Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Preciousness of Life

I strive. I run faster. I run further. I reach in my career. I reach in my family life. I reach in my music playing.

I encourage each of my sons to reach. I encourage each person I mentor to strive. All of this is focused on attainment.

Attainment is wonderful.

Attainment without love is meaningless.

Attainment without a sense of why one is attaining and a moral guide leaves me nowhere.

I am lucky to have the love and the sense of why and the moral guide.

But sometimes I forget how easily those can slip away.

How life itself can be taken from us.
Yesterday, I read that a colleague lost his eight year old son—to what was thought to have been a blood infection.

I have been known to have little to speak. I rarely find myself at a loss for written words. Yesterday was such a day. Other than “I am so sorry” there are no words that I could think of to express the devastation of having a child die at such a tender age.
I will end this morning not with my own words but with the words of my colleague. And then I will take a moment of silence. In his wisdom, my colleague wrote, “It wasn't what God said to Job that mattered, it was that he spoke. We wait to hear his voice.”

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Center of My Life

St. Sebastian-themed Tie
The tie to the left was my one art project this year at the family resort at which we were on vacation.  It is multi-colored--I hardly realized there were nine different and mostly pastel colors) of Sharpie and I didn't even use them all.  In the middle you find two arrows and a coarse drawing of an open book.  The open book was intended to represent the Bible.  I had not intended it, but my sister said there was a bit of a snakeskin look to the tie.

As I enter the new year, I think about what the tie represents.  We are not insects, but if we think of the body as consisting of the head, the torso, and the legs the tie is worn down the center of the central part of the body.  Thus, I look for symbols of how what it represents as the center of my life.  And most of what it brings to me are things that relate to my end of year blog that reflected on 2012 and looked ahead to 2013.

First, it shows creativity.  Readers may have their own opinions as to whether it shows much talent, but my wife (who was making a scarf while I made my tie in the class last week) thought it showed creativity that she does not often see in me.  That is not to say that I have no creativity.  Just that it does not often come out through drawing as opposed to words, music, or even my teaching.  I am planning a new class for 2013 and trying to revise several others.  And who knows what other things I will be called on to be creative for in 2013 on the job.  Each year brings new and interesting challenges.  I look forward to continue to using my creativity and hope that it can remain central to my life.

The Bible is at the center of what will show when I wear the tie.  My spirituality is central to my life.  Thinking about what maters an why.  For me, that is manifested through my relationship with church.  Being part of the worship band.  Teaching Sunday school.  Helping out with the running of Sunday school.  Being a part of the St. Pius X community.  But thinking about what matters and why is not just about church.  (And not about church for everyone else.)  Spirituality can be about running.  Spirituality can be about not wasting any talent as a talent is as important a resource in the world as oil or water or wheat or gold.  Spirituality in its many forms is central to my life.

The Bible and the two arrows are both reminders of themes from St. Sebastian's life.  I have written a great deal about what I think of St. Sebastian and why over the past year in the process leading to the completion of my tattoo.  This Saturday, I will take the final step in a touch up visit with the artist.  St. Sebastian is part of my spirituality.  St. Sebastian is part of a reminder to speak out.  St. Sebastian is part of a a reminder to get back up again and keep trying. St. Sebastian is also an important reminder of just how much we rely on others and the hope and help they bring to our lives.  He would not have been able to continue after being shot by archers if it were not for the help of another.  The arrows themselves represent challenges.  There are many challenges in life--and there will continue to be many more.  All of them have to be faced an either overcome or set aside to the degree possible. The facing and overcoming relate to St. Sebastian.  The setting aside to the degree possible comes back to part of the Serenity Prayer--accepting what I cannot change.

The multiple colors coud be one of two things.  In the spirit of St. Sebastian they could represent the heterogenous group of individuals who help me in my life.  Taking the "snakeskin" comment and thinking about snakes in the Bible, we could also think of them as representing the heterogenous challenges.  In either case, there is a pattern.  Part of my way of dealing things is finding the patterns and using them as a way to represent the challenges and good aspects of life for my own purposes in sorting things out.

All this from a two hour project with a silk tie and a bunch of Sharpies.  Who knows what this year will bring in creativity and blogging with this type of start.  

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Looking Back Over 2012 and Ahead to 2013

Yesterday, I was looking over credit card receipts for the year and found something surprising.  It is now taken care of.

So, today, while 3/5 of my family is skiing and I've completed taken a first stab at a health economics second course syllabus, I thought it would be a good time for my annual aspirations blog.  I'll call them aspirations rather than resolutions.  At least according to, a resolution is "a resolve or determination" whereas an aspiration is a "goal or objective desired" or an "aim; ambition". I think that what I look forward to in the next year fits more in the second category of "big picture" stuff rather than specific determinations.  And I think that with a few exceptions the same could have been said last year.

Looking back, then?  Here is what I wrote last December 31:

(10) Continue to implement a plan for well-being that includes financial well-being.
Sort of.  We've built some assets.  Paid down some debt.  Some still hangs on.  And it has been difficult to anticipate what 2013 will bring.

(9) Run a sub-20 minute 5K and qualify for the Boston marathon. 
These were definitely in the resolution rather than aspiration category and I met both.

(8) Continue my involvement with Back on My Feet.
I did.  I stayed a team coach as long as I could, but something had to give way.  I still run with the Team at least once a week if at all possible and also run with a bunch of BoMF Baltimore teammates at track workouts that I somehow have been the nominal organizer of for a while now.

(7) While this could go under the well-being heading of #10, I want to integrate pieces of “the arts” into what I do including more reading (because one way to write better is to read more), continue blogging, continue other writing, and perhaps even get back to writing a bit of music.
On this one, I continued to blog, I started a second writing project, and while I never wrote a full song this year, I did finalize a poem for two friends who got married and they really liked it.  It was about what made a first impression about each of them as I met them--their smiles.

(6) Better balance of responsibilities at work.
I have mostly continued to learn what can "give way".  The new year may bring new opportunities here.

(5) Hang out with friends more in situations other than running.
There is precious little time for this.  Although we did make it to a few nice gatherings at the end of the year.  And while my oldest son's girlfriend was not someone I had thought of when I wrote this a year ago, we have welcomed her to hang out with us (and running is not involved) a lot more this year than last.

(4) Help my children become all that they can be.
We continue to find ways to provide opportunities for our three sons to try out and to get better at all sorts of interesting things.  I think that Sherry and I have done a good job at this.

(3) Take the serenity prayer ever more seriously. 
I definitely still take the first part very seriously.  It is interesting that I will simply speak--sometimes not even yell--a snarky comment about another driver and let it go at that.  My oldest son's girlfriend asked if it was my form of "road rage".  What it really reflects is my effort to let out a little frustration while otherwise letting go of whatever might cause road rage as I cannot change it and more or less have to accept what other drivers do.  There are still some things that go unacted on.  I strive to change that.

(2) Continue to share my cooking. Enough said.
And done. Mostly through having my son's girlfriend over for dinner more.  She even had a chance to help us make Christmas Eve dinner.  But I have also cooked for family on this vacation and have brought snacks for friends post-running on numerous occasions.

(1) Enjoy the second half of my 20th year of marriage and the first half of year 21. It has been an incredible nearly 20 years. I hope we share 20 more.

Year wasn't perfect, but we had some new experiences that served us well including going on our first cruise.  And we are still together.

Looking ahead...

(10) Keep running in the right place in my life--it should promote physical, mental, and social well being--the gold old health triangle we learned in high school health ed class.  It should also promote spiritual well-being. If it ever interferes with those re-assess.

(9) While keeping it in the right place in my life, don't forget that there are some real goals.  Mile on the track under 5:40.  2-mile on the track under 12:00.  5K--wherever--under 19:30.  Complete Boston--and if the weather permits aim for 3:10.  Half marathon closer to 1:30.  10 miler closer to 1:10.

(8) Continue to be creative.  Maybe art.  Maybe words.  I'd say 10-15 minutes per day.  Could be a little verse.  Could be a little progress in my ongoing attempts to write longer stuff.  Could be a blog entry.  Could even just be some project like the silk tie I did earlier this week.  Just to keep that part of my brain in high gear.

(7) Think about next career steps.  Who knows what they may be?  The key is that even as a full professor, there are things to think about.  Even if I stay a full professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for the remainder of my career, the job will change.  And there may be opportunities within JHU (or someday in the future outside JHU) that would bring about even more changes and hopefully changes that would challenge me and engage me in new ways.  And while my well-being now is about stability, my well-being once the kids are out of high school and college will depend on what I see as my next steps.  So, I might as well start thinking now.

(6) Continue to grow spiritually.  I have stopped writing about every single bib number and race time.  That was fun.  But I have found many new inspirations for my spirituality including the tattoo that is now nearly finished.  That turned out to be an interesting part of my art experience last years as it really has become much like a piece of commissioned artwork that I always have with me and really participated in a two-person (me and the artist) effort to bring about a vision of symbolism that I had.

(5) Continue to play an active role at St. Pius X.  I don't see that changing for any reason--but it is just worth putting out there.  No matter what other pressures may come and go, the stability of my involvement in Sunday school and the worship band--each with its own set of ups and downs--is definitely like a rock for my to stand on in my faith and in my life.

(4) Continue to mentor.  The experience or mentoring has been a gift to me as much as anything from me over the past several years.  I have a new student to mentor in the Penn State Schreyer Honors College and there are other opportunities for mentorship as well.

(3) Help my two oldest on the path to figuring out where they will go to college and high school respectively.  While the process will not be completely finished one year from today, it will be well on its way.

(2) Remember that I would not be where I am without the help of others.  This is part of what I reflected in my artistic vision last year and what I hope to continue to reflect this year.  This is part of my spirituality.  It is part of my professional mentoring.  It is part of my family relationships.  It is part of being a good neighbor.  I am ultimately responsible for me.  But I am not responsible for just me.  And in the same way, I know that I have truly benefitted from having so many around me who are not only interested in benefitting themselves but who are interested in lifting up others.  When I am taking credit, I must give credit where credit is due. And when I am deciding how to act, I should remember to act with others in mind.

(1) Be the best family member I can be.  Husband, father, son, brother, and so many more rolls.  All important.  All provide ways to lift others up.  All provide ways to reflect on what others have done to lift me up.  And all provide ways to show God's greatness in blessing me and my family with abundance.

It should be an exciting year ahead.  

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

This blog will be continued...

This blog will be continued at Connecting the Dots & Nourishing Souls: 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Catholic Readings Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

So, I have been back at my house after the trip to Armenia for about 28 hours.  In the first 18 hours after my return I had made two yeast-based dough recipes (two pizzas--of which three of us ate 1 1/4 for dinner and then the rest for lunch the next day) and some rolls/baguettes that we ended up using for dinner that included some steak sandwich meat, some pepper from the CSA, some tomatoes from the CSA, some garlic grown by my son, and some cheese from Hawthorne Valley.  That was an awesome way to begin my time back in the US.  

At exactly 18 hours after my return to my house, I was st church practicing with the worship band at St. Pius X.  That is another thing that I really enjoy and even though I don't play very much during the week, I'd been working on a melody before I left and I missed playing anything at all during the week I was in Armenia.  Heard lots of music and brought home a zurna for my 16 year old (who has already begun to figure it out), but I digress.  The main thing is to comment on how the baking of 2 yeast breads (and buying 5 packets of yeast when I went to the grocery store this morning) relates to my spiritual well-being.

Well, it relates in a couple of ways.  The very first is that I decided not to run this morning.  There are a lot of reasons that I didn't run this morning.  But one was to make sure that I baked my first non-pizza bread on day one back in the US.  Baking bread is central to my life.

Then, when I heard the first reading from 2 Kings, I honestly don't recall ever hearing it before.  It is about a man bringing 20 loaves of barley bread to Elisha to feed a group of 100.  The symbolism of feeding a crowd that is perceived to be too large with a relatively small amount of resources made me immediately think of a number of New Testament stories.  And, sure enough John 6:1-15 is the story of Jesus feeding thousands with the five loaves and too fishes.

I think I'll spend a number of days commenting on it as I noted lots of points about the readings when we were done at church.

But let me begin with one thing--God always seems to find a way to communicate with me just when I need it.  I was away from easy access to my spirituality for a week (although I did blog a little, speak with my colleague Byron at length about religion, and made a strong impression about my interest in religion on at least some of the students I taught).  But then I get home and am hungry for a message. Yes, it is just coincidence in some ways that the day after my return happened to be the seventeenth Sunday in ordinary time in which all Catholic churches around the world read these two readings (along with a piece of the letter from Paul to the Ephesians which is also interesting).  The messages I'll talk about later.  But the chance to play and hear a homily built around a story that is linked to a topic that is so central to my day to day existence when I am home (and I enjoyed multiple types of bread while in Armenia including an olive roll, lavash, numerous pastries, and others), made it easy for me for the messages to come today.

Praise be to God.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

More Reflections on Noah

Yesterday I mentioned the story of Noah briefly in the context of being within site of Mt Ararat.  In the time since, at the end of a very long day yesterday, when I was back at the hotel after a roundabout walk after a late dinner of goat cheese salad (goat cheese encrusted with pistachio, greens, and grapefruit) and musaka, I went back and reread the story of Noah.  Really read it.  A few things made an impression on me to ponder.

First, in the Bible it is shown as a typical paragraph-by-paragraph story.  However, when I read it carefully it was clear that like many traditional stories it had a nearly lyrical quality.  Not when it was talking about the wickedness of man, but when it talked about who Noah was supposed to bring with him.  Repeated references to animals, birds, and creeping things is one great example.  There are other places where there is some sort of repetition.  It gives the story a feel for how it would be easy to share in an oral form, which at some point before it was written down it surely was.

Second, while the first reference to animals talks about taking them two-by-two and the last reference to animals talks about taking them two-by-two,  chapter 7 verse 2 actually talks about seven pairs of all clean animals and a pair of animals that are not clean.  It is almost as if when the seventh chapter was written or translated there was something different in mind than when the sixth chapter was written or translated.  But even later in the seventh chapter it was back to two-by-two.  So, I see this as an interesting mystery of why there was a different expression.

It is also interesting to see how the Lord shut Noah in.  My image had always been Noah and his sons shutting the “door” to the ark.  But the Lord shutting Noah in gives a sense of finality and security to the whole thing that might not be there if Noah and his sons had been responsible for themselves. 

Two final thoughts.  First, there are many numbers. Numbers of animals.  Numbers of years Noah is old.  Number of days till the flood and of the flood.  The month and day of certain events.  It gives a sense of precision that is interesting and I find it interesting given that for a time every creative writing I did began with a date.

Second, in the process of reaching reading about the covenant that God made with Noah and his sons, there is something lyrical about part of the promise.  “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”  It reads sort of like Ecclesiastes where we read about a time for this and a time for that.  Full of contrasts.  A sign that the world is supposed to be full of contrasts and that contrasts are part of the natural rhythm of life.

Even in my time in Yerevan I have experienced the contrasts of hot and cold, not many people being up when I run in the morning at 7 AM and many people at 10:30 PM, the heat of the day and the cooler evenings.  The pressures of work and the amazing experience of learning about my colleagues.  The many, many blessings that I have received. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Some Random Reflections on July 25

It has been a while since I’ve written a personal blog entry.  Why?  I have been busy.  Busy at work.  Busy at home.  Busy getting ready to travel and then traveling.  And, now, on Wednesday 25 July 2012, I am writing from Yerevan, Armenia where I am lecturing for the week at the American University of Armenia.  Where from the window of the office I’m using when I’m not lecturing I can see Mount Ararat.  Where I haven’t learned much Armenian yet, but I have learned a few important customs and I have begun to learn my way around.

The first day or two I posted about how interesting the music in the Republic Square was—In the Mood at 11 PM with lots of people (including some young kids) dancing.  Then I posted about my first meal.

Since then, I’ve had a wonderful first dinner including multiple types of local cheeses and other traditional Armenian food.  On the second day I managed to get myself from my hotel to the office all alone.  Quite a walk and a lot of uphill.  My colleagues tell me we are at 900m altitude, so that affects things a little too.

Then yesterday we went to the park for lunch.  So far, I’ve paid no more than $4 for lunch and had an excellent salad and an olive roll the one day and a chicken sandwich on a lavash and a mango juice the second day.  For dinner the second day, I ate alone at an Italian café, and had a caprese with mozzarella that was so soft and tasty it was amazing and had incredibly flavorful tomatoes.  Then a hot sandwich with a somewhat spicy salami and “Dutch cheese” alone with what I could only describe as a cole slaw with a primarily vinegar liquid.  Also a pepsi and a ricotta cake (although I would have called it a ricotta pie).  All of that or under $15 with tip.  Amazing.  Although the waitress liked to correct each time she thought I mispronounced something.  Then, I managed to shop for water in a grocery store to restock my hotel room with bottled water.  12 half liter bottles for about $3. 

While there, it was 9:45 PM (I ate late since I lecture from 5-8 PM and then spent some time catching up on emails before going to dinner).  I was again surprised by the presence of young kids, although my colleagues tell me that life in the evening starts late.  Anyway, in this Italian café I heard a “muzak” version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You”.  Seemed a bit out of place, but interesting.

This morning I got in my first run.  I went from the hotel to a point a bit past the American University of Armenia and then came back running on Muskovian St and whatever it turns into going around the outside of the downtown area of the city.  A nice 5 miles that after three days with no running and a lot of sitting felt really nice.  Took my legs a bit of time to really feel “good” but in the end it was a very nice run.

Then, I drank water like I usually do.  Having drunk only 1 liter of water in my hotel room the entire time since I arrived Sunday night before this morning, I’ve put down 2 liters today. 

While at the café last night I was also thinking about what I would do if I ever got a second tattoo.  It would be on the other calf to be “symmetric” (although not the same drawing).  But I have to save up for that one and my ideas may continue to evolve.

Finally, with the view of Ararat, I turned to the Bible.  Genesis 8:4 tells us that “…in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the moth, the ark came to rest upon the Mountains of Ar’arat.”  Then eventually the tops of the mountains were seen.  Today, Mt Ararat is a lovely snow-topped  mountain.  It must have been quite a site.  To think about being so close to a point that is described in the Bible is quite amazing.  Stunning actually.  It makes me stop and think about the importance of each bit of history in the Old Testament leading to the arrival of Jesus, the realization of all the prophecies, and the foundation of the new covenant.  Makes me think about wanting to visit the Holy Land at some point but that would come much later on. 

Well, time to get some work done for today.