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In defense of walking

Green Lake Park, Seattle. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

We took a walk around the neighborhood this morning. A short one — just me, Drea, and Jo in the stroller. But it made me realize that walks are something I’d like to do more often. Maybe you could chalk it up to a car-dependent culture, but I find a certain appeal in choosing a mode of transport that takes a little longer.

Besides the obvious health and environmental advantages to walking, it also forces you to enjoy your surroundings. I don’t notice the sounds of bugs and birds, or appreciate the natural shade of a tree when I’m driving. Walking reminds me that the world is a place to be enjoyed.

Why don’t Drea and I walk more often? We’ve taken similar walks down the street before (including one when Drea was full term and trying to literally walk herself into labor) but our neighborhood isn’t exactly “walkable”. There are plenty of sidewalks, but without any stores or restaurants within walking distance, there’s nowhere really to go. This is something I’d like to pay attention to when we purchase our next place.

We’re headed to the Pacific Northwest next week for vacation, my plans for which include a great deal of loafing around city parks. One I’m especially looking forward to exploring is Green Lake (pictured above), where the City of Seattle has recently refurbished a walking trail around the lake. I just love that — public funds allocated for public enjoyment of the outdoors. Maybe those tree-hugging hipsters are on to something.

Filed under: Travel, , ,

Slice of life: October, November, December

When I started the “slice of life” thing in September, my plan was to make it a periodically recurring motif, something to force me to blog at least once a month about what the normal day-to-day has been serving up. But it’s now clear that even that was too lofty a goal for me, as the 48-day hiatus since my last blog entry will attest.

Sorry, folks. I could probably come up with some B.S. excuse about how I haven’t had time to blog on account of how busy we’ve been, blah, blah, whine, whine, etc. But when you think about it, the craziness of everyday life should be a reason to blog, not an excuse not to, right? So in that vein, I give you not one, not two, but three months’ worth of “slices of life”. Instead of breaking it down month by month, I’m just going to make it one big, gluttonous “slice”, so to speak. Imagine the year 2009 is one large apple pie, and you’re about to inhale an entire quarter of that thing in one sitting. Are you ready for this?

•••

Our house is feeling more like home every day. We ditched the mealtime practice of cramming our six bodies around our tiny kitchen table, in favor of a nice big 10-seater with sleeve extensions from Ikea. It’s long and narrow, so sitting at the head seat makes me feel kind of like a family patriarch about to pray the blessing over Thanksgiving dinner, and Drea and Tom and Renata and Hayden and Jack are all my grandkids. Come children, let’s join hands…

Renata’s dad Charlie has generously agreed to help us convert half our garage into a bedroom for Jolie. The work is still in progress, but we’ve managed to install a door, wall, and most of the floor so far. It’s fun seeing her little room come together, and Drea is especially anxious to start the “nesting” process (which, I’m sorry to report, will include a light pink shade on one or more of the walls. I tried, people.)

•••

We’ve spent quite a bit of time on the road recently, which I of course am quite keen on. Drea and I embarked on a “babymoon” to Florida — a last hurrah of sorts before the little whippersnapper’s grand arrival. We had a fantastic (albeit uncharacteristically ad-libbed) time celebrating the end of life as we know it! You can get the whole scoop here on our family blog.

Over Thanksgiving, my whole family piled into my aunt’s 8-passenger van and headed up to the Poconos for a long weekend of goofing off, playing games and hanging around northeast PA, including Scranton! (Fans of The Office might be interested to know that there is a real Steamtown Mall in Scranton, although it’s incredibly lame except for an out-of-this-world crêpe stand in the food court.) We toured a coal mine (more entertaining than it sounds) and spent some time in the charming town of Jim Thorpe.

Drea and I are excited to take yet another mini-getaway (I’m addicted to these things!) this weekend to New York to see the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular at Radio City. It was supposed to be my surprise Christmas gift to her, but I blew it! She asked me to give her a hint that she wouldn’t be able to figure out, but that would temporarily satiate her curiosity. The hint I gave her was “R.C.M.H.” and she guessed “Radio City Music Hall” immediately. We both kicked ourselves and sulked for a little bit, but we soon got over it. However, after underestimating both Drea’s clue-decoding talent and my own overwhelming stupidity for giving her such an easy clue, we both vowed to keep all future surprises for each other under stealth secrecy, no exceptions. 🙂

•••

Holiday music-wise, I’ve been enjoying Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas this year. Recorded over the course of five Christmases as five separate EPs and now available as a box set, it’s full of innovative, folksy takes on both well-known and obscure Christmas carols, as well as some colorful original tracks, including “What Child Is This, Anyway?”, “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!”, “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)”, and “Get Behind Me, Santa!”.

I also feel compelled to mention that Bob Dylan released a Christmas album this year. I’m a big Dylan fan, but am quite unsure how to feel about this. I haven’t heard the album (besides the samples on Amazon), but something tells me Christmas music might not be his forte. And that something is Washington Post staff writer Chris Richards, who offers this observation in his review: “[Dylan’s version of] ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ sounds like a reason to bolt the doors…As ever, chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost is nipping at your nose — but this time, the man behind the microphone sounds as if he’s trying to dislodge a piece of tinsel from his throat.” My curiosity is piqued, to say the least.

Christmas at the AckerJanes is fun this year — devouring gargantuan waffle breakfasts on the weekends, watching Elf, making fun of Renata’s affinity for the Hanson Christmas album, and pooling both families’ Christmas ornaments together on one tree. As I type, Drea is stuffing our Christmas cards into envelopes as Sara Groves sings “Gloria in excelsis Deo” in the background. It’s a good moment, and “Glory to God in the highest” seems a fitting expression of gratitude — for the friends and family we send cards to, for the little Ackermann kicking away, for peace and good will to men.

Merry Christmas to all!

Filed under: Blogging, Family, Funny, Music, Slice of life, Travel

It’s okay to be jealous.

This is where Drea and I are headed next week!

Untitled

Filed under: Travel

“Fluffya”

That is the way many native Philadelphians pronounce their city’s name. Add that to “Warshintun” and “Ballmer” and you’ve completed the trifecta of metropolises whose names we Mid-Atlantic-ers love to massacre.

Inexplicable diction aside, Philly seemed like a cool place, and Drea and I decided on whim to go there this weekend to celebrate my birthday. We drove up Friday night, and while an epic traffic jam in Baltimore added an hour to our trip, I was able to appreciate a small glory — the “stick-it-to-the-man” thrill of bypassing the Delaware Turnpike toll plaza. (Here’s how to do it.) Take that, Delaware!

I had never been to Philadelphia, and quickly realized that I’d been missing out. The I-95 approach affords some beautiful skyline views, with the Ben Franklin Bridge’s enormous blue span towering just behind it. (Architecture nerd that I am, I do enjoy a good suspension bridge.) We stayed at the charming Conwell Inn, a 19th-century row of townhouses converted into a boutique hotel on Temple University’s campus. We polished off our hotel breakfast on Saturday morning and caught the subway downtown.

(A quick word about subways. It seems that every time I use a different city’s subway, I appreciate our Metro in DC all the more. After we rode Boston’s “T” last year, I appreciated the fact that the Metro goes faster than 15 mph and doesn’t mysteriously stop and shut itself off between stations. After now having used the Philadelphia subway, I can now add another entry to my list of praises for the Metro: it doesn’t smell like urine.)

In between the Philly must-see’s (the fascinating Independence Hall, the surprisingly small Liberty Bell, etc.) we visited a house where Edgar Allan Poe lived, strolled through Franklin Square (man, I love a good city park), grabbed a gloriously chaotic lunch at Reading Terminal Market, and toured the creepy castle-like Eastern State Penitentiary.

The one low point of the day for me was being packed like sardines on the downtown shuttle — directly adjacent to a very loud, large, and foul-smelling woman who evidently didn’t realize that her robust posterior was colliding with everything and everyone in its vicinity, myself included, whenever she moved. Yuck.

Some would say we missed an essential Philadelphia experience by not getting Philly cheesesteaks, but we didn’t feel bad passing them up after learning that they make them with Cheez Whiz.

I pieced together some video from our trip. Enjoy!

Filed under: Travel

Hilton Head

We just returned from a fantastic trip to Hilton Head with my family. It was the first larger-scale vacation I’ve taken with my family in three years, and the first one with Drea along, and I had a great time. The seven of us (the whole gang minus Rich) piled into my parents’ minivan and headed south. I-95 is equally boring through VA, NC, and SC, bankrupt of any natural landmarks or points of interest besides South of the Border, that southern interstate Mecca of sophistication and cultured refinement.

South of the Border

South of the Border

Each of us made road trip mix CD’s that helped alleviate the monotony of the drive. If I may be so bold, I will say I make a dang good mix CD, and it was fun introducing my family to some of my recent music favorites (Ben Folds, Jon Foreman, Chris Thile, and of course Coldplay).

Drea, my parents, and me in the front seats...

Allison, Adrienne, and Abby in the back! (We did switch around after a while.)

Hilton Head proved worthy of the 12-hour trip; we loved its palm trees, great restaurants, absence of mosquitoes, and warm ocean breezes. We rode bikes around town, lounged on the beach, played games, and generally had a humdinger of a time.

We'd never seen sand hard enough to ride bikes on!

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I'd also never lifted eagle-like from the ground before, so that was pretty cool.

We visited nearby Savannah, GA for an historic/ghost walking tour. Our guide was incredible, and even showed us the street where Tom Hanks sat on the bench in Forrest Gump (the bench is now gone). Savannah is a great city — beautiful and brimming with history; if you ever go, you won’t regret booking this guy to show you around.

Preaching like John Wesley in Savannah

Paying tribute to John Wesley's statue in Savannah

On the drive home we spent most of the North Carolina leg of I-95 listening to my dad read his travel journal to us. He’s chronicled just about every trip he’s taken since he was a kid, and it was especially fun hearing recountings of previous family vacations out west. I spent some time reflecting on the robust and unmerited blessings I’ve enjoyed in life so far– great childhood memories, great vacations, parents who are still crazy about each other, and a wife who fits like a glove with my family. I’ve got it better than I deserve, for sure.

* Special thanks to Abby, as I stole these pictures off her Facebook without asking. 🙂

Filed under: Travel, ,

Road trip!

I’ve always loved our family vacations. My dad is a road trip planning wizard, and he’s taken us on some doozies over the years…

One year we drove from Maryland to Wyoming and back — over 4,000 miles roundtrip — for a family reunion. I’ll always associate that trip with The Lion King, as that was the year it came out, and we listened to the soundtrack at least 30 times.

Another year we flew into San Diego and drove up the west coast to Seattle and back. That was the trip of my parents’ now-infamous brainchild, the “seatbelt game”, where we four kids were given five seconds to un-buckle our seatbelts, rotate seats in our rented minivan, and re-buckle.

Then there was the Phoenix to Denver trip where we checked out some great towns in Arizona and Colorado to possibly live in, and where we had an elaborate competition to see who could make the best road trip mix CD.

Being in the car with my family is one of my favorite memories of childhood (and even adulthood). Playing 20 Questions, the License Plate Game, or appreciating putting up with each other’s music selections — all while seeing the most beautiful places in our country — was a great experience, and one I can’t wait to continue with Drea and our kids.

Next week, we’ll do it again. My parents arranged us one of those timeshare deals in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Sounds like a fun place — miles of bike trails, lots of tennis, and the beach — but I’m looking forward to the drive down as much as our destination. Granted, instead of desert canyons or the Rocky Mountains, our backdrop will be the conglomeration of Waffle Houses, Cracker Barrels and other obesity-inducing establishments along the I-95 corridor. But we’ll still have a blast (assuming this doesn’t happen). Plus, I can’t turn down some greasy food from time to time.

Filed under: Travel,

Thanks (in advance) — you’re a good sport

Drea is at the Outer Banks with Smizzle this week, leaving me all alone! I’m kickin’ it Kevin McAllister style this week. I’m doing okay (staying pretty busy) but I still miss her. As such, I’ve elected to write a haiku to chronicle this time…

North Carolina
Has my wife for the week and
I miss her a bit

She prepared me though
Did my laundry, cleaned the house
I have a good spouse

I’m not enjoying
Having the bed to myself
As much as I thought

She’s having good times
With a good friend, so that’s cool
Beaches, spas, chick flicks

She left me a list
Of stuff to do while she’s gone
“if I have the time”

I’ve done none of them
I’m a terrible husband
I hope she’ll forgive

She’ll be getting back
Tomorrow in the afternoon
So I still have time

I’m just rambling now
You’re probably bored to tears
Thanks — you’re a good sport

This is what happens
When I have too much free time
I write crappy haikus.

Filed under: Marriage, Slice of life, Travel,

We spent the weekend with 300 middle-schoolers!

We had a great weekend at NorthBay for the Light Company spring retreat. Drea and I sing and play, respectively, in the worship band every year with some friends from Salisbury and/or Grace Community, and it’s always a good time! NorthBay is the bomb, situated at the top of the Chesapeake Bay and home to some of the best camp food I’ve ever tasted. They also have reserved parking spaces for hybrid/alternative fuel vehicles, which we were happy to park our beloved Prius in. Boo-ya!

Our band is also the bomb. Since the retreat is for middle-schoolers, we keep the music pretty high-energy, with lots of jumping around by kids and band members alike. (For me on the keys, it turns out that jumping while playing is possible, if a little awkward and having a devastating effect on note accuracy.)

I also feel a need to mention that our repertoire this year included “Burnin’ Up” by the Jonas Brothers. (Used for “coming in music”, not for worship!) I mean, how could we not be awesome?

This was (I think) my fourth year going on the LC retreat, and I enjoy it more and more each time. A bunch of Salisbury Cru people usually come up for the weekend to do work crew, and I realized that this would be the last year there would be people at Salisbury that I knew. Freakin’ crap, I’m getting old!

In any case, we’re a little tired, but we’re always down for an excuse to jump around like idiots all weekend.

Filed under: Travel

Rethinking foreign missions

The other night I was reading through my old journal from a few years ago, specifically the entries from a missions trip my sister and I went on. In the summer of ’05, we joined a group of college kids on a trip to Southeast Asia to share Christ and teach English to middle schoolers.

Reading those pages brought back a flood of memories of the weird juxtapositions that defined that trip for me. Being so far from home had me alternating between barely-contained excitement and acute homesickness. The landscape was simultaneously beautiful and ugly; from a single vantage point you could see a lush green mountainside and a stream of sewage running down the street. Being surrounded by a language I didn’t understand was exhilarating at times and unbelievably frustrating at others. Most significant though, was the juxtaposition I saw in the local followers of Christ: unshakable joy in hard circumstances.

Seeing Christianity lived out in such a different (read: difficult and dangerous) context had an effect on me. How humbling it was to realize how easy I had it, that I didn’t have to worry about the government breaking into my house and arresting me, or doing worse, for being a Christian. That I didn’t have to live in constant fear for my family’s safety, that I had everything I needed (and then some) to live a comfortable life. And yet, despite their hardships, those Asian believers probably had the most sincere faith and love for Jesus that I’ve ever seen. I took stock of their simple joy and contentment in knowing Jesus, realizing then I had more to learn from them than I had to teach. Truth be told, I think that trip benefited me more than the people we came to serve.

But isn’t the point of going on a missions trip to help those in need, not learn something for yourself?

About a year after the trip, I read a book by K.P. Yohannan, the founder of a wonderful organization called Gospel for Asia, in which he discusses how the foreign mission field has changed over the past half-century. His book is essentially a defense of the native missionary movement, stating that since the Gospel has now been planted by Westerners in many of the world’s most remote cultures, the time has come to mobilize native missionaries to spread the Gospel to their own people. He recounts the effectiveness that natives in his home country of India have in reaching their people, compared with short term Western missionaries who aren’t familiar with the language or culture.

Upon reading this, a lot of things about my trip became clear. I kept remembering a particular day when we read a condensed “Creation to the Cross” story to our class of 7th graders with the help of a native Christian woman. As she translated the story into the local language, I noticed that she had a connection with the kids that I didn’t have. She spoke their dialect, ate their food, knew what music they liked, shared their life experiences. After reading K.P.’s book, it all began to make sense.

It seems that there’s an emerging shift in the way Western Christians are thinking about short term missions, which is really exciting to me. I came across a thought-provoking article the other day (by way of another great article) that resonated with what I had experienced in Asia: that short term missions trips usually benefit those who go more than the people already there, and that we North American Christians have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in the third world.

Rather than regurgitate the ideas presented in those two articles, I’ll wrap things up with an excerpt from one, in hopes that if you’re a Christian with a heart for foreign missions, you’ll read them both. It’ll be worth it, I promise!

I believe North American Christians need to start taking seriously our responsibility to the  people of the third world – and visiting another country can be an appropriate place to begin. But we need to ask each other: What is the purpose of the trip? Are we going through the motions of helping the poor so we can congratulate ourselves afterwards? Or are we seeking to understand the lives of third world people – to recognize and support their strengths and to try to understand the problems they face and our role in them? Are we ethnocentrically treating the people of the third world as tragic objects to be rescued – or as equals to walk with and learn from?

– Jo Ann Van Engen, “Short Term Missions: Are They Worth the Cost?”

Filed under: Books, Current issues, Faith, Travel,

O, Canada!

For those who are unaware, I have a road trip addiction. To me, there’s no better vacation than a week or two on the open road, preferably somewhere far away. I get a certain thrill out of plotting a route on a map and taking it, hoping for the best.

So naturally, after our epic road trip out west last summer, another one is in the works for this summer. We’ll be taking our beloved Prius up to Canada, ya know, to get “oat and aboat”. Should be fun, eh? *Insert other lame overused Canada joke.* We plan to spend some time at Niagara Falls, maybe tour a few Ontario wineries, visit Toronto, and eventually make our way over to Quebec to experience some quasi-French culture. I hear Montreal is the closest thing to Paris on this side of the Atlantic (except without all the snootiness.) So I’m psyched.

In the meantime, I’ll be practicing my verbal slaughtering of the French language. According to Trip Advisor, the Québécois appreciate it when tourists attempt to speak French, even if the end result is as atrocious as my efforts will certainly be. I have a cursory ability to communicate in Spanish, assuming it’s always the present tense and everybody is “I”. But I’m useless when it comes to French. I’m not exaggerating when I say the total sum of my experience with the language comes from Home Alone. “Kevin, you’re what the French call les incompetents.”

Step aside, Kevin. The Ackermanns are coming to Quebec.

Filed under: Travel,