I am going to the bar with my Christian bookstore.

When you hear “an Australian, beer, and ______”, you may not assume that the last part of the triad would be “the Bible”, but it totally is. At least, it will be next Sunday (February 15th from 7-9pm) at Founder’s Brewery in Grand Rapids, MI.

Baker Book House and Harper Collins Christian Publishing are partnering to host “Skeptics Night” at Founder’s with John Dickson, author of the book “A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible.”

When the posters first went up in the bookstore, I think we shocked a few of our patrons. After all, the primary feature of the advertising is a pint of beer, which is not what you expect to see next to posters for southern gospel singers.

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When I first previewed the posters with the management, I asked, “Is this too much?” My manager replied, “I welcome the fights this will bring. People need to understand that you aren’t going to find many skeptics willing to attend an event at a Christian bookstore. So we’re bringing the Bible to the bar.”

I’ve overheard a number of customers who agree with this sentiment. But I’ve also heard the opposite; i.e. people who can’t imagine why a Christian would step foot in an establishment that serves alcohol. I mean, it isn’t like Jesus ever had anything to do with beer or wine or the type of people who drank such things. Right?

Anyway, if you are in the Grand Rapids area next Sunday night, you should check it out. Just be warned that seating is limited, so it would be a good idea to let us know on the Facebook event page if you are planning to attend.

Another Free Event for Writers

If you attended the first Jot Conference, you may recognize Chad Allen. Chad is the editorial director for Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Chad was kind enough to join us and talk about what editors wish writers knew about the publishing process. It was a great interview and if you have a spare half-hour, it’s worth watching.

Anyway, Chad will be doing another free presentation on writing next week at Baker Book House in Grand Rapids. So, if you live within driving distance and have ever doubted your abilities as a writer, you should attend this event.

Baker_Chad-6Here’s the snippet that Chad sent me:

The road to getting published can be tough. How can you improve your writing, build your platform, hold down a day job, and still have a life? What practices can writers use to find their voice and produce their best work? In this presentation Baker Books editor Chad Allen shares strategies to help writers be successful over the long run.

The title of his new talk is “You Can Do This, An Editor’s Manifesto: How Writers Can Stay Motivated and Keep Moving on the Road to Publication.” It’s happening next Tuesday, October 15th at 7:00 PM at Baker Book House (2768 E Paris Ave. SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49546).

And if you are eager for the next Jot Mini-Conference, stay tuned. I’m hoping to pin the rest of the Weaklings down to discuss it soon.

Reading the Not-So-Fine Print

I have trouble reading things thoroughly. Unless I’m getting paid to read, I think I get about halfway through a sentence before I decide that I know where it’s headed and move on to the next sentence.

I once made a super spicy version of Meatball & Pineapple Hoagies because I didn’t take the extra time needed to realize that the recipe called for 1/4 teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper and not 1/4 cup. Whew! That was a spicy meatball hoagie!

charlies_bar_and_grilleBut most recently, I spent my family’s hard-earned money on a Groupon for a restaurant called Charlie’s Bar and Grille. It seemed like too good a deal to pass up. And when my wife and I couldn’t decide what to make for dinner the other night, I made the executive decision that we needn’t make dinner at all. We would use our Groupon and someone else would cook. But when I went to print the deal out, I noticed the address of the restaurant was different from what I remembered. Was it possible that there were two Charlie’s Bar and Grilles in town?

charleysA quick Google search later and I had discovered my mistake. I purchased a Groupon for Charlie’s Bar & Grille, but what I wanted was a Groupon from Charley’s Pub & Grill. You see, Charley’s is a little bar and billiards place near our house that serves up locally grown food for great prices. We’ve never had a bad experience and we’ve been there more than a few times. But Charlie’s is an unknown entity. Plus, it’s all the way across town. And since my wife doesn’t get home until dinner time already and my girls go down for bedtime shortly thereafter, I have no idea when we’ll be able to use the Groupons that I mistakenly bought.

But who knows? Maybe they have fantastic food. Maybe they too value locally grown produce and meats. Maybe they will be our new favorite restaurant.

At the very least, their food has to be better than my Meatball & Pineapple Hoagie Massacre.

Moral: Read thoroughly.

More Innermost Secrets

I am a man trapped in the body of a man.

And I am attracted to my wife who is a smart and attractive woman trapped within the body of a smart and attractive woman. Our dog, however, is an annoying third-grader trapped inside the body of a black lab.

Whenever I enter a room, I announce my presence with a war cry.

Is there a better way to announce one’s presence? No.

Baby_rabbitMy war cry is “For Bunnies and Glory!”

On a side note, “Bunny” is the pet name that I use for my wife. It is not as commonly used in the USA as “Dear” or “Sugar Booger”, but it is quite popular in Germany. Or so I’m told. Also popular in Germany? David Hasselhoff.

Old people frighten me (and I frighten them).

I don’t know if it is the aging process in general that scares me or the bad smells that emanate from their rotting pre-corpse bodies. Probably the second one. It is a sad truth though that I will one day (hopefully) be an old person. As such, I’ve already started trying to acclimatize myself to bad smells. So if you come into contact with me and you think, “Wowza! Josh smells exactly like rotting meat and sulfur,” I’m just trying to get us both ready for the inevitable. You’re welcome.

loc_grI was in a television commercial as a child.

This one is actually true. It was a commercial for Rider’s Hobby Shop, the store that my dad has managed for forever. I think I was in second grade at the time. In it, I am seen playing with a remote control car. The real way that one would play with a remote control car is to stand up, hold the remote in one’s hands, and control the car (remotely). What the director of the commercial asked me to do was get down and move the car around with my hand, the same as any non-remotely controlled car, which was dumb. Also dumb, I was making car noises as I moved it back and forth, but the sound was cut out for the commercial, so I just look like I’m having some kind of episode while playing with a toy in the wrong way. Not exactly flattering. But hey, I was on television, so that’s got to count for something.

I am the King of Strawberry Jam (Plus a Slide Show).

I was going to title this post, “I am in a jam,” but my wife thought that would be too corny. You are welcome.

So this past weekend, my wife and I made strawberry jam. We’ve made it every year since 2004, before we were even married. My wife has been making jam for even longer, but I can’t talk about that, because I wasn’t there. Anyway, here’s how jam making works.

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First, you pick the berries. We like to go down the road from my in-laws house to DeLange’s Redberry Farm, where the berries are big and plentiful.

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If I were to eat all of these berries, I would be big and plentiful too.

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Maybe just one.

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We almost always pick too much.

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Here’s a mutant one we found. I assume this one will make its batch of jam extra delicious. Or possibly turn the eaters of said jam into superheros. We’ll see.

To prep the berries, they need to be washed and hulled (have the leafy parts taken off the top). Here is me and my sis-in-law and my oldest daughter. The OD actually volunteered to help and then didn't want to take any breaks. She has her mother's work ethic.

To prep the berries, they need to be washed and hulled (have the leafy parts taken off the top). Here is me and my sis-in-law and my oldest daughter. The OD actually volunteered to help and then didn’t want to take any breaks. She has her mother’s work ethic.

Once prepped, the berries must be chopped. The best way to it is with a food processor. Plus, it is fun to push a button and turn whole berries into slurry. Unfortunately, you also make the processor look like a serial killer by then end of the day.

Once prepped, the berries must be chopped. The best way to it is with a food processor. Plus, it is fun to push a button and turn whole berries into slurry. Unfortunately, you also make the processor look like a serial killer by then end of the day.

Double check that you have all relevant supplies: lots of sugar, cans, lids, rings (for the cans), pectin, a canning funnel, some just-boiled water in a bowl, pots, a ladle, a washcloth (one that's okay to get jam all over it), a stick of butter (or margarine), bowls to hold sugar and strawberry slurry, and a magnet. Also, some potholders, unless you like burning yourself, in which case, stop reading this and go get some professional help.

Double check that you have all relevant supplies: lots of sugar, cans, lids, rings (for the cans), pectin, a canning funnel, some just-boiled water in a bowl, pots, a ladle, a washcloth (one that’s okay to get jam all over it), a stick of butter (or margarine), bowls to hold sugar and strawberry slurry, and a magnet. Also, some potholders, unless you like burning yourself, in which case, stop reading this and go get some professional help.

Seriously, you need a ton of sugar. Good jam is 5 cups of crushed berries with 7 cups of sugar per batch. Mmmm, sugar.

Seriously, you need a ton of sugar. Good jam is 5 cups of crushed berries with 7 cups of sugar per batch. Mmmm, sugar.

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Here, we see my wife stirring two batches of jam. Two at once? Oh yeah, she’s pretty amazing. The nearest pot has not had sugar added to it yet.

Here's the pot that has sugar. 7 cups of it. Dark as sin (and twice as tasty).

Here’s the pot that has sugar. 7 cups of it. Dark as sin (and twice as tasty).

After it does a rolling boil for a full minute, you pour it into jars, seal them up, and relax.

A good way to relax is by swimming with the kids. Here's my OD with an uninflated swimmy on her head. Someday, a potential boyfriend will find this image and not be as interested. Maybe. Anyway, I can hope.

A good way to relax is by swimming with the kids. Here’s my OD with an uninflated swimmy on her head. Someday, a potential boyfriend will find this image and not be as interested. Maybe. Anyway, I can hope.

Here's a gratuitous photo of my youngest daughter. Isn't she cute?

Here’s a gratuitous photo of my youngest daughter. Isn’t she cute?

So can you make jam from these instructions? Probably not. But there are directions in the box of pectin. Oh yeah, you’ll need a box of pectin. I don’t know if I mentioned that or not. Anyway, sorry. Maybe you should just buy some of the jam we made instead of trying to do it yourself.

I am a Raccoon’s Neighbor.

A raccoon moved in next door. My family lives next to an office building and the roof vents on that building have been damaged for some time. A couple of weeks ago, I was taking the dog out early in the morning when I looked over and saw a raccoon standing on the office building roof. It seemed that he was on his way to bed though, because he lumbered up the roof and disappeared into the roof through the damaged vent.

I told my wife about the incident at breakfast and my daughter overheard. She was enthralled by the idea that a raccoon lived next door. She kept going to our kitchen window, staring at the roof and saying, “I see the Raccoon? The raccoon will come out at six o’clock?” I’m not even sure that she knows what a raccoon looks like, being that they aren’t usually featured in the animal picture books (which place higher importance on animals one might find in a zoo like lions and zebras).

I don’t know what her deal with six o’clock is, by the way. It must be the time when things happen with animals, because it’s not the first time she’s mentioned it.

The next morning, around six in the morning, I woke up to the sound of scraping metal from outside the window nearest the office building. Sure enough, my daughter was right about the six o’clock, but wrong about the coming out. It was going back to bed for the day.

Weeks passed without seeing our new neighbor when my wife spotted him from the window as we were making our way to bed. I grabbed the camera to prove that I’m not crazy. Sorry about the poor quality image. Everything was kind of dark.

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Now, I’m not sure what to do about my new neighbor. Should I tell the people in the office building so they can be charging it rent, or should I leave it to its own nocturnal devices?

I am here about a diamond?

I saved for months, and that was kind of a big deal in itself. Part of every paycheck had been set aside as cash hidden within a book that I never read until I had enough to go ring shopping.

I knew that DeAnne wanted to be surprised, so she and I never went out looking at rings together. In the times when other people’s engagement rings came naturally into conversation, I tucked away as much knowledge as I could so I would get it right when the time came. I knew that she wanted the question to be popped in private, not in a restaurant and not surrounded by loved ones. I knew that she wanted something simple and elegant, not gaudy or glitzy. I knew that I needed to have the blessing of her parents before anything else.

I did my homework on the 4 C’s of diamonds: cut, color, clarity, and carat. To break that down for the uninitiated, cut means shape (and the angles used in the actual cutting of the diamond), color means color (along the scale of white to yellow), clarity means brilliance (more imperfections in the diamond means less brilliance or fire), and carat means size (pure and simple). I went out to a number of jewelry stores and looked to see what I could afford with the amount that I saved up.

And then a friend of mine mentioned that his boss knew a diamond broker.

“He’ll be in town in a week or so,” said my friend Dave. “You could buy the diamond separately and then have it put into a setting.”

“Is he legit?” I asked.

“My boss has worked with him before and he trusts him. I’ll come along if you want me to, since you don’t know him. The broker normally sells his diamonds to jewelry shops, but he’ll make exceptions for friends. You’ll get a lot more diamond for your money than you would anywhere else.”

“Okay,” I said. “Sounds good.”

And so we met up on a Saturday morning and headed off to some guys house near Holland, Michigan. I had a set amount of money to work with, so I saved some out to cover the actual ring setting. After looking at a few different options, I settled on a round cut with good color and great clarity that was big enough to see, but not so big as to be ostentatious.

“What should I do about the setting?” I asked Dave.

The diamond broker overheard and told me that if I went to downtown Holland, there was a jeweler who would give me a discount if I mentioned his name. The jeweler was Jewel-Tec, he said, and they have a door right next to DeVries.

“Just buzz them on the intercom,” he said, “and tell them that you need a setting for your diamond.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Time was getting close to when I needed to head into work, but since we were so close to Holland already, we decided to head over to Jewel-Tec.

jeweltec_2None of us had been there before, and with the vague directions that we had, we wandered around downtown a little before seeing a business called Devries that had a nondescript door with a buzzer next to it. I stepped up and buzzed the buzzer.

Nothing.

I buzzed again.

“Hello,” said a groggy voice. “What do you want?”

“Um,” I said. “My name is Josh and I have a diamond.”

“What?” said the voice, possibly belonging to a well hungover person.

“Um,” I said again. “I have a diamond and I was told you could help me?”

“Get out of here.”

jeweltec_1And that was when Dave noticed another business on the next block named DeVries & Dornbos. You see, in Holland, Michigan, the chances of throwing a stone and hitting someone with a last name like DeVries are pretty good. We headed over and sure enough, there was another door, but this time the door had a nameplate that said “Jewel-Tec”. I buzzed the intercom, told them I was interested in a ring setting, and headed right up.

After some time looking through various settings, I described to the jeweler what I had in mind and he told me that he could make something like that himself. I would have to come back in a few weeks with the diamond, but it shouldn’t be a problem.

A few weeks later, I had a beautiful engagement ring that I helped design in my hand, and all I had to do was ask DeAnne to marry me (you can read how that day went here). It was a successful venture, but I still wonder what the guy on the other end of that first buzzer thought of me.

I am a wonderful date.

DSC00998bThis past weekend, my wife and I had a fancy-pants date. Thanks to the fickle finger of fate, we won a fantastic date night package at DeAnne’s company Christmas party a while back. The package included a $150 gift card to Webster’s Prime restaurant and two tickets to the Broadway musical, Les Miserables, that was showing at Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo, MI.

We left the girls with the grandparents for the evening and drove down to Kalamazoo. The drive was pleasant, and conversation even more so. I’m infinitely thankful that my wife and I have never been faced with awkward silences when it is just the two of us.

DSC00990First, the dinner. Webster’s Prime is a steakhouse for people who like to spend lots of money on steak. The portions are small and expensive, but delicious all the same. I ordered a $34 sirloin, prepared medium and side dishes of maple pecan sweet potatoes and mac & cheese. The steak was the best part of the dinner, though their version of medium was much closer to well-done than I prefer. The side dishes were tasty, but nothing to write home about.

On a side note, I know that ordering mac & cheese at a super fancy steakhouse may seem juvenile, but I’ve had some really good mac & cheese at pricier restaurants before and I thought it worth the gamble. My favorite mac & cheese is from the Twisted Rooster in Grand Rapids, MI. Like Webster’s Prime, the Twister Rooster gets a lot of their ingredients from local sources. Unlike the Twisted Rooster, the mac & cheese at Webster’s Prime was mostly bland and the portions were far too small.

My wife got a $36 tenderloin, also medium (and much pinker than my steak) with a Caesar salad and smashed potatoes with bacon. She agreed that the steak was the best part of the meal.

For dessert, we both ordered the cheesecake to go, since time was running away and we needed to drive over to the theater. The service left a bit to be desired, as it felt like we were waited a bit too long for our food as well as the bill, but perhaps I was just in a bit of a rush to get to Les Mis. The total of the bill came quite a bit less than our gift card had on it, but judging that we wouldn’t likely find ourselves in Kalamazoo in the near future with a desire to spend $20 at Webster’s, we left it all to our waitress in spite of the service.

DSC00987bOn to the show. After a quick, unintentional tour of Western Michigan University, DeAnne and I found a parking spot at some distance from the main entrance. For future, similar events, we probably won’t dress up as much as we did this time, and DeAnne will certainly avoid heels in the snow if we have to walk long, slushy distances. Once inside Miller Auditorium, we found our seats easily with the help of the friendly staff. The seats were in the first balcony, dead center, and we had a commanding view. The only downside to the seats was the need to crawl over absolutely everyone, no matter which side you enter from, but it was worth the awkwardness.

Les Mis was incredible. I had seen it once before while a student at Western, but had forgotten how good it could be. Victor Hugo knows how to weave a tale laden with dramatic turns and moral quandaries. The songs are memorable and were all sung well. The action was nicely broken up with humorous interludes. And the actors and actresses gave a flawless performance. DeAnne and I both agreed that if we had more time and money, we would love to become regulars at such theater performances.

Leaving the theater went better than I expected. There were no long waits to get out of the parking lot and the road remained clear for the drive home. We arrived at our house just after midnight and were in bed by 1am, which, by the way, is about 4-5 hours later than we like to be in bed. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about our date.

Thank you Uniform Color Company of Holland for giving us the means for a wonderful night on the town. And thank you to my wife, DeAnne, for being the best date a man could ever hope to have. I love you more than sopranos love shattering crystal.

I am unsure where the boundries are when it comes to new people and practical jokes.

It was the summer after what should have been my final year at Western Michigan University. I had completed all but my internship for my the requirements of my major, and I just landed the perfect job at YMCA Camp Manitou-Lin in Middleville, Michigan, my hometown.

I was to be the Visiting Groups and Weekends Director for the camp. This put me at third in line to inherit leadership of the camp behind the director and Assistant/Summer Camp Director. Like all great camp jobs, YMCA Camp Manitou-Lin would provide me with nice housing and free food, plus a small amount of money so I could buy things like clothes and Tom Hanks movies. But best of all, the job would count toward my internship requirements.

My job was to coordinate the visits of all outside groups to the camp during the summer. YMCA Camp Manitou-Lin is the official camp for all YMCAs in the Greater Grand Rapids Area, which at the time meant around five or six different youth centers. Each center would send a group of kids to the camp once or twice a week. And then there were the groups on the weekends: boy scouts, girl scouts, youth groups, future farmers of America, and so on. So, while the camp was already full with kids staying at summer camp, kids visiting for day camp, and kids attending horse camp, it was my job to squeeze in these outside groups, giving them varied experiences using the camp’s many resources.

But I digress. I was setting up my office when a package came in the mail for the Visiting Groups Director. I opened it to find an informational kit dealing with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS. There were brochures, there were diagrams, there was even a VHS tape for sufferers of IBS. I was confused.

I took the package to the Summer Camp Director who had just been promoted from the job which I now occupied. She instantly recognized it as part of some program associated with Women’s Health that a visiting group had signed up for. Why they sent it to the camp instead of to the group who had visited was a bit of a mystery, but that was the explanation for why we got it.

As I was in her office, getting this explanation, the Camp Director welcomed me to the camp. Outside of the initial interview, this was the first time we had spoken.

“Welcome to the team,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Hey,” he said. “Did you see the thing about the camp that was on the news the other night?”

I told him that I hadn’t. He handed me a VHS tape.

“You should watch it. I haven’t seen it yet, but I heard that it was a nice piece and it might help you know a little more about the camp. Just return it to me when you are done.”

“Sure thing,” I said.

I took the VHS from the Director and the IBS package back to my office to finish setting things up.

The next day, I took the VHS from the IBS packet and put it into the sleeve of the VHS that the Director gave me and gave it back to the Director. That night, he popped the tape into his VCR, ready to see the great news story that everyone had been telling him about. Instead, he watched about five minutes of a video for sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, fast-forwarded it a bit, rewound it a bit, and finally popped the tape out to look at the label.

Sure enough, it was not the video he had lent me. Now, he was confused.

He found me the next day. I asked him how the news story was. He laughed.

“When I first saw what it was,” he said, “I was confused. I double-checked the sleeve, but it was the one that I let you borrow. Then I looked at the video itself and I thought ‘Did the new guy really just make me watch a video about IBS after meeting only once before?'”

“I did,” I said. “I did.”

“Well played,” he said. “That was a risk, you know. But you made me laugh. I’m glad you are here.”

I was glad to be there too.

The Joy of Creation | Creating the Summer Reading Program

This Saturday marks the end of the Children’s Summer Reading Program at my work, Baker Book House. The theme this year was “The Nature of God” and was inspired by the series of the same name published by Zondervan.

There were a few reasons that we went with this them:

  • It is a great series
  • Kids love animals
  • The author lives in Michigan and is super cool
  • Baker was under construction and we couldn’t host indoor events

All good reasons, but the last one was a big one.

Last year’s theme centered on the Berenstain Bears. We hosted Mike Berenstain for a book-reading/signing. We rented Mama/Papa/Brother/Sister Bear costumes and promoted the program on the street outside the bookstore (you couldn’t pay me enough to get back into one of those costumes without some kind of fan installed inside). We had weekly activities to get kids back into the store and the participants were entered to win an original drawing from Mike Berenstain himself. It was a great program, but it required a lot of space and time within the walls of the bookstore.

If you’ve seen the bookstore lately, you’ll know that only half of the walls are still standing (but we REALLY ARE still open for business). Anyway, we didn’t have the space or the time to devote to the weekly in-store activities.

But it worked out. I contacted Peter Schriemer and asked his thoughts on using his materials as the basis for the summer reading program. He loved it. We met up and brainstormed some of the offsite activities that we could do, how we could get kids to read AND enjoy nature. It was a beautiful arrangement.

We set up events at the John Ball Zoo, Meijer Gardens, and Blandford Nature Center, where Peter even joined us and the kids got to hang out with him and identify bugs in a field. Good times.

The funny thing in all of this is that, though putting the program together takes up a ton of time (setting up the events, designing the guidebook, selecting and implementing the theme, marketing the program to kids, etc.), only a small part of the whole thing SHOULD fall under my job responsibilities at work. Mostly, it should be up to the Children’s Buyer to set up the program.

But I ask to do it every year. I love setting up the Children’s Summer Reading Program. There were times when the normal aspects of my job (boring things like arguing with the website designers over whose fault it is that international customers must select a state within the USA as their residence before they are allowed to place an order) would become so infuriating that the Reading Program was like therapy to me.

In the midst of professional chaos, I was able to retreat to a creative place and craft something beautiful and innocent, something inspiring and wholly good. At least, that was what I was going for.

And now the program is coming to an end. The kids who participated are coming in, guidebooks in hand, showing off how many books they have read and getting rewarded with gift certificates for even more books to enjoy.

On one hand, it is sad that the program must come to an end, but for me, it came to an end a while ago, just after the books came in from the printers and kids started picking them up.

You see, for me, the fun part of the whole thing is in the creating. Of course, I get a swell of pride once the project has been completed. But once the thing exists and I have seen that it is good, it is not as important to me. Its use and implementation are someone else’s job.

My job is to dream and bring into being. And I love my job.

Now to dream up Next Year’s program!