Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Right Direction

Today I said goodbye to three very dear friends.

My sister Mattea––who I'd subtly been trying to convince to go to Italy for about three years now––is going to Italy to study at the same school I did four years ago. What's more, her friend Mikaela is going with her, which actually didn't surprise me that much.

What did surprise me was hearing just a couple months ago that Mikaela's brother, my friend Josiah was also going to Europe at the same time, though not to Italy. I'm a little foggy on the details, but I know he'll be in Switzerland doing something with L'Abri in the Alps, which I think is pretty much phenomenal.

So this morning we piled into two cars and drove to the airport to say goodbye to all three of them.  There was about a 45 minute group hug session/camera-phone photo-shoot in the check-in area before we finally saw them to the security check point.

Then someone figured out that the airport diner had a glass wall that bordered the departure area, so everyone rushed in there and pressed themselves up against the glass waving at the three of them. 

I know it was probably hard on my parents, but honestly it was probably one of the least sad goodbyes I've ever had just because I'm extremely happy for all three of them. And kind of wish I was going with them.

At any rate, I hope they have an awesome, life-changing three months over there.

They're probably somewhere over the Atlantic this evening, which in my experience is a good place to be––a long as you're headed in the right direction.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

I Miss the Desert

It's been about one and a half years since my first and only trip into the desert, and I suddenly find myself with a strong craving to be back in it again.

There's something wild about the vastness of the desert. Like the Ocean, but even more savage. The ocean is full of life, but the desert is mostly sterile. "Clean" was how they put it in Lawrence of Arabia.

When most people say "nature," it seems like they usually mean "anywhere without people." In that case the desert is as natural as you can get. Most of nature seems so fragile. But when you're in the desert, you get the feeling that this is nature you couldn't do anything to change if you tried. The only thing that changes in the desert is you.

I guess that's what I like about it.

It's hard, and it makes you reevaluate your priorities. Here in my normal life I get so preoccupied with such little things. I worry about things like scratches and zits, what every little dietary and lifestyle choice I make will have on my long-term health and wellness, and how to best avoid socially awkward situations. And I drive myself crazy over those things.

When you're in the desert, all those things seem really far away and insignificant. That's because much more straight-forward things like having enough water and getting the car unstuck are suddenly matters of life and death. And ultimately, I feel like those are much more fulfilling and strangely less stressful concerns. It makes you realize what's really important. It makes you hard.

I guess this was all brought on by some questions a friend from church asked me after the service Sunday. He's considering moving to Jordan for work asked me what it's like. I hadn't seriously thought about the desert in awhile, but as I was trying to describe it to him, it all came back.

Then I watched a No Reservations episode where Tony was in Egypt in the desert. Something about the post-ironically contemplative montage of him sitting on a rocky outcropping staring across a vast expanse of sand tinted purple by the sinking sun really hit it home for me.

I want to go back to the desert.

It doesn't have to be the Middle-Eastern desert. Just about any desert would do. It's a shame there aren't any close by. But then maybe that's part of the attraction too.

Road trip, anyone?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

An[other] Apology

Over the years there have been a number of times I've had to apologize for making this blog too depressing. This is one of them.

Now I realize on one hand that life is often a very serious, dark affair––and it's not inappropriate to sometimes write in a way that reflects that gravity. But there's a fine line between writing with appropriate gravity, and writing in a way that becomes a narcissistic monument to masturbatory self-pity. (Yes, I just used the word masturbatory. Deal with it.) It's all too easy for me to slip into that for a number of reasons that I won't go into. What I will go into is why I realize it's wrong.

First, it's inaccurate, because anytime you decide to interpret everything through one feeling (or at least when I do––there may be some real writers out there who can pull it off) it inevitably becomes very skewed.

Second, it's destructive to me personally––and possibly to people reading it too. When I write things down, I'm usually arguing with myself the whole time about whether what I'm saying is true, or if I'm presenting it incorrectly. If I do manage to write something that's completely skewed and let myself get away with it, then it goes a long way to legitimizing it in my mind, even if it's mostly irrational. I hope that it's more difficult to persuade other people of my warped view of reality than it is myself––but maybe sometimes it isn't. That is a terrifying thought.

Third, (and this one could be reason 1.1) it's inaccurate.While on the one hand, I'm sometimes a very depressed and pathetic person, I'm also at the same time something else. As a Christian, I believe with all my heart that I'm redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The actual outworking of that redemption in my life is a slow, painful, two-steps-back-for-every-one-forward process. It's a process that goes on while my life is full of things that shouldn't be there, like depression. But that it is a process doesn't change the fact that from the beginning, God sees me as if I've completed it. That is a huge, amazing fact, and it's a fact that is always there. So even when I'm legitimately losing, to think (or write) about it as if that's all that there is is one of the greatest inaccuracies of all time.

Forth, and finally, being depressed keeps me from focusing on others––which is something I really need to work at. Okay, so I guess the topic of this blog technically is my life experiences, but if I use it in a way that causes me to focus on myself in real life, then it's not doing anything to help me with the terrible fact that I don't think nearly enough about others. I was reading the old Pauline book of Philippians this morning after a terrible night of feeling sorry for myself over what a bad week I imagined myself to have had when I came to the second chapter. It was one of those "Wow" moments when you realize how far you've strayed from everything that you should be living for. Realizing that other people and their well-being should be a higher priority for me than my own is something that being depressed makes very difficult. And yet I suspect that realizing that very thing is probably the key to not being depressed.

So that was really the reason for this post. If you read this blog at all regularly, I want to apologize for how depressing the content has become lately. But much more than that––and this goes even if you've never read my blog before but have interacted with me in some way as a person––I want to apologize for having not been what I'm undeniably called to be: Someone who values others more than myself, and is concerned for their welfare more than my own.

If you're in either of those two groups––and the fact that you're reading this right now means you are, by the way––I sincerely and humbly apologize.

Very sorry.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Who knows?

It's been an eventful week. Actually not much has happened, but many significant things have transpired on a purely informational level. Portentous. That's a better word. It's been a portentous week.

I got that letter I mentioned in my last post––the one from the State Department. My personal narratives didn't pass the Foreign Service Qualification Evaluation Panel, which is a long way of saying "it's over," and the last six months of my life have accomplished nothing.

I got the letter Monday morning and went for a long walk––that turned into more of a hike––which is a strange thing to do here in the middle of January.

I don't think it's specifically that I won't get to do what I was hoping to that is so depressing as the almost entire lack of other things that I really want to do. In the end it didn't hurt as much as I had been anticipating that it would. Not that I really anticipated getting my candidacy terminated by the QEP. I was aware that the odds of passing were low and I also tend to be an unhealthily pessimistic person. But for all that, somehow I actually had quite a bit of faith that I would qualify for the next level. I guess in hindsight our attitudes are very irrelevant things, aren't they?

So now it's down to the business of finding things that I don't want to do––to do. To that end, I got up early this morning and went to the New York State Department of Labor Career Services Office and registered as seeking employment.

I've always had a mortal dread of anything with "career services" in the name. Something about the combination of having to make decisions about who you are and what you're good at and present it to other people with the intention of making long term commitments has always terrified me on and across multiple levels of my being. It may sound pathetic, but I didn't sleep for most of last night––and probably changed my mind about it 13 or 14 times up until I finally got in the car.

It was actually a good experience though. Both of the agents I worked with were very nice and not at all pushy like I always remember the "career center" people being in college, the few times that I was dragged through the door of that place for different class participation requirements. I got my resume submitted, and they've already sent me some possible employer matches that while not anything that makes me excited are much closer to my skill-set than anything I found online in the past nine months that I've been looking.

And it's not all doom and gloom. Yesterday––thanks entirely, and very much so––to an extended family member, I was presented with the opportunity to work part time as a research assistant at a local development corporation. It will only be one or two days a week, but that's more than I've had most weeks up to now. And the more interesting thing is that it will hopefully give me the opportunity to network at a more meaningful level with some of the more influential people in the area. And those people are also mostly employers, so who knows where it might go?

Who knows. I certainly don't.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Bird hunting in the fog

Went bird hunting this morning. Apparently dense fog isn't an ideal condition for bird hunting. I was so bored though that I figured I'd give it a try.

I usually do well with a large cognitive surplus, but the last few days have been trying even for me. It was easier over Christmas to not think about the fact that I'm not in school or working. The fact is though, for the last couple months I've really just been sitting around waiting for a letter saying that I advanced to the next level of the Foreign Service officer selection process.

Well, I haven't just been sitting around. I've been continuing to study Arabic. About a month ago I decided to go a completely different route than the one I've been taking off and on for the last several years and learn the alphabet first. Few of the programs I'd owned or borrowed ever tried to teach that––ostensibly because it's overwhelming. But then found this Islamist website that said learning to read Arabic is the key to speaking it.

So I made 28 flash cards and memorized the alphabet, which was much easier than I thought it would be. Not as easy was learning were the letter's positional forms. Arabic is only written in cursive, so each letter has between two and four completely different looks depending on where it is in the word. Then there's the fact that they don't really write out vowels except for A and then only if it's at the beginning or end of a word.

Even though I'm still only at the point of being able to sound words out like the dyslexic seven-year old that I once was, I can say it's been hugely worth it. There are a number of nuances in the spoken word that seem completely arbitrary without knowing the written word that make sense if you do know it. It also helps with pronunciation, as I've found the Arabic letters are often actually clearer than their official English transliterations.

So while I'm still not anywhere near being even basically competent with it, I feel like I'm making more progress than I ever have.

I've also been reading more history and current events than I have in a long time, which––if you know me––is probably saying something.

And I know that within the next three weeks, I will be getting that letter from the State Department. The problem is, I don't know that it will say what I hope it will. I haven't really thought about what I'll do if it says my personal narratives didn't pass the qualification evaluation panel. I know I should think about it, but I haven't really wanted to. At the same time, there's at least a chance that letter will say what I hope it will. And knowing that, it's hard to really think about doing anything else long term. I guess I just don't deal well with a lack of certainty.

If nothing else, this whole thing has given me something to focus on, and a reason to try to improve myself in some ways that I otherwise would have been less likely to.

But then, I can only force myself to memorize conjugations of Arabic past tense vowels for so long. And after that, I can only read foreign affairs blogs for so long. So yesterday I played Civilization V all day––which is kind of history and diplomacy––if I really lie to myself hard. But even that, I can only do for so long.

So this morning I went bird hunting in the fog. Did I mention dense fog isn't an ideal condition for bird hunting?

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

And we'll all sled on, anyway

This Monday I did something I hadn't in a few years: Went sledding.

Well, I may have gone sledding more recently, but certainly not at the level of yesterday. In fact, the last time I can remember such good sledding was on the exact same hill in Pine City in about the same time in January, 2009. I was about to leave for Italy then and probably remember because I was trying out the new camera I'd bought for the trip.

It's hard to believe that in just a few weeks my sister Mattea and our friend Mikaela will be making the journey to the same place––Friuli Italy, that is, not Pine City. Being there looking up at the same snow covered hill that I did four years ago made me think of that, and wonder if they will have as awesome of a time as I did. I hope they do. It also made me wonder what's next for me.

I doubt that four years ago I could have imagined how amazing that spring would be. Or the course of by some standards even more amazing events that it set in motion. The last nine months have me feeling like it's very unlikely my life will take a positive, world expanding turn like that again. But then, four years ago I probably felt it was just––if not even more unlikely.

At any rate, it was good sledding.

Friday, January 04, 2013

The Great Caffeine Fast

As I sit here trying to hold my eyes open while fending off a low-grade headache, it's easy to question the wisdom of my decision to give up caffeine. But then, it's only for a month [Wait a minute! A month!? That's a really really really long time! What do the heck do you mean "only"?!]

It is after all the only thing I've ever had a dependency on––and what a dependency it's been. Since I was 12 or 13, there have been very few days that I have gone without at least a cup of black tea. As an older teenager I would typically drink five or six cups a day––and that was on days when I didn't have coffee. I took significant strides in college to reduce my daily dosage, and these days, I probably consume a good deal less than the average American, if you consider that tea has only between 30 and 50 milligrams per cup versus 80 to 100 for coffee, which I now only drink a few times a week.

Still, the thought of giving it up completely has always been depressing to me, and since I tend toward depression anyways, I never had any intention of doing that. Besides, caffeine and its delivery agents have a number of purported health benefits. Tea and coffee are full of antioxidants, and tea specifically has other, milder psychoactive chemicals that reduce stress. In some people, caffeine itself speeds up metabolic activity, causing the body to burn calories faster, which in most people today in our overweight society is a good thing. But therein lies the problem. I'm not most people in our overweight society.

While I grew quite fast as a teenager, I stopped gaining weight when I was only 16 or 17, and really haven't put on any since. This left me well over six feet tall and only 133 pounds (which reads clinically anorexic on most BMI charts). I always figured the main reason for this was that I was an avid recreational runner and probably still growing.

But I'm 23 now, and haven't grown vertically in several years, so I figured I should theoretically be able to put on at least a couple pounds. Would 137 be too much to ask? So this August, I stopped running completely and also stopped the core workout I'd been doing for the past three months. In its place, I started lifting weights three times a week and eating as much as I could. This, from everything I've read, learned in my PE classes in college, and asked my friends who were EHS majors, is supposed to cause you to gain weight.

By mid November though, I hadn't put on a pound. So I cut the weights back to just twice a week, and used the holidays to eat––what I consider to be at least––a massive amount a food. It's now January though, and it didn't work. Four months of doing reps with weights that weigh as much as I do and stuffing my face with food and I still look and weigh exactly the same as I did in August.

It's not the first time that I've experienced this, but it's definitely most and longest effort I've put into it only to have this experience. I think I have pretty much proven by now that no amount of working out (in past years I'd tried working out everyday––but I lost weight) or upping my caloric intake will make me gain weight. So, rather than looking for things that I can do to gain weight, I'm now looking––somewhat desperately––for things I can not do to gain weight.

The biggest one that came to mind is caffeine. I've never heard of people using caffeine to lose weight, but I know that it does increase your metabolism. So even though I don't really use that much, I've decided that it's time for it to go. At least for a month. If I'm able to gain any weight in four or five weeks not using it, then I'll consider making it a longer commitment.

Otherwise, I'll just add it to the list of things that don't work, and go order an Americano.