Sunday, July 8, 2018

Second Quarter Report

Another three moons have come and gone... which means it's time for another life update. Here are my top 10 highlights of the quarter:

1,2 &3: Mindy and I have gone on three major trips: a backpacking trip in Uwharrie National Forest near Ashboro, a camping trip to Elkmont campground in the Smokies, and a beach trip to Oak Island with my family. All were great in their own ways: It was nice to do some real hiking and camping in Uwharrie, then celebrate the nuptials of my friends Kevin and Catie right afterward. We spent two out of our three days in the Smokies learning how to kayak and the other day camping and checking out Gatlinburg, all of which was fun and educational. And it was nice and relaxing to spend almost a week at the beach reconnecting with family and soaking in all that the beach has to offer.

4: I am still swimming at least twice per week, and my times for my workouts continue to drop. My mile time came in at just under 37 minutes back in May. I'm actually going to be participating in the swim portion of the Watauga Lake Triathlon as part of a relay team next month, which was not something I anticipated doing this year, but which made a lot of sense when I looked at how much time I was dedicating to swimming. This has replaced self defense / Krav Maga as my main physical pursuit for the year.

5: I bought a new road bike last month in anticipation of getting back into doing full triathlons later this year or next year. It worked great on the couple rides I went on at the beach (wish I could say the same for Mindy's tires...)

6: We have started warm composting. We also had worms for vermicomposting for a brief time, but they all got burned up when the compost heated up after I added rabbit manure. Sigh.

7: On a sadder note, we bought 2 angora rabbits at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, but Pepper killed Roger, so only Thistle remains alive at this time. As a result, we have started our family pet graveyard. But we are still harvesting her fur to ultimately spin into yarn, as well as her manure for compost and fertilizer.

8: We completed a fence around our entire 6.5 acres, but Pepper has learned how to jump a part of the fence, so now we are in the process of attaching an electrical fence to the existing fence. I heave a heavy sigh as I write this. Hopefully the end of the Escaping Pepper Saga is in sight.

9: We decided to not have puppies, so Lula has been spayed as of last month. We also are holding off on chickens and goats for now, but have a long-term plan to make than happen sometime in the next decade.

10: Back in June, I sojourned to the Nahimana Forest in Ashe County for a 2-day personal retreat. If you're looking for a place to retreat from the stressors of the world, I can't think of a more peaceful spot than this one. It was my best personal retreat by far, and I'm looking forward to going back in a few months for another round. A month later, I'm still benefiting from the sharper focus and higher perspective I gained during those two days.

Despite the setback of having to build all these fences for Pepper, I'm staying on track with most of my goals. Here are a few of my thoughts as I look ahead to the third quarter:

The garden is doing even better this year than last, and the harvest has begun! We will probably need to learn how to can or preserve or pickle some of the stuff we get if it produces like I think it will.

I have oyster mushroom spawn sitting in the fridge ready to grow and am hoping to start growing them in the next few weeks.

I have several house projects outstanding for the rest of the summer that I hope to get done.

I plan to buy a kayak very soon and start getting out on the river as much as I can, hopefully at least once per month.

Mindy and I are flying up to New Hampshire for her mother's 60th birthday next month. After that, we only have one camping trip planned for the rest of the year.

I've finished several books and hope to get reports written on these sometime soon!

I'm really digging a couple new (to me) podcasts: The Bible for Normal People and The History of Philosophy without any Gaps. Download a few episodes now and check them out the next time you're in the car!

Much love.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Mid-Year Reflection: Creativity

My two watchwords for the year have been connection and creativity. As the summer solstice draws near, I'd like to reflect on each in turn. Today: a meditation on creativity.

Creativity includes the ideas of invention, production, new connections, and art. Wisdom, eclecticism, energy, and the divine are other key concepts associated with creativity. The word "creative" conjures images of the mad scientist with unruly hair, unkempt office, and exotic lab equipment holding bubbling flasks of colorful liquid. Or perhaps the eccentric artist in a studio apartment surrounded by vivid paintings, grotesque sculptures, and reams of handwritten journals. In both of these pictures, color and variety are key components. And indeed, without color, creativity would be stifled.

Our visual cortex occupies an inordinate amount of neurologic real estate. Humans may not be so hot at accurate recall, mathematical computation, or logical decision-making, but we still maintain quite an edge on the computers in the arena of visual processing-- as well as emotional processing, which I will touch on in my reflection on connection. With proper attention, we pick up on the tiniest subtleties of color, shape, texture, line, space, contrast, and form. And we think and communicate even the most abstract ideas in visual terms-- lines of thinking, ideas that get colored or distorted by other opinions, shady thoughts and actions. My point here is that creativity is first of all a visual act. God seems to agree, as his first creative act was to speak Light into existence.

Which brings me to my next point-- the divine nature of the creative act. Though God is conceived in different ways across religions and cultures, one attribute that ties most conceptions of God together is creativity. Though I tend to think of God as a Sustainer most of the time, there would obviously be nothing to sustain without God's original creative act, and in God's sustaining act there is a kind of creation. As the female is the creator and sustainer of early life, these attributes can be highlighted in a different way by considering God in female terms, as the divine holds all feminine and masculine qualities within Itself. This is not changing God into a New Age hippie goddess, but rather pursuing knowledge of the full richness of the divine character. Yet creation is a very masculine act as well, as I can attest to an innate drive to make beautiful, useful, and lasting things in my life-- like this blog post, hopefully! Think of the most beautiful and inspiring structures you know of; I guarantee they were built by men, though perhaps with input from women. It's what we do.

Whatever the gender or arena, a common thread that runs through creative people is connected knowledge in a variety of domains. Though usually especially skilled in one area, the generalist is the best creative. It is only through years of steadily building knowledge block by block that one can evolve into a truly creative individual. Creatives are almost always avid readers, and nowadays podcasts, audiobooks, Youtube, and other media can supplement the venerable book as avenues to greater creativity. Yet without the curiosity to drive this continual quest for knowledge which leads to wisdom, the nodes for new connections simply will not come into existence.

The energy to produce is another key component of creativity. One's vital force must not be dissipated by distraction, abject poverty, stress, or vice. Though we all have bills to pay, day-to-day stressors, human frailties, and relationships to maintain, we must have the space in our life to empty ourselves of the burdens of life in order to be filled with the divine spark. Just this morning, my meditation consistent mostly of deep breathing interspersed with offloading the to-do items that popped into my mind onto my phone's to-do list. At the end of the session, I had enough head-space to be able to sit down and focus on this post-- after turning my phone off! This emptying and concurrent filling energizes the creative individual for her task.

Where can creativity go wrong? It gets topsy-turvy if not checked by the processes of maintenance and destruction. Though creativity need not be a zero-sum game, we all only have so many physical and mental resources to draw upon, and every pursuit requires a corresponding sacrifice. If not cooled and balanced by connection with others, nature, and the divine, creativity risks crashing and burning, whether through mental illness, criminal behavior, and/or suicide. Creativity, strictly understood, must have its limits.

Yet in a larger sense, all of life is a creative act. The key is to increasingly maintain a mindfulness of this fact, and thereby intentionally create beautiful things with each day and each act. Gratitude, love, generosity, curiosity, patience, kindness, laughter, softness, presence, power, and warmth all flow from the same source as creativity-- the divine spark. Make space for and feed this spark, fan it into flame, and you will light--and color-- the world. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Evolution and the Fall

     I've been working my way through this book for the better part of a year, and finally wrapped it up a few weeks ago while sitting around the campfire at Kevin Lloyd's bachelor party. Similar to The Believing Primate, which I read a few years ago, this book is a high-level discussion of the philosophical, theological, and cultural implications of the debate around evolution and the historicity of a Biblical fall of man. It offered me some great food for thought over the past year, though I can't say that it radically reoriented my thinking in this area like I thought it might.

      A dense book like this is super hard to summarize in less than 20 pages, and there is no way that is happening on this blog right now. My big takeaway is that the fall of man as it relates to human evolution is a very active area of thought in schools of theology and philosophy, but that no one has been able to fully harmonize the historically dominant Christian theology of the fall of man with modern evolutionary science. And I don't think anyone ever will. Fortunately, this is no cause for despair. The question of the what it means to be human does not lead to testable hypotheses, and thus will always be beyond the purview of empirical science. Everyone's ideas on this are strongly influenced by their own experiences, religion, and cultural context. Now, this doesn't mean that historical science can't help us sort out the details of the origins of our species, or that Christianity doesn't offer us a source of meaning for our lives, namely, that Jesus Christ is the embodied realization of life's possibility as a way to love. But human scientific, theological, and philosophical understanding, just like our biology, will continue to evolve, with no end in sight.

     This dialectic can be anxiety-provoking, de-anchoring, and disorienting for the majority of people who aren't scholars or contemplatives. In fact, it is this discomfort with this uncertainty, ambiguity, and unknowing that has led to the rise of fundamentalist religion. Yet the amazing thing is that theoretical physicists have come to the same conclusion about the universe that mystics of all stripes have had all along-- that uncertainty and complementarity are fundamental aspects of our world. Key concepts you'll find at the link above are wave-particle complementarity, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (aka position and momentum complementarity), and quantum entanglement. Though this may seem off the topic of evolution and the fall, it has been the key that has opened the way forward toward true freedom in Christ over the past year. Rather than avoiding or, alternatively, trying to resolve the areas of ambiguity in life, I am learning to rest in those places and focus the truths that are useful for where I am in life right now, just as scientists may use quantum physics or classical Newtonian physics with equal validity depending on what kind of problem they are trying to solve.

     Digging down into these high-level ideas, I would like to mention the most key concepts I gleaned from the book. In Chapter 8, Norman Wirzba gives an explanation of the practical effects of a Christian vs a Darwinian worldview in terms that I've recently learned in another book I'm reading The Mountain of Silence. Our theoria (way of seeing the world, our worldview or hermeneutic) must be informed by askesis (ascetic practices and personal discipline that aligns the life of the wisdom seeker with the truth of the world) for a proper ethos (our way of being in the world) to develop, which leads to theosis (divinization, which is the ultimate goal of Eastern Orthodox and, in a sense, all Christians and even all religions), reconciliation, flourishing, and alignment of the creaturely logos  (the dynamic principle of order and coherence that enables a thing to be and become the unique thing that it is) with the divine Logos. As our theoria develops into one more like God’s, seeing his work of creation as an ongoing process that we are a part of in Christ rather than a one-time event (see John 1:3-4, Col 1:15-17, Heb 1:2, I Cor 8:6), we become more attuned to the needs of others and less focused on our own desires, and no longer see others as things that matter only as they can benefit us. This allows us to perform the essential Christian task of learning how to love properly. And this leads to less exploitation and more flourishing in the world. This is in contrast to a Darwinian theoria, which, though extremely useful, is rooted in a scarcity mindset (obtained from Thomas Malthus) where there is almost always fierce competition and where only the fittest survive. This worldview does not leave room for charity, flourishing, or abundance, but rather exploitation which has brought on genocide, imperialism, authoritarianism, and the environmental degradation that threatens the very life of the planet. 

       Wirzba goes on to detail Maximus the Confessor's (a 7th Century Eastern Orthodox monk) Christocentric worldview that should serve as a model for us. Just as Jesus became a creature, we do not have to shun creatureliness to fully express divine life and love. And the logical outcome of this radical view of the incarnation is that creation cannot ever be denigrated or despised, since it is the home of God. God creates the space and all the sources of nurture for creatures to come into his life and be strengthened to live the life they are uniquely prepared to enact. Rather than being in conflict with science, this view of creation radically enriches the materialist, mechanistic theoria of science. If you don't meditate on anything else today, reread the last couple paragraphs a few times and really let it sink in. 

     Now you can see why it took me almost a year to read this book. It's heavy! 

     As I wrote above, I can't do justice to this book. But ultimately, it has helped me understand the Genesis account of human origins as a powerful myth which, when connected with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, continues to have great relevance and meaning, especially in our secular age.

     Just don't try to tell me humans didn't come from monkeys.

Summary: Grit by Angela Duckworth

     Grit is a book and a concept I've heard a lot about over the last few years, and has been on my to-read list for a while. Fortunately, my mom bought me this book by "In a Nutshell Publications" that summarizes each chapter in a couple pages and gives bullet points at the end of each chapter summary. So rather than taking the better part of a day to read, I breezed through this little thing in an hour! I even went back a couple times to review the bullet points, which I never have the time or energy to do with a full length book. It was the kind of direct download of information to my brain I've been looking for, and I plan to read much more of these type of summary books in the future.

     The downsides of these types of summaries are minimal, and the upsides are huge. Most self-help, self-improvement, business, parenting, and other pop sociology books readily distill down to several main ideas, and the stories and other fluff that makes up the rest of the book are there simply to make up enough pages for a book the publishing industry and author can make money on. Of course, this does not apply to fiction or other narrative works such as biographies, but it's true for every self-improvement book I've ever come across.

    Without further ado, here are my top 16 points from the "Key Takeaways" list at the end of each chapter:

  • Talent alone cannot accurately predict success in any field
  • Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance
  • Truly successful outliers possess three traits: outstanding ability, exceptional zeal, and a capacity for hard labor
  • Humans innately believe more in natural talent than hard work
  • Talent x Effort = Skill, then Skill x Effort = Achievement. Effort counts twice.
  • Enthusiasm is common, perseverance is rare. 
  • Grit is dependent on having a coherent and cohesive goals hierarchy, and being willing to commit to the low- and middle- tier goals in order to achieve the top-tier goals.
  • Interest, practice, purpose, and hope are key assets that help form grit
  • Interests and passions are not "love at first sight." They are kindled by repeated interaction with an activity, object, or idea.
  • Daily, deliberate practice is necessary for developing grit
  • The three stages of grit are self-oriented interest, self-disciplined practice, and other-centered passion
  • An optimistic, growth mindset (rather than a limiting, fixed mindset) is also essential for developing grit, and having mentors with this mindset is very important
  • Both kindness (respect and support) and sternness (high demands) are key to developing grit in a child
  • Extracurriculars provide the key combination of fun and challenge, and develop the key trait of follow-through
  • Everyone in the family should follow the "Hard Thing Rule," which requires everyone to pick one thing they will practice daily for an entire season or year
  • Viewing yourself as a gritty person will actually make you grittier

      Many of these concepts were already sitting somewhere in my brain, but they are so important that I was grateful for the opportunity to dust them off and add to them a bit. I consider myself a gritty person in many areas of my life, and always hearken back to high school track and cross-country as the grittiest episode of my life that continues to pay gritty dividends even now. But I can also identify areas of my life that could stand a little more grit and discipline. I plan to cultivate a passionate, growth, gritty mindset in those areas-- what about you?

Saturday, March 24, 2018

All Joy And No Fun by Jennifer Senior

     This is the first parenting book I have ever read-- though I'm not sure it should be called a parenting book. In fact, All Joy And No Fun appealed to me precisely because it was not about the effect of parenting on the kids, but on the parents. And in that regard, Jennifer Senior does a nice job of describing some of the different ways modern-day adults' lives are affected by the addition of little tykes to the home.

    The book is divided into six chapters that hone in on different themes, such as marriage, autonomy, toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence, and joy. Each chapter has plenty of takeaways; for example, the amount of "flow" that is experienced by parents dramatically decreases after the birth of a child, which is a big part of why parenting can be so negatively impactful. Another is that women in the 50's and 60's were called "housewives" because they spent so much time on housework; nowadays, they are called "stay-at-home moms," and research on their time use confirms that they spend about half as much time taking care of housework and dramatically more time with their children than their grandparents did. All good stuff, some of which you may already know but much of which may be new to you, as it was to me.

     Like most books in this vein, her chapters open with vignettes, in this case of particular parents she got to know in the course of her research for the book. Her vignettes and sociological analysis skews exclusively urban, which is in line with her focus on the unique challenges faced by modern parents in modern environments. Though she uses these stories as touchstones for the sociological research she presents, she does not tie together very many big themes until the final chapter, when she finally brings home her main theme, which I'll get to below. Which brings me to my main critique of the book, which is the same critique I have of most pop social science books: it is an inefficient means of communicating the information. Though the vignettes nicely round out the research, I'd much rather just have the research downloaded to my brain and skip the fluff. Perhaps you feel the same way.

    As for the main theme? I would state it thusly: The question of whether parenting is a worthwhile endeavor is a philosophical one: should you value moment-to-moment happiness more than retrospective evaluations of your life? If the "experiencing self" is where you place your greatest value, you may logically elect to avoid becoming a parent. But if, like most people, you prioritize your "remembering self" (which ironically is terrible at recalling things accurately), you'll try to fashion a life with a more interesting storyline, with unexpected twists and turns that only children can bring. Ultimately, parenting is a gamble that the hard road will be worth the satisfaction of a child well-reared.

    Have you rolled the dice? Whether you have or haven't, I'd be interested to hear if you're satisfied with your choice.

First Quarter Report

So many things have happened in the last 3 months that a simple list seems most appropriate. So here goes:

My first Missionary Medicine Intensive Obstetrics talk went very well. My main creative endeavor this quarter was putting this course together. It was also the reason I haven't posted anything for the last two months.

Mindy and I learned a lot at a marriage conference that we are trying to put into practice. This was the biggest moment in our push to create more relational connection.

I'm still getting better at swimming. My times in various workouts are about 10% faster than just a few months ago.

I also found a great workout partner, who is starting to come over at least once a week to train in the home gym. I'm also starting to train to do handstands.

I finished several books and am most of the way through several others. Summaries are forthcoming, I promise.

I found some new podcasts. Perhaps I'll post on some of them later this year.

Work is going well. I'm now the clerkship site director for the inpatient PA student rotation.

Pepper keeps running away so we are having a fence and electric gate built. Which is yet another unanticipated temporal and financial outlay precipitated by our ownership of canines. Thanks, Pepper.

Lula went through her first heat. She does not seem to be pregnant. Thanks, Lula.

Molive the cat is great, as always.

I am still off Facebook and have no intention of rejoining. I am also limiting my Amazon usage as much as possible.

We bought 1/4 of a local cow in January and have been trying to go keto for the last 7 weeks, with limited success. I tracked my macros for the first week I was on keto, was not getting enough fat, and unintentionally lost 5 pounds. I have since gained it back, but haven't bothered to track my macros since then. I think have been decent at maintaining a high fat, moderate protein, low carb intake. And I am feeling better and have less headaches than before, as is Mindy.

We tracked our expenses for the month of February. We have a few areas we can trim but overall seem to be progressing steadily down the path toward financial independence.

My next project is building the shelves that will go in the library. Photos will be forthcoming as this evolves.

We have scheduled some camping this spring and summer along with other microadventures like kayaking classes.

I have not had the time or energy to make any videos for my vlog. It looks like that will take the backseat until my life frees up a little more (if that ever happens).

We just got another 4 inches of snow today, but spring is just around the corner. I'm looking forward to getting the garden up and growing!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Road by Cormac McCarthy


I would not recommend most people read this book. It is utterly dark and hopeless. But if you're like me and derive deep satisfaction from engaging with uncomfortable ideas, then by all means, stop reading this post and pick up The Road from any local library or bookseller. I feel stretched after reading it, and I'm sure you will, too.

The theme I most grappled with was hopelessness. Every detail in the story confronts the reader with the total absence of possibility of survival or recovery of the earth or its few remaining organisms. As the man and his son travel on foot over the post-apocalyptic landscape of eastern America, the reader is forced to confront the fact that they will never come across a living plant or animal. The remnants are gradually being reduced to ash by the fires that continue to ravage the landscape. The sun never breaks through the clouds of ash. The world is increasingly cold. And every city lies barren and quiet, littered with unlikely and impromptu tombs.

There are moments when a fleeting hope is aroused. The man and the boy spy a woman heavy with child walking down the road with two men. Perhaps this child could somehow survive to "keep the fire" of humanity alive, the reader thinks. Yet the next day, they discover the headless fetus roasted and gutted on a spit. Or maybe the ocean the man and his son journey toward will harbor life, such as great octopuses that survive for years in the depths of the sea. Yet they discover the ocean to be grey and dead, the sand littered with bones. Any great sea creatures that still persist will not do so for long without the rest of their food chain. 

The ever-recurring search for food illustrates how the earth has become almost depleted of sources of life. Most of the humans who remain have turned to the basest form of cannibalism, as illustrated by the most horrific scene of the book. Searching for food, the man and his son enter an old plantation house, only to find it to be the momentarily vacated home-base of a cannibalistic tribe. Despite their terror, their hunger drives them to complete their search. Yet when they break into the storage shelter, they find the tribe's chattel naked and huddled in the corner, terrified and asking for help. To their horror, they discover that one of the slaves has had his legs cut off and cauterized at the hips-- half-eaten and deprived of his humanity but still alive. And at that moment, the cannibals return.

Moments of terror like this punctuate an otherwise bleak odyssey. As our protagonists journey across the dead landscape, their bodies become more emaciated and ill, their ultimate demise inevitable. Bonanzas of stored food are quickly depleted, and little remains to be discussed. Dialogue is spare. Even the details of their passing landscape become repetitive. At one point, they discover a train in the woods, with luggage in the passenger cars open, long since rifled through. "After a while they just looked out through the silted glass to where the tracked curved away in the waste of weeds. If they saw different words what they knew was the same. That the train would sit here slowly decomposing for all eternity and that no train would ever run again." (192) As scenes like this accumulate, the reader must confront that there is truly no hope, for the protagonists or humanity or the earth. And even though the boy is found in the final pages by another good man after his father dies, the reader knows by that point that there is no hope.

Grappling with this darkness caused me to realize how important hope is to the human psyche, and how disturbing it is to confront a story in which all hope is truly extinguished. Yet the narrative also illustrates how people can persist despite total hopelessness, out of an indomitable will and love for others. This idea is brought to the fore during the accounting of the man's memory of the conversation he had with his wife before she committed suicide. In oddly rational terms, she told him why she was going to do it, and he ultimately had no rational answer for why she should not proceed. Even his love for her made her suicide favorable. Yet he remained opposed to it because of the loneliness that would result, and from a deep urge to survive despite all the costs. Her response, that he should commit suicide as well, is not something he ever seriously considers. Why he doesn't is the great question which the reader must ultimately answer for herself.

These existential themes can be seen as logical extensions of the existential nihilism of our age. Indeed, some philosophers assert that the primary question of philosophy is simply whether or not to commit suicide. The more hopeful of our modern-day nihilist brethren assert that each person is wonderfully free to create their own meaning, but the essential question remains. Yet this is not the only way to look at things. There are rich, durable sources of everyday meaning, laid out by Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning, ones that even the skeptical among us can discover and base a rich life upon. Ultimately, they are rooted in love, such as that of a father for his son. And it is this love which I believe motivated the man in The Road to carry on to the bitter end, accomplishing a life of purpose and meaning despite the utter hopelessness of his time.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

8 Things I've Learned from 1 Year in Boone

1. How to bundle up for really cold temperatures. The essentials: four layers on top (base layer, shirt or turtleneck, fleece, and shell), two layers on bottom, a couple pairs of gloves and socks, a scarf, ear protection, and facemask. Anything less, and you will get chilled. Guaranteed.

2. Houses built on a ridge get gale-force winds on a regular basis. Get used to it, and make sure your window stripping is good (ours isn't).

3. Air conditioning is never truly needed, but is nice for a few days in July and August. Boone's all-time high? 90 degrees. Very nice!

4. Mountain pride runs deep in local families, the surnames of which include: Mast, Tester, Moretz, Norris, Coffey, Edmisten, Horton, Tatum, Adams, Winkler, Trivett, Winebarger, Eggers, and Farthing. At least, those are some of the common surnames I see in my line of work.

5. Floridians love it here. Locals, on the other hand, sometimes call them "Floridiots." There is also a regular flux of Charlotte and Atlanta folks. And on a not-unrelated note, real estate prices here have shot up like crazy over recent decades.

6. Downtown on game days is like LA traffic. Avoid it at all costs.

7. In the High Country, can't touch the accuracy, detail, or colorful local personality of

8. There are endless local festivals, parks, rivers, trails, and restaurants to explore!