Advent: A Time of Preparation

I went back and forth several times between the adjectives patient and prayerful to describe the preparation, but couldn’t settle on either.  Really, because the preparation of Advent, regardless of whether it’s external (decorations, cookies) or internal (more prayers, confession, adoration) should be both patient and prayerful.

I use the word “patient” to describe the preparations of Advent because preparing for the King ought not to be rushed.  Just as the ancient Jewish people, we do not know when He will be coming.  On the one hand, this gives us time to prepare thoroughly, and keep ourselves prepared–we have the time.  On the other hand, it is imperative (as we are told many, many times in the Bible) that we get ready and stay that way.  Sustained preparedness is not possible without patience.  Not only is there patience in waiting, there is also patience in learning how to prepare, and practicing it.  This applies either externally or internally.  For example, you shouldn’t rush putting up lights because you’ll either fall off the ladder, or they’ll look really terrible.  Internal preparation requires some patience with yourself–recognizing that we are subject to the effects of sin, and that we will fail in our efforts to get and stay ready for Jesus’ second coming.

Internal prayerful preparation is pretty obvious–that’s where the hard work needs to be done with prayer.  I suggest, however, that even external preparations ought to be a work of prayer.  Think about it this way–the reason you put up decorations, or bake cookies (or other holiday foods), or whatever you do to get ready for Christmas at least starts to put you in the mindset and to think about the coming of Christ.  At that moment, the thought of Christ’s birth and second coming, becomes an act of prayer.

For us, at least, we keep the external preparations during Advent to a bare minimum.  Part of it is that growing up, my brothers and I were not allowed to talk about Christmas until after my Dad’s early-December birthday.  We might get a tree before then (if there happened to be a convenient weekend prior to December 8), or put up the outside lights, but the tree would not go up, nor would we turn on the lights, until after his birthday.  I’ve carried that over to my family, maybe amped up a little bit, too, to where I’ve done the tree decorating after Christmas eve (or midnight) mass (usually by design, even).  We don’t sing Christmas carols in advent, mainly because there are so many Advent hymns to enjoy.  I find that then, when I do start some of these preparations (like baking cookies, potica, or thinking about decorations), my thoughts are turned to enjoying them during the Christmas season, and the coming of Christ.

So, however you prepare during Advent, may it be patient and prayerful, so that you can celebrate Christ’s first coming in due season.


Advent: A Time of Quiet Expectation

As is probably already well documented, I think we miss something when we don’t celebrate the seasons in their proper time.  Especially when we skip over Advent and go straight into Christmas.

The season of Advent is the four Sundays prior to Christmas.  Rather than a sprint to Christmas, it is a time of quiet expectation, where we’re on the journey with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.  Things shouldn’t be rushed, they should actually slow down.  It’s as if the world is holding its breath while awaiting the promised Savior, who, like all children, will be born in His own good time.  In contrast the almost martial preparation of Lent and the emotional roller coaster of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum, Advent is the final preparation for the new child, which needs to be done slowly, carefully, and joyfully so that when He’s finally here, you can just bask in His presence.

Christmas will come.  There’s no reason to skip Advent to go straight into that celebration.  That only serves to numb us to the astounding joy of Christmas when its time does come.  Instead, it is time to pause, breathe deep, and join the world in silence to wait for hope to sing of triumph, and for sadness to flee away.


Slushy Bike Ride: Metaphor for Prudence

Most people I work with (and this is across multiple offices and countries, now) think I am a less-than-prudent bicycle commuter.  It must have something to do with being willing to ride in tropical downpours, along streets studded with potholes, and through puddles ponds with water over the top of my chain.  Or the fact that I’ll bike when there are 40 mph wind gusts, sub-freezing temperatures, or heat indices well over 100.  Really, though, those situations just require powering through the obstacle and paying close attention.  Where prudence (that is, discerning what the golden mean is between two courses of action) comes into play is bicycling on slush and snow.

The week before Thanksgiving, we got hit with our first taste of winter.  Weather forecasts indicated that things might get slushy, but didn’t know where the line between rain and snow would fall until, well, snow started falling.  As of 0530, there was nothing, and no forecast changes.  At 0620 when I looked out the window, we had measurable snow/slush on the ground.  Still, it hadn’t gotten too terribly cold, and things looked slushy, rather than icy, so I decided to go ahead and bike in.

The secret, really to biking in slushy snow is to go exactly the right speed.  Not so fast that you lose traction, but not so slow that the slush builds up on your wheels.  Also, you want to make sure you move quickly enough to build up some heat to stay warm, but not so quickly that you generate too much wind.  Really, you do need to be prudent and find the exact balance between speed and caution to be successful.

So, did I strike the mean?  Well…not exactly.  For about half the trip, I was going a little on the slow side.  I did, in fact, accumulate slush on my wheels, which interfered with braking.  Because I wasn’t going fast enough, I didn’t really generate body heat to counteract the cold air temperature.  On the plus side, though, I didn’t slip or slide, and had picked out the right gear to stay mostly dry and not too cold (if not entirely comfortably warm).  Once I got more accustomed to the slush and temperature, I was able to speed up a little, which helped knock the slush off my wheels, and I did warm up a little more once the blood got moving.  All in all, though, I did make it to work safely, in reasonable time, and without any mishaps.  Overall, a success.

Now, if next time I can just figure out the right speed a little sooner, I’ll be set, and a more prudent bicyclist.

Essential Bicycling Equipment: A Bungee Cord

I’ve come to the realization that every bicycle commuter really ought to carry at least one bungee cord.  It took me a long time, but I finally remembered to pick one up last year after I had biked to the hardware store to buy a few things.  The bungee was a last-minute, “oh, yeah, I can use that to strap this on my rear rack without needing too rig some way to attach the bag.”  I’ve kept the cord in the frame bag with my lock and multi-tool ever sense.

Not only is the bungee cord handy for making purchases, I’ve found what may be an even more important use for it:  keeping my bike upright on the bike racks at work.  Now that I’m in the main building, rather than an annex, bicycle parking space is at a premium.  A part of the problem is there are about a dozen seemingly-abandoned bicycles on the racks (or at least, ones that have been in exactly the same place when I get there and when I leave each day since this summer), which cuts down on available space.  Another part of the problem is that the racks aren’t all that well thought out in terms of their location and other impediments to parking.  Finally, people just don’t know how to park a bike, and will wedge their bike in however they can, or, just leave it parked in the middle of everything, and not locked to a rack.

Since most cables, chains, or cords for locks are rather long (to facilitate parking in odd places, or locking to say, a telephone pole), they do not keep your bike upright if someone happens to knock it over trying to get their rig in or out of the cramped quarters.  I’ve actually seen bikes go down like dominoes, and the person responsible just went on like nothing had happened (it was the end of the day and this person probably didn’t notice, but still).  After finding my bike on its side a couple of times (not that I’m worried about dings or damage,  but it does take up additional parking space),  I’ve taken to wrapping the bungee cord around the bike rack and the lower tube of my frame.  This keeps my bike nicely upright and out of the way, no matter how many other bikes bump into it or try to knock it over.

I just wish more of the bike commuters would do likewise.  Or learn how to use a bike rack.

Who Left the Chants on Repeat?

Since Easter is a moveable feast, and Christmas is not, something sort of strange happens at the end of the Liturgical Year.  Differently strange in the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms, but strange nonetheless.

In the Ordinary Form (that is, the mass most are familiar with, in the vernacular), the last Sunday before Advent is the Feast of Christ the King.  The Sunday before is always the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, even if it actually isn’t.  The Ordinary Form has readings for 33 Sundays, but, if, for example, Easter falls late, you’re going to have to miss a few somewhere in there.  To make it work out, the Ordinary Form Calendar starts with the 2nd Sunday on the Sunday after Epiphany (because most places transfer Epiphany to Sunday, and Epiphany trumps a regular Sunday in the hierarchy of liturgical celebrations), and goes forward until Lent (which can move).  Then, to figure out when to pick back up, the calendar counts backwards from the 33rd Sunday, and stops when it hits Pentecost.  This means the “missing” readings come from the 3-4-5th or so Sunday of Ordinary Time.

In the Extraordinary Form, the chanted propers (that is, the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion) stay the same from the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost until the First Sunday fo Advent.  However, there are  always more than 23 Sundays after Pentecost (I think at least 25), so the propers get put on repeat.  The readings are a different story:  they get borrowed from the Sundays after Epiphany.  Corpus Christi Watershed has a great post from 2015 explaining this.

The upshot is that the Schola Cantorum (that is, those doing the chanting) have the opportunity to get really good at these propers.  That’s not to say that you can stop paying attention, but you do get multiple chances to perfect De profundis.  This year, we get four Sundays with the same propers, so four chances to really nail it.

Now you know why it sounds like your Schola Cantorum is stuck on repeat.

Gingerbread Birthday Angels

The twins spend a lot of time with the track/cross-country team at the kids’ school.  They aren’t old enough to participate, but, since we help out with practices, they wind up being sort of honorary members of the team.  This year, since their birthday was on the last day of practice before the final cross-country meet of the season, they decided they wanted to share cookies with their best buddies on the team.  Specifically, they wanted gingerbread angels.

I wound up baking two batches, because we determined one wouldn’t be enough for the entire team, plus younger siblings who had been invited to the final practice, plus any adults who were there volunteering to help out.  After I counted out the five dozen for practice, there were just enough to spell out “Happy Birthday”, plus their initials.  This turned into the dessert to share with one of their godfamilies (the other family couldn’t make it).

I modified the King Arthur Flour gingerbread cookie recipe by amping up the spices.  The original recipe calls for 2 tsp each of cinnamon and ginger, and 1/4 tsp cloves.  Because we like a spicy gingerbread, I doubled the ginger and cinnamon (4 tsp each), and put in 2 tsp cloves.  I also added about 1 tsp finely ground black pepper.  I also used whole wheat flour, and added some additional to try and get a stiffer dough.  Really, this dough does need to chill so that you can roll it–the added flour didn’t actually do anything for the first batch.  However, once it is chilled, it rolls really easily.

Because the twins wanted the angels decorated, and because I was a little worried the cookies would be too assertive for a more general population, I went with the Serious Eats royal icing recipe for the halos and wings.  This recipe is easy to make, and really does pipe smoothly.  It doesn’t taste too bad, either.

The final verdict?  A smashing success.  The twins were very happy to share the cookies with their friends, and delighted when we pulled out the Happy Birthday batch after dinner.  The cross-country team loved the cookies, even if they were on the spicy side.  So, happy kids all around, and I have a good gingerbread cookie recipe all set for the upcoming Christmas baking season.

Food with “Tails”

Likely because both cats were strays, they have some…interesting dietary habits.  One of the more unusual things they do is to hunt any food that looks like it has a tail, treating it the way they would a rodent of some sort.

You might not think this is a very long list, but some of the things the cats have hunted and devoured include:

Cherries:  The stem looks like a long tail, apparently.  Lavash at one point was fond of stealing a cherry from the bowl on the counter, and dunking it in her water dish.  We think she was trying to drown what appeared to her to be a round rodent with a long tail.

Kale and spinach:  Again, the stem must look like a stiff tail attached to a flat, wide body.  Both cats will gleefully steal leaves of either kale or spinach and chow down.  The problem is Benson often gets kale stuck in his throat, so it usually comes back up and lands in an inconvenient place, found only when I step on it.

Peppers:  Bell peppers, jalapeno, dried chilis, all of them.  I can sort of see how a jalapeno looks like a mouse with a short, curly tail.  Lavash tried to hunt a spicy pepper once, and almost got her mouth around it before she realized that it would be a bad idea.  Benson, on the other hand, has actually sunk his teeth into a dried chili pepper.  I don’t think he has been entirely deterred from future attempts.

Even though it’s a pain to have to keep an eye on the cats when working with these foods that seem to resemble rodents, at least it means the felines are keeping their skills sharp in case a real rodent ever makes its way inside.

Borrowed Spoons Come Due

My particular manifestation of autoimmune isn’t all that fierce.  I’m fortunate that my psoriatic arthritis isn’t too widespread, doesn’t flare all that often, and hasn’t (at least yet) caused any lasting joint damage.  I tolerate my methotrexate dose generally well (except for when I forget to take it with food…ugh).  That’s not to say that I forget I have it, but that I don’t need to be as diligent with energy conservation as many do with other, more severe forms of autoimmune disease.

Still, at the start of this month, I ran out of spoons*.  Due to a confluence of events, including rounds of illnesses for the kids and an uptick in work tempo, I burned through my reserve, and had to borrow from the future.  The debt came due on Monday.  I could sort of tell it was coming on Saturday, but ignored it.  Sunday I felt pretty OK for most of the day, but by afternoon, a headache and fever had set in.

Monday morning I woke up and felt about 50%.  By midmorning, I was glad I had stayed home so I could nap (and so were the cats).  Early afternoon I went for a strep test (which came back negative), and was considering whether a trip to urgent care would be worth it.  I woke up Tuesday feeling well enough to make it to work (just because there was an urgent tasker that I would have to handle, whether via e-mail from home or more efficiently in-person), and made it through.

What it seems happened was after I ran through my reserves, an ear infection set in.  Also, my psoriasis tends to flare when the weather changes, and we had certainly gone from late summer to fall, so the autoimmune was already in overdrive.  Rather than letting my body deal with the ear infection, I was getting the aches, pains, and itchiness of a flare PLUS the fever, cough, and headache of the ear infection.

It’s taken me about a full week to recover, which is not a bad rate, nor a bad price to pay for borrowing too much from the future.  Still, it’s also a timely reminder that it pays to be at least a little careful with the spoons I have.

* Read the original at the link, but the term “spoon” to refer to units of energy used by those with autoimmune disease in daily tasks comes from Christine Miserandino and her article, “The Spoon Theory.”  To explain to a friend what it was like to live with Lupus, Miserandino gathered up all the spoons at a table in the restaurant they were at, and took one away each time a seemingly simple task would demand excessive effort from someone with autoimmune.

A Minor Commuting Annoyance

Commuters in the DC area are probably painfully aware that Arlington Memorial Bridge is about to undergo major rehabilitation, which will last the next 2-3 years.  Maybe four, given government projects.  The new traffic pattern starts tomorrow.  The bridge goes from six lanes and two sidewalks to three lanes and one sidewalk.  To make things even more fun, one of those lanes will be reversible to allow more traffic into DC in the morning and more out in the afternoon.  Large signs over the lanes will tell you which ones are open for your direction.  FYI, they’re starting work on the south side, so the north side sidewalk will be open.  The new bicycle commuter path will require crossing GW Parkway and Memorial Circle an extra two or three times, it seems.  At least they moved the cross walk closer to the bridge.

It looks like they planned it out the best they could, and, while it will be a major pain, the bridge definitely needs the work done.  I didn’t realize that they had stopped running one of my favorite commuter bus routes because the bridge could no longer take the weight.  That caused great confusion on my part, and a much later arrival than I had anticipated the time I tried to take it.

What the NPS press release DOESN’T tell you is that concurrently, they are working on the DC-side approach to the bike path over the 14th Street bridge.  A project summary buried on the site (which I cannot find right now) claims that they need to make the slope more gradual, so it’s easier to approach on bike.  They’re also planning a better dedicated bike lane/approach around the Jefferson to deconflict between bicyclists and tourists.  Apparently they have bicycle commuters’ best interests at heart.  Luckily, this is only going to last through December.  The 14th Street Bridge is not a complete shut down, but you do have to carry your bike down a set of stairs, or use the very narrow ramp beside the stairs to wheel it down.  Actually, there was supposed to be a complete shut down last week, before this fun on the Memorial Bridge, but the work only took a day.  The problem here is that there is next to no information about the project (see above about the buried project summary).

So, given the option between crossing the GW Parkway additional times and hauling my bike up and down stairs, I’m opting for the upper body workout — especially for the first week or two while the drivers sort out their new flow.


Fall Fitness Season

The days are getting shorter, but that means the temperature moderates some overnight so it isn’t as oppressively warm and humid as summer.  The light has a golden cast to it, and the periodic breeze carries the dusty scent of dried leaves and grass going to seed.  It’s fall in Northern Virginia, and that means two things:  1), some of the best weather of the year and 2), more people out running and biking to train for races or just to enjoy the weather.

There are a number of really big road races around here over the month:  The Army 10-Miler happened today, and the Marine Corps Marathon takes place at the end of the month.  There are some more localized ones (especially of the Turkey Trot variety), and the schools have their cross country (and, in some cases, fall track and field) meets.  As soon as the temperature turned from hot and oppressive to merely warm and not-sticky (or, this year, from torrential rain to occasional sprinkles), there was a noticeable uptick in bike path users, both on foot and on wheel, but most noticeable were the runners during the afternoon commute.  Most of them have an intense, intent look on their face as if to say “I’m going to get through this, and I’ll LIKE it!”, while others look like they are second-guessing their decision to run multiple miles through the city with several thousand of their closest friends.

The issue is when they are wearing headphones and cannot hear bikers or other joggers coming up behind them.  More power to them for being in the zone, but that doesn’t exactly excuse zoning out.  It also means that the regular coterie of commuters needs to be especially attentive to the road and the influx of people, many of whom seem unused to sharing the thoroughfare (at least, they look surprised that someone would pass them on a bicycle geared out for commuting, and not racing).  I have been impressed, however, at the number of people who thank me for giving an audible, verbal warning when I pass.  Either they’re being ultra polite, or I’m one of the few who actually does so.

Fortunately, this season will pass as soon as the first flakes start to fly, or at least when the morning temperatures dip below 50 and all the races have been run.