Friday, March 26, 2010

God Stuff: Part I

The Shack was one of those flash-in-the-pan novels that caught my attention when it first hit the New York Times bestseller list in 2007. However, I never got a hold of the novel, and after a while I forgot about it. A few weeks ago, however, when I was back in Pittsburgh, my friend E___ handed me the book and told me to take it back to New York. She warned me that it was a bit hokey, but she thought it was worthwhile and wanted to know my thoughts when I was done.

I enjoy discussing books, and I only read books that are either personally recommended to me or catch my interest when I browse through Publisher’s Weekly, so I happily took the book back with me.

I finished it about a week ago. Yes, the writing was terrible. (I would like to personally strangle Young's editor, actually, for not forcing him to cut every other word in that book. The overuse of modifiers even within the first five pages puts even JK Rowling to shame.) But I have not read such a unique, well-stated, anti "religion" religious book in a very long time. And it got me to think.

In the meantime, I had unwittingly ordered Angry Conversations with God from the library. I had noticed this book in Publisher's Weekly, and since I'm always on the lookout for interesting memoirs, I had listed it in my To-Read section on For whatever reason, it came in to the library just as I was finishing The Shack, so I started it right then.

The timing could not have been more perfect. Isaacs does exactly what I've always wanted to (but never realized I wanted to) do: she speaks directly to God in a fictionalized medium and, through her own imagination, forces him to speak back. In this way, she creates her own conceptualization of who God is.

Between reading Isaacs' account of "couples counseling" with God and Young's fictionalized characterization of the Holy Trinity (a big black woman, a middle Eastern man, and an ethereal Asian woman, if you were wondering), I am compelled to consider my own conceptions of God. I was taught to believe in a triune God, or the Holy Trinity, so I'll address him in three: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In simpler terms (and the ones I tend to use), these would be God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I'll start with God.

God is definitely the most confusing one of the three, probably because I've been given impressions of him by three very different religious groups of people: Presbyterians, Catholics, and Jews.

From the Presbyterians, I was taught that God gracious and loving. He's just sitting there waiting to forgive you. You screw up, but then you say sorry and everything's okay again--kind of like the perfect parent. He's also an ideal listener, and even though he doesn't always give you what you want the way you want it, he knows what's best, and you just have to suck it up when you don't get things your way, because again, like the perfect parent, he's going to be right in the end. But you can talk to him whenever, wherever, and he’s always interested and available. Because, of course, he’s God.

From the Catholics, I was taught that God is one big finger-pointer. This time, I guess, he’s is the parent who's always yelling at you for things you didn't even do. Adam might have been the one who was banished from the Garden of Eden, but it's your fault! You're imperfect, so you had better feel guilty all the time. And not only guilty, but inadequate. As a sinful human, you are so imperfect that you're not even allowed to speak directly to God—you have to tell you dirty ugly sins to a priest, who apparently has at least one up on you. He then whispers all the awful things you did to the Big Guy, who then doles out the punishments, which the priest then relays back to you. Unfortunately, by the time you get through all of your ritualistic Hail Marys and Our Fathers (also known as penance), you'll probably have sinned again. So basically, we humans are constantly pissing God off. And we’d better be afraid, because if he gets cranky, God can just flood us off the face of the planet or send us to burn in hell for eternity. Sounds like a nice guy.

So Presbyterians gave me the Nice Dad God who listens and forgives. Catholics gave me the guilt-inflicting, punishment-doling God. Jews gave me the God of Rules. Catholics might have a lot of rituals, but Jews have the monopoly on rules. Just start with the Ten Commandments: who can possibly follow those without screwing up? Then move on to everything from keeping kosher to keeping the Sabbath . . . . Jews showed me a God of nitty gritty details, a God who knows and keeps track of every little thing you say, do, think, or feel. God might have a universe to manage, but if he can micromanage my eating habits down to what dish I use to serve my food, then he clearly knows me inside and out. Jews gave me God the Helicopter Parent.

So to summarize, I have this weird conglomeration of God ideas all mixed together: the gracious, generous, friendly, ever-present God; the guilt-inflicting, you're-never-good-enough God; and the you-cannot-escape-from-my scrutiny, rule-writing God.

As confusing as this conglomeration is, I still find God the Father the most comfortable figure of the three Holy Trinity identities. Maybe that's because everyone wants to believe a comforting father/friend figure is out there listening to our every gripe. We all wish we had a dad who could swoop in and fix every problem we encounter. And when we experience inexplicable joy, we need someone to thank.

If I had to pick one overarching identity for God, I’d say God is a listener. He doesn’t necessarily act in response to everything we tell him (maybe because it’s not his “will” or whatever), but I think it comforts everyone to pray. It makes us feel less alone—and loneliness is a perpetual human condition that everyone fights.

Coming Next: That cross-bearing, now-you-see-me-now-you-don't guy Jesus, in God Stuff: Part II.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Glamour"ous Wisdom

I don't read "girly magazines" very frequently. One reason is that, after about two issues, they all sound pretty much the same: Lose five pounds with this highly guarded secret (exercising and eating right--duh)! Buy the right jeans for your body type (and spend money you don't have)! Buy new makeup (and spend more money you don't have)! Cut your hair in this new fancy style (but did we mention that this also costs money you don't have?)! Try this sex tip in bed (if you didn't try it last month . . . or the month before . . .)!

Another reason I don't read these magazines is more straightforward: I simply don't have access. Aside from paging through them at the supermarket, I don't have much opportunity to read them. However, when I travelled to DC last weekend, I finished 3/4 of my book on the bus ride down. Therefore, when I arrived at my friend's house, I quickly scoured the residence for reading material I could take back with me. What I ended up with were back issues of Glamour magazine.

Reading Glamour magazine is like eating incredibly salty tortilla chips: the first few feature articles are pretty interesting, merely because they are new, the way that the first few handfuls of chips are nice and salty and crunchy. However, after fifty or so pages, I find myself skipping most of the content (and, if I'm eating chips, dying of thirst and craving Chapstick for my dehydrated lips!). I'm never going to color my hair--or at least not until it starts turning gray--and I don't have $200 to spend on an extravagant-looking pair of high heels, so most of the magazine ends up being irrelevant.

As I was paging through the December 2009 issue, however, one feature caught my interest: "Women of the year 2009." The cover story in particular appealed to me; it featured Michelle Obama. As I read through her interview with Katie Couric, Michelle came alive to me in a way she never really had before. It was when she dispensed her dating advice that I truly thought, "This woman is a really wise mom--just like mine. What a good role model."

Cute’s good. But cute only lasts for so long, and then it’s, Who are you as a person?

That’s the advice I would give to women: Don’t look at the bankbook or the title. Look at the heart. Look at the soul. Look at how the guy treats his mother and what he says about women. How he acts with children he doesn’t know.

And, more important, how does he treat you? When you’re dating a man, you should always feel good. You should never feel less than. You should never doubt yourself.

You shouldn’t be in a relationship with somebody who doesn’t make you completely happy and make you feel whole. And if you’re in that relationship and you’re dating, then my advice is, don’t get married.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

After All That: Final moments in a half marathon

She’s right there.

That red shirt—I know I saw it earlier. She ran past me, maybe in the first few miles. I think I thought she was with a team. Her shirt is tight, and she has that snug little ponytail.

I don’t know why I thought that. All those other girls passed me in mile one, and I just thought, “Catch you at the end, b@#*%!” I saw a few after that. My favorite was that tall girl with her brother. I remember standing next to them at the race start, and then they blew past me so early in the race. I knew I’d catch her!

I have to catch this girl. I’ve been pacing against all these men forever. Ever since I passed that last midget lady with her neon hat. The men are no motivation at all; my time doesn’t show up with theirs. I've been looking for another woman this whole last half-mile stretch.

I have to catch her.

No point in checking my watch; that’ll just waste time. I must be running at least a sub-7:30 pace right now. I can push this. Not much farther.

Come on legs. I didn’t come all the way to DC to trot across the finish line. If this were Boston, we'd be running uphill. Let’s go.

There’s the bend. The finish line is always after a bend. Why must race people set it up this way? I want to see how far I have left to sprint, d@%$ it!

Doesn’t matter. My sprint is over when I catch this girl. I just have to do it before the finish.

Go, legs. Now. It’s just a little pain; nothing worse than speed work. It’ll be over soon. You didn’t go through two months of physical therapy and pay more money to run half the length of the race you wanted to be running, change your bus ticket, and then almost suffer a nervous breakdown last night trying to get your bib in order to lose to this girl. She’s right in front of you. Catch her.

Last stretch: maybe 300 meters. It’s now or never. So what if she’s sprinting, too? You’ve already gained on her. Don’t give up. So what if it hurts? It’s almost over.

The finish line is so close. You just have to get beside her to cross in front. An inch will do. Harder! Push!

NOTE: I didn’t “win.” On the upside, I bested my last half-marathon time by about 3 minutes. (I ran the Queens Half-Marathon last summer in 1:38:59 (7:33/mile pace.)

Results for this race:

Race LengthFinishing Time 10k Split Average PaceOverall Place Gender Place (All Women) Age Group Place (F18-24)
13.1 miles1:35:18 45:05 7:17/mile 408/624968/3402 16/571

Monday, March 15, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: I Shudder

I Shudder: And Other Reactions to Life, Death, and New Jersey I Shudder: And Other Reactions to Life, Death, and New Jersey by Paul Rudnick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book would have been ten times more enjoyable if it eliminated all of the biographical entries and read straight through the chapters subtitled "An Excerpt from the Most Deeply Intimate and Personal Diary of One Elyot Vionnet." As it is written, I Shudder ends up as an amalgamation of David Sedaris-type writing that doesn't quite hit the mark, in part because the chapters are so chronologically ill-ordered, because they are interrupted by these fictional "diary" chapters (which I actually ended up preferring to the real-life accounts), and . . . well . . . because Paul Rudnick is not David Sedaris. Rudnick has his own way of recounting humorous moments, but he also tends to get caught up in reciting we-were-here-doing-this details that slow down the narrative and put set the humor off pace. Once the reader starts skipping paragraphs, it's hard to get them laughing again.

The chapters from the "diary of Elyot Vionnet," however, are downright hilarious. The narrator--Elyot Vionnet--is fully developed and has a very clear voice (almost too clear, to the point of annoying the reader with his attitude, in fact). The details of the narrative are poignant and support exactly the points the character is trying to make as he narrates each episode in his life. This is clearly the stronger section of the book and, had it been developed and published independently, may have reached an entirely different sort of audience than I Shudder did.

All in all, Rudnick's work is certainly not a waste of time. David Sedaris and Billy Bryson fans would enjoy the book, along with book junkies who love reading about life and culture in the Big Apple. After all, there's nothing like living in and writing from Jersey to make a NY reader shudder.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Outed" by your family

When you bring someone--a friend, boyfriend, doesn't matter who--home for the first time, your family is bound to say (or do) something embarrassing. They're your family; it's their job. If you're lucky, it'll be something minor, hopefully singular, and not worth mentioning in future conversations. If you're unlucky, it will be humiliating enough that a) your guest will never speak to you again or b) your guest will emerge armed with such teasing-worthy ammunition that you hope they will never speak to you again. The latter is what happened to me.

It started with the Allison Shuffle. This is a move--a dance, in fact--which I used to perform back when I was very young, when I got extremely upset. By extremely upset, I mean on-the-brink-of-throwing-a-tantrum upset: usually standing in the doorway of my parents' den, demanding something I couldn't have or whining about some sort of mandatory duty that they were making me do. I'd start stamping my feet as my pitch raised, since they inevitably would be very mild-mannered about the whole thing, which of course felt like they were ignoring me and was not achieving what I wanted. Then, my dad would, in his snarkiest voice, say, "There goes the Allison Shuffle," and off went my legs, in all directions, uncontrollably stamping and shuffling and flailing to beat the band.

This story, of course, was relayed to my guest, R___, within the first hour of his arrival at my hometown residence. I suppose my family wanted to hit him with the most embarrassing possible story first, since the next few were really just hyperbolic illustrations of character traits R___ already believed me to possess.

For instance: one day, I arrived home from school and, in a huge huff, slammed a test down on the table. My dad, who was sitting at the table, looked at the test. Seeing that it had a 92% scribbled at the top, he asked me what was wrong. In complete dismay, I answered, "It's not 100." My dad really relished telling R___ that story.

Meanwhile, a story my sister reveled in telling was that of my coming home, climbing to the top of our stairs, and shouting "F***!" at the top of my lungs. Clearly I had assumed no one was home, and I was very frustrated at something a certain love interest of mine had said/not said or done/not done at the time. I rarely expressed my frustration at this "certain someone," and so, thinking that I had the house all to myself, I had decided to "let loose." Apparently, my sister found this very amusing and, moreover, worthy of sharing with R___, who also found it quite amusing.

Luckily, apart from those rather embarrassing stories, I emerged otherwise unscathed. And what's more, I intend to be the "guest" this summer and dig into R___'s family archive of embarrassing stories....