it on!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

My Friends in Bombay

I made another new friend in Bombay today--Gary. Gary and I had a fascinating conversation that left me utterly speechless. I was so linguistically paralyzed that I forgot to ask him the most pressing question of all: did he by any chance know Bob from Bombay? I spoke to Bob a few weeks ago, and frankly, after two hours on the phone with him I had lost interest in what had been an important question up to that point: was it possible that he knew Jason in Bombay?

I know Bombay is a big city and all, but these men work in the same industry and have American names. I think that's weird in a primarily Hindu country, don't you? I mean, they just have to know each other, right? I'd like to assemble all my Bombay friends in one place--including John, with whom I had a three-hour conversation one night that probably could have been condensed to one hour if only I hadn't kept asking, "I'm sorry, what did you just say?" over and over again--and provide them with job training in another field, one that does not involve a direct phone line to annoying U.S. consumers who can't seem to hear very well. So all of you who have fielded my techical and customer service questions--and that includes you, Steve, Carl, and Frank--meet me online, and I'll help you find gainful and more suitable employment. You really shouldn't have to put up with us. Deal?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

If This Guy Is Unreasonable...

As I type, Ralph Nader is making an appearance on The Daily Show. I like this guy so much that I clearly must be insane. The thing is, I wasn't always in his corner. I thought he was a terrific consumer advocate, but when he started getting all political, I backed off.

Now I'm a fan, I think because I'm so bloody independent and so is he. I know lots of people blame him for Bush's win in 2000, but please. He hammered away at issues that the major parties were only giving lip service to, things that affect people in their everyday lives like a living wage, universal healthcare, free college education, and affordable housing. If the major parties had done that, and had followed through on their rhetoric, Nader's candidacy would have been unnecessary. Nader knows that, and so do independent voters.

Stewart ended the interview by saying that even though Nader has taken a lot of heat over the years, "Nobody has ever said that Ralph Nader wasn't right." I don't know if that's true, and I'm sure I wouldn't agree with everything Nader supports. I've never yet agreed completely with any candidate. But it sure looks to me like he's been right an awful lot.

I love that the documentary about him is titled An Unreasonable Man. If he's unreasonable, then we need more unreason.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

"And I Walked Uphill Both Ways"

Yesterday the Weather Channel aired a report about school being cancelled because it was so cold that the buses wouldn't start. My husband, who swears he was kidding, made some smart remark about how he had to walk two and a half miles to school each day and why couldn't the kids in Minnesota do the same. Normally I don't even hear him when he says stuff like that, but this time I called him on it. Knowing where he used to live and where he went to high school, I told him I figured it was more like a mile. "Nah," he said. "No way."

He apparently didn't notice the laptop on my very lap, or that I was accessing MapQuest as he spoke. He continued. "No, it was a mile to the elementary school. It couldn't be just a mile to the high school." I told him it was probably only a half-mile to the elementary school, maybe even less than a mile to the high school. He balked. I entered the addresses in MapQuest.

Bingo. His house to the elementary school: .6 miles the way a car drives, a half-mile the way the crow flies, which is the route he would have walked considering he cut through the woods and all. His house to the high school: .9 miles, or as I said, just under a mile.

Remember this, because you will want to make use of this little tip at some point. MapQuest isn't perfect, but sometimes it sure comes in handy.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Worth a Read

I read a lot of books and review a percentage of them.
Because I'm a reviewer, I receive far more books than I could ever review. Occasionally, a book comes my way that I want to review but can't, for whatever reason (it's self-published, my clients aren't interested in the topic, every client's slate is already full, and so forth). One such book is Wendy Duncan's I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult, a fascinating look at Ole Anthony's Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based organization that does a lot of good and publishes the incredibly funny but often malicious The Wittenburg Door, "The World's Pretty Much Only Religious Satire Magazine."

But Duncan, and others who have a history with the foundation, maintain that Trinity is a bona fide cult, and in her book she describes her and her husband's experience during the time they were involved with the group. She also describes what happened to other people they knew at Trinity. Her book, which released last year, is finally getting the attention it deserves; I just found out that Wendy and her husband will be involved in two significant upcoming conferences on cults, one in Birmingham, Alabama, and the other in Brussels, Belgium. There's an article about Wendy and the two conferences here. It's worth a read.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

MySpacing Out

So I admit I was late getting into the whole MySpace thing, having signed up just a week or two ago. I can be snooty about trends at first, only to face a steep learning curve years later when I finally give up the snoot and concede to the value of the trend. (One exception is church; I haven't decided if I'm 50 years ahead of the trend or 1,800 years behind.)

Anyway, I am now officially addicted to MySpace. Most of this week was a loss because of some phantom illness that sidelined me. I couldn't focus enough to work, so MySpace filled in the gap with all kinds of mindless distractions. Sheesh! Who knew? I mean, I know I'm prone to addiction and all, but I never saw this one coming. The aftermath of this latest vice is at MySpace.com/wethepurple. Be my friend?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Googie's, McSorley's, and Minetta Tavern

Okay, I know there are lots of you out there who have memories of these three Greenwich Village hangouts. Let's swap stories. I'll start:
  • Googie's: My all-time favorite NYC bar. I stumbled on this place by accident in the late '60s, not knowing it was already a classic. Friendliest place ever then, and apparently still so. On Sullivan Street.

  • Minetta Tavern: Another place I found by accident. I ate there every time I went to the Village, which was way too often back in the '60s and '70s. I only recently found out that Reader's Digest started in its basement in 1922, and it later became a haven for poets and writers. Must have been all those literary vibes that drew me in. At Minetta and MacDougal.

  • McSorley's: I'm guessing somebody told me about this place back in the day. It was known for having cheap drinks then, but I understand it's been yuppified, and drinks are now priced out of reason. On East 7th near Bowery.

It's been decades since I've darkened the doors of any of these places, but even though I can't/don't drink anymore, I'd go back in a heartbeat. (Well, maybe not to McSorley's, since apparently more than just the prices have changed.) My daughter is in NYC right now, and she is not to leave the city until she hits Googie's and the Minetta Tavern and calls me from both places. I love holding a written will over the heads of my offspring.

Yeah, there are lots of other places I could mention, especially on Bleecker. But these three places hold a special place in my heart. Great memories, all around. Share yours!