American Sniper: A Short Argument Against

Yes, I saw American Sniper. I didn’t want to at first because it is essentially about everything I stand against, namely: violence, violence disguised as patriotism, sexism bred by violence, racism bred by violence, and war. Another part of me didn’t want to see it because of the outpouring of ignorant support that followed the movie and bathed the late Chris Kyle in a hero’s infamy. I had very strong doubts about whether there was anything heroic about Chris Kyle or his life and career as a sniper, and I didn’t want to align myself by association (the association of having seen the movie) with such an ignorant stance.

But I ended up seeing it anyway because I realized I couldn’t argue against the movie, or the mindset it seems to perpetuate – if not directly encourage – if I didn’t see the movie myself and know exactly what I was arguing against. The movie was “good” in a Hollywood way – meaning, I was never bored. It was awful in almost every other respect. Many people have written more well-informed and articulate articles than I will about this movie, and they have touched on the many good reasons there are to hate this movie and its inaccurate, more-humane-than-reality portrayal of a man who, from what I can gather, was a black and white thinker and nothing more.

In the movie, Bradley Cooper portrays a man who does see gray areas, who does struggle, at least a little bit, not only with his actions but with their consequences. Bradley Cooper is a great actor, but based on what I’ve heard and read from other, trusted sources about Chris Kyle’s life and thought as described in his memoir, Cooper got the character of Kyle wrong. Cooper allows far too much gray to seep into a strictly black and white paradigm. This seeming inaccuracy, combined with the respect I have for Bradley Cooper as a professional, made it difficult for me to distance myself from the character and dislike him entirely, as I was prepared to do from the outset. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because it did allow me to open up my mind and concede (not for the first time in my life) that war is not a black and white thing, no matter what anyone says about it, no matter how black and white its soldiers’ values might be. This fact doesn’t change my staunch pacifism, but it does help me see the gray, and as someone who believes that almost nothing in this world is black and white, an ability to see the gray is very important to me.

There were two major ways in which the movie impacted me after I left the theater.

First, I was left with an itching suspicion that the real-life Chris Kyle, as humane as Cooper tried to make him appear, lacked any degree of critical thought in his convictions and motivations. Some of the questions asked of the character Kyle in the movie – the questions you can tell are supposed to be the “hard-hitting” ones – are answered with such vague simplicity, such automatic and embarrassing machismo, that I couldn’t help but suspect that, as much as Cooper may have gotten wrong in his portrayal, the absolute absence of critical thought in Chris Kyle’s psyche was something he got right. In the numerous articles I’ve read about this movie, about Chris Kyle as a person, and about Chris Kyle’s memoir, the one ringing consistency is that Chris Kyle’s belief system left no room for deep and critical thought or analysis. The biggest problem with a worldview that is black and white is that the people I’ve known in my life who ascribe to such a rigid belief system are people who not only seem incapable of critical thought but actually actively resist what they seem to view as an immoral temptation to examine a given situation beyond its surface. And this appears to be the problem Chris Kyle had. Chris Kyle was clearly and without question a dutiful, honorable* soldier.

Second, I walked away from the theater recognizing the tendency toward violence that violence-centered movies and other media bring out in me. There’s a reason I stay away from movies and media like this for the most part. Killing, fighting, and insulting others is not only a practice that is normalized by media such as this; it is encouraged. And that’s how I found myself, about halfway through the movie, wishing I had my own sniper rifle so I could take aim and shoot the fellow moviegoer on the front row who kept pulling out his or her phone, the bright light irritatingly drawing my eye and my attention away from the movie. Some might dismiss that thought as harmless, a mere snipering joke in the context of the movie; no harm done. For me, however, that kind of thought terrifies me. Only because I had been watching a guy lie on rooftops and shoot the enemy for over an hour – and getting caught up in the emotion of hoping he succeeded in killing his targets – did I have a thought like that. So, yeah, okay. Maybe it’s nothing to worry about. On a given day, I don’t wish I could shoot with sniper rifles all the people who annoy me. And, of course, even in the movie theater, I didn’t have a sniper rifle, and it’s not like I got up out of my seat and went down to the front of the theater to dispense some civilian justice. But what scares me is that, no matter how unrealistic the scenario might have been, the thought and desire were there in my mind, however jokingly, after only an hour of watching someone shoot people from rooftops. That bothers me a great deal. And it should bother you too. And what scares me even more is that such a thought doesn’t bother any of the people who have raised this movie and, with it, Chris Kyle, to an undeserved pedestal.

Am I glad I saw American Sniper? Yes. Am I glad the movie was made to begin with? No. Especially considering the cultural climate this movie was released into: Our country is embroiled in a very heated political struggle right now over gun control laws, so a movie like this – one whose message encourages violence under the guise of protection – is the worst possible ammunition (no pun intended) for the pro-gun faction.

A movie like American Sniper isn’t going to aid in moving our country in the peaceful direction it ought to go.

*The word honorable here is used simply to mean that he exemplified the qualities that are most prized in American soldiers, those qualities being discharging one’s duties faithfully and without doubt or question.

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MLB Nickname Evaluations: Whose Names Should Change?

The baseball offseason is long and difficult. It is not for the faint of heart. This season of slow news usually sees all kinds of articles pop up from sportswriters grasping at straws (and/or trying to keep their jobs). I’ve seen anything from the best beards in baseball to the most attractive players to a ranking of players’ eye colors to discussions of team uniforms. Sportswriters do this because they are desperate.

We are all desperate to talk baseball in some form or other by the time January rolls around. And in this year’s longer-than-usual-feeling offseason, I’ve been pondering MLB team names and have decided that a few of them could use some updating. In this process I ended up eventually reflecting on all thirty MLB team names and deciding whether the names should stay or change. And so, here below, I present my analysis of MLB’s thirty current team names. The list is in no particular order, but AL & NL are separated, and the teams are listed by division. You’ll also notice there are significantly fewer change suggestions in the AL. I don’t know what that’s about, but I don’t have a bias, I promise. If anything, as far as rules are concerned, I actually tend to lean NL. For what that’s worth.

AL Central

Kansas City Royals (Verdict: Keep)
As a Royals fan, of course I am going to discuss this team name first. It is, of course, perfect. It has ties to the city’s history, the livestock show with accompanying rodeo called American Royal, which has been an event in Kansas City for years. And, perhaps coincidentally, its theme of royalty/nobility matches prior Kansas City sports teams’ names like the Monarchs (Negro Leagues) and the Kings (NBA) and, of course, the current NFL team, the Chiefs (ignoring for the moment that “Chiefs” is a culturally insensitive nickname that should probably be changed). The Royals have been the Royals since 1969, and the accompanying logo has hardly changed at all. The typeface and color scheme are slightly plagiaristic of the Dodgers, but other than that, the Royals are perfect (in every way except on-field success, of course, 2014 season excluded).

Detroit Tigers (Verdict: Keep)
The tiger is a ferocious, scary, exotic animal. It’s perfect for a mascot, and it’s not offensive to any people group. In fact, its city’s sports team names (Pistons, Red Wings, and Lions, in addition to the Tigers) are about the only good thing Detroit has going for it at the moment, so we’ll just leave them be.

Chicago White Sox (Verdict: Change)
Suggestion: Chicago Grizzlies
Sox? Really? Come on. That’s not even a word. It’s like you let an illiterate person name your team. I know the team name has been around for a long time, but nobody even knows how to singularize it. If a player from Kansas City is a Royal, is a player from Chicago South Side a Sock? A Soc? A Sok? A Sox player? Nobody knows. There are many different opinions out there, and “Sox” is just a dumb spelling, plus they have that whole “Black Sox” scandal following their name around. Shed your tainted skin and start fresh, White Sox. I suggest Grizzlies for a variety of reasons. Like Detroit’s Tigers, Grizzly bears are scary. Plus, it matches Chicago’s sports nickname theme. They already have the Bears and the Cubs. Why not get in line and take a potshot at the Cubs, your crosstown rival, while you’re at it? Nobody is afraid of baby bear cubs, after all. They’re so cute and cuddly. C’mon, White Sox. You’re a laughingstock. Pick yourself up by your bootstraps and be the GRIZZLIES! Oooh, scary.

Cleveland Indians (Verdict: Change)
Suggestion: Cleveland Jaguars
The Indians definitely need to change. Not as fast as the football team in Washington needs to, but still. The most obviously offensive aspect of this nickname is that it’s an inaccurate description of America’s indigenous populations. Their little mascot, Chief Wahoo or whatever he’s called, is a pretty offensive caricature too. Come on, Cleveland. You don’t have much more going for you than Detroit. You at least could be politically correct. As for why the Jaguars? Simple. Jaguars are scary. Also, Cleveland doesn’t have much chance of having too many of either the animal OR the car in what I’ve heard is rather a dump of a city (haven’t been there myself), so we might as well shoot for the stars and give them Jaguars in baseball.

Minnesota Twins (Verdict: Keep)
There isn’t much that needs to be said about this name. It’s an obvious nod to the Twin Cities – Minneapolis and St. Paul – and to be honest with you, I’m not even sure which of those cities the stadium is located in. I think Minneapolis, but I’m not sure. Is that as bad as people not knowing whether the Kansas City Royals play in Kansas or Missouri? Hmm. Well anyway, Twins is a great name. Good job, Minnesotans.

AL West

Oakland Athletics (Verdict: Keep)
I have no problem with the name “Athletics.” It’s a good description of baseball players. They ARE athletic. Plus, the name has a history that goes back to Philadelphia via Kansas City. If they changed their name, they’d lose some of their ties to Kansas City, and we don’t want that. Our allegiance is to the Royals now, but people like my grandpa like to remember when the A’s played in Kansas City and were our team.

Los Angeles Angels (Verdict: Keep)
This nickname comes directly from the translation of the city’s name. Therefore, there’s no reason to change it. Their logo is a little hokey, and they really need to get rid of that whole “of Anaheim” thing because that’s weird and super confusing, but other than that, we’re all square here.

Seattle Mariners (Verdict: Keep)
Brilliant nickname! The team is on the coast, Washington is rainy, and “mariner” is such a cool, bad-a name for a sailor. It’s so old-timey and hardcore-sounding. When I think of a “mariner,” I envision a dude with a huge, long, gray beard standing on the deck of an old wooden ship in the middle of a raging ocean storm, wearing a black rain coat and hat, and yelling instructions to his crew. How is that NOT hardcore? Plus, Seattle’s old logo involves a trident (upside down to make an M, actually). Not only should they keep this nickname forEVER, they should bring back the trident into prominent use.

Houston Astros (Verdict: Keep)
I’ve got no beef with this one. I assume it’s a nod to NASA’s headquarters, and everyone likes NASA and outer space and astronauts. Keep it up, Houston.

Texas Rangers (Verdict: Keep)
This one is so essentially Texas it’s almost embarrassing. The only way you could get more Texas with a sports team nickname is if you called them the Texas Ranch Hands or the Cowboy…wait. I don’t know if I’m entirely sure what a ranger is in regard to the state of Texas, but it sounds to me like a scary dude on a really big horse with a gun in each hand. If that ain’t Texas, I don’t know what is.

AL East

Baltimore Orioles (Verdict: Keep)
I like orange, and this bird (at least in the team logo) is squat and cute. I don’t know if it has specific ties to the city, but I’m good with it just the same.

New York Yankees (Verdict: Keep)
The Yankees, love ’em or hate ’em, are a baseball institution. They’ve been around forever, and the term yankee is both historic and insulting. The word wasn’t always derogatory, but it evolved to be that way at some point. So it keeps the team’s fans happy while allowing the rest of us a chuckle at their expense. I’m good with that.

Toronto Blue Jays (Verdict: Keep)
Let’s face it; half the time I don’t even remember this team exists. They’re in Canada, for crying out loud. I can’t remember the last time I cared about a single thing Canadians did. Pass.

Tampa Bay Rays (Verdict: Keep)
I’m iffy on this one, especially since they dropped “devil” and tried to pretend that “ray” was a reference to sunlight and not a ferocious, lethal ocean animal. But what are they gonna change it to? Plus, without “devil,” the rhyming is kinda fun.

Boston Red Sox (Verdict: Change)
Suggestion: Boston Marathoners
Many will say that if I’m going to let the Yankees stay because of how long they’ve been around with that name, I should apply the same rule to Boston. Sorry. Nope. Not gonna happen. For the same reason I expressed about the White Sox, the Red Sox should act like they are literate and change their name to something that isn’t a piece of clothing. I suggest Marathoners because it’s the thing that Boston is known for that doesn’t sound completely moronic as a baseball team nickname. Trust me; I considered “Marketeers,” “Baked Beans,” “Tea Partiers,” etc. Those are just dumb. Plus, Marathoners works on multiple levels. It can be a sort of tribute/nod to the tragedy of 2013 that shut down the city for a couple days after the marathon bombing (the year that was also packed chock full with narrative, and watched Big Papi curse on live, national TV and the team go on to win the World Series, by the way). It also works on a baseball level because baseball games can be long and grueling and tough to finish, just like a marathon. A “short” baseball game tends to last three hours or just under. Plus, a marathoner is athletic, and socks aren’t. Bam. Perfect rationale. Go ahead, Boston. We’re waiting.

NL East

Washington Nationals (Verdict: Change)
Suggestion: Washington Cosmopolitans
I don’t like the Nationals as a nickname simply because it’s boring. I considered suggesting “Politicians,” but then that made me think of the Senators, which I think is kind of a silly name too, so I went away from politics altogether. I’ve been to Washington DC only a couple of times, but on my very first visit there, the main impression that city made on me was its international diversity. Everywhere I went, I heard conversations being had in languages I couldn’t always identify. In the Midwest, the main language you hear in addition to English is Spanish. There are pockets of other cultures, but they are small and concentrated, and you don’t hear those languages regularly. In DC, there were a couple of times I just went ahead and asked people what language they were speaking because I was so fascinated. I got answers like German, Dutch, Swedish, Polish, etc. It was great. DC, for reasons that are obvious, is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in our country, perhaps surpassed only by New York City. Hence, the Washington Cosmopolitans (plus, Cosmos for short is fun).

Atlanta Braves (Verdict: Change)
Suggestion: Atlanta Badgers
I’ll be honest with you. I struggled with this one. Atlanta has a LOT of history, and it’s a really great city, actually, but a lot of its history is rooted in how strong of a Confederate city Atlanta was before the war. So it’s not like you could choose something like “Confederates” or “Rebs” (which some southern school has already taken anyway, and it’s awfully offensive; “Hey, let’s celebrate and commemorate how incredibly racist we used to be, and how some of us still are!”). No thanks. That is, by the way, the same reasoning with getting rid of Braves and, with it, the stupid tomahawk chop (yes, Chiefs fans, it’s offensive in Kansas City too). I mean, how hard is it, as a public organization, to just NOT be offensive? Apparently pretty hard. So anyway, I am going with badgers because badgers are scary little suckers you don’t want to meet on a deserted road at night. I don’t know if Atlanta (or the state of Georgia in general) has badgers, but who really cares. Anything is better than Braves at this point.

New York Mets (Verdict: Keep)
As far as I can tell, this nickname is not a nod to “The Met,” the art museum in New York City. I believe it was adopted in homage to a former team called the Metropolitans, and simply shortened. Either way, however, the connection(s) are nice. I like their colors too.

Miami Marlins (Verdict: Change)
Suggestion: Miami Lionfish
My main beef with the Marlins is that the name itself is grammatically incorrect. The plural of marlin is like deer, moose, and fish. You can have one marlin or you can have eight marlin. I think some official dictionaries have allowed the evolution of improper use to rule in this case, but I’m unwilling to budge. If they can’t be grammatically correct, they should change. And if they want to be a scary ocean animal, why not lionfish? Those things are terrifying. I actually came in close proximity to one while diving the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and let me tell you. I could not get away fast enough. (Little red squigglies are telling me that “lionfish” isn’t a word, so maybe it’s lion fish? Hmm. Better not go from grammatically incorrect to incorrect spelling. That would defeat the whole purpose of changing in the first place. Miami front office officials, do your research on spelling before changing to lion fish, please and thank you.)

Philadelphia Phillies (Verdict: Change)
Suggestion: Philadelphia Bells
Come on, Philly. I know that’s a nickname for the city, but it feels like you’re just being lazy at this point. Philadelphia is one of the most historically interesting cities in our nation. It used to be the capital, for crying out loud! You could do a lot of things with a team nickname (although I wouldn’t suggest Cheese Steaks). They do have the Liberty Bell, and even though it is cracked and some might infer weakness from that, it’s still there, isn’t it? It hasn’t crumbled into dust. A noble namesake, if you ask me.

NL Central

St. Louis Cardinals (Verdict: Keep)
I don’t like the Cardinals, so I’ll keep this short. I have no problem with their name. I don’t know if cardinals are mean birds, but they are pretty and I like them (the birds, not the MLB organization). Besides, if you changed the name, the self-proclaimed BFIB would be in a ridiculously annoying uproar. So let’s just keep them quiet and try to forget they exist.

Pittsburgh Pirates (Verdict: Keep)
Pirates are cool, and tough, and even trendy. They are scrappy too. No problems with this name.

Milwaukee Brewers (Verdict: Keep)
Brewers is a nod to a city tradition. Milwaukee is known as a beer city. No reason to change that. Plus, they should bring back their old logo, the one where the “m” and the “b” formed a baseball mitt. That was a great logo.

Cincinnati Reds (Verdict: Change)
Suggestion: Cincinnati Skyliners
The name “Reds” is, I believe, a shortened version of what the team used to be called, the Red Stockings. So again, we are referencing not only a team’s uniform but specifically their SOCKS? COME ON. Ten percent of MLB team names reference a sock?! That’s absurd. Cincinnati is known for their skyline chili (which I personally find disgusting, but other people seem to love it). Plus, skyliners is just a pretty cool name, if you ask me.

Chicago Cubs (Verdict: Keep)
Even though, as previously mentioned, baby bear cubs are in no way scary (unless you’re talking specifically about Clark, the new mascot), the Cubs are, like the Yankees, an institution. They’re historic. The name might be kinda dumb, but it should live until baseball dies. It’s just too classic.

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers (Verdict: Keep)
Ken Burns taught me that this name comes from when the team was still in New York and there was a common practice in the city of crossing streets by dodging trolley cars. It was, essentially, real-life Frogger. Historic, classic, strong & solid name. Leave it.

San Francisco Giants (Verdict: Keep)
The Giants kept their name from New York as well. I don’t know its roots, and I’m not terribly crazy about it (or about the team itself, after the 2014 season…still a fresh wound – that’s fresh, not flesh). But it’s an old team with an old name, and besides – what would they change it to? The San Francisco Streetcars? Please. (Wait that actually could be cool…maybe.) But Giants are scary too, and super intimidating. Have you ever met one? I mean, I hear Andre was nice and all, but he was probably the exception to the rule. Hagrid too.

San Diego Padres (Verdict: Keep)
My first inclination was to change this one because it (and especially its logo) is just kinda silly. But then I figured, you know what, the whole swinging/chubby friar thing is kind of adorable and hilarious. And I don’t have anything against religion in baseball. If the Angels can stay, so can the Spanish priests.

Colorado Rockies (Verdict: Keep)
Now, someone’s first thought about this nickname might  be, What’s scary about a mountain? To which I say… Umm, only EVERYTHING. Do you know how many people die at the hands of mountains every year? Neither do I, but it’s more than zero. Mountains are big, dangerous, and scary. Mountains are basically the boss of everyone who goes near them. They have a lot of power and control. If mountains don’t like you, they can just avalanche a crap ton of snow or gravel toward you and you’re basically dead at that point. So. I’m not gonna mess with the Rockies.

Arizona Diamondbacks (Verdict: Change)
Suggestion: Arizona Snakes
This is team #30, so I’m a little short on steam at this point. But I hate the nickname Diamondbacks for more than one reason. First of all, their colors and logo design are super ugly. The snake head thing in the “db” is clever and all, but one clever logo design does not forgive an entire bad name. Second, commentators shorten this nickname to “DBacks” all the time. I don’t know about you, but every single time I hear a commentator say “DBacks” I hear “DBags,” and I think we can all agree that’s inappropriate. Besides, Arizona is basically a desert full of snakes, with a few people scattered around. There are a lot of types of snakes there, not just diamondbacks. If you want to be a scary reptile as a team, that’s fine. But just be the Snakes. What’s scarier than one snake? ALL THE SNAKES. Blech. I’m getting shivery just thinking about it.

So there you have it. My plan for improving the future of Major League Baseball. (In my opinion, it’s better than the new commissioner’s desire to eliminate the defensive shift.) I only suggested nine teams change their names. That’s not even a third. That’s not bad. Surely this is doable. Especially if everybody does it all at once. We still have some time before spring training starts. This could totally happen in time for the 2015 season (unlike the Chicago Cubs bleacher renovation, hardyharhar).

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An Existential Treatise on the Futility of Rationale

I’ve noticed myself becoming marginally less argumentative and aggressive as I age in this life.

Ha. If you asked for my fiancé’s side of the story, he would probably recount to you the three biggest fights (so far) of our relationship and say adamantly, “Less aggressive? No way.”

But it’s true. The older I get, the less energy I have for arguments (especially on Facebook) that occur between privileged, middle-to-upper-class, white college graduates (and yes, all of those descriptors apply to me).

It’s odd because my belief system is as “figured out” as it’s ever been. I know where I stand on the issues that plague general society and, often more significantly in my circles, the issues that plague the church.

But I have less energy and enthusiasm for an argument with a gun-rights advocate whose platform is so flawed and vague and just…absurdly selfish, I guess, that I get lost when trying to decide how to approach it to pick it apart. But aside from that, even if I knew exactly where to start, I don’t have the motivation.

I have less energy for an argument with a woman who thinks that sexism is a myth, one who is so buried and embroiled and surrounded by the latent sexism in our society that she thinks feminism is a four-letter word instead of what it actually is – a movement that recognizes a severe imbalance in this world and desires to take the steps to equalize it.

I have less energy for an argument with fire-and-brimstone Christians who care more about hatefully espousing their opinions about the eternal souls of those with whom they disagree than they do about getting to know a person who is different from them.

I’ve become disillusioned in this life I’m leading, and I’m past the point where arguments on Facebook, either with strangers or with people I respected until I found out what their politics or morals are, are satisfying to me. I’m past the point in my life where sitting around and debating issues that MATTER is the only thing we do. I live in a privileged world where I get to go to an office every day and earn a yearly salary, complete with healthcare benefits (although sometimes the high deductible feels more like a burden than a benefit). In my position as an editor, I’m constantly engaging and reworking and immersing myself in content that discusses helping, ministering, loving, being Christlike, putting our words into actions (or “feet on our faith,” as one of our monthly periodicals puts it), and I’m tired of these things being words to me and nothing more.

When I was a teenager, then a college student, then a young twenty-something, I dreamed of moving to another country and changing the world. Not in a big way. I don’t have the tools or skills to change the world in a big way. But in my small, linguist-centered way, I was going to make a difference. But now I’m not a twenty-something anymore, and I haven’t done any of the things I thought I would, and my passion has waned.

I don’t know if it’s because I am tired of arguing without doing, or because my arguments get me nowhere, or for some other reason I haven’t yet thought of. But my passion, my energy, my characteristic aggression has diminished.

And what in the world do I do about that? Maybe it’s a good thing, I reason with myself. I wasn’t really argued into any of the beliefs I currently hold. I came to embrace pacifism (and gun legislation), feminism, anti-homophobia, and all of the other issues I am passionate about by observing, studying, reasoning, practicing, and praying. Therefore, what’s the use of arguing my views to someone who doesn’t share them, or holds the opposing viewpoint? If I wasn’t argued in, how can I expect someone else to be? On the other hand, if nobody ever engaged in arguments, would social progress and change ever occur, or would we still be slave owners, who don’t allow women to work or vote?

But did those changes come about because Person A argued with Person B and Person B eventually saw the light and gave in? I don’t think so. I think they came about because Persons A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, and N argued with Persons O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z until some kind of conflict occurred and an obvious winner emerged. Whether the “conflict” be a war or a riot or a vote/election, usually the losing party isn’t suddenly converted to the other side. It’s just that they’ve become a subordinate somehow.

I guess I feel saddened and discouraged that conflict of some kind must occur before things can be made right. I guess it makes me feel powerless. Tweeting about sexism isn’t going to cause employers to raise all their female employees’ pay to match what the male employees make. Arguing with a middle-aged (or older) Christian, who’s claimed Christianity all his or her life, about whether gay people should be afforded the basic rights that everyone else gets isn’t going to legalize gay marriage in the last remaining states. Trying to reason with the overzealous second amendment defenders on Facebook isn’t going to get Congress to pass the gun legislation that this country sorely needs. And writing a blog post about the futility of it all isn’t going to change a damn thing either.

So, don’t mind me. I’m just over here having an existential crisis. I can afford such a luxury since all my other basic needs (except for equality as a woman) have been met. Nothing to see here. Move along, please.

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The Beauty in a Body

I’ve been avoiding writing this post for a while, for many reasons – the main one being, who wants to listen to a girl of reasonable weight discuss body issues? Well. If you don’t want to, this is your cue to step out because that’s the topic today.

So here’s the thing. I don’t think I’ve ever met a girl – not even the most confident one – who doesn’t have at least a little bit of a body image issue. It’s a spectrum for sure. Some are far more severe on themselves than others. But all girls and women have something they don’t like about their bodies. The funny thing is, it’s usually something that nobody else has ever even noticed, and in some cases, it is something a lot of other people actually like and find quite pleasing about that person. But none of that matters because all the girl can see is a huge flaw in herself.

We all know the reasons this issue exists: the male-driven mass media, male-driven society, male-driven porn industry, and female-driven comparison games. There is no need to tell you what you already know. I’d rather just talk about my own body image and how I’ve dealt with some of my personal struggles.

I was allowed to be mercifully ignorant for a very long time of how the particular shape of my body measured up against other girls. The only thing I noticed and which bothered me as an adolescent was that my breasts didn’t develop as quickly as some of the other girls’, and when they did eventually grow in, they never got even close to being as large as what seemed average (and they probably never will). My flat-chestedness was the only thing that bothered me about my body for a long time. Otherwise I really had nothing to complain about.

In my late teens I started noticing the…shall we say, athletic-ness, of my thighs. I noticed they weren’t as slim as other girls’ thighs, or as ramrod straight. I saw my thighs as thick, chunky, fat even. I stopped wearing shorts for the most part. If I went swimming I preferred to keep my bottom half under the water or just wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms. I did almost anything I could to cover up my thighs, to the point that people would say, “How can you be wearing jeans right now, it’s so hot out!”

I have no idea where I got it in my head that my thighs were fat, or that muscular thighs were unattractive. But the comparison game struck once again. All I saw was that other girls, with pretty faces and pretty hair, had smaller thighs than I had.

Because of a gift of good metabolism and (maybe?) good genes, I never battled a weight problem until very recently. I’m going to be straight with you here and provide numbers so that everything is on the up and up. All through high school and college I weighed between 110 and 120. Totally fine with that. In my 20s it crept up to 125, then 130. I started running, which maintained things around 130 except in the winter, when it would go up around 135. I accepted all of this as part of growing older but also kind of assumed that 130-135 would be my base weight from that point on.

Over the last couple of  years, my body has gained more weight to accommodate a medical condition that was diagnosed four years ago but not cared about or monitored by a doctor until this year, and that condition is uterine fibroids. I won’t bore you with the details of what that means, but the long and short of it is that they are taking over my uterus in a way they are not supposed to, which has caused multiple side effects as a result (including becoming a threat to my fertility), but the one that has bothered my vanity the most is in the area of weight gain.

Currently I weigh the most I ever have in my entire life, tipping the scales at 145. This fact has puzzled the few people I’ve told up to now because, according to them, I don’t look like I weigh that much. I don’t look like I’m carrying an extra 15 pounds, and I’m “hiding it well,” as they say (which is an unfortunate reflection of what it’s clear our culture and society value – thinness). But, whether others can see it or they can’t, I know it’s there. My pants fit tighter. My stomach has a pooch it’s never had before. When I eat, because of how things are situated in my uterus, the pooch becomes a bulge until I have a bowel movement (sorry to be graphic). My running pace is slower because I have more weight to haul.

There are lots of ways that my body reminds me that all is not right inside at the moment. The sad part is that, because of the culture and society I live in, I’m usually more focused on my new weight, and how I look in certain clothes, than I am on the scary reality that this condition may very well prevent me from conceiving and giving birth to my own biological children. There is something very wrong with that. Very, very wrong.

Body image is being talked about a lot more these days, and I’m glad. Many celebrities and a few corporations are speaking out about the negative and untrue messages the media and our culture have hammered over women’s heads for years and years. (Unsurprisingly, these efforts are often also tied to the fight against sexism, since sexism is the biggest reason women have body image issues to begin with.) As I’ve watched my body age in ways unrelated to my weight, my perspective on beauty has changed significantly. I have begun to realize something I wish I’d seen long ago.

It began, for me, with teenagers. I do this church/Bible-related volunteer thing that puts me in the company of a bunch of teenagers for several hours on a Saturday once every month (sometimes twice, depending on the schedule). I’ve been doing this particular volunteer activity since my freshman year of college, and in the last couple of years, I started seeing the teens differently. Teenagers are wonderful creatures, if you didn’t know, especially the ones who don’t realize they are wonderful. They’re so fragile and yet so resilient. It’s amazing, really. But one thing everyone generally agrees on when discussing teenagers is their awkwardness.

Adults talk about the awkwardness of teenagers because we remember what it was like. We remember feeling like our legs were too long, our noses too big, our faces too pimpled, our breasts too small, our breasts too big, our biceps too undefined, our braces too obvious, our teeth too gapped, our legs too hairy, our legs not hairy enough, and on and on and on. I remember. You remember.

Several months ago, though, as I sat in a room with the eyes of eight teenagers all fixed on me, I looked at each of them and noticed how they varied in size, stature, and stages of physical development. And, remarkably, all I saw was beauty. These were developing persons, sitting right in front of me. I almost felt as if, if I just looked closely enough and watched for long enough, I would see them fill into their bodies. I could see the ways in which they probably felt insecure. One boy in particular didn’t seem to be able to control his limbs, which were quite long. The rest of his body didn’t fit with the length of his arms and legs yet. One girl in particular was several inches shorter than her peers, though I knew her to be in the same grade. Looking at them, I could see the beauty in what had developed, and what had yet to develop. I could see the beauty in what they would become, in what they currently struggled through.

Unfortunately, I could also see their insecurities. In the slumped shoulders, the eyes cast down to the floor, the shuffling feet, the crossed arms. So many actions that essentially added up to this: They were turned in upon themselves. They felt unbecoming, awkward, ugly, because society has told them that’s what they are. We – adults – have told them that’s what they are because that’s what we remember feeling when we were that age. I wanted to hug them, and tell them all how magnificently, and simply, beautiful they were. But I also wanted to keep being allowed to volunteer without being viewed as creepy, so I kept my thoughts to myself. But it brought tears right to the edges of my eyes to sit there and see them that way, and know that they didn’t see themselves that way.

On the other side of things – perhaps because I’m growing older myself, perhaps not – I’ve also noticed that my view on beauty has changed in regard to age. No longer do I see old people as unattractive. Wrinkles, hair color, and looser skin are all indications of life lived, and how can anyone not recognize the beauty in that? I look at the elderly people around me and marvel at the histories they’ve built. I look at the middle-age people around me and see how the continual maturation of their physical bodies does nothing to diminish the light that comes from within them.

Our bodies are shells, intended as a means to house the essence of who we are; a way to live out who we are; a shelter to grow and maintain who we are. And they are beautiful. My body has never been perfect, but it has always been mine, and it is the body I was given to hang out in while I formed the essence of Audra.

My best days are when I look into the mirror and get a momentary flash of what my fiancé must see when he tells me I’m beautiful. It’s brief, it lasts only an instant, and it usually begins in my eyes, but it ends up encompassing every single part of me. I see it more and more frequently when I let go of the American media’s shouted lies about what beauty is, and listen to the whispered truths that come from God, and from my fiancé.

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No Gifts, Please

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, in the midst of wedding planning, is how the very idea of the wedding itself (at least, in American culture) is contradictory to a lot of the values I’ve claimed I want to foster and maintain in my life. Right at the start of our planning, I knew I didn’t want an expensive wedding, but that has a lot to do with the fact that I’m 30, and covering some of the cost myself. Setting money aside for a minute, I thought I would hate every second, every detail, of wedding planning. I have always thought that. I’ve always, my entire life, dreaded the idea of planning a wedding.

And, to be perfectly honest with you, I have hated some of it. We haven’t been treated well by all the vendors we’ve contacted, and I can’t help but see dollar signs looming over every decision we are asked to make. I’ve worked hard over the last five years or so to try to embody a personal philosophy of living simply. I haven’t been as successful as some friends of mine who attempt to do the same thing, but I’ve done my best. I do own a house, which I will have owned for five years by the time our wedding rolls around. Funny thing about having more space than you need is that you tend to fill it up with things you think you need that you really don’t need. In truth, yes, my house is larger than Soren and I – by ourselves – needed. My reasons for buying it would encompass another post entirely. (Luckily, it’s going to be a perfect size for myself, a husband, and three dogs.)

But the point is, because I’m 30, and because I’ve lived in my house for five years already, I have accumulated everything I need to have a home that is decorated the way I want, enough furniture to entertain, proper kitchenware for cooking and eating, and appropriate bedding. Add to that the fact that I’m marrying a man who is in essentially the same position (minus maybe a few things here and there, given that he doesn’t own a house), and you get a weird combination in the end that adds up to a lot of duplicate stuff, a lot of stuff you don’t need, and, just in general, a lot of stuff.

To put it simply, “stuff” stresses me out. I see it as clutter. After moving in and out of a dorm room for four years, I then spent the next four years moving in and out of two apartments and two houses (the second house being the one I’m in now). I’ve moved a fair amount. It’s stressful and tedious, and it’s a good way to get rid of things you realize you don’t need. It’s also been the main conduit for my finding out that I don’t like “stuff.”

So, keeping all these factors in mind, I was ecstatic when I spoke to David about gifts and a registry and found that he thought along the same lines I do, which is: We don’t want gifts. We just don’t need anything, and the idea of asking for things we don’t need makes me feel a little sick to my stomach, not to mention greedy. I had a friend get married a few years ago, and she had all her own stuff already as well but still did a full registry, even asking for things she already had. When I asked why she was replacing items she already had that were still in excellent condition, she said, “Because. It’s fun to get new stuff. You’ll understand when it’s your turn.”

As condescending as that felt, I conceded that, yes, maybe I would understand when it was my turn. It’s been almost four years since that happened, though, and I still don’t understand. And I don’t have to understand. She can do what she wants. But I don’t have to do what she wants. The beauty of planning our own wedding, everyone has told us, is that we get to do what we want. And what we want happens to be very different from what other people want (which is, again, fine).

One of the things we do want, however, is help paying for our honeymoon. We have this epic, two-week, baseball-centered, west-coast trip planned, but baseball games and the west coast ain’t cheap. So, since we don’t need anything for our home, we decided to set up a honeymoon fund, where people can either give us general gifts, or contribute in specific ways to different portions of our trip (we’re also planning to go to Six Flags Magic Mountain!).

The thing about this is, some people think that it’s tacky for us to ask for money/vacation help, or they just think it’s tacky to give money in general, or something. I’m not sure, but there has been some resistance to our simple request for no gifts. I’ve been advised that plenty of people will ignore the request entirely, so we might as well create a registry because, if we’re going to get something, might as well get something we want. So I followed this advice, and we created a registry, and guess how many items it has on it? Nine. And they’re not really low-cost items either. They are all items we would have plans to purchase within the first two years of our marriage, probably, but we certainly can’t afford them now, or soon, given wedding costs.

Other voices have told me, “Screw what other people say. It’s your wedding. If you don’t want gifts, don’t be afraid to say that. If people ignore you, they’re being rude.”

And that is where I struggle. The idea that it’s rude for someone to go expressly against our wishes and give us a wedding gift has reigned supreme in my mind over the last several weeks. I understand the arguments of sentimentality, of contributing something that will last, of wanting a gift to mean something. I would argue that contributing to our honeymoon is sentimental to both David and myself, that our memories of it will last our entire lives (whereas a coffee pot will eventually break, or a quesadilla maker may never even get used), and that the knowledge that our friends and family want to help us have the best honeymoon we can dream up means a very great deal to us, even if they do not realize it or think so.

So it’s easy for me to get defensive about the gifts thing. I truly don’t want them. It’s not a pretense of humility. I cringe every time I imagine having to find space for something kitchen gadget-y, or having to write an insincere thank-you note for something I plan to give to Goodwill within a month. And I tell myself it’s okay to stand my ground on this because, as others have told me so many times, “It’s our wedding, not their wedding, and we can do what we want.”

But there’s a nudge. There’s a tickle. In the back of my mind, in the damp, dimly lit, cobwebby space where my conscience (or the Holy Spirit, based on your belief system) resides, there is a check that says, Is it?

Is it okay for me to be indignant about someone wanting to follow tradition, despite what I’ve specifically requested? Or is it my responsibility to accept whatever is given, which is given in love, graciously and thankfully, despite what I’ve specifically requested?

Though it’s okay for me to buck tradition, and I feel comfortable doing so, is it okay for me to expect others, who may be uncomfortable doing so, to follow suit, just because I’ve asked them to? Or should I allow our friends, family, and wedding guests to show their support for our union in whatever way they feel most comfortable, even if it goes against our express wishes?

Maybe I’m making too much of this. Maybe we’ll get more contributions to our honeymoon fund than I’m anticipating, and maybe we’ll only get one gravy boat in the mail from one great-great-great aunt neither of us has ever met (in which case we’ll just attend an ugly sweater white elephant Christmas party next year to take care of it!). Or, maybe we’ll get something we never thought of but that we desperately appreciate. I don’t know. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know how the “no gifts” request is going to go over once the invitations get sent out (they’ve gone to the printer, though, so there’s no turning back now!).

What I do know is that David and I will smile on our wedding day, and we will be grateful for the many and varied ways that people have chosen to show their support and love for us.

(But I’m not going to feel guilty for re-gifting that gravy boat! I don’t even know how to make gravy! Doesn’t it have to do with the gross parts of a bird? No thank you.)

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Filed under bloggy, irreverent, marriage, sentimental

30 x 30 (with the Usual Audra Twist)

So many people write these posts or make these lists a few years in advance of milestone birthdays then make themselves feel like crap trying to accomplish un-acommplishable things by the time they reach that age. I think getting down on ourselves for being “ordinary” is destructive and unproductive. I have no interest in making myself feel bad next Tuesday for all the things I have not accomplished in 30 years on this earth, nor am I going to set forth to make myself feel bad about things I won’t accomplish between now and 40.

I’m extraordinary simply because I’m Audra, but I’ve done some cool stuff in my life too, so instead of enumerate a list of things I want to do by 30 or goals I have for the years between now and 40, I’d like to list 30 things I’m proud of having accomplished by the time I reached the age of 30. Please note that none of these things was undertaken with the goal of doing it before this particular age because that’s arbitrary anyway. Please also note that, while some will seem totally ordinary to you, each one was and is significant and extraordinary to me. These are also not in chronological order.

1. Staying alive immediately after being born. (Yes, there was a slight fear/danger that I wouldn’t. It’s nice that I did.)

2. Getting scuba-certified and then diving the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

3. Traveling. Traveling, traveling, traveling. To date, I’ve been to more than half of the states, and 7 countries outside the States.

4. Raising a dog to at least 8 years of age. Soren and I became adults together. It’s a wonder either of us is still alive.

5. Learning the French language (though not fluent).

6. Falling in love with baseball (this was a close one; almost made it to 30 without finding out how wonderful this game is).

7. Graduating from a liberal arts university with a bachelor’s degree.

8. Accepting Jesus Christ as my savior.

9. Serving on a church board and learning what the innerworkings of church actually are.

10. Achieving a job as an editor, which actually happens to be within the scope of what my degree is in.

11. Winning multiple spelling bees in elementary school, and failing miserably in the first round of one in college (habiliments will haunt me to my grave).

12. Writing 2/3 of a novel during NaNoWriMo; no, I didn’t finish, but neither would I have ever started if not for that exercise.

13. Owning my first home.

14. Owning (and paying off) my first car.

15. Running my first (second, third, and fourth) half marathons.

16. Running my first full marathon.

17. Working to become the type of editor others can respect and rely on for good and accurate work.

18. Breaking a couple of bones (luckily, I got this over with early in life and haven’t broken a single one since I turned 2).

19. Riding a motorcycle (it was okay; not that great).

20. Attending 42 MLB games over the course of only one season.

21. Managing to see 7 MLB stadiums in only three years of fandom (okay, fine; I saw the White Sox in Chicago long before I was a baseball fan – but it still counts, and 7 out of 30 ain’t bad!).

22. Reading Gone with the Wind in its entirety no fewer than four times.

23. Learning that beauty comes in many forms, and believing those who tell me I’m beautiful when they say it.

24. Riding the best roller coasters at Cedar Point.

25. Figuring out that I’ll never be the kindest, wisest, funniest, or most generous person there is yet not letting that discourage me from trying to be the best Audra there is.

26. Becoming a person who fights for equality, both for myself and for others.

27. Co-hosting a Royals podcast.

28. Becoming a pretty decentish writer, on the good days.

29. Accepting my changing and aging body for what it is, and not begrudging it for succumbing to gravity.

30. Falling in love with and promising to marry the kindest, generousest, thoughtfulest, consideratest, ambitiousest, bravest, strongest, funniest, beardedest, handsomest, committedest, optimistickest, fun-havingest person I’ve ever known.

I’m proud of myself and the life I’ve lived and the person I’ve become in these last thirty years. I haven’t been happy for the full thirty years, but I’m currently the best and most joyful and most-at-peace Audra I’ve ever been, and I hope there is an even better Audra on the horizon because I’ve certainly got plenty of flaws left to work on (and I’m sure my marriage will help me find them more quickly than I otherwise might!).

Here’s to the next thirty years. I won’t be able to do them alone. I haven’t done the first thirty alone. Many of you who read this blog (and many more who don’t) have been faithful friends and mentors and confidantes, both near and far, both IRL and cyber, and I hope some of you will join me for the adventures that lie ahead.

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Forgiving the Dead

My paternal grandmother died in 2009, and I struggled less with the fact of her death than I did with the way her death was treated in my family. I loved my grandma, had a good relationship with her, and was certainly sad over her passing. However, she had been hospitalized for six months before her death, so it had been rather a long time since I’d really had my grandma anyway. For me, her death provided relief. I was relieved to be free of the emotionally difficult and physically tiresome nights of hospital duty we all shared (though, admittedly, I’d been doing it for only one month of the last six because, before that, I had lived in Oklahoma, five hours away from the entire situation). But, more than that, I was relieved that she could no longer feel the pain she had been plagued by for the last half a year. One of the more difficult things I’ve ever done in my life is stand helpless in a hospital room while my grandmother cries out for someone to stop the pain, or for more meds, or for the nurse to be called for the fifteenth time in an hour; and then to watch her become completely crestfallen as the nurse tells her for the thirteenth time in an hour that, legally, she is not allowed to administer any more medication just yet. So yes. Her death, her release from her pain and suffering, was a relief to us all.

I knew – I think we all knew, in fact – that my grandmother was not a perfect, flawless angel. But her death elevated her to a level of sainthood in my family that no one else has ever attained. I wanted to remember my grandmother fondly, and I wanted to miss her, but the way some others in my family spoke about her as if she had been the most unerring, completely sinless human being they’d ever known was a difficult untruth for me to swallow.

I know reverence for and special pedestal placement of the dead is not uncommon. I know it’s the norm, in fact. Long has it been tradition not to “speak ill of the dead,” a precept likely based on the idea that people who cannot defend themselves should not be badmouthed. But my grandma is the closest person to me whose death I’ve experienced, and rather than mourn her with happy memories the way the rest of my family seemed to be doing, I chose to focus on her flaws, the things she got wrong in life, the ways she failed. I think this was a psychological attempt on my behalf to bring balance to what I viewed as sentimental, inauthentic blathering from my family members about what a wonderful person my grandma had been. I have never thought my grandma was not a good person, but it bothered me endlessly that many flaws we all knew about were suddenly brushed under the rug upon her death. I was angry and irritated by actions I perceived to be dishonest and fake. “DEATH DOES NOT A PERFECT PERSON MAKE,” I would write angrily in my journal, or shout to my empty house.

I did not understand why we couldn’t mourn her as she was – a loving wife who often kept her husband’s erratic behavior in sharp check; a meticulous keeper of house whose home was always clean but sometimes felt like a museum for all the breakables you weren’t supposed to touch; a fun grandmother who loved to laugh but also a stern disciplinarian of any of her grandchildren who behaved in ways she didn’t deem decorous; a devoted member of a pastor’s family who never gave up on her loved ones but sometimes did lose her temper with them; a woman who could appreciate a good practical joke but not an irreverent one; someone who loved to play games but stuck to a rigid and legalistic understanding of what the “sin of gambling” was (no playing cards allowed, but all dice games were, for some reason, allowed).

My intent here is not to paint an unbecoming picture of my grandmother. My intent is to depict a human being who was complex and flawed. Basically good? Yes, I believe so. But imperfect? Yes, certainly, if only by default of her species label.

But, after her death, my family appeared to have a tacit agreement that her shortcomings and flaws not be discussed. We must all pretend they didn’t exist, and that was not something that came easily to me. Yes, I loved my grandmother. Yes, I missed her. Yes, I would have her back on this earth and alive and healthy today were such a thing possible. But she had faults, and in the wake of nobody else acknowledging this truth anymore, I began to over-acknowledge it whenever I thought of my grandmother. Any time someone spoke of her in an overly sentimental way, I felt the need to combat the inauthentic-feeling emotion by remembering (to myself, not out loud) one of her mistakes. Over time, this unhealthy practice began to have the unsurprising effect of building resentment and bitterness in my heart toward my dead grandmother, mostly over tensions that lay between us while she lived but that I either never addressed with her or never forgave her for.

One such incident occurred when I was only nine years old. At that time I was the youngest of three grandchildren in the family, and the only girl. My family often joked that I was “the favorite granddaughter,” and even though I knew this was only by technicality of me being the only granddaughter (age-old joke that it is), I still took pride in being the favorite something, even if we all knew it was a jest.

The year that I turned ten, though, a new grandchild was born. Nobody knew the sex of this grandchild until the delivery day, on which my family received a phone call to let us know the news. My grandma was the one calling, and she asked whoever answered the phone (one of my parents, I presume), if she could speak to me. I, excited at the prospect of a new baby in the family, eagerly took the phone and said, “What is it?!”

My grandma’s voice came clearly over the phone, “Audra? Guess what?”

“What!” I could hardly contain my excitement.

“You’re not our favorite granddaughter anymore.”

I don’t remember what happened after that; I only remember the pervading emotion I felt.

What my grandma should’ve said, and what she meant, was, “We can no longer claim that we have a favorite granddaughter anymore because now we have two we love equally.”

But what an emotionally underdeveloped, nine-year-old, favorite-by-default granddaughter heard was, “You’ve been usurped. The new baby is now our favorite granddaughter, and you aren’t.”

Now, as I approach the age of thirty, I know that my grandmother meant no ill by her statement. I know she didn’t mean for me to be hurt, to take it the wrong way, to cry privately about it and build resentment toward both her and my poor, innocent baby cousin over the fact that I had been – as I felt, anyway – replaced. I also know that in her excitement over the birth of a new baby, and her desire to share with me the celebration of gaining another girl in a male-majority family, she did not take adequate time to ponder exactly how to word what she meant to communicate. Or maybe she did, and got too flustered to remember it correctly, who knows.

But I was nine, and I didn’t know any of that (at least, not for sure for sure) back then. And so the hurt festered, and the resentment and bitterness toward both my grandma and my only female cousin grew. My instinct now is to feel ashamed that it happened that way, but again, I was nine. I had no tools by which to process my hurt, or to articulate it. And thus was planted what may have been my first experience of my grandmother as imperfect.

There were other experiences along the way, and I wasn’t the only one to notice them. It’s not like there was a long list, and we certainly didn’t have grandma-bashing sessions; I’m just saying, I’m not the only person in my family who had tension or conflict with her over the course of our lives. My grandmother was a matriarch in every sense of the word. We all at intervals adored, respected, and sometimes feared her.

When I was between the ages of twelve and fourteen I had another experience that later cast my grandmother in a negative light. She was a pastor’s wife for almost the entirety of her life with my grandpa. And she was a very good one for her generation. She kept an immaculate house, she played the piano during services, she stood around greeting parish members after church until the sanctuary had all but emptied out, she was friendly and kind and remembered small details about the lives of the parishioners, her clothes were always pressed and clean, and she regularly entertained guests of all kinds in her home. She was truly the picture of a perfect pastor’s wife, adroitly executing her half of the “Pastor and Mrs. Marvin” career package.

But she didn’t always do it without complaining. Once, during a summer visit I was making to their home, I was following her around like a puppy after a Sunday morning service. I was ready to go back to the parsonage to sit around and do nothing (and get out of Sunday church clothes, of course), and I wanted to be sure I was by Grandma’s side when she decided we could go. I remember she ushered me out of the church building more quickly than usual that particular Sunday, not sticking around until every last person had been greeted, not running around cleaning up abandoned Sunday school rooms or dumping half-full pots of coffee in the kitchen sink, not bustling around and turning off lights as she exited each room.

I don’t remember if I asked for an explanation of her hurried behavior or if she offered it unprompted, but I remember what the whispered explanation was: “Let’s get out of here, quickly. If [church parish member’s name] sees me, she’ll want to talk, and then we’ll never get out of here, and I’ll have to invite her to dinner, and I don’t want to do that today.”

At the time, I remember feeling I had been given a reprieve. For the first (and last) time I could remember, I didn’t have to idle around the church building, waiting for one or both of my grandparents to wrap things up. We were going straight home, like normal people did after church! I had won a small but important victory, for I was on summer vacation as a young teenager. Wandering around church buildings waiting for my elders was not on my summer vacation agenda. Sitting around watching TV or movies at their house, though, was.

But I’ve never forgotten my grandma’s words or attitude from that day. They were distinctly inhospitable, and I’ve thought of that moment often over the years, most usually when internally searching for those negative ways to balance out the excessive sentimentality that followed her death, which I mentioned before. Never, I’m ashamed to say, did I also consider the fact that her behavior that day, inhospitable though it may have been, was also supremely uncharacteristic. Never have I considered why she might not want to get drawn into a conversation with a particular parish member, but as an adult who has been drawn into numerous conversations that I did not wish to be part of with fellow churchgoers, Twitter users, or coworkers, I can certainly understand the involuntary cringe that occurs when a person who is long-winded, or difficult to be patient with, or particularly rude, or socially awkward, initiates a conversation.

As a pastor’s wife, my grandma probably had few to zero outlets for her tiredness or inability to handle certain situations on a given day. Perhaps that Sunday she was extra weary. Perhaps she was thinking of the fact that her teenage granddaughter, whom she only saw a couple times a year, was in town, without parents or brother, and that she wanted to maximize the quality time we could have instead of spending it entertaining someone she knew would probably drive me to another part of the house in boredom. Who knows. As I admitted, I’ve never until recently considered what might have been her motivation. I’ve only taken what was most likely a weak, uncharacteristic moment on her part, and have mentally used it against her in the days and weeks and years following her death.

All of my built-up, unresolved resentment toward and frustration with my grandma reached a climax a few weeks ago when a few of us were cleaning out some of her things one Saturday at the house she shared with my grandpa. (We’ve cleaned her things out slowly over the years, it being both too painful and too much volume to do it all at once.) One of the things we found this time was an article she had written for and gotten published in a now-defunct publication called Nazarene Preacher. None of us in the party (made up of my parents, my grandpa, and myself) even knew she’d had anything printed in that publication. We’d never seen these articles before. My grandma was known by everyone in the family as an excellent writer, but it occurred to me when we found these articles that I’d never really read anything she’d written.

I sat down on the bed my grandparents used to share, opened the publication to the page where my grandma’s name was printed, and began to read. To be perfectly honest with you, the publication being called what it was, and my grandma being featured in a column specifically for pastors’ wives, I did not have high hopes for the article. But I was quickly captured by a voice that felt familiar, intrigued by a personal life story I’d never heard. This article, published in 1970, related the personal struggles of a young pastor’s wife, who worked outside the home to supplement the family income, and was also raising four boys, the eldest two of whom were teenagers in 1970. The article, in a very short space, contained a raw and honest account of my grandma’s assessment of her own shortcomings, her misgivings about her duties as a pastor’s wife, her self-doubt about her ability to meet the expectations of that particular and demanding life role. The farther I read, the more familiar the article felt. Even though I’ve never raised children and have never been a pastor’s wife (or even a regular wife, for that matter), I recognized the genuine reflection and introspection I saw unfolding before my eyes. It was the kind of honesty I usually only see…where?

…In my own writing, I realized.

The article ended on a hopeful note; one of encouragement to herself that also served as encouragement to any other wife or mother who might find herself in the same predicament of doubt on a given day.

When I reached the end, tears having welled up in my eyes, I was struck by the overwhelming realization of how alike my grandma and I are, both as writers and as people. Her familiar, inviting voice was my writer’s voice. Her honest, informal, good-naturedly self-deprecating, lay-everything-bare style was my style. And yet, I’ve not been externally influenced by her as a writer because that was the first time I’d ever read anything of hers. I’ve developed those traits naturally over the years. They’ve always been in me. I didn’t know until that day that they were in her too.

I took that article home with me, and I tear up every time I think about it or look at it. I forgave my grandma that day, for all her shortcomings, flaws, and general stains of character. And I gained a new understanding of why we don’t discuss them anymore. It’s not that we’re ignoring them. Nobody thinks my grandma was perfect. But she was part of us, and pieces of her are in all of us, and maybe the best and most faithful way to honor her memory is to cultivate those best parts of her that we find in ourselves.

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A Special [Love-Related] Announcement

I have long pondered what it would feel like to write this post, or some version of it. I thought I would feel and think and say many things, and yet the things I think and feel and have to say are nowhere near what I always imagined they would be.

In case any of you are late to the party, I’ll just start off right away with this: I’m Audra, I’m 29 years old, and I’m getting married. And I’ll try to keep this short.

It’s odd how many cliches suddenly feel true, how many platitudes, adages, and age-old expressions feel like they were written just for me, just for my current situation, just for us.

Sayings like:
When you know, you know.
It’ll happen when you least expect it.

Terms like soul mate and the one – terms I’ve always scoffed at, thought were ridiculous and which hinted at gross improbabilities the odds of which, when factors like the world’s population as well as the world’s geographic square footage were taken into account, just always came out to be mathematically impossible. Suddenly these terms  have taken on new meaning to me. Suddenly deep truths about love and relationships that have always been hidden to me before now have been revealed in such sparkling clarity I can’t imagine how I never knew them before.

Previously I never understood what it could possibly feel like for my soul to yearn for what it found in the soul of another. For something deep inside of me to be nourished and fed by something that could be found deep inside another person. I never previously grasped the concept of understanding someone without that person having to explain himself, or that of another person understanding me without my having to say a word. I’ve never before now known with the deepest certainty that any one single person was the one person I wanted to toil through life with no matter what came, good or bad. And I’ve never experienced what I can only now describe as an unfathomable but incredibly peaceful joy of spirit caused by any being other than the God I believe in.

There are things I now understand about relationship and intimacy that, based on the romantic experiences I’ve had in the past, I thought would remain nebulous mysteries to me forever. I thought intimacy meant sexual closeness, sexual chemistry, sexual tension. I know now that it means something that contains so much more depth and complexity than mere sexual intercourse could ever make plain. I have now experienced an intimacy of soul, of spirit, of mind, of emotion, of shared life goals and common human desire, none of which come even remotely close to having anything to do with sex.

I understand now what it is for another person not to complete me but to complement me; to feel in true partnership and community with just one other individual; to feel that there are things I can do and accomplish and learn and conquer simply because this one individual person supports, believes in, and respects me. I understand now what it is to feel inseparably connected to another person, and yet to know I am still a whole, complete person who stands on my own and makes my own decisions and lives my own life.

The chapter I’m about to begin writing – that I’ve already begun writing, in fact – is vastly different from all the chapters I’ve written up to this point because this chapter – and all the ones hereafter, if I’m lucky – will be co-written. And the deepest, most mature, most grown-up parts of me know that I have chosen the best possible co-author for these next bits. Those parts of me rest contentedly in the knowledge that I am doing possibly the most right thing I’ve ever done in my entire life, save for give my life to Jesus Christ.

Here’s to the writing I will do together with David Spencer from now on. Here’s to the learning I will do together with David. Here’s to the life David and I are going to make together. I (we) hope you’ll join us on this adventure.

Peace to you, friends.

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Let’s Talk Sex(ism) [Part 3 of 3: Feminism’s Biggest Obstacle]

I’ve spent the last two posts discussing my struggles with balancing feminism and common sense, and feminism and my faith. As I’ve established over the course of this three-part blog series, the institution of sexism is one I feel called and created to speak out against, and – in time – to overthrow. So does that automatically make my opponents (whether men or women, whether purposeful or unwitting) my enemies? I’m not convinced it does, but there are times that my adversaries do feel like legitimate enemies.

The sad truth is that sexism against women is not something perpetuated solely by insecure, chauvinistic men. If it were, I don’t think it would be quite so difficult an institution to abolish. For me, the most frustrating detractors of feminism are other women. Misogynistic women are the worst kinds because they breed intra-gender discord, and they have an easier time convincing other women that they are less than equal (and not only less than equal to men, but to certain types of women as well). As Jesus said (paraphrased), “A gender divided against itself cannot stand.” When I use the term misogynist women, I’m talking about the ones who are overly competitive with other women, who set themselves apart from and above other women by putting women down, and who are generally nasty to anyone who doesn’t have a penis.

I’ve struggled at times to keep from becoming this kind of woman myself. My personality does tend to mesh a little (or a lot) easier with men than it does with women. I’m not interested in arts and crafts, home decor, fashion, or cooking and baking. I’m not married, engaged, or dating, so I don’t have a man to lightheartedly complain about with my coupled-up female friends. I don’t have children, so I can’t talk breastfeeding, homeschooling, stay-at-home vs go-to-work mothering, cloth diapers, or whatever else the moms think is interesting these days. And finally, I hate Pinterest.

On the other hand, I live alone, my longest-lasting non-familial relationship is with a canine, I eat Ramen and pizza more than is good for me, I enjoy crude jokes, I have thick skin, I’m sarcastic, I enjoy sports, and I stay up later than I should. By default, that usually means it’s easier for me to hang out in male company than female company. It means I don’t have to try as hard, and it means I can talk freely about my own interests, rather than trying to muster up an interest in things I don’t understand. (If we’re being totally honest here, it also means I can fart with impunity.)

Because of this natural tendency to gravitate toward the opposite sex, it’s always been easy to cause friction with other women, and for a long time, I didn’t even care enough to try not to. I do remember one year in college, though, when I decided I should attempt to cultivate more meaningful friendships with women, and I declared a New Year’s resolution that stated simply, “Be Nice to Girls.” Seems comical, but considering that for the past four or five years I’d been going around saying things like, “I hate girls” and “Girls are stupid” and “Girls are the worst,” it was quite an adjustment for me.

What I learned during that year (and have continued to learn in the years since) is that there are deep rewards to be found in meaningful friendships with women. However, I have also learned and relearned that not all women want to be friends, and I’ve been burned in relationships with other women that I thought were real friendships but turned out actually to be only shallow competitions of one kind or another. I wish that more women would realize that feminism and equality could make a lot bigger strides if we would start by being kind to one another.

Women get especially competitive and territorial when it comes to certain of their hobbies and interests that they believe to be unique, such as (gasp!) being a sports fan! The truth is, however, it’s not unique to be a female sports fan. It might be a less common occurrence than a woman being into fashion, but it’s not unique, plain and simple. And who cares? Whatever world it is that a woman is interested in, that she believes to be dominated by men, what’s the big deal if she encounters another woman in that same world? It doesn’t make her less interesting, and it doesn’t invalidate her interest in the least, whether that interest is hunting, sports, video games, comic books, etc. I know some women (myself included) don’t want to associate themselves with women who pretend to be interested in these fields just to get a man’s attention, or to seem cool. Here’s a tip, though: People can tell if you’re faking it. So if your interest is genuine, you have nothing to worry about. So what if Valley Girl wants to wear high heels and pink sports apparel? Does her wanting to look cute make you less of a fan? No. No it does not.

Full disclosure: I do still struggle with this from time to time in my baseball fandom. It’s important to me that people view me as a real fan and not someone who’s just trawling for men. And I don’t want to be associated with cleat chasers, that’s for sure. But, for the most part, I haven’t had to work very hard to establish myself in people’s eyes as a genuine baseball fan. My enthusiasm has done that all on its own, I think. Besides, baseball is too exhausting a sport to keep up with for someone who’s just pretending. Unfortunately, the people I have had to work the hardest to convince of the authenticity of my newfound interest have actually been women, further proving my point.

Other than being unequivocally kind to the women I meet and get to know, I don’t know what the solution to this problem is. It’s my experience that, no matter how kind and open and vulnerable I am with other women, there are some who are just going to be competitive, shallow, catty, or territorial. Since it’s not in my nature to just back off at the first sign of conflict, I usually initiate some candid confrontations, but if that doesn’t resolve matters, my next recourse is to write those women out of my life. I don’t do that to be rude. I do it because I don’t see a positive way forward, and disengaging seems more healthy for both parties than the alternative. And because I loathe pretense and false courtesy. (I could never survive in the American South.)

Now, admittedly, “being unequivocally kind” is not necessarily something that comes easy to me. If I sense insecurity or intimidation in other women, I tend to ignore them because that’s easier than trying to engage them and be friendly and prove to them that I’m worth getting to know. I’m extroverted, but one-sided small talk is hard for me, and if someone doesn’t “get” me, or if I have to carry the conversation, I prefer not to waste my time.

All things considered, even though I have some work yet to do, I know I’ve made a lot of progress both in how I think about my relationships with other women, and in how I execute them. Since I became a Royals fan, I have enjoyed finding other women on Twitter who like to talk baseball. It’s good to have allies. And that’s really what it comes down to. If this feminism thing is going to get us anywhere at all, if we’re ever going to conquer sexism, we are going to need as many allies as we can get. We have to be on the same team. We have to stop cutting each other down and start giving one another the benefit of the doubt.

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Let’s Talk Sex(ism) [Part 2 of 3: Feminist Christian]

In the last post, I talked about my need to accept that there are legitimate, biological differences that make men and women different. This time I want to discuss the difficulty I have in finding the balance between being a disciple of Christ and being a feminist.

I have been a Christian for many years. So many that I’m not even sure of the exact number. Certainly far longer than I’ve [consciously] been a feminist. So the instructions to treat others as I would prefer to be treated, to love my enemies, to be kind to those who hurt me, to turn the other cheek – basically to lovelovelove until every little thing I do operates from a framework of love – these imperatives are familiar to me. I’ve grown up on them. I cut my teeth on them. I memorized and re-memorized and quoted and re-quoted every Bible verse related to these commands to various parents, teachers, mentors, and spiritual leaders during my childhood and adolescent years.

In addition, I’m painfully familiar with the humility verses too, and there are many. There are verses that make promises to the humble (sometimes known as the meek); there are verses that implore God’s people to take care of the marginalized (sometimes known as the impoverished, the widows, the orphans, or the oppressed); and there are verses that command me to put myself last, to serve others, to lead by following, to understand that someday those whom society puts last will be rewarded.

These verses – the ones that ask me to turn the other cheek and to subordinate myself to others as a humble disciple of Christ – are the ones I struggle with the most, especially when it comes to feminism. Before I became aware of the significance of feminism, before I knew that my voice was muted in the world simply because it’s female, before I knew that women have to fight for almost everything they get in this world, I had the type of personality that finds it difficult to adhere to what I like to call Jesus’s “be nice” commands. I’ve always found it very difficult to “be nice,” especially when I feel that I am or someone near me is being treated unfairly. So, when it comes to feminism, it sometimes feels that my innate desire to stand up for myself and for my entire, oppressed gender is at odds with my Christian call to be humble and kind, especially toward those who seek to oppress me.

There are lots of teachings and theologies and theories out there that describe Jesus Christ as the ultimate feminist, and while I haven’t delved very deeply into any of them, I can’t say I disagree with the surface premise. There are plenty of examples in the New Testament of Jesus showing favor to women, of Jesus trusting women, of Jesus redeeming sinful women, of Jesus elevating women to societal significance (the woman at the well, the woman with the expensive perfume, the adulterous woman, and the woman at his tomb, to name a few). So it’s never been a doubt in my mind that – in some ways, at least – standing up for myself as a woman is right and okay, even as a disciple of Jesus. After all, my personality type (according to intelligent-type books) is the kind that stands up for those who cannot stand up for themselves; the kind that seeks justice and fair treatment for the oppressed; the kind that doesn’t let inequality slide unchecked. So why, when I’m the one being oppressed and treated unfairly, would I suddenly go silent? I wouldn’t.

Still, though. There’s some balance or line or moderation to be found, I think, that I maybe haven’t found yet. Somewhere that I can live both as a humble advocate of love and service without being a doormat or sliding into the realm of the oppressed. I’m called to love my enemies, but I’m not called to submit to them. I’m called to serve, but I’m not called to pander. I’m called to turn the other cheek, but I’m not called to be silent.

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