Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Return to Modesty

I recently read A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. A friend lent it to me quite a while ago actually, and it was in my ever growing pile of books to read for longer than I'd like to admit. I am fascinated by non-fiction, but will almost always pick up a novel or a memoir over anything else if given the choice.

A Return to Modesty is a cultural history of women's sexual modesty. It was published in 1999 (which seems like it shouldn't be more than a decade ago), but it is still pertinent. Shalit sees herself as falling somewhere in between "conservatives" and "feminists" (her terms) on the issue of modesty. She believes in equality of the sexes, but thinks society has warped this to mean that the two sexes should be the same. My pastor lent me several books when Jason and I got married that addressed differences between the sexes. Men and women are equal, but we are not the same. Certainly all members of one sex cannot be painted with the same brush, but there are traits that tend to belong to each males and females. Unfortunately, I think that some of the traditionally female traits have been seen as worth less than traditional male traits, so women have felt the need to act like men in order to succeed.

Shalit sees this need for sameness as taking away from women's ability to be feminine, including exercising modesty in dress and in actions. Revealing clothing and premarital sex are now the norm. Shalit connects this to problems in our society such as harassment, stalking, and rape (which made the first section of the book, "The Problem," difficult for me to read). Shalit says that when she was in high school, being modest wasn't cool. I think that often this is still the case, which breaks my heart.

"Respect for modesty made women powerful," Shalit says. "Women who dress and act 'modestly' conduct themselves in ways that shroud their sexuality in mystery. They live in a way that makes womanliness more a transcendent, implicit quality than a crude, explicit quality." Modesty in dress doesn't mean that you can't be fashionable, and modesty in action doesn't mean that you must be a prude or a bore. I feel that modesty is really about self-respect, and I like the way that Shalit phrases this idea: "So one of modesty's paradoxes, then, is that it is usually a reflection of self-worth, of having such a high opinion of yourself that you don't need to boast or put your body on display for all to see."

A Return to Modesty isn't a page-turner, but it is interesting, and I think that Wendy Shalit raised good questions and made interesting points. And, I think, she showed that modesty is sexy.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Water for Elephants

My dear friend Emily and I decided to start intentionally reading the same books and chat on the phone about them. We live about 250 miles away from each other, so we don't see each other often and thought this would be a fun way to keep in touch. (I wouldn't call it a book club because club makes me think of more than two people, and who get to meet in person.)

For our first book she suggested Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, so I checked it out of the library. I had started reading it once before but didn't get very far into it when I put it down because it seemed too sad for the mood I was in at that moment. The book is a bit dark, but it's fantastic, and as most of it takes place during the Great Depression and a murder occurs in the prologue, dark is appropriate.

In the first chapter of the book Jacob Jankowski says that he is "ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other." He is depressed that his children placed him in a nursing home and reflects back on the younger years of his life with The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob was the show's vet, and worked with the circus's menagerie, including their elephant, Rosie. Working for his charismatic but sometimes violent boss, August, could be dangerous, especially when Jacob fell in love with August's wife, Marlena, an equestrian in the show.

Circus life was gritty, which is why this book is shelved in the Teen or Adult section of the library. Gruen did extensive research about circus life, and this book transported me to the circus train in the early 1930s. In an interview, Gruen said that many of the incidents in the book actually happened; she discovered them in her research and felt they were too good not to include in the story. I highly recommend it and suggest reading it before the movie comes out next year.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Going Green/Back to School

This is my article for the September issue of my church's newsletter, the Spire. I should have posted it here sooner.

A new school year is about to begin – new teachers, new experiences, and, a chance to take a few new steps to care for God’s creation.

For many, the back-to-school season means one thing: shopping. The average family with school-aged children will spend almost $600 on back-to-school purchases this year. I admit that in K-12 I looked forward to new clothes and school supplies each year (especially the school supplies, a love I inherited from my dad). I’m not saying that you shouldn’t purchase anything in preparation for a new school year, but consider being conscious of the impact that your purchases can have on the earth. Try to buy school supplies (pens, pencils, etc.) made from recycled materials, especially notebook paper. Each ton of recycled paper can save 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4000 kilowatts of energy, and 7000 gallons of water. (And don’t forget to recycle your old paper in the bin in our north parking lot!)

Also consider using reusable supplies. Mechanical pencils and refillable pens work just as well (if not better than) the disposable versions. A large amount of waste is created each year from disposable lunch packaging as well as from office supplies. Switch to reusable lunch boxes, utensils, napkins, and food and drink containers to save approximately 67 pounds of waste per student each school year.

A small step to take that can make a big impact is for students to ride the bus instead of getting a ride in a car. Though the average school bus is not good for the earth, one bus is better than the 72 cars it would take to drive each of those students individually.

These small steps may not seem like much, but Psalm 24:1 says that “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it,” and I think God appreciates every step we make to care for his world.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Free Click-to-Donate

I'm a big fan of click-to-donate websites. They are just what they sound like -- a simple click of the mouse creates donations from sponsors to organizations that support charities. You can click once each day on each cause, and it only takes a few seconds.

My favorite click-to-donate site is I found it sometime in the late 90s, and I've been clicking ever since. There is a lot to this site, a lot more than I've explored: news, e-cards, social networking, and easy actions that can be taken to help the world. Care2's current click to donate causes are children, rainforests, big cats, breast cancer, pets, seals, oceans, primates, global warming, stopping violence, and wolves.

A similar site is the Greater Good's Click to Give. On this site you can click to support charities related to hunger, breast cancer, literacy, child health, rainforests, and animal rescue. This site has a shop that sells clothes, jewelry, home ware, and other items. Proceeds from all purchases also go to charity. They now have an iPhone app called Touch to Give based on Click to Give.

This site lists other click-to-donate pages. They're a quick and easy way to make a difference. I try to remember to click every day. It is a small thing, but it adds up and does help to make a difference.

I've been thinking that it is time for me to do more than just the small things, though. And I think it involves a trip to Haiti....

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Interfaith Harmony

Both my husband and a good friend blogged about this recently, so I won't say much, but I've been planning to blog something about the hoopla surrounding the proposed mosque (which is actually a cultural center) at Ground Zero (though it is actually two blocks away). I read
this Q & A to better inform myself. The name for the center was to be the Cordoba House, after a medieval Spanish town where Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in a harmonious interfaith community. The name was changed to Park51 (after the location) following criticism of the name Cordoba House. I don't understand why anyone would object to a name, or a center, that encourages interfaith harmony. It deeply saddens me that misunderstanding about Islam leads people to believe that all Muslims are hateful and violent, when that is far from the truth. This analogy about Islamic extremism seems shocking, but it is truthful and important to remember:

Islamic Extremism is to Islam as The KKK is to Christianity.

One of the founders of the center said, "we want to provide a counter momentum against extremism. We want peace, and we want it where it matters most. This is where it matters most." How can we argue with that?

What Type Am I?

I got What Type Am I? Discover Who You Really Are by Renee Baron out of the library before I went on vacation and read it at the beach. I love personality theories; they're fascinating to me. Baron's book is an easy-to-access version of David Keirsey's Please Understand Me II, which was based on the classic Meyers-Briggs Type IndicatorPlease Understand Me II was my first introduction to personality types when I borrowed it off of my dad's bookshelf when I was in junior high. It is a fascinating book, but long and dense at points. Baron's What Type Am I? is much lighter and easier to read, complete with silly but helpful comics to explain the different personality types. Baron also includes a sorter to help the reader identify his/her type.

Meyers-Briggs believed that "people are born with preferences ... ways in which we naturally 'prefer' to do certain things." Their indicator lists four pairs of opposite preferences (from Baron's book):

Extroverting (E) and Introverting (I)
This pair refers to where we prefer to focus our attention and what energizes us. People who prefer Extroverting get their energy from the outer world of people, activities, and things. People who prefer Introverting get their energy from their inner world of ideas, impressions and thoughts. 

Sensing (S) and iNtuiting (N)
This pair refers to how we prefer to take in information. People who prefer Sensing pay attention to information taken in directly through their five senses and focus on what is or what was. People who prefer iNtuiting pay attention to their sixth sense, to hunches and insights, and they focus on what might be.

Thinking (T) and Feeling (F)
This pair refers to how we evaluate information to make decisions. People who prefer Thinking make decisions in a logical, objective way. Those who prefer Feeling make decisions in a personal, values-oriented way.

Judging (J) and Perceiving (P)
This pair refers to our lifestyle orientation. People who prefer Judging tend to live in an organized, planned way. People who prefer Perceiving tend to live in a spontaneous, flexible way.

I think that the words they chose can be misunderstood today. If you prefer Judging, it does not mean that you are judgmental, and contrary to common opinion, extroversion is not synonymous with being outgoing, nor is introversion synonymous with being shy. It is also important to remember that everyone uses all of these options, but most people simply feel more comfortable in one option or the other.

Baron pointed out something that is very interesting to me: some people do not feel comfortable with their natural preferences because they go against cultural conditioning. In the US, "women are often socialized to behave like Feelers and men are often socialized to behave like Thinkers," which could lead to men and woman who prefer their non-culturally conditioned option to feel as though something is wrong with them. This can also happen if one child has a different preference from the rest of his/her family.

I know that some people feel that personality sorters try to put them into a box, but, to quote Elizabeth Bennet at the end of Pride and Prejudice, "my feelings are quite the opposite." Learning that I am an ENFJ has helped me to learn so much about myself. It has helped me to understand my motivations, which have helped me to improve my life and my relationships with others.

To learn more, read the book or even check out What's Your Personality Type? on Blogthings. It is actually quite accurate... and lots of fun!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Is Being Rich a Sin? -- A Response

My friend Ian Gallo wrote this blog post entitled "Is Being Rich a Sin?", and asked for my thoughts (and then said it is ok for me the share my response to him on my blog). I've been thinking and praying about what Ian wrote. I struggle with many of the same questions, and am not exactly sure how to respond. This is an emotional issue for me, which makes it difficult for me to put my thoughts into words. I don't feel that I can give answers, but I will share some of my thoughts and struggles.

I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for Ian to go from a trip to Haiti to Upper St. Clair (a wealthy suburb of Pittsburgh, PA). I've never been to a developing nation. I've barely lived outside of the suburbs of western PA. I did an internship for a year working with low-income older adults in East Liberty (a low-income section of Pittsburgh, PA), and it broke my heart. I started struggling with the issue of money at a young age. My parents tell me that once when I was in early elementary school, we were driving around to look at Christmas lights, and I went off on a rant about how the houses we passed were too big and people shouldn't spend their money that way. But, how many toys did I have? The answer is a lot. 

I have never known what it is to go without. As a twenty-something grad student in the early years of my marriage, I've had times where money was very tight, but by American standards. We've had times where we needed to wait a few days until a paycheck came in to do a big order at the grocery store, but we would never go without food. If things were really tight, we could cancel our internet service, my cell phone, or Netflix to save money. We have parents, friends, and a church community who could care for us if we needed them to. I've worried about how to manage money and how to pay all of our bills, but I've never worried about going hungry.

I have been working on lessening my materialistic nature. I have never been one to purchase expensive things (my mom taught me at a young age how to be a bargain shopper), but I used to shop the sales racks quite often. But, just because I found a sweater on sale doesn't mean that I needed another sweater. I used to buy a lot of stuff -- a lot of stuff I didn't need. I've been thinking about that a lot lately: what do I really need? I've been trying to find a balance. I do not like how much stuff I used to have. I don't like that I used to buy things all of the time. I don't like that shopping was an activity for me. (I won't get started on the term "retail therapy.") So, I rarely go to stores anymore. I take myself out of the temptation.

"Need" is difficult to define. Compared to the people in Haiti, I don't need most of the things that I have; I only need the very basics. To work at a library and go to grad school, I need more things (appropriate work clothes, transportation, a computer, and internet access). I strongly feel that God has called me to school and library work, and I could not do those things if I sold everything I own. So, my level of need goes up. But of course I still completely surpass that. My biggest struggle is determining what is something that I am blessed to have and what is just unnecessary.

I found this Bible passage and have been thinking about it:

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. -- Deuteronomy 8:10-14

I think there is a difference between being rich (having a lot of money) and being covetous ("inordinately or wrongly desirous of wealth or possessions; greedy" according to I see this passage as warning us that having money or possessions (being rich) can lead to pride and greed -- forgetting that all we have is a blessing from God. And that is the true problem. A rich person can have a pure, God-filled heart. A person can have a lot of money but live simply. My mom worked with a man who is a millionaire, but she only found that out after knowing him for years. He lived in a nice house, but not a mansion, and wore suits but wasn't flashy. He was a devout Jew and gave a lot of money each year to his synagogue and charities.

What I am not sure of is how do we know where to draw the line of acceptability? How do we know what is ok to have and what isn't? I think I am just repeating some of Ian's questions. I don't want to just defend living the lifestyle I want, but I think the state of our hearts in relationship to our wealth and possessions is the most important thing, and a desire to do more, care more, and love more, with everything we are and everything we have.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Red Pyramid

I just read Rick Riordan's new book, The Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid. I was on a long hold list at the library for the book, which wasn't surprising because there seem to be hold lists for all of Riordan's books right now. The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is very popular, and I read it soon after starting to work at the library at the beginning of this year. It's a fantastic fantasy series (Can you do that to the English language? Fantastic fantasy?) revolving around the Greek gods of Olympus.

The Red Pyramid is the first book in the trilogy The Kane Chronicles, which are set in the 2010s, but include themes from ancient Egypt. Sadie and Carter Kane are siblings who have been raised apart after their mother died -- Sadie in London with their grandparents and Carter traveling around the world with their Egyptologist father, Dr. Julius Kane. The book starts with a biennial visit between Sadie, Carter, and their father. Dr. Kane takes them to the British Museum, where he accidentally causes and explosion and releases Set (the ancient Egyptian god of chaos), who "banishes him to oblivion and forces the children to flee for their lives." Sadie and Carter embark on a journey to stop Set, save their father, and uncover the secrets of their family history.

The book is written as a transcript of a recording made by Sadie and Carter. It mainly reads as a normal story but is occasionally interrupted by Sadie and Cater's sibling banter. As with the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Riordan's writing in The Red Pyramid is witty and at times laugh-out-loud funny. I learned a lot about ancient Egypt, but the information was tied in with the story, which kept it from feeling like a text book. The second book will be released in the spring of 2011 and the third in the spring of 2012. I can't wait!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Homophobia Is Gay

Last week Proposition 8 was overturned in California. Prop 8 was a ballot proposition, which amended the California Constitution to outlaw gay marriage (more info here). Depending on the outcome of the appeals process, the Prop 8 situation may go to the Supreme Court. If that happens, I hope that its unconstitutionality is upheld, setting a standard for our other 49 states. I just don't understand what the big deal is about gay people getting married.

I've heard that gay marriage is going to ruin families in America (and many other claims as seen in this video from 2008 after same-sex marriage was made legal in Massachusetts). This argument doesn't make sense to me. It might if gay people were inherently bad parents, but this study and knowing caring, competant gay people tell me that this isn't true.

And then the Bible is used as an argument against not just gay marriage, but gays in general. The verse typically cited is Leviticus 18:22, which says, "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable." This verse doesn't address sexual orientation. It says that men should not have sex with other men. But... This verse comes from a section of the Bible with many rules that seem to no longer be applicable, as seen in the examples in this speech from The West Wing:

President Josiah Bartlet: I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination. 
Dr. Jenna Jacobs: I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yes, it does. Leviticus. 
Dr. Jenna Jacobs: 18:22. 
President Josiah Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police? Here's one that's really important 'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? 

It saddens me that some Christians cling to Leviticus 18:22 and let themselves be filled with hate for people who are gay. 
When Jesus is asked which commandment is greatest (Matthew 22:37-39), he responded by saying, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." The second most important thing we are to do in our lives is to love our neighbors as our selves. All of our neighbors. Including our gay neighbors.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Zoe's Herbs & Teas

I had a wonderful experience today at a tea shop in the West End of Pittsburgh called Zoe's Herbs & Teas. I am volunteering at the Allegheny County Library Association (ACLA), which is right down the street. Zoe's has a comfortable, inviting atmosphere. Dried herbs (in picture above), herb plants, tea accessories, and kitchen antiques are for sale decorate the shop. There are also some books to read and a few games to play. And of course, there is tea -- many types of tea! I got peach iced tea. I also got cheddar-tomato-bacon quiche, a salad, and split a basil brownie with Charity (the woman I'm volunteering with). The herbs in the baked goods seemed a bit odd to me at first, but they are actually quite refreshing. It wasn't a strong basil flavor, and if I wasn't told it was basil, I wouldn't have placed it. It was still nice and chocolatey. There were also herbs in the quiche and on the salad. Zoe herself waited on me and was happy to make some changes to the salad because I have a few dietary restrictions (and I just don't like beets). After I asked her to leave a few items off of the salad, she offered to add zucchini and squash, which I love. It was a delicious meal. And the price was amazing! I got a piece of quiche, a salad, two glasses of iced tea (one for me and one for Charity), a large brownie, and a pretty, little tea cup and saucer to give to a friend - for $12.75. Can't be beat!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Murder at Longbourn

I found the novel Murder at Longbourn by Tracy Kiely at my local library a few weeks ago and thought it would be a refreshing break from all of the reading I'd been doing for school. I'm a Jane Austen fan, though not as much as a purist as some. I don't like to read books that continue Austen's novels. I read one once, but decided that I prefer Austen's original endings. I also haven't read either of the Austen adaptations by Quirk Classics -- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. I think Quirk Classics has an interesting concept and makes great use of public domain, but I'm not particularly drawn to zombie or monster books. I do like books like this that are based on Austen's themes and characters, and Murder at Longbourn is just that. It is also a murder mystery, and I love mystery novels.

In an attempt to forget her failing search for her own Mr. Darcy, twenty-something Elizabeth Parker accepts an invitation for a How to Host a Murder New Year's Eve party at her eccentric aunt's Cape Cod B&B, with the Austen-inspired name of Longbourn. She ends up playing detective when a party guest is murdered and her aunt is framed for the killing. I enjoyed this book and was happy to learn that is is the first in a series. Elizabeth Parker returns as sleuth in Murder on the Bride's Side, which will be released in a month.

A few other books based on Austen's themes and character that I enjoyed: