Not the Cheese I Was Expecting

Once upon a time, I didn’t like cheesecake. I mean, seriously — who would want cheese and cake mixed? My brain revolted against the idea of a swiss-flavored birthday cake sprinkled with cheddar frosting. Or worse, a thick, mushy gouda-mozzerella torte deceptively promising to be a scrumptious treat. No matter what anybody said, I knew provolone and feta did not belong in desserts.

I hope, dear reader, that you’re laughing at me as much as I am laughing at myself. Of course, once I persuaded myself to get over my horrible mental impression and actually take a bite, I discovered that I enjoyed cheesecake. And now I’m slightly addicted.

It’s funny how we can get a certain taste for something in our heads and decide, before we even try it, that it’s horrible. But we make those wrong impressions based off of incomplete or incorrect knowledge. I didn’t realize that cheesecake had its own kind of special cheese, a cheese specifically geared toward amazing, sweet desserts. When you don’t truly know the ingredients that go into something, you are likely to end up with a faulty judgment.

I had a very similar experience with writing. For years, I’ve been stuck on FICTION. Glorious, gory, gripping, gob-smacking fiction. I invent my own characters, stick ’em on a piece of land that I likewise invented, and then let them all have at it. What’s not to love?

Then there was always the shadowy area of NONFICTION. Like your aunt’s greasy nacho dip that nobody wants to eat, nonfiction was pushed to the background of my mental pantry, growing little fuzzy spots around the edges. I didn’t know what was in nonfiction. The very term seemed to conjure up taste-wrenching horrors of its own.

And then it happened — complete exposure. My major required me to take a Creative NONFICTION course in college. I immediately imagined rows a dusty biographies, math textbooks, and how-to-engineer tomes in my future. Not sure what I was truly getting myself into, I began the course and took a cautious bite.

Nonfiction didn’t taste all that bad. In fact, I kinda liked it. It was still words, sentences, and paragraphs — key elements of writing that I’d grown up with. But there was a whole slew of other ingredients I hadn’t known were included — personality, voice, tone, mood, structure, etc. It was like taking that first bite of dreaded cheesecake all over again and finding out I’d been wrong.

Nonfiction writing began at first with small pieces. As I grew more comfortable within the genre, the slice-size of assignments grew slowly larger. I couldn’t make up my own characters, but I could delve into the refrigerator of research and pull out facts that I hadn’t known existed about people who lived (or live) more interesting lives than I. I didn’t have to sound like a stuffy Britannica; I was allowed freedom to explore my own voice but, at the same time, sample the different flavors of life.

Academics demanded that I learn something in this nonfiction course, but I believe I learned something that was not within the lesson plans — I learned I liked nonfiction. And I learned I wanted to write more nonfiction.

If you’re still not sold on the quality of nonfiction, consider this: this very blog post is nonfiction. I just let you explore a whole new flavor of writing through the creative license of the un-invented. You’re welcome.

Words of advice: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t trash nonfiction before you read it. But most importantly — don’t rate a cheesecake before you take a bite.

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Why I Write

I write because I would go mad if I did not.

Have you ever filled a glass of water and let the liquid go too long? What happens? The water overflows the glass. The same is true of me when it comes to writing — the stories and words are water dripping (or dumping) into my brain; at some point, too much collects and overflows my mind’s finite recesses. If I do not write it down, that water will gush down the side of the glass and be lost to me forever.

Writing is not easy task, putting together grammatically correct and appealing sentences and creating something logical or coherent. However, I am obliged to my own mind to record. My mind is not like some kiddies’ playground where laughter rings through the jungle gym and the swings sway gently in the breeze, where (ideally) kids are content to play and to go nicely to bed when the night falls.

No — my mind is an immense minefield that is constantly creating new heroes and villains. Shouts of rage, skirmishes for power, cries of betrayal, anguished bellows: this battlefield is what fills my mind with noise. These heroes and villains are not kindly-meaning characters who will trip in to say “hello” and then trip out again wishing you a good afternoon. They are merciless, regardless of their moral status. They demand you write their story — and write it NOW. Each character will battle all the others for the most interesting hook, all vying for my attention like ravenous dogs at their feet of their master.

But I am not their master. I am their slave. Because I am the only one who knows their stories, I am, therefore, the only one who can write their stories down. And I know from experience that if I do not make time to write those stories, the chaos in my mind will break my sanity.

But it is not just demanding characters that push me to write. Words themselves have a great intrigue.

Please note the English alphabet (the very same that I’m using to write now). It is not very large — only a mere 26 letters, in fact. 5 vowels (unless you’re counting y) act as a type of glue to hold the others together into words. Words, even comprised of a handful of letters, aren’t big either. But they are powerful. Instead of presenting just a sound, they have symbolism; they mean something. Those words are the basis of all writing, whether it be nonfiction or fiction, poetry or prose, short story or novel. Words, sentences, and paragraphs are all made from 26 letters. Isn’t that cool?

How about words in particular? Do you realize how many wonderful words there are in the English language? Granted, there are a bunch of duds out there, too — but consider the words befuddle, groak, and petrichor. They stand out among the monotone of every day life. I see colors in every word, but I’m convinced there has to be a story that goes with those words as well. I mean — who’d want to pass up a chance to use a word like groak? My mind will not let me rest until I have discovered a story for each word. Meaning that my mind will go nuts, convinced that there will always be a word out there I have missed, forcing me to find it and settle it kindly with a story.

I’m a passionate writer, and I haven’t gone fully mad yet. I’m just waiting on the White Rabbit to show up.

And that’s why I write.

My Family’s Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is right around the corner. For some families, it’s a time of love and laughter; for others, the grandest family reunion of the year; for others, all about the big game. For my family, Thanksgiving is all about the food. Oh yes, we’re a lovable, laughing bunch, but there’s really nothing my family enjoys more than a well-cooked Thanksgiving. We’ve learned to arrange the entire week around our food.

The holiday begins on Wednesday, when my siblings and I make the cold trek to my cousins’ house to start baking pies. Depending on how Michigan is feeling that day, we may or may not have snow. Even though we all adore snow, we’re grateful when it hasn’t yet appeared; the younger boys will then be less entranced to go outside and play a rousing round of tackle football. With them still indoors, we older children enlist them to help cut apples or wash dishes.

There are no less than eight pies gracing our table once we finish Wednesday off. Pumpkin, apple, mincemeat, chocolate pudding — we have our traditionals, plus a decent variety of gluten free pies (which often taste better than the regular). That night we celebrate our successes with our usual taco buffet and Christmas movie.

Thursday dawns early for some of us. For my aunt and mother, it’s best to start on casseroles; my aunt makes a sweet potato casserole that does nothing but melt in your mouth, and my mother is becoming world-famous for her green bean casserole.

But for us kids, there is sleeping in to think about and then breakfast. No holiday is complete without a good breakfast. Cinnamon rolls, dripping icing and sweet smells, battle for first extinction with my uncle’s homemade swirl bread with craisins. Scrambled eggs and sausage heap in abundance; Grandma always adds some kind of fruit salad “to keep the children healthy.”

The rest of the day rolls out like clockwork. It’s fascinating to watch the adults at work in the kitchen; each one has his or her appointed task. With the size of the hungry multitudes, it’s imperative we have at least two turkeys. If my aunt hasn’t planned one, my dad already has his going, and my uncle will pick up the extra slot with his own bird — deep-fried, smoked, or wrapped in bacon.

My other uncle is in charge of potatoes. As he mashes, he and my dad have their annual debate over stuffing; my uncle prefers a homemade mix with fruit. My dad is a purist — he eats nothing but Stovetop. To the kids’ delight, we’ll end up with two giant bowls of stuffing on the table. My aunt prepares the rolls and the cranberry jellies. One jelly is homemade, lemony, and full of cranberry nubs, the other smooth and sliced to New England perfection. And despite every culinary skill within my family, no one can make gravy except my dad — who mysteriously makes it perfect every time.

There will be other random dishes on the table once everyone sits down. However, no dish lasts long at the appetites of the crowd, and we can’t quite remember what we ate after the meal has ended. By that time, we’re groaning in the living room and wondering how we’re going to fit pie into our bellies.

Anyone not in a food coma on Friday gathers for leftover day, or (as we call it) Top of the Mountain day. Beginning with a base mountain of rice or mashed potatoes, the goal is to heap up whatever leftovers you please on your plate and eat it all before the night ends. A few extra ingredients add to the buffet, as chopped apples, chow mein noodles, sliced carrots, and celery taste wonderful sprinkled over the mountain.

One thing I’ve noted over the years: no matter how much food we’ve prepared for the holiday, there’s usually nothing left when Saturday hits. By that time, however, everyone is busy planning what dishes we’ll make for next year.

As the Deer

Recently, I’ve been reading through Psalms during my personal devotions. It’s amazing how much truth is packed into such short chapters. I’ve read through the Psalms before, but somehow reading them in the light of my senior year of college makes them look different.

Just the other night Psalms 42 and 43 really stood out to me in a way that they never had before. The author starts out these two psalms with a clear picture — a deer, weary, panting for a drink. He compares himself to this deer, saying that his soul is dry and longing for God. It’s not just an every-day sort of thirst; it’s a quenching, fiery, extravagant thirst that can only be satisfied with a drink.

The author then goes on to explain different moments of despair and hopelessness. His enemies and even his own tears mock him, asking, “Where is your God?” In pain and sorrow, he calls out to God: “Why have You forgotten me?” In his fallible logic, he thinks God has rejected him and left him to be oppressed by his enemies.

Oftentimes, I think we feel very much like the author does here. I know I do. As the deer, I’ve felt that harsh thirst for God, but wondered where He was at that moment. Something in me longs for peace, for joy, for answers, but I can’t seem to find any of them. In despair, I wonder if God has forgotten about me.

But both psalms don’t end without hope. In both chapters, the author repeats the same phrase three times (with some variance from one repetition to the next):

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.

He rebukes his own despair. Instead of wallowing in self-misery and hopelessness, he stomps down on his emotions and chooses not to follow them. He knows he serves an all-powerful, all-loving God who hasn’t forgotten about him, and he reminds himself of that fact.

Times of despair in our lives are real, but they aren’t the end of the world — no matter how much it really feels that way. The first step to satisfying your thirst is to recognize that God is still in control. Think biblically about your problems. Rebuke your wayward emotions. The author of these two psalms clearly pointed out the dissatisfaction he found in the world. The only thing that could quench his thirst for God was God Himself. And that’s the only thing that can satisfy our thirst for God.

There is hope and deliverance from despair. God alone is our hope.

As the deer panteth for the waters, so my soul longeth after You. You alone are my heart’s desire, and I long to worship You.

You alone are my strength, my shield, to You alone will my spirit yield. 

You alone are my heart’s desire, and I long to worship You. 

The Wow Factor

I had never heard of the Wow Factor until I was introduced to the drama known as “wedding dress shopping.” Apparently, this Wow Factor is a big deal — and it’s the required characteristic for every wedding dress no matter who the bride is.

The Wow Factor can be boiled down to a fairly simple phenomenon. It’s the strange feeling a bride gets when she puts on a dress, looks in the mirror, and knows she’s in the dress she’ll get married in.

After I was engaged, I began the trek to find my dress and the Wow Factor. To be honest, I was more confident in finding the former than the latter, even with my ongoing hatred of shopping.

The first few dresses I tried on I was not impressed with. One of the first dresses had a skirt twice the size of Chicago — no way you could fit that many layers of tulle into the front of a church. When spread flat, it was enough material to fill the backyard for a 100 guests to enjoy a comfortable picnic reception. Definitely a wow factor there, but not the right Wow.

Another dress was nothing more than a bit of lace tacked onto a nightgown. The dress looked like it had just sashayed straight out of the 1920s and fit me about the same as a blow-up Santa yard figure. Vintage and airy — check. Wow Factor — nonexistent.

Many of the dresses I saw were stuck on an overly petite waist. I’m not sure what kind of brides they were trying to attract, but it definitely wasn’t the kind that still eats. The one dress of that sort I talked myself into trying on I could barely zip up past my ribcage. Wow required a quick drop in about ten dress sizes.

After eight shops, I was ready to call it quits. There had been plenty of dresses (just as I had predicted), but no sign of this elusive Wow Factor. I had begun the day thinking I might discover the truth of this fable as I shopped, but now I was beyond hope. What would the Wow Factor be, anyway? Exhausted and disappointed, I was in desperate need of a comfortable latte and a couch. It was against my will that good intentions dragged me to the ninth store.

I didn’t see the dress until after I’d pulled the white concoctions of country lace and satin chic out of the way first. The one underneath was more plain, moderately priced, and looking like it needed a bit of love. Already convinced of its dry simplicity, I agreed to try it on. There was no way it could pull off the Wow Factor.

The first thing I noticed was how comfy it was. It was easy to get into and I could zip up the back myself without calling for backup. The skirt swished nicely and had a respectable twirl radius. So far, I liked this dress — a lot. Heart pounding, I turned to look in the mirror for the Wow Factor.

I saw me. In the same plain dress I’d pulled off the hanger. Nothing else. No rush of emotional tears. No Wow Factor.

Completely deflated, I dropped my hands to my sides.

“Wow.”

My hands were in pockets.

Immediately, my face lit up and I knew without a doubt I was in the dress I’d get married in. It didn’t matter if the dress was a little on the plain side — I’d found the Wow Factor.

Why hadn’t I figured out before now it was all about the pockets?

A Misplaced Delusion

When I first got The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins from the library, I was a little ashamed to be seen with it in public. The title alone contradicts everything that I believe as a Christian. God is not a delusion; He is an eternal, personal, and loving Creator deserving of our worship. But I wanted to understand the other side of the picture.

As I got further into the book, I wasn’t afraid to be seen with it. Instead, I started forming lots of thoughts about it. Here are just a few of those thoughts:

Richard Dawkins is a marvelous storyteller. He portrays his material in such a way that it’s easy and often enjoyable to read. He is definitely well-studied. He knows how to present his argument.

Some of his reasons for denying God’s existence I found confusing. I contribute that to the fact that we’re approaching the argument with two entirely different worldviews. I believe God has always existed; therefore, I don’t understand how one can abolish God by stating that He didn’t have a creator. God doesn’t need a creator because He was never created. 

Dawkins also has a lot of arguments on why religion itself is so bad. And here, I think he creates a delusion bigger than his title. He groups all forms of religion together into one pile — and then labels it all as bad. Islamic terrorist attacks fall right alongside of ancient crusades. To him, there is no difference between religions; one is the same as another. Anyone “religious” is immediately stereotyped into the mold of evil he’s fashioned in his mind. To me, that argument doesn’t stand well, considering the phenomenal differences between religions. Take Buddhism and Mormonism. Catholicism and polytheism. They all have vastly different doctrines. One might go on holy killing sprees; others don’t hold to the same beliefs.

I noticed that, when speaking about the Bible, he chose the most gruesome and horrific passages to present. God ordered Abraham to cruelly sacrifice Isaac; an Israelite man cut his concubine into 12 pieces; Lot offered to send his daughters out to be raped to save two angels from the same fate. Dawkins’ thoughts: this is a controlling, bloody bully that the Bible claims as God. This book of so-called “religious” morals is clearly promoting evil behavior. My thoughts: did Dawkins read the entire Bible? I have; those stories are in there for a reason, but there’s more than just gruesome stories. For one, there’s a ton of hope and redemption. God sent a replacement sacrifice to save Isaac; Abraham did not have to kill his son. What we have here, folks, is a severe case of cherry-picking to suit one’s purposes.

In a way, though, I find myself agreeing with Dawkins on a big point. His whole book revolves around the concept that the God of the Old Testament is “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak” and “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser” (his words, not mine); this god, he states, does not exist. I agree. That description is of a god that doesn’t exist. The God that I believe in is the “Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) of the Old and New Testaments. Dawkins has created his own delusion of a god that doesn’t exist. His “god delusion” is, ultimately, a misplaced delusion. He doesn’t want God to exist; therefore, God cannot.

All I can say is reading this book made me more committed to being a believer in the one true God.

How to Ruin Rebuilding

The New York Yankees were supposed to be in a rebuilding season. After seeing several baseball giants retire in the last few years, it was time to build up another team worthy of the New York pride. It would take some work, probably a few years before they started playing big again.

As part of rebuilding, the team signed on Aaron Judge. The 6′ 7” player had never seen action on the major league scene before playing with the Yankees, but the managers thought he had potential. Potential went on to hit over 50 home runs in this, his rookie season.

The team may or may not have taken a little initiative from their newbie player. Each player did his job, and that catapulted the Yankees all the way to the Wild Card game. Even though their team average was good, few people expected the rebuilding Yankees to beat the Minnesota Twins and win the coveted Wild Card place to advance into the American League Division Series (ALDS).

But they did. And the Twins went back home in defeat. New York’s rebuilding season was on the brink of ruin since the team had pushed its way into the post season and a chance at the World Series.

In the ALDS, the Yankees promptly lost two games to the Cleveland Indians. And who could be surprised? The Indians were at the top of their game, coming off a fantastic season. Now facing Game 3 and elimination, the Yanks tightened their belts and came to the field with grim faces. The game ran scoreless, with the Yankees and the Indians both fighting hard. That is, until Yankee hitter Greg Bird whacked a ball into the stands and then flew home to bring New York to a winning 1-0 score.

After that, Game 4 didn’t pose too much danger of elimination.

Game 5 decided which team was to advance to the American League Championship Series (ALCS). Didi Gregorious stepped up to bat at the game’s beginning — and ripped a home run off into the stands. Play continued, but no other runs were scored until Didi found himself up to bat again, facing down the same opposing pitcher. With the cool he’d exhibited the first time, he again whacked a homer past the outfielders’ heads and saw another teammate score a run. The Indians as a whole still had 0 runs to their name. Didi on his own, however, now had 3.

And just like that, the New York Yankees swept up the win and took the series. And the team that was supposed to be still rebuilding went on to face the Houston Astros in the ALCS — a tougher game series requiring a team to win four complete games, not merely three.

If the Astros expected to win the first two games, they were not only skilled in baseball but prophecy as well. Game 3 should have been an easy win as well, but the Yanks rallied again. Houston couldn’t stop the number of hits against their star pitcher. Aaron Judge’s home run devastated the Astros to an embarrassing 8-1 loss.

Game 4 — again, the Yankees won. It took Houston a bit to eventually find its grit, but they did and managed to win both games 5 and 6. The Astros advanced to the World Series and the Yankees went back to New York.

What a shame for the Yankees. They had planned a great rebuilding season, but they had ruined that plan by getting within one series of the ultimate baseball prize — the World Series. I’m not sure if anyone told them, but that’s not how a rebuilding season works.