Monthly Archives: December 2013

Christmas Overboard

_DSC0683Me: Woof, Christmas is exhausting.

Husband: Christmas is always going to be exhausting if you keep doing big projects.

Me: But I have to do big projects. My mom did big projects. So I have to do big projects.

Husband: I know. I look forward to having our own little daughters with their own little issues.

This exchange really happened. Just the other day. And it’s rather telling. Indeed, I have a tendency to go overboard with Christmas activities. For example, I am currently sitting in my pjs at 2pm on the Saturday before Christmas watching the Rick Steve’s Christmas in Europe Special. I just finished assembling treats for neighbors–but not just any treats: white chocolate bark with passion fruit caramel swirl, dark chocolate bark with almonds and pumpkin seeds, chocolate-covered pretzels, gingerbread, and Lintzer cookies with my aunt’s homemade jam. _DSC0685We ran out of the Rice Krispie Treat wreaths last week after the cookie making party when our church friends came over to decorate cookies, drink mulled wine, and watch Muppet Christmas Carol. We hosted that party the day before Josh’s family (13 people) came up to go see It’s a Wonderful Life at the Music Box Theater where we all rang our bells for Clarence and hissed at Mr. Potter.  After the show, we went out with his family to Julius Meinl, an Austrian cafe, for tea and spaetzle. Josh and I afterward proceeded to the Moody Church Christmas festival to hear their full orchestra and choir sing the Christmas favorite hymns.

And this just the tip of the iceberg. There are still carols to be sung, presents to be purchased and bequeathed, movies still to be watched. We’ve already watched a half-dozen movies, attended three parties, ate sausages at the Chicago Christkindlmarkt, decorated our apartment, and a whole bunch else. We keep track of it all here on our idea board. _DSC0691

I know a lot of folks go nuts with activities this time of year with traditions, but I had an interesting exchange yesterday that forced me to remember why we go so nuts. A friend of mine, having not grown up with any Christmas traditions, was struggling to see the point of all the Falaladerol (I made that up!). Yes, she was, in fact, looking for the true meaning of Christmas–cue Charlie Brown and Linus! I reflected that when it comes down to it, many of the traditions we have we celebrate for tradition sake, and it is so easy to get lost in them. It is also easy to get overwhelmed and make ourselves sick (last year I was sick for the 3 weeks after Christmas). We can get to the point where we feel like we are going through the motions. We might want to punch someone if they sing Frosty the Snowman one more time. But take away the nostalgia and the commercialism and the red-nosed reindeer and what do you have? The annual reminder of how our sovereign king came into the world and promised us everlasting joy, peace, and freedom from suffering; a light in the midst of the darkest time of year. I am happy to go overboard for such a king.

Merry Christmas to all! I leave you with the lyrics of O Holy Night to remind us why we stretch ourselves so thin every December:

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O’er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wisemen from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

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Why Travel When We are Young

The other day I made tea and asked my husband what kind he wanted. I held up two options: Swedish Rhubarb tea and New Zealand Kiwi tea. I looked down at the bags in my hands and I choked up. You see, I had actually bought those teas in Sweden and New Zealand, respectively. In my hands I held pieces of opposite ends of the world.

Those teas triggered something in me, filling me with both humility and pride. They humble me because I know full well that traveling is such a privilege, and who am I that I am among the lucky few who can not only dare to dream of visiting far off places, but actually make it happen? They also remind me to be proud of the accomplishment in travel, because after all, I did make it happen. Too many people give up before they’ve begun on the question of whether to travel.  They say that they don’t have time, they don’t have the money, they should do something more responsible like go to grad school or have kids, or focus on careers, or whatever. While all of these things are important and legitimate, the question at stake is not whether a person can afford to take a vacation, but rather whether a person understands fully how critical traveling (read: NOT a vacation) can be to the examined life.

I recently stumbled across this article that articulates my feelings on this subject quite well. This quote really resonates with me, even if so many other people just don’t get it:

So true…

Why should we travel when we are young? Because traveling is an investment. It is a luxury, yes, but so is higher education, or a nice suit for an interview, or a decent sounding musical instrument, and no one questions the value added in those investments. I can’t tell you how many raised eyebrows and quizzical looks I’ve received when I told people I was off to some foreign locale. “Why?” they would ask, often condescendingly. “WHY NOT?” was always my reply. Now is the time. I won’t want to do the same kinds of traveling when I am retired.  By that point, my knees might not be up for hiking Mitford Sound. My eyes might not be able too see all the way across Grand Canyon. Heck, I could be dead. The time is now. I have no kids, I have enough money saved…it would be stupid NOT to go. But these are just superficial reasons. There are so many reasons TO go. This article from travelthewholeworld.org suggests three:

1) Traveling teaches you to live an adventure
There is something about breaking the monotony of life at home and going to places far outside your comfort zone that helps us trust God with our lives enough to see the world from a fresh perspective. I find that I have such an easier time seeing the woods through the trees, so to speak. More specifically, it is easier to see God at work.  In this sense, traveling is one of the greatest forms of worship, an active pursuit of the creator through thorough examination of His creation. This kind of head-stretching warps any concept of ‘normal’ we may or may not realize we harbor. It is an education. Traveling is an exercise in breaking down presuppositions and replacing them with a deeper, more complex comprehension of God’s goodness, beauty, and truth. Traveling is an investment in creativity, since everything you see will be added to a store of stimuli you can tap whenever you need a good idea. Traveling is an experience you can substitute in no way.

2) Traveling helps you encounter compassion
Again, traveling challenges our concept of “normal,” and this is a good thing. There’s nothing like stepping off a bus to find yourself immediately swarmed by Cambodian children, all no older than ten, each with their hands outstretched. Each of their faces, so beautiful, burn your heart, especially when you realize the high likelihood that every cent the children collect will go to some insidious slew of grown-ups practiced in the arts of fleecing foreigners. What will become of those children? Prayer suddenly takes a new, heightened role in your mind.

3) Traveling allows you to get some culture. I didn’t like Madrid, but I still recommend everyone goes there if but for one reason: to stand in front of Valasquez’s Las Meninas. I don’t know how long I stood transfixed by that enormous Baroque masterpiece. I just know that there was a little God in it. That day, I had a tiny taste of the beauties of heaven, and it is now my duty to share my experience so that others can taste it too.

The article is gets it right. Traveling is something you will never forget, never forget; a gift you give yourself that keeps on giving.

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Thinking outside the piano box…

Here is another video to get you into the Christmas spirit, and also to stretch your head with all of the ways a piano can make sounds. What is the essence of a piano, anyway? Whatever your answer is, these Piano Guys will change your mind.

In many ways, this video is a perfect example for how to think outside the box–perfect, in part, because there actually is a box in this case. Most likely, this was an organic, serendipitous discovery. When these Piano Guys first started turning their pianos inside out, I imagine the process looked something like this:

I’ve always wanted to touch the strings in a piano. Ooo, cool! Listen to this! What if we took bow strings to it? Nifty! What if I pluck, you play, you pull, you drum, we all sing…Glooooooooooooorrriia!

 Assuming the discovery of these sounds was more accidental than intentional, we might conclude that such inspiration requires waiting around for accidents to happen, or at least, waiting around until we do something as mischievous as messing with the strings in a very expensive instrument (I’m imagining the look on my piano teacher’s face now, should I have ever dared to even breath wrong on that Steinway). But when I see this video, I see a creative process in action. We can draw a lot from this process and apply it to any number situations requiring creativity–albeit, a little less organically. Breaking this down, the process might look something like this, probably repeated a number of times before coming to rest on a creative solution:

  1. What are we trying to achieve?
  2. What assumptions can we question? Is there anything we can use in ways it wasn’t meant to be used?
  3. What happens if we move this/touch this/juxtapose this/add/subtract/multiply/expand/etc.?
  4. How does this get us closer to our goal?

Does this resonate with you? What does your creative process look like? Leave a comment and keep the conversation going!

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Another Flash Mob…and Christmasy too!

Another blogger kindly linked to my recent post, Beethoven, the Flash Mob, and in so doing tipped me off to another Flash Mob video, this time with the Air Force Band performing in the middle of the Air and Space Museum.  It was so awesome, and so fitting for the season, I had to share it with you:

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Tale As Old As Time, Part 1

Last summer I had the privilege of going to Walt Disney World for the first time since childhood. Now, I suspect that, when you read that sentence, you fell into one of two camps:

  1. Your cynicism glands started pumping harder or
  2. You became immediately giddy because you know I’m going to talk about magic

For both groups, this post should have something to entertain (though I do help it melts a few of you cynics along the way).

As you mayknow, the Fantasyland expansion at Disney included a number of new Beauty and the Beast features. This was a huge deal for me. Since the film came out in 1991, I’ve been smitten with the story, the animation, the music, the characters, everything. As an impressionable five-year-old, I didn’t really stand a chance—I mean, honestly, a brunette who loves to read, abhors the egomaniacal suitor, and shows grace to a tortured soul? Best Disney heroine, hands down. As a kid, my greatest aspiration was to be Belle, and in many ways, this is still true today. A few years ago, I even contemplated auditioning for the theme park role. While at Disney World this past September, (I confess) I bristled whenever I saw one of the actresses playing Belle. They were doing it wrong. All of them.  She’s mine.

But I digress.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Fantasyland expansions, especially after being disappointed by the new Little Mermaid ride. Clearly riders were supposed to have the impression of being underwater, but riding in a plastic shell through a blue room and watching fabricated sea creatures spin around on dowels didn’t impress me.  It wasn’t up to the usual ‘Disney standards’. I realized later that those Imagineers must have put all of their eggs into the Beauty and the Beast basket; it was a revelation, a transporting experience (and I use the term “experience” very intentionally). The wonder that was the new Beauty and the Beast Fantasyland did not just leave my inner child bedazzled. It intrigued every creative impulse in my body.

SPOILER ALERT. If you would rather go to Disney and be surprised by this glorious experience, do not finish reading my description.

We had heard rumors that the Be Our Guest restaurant was supposedly spectacular, so we decided to try it for lunch (dinner was out of the question—booked solid for months). The restaurant was housed by a man-made mountain, atop of which stood the Beast’s castle scaled with forced perspective to look far away. The line for lunch spilled out the door, but we were not dismayed. We perused the menu, drank free lemon water brought to us by costumed ‘cast members’ on a themed cart, and waited to enter through the restaurant’s elaborately crafted doorway in the mountainside.  Once inside, our eyes adjusted to the light, and we found ourselves in a vestibule of vaulted stone and marble (faux stone and marble, but still impressive). To our left we saw a mosaic of the stained glass window image of Belle dancing with Prince Adam (Did you know that the Beast’s name is Adam? I learned this recently. No offense to you Adams, but you’d think the Beast’s name would be something a little more, well, Beastly…or at least French). It was at this moment, and my husband and in-laws can attest, that I started jittering with anticipation. The passage turned to the right, through a hallway lined with suits of armor.  If we listened closely, we could hear their voices coming from their helmeted heads. At the end of the hallway we were given a rose-shaped token which would act as a locator and alert the waiters to where to bring our food.

Thinking about this from an experience design perspective, so far in our journey I was already impressed. No effort was spared, no detail skimped. The color scheme and lighting were just right for giving the guest a feeling of grandeur. From floor to ceiling embellishments like ornate tiles or stone carvings left me in a state of wonder. I thought about how these little touches could be both entirely unnecessary and utterly important at the same time. For an ordinary restaurant, they didn’t need to add fleur de lis carpeting or hang real tapestries on the walls. But this was an experience, and experience design needs to be holistic. You know it when you feel it. It shows when it succeeds.

We placed our order (it was what they call a ‘quick service’ meal on the Disney dining plan) and waited to be called to our table. A cast member opened the curtains and ushered us into the ballroom. Oh, the ballroom. Immense and ovular, the ballroom stood two or three stories tall surrounded by columns. At the far end the room we saw the great window, and just like in the film, we could see through it snow falling gently “outside” on the terrace. Our eyes drifted up to admire the ceiling mural covered with clouds and cherubs spanning the length of it.  Three enormous chandeliers lined the center, each glowing with dozens of candles. At this point, I was probably jumping up and down, but I don’t really remember anything but mirth. Everything was right, just like the movie. We took pictures of three generations of couples dancing.

The experience did not end here. There were still two whole other rooms to go. Off to the left of the great windows was a dark room beckoning. We went in to discover the Beast’s lair known as the West Wing, in all its ramshackle glory. Torn purple drapes hung from the ceiling and the walls. One of them overlapped the remains of the painting of the Prince, ripped apart with claws. At an interval the lights would flicker, thunder would rumble, and the Prince’s image would transform into his beastly self and back again. In the corner the curtains pulled back to frame a floating, holographic rose in a glass case. Delighted, we sought out more. We crossed the ballroom again to explore the last room. There we found a large dining room with a canopied stage in the middle. On top of the stage was a statue of Belle and the Beast dancing, twirling slowly.

We returned to our table utterly amazed. This wasn’t just a restaurant. This wasn’t a ride. This was imagination fleshed out, a child’s fantasy leaping from the screen into three dimensions and living color. Somehow that day I walked through an animated film. And just in case I thought I was dreaming, the taste of the food assured me it all was real. Tuna salad nicoise and roast beef followed by passion fruit profiteroles and chocolate mousse—to be sure, “a dinner here is never second best.” Thank you, Lumiere. Thank you.

Believe it or not, I am only half finished with my story. Jump ahead to Part 2.

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