Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Why me?

I am a big fan of the 5th Sunday. My ward's combined RS/Priesthood meetings always leave quite an impression on me. In the past we have set out on impromptu missionary visits and heard from ex-NFL football players who overcame paralysis.

Last Sunday, we heard from a girl in our ward, Bergen, and her mother.

Bergen is blind and almost completely deaf. She doesn't know what her mom looks like, and she relies on her cochlear implant to make sense of the sounds that surround her.

Aside from that, Bergen is a normal 20-year-old girl. She does her own makeup and picks out her own clothes, she studies hard every day so she can stay on top of her class, and she enjoys skiing, writing, and listening to the Beatles.

During that short, 3rd-block hour, Bergen and her mom gave us, their eerily quiet audience, a glimpse into what life is like when you are robbed of one and a half of your senses. Bergen's mom spoke of the anguish she felt when she learned that her three-month-old baby would live in darkness all of her life, and of the way Bergen's strength and adventurousness teaches and inspires people every day.

After that inspiring introduction, Bergen got up with her Braille-written talk and spoke to us in optimistic, matter-of-fact tones with no hint of speech impediment. She said so many things that I wanted to jot down, frame, and mass-distribute to the world. (One of which was "People tend to count their blessings on their fingers and their trials on their calculators.")

It was her answer to one small question that touched me the most, though. I think it's a requirement as humans that we direct these two words toward the heavens multiple times throughout our lives: "Why me?" I thought to myself, if anyone has a right to ask that question, it would be her.

Her answer, paraphrased, was something like this:
When trials overcome us, people tend to ask, "Why me?" I ask myself this question every day. Why do I have two arms, two legs, and ten fingers that produce magic for me every day? Why do I have a family that loves me? Why do I have the light of the gospel in my life?
That was not the answer I was expecting, to say the least.

Rather than sending us all into a "Man, your trials are way worse then mine and now I feel bad for complaining about my trials" pity party, Bergen lifted all of us with her sweet, simple, nonjudgmental words.

I'm looking forward to the next 5th Sunday. I'm not sure that this one can be topped, however.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Useless bits of information

Sometimes, life is full of "Wow! Really?" moments. I learned lots of cool stuff today (courtesy of Tor.com) that is mostly useless, unless I want to impress people with my useless knowledge. Such as:
  • Some people are immune to poison ivy.
  • To some people, cilantro tastes fresh/citrusy while to others it tastes ashy/soapy. This taste difference is apparently genetic. I think I fall under the second genetic code because I think cilantro tastes kind of like mold. And moldly is the opposite of fresh, in case you didn't know.
  • "Beetle" can in fact be made into a verb.
This reminds me of Physical Science 100, which I took during my first semester in college. All I remember from that class is that you can eat gold, it takes a pig three trillion years to detract through a door, and the fact that the kids in The Polar Express can hear Santa's bell but the parents can't is scientifically accurate. I would even argue that this information isn't all that useless because it kept me interested during a science class, definitely a first (and probably last) for me.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

More proof that lying is pointless

A few months back, I won a book from the Goodreads firstreads program, entitled The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us.

Now, a normal person wouldn't enter themselves in a drawing for a free copy of this book, because, believe it or not, grammar doesn't generally stimulate excitement. And seriously, what secrets could pronouns possibly have that would be remotely interesting?

I, however, am not normal; any sign of words, even discussion of the most boring words in the English language, sets off my nerd radar. So I was quite giddy when I was informed that I would be receiving a free copy of this book in 6-8 weeks.

The book proved to be a fascinating read. I think even those who don't know what a pronoun is might have been mildly interested. In a nutshell, the author, James Pennebaker (cool name, by the way), argues that the nothing words of language--pronouns, articles, etc. (that's words like "he," "them," "it," "the," and "an" for those who speak English but prefer not to classify the words into formal categories)--reflect who we are, what motivates us, and how we think. The point Pennebaker repeatedly makes is not that words shape us, but that the little words we use--not the exciting words like "firetruck," "magic," and "spontenaetousness" (my boss made that one up)--that no one notices act as sneaky mirrors into our personalities.

This means that by analyzing how often a person uses "I" or the number of times "the" is used, a computer program can determine whether the writer is male/female, happy/depressed, lying/telling the truth, a leader/follower, among other things. It's not an exact science, obviously, but that's not the point; the point is that we give people clues about ourselves all the time without even knowing it, even if we want to keep those clues hidden.

If the word analogy fails to capture your interest, here's another analogy that sort of doesn't have to do with words: handwriting.

Last night my company had its holiday party (I thought it was rather smart to have the party after the chaos of the holidays), and for our "entertainment" they invited a handwriting specialist to analyze everyone's handwriting. Simply by looking at a person's handwriting, this woman could tell you all sorts of stuff about that person, from personality quirks to religious/philosophical beliefs.

To complete this exercise, she had everyone write out a ridiculous paragraph about monkeys and purple people eaters, and then she came around and gave everyone an evaluation.

Again, it was surprisingly accurate. She knew for certain that I am stubborn, very selective about my friends, a good listener, detail oriented, and good with my hands, for example. A few of her comments were way off--like the injury that I apparently procured on my left leg years ago--but my handwriting, just like my choice of words, further betrayed me by giving someone else clues into what's really going on underneath the facade.

That little activity prompted further discussion at our table regarding other methods people use to analyze you, focusing on eyes, palms, and a variety of other things.

So basically, there is no point trying to lie or keep certain aspects of your life hidden because your brain is actively trying to betray you.

And by the way, my handwriting analysis also revealed that I am very secretive.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Writing = risky business

I came across a quote today that set the wheels in my head a-flurry:
"You have to be brave to take out that white sheet of paper and put on it words that could be evidence of your stupidity." --Sol Saks
Writing is risky business. What is put into writing stays in writing and cannot be taken back.

Unless you pull a Hitler and try to burn all the books, or try to pass a new bill that essentially shuts down sites like Wikipedia and Google . . .

One of the trickiest parts of writing, at least for non-powerful individuals such as myself, is showcasing to the world my ignorance. What if I misspell a word, or my ideas seem amateur, or I mix up my sports terminology, or *gasp* people find out that I really don't know everything? Surely that means I should hide in my room for the rest of my life rather than face the humiliation, right?

But wait--Sol Saks, whoever that guy is (it would be just my luck if this person turned out to be a woman)--says that writers are brave. Risking your reputation with the words you pen isn't as insignificant as some people think.

Just like with all things worth doing--like playing a musical instrument, raising children, administering to the sick, saving the world--some level of failure is possible, even for writers. All of our endeavors require a little bit of moxie, even those that only involve a brain and a keyboard (or pen and paper).

I probably doubly proved my point here by showing off my lack of knowledge at least seven times. And yet, I keep writing . . .

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rays of sunlight in January

It doesn't matter how prepared I am to return to normal life post-Christmas/New Years--the transition always leaves me feeling a bit whiplashed.

Nonetheless, life has returned to normal; I get to sleep in my own bed, shower in my own bathroom, and I managed to hold true to my new years resolutions for a solid two weeks before I started faltering in some areas.

Now that the excitement is over and I've been able to establish a nice routine again, though, the yuckiness of January/February has sunk in. There's no knowing when winter will end (if you can call this weather we've been having "winter"), my next vacation day isn't until Memorial Day, and, really, there's nothing to look forward to in January. Except for spring, which is still months away.

Rather then dwell on those facts, however, I've decided it would be a much better use of my time to focus on the rays of sunlight shining on my life instead of the doom and gloom. The good things in life tend to outshine the bad, even if there is more bad than good.
  • The church is true!
  • On Saturday, an unusually warm January afternoon allowed me to literally bask in the warmth of the sun from the calm and quiet of my parents' front porch. The sky was a cheery blue and the sun wasn't dimmed by smog. It made for a very pleasant half hour. And later that night, I actually got to see the stars. Have I mentioned that cities suck?
  • Conversely, I got to drive in the snow during my morning commute yesterday (and, yes, I was happy about it). The snow is gone already and now it's just freezing cold, but it was exciting to see the snow actually stick to the ground for half a day.
  • The blender I got for Christmas is awesome and I am experimenting with fruit smoothie combinations for breakfast. Yay for finding yummy and healthy meals!
  • I'm actually okay with the fact that I still have 1:00 church. I can take my time in the morning, go to church by the time I'm really bored, and then go home and soak up some more relaxation before diving back into Monday.
  • The Jazz aren't as embarrassingly bad as they were in December, and the BYU basketball team is legit. Still have to break into the roommate's zombie mode if I want to watch a game Tues-Thurs, but at least I get the TV the rest of the week.
  • I made it past the excruciatingly boring part of Wheel of Time--I'm 200ish pages into book 11 and I've read about more than just clothes and facial expressions!
  • After having two pretty busy weeks, this week is looking like it'll be pretty chill at work.
  • God is my best friend.
  • I think I may like whole-wheat bread more than white bread now. Never thought that would happen.
  • I walked to a store from my place of residence for the first time in my life a few weekends ago. I ended up buying more than just the skein of yarn I had planned on, and carrying home my bulky purchases was a bit of an adventure.
  • The reception I went to on Friday the 13th had a hot chocolate and cookie bar. I liked it.
Yep, this was definitely a good use of my time. I'm feeling a little better about life now.

Friday, January 6, 2012

When I was your age . . .

Visiting my grandparents was a regular occurrence when I was growing up. Usually, I would go inside long enough to notify the grandparents of my presence, and then scamper away before boring grown-up talk began.

Sometimes, though, climbing trees and romping around with my cousins wasn't on my list of things I felt like doing, so I would sulk in the corner of the living room while the grown-ups talked, impatiently watching the hands on the clock move at snail pace.

Eventually I figured out that listening to what the grown-ups were saying actually warranted some entertainment value, and I stopped blocking out the sound. As I got older, the visits with the grandparents translated into actually visiting with the grandparents, though of course that came with the required checklist of stories to get through with every visit.

For example: "When I was your age, I walked to school every day, uphill both ways, in six feet of snow, with no shoes on." Sound familiar?

In every variation of this story I've heard, though, I've noticed a striking similarity: everyone seemed to agree that life was better way back when, even though life now offers so many more comforts. With the way the old-timers told it, I'll admit I felt a little envious that I never had to eat dirt for breakfast or battle my way through school.

Telling stories about better days is by no means exclusive to those with crinkly skin and white hair. Those of us with "young" hair and acne-prone skin are guilty of it, too.

To some extent, I think all of us form attachments to the world we knew growing up. Changes, even good changes, often come with a feeling of loss, because it usually means that a small piece of culture you were so familiar with is doomed to become nothing more than a memory, one of those "boring" stories you'll tell your grandchildren over and over again.

Among the boring stories I'll be telling my grandchildren will be the experience of shopping.

My boss gave me two giftcards for Christmas: one for Barnes & Noble, one for JW Pepper (music store). If I still lived on the edge of civilization I would have ordered stuff online, but since I live within 20 minutes of anything I could possibly want, I decided to enter the stores and have a real shopping experience.

Walking into a book or music store is a bit like knowingly walking into a pile of quicksand, which is why I generally avoid going into the stores. However, these giftcards gave me an excuse to indulge myself in a way I never have before, and, despite the risk of possible suckdom, it was a bit like being translated into Geek Heaven. I meticulously glanced through endless stacks of music, and I stopped to touch and smell the books with pretty covers. I was interrupted by honking sounds of an inexperienced saxophone player and distracted by squashy armchairs. I interacted with other people who, like me, have passions for music and the written word.

And then I went home happy and content, purchases in hand. No cold, impersonal transaction required, no need to wait for items to be shipped.

While the benefits of online shopping far outweigh the benefits of in-store shopping, my grandkids will probably be hearing about the rare times I got to see, touch, and smell something before I took it home to treasure it. A small thing, but a part of my growing-up culture nonetheless.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2012, you are most welcome

I wonder if anyone ever feels sadness at the end of a year. Sadness that the year is over, I mean. As far as I can tell, people are generally ready for a new year because they either (a) had a very bad year, or (b) are looking forward to the next one.

For me, 2011 was full of intense highs, intense lows, and everything in between. It was a bit of a refiner's fire year for me, and I certainly came out a much stronger person than I was going in. However, let's not have another one exactly like it, okay?

My brain has been drained of its intellectual juices, my pajamas all need to be washed, and I have overindulged myself with relaxation the past week; I'm ready to start doing my hair and wearing makeup again, using my brain, and chucking out the sweets and pulling out the running shoes. And those new years resolutions? Yeah, I'm excited for those, too.

So, welcome, 2012! Thanks for giving us another chance at a fresh start.