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Monday, November 30, 2009

Books - Part 1

Yesterday morning at church I had a delightful conversation with someone in between services. We were talking about possible Christmas presents, and she shared how her husband has been "threatening" that he'll get her a Kindle, knowing full well of her deep love for books, and how that gizmo would be anathema to her. I had one of those "me too!" moments, and we chattered on top of each other about how we love all things bookish... owning books, reading books, arranging books, writing in books, shopping for books (used ones, of course). I decided to be an English major in college for that very reason. I had no aspirations of writing The Great American Novel. I simply shook at the realization that if I majored in English it would be my job to read books. It seemed too good to be true!

Also, earlier this week I heard a podcast on NPR titled Books That Changed America. In it an author named Jay Parini was interviewed about books he felt had changed the course of our country. I don't have a lot to argue with in terms of list. You can hear the interview yourself and decide. But the whole idea got me thinking on a smaller scale. What books have changed my life?

Once I started thinking about it, it was easy for me to quickly come up with my list. I invite you to do the same. Here are mine as they came to me. I am also not listing in the order I read them.

In fact, once I got going I realized that I better split this list up into two entries. Waaayyy too much reading at one sitting.

My Books, Part 1:
  1. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen. One of the few books I can read over and over. It is always satisfying. Her understated but spot-on descriptions, her delightful understanding of women and the ways we work internally and externally, and her own real story, all keep me coming back. I took a senior seminar in college with a syllabus that simply required us to read everything she'd ever written. It was so easy to be an English major -- it didn't feel like work!
  2. The Spirit, The Church & the World by John Stott. I have probably read every book Stott has written. In a Time magazine poll, Billy Graham listed him as the most influential evangelical of the 20th century. His prose is clear but not dry, his logic is precise yet also passionate, and his approach is methodical and accessible. I have truly been tutored by Stott throughout my years of vocational ministry. This book listed here was the first big A-HA! book that I read in seminary. It's a commentary on the Book of Acts, and I remember thinking as I read it, This is fascinating, I can't wait to read more, and oh my goodness, I GET it!
  3. Mere Christianity / The Great Divorce / The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The summer after my freshman year of college I got a job at the U.S. Geological Survey's western headquarters, where I literally typed for 8 hours a day in a windowless room. I knew no one else at these offices, so I decided to spend each lunch break reading these C.S. Lewis books. Up to the point I read them, I would say my faith was pretty simplistic and immature. I decided to follow Christ at age 15 for a bunch of 15-year old reasons that were all valid, but they held little weight as I got older. When I read these books by Lewis, I was launched on a whole new trajectory. It sounds like a cliche, but I was never the same. Lewis put some meat on the bones of my faith, and I grew up.
  4. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Enchanting. It's one of the few books I've read that literally makes me laugh out loud at times. It's the most entertaining how-to book you'll ever read. It's often rather crass, but not gratuitously so. Lamott's voice is always authentic. Her combination of writerly insight and spiritual honesty is totally winsome. This book also made me believe I could actually write. I had been so paralyzed by the I'm-not-sure-anyone-would-ever-want-to-read-what-I-write fears that I never had the guts to start. Lamott made me realize I could write because I just had to -- it was dying to come out of me.
  5. Charlie & the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. This book unlocked the world of imagination for me. It was read to us in our 2nd grade class by my teacher, whose name was Mrs. Woolwine (is that a great name or what?!) I received the book as a gift that year as well, and loved picturing Veruca Salt and August Gloop and the golden ticket and the chocolate river. Glorious. Movies have attempted to capture this movie, but I like the version in my head much better.
  6. Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. This is a can't-put-it-down account of the Lewis & Clark expedition. I read it during a long camping vacation in a national park, which made it all the more interesting. This book hooked me on travel and "extreme" narratives -- I went on to read Into Thin Air, Endurance, Into the Wild, My First Summer in the Sierras, among others.
  7. An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. This is a writer of uncommon gifts. Like Anne Lamott, her writing sometimes causes me to laugh out loud. But where Lamott's writing is like comfort food, Dillard's writing for me is more like listening to a symphony. It's got so many layers. It is so precise. Her language is stunning. I often have to read sentences twice. She makes me pause at times because her imagery is so powerful, and her thoughts even more breathtaking. She is philosophical and lyrical and spiritual and a remarkable storyteller. I want to grow up and be Annie Dillard. P.S. Another of her books, The Writing Life, could easily be on this list.
  8. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. How I wish this book didn't speak to me so much. I have walked through terminal illness with more than one beloved friend. This book is a slow start, and I found their beginning love story a bit mushy and over the top. But as Vanauken describes their growing relationship with Christ and his wife's battle with cancer, I was completely drawn in. Tears poured down my face as I got near the end. I'm seeing a pattern here -- when a book elicits genuine emotional response, and not just the warm enjoyment of a good read, I can't forget it.
  9. The New Yorker magazine. Sure sure, not a book, I know. But oh, the writing is so glorious. Their reviews of books, films and general culture have also prompted me to read stuff I never would have looked at. The New Yorker is classy, creative and funny, and the topics covered are expansive. There is solid journalism and extensive coverage. I don't always agree with the perspective of the writers, but I'm nearly always challenged to quantify my own by the discussion. I especially love their articles on the environment, and their interviews of writers. The gauge I use when reading a New Yorker article of some breadth and depth is not Do I care about this enough to read it? but instead, Does this article make me care enough about it to keep reading? Rarely am I disappointed.
  10. The Bible by God. I did not grow up reading the Bible. When I was 15, I asked my mom to buy me one, and she was less than excited. She bought me a Living New Testament from Gemco, most likely from one of those racks near the checkout, where they also have self-help and "Dummies" books. A less than auspicious start for me in the Good Book department. When I received it, I just opened the cover and started reading -- and the content grabbed me. By the sixth chapter of the Book of Matthew I was sold. Yes, I got very confused along the way (I really did not get how the "plot" kept repeating itself through Matthew, Mark, Luke and John...) but sought out guidance with my questions. Thirty-three years later, I still read it nearly every day. That's something.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nutrition Notebook #2

I promise, my current food plan will not be the only thing I talk about here... but I appreciate how many friends have written emails with encouragement, questions, recipes, mockery... I love all of it. Yeah yeah, even the mockery.

Just so we're clear, I'm not necessarily turning pure vegetarian or vegan. I haven't bought a Vitamix. I'm not living off the land. Don't get me wrong, I am open to much (some?) of it -- but I'm also not planting my flag anywhere quite yet. This is a month-to-month process to establish a baseline for my cholesterol, and then go from there to figure out how I can manage my nutrition, blood chemistry and hormone levels. I also need to kickstart my metabolism, which appears to have been suppressed by one of my long-term medications. And daily soy lattes... (*sigh*)

The no-no's list is not pretty - for this month I'm not eating:
  • poultry
  • red meat
  • diet soda
  • sweeteners
  • soy
  • dairy
  • bread
  • crackers
  • cookies
And only 1 cuppa joe per day. After a month we'll measure my cholesterol, and go from there.

I'm not suffering. I am full to bursting after dinner especially. That could be because I have to eat a POUND of cooked vegetables. Hmm. Protein comes from nuts, beans and fish. Here's a list below of some of the things I've eaten these last few days...

2 Eggs
1 medium sized chopped onion
1 small sized chopped tomato
2 chopped green chili (or just a little hot sauce)
Salt to taste
1/2 tsp Garam Masala
A pinch of curry powder
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp olive oil

  • Beat the eggs thoroughly in a bowl.
  • Add the onions, tomatoes and the green chillies. mix thoroughly.
  • Add the garam masala powder, curry powder and salt. mix well.
  • Heat the oil in a non stick pan and add the cumin seeds.
  • Fry for a few seconds over a medium flame.
  • Pour the egg mixture and cook on both sides till light brown in colour. (reduce the flame) serve hot.
1 spaghetti squash, halved lengthwise and seeded
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes (or 1 can diced tomatoes, drained)
3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese (I had to leave this part out...)
3 tablespoons sliced black olives
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease a baking sheet.
  • Place spaghetti squash cut sides down on the prepared baking sheet, and bake 30-40 minutes in the preheated oven, or until a sharp knife can be inserted with only a little resistance. Remove squash from oven, and set aside to cool enough to be easily handled.
  • Meanwhile, heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Saute onion in oil until tender. Add garlic, and saute for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, and cook only until tomatoes are warm.
  • Use a large spoon to scoop the stringy pulp from the squash, and place in a medium bowl.
  • Toss with the sauteed vegetables, feta cheese, olives, and basil. Serve warm.
Lunch is a BIG BIG salad each day, so I found this dressing. Poured it over butter lettuce, pomegranate seeds, diced olives, 1/2 avocado, 1 oz pistachios, diced green onion, 6 mushrooms. See, I'm not suffering!


2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey, more if desired (I used 2 tsp agave nectar -- not completely following my rules...)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice, more if desired
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, more if desired
1/4 teaspoon pepper (freshly ground if available), more if desired

  • Place a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seeds and toast just until they begin to take on some color and become fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.
  • Roughly grind the seeds using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, or in a mixing bowl using the bottom of a measuring cup.
  • In a mixing bowl, whisk in the oil, honey and lime with the cumin seeds until all of the ingredients are emulsified. Whisk in the salt and pepper, then taste and adjust the seasoning and flavoring if desired.
  • This makes a generous three-fourths cup dressing, which will keep, covered and refrigerated, up to 1 week.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Nutrition Notebook #1

(Skip this if you're not super interested in lots of talk about having to change the way one eats. It's my entire life at the moment. Boring, I know.)

Well well, I made a big step yesterday. Still sort of spinning from it. Two years ago my doctor advised me to visit a nutritionist to think through my "issues" -- cholesterol (100% affected by what I eat - SHOOT), digestion (a nice word for a not-so-nice situation at times), weight, acid reflux. Not to mention being a woman of a certain age... ahem. Rhymes with "shmoremones."

So yeah, didn't do that. Tried to just push through "it," ignore "it," though I wasn't sure what "it" was.

Of late however, I have become more aware of needing to figure "it" out. Perhaps this is awareness is coming from my recent trend of being a grown up when it comes to my health... For the last year I have learned how to eat my vegetables. I play well with others (most of the time). I exercise and get plenty of rest. And for the last 6 months I have been gluten-free to help with my "digestion" concerns, and that has worked very well in that arena. Not only are my bowels happy, but my acid reflux has disappeared. And before I completely sound like an infomercial, I will say that my allergies have diminished greatly as well.

So what's the problem? Is "it" still there?

I realized that once a day I was having an "oh-my-gosh-if-I-don't-eat-something-right-now-I-might-hurt-someone" moment. I'd never experienced that before. And that started after going off of gluten, which was otherwise an utterly helpful change. But when I went for my annual physical, my bloodwork was good. Outstanding, actually. Not that I'm bragging. But my internal pom-poms had a little party.

We could also mention that I am sturdy and low to the ground. I am not a delicate flower.

So I went back to my usual approach of pushing through "it." Yet last week I thought, Hmm, perhaps I could just this once admit that I'm a little lost here when it comes to eating and such. Perhaps the internet doesn't know everything.... perhaps "it" needs to be named.

I pulled out the referral from the doctor, sighed, and made the call. Yesterday I was told that:
  • I have really good kidney, gall bladder, liver function. Blood sugar is great.
  • blood pressure - outstanding. Exercise works.
  • my cholesterol is 200. My good cholesterol is 65. I don't really know what that means, but we need to pay attention to the first one.
  • certain meds I'm taking might be supressing my thyroid, though my levels look good
  • soy milk isn't a smart idea, for several reasons (but my tum tum can't really do milk. I feel so high maintenance)
  • chicken is more of a lower-cholesterol food than actually low-cholesterol (WHAT??)
  • the best source of protein is raw nuts
  • cheese is not my friend. Nor is Diet Coke.
  • coffee has to be limited to once a day. Not that I'm a big guzzler, but it's more than that at times.
Those last few were not enjoyable things to hear. I already eat lots of vegetables. And now I am going to eat MORE. And nuts nuts nuts are entering my life.

So I'm basically going to become a leafy green vegetable-eating squirrel -- tooting along due to a slight increase in bean intake too. Yeah yeah, I'll be eating fruit too. This month is going to be rough as we establish a new baseline from which to work. Then we will slowly build back up and see what works in terms of cholesterol, metabolism, etc.

Thus the graphic: I'm HAPPY I'm doing this, because I believe certain things that need to improve will improve. I'm SAD because good night nurse, it's the day before Thanksgiving, and I'm entering the holidays, where I essentially am not supposed to eat anything that is holiday-ish. I will miss cheese and chicken. At least for awhile. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Do not forget our friends in China

I receive a weekly update on how brothers & sisters in Christ are suffering around the world. Today's post especially hit me:


Not only has US President Obama's visit to China thrown the spotlight on the authoritarian state's human rights record, it has also highlighted the degree to which China is ascendant. As the US desperately needs Chinese co-operation on climate change, trade, global economics and nuclear proliferation, it will not risk irritating Chinese leaders by criticising China's human rights record. Christian leaders who had been hoping for progress on religious freedom have been disappointed. Large unregistered churches (i.e. not controlled by the Communist Party) in Shanghai and Beijing were targeted with repressive measures leading up to President Obama's visits there. China has the upper hand -- and knows it. Persecution is thus likely to escalate as the regime does whatever it takes to ensure its survival in the face of rising social disaffection. Please pray.

Look for more specifics here. Harrowing and humbling, as I consider my own comfort and peace. May we not forget them.

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My Heart is Squishy for Squash

I must be a grown up now. I not only like most vegetables... I LOVE them. I crave them. I look forward to eating them. Heavens, what's happened to me?! I was the kid who hated carrots passionately (ok, so... I still do hate raw or cooked carrots by themselves) and successfully lived my entire childhood never ever having eaten brussel sprouts, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, turnips, radishes, any squash other than zucchini... the list goes on and on. We basically grew up on Birdseye frozen peas, corn and beans. Didn't everyone?

The two crispers in my fridge can barely close each week now with all my blessed vegetables. The other night I made this stew. I got the recipe from Fairview Gardens... who apparently got it from Bon Appetit magazine... who perhaps got it from Epicurious? I wonder if there are any truly original recipes anymore.

All I know is that this was DELICIOUS. Insanely so.

Winter Squash & Chicken Stew with Indian Spices (Bon Appétit | November 1995)

Yield: Serves 6


2 teaspoons olive oil
6 chicken thighs, skin removed (I used 2 cage free chicken breasts -- but if you don’t eat meat, feel free to omit)
1 1/3 cups chopped onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder (I like a little more curry and something spicy…)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (this is the key ingredient, in my opinion)
4 cups 1-inch pieces peeled butternut or acorn squash (I roasted an acorn squash for 45 minutes before putting it in... cut in half, brush with olive oil and bake at 350)
2 cups 1-inch pieces peeled russet potatoes (I nuked these in the microwave for 3 minutes beforehand)
1 cup canned low-salt chicken broth (veggie broth is okay too)
1 14 1/2- to 16-ounce can diced tomatoes with liquid
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro


Heat 1 teaspoon oil in Dutch oven (or large soup pot) over medium-high heat. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Add to Dutch oven; sauté until brown on all sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer to plate.

Heat remaining 1 teaspoon oil in same pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté until golden, about 5 minutes. Add curry powder, cumin, and cinnamon; stir 1 minute. Return chicken to pot. Add squash, potatoes, broth and tomatoes. Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Uncover and simmer until chicken and potatoes are cooked through and liquid is slightly reduced, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with cilantro. (I liked it topped with cashews and yogurt)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Vote on this Quote

Read this today. Agree or disagree? Why or why not?
The word of God has been so thoroughly tamed that as peddled in the churches there is nothing scandalous, strenuous, or revolutionary about it. It is not even difficult. It is easier to join a Christian church than it is to join Rotary. Whereas in some eras of its history, Christianity was threatened by persecution, in our own American culture, it faces an opposite threat which lies in its very success. Christianity is dying, not of persecution or neglect, but of respectability.
... W. Waldo Beach (1916-2000), The Christian Life

Friday, November 13, 2009

Fall Checklist ... and a New Use for Butternut Squash

I've had a fun and eventful fall already... knockin' down lots o' stuff:
  • Returned to Providence Hall -- check
  • Worked on consulting projects in So Cal, Illinois, and Washington -- check
  • Used video conferencing nearly every day (Skype, iChat, GChat, iCarrier Pigeon, you name it) -- check
  • Had a perfect vacation on a lake in Olympic National Park -- check
  • Went to U2 Concert at Rose Bowl -- check
  • Met Rick Warren -- check
  • Annual flu shot -- ouch & check
  • Helped the Smelleys move into their new, post-Tea Fire home -- super double extra check
  • H1N1 flu shot -- check (oink oink)
  • Have been eating lots of pomegranates because it's fall and they are pretty but Lord they are messy -- check
  • Registered for Urbana 09 -- check
  • Became an exhibitor at Urbana 09 for Eden Reforestation Projects -- check
  • Started leading a Bible study for new believers for Free Methodist Santa Barbara -- check
I'm grateful for new experiences and relationships, variety, risk, even challenges.

Meanwhile, the ol' standards continue... bike riding, soy lattes in the morning, reading every free moment, NPR podcasts, and my new love since my sabbatical last year - cooking! I test drove another recipe tonight... tasty tasty! I got the recipe from Bicycling magazine, of all places! If you need a new spin on butternut squash, go crazy. It was comfort food tonight.

Butternut Squash Enchiladas
1 large butternut squash
2 tablespoons cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon ancho chili powder
2 tablespoons diced roasted chili peppers
1 tablespoon green onion, sliced
1 tablespoon cilantro (wish I'd put in more)
Pinch of salt
Four 6-inch corn tortillas
1 cup enchilada sauce
1/2 cup shredded
Monterey Jack cheese

Halve the squash lengthwise and remove seeds. Bake at 350 degrees until soft, about one hour. Cool. Scrape out the flesh and drain in a colander, using a few plates on top to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. In a bowl, mix squash with cream cheese, cumin, chili powder, roasted chili peppers, green onion, cilantro and salt. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Scoop the filling onto the tortillas and roll them up. Place them seam-side down on an oiled pan. Cover with enchilada sauce and top with cheese. Make sure the tortillas are completely covered with sauce so they don't dry out. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees until the cheese melts and turns brown and the filling is hot, approximately 15 to 20 minutes. Serves four.

Calories per serving 276
Fat 8 grams
Carbs 48g
Protein 7g

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Night Time Radio

Often, as I’m getting ready for bed, I turn on the radio. In a world of iPods, plasma screens, laptops and SurroundSound, it feels a little quaint and old-fashioned to do so. Perhaps that’s why I do it. It feels simple and quiet. It makes the world feel subdued and settled somehow. I hear the news of the day from the authoritative, level radio voices, and it helps me turn my mind off from my own day. Strange, I suppose.

I have faint memories from growing up of hearing the radio on in my parents’ room as I walked upstairs to bed. My dad listened to talk radio at night sometimes, or sports.

This past Sunday night, I caught a few minutes of Bob Edwards’ Weekend on NPR. Near the end of his shows he plays old recordings from a series that was on in the fifties. You might have heard of it. It was called “This I Believe.”

This particular episode really hit me. It was like I had my own personal radio station, and no one could possibly be hearing this broadcast except me. The words were, to steal C.S. Lewis’ phrase, like “God’s megaphone.” They really got my attention. Rather than do my get-ready-for-bed puttering, I leaned against my bed and just gave my entire attention to it. Tell me if you hear something as well.

But before you jump there, do this. Fight the temptation to read the script on the website; rather, just listen. Hit the play button, then close your eyes.

It is incredibly moving, fantastically poignant and lean. Sit close and hear his voice – you'll hear the slight catches at times, the pauses, the marvelous East Coast accent.

There were so many arresting sentences and phrases:
I was born to see and experience the love of God…

What if I do start through habit and finish in a half dream?

I believe there is nothing passive yielding my will to God’s.

It keeps me very busy … using the faith He gave me to pass up self-satisfaction for doing something I want to do anyway.

I noticed something: you may notice something quite wonderful in most everybody you meet, even in those who annoy you or frighten you. But each, in his way, is truth–neither to be rejected nor run from.

If you believe “Thy will be done,” there is less temptation to run away from yourself. You can’t escape, anyway.
What a dramatically different world we live in now. Nothing like this would be on the radio or primetime TV today. Each sentence is so dense. It will take me a long time to wade through it. I am left wondering so much about what he is saying... and not saying.

And oh, what a name: Robbins Milbank. It sounds more like a character from a Faulkner novel rather than a real person. We know so little about him. But I hear the grief and years of life in his voice. It gives me pause. It honors my own suffering of these past years, and the suffering of those close to me whom I love. Life is hard. I am so glad I am not alone.