Friday, December 21, 2012

Reconnecting with students

One of my favorite parts of my job is reconnecting with past students. I love hearing about their recent adventures and accomplishments... especially when Student Launch Pad has helped them on that path!

This week I was able to sit down with two Student Launch Pad graduates who have successfully finished their first semester of college. Talking to them about selecting clubs, extracurricular activities, and other new ventures reminds me of finding my own path in college... how long ago that seems!

On the Student Launch Pad blog, I will be featuring past students in a Student Spotlight section. I love being able to share their stories and honor their accomplishments!

The first Student Spotlight features Liz Earls:

As college students return home for winter break, many will be discussing future plans with their families. Questions like, “What should I major in?” and “What internships should I apply to?” will be frequent, with the uncertainties often causing stress. Yet, Liz Earls, a Student Launch Pad graduate, is starting the break excited about her future. She sat down with Student Launch Pad to give an update on her college experience so far.

To continue reading, visit the Student Launch Pad blog.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Best Books of 2012: Gift-Giving

As my last installment of the best books of 2012 series, I want to recommend my top choices for books that make excellent gifts.

My primary choice is One Thousand Gifts, as I already talked about on the first day of this series. If you visit the website, there are also a lot of other great gift ideas to accompany the book, such as a devotional journal and book of photographs.

My remaining picks are divided according to who the gift is for:

  • For your mom, or a best girl friend:

She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems

I received this book as a gift myself (after hinting that I wanted it last year!) and think it makes a thoughtful gift. Caroline Kennedy selected each poem and arranges them according to topic. She introduces each section with personal reflections connected to the poems' themes on the topic. Her selections are excellent and range from the Romantic poets to those of modern day.

"Poems distill our deepest emotions into a very few words - words that we can remember, carry with us, and share with others as we talk and weave the cloth of life."

  • For the aspiring author, or anyone who appreciates memoirs:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions of Writing and Life

Author Anne Lamott is simply hilarious. As she describes her writing process and publishing books, she brilliantly weaves in funny personal stories. For any aspiring novelist this is a great read for a famous writer's perspective on the deliberate and frustrating - yet freeing and rewarding - process known as writing.

"You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard."

  • For the social advocate: 

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

This national bestseller is a moving account of oppression around the globe. Journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, discuss how to fight global poverty with touching, sad, and inspirational stories of women worldwide. Among the shocking accounts that Kristof and WuDunn have witnessed are also stories of hope and practical tips on how each one of us can turn oppression into opportunity.

"Helping people is difficult and unpredictable, and our interventions don't always work, but successes are possible, and these victories are incredibly important... We may not succeed in educating all the girls in poor countries, or in preventing all the women from dying in childbirth, or in saving all the girls who are imprisoned in brothels. But we... remember a Hawaiian parable...

A man goes out on the beach and sees that it is covered with starfish that have washed up in the tide. A little boy is walking along, picking them up and throwing them back into the water. 'What are you doing, son?' the man asks. 'You see how many starfish there are? You'll never make a difference.' The boy paused thoughtfully, and picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean. 'It sure made a difference to that one, he said."

  • For your dad:

Since this book made my top nonfiction pick, I won't summarize it again here. But this book is an interesting read that any business person would enjoy for understanding the choices we make at large and individually.

  • For the athlete:

This is another book from my nonfiction favorites, but it would be a great gift for any athlete, especially runners. The incredible training and races that these superathletes put themselves through is inspiring to read about.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Best Books of 2012: Fiction

I love a good suspense story... one of those where you have to keep turning the page. Although character development is also a must for a book to be considered an all-time favorite, this year I was more drawn toward reading engaging plots. Not that the following books don't have character development; it's just that their plots are what is most captivating.

I also enjoy historical fiction, which you'll see elements of throughout this book selection. Another common theme in all of these books? Family secrets. Can't get much more suspenseful than that!

Without further ado, here are the best fiction books I read this year:

Sarah's Key
By now you've probably heard of this book since it was made into movie. And I highly recommend the movie. But first, read the book! (Or if you've already seen the movie, still read the book!) This book takes place in Paris and alternates between present day and July 1942, the time of the French Vel' d'Hiv roundup in World War II. On the Vel' d'Hiv's 60th anniversary, a journalist writes an article about this day, and through her investigation begins to unravel her own family secrets. Author Tatiana de Rosnay brilliantly connects Sarah, a ten year-old girl sent to Auschwitz, with Julia, a reporter of today, and weaves their stories together. We are all products of our past...

This is the book that my friend Leah and I synchro-read together, so I've already written this review on it. To recap, it is about a woman, Emily, who escapes a broken heart by visiting her beloved great-aunt Bee on Bainbridge Island in the Pacific northwest. Emily discovers a journal, which sparks questions about her family and several surprises. As family secrets are uncovered, author Sarah Jio writes so that you want to get to bottom of things just as much as Emily does.

It's perhaps a little risky to include this on my top books already because I still have 15% left to read (it's obviously on my Kindle!). However, it has been such an enthralling book so far that no matter how it ends, it is worth a read. 

This is another book that combines family mysteries with historical fiction, and its plot spans generations of families. The main character, Laurel, witnessed her mother commit a crime when she was a teenager, and fifty years later digs into the past while her mother is on her death bed. The genius of author Kate Morton's plot is that the story takes you from pre-World War II England, through the blitz, to the 60s and then present day. Meanwhile, it weaves together three separate families, telling the story from varying perspectives. At each new character, my sentiments change regarding who deserves my sympathies, making you uncertain of the truth. Morton also includes dramatic irony as you begin to know answers to questions that protagonist Laurel is still searching for. To quote the Amazon review, "The Secret Keeper explores longings and dreams and the unexpected consequences they sometimes bring."

This book explores the racism, violence, and conflict in Seattle when Japanese families were sent to internment camps during World War II. Yet amidst the chaos, author Henry Lee uses a friendship between Henry, a Chinese American student, and Keiko, a Japanese American student, to show that hope, friendship, and commitment are powerful forces, even during wartime. This historical fiction novel explores the story of Henry from present day back to the 1940s. Throughout the book, Henry seeks to come to terms with his father's nationalism while searching for an object that will reconnect him with Keiko, recalling memories of her family being sent to the internment camps. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Best Books of 2012: Spiritual

Technically, I could have put these books in my "nonfiction" category from yesterday. Yet because my spiritual growth is a very important part of how I am being embraced by the journey, this category stands apart. I have read several devotionals and religious books this year, but I narrowed it down to these four because they are ones that I will reread and refer back to in years to come.

Although this book is written from a Christian perspective, I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking about marriage, is engaged, is newly married, or wants to reawaken their marriage. Author Timothy Keller speaks raw truth about marriage, not sugar-coating the "profound mystery" of marriage (Ephesians 5:32) while still upholding it as "next to our relationship with God... the most profound relationship there is." He discusses how to love your spouse fully when expectations are unmet, when your spouse changes, and when your pride gets in the way... all necessary topics for a healthy, deep relationship with your spouse! It's so different from what our culture often tells us about marriage that it's worth a read.

"Whether we are husband or wife, we are not to live for ourselves but for the other. And that is the hardest yet single most important function of being a husband or wife in marriage." 

This book is a quick and engaging read, especially for history lovers. Again, whether or not you are a Christian, this book will interest you. Who is This Man? dives into the impact that Jesus had on history and life as we know it. Author John Ortberg shows how Christianity has impacted our education, charities, politics, architecture, and even feminism. It will change the way you view history, and certainly how you read the Bible.

"The historical impact of Jesus' thinking is so pervasive that it is often take for granted."

I wrote about Captivating earlier this year, and this book is written for any woman to read, young or old. It beautifully describes how God uniquely created women and that "the desires you had as a little girl and the longings you still feel as a woman are telling you of the life God created you to live." What are your longings? Or, if you are married, what are your wife's desires? Authors John and Stasi Eldredge show how every woman has a beauty to unveil. As I've stated before, by unveiling your beauty and being all of who you are, you also invite others to experience beauty - in you and in themselves.  

"A woman of true beauty offers others the grace to be and the room to become." 

I read a lot of Tim Keller, and listen to his podcast, so it's only fitting that two of his books made this list. King's Cross goes through the book of Mark, but it is not your typical commentary. I believe it will change how you read the rest of the gospels as it explores what the Bible has to say about Jesus. One of the most profound lessons that I learned in this book is how Jesus identifies with each of us on a personal level. Every miracle he performs and every person he talks to, he does with intention and understanding.

"Jesus always give you what you need, and he knows better than you what that is. He's the Wonderful Counselor... And because Jesus identified like that with us, now we know why we can approach him... Don't be too isolated to think you are beyond healing. Don't be too proud to accept what the gospel says about your unworthiness. Don't be too despondent to accept what the gospel says about how loved you are."

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Best Books of 2012: Nonfiction

I've been reading (or at least skimming) over a dozen nonfiction books lately for my newest endeavor of writing a book. Most of these are nonfiction and relate to my area of work in student coaching. Yet, I also enjoy reading nonfiction books for the purpose and intention behind the story. The best nonfiction writers have a burden to share and passion to explore, which is true for this list.

A common theme throughout these three books is the tension behind how we were created and the choices we make. The interplay between our unique make-up and how we choose to use our giftings lends itself to the classic - yet compelling - "nature vs. nurture" debate.

With that in mind, here are my top nonfiction reads this year:

This book explains the nature of habits, why they exist in the first place, and how you change bad habits or create positive ones. The stories, examples, and research that author Charles Duhigg draws on span a variety of fields and experiences, making it an engaging and fascinating read... Especially if you're interested in psychology in individuals, business, and society.

"This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs - and becomes authentic - it's not only real, it starts to seem inevitable..."

I originally started this book because I am a runner. However, I quickly realized that this book is about ultra-runners and super-athletes who compete in races that are hundreds of miles. (And I thought I was proud of finishing a half-marathon?!) There was not much practical application to my own running journey (unless I decided to embrace the barefoot running phenomenon) besides a few mantras of "Don't fight the trail" and "Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast." Instead, what kept me reading was the compelling story about the Tarahumara Indians who are the best runners in the world. Author Christopher McDougall creatively weaves the biology, research, and anthropology behind running into a culmination of "the greatest race the world has never seen."

"You had to love running, or you wouldn't live to love anything else. And like everything else we love- everything we sentimentally call our "passions" and "desires"- it's really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run." 

Let me start by saying that I do not agree with everything that this book proposes. I believe we were each created with unique passions and that these can play a big role in helping us finding work we love. However, this book was a refreshing read precisely because of its different perspective. It also raises some critical points about the necessity of cultivating skills and having a craftsmen mindset, which focuses on the strengths you have to offer. It also discuss building career capital, which is critical for advancing in any field. Therefore, this book made my top books of 2012 list because I believe it's an important read for my generation who is apt to give up when work is hard, rather than persevere and succeed in small but significant ways. 

"Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on your world - a crucial factor in loving what you do."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Best Books of 2012 Series

I love to read and often have three or more books going at once, including fiction, nonfiction, religious, business, etc. I recently joined a book club, which my friend Laura started, and I am excited to start discussing books with other book lovers! (You can check out Laura's blog at Unpunctuated Life.)

Throughout this week, I am going to do a series on the best books I have read this year. (They won't necessarily have been written this year.) I'll break the books into categories, so you can expect to see the best (1) Fiction, (2) Nonfiction, and (3) Spiritual books I read. I hope you'll get some good gift ideas for fellow book lovers, or some own to add to your stack. Or, New Year's resolutions, perhaps?

But to start, my all time favorite book that I read this year was One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, by Ann Voskamp. Ann writes beautifully and honestly, compelling you to take her joy dare.

I am usually not good at choosing "favorites." But this book has shaped my past year. I read this book in January and still frequently refer to it and think about its premise of gratitude.

Because of One Thousand Gifts, John and I keep a gratitude journal on our coffee table, where we write down daily thanksgivings. Although it seems like a small practice, the ramifications are significant. It is not only a record of all that we have to rejoice and be thankful for but it also has noticeably made me more joyful. How can I not be joyful when I am counting all of our blessings?!

I started the journal in March and am at 229 blessings... not quite to Ann's 1000 that she records, but it's not so much the number that matters; it's the practice. As I once read in a devotional, "Happiness depends on happenings," making it a fleeting and fickle emotion. Instead, joy depends on recognizing all you have to be grateful for - even the smallest or mundane parts of life, like my daily cup of coffee or having a washing machine.

What better way to start a new year than reading a book that could shape your perspective on life...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Food for Thought, literally

Cookies, peppermint bark, carols, Christmas trees, parties, presents... this is the typical list for Christmas preparations. I love all of these things, and this past weekend I made Christmas cookies with John, with cookie cutters, frosting, sprinkles and all! I also made peppermint bark, and even John who doesn't like peppermint, loves this bark.

But before I get to my recipe (it's hardly a recipe it's so simple) for peppermint bark, a little food for thought.

I was reading my Advent study for She Reads Truth and have been thinking about the purpose of Advent ever since this introductory paragraph:

The purpose of Advent: Amidst the noise, still your heart.

What a challenge among all the season has to offer with lights and trees and decorations!

Yet, this next part of the study resonated with me. We think of Advent as preparing for Christ's coming - which it is - but we often forget that this began long ago, at the beginning of the world, in Genesis. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they needed a Savior. And God promises them one, but not in the way we expect:

Only a God with an ultimate plan of salvation could transform this enmity into an act of grace. Although Adam and Eve turned from God, He desires to draw them back to Him. Meditate on this incredible grace today. Still your heart and prepare it to accept this gift of grace.

It's not that making cookies and peppermint bark, and decorating your Christmas tree (in our case trees!) take away from Advent. God desires for us to enjoy His creations and world! But see them as gifts and opportunities for fellowship with family or friends.

Now, onto my bark recipe:

Peppermint Bark

1 10 oz bag of white chocolate chips
1 10 oz bag of semi sweet chocolate chips 
1 cup (give or take) of Trader Joe's peppermint bark baking bits 

  1. Line a small cookie sheet with tin foil or parchment paper. 
  2. Put white chocolate chips in a microwave safe bowl. Melt in the microwave for 1 minute, stir chocolate, then melt in increments of 10 seconds until chips are completely melted. Pour chocolate over lined cookie sheet, spreading out evenly with a spatula.
  3. Sprinkle half cup of peppermint baking bits (or enough so that it evenly covers in a light layer)  over white chocolate. 
  4. Put semi sweet chocolate chips in a microwave safe bowl. Melt in the microwave for 1 minute, stir chocolate, then melt in increments of 10 seconds until chips are completely melted. Pour chocolate over white chocolate, spreading out evenly with a spatula.
  5. Sprinkle remaining peppermint bits over dark chocolate.
  6. Let harden on counter for about 2 hours, then break into pieces. Store in airtight container.

The peppermint baking bits are what really make this bark delicious because they have white and dark chocolate chunks and fudge with the peppermint. But if you don't have a Trader Joe's nearby, you can take 24 peppermint candies, put them in a freezer bag, and hammer them into smaller bits.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Oh Christmas Tree, Take Two

To inaugurate the month of December, John and I trekked back to Yule Farms for our annual cutting down of our Christmas tree. At this time last year, I had just started my blog and wrote about us beginning our tradition of chopping down our tree. To remind you of last year's adventure, the day involved lots of laughs at the run down tree farm, complete with lukewarm apple cider, a poem celebrating Christmas trees, and free stuffed animal "ornaments" to hang on our tree. 

So naturally we headed back for more laughs this year with our friends Malorie and Jason, who came along last year too. The farm experience was just as hilarious as last year as the guys pulled our cart and carried our saw in search of our perfect trees. 

On the lookout for the perfect tree...
Malorie and I watching as the guys assess the trees
 Since we are now in house with very tall ceilings, John was very excited to get a big tree this year. I was concerned about the width of the tree and was certain that the one his eye was on would be too large for the spot we'd chosen in our house. Yet since geometry and spatial reasoning are not my strong suits, I gave in.

The tree took about 10 minutes to saw down because it was so large, and then Jason and John broke out in a rash all over their arms from trying to saw the thing down.

John proudly conquered cutting down our tree!
And then when we returned home (after taking 20 minutes to tie the tree to the roof of the car), it took 45 minutes to secure in our stand. Jason held the tree upright while John tightened it in the stand. Meanwhile, Malorie and I were rearranging our living room furniture because the tree took up half the room. It blocked the entire entrance to the dining room, and the angel would have been knocked off the top by the fan. 

Needless to say, this tree was MASSIVE.

12 feet tall and way too wide. Now affectionally called the Devil Tree. 
Right after Malorie and Jason left to decorate their own tree, John turned me saying, "I hate it. It's awful." It was rather lopsided, and we would have to get a big ladder in order to hang lights and ornaments. But we decided to go make dinner and think on it. 

Then, CRASH. 

Tree down
The tree came falling down, barely missing the ceiling fan, clay nativity set on the mantle, and our lamp. But nothing was broken miraculously, and no ornaments had been hung yet. 

Next thing I knew, John was dragging the tree outside to our yard. He'd had enough of the "Devil Tree." We hopped in the car, headed to Lowe's, and picked out a beautiful 6 foot tree. We watched in awe as they sawed the bottom off evenly for us and trimmed the bottom branches. SO EASY. We folded the seats down in my SUV, threw it in, and had the tree up and decorated in no time.

Our new smaller but beautiful tree!
Our friends are still laughing, comparing our story to the Christmas Vacation movie. And my parents think it's hilarious that I never fully appreciated the work that went into cutting down our tree when I was a kid. 

So if you know anyone in need of a 12 foot Christmas tree in Atlanta, we have one sitting in our yard that they can take free of charge!