Thursday, May 26, 2011

The upside of being a geek

My son, my oldest child, will graduate from our parish school in a few weeks and head to the public high school. The very large and intimidating (but excellent) public high school. And I have to admit, the thought makes my stomach do little flips. Not good flips.

I won't go so far as to say that I'm having flashbacks, but the thought of my baby standing in the Ground Zero of teenage cruelty known as the cafeteria -- or even worse, phys ed class -- is almost more than I can bear. I was not among the "cool" kids in high school. I was anything but, wearing so many uncool labels it was hard to keep track: twirler, folk group singer, honor society member, CYO president. Add to that the fact that I never went to a party at the bleachers and spent most of my free time at my parish church and, well, you probably get the picture. Last one picked for the team. Any team, from field hockey to square dancing.

So when I saw this story in the New York Times today, I ripped it out and left it on the kitchen table for my son and my tween daughter to read. Alexandra Robbins, 34, author of "The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth," is a former "power dork" who has made a career out of helping teenagers realize that being unpopular in high school is often a good indicator that you'll go far later on. Her book chronicles the lives of high school archetypes — the Loner, the New Girl, the Nerd and the Band Geek.

From the story in the Times:

Their stories beautifully demonstrate things we know intrinsically: being popular is not always the same as being liked, that high school is more rigid and conformist than the military, and that the people who are excluded and bullied for their offbeat passions and refusal to conform are often the ones who are embraced and lauded for those very qualities in college and beyond — what Ms. Robbins has dubbed Quirk Theory.

As anyone who’s seen movies like “Heathers” knows, the social agonies of high school are nothing new. But the Internet has magnified those feelings of alienation for the oddballs. Partly it’s the relentless exposure to celebrity culture, to images of perfection and roaring success with little discernible talent. (Hello, Kardashians.) But it goes beyond issues of appearance.

“Facebook is now the online cafeteria,” Ms. Robbins says. “It’s this public space, largely unsupervised, and it mirrors the cafeteria dynamic where you walk in and have to find a place to belong. At school, you have to pick a table. Well, on Facebook you not only have to pick a table, you have to pick who’s at your table and who’s not. And then kids feel they have to be publicists for themselves, maintaining their photos and status. It’s exhausting.”

Also exhausting is the care and feeding of popularity, which Ms. Robbins has discovered is not so much about being liked (some popular teenagers are liked, many are not) as about being known. “Popularity is a combination of visibility, influence and recognizability,” she says. “If you’re someone who engages in studying or practicing violin, these are not activities that put you in front of the student body. So these kids aren’t in the popular crowd, but it doesn’t say anything other than the fact that their talents are not visible.”

In other words, the president of the chess club may have more real friends than the cheerleader, but still be considered unpopular.

As a former geek (and perhaps a current geek who just doesn't realize it), I can attest to Ms. Robbins' theories. The very things that made me "odd" in high school made me "interesting" in college. My willingness to walk to the beat of a different drummer served me well once I was out of the popularity-is-everything world of high school. I attribute a lot of that not only to my family but to my involvement in CYO, which was -- at least where I lived -- the very best version of youth ministry, a powerful combination of service, spirituality and social events. We sang in nursing homes and planned liturgies, but we also went to dances and hung out together at church when many of our classmates were getting into trouble.

It's one of the reasons I've been pushing my son to get involved in our own parish youth ministry. In fact, the two of us are heading to Indianapolis in November -- along with about 25,000 other teenagers -- for the annual National Catholic Youth Conference. I want him to see that he is not alone in his thinking, his values, his beliefs, even if he finds himself alone now and then in the cafeteria at school.

And as Ms. Robbins points out in the Times story, knowing who you are and being willing to break from the crowd is critical:

Ms. Robbins has many deeply comforting words for these teenagers; and one story speaks in particular to those who’ve been right there with the high school outcasts. It’s about an experiment performed by the late-19th-century French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre on caterpillars that were hard-wired to follow each other in a long head-to-tail line.

“Fabre set them up in such a way that they were following each other around the rim of a flowerpot — with their favorite food only inches away,” Ms. Robbins says. “For seven days they followed each other around until they died of starvation and exhaustion. They couldn’t see how a simple deviation from the path would get them to the food they needed right away.”

Geeks are many things, Ms. Robbins suggests. But one thing they aren’t are caterpillars.
To read the full Times story, click HERE.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sunday morning quarterbacking on the Rapture

I've been thinking a lot about the whole Rapture frenzy and why it seemed to take on a life of its own. Certainly in the world of Facebook and Twitter it did. And if you follow me on Facebook, you know I was having quite a good time with the alleged impending doom. Not because I'm cavalier about meeting my Maker one day but because I was entertained by the hubris of one man to try to scare the rest of the world into thinking that most of us were not going to be raptured at a specific time and date, even according to individual time zones.

Why do some people -- albeit an odd few -- cling to these sorts of weird predictions, be they Evangelical Christian or New Age Mayan? I think it's because people like the idea of having some control, even over their own demise, or rapture. But, as we know all too well, we don't have control. Car accidents and cancer, hurricanes and heart attacks take our loved ones regardless of what the calendar says.

Jesus said, "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour." (Mt 25:13) In other words, be ready -- every day, any day. Which is easier said than done. It's much more palatable to think someone can give us a date and time, isn't it? But we Christians are meant to live our lives as if any day could be our last.

Last night wasn't the Rapture after all, but I'm sure the predictions are already being recalculated as we speak. For those of us who believe in Jesus, no predictions are necessary. He told us everything we need to know. Now we just have to do the hard part: live it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Why I live in - and love - the northeast

When we decided to move back to New York from Texas 10 years ago, there were a couple of reasons. First, all of the grandparents live in New York and New Jersey, but not far behind was the fact that New York has the beauty of four distinct seasons. In Texas, the seasons are pretty much hot and hotter. But here, just when you think you're tired of a season (especially a long, cold winter), along comes a new season to fill you with joy and hope and awe.

As much as I loved Austin (and I lived there twice), I loved autumn more. Every September I would miss the crisp northeast air that would blow in one morning and let you know that summer was over and it was time to pick apples and watch the leaves turn into a kind of visual poetry. And then along would come that first snowflake and I'd fall in love all over again.

Now it's spring, and I find myself staring out my back window every morning, watching the barren limbs turn vibrant green. I actually get a little giddy every time a new bloom appears somewhere in our yard. I know this wave of cool color will eventually give way to the hot and humid tones of summer, sometimes tinged brown by drought. But that will bring with it the big bobbing white heads of the hydrangea, the bats swooping overhead at dusk, and the anticipation that a tart and crispy McIntosh apple is just around the corner.

Here's some of what awes me in my own backyard this week:

The bleeding heart I rescued from a high-traffic area at the edge of my yard when it was just a single branch with one bloom. Now look at it. Pretty obvious why it's called a bleeding heart when you see it up close, no?

Lilacs. One of my favorites. This is the first year we've had a lot of blooms, at least on one shrub. Maybe next year one of the other three will join in.

Vinca. A groundcover really, but such a pretty one. And it can survive in the shade, which is why it grows wild in my yard, which was at one time pretty much all deep shade. Not so much now that they've clear cut the three lots around us.

A potted begonia and a basket of pansies, which I had to include because Chiara took these photos. Not bad, eh?

And, of course, at the top of this post is a long view of my raised bed. This is what Our Lady of Guadalupe looks like when she's not serving as a snow-measuring device, as was the case in THIS POST. I bet she was glad to see a change of seasons this year.

Help for the Rosary-challenged (like me)

I don't know about you, but I have a hard time with the Rosary. I am Rosary-challenged. But I recently reviewed four books that look at the Rosary from different perspectives, and I have to admit that I feel a little space opening up for this ancient prayer. I'm saying it more often and more effectively. I think.

So check out my story in Our Sunday Visitor, and then check out some or all of these great books. I'll get you started here:

Four recent books offer different perspectives on ancient prayer for experts and novices alike

By Mary DeTurris Poust - OSV Newsweekly, 5/15/2011

When it comes to the Rosary, some people are like marathon champs.

They have no problem saying the words to familiar prayers and reflecting on the mysteries as they drive two hours on a busy highway with 18-wheelers buzzing by, as they take their morning power walk through the neighborhood, even as they wait in line at the grocery store or bank.

These long-distance prayers are able to enter into the beauty and mystery of the Rosary in ways that can confound many of us.

I have to admit that I’m Rosary-challenged. This traditional prayer that was so much a part of my childhood has always been a struggle for me. I’d try to pray at night and fall asleep. I’d kneel in our parish chapel, but before I knew it my mind was wandering and I’d lost count even with the beads there to prevent that.

Not that long ago, I bought a Rosary CD and tried to pray as I walked to church, but even then my thoughts could not find a place to rest. The Rosary seems to test the limits of my otherwise impressive multitasking skills.

So, when four different books on the Rosary arrived on my desk in recent months, I took it as a sign that it was time to give the Rosary another shot. Each of the books approaches this prayer from a different perspective, giving readers the opportunity to find a method that suits their spiritual style. Continue reading HERE.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Where I've been, where you'll find me

I've been pretty scarce around these parts lately. Why? Because I've been spending all my time in the basement and at the Dollar Store. How's that for a great combo? I've been prepping for the mini-retreat I'll be giving in Warwick, Rhode Island, tomorrow for 60+ people from 11 New England dioceses. So...I've spent many hours at the Dollar Store buying supplies, actually two Dollar Stores, and the Christmas Tree Shoppe, and various party stores and more in New York and New Jersey. Yes, it's a multi-state adventure. I've been at our local Dollar Store so often that the manager and I have become friends. He even gave me directions to Warwick, and I promised to come back and tell him how things went. That's what happens when you talk too much.

After I found all the pieces for these projects, I had to assemble 70 bags/boxes, put prayer-based messages on the front and back of each one, cut squares of Styrofoam for each one with a serrated bread knife (I'm hoping I don't have some rare lung disease from breathing in all that Styrofoam dust), stuff the bags with shredded paper, and then, the best part, stick each of those little doves onto the end of a toothpick and then stick the toothpick into the Styrofoam. I have to share this with all of you because, really, no one would ever guess these little things required that much effort. I'm sure the folks at the retreat will wonder why they're getting a cheap little bag of paper. What can I do? I had to keep costs reasonable. It's the love that's put into it that counts, right?

Those are the little "prayer boxes" above and to the left. They'll be part of an activity at the end of one of my retreat sessions. I've got another table full of votive candles for the closing activity. Let's hope I don't set off the conference center sprinklers with 70 candles going at once on one big table. That certainly would make for a memorable experience.

I sure hope they like all this stuff, not to mention the actual talks that will serve as the core of this event and the Powerpoints presentations (my first ever) to go with each of the eight songs I'm using to close and open the four segments. Phew.

It would really help if you could send some prayers my way tomorrow. I want to give these participants -- all of whom are catechists for developmentally disabled adults and children -- what they need and deserve on this annual day of renewal for them. I'll let you know how things go when I get back.