Coming Home

My favorite part of traveling is coming home.

I tried to think of a way to explain this without sounding like a boring and ethnocentric ass, but it’ll be easier to just tell the truth.

I like America, a lot. Not in an overly patriotic “God Bless America” kind of way (I’m pretty sure millennials aren’t allowed to think like that) but in a lifestyle kind of way. It’s the little things that make me defend my nation to naysayers (who are, by the way, often American): 24/7 grocery stores, air conditioning, big cups of coffee, etc. Nothing idealistic or political, just the things that make my life as I know it easier and more comfortable. Do I think America is the best country on earth? No, of course not. Do I think it’s the best country for me, a happy American? Yes, I do. Continue reading →

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The Ultimate Holiday Blog Post

The December edition of Real Simple magazine arrived in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago. Sprawled across the cover are some glitzy Christmas lights and the words “Holiday Spectacular: Your Happiest Season Ever Starts Here.” The November issue (“The Ultimate Holiday Planner”) was pretty similar in nature and content. These two magazines contain dozens of helpful articles covering a wide range of holiday-centered topics: affordable gifts, make-ahead recipes, quick cleaning solutions, winter skin care, avoiding awkward moments with family and friends, easy decorations, and, my personal favorite, “How to Teach Gratitude.”

All of this information promises a simple, cheerful, and stress-free holiday season. Which makes me wonder, why do we meticulously plan for and strategize about the holiday season? We turn to guides, lists, and diagrams to help us “get through” the holiday season, as if it is something that needs to be accomplished. This suggests to me that as a culture, we are doing hospitality wrong. Continue reading →

God is For Cities

My church is in the midst of an initiative that we’re calling For the City – an effort to pray and raise funds for the renovation of the historic building that we recently purchased. The name of this initiative is based on our motto “a church for the city,” and (bias aside) I love it. My interest in urbanism and place-making has been pretty clear on this blog. This is something that has developed in me over the past few years, which is why it’s important for me to be a part of a church that aims to be for its city. These interests of mine are in part just dorky and academic. But ultimately they are rooted in something much more substantial: God is for cities, so I (and the church) should be too.

This might be a strange concept for mainstream contemporary Christianity (especially evangelicalism). We know that God is for individual people and for churches. God is for the poor and for the broken. “God loves you, Alyssa.” “For God so loved the world…etc.” But growing up, I never really heard much about God being for cities or places. So let’s unpack this a little bit. Continue reading →

The SRC & Your Soul

In case you hadn’t heard, Philly’s public schools are kind of a mess right now. Around town, empty school buildings sit marked with “for sale” signs as if it’s normal. Children have literally died due to inadequate staffing. The latest plot point in the government-failing-a-generation saga unraveled on Monday morning when the School Reform Commission (the district’s governing body) unanimously – and secretly – voted to cancel the contracts of the 15,000 district employees.

The most significant implication of this move is that PSD faculty and staff will soon need to start contributing toward their healthcare. Of course, this isn’t at all unusual: almost all of PA’s teachers pay for part of their healthcare. But as many have counter-argued, Philly teachers make significantly less money (by 19%!) than their suburban counterparts, all while working in a much more stressful environment. Regardless of where anyone stands on the issue, this move is expected to save the cash-starved district around $44 million.

After reading a lot about this, here’s what I find most interesting: shortly after ending Monday’s secret meeting, SRC chair Bill Green pointed out that “Every single stakeholder has stepped up to help the district close its structural deficit — the principals, our blue-collar workers…It is time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to share in the sacrifice.” Continue reading →

Flourishing on Two Wheels

It’s almost fall, and I’m especially excited about that because the change in temperature should mean that I won’t break out in a disgusting sweat on my way to work everyday. Was that too much information? Whatever – it’s true. Biking to and from the office is a consistently pleasant experience – something I look forward to twice a day – but it’s taken a toll on my general appearance these past few months. So I’m excited to resume looking like a normal/clean person after my commute.

Now is a great time to be a biker in Philly. To be sure, it’s always been a pretty good time – Philly is naturally a bike-friendly city. It’s flat, compact, and since the downtown was laid out before cars were invented, many of the roads are too narrow for cars to go too fast. But it’s getting even better. Next spring, Philly will be joining the rest of the modern cities by getting its own bike share program (and it’s rumored to be a good one). Bike racks and lanes are always being added, and there’s even talk of car-free streets. Also, the city’s laws are pretty bike-friendly: bikes are recognized as legitimate vehicles, and are allowed to be ridden in the middle of the road. When Philly was recently named the 6th best biking city in America, I wasn’t too surprised. Continue reading →

Federal Donuts, Hunger, and Loving Philly Well

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See, doesn’t that look good? (This picture was shamelessly stolen from the Kickstarter page).

It’s no secret that I love Philly, and every once in a while I come across something that makes me really proud of this city and excited to live here. This week, that happened to me while I was grabbing my Saturday morning coffee and donut at my friendly neighborhood Federal Donuts. Federal Donuts – in collaboration with several other Philadelphia businesses and non-profits – is endeavoring to open up Philly’s first non-profit restaurant. They’re calling this project Rooster Soup Company. I read over their Kickstarter page a couple of times, and decided that this is something that I want to get behind. And I think you should too.

The idea behind this project is simple: they want to take the hundreds of pounds of chicken scraps that FedNuts produces each day (yeah, they sell chicken alongside donuts. It’s not as weird as it sounds, and both are delicious) and use them to make soup. That soup would then be sold in a restaurant, and the profits from that restaurant would go straight to Broad Street Ministry.

Here’s what I love about this plan:

1. The food options in Philly are nearly endless, but the hundreds of restaurants in this city produce (very literally) tons of food waste. At the same time, hunger is an everyday reality for many Philadelphians. This project cuts back on some of that food waste, and will not only eliminate it, but use it to feed some of those hungry people.

2. The folks behind Rooster Soup Company could have just decided to start their own non-profit, but instead, they’re choosing to empower an existing organization. I think that’s a very wise move. Starting a non-profit is no easy task; in addition to additional capital and a specialized skill set, something like that requires time to build trust and develop relationships with clients. Instead, they’re entrusting Broad Street Ministry – which is a solid organization that serves people as Jesus would – to carry out the tangible hunger-eliminating work.

3. On their way to and from work each day, middle and upper class Philadelphians walk past dozens of homeless people. I’m sure most of them are decent people who wish there was something that they could do to help this marginalized population. Rooster Soup Company will make it easy for them to do this, without asking them to go very far out of their way (both literally and metaphorically).

4. This is a project that connects so many groups in this city: a hip business, a radical church, Center City’s homeless population, anyone who will eat at Rooster Soup Co, and anyone who backs this campaign. This is a diverse bunch, and it’s neat to see them all coming together here.

5. This is an extremely creative endeavor. I have no idea how the minds behind this idea came up with it, but I’d really like to see it play out. If it does, I don’t think we’ll be disappointed, and I suspect that there will be even more interesting collaborations like this in the years to come.

6. Soup is delicious, and this menu looks amazing.

With just a little over a week left in their Kickstarter campaign, Rooster Soup Company still needs about $20,000. If you’re interested, and if you can, I invite you to join me in supporting this creative project.

Learning to Love the World’s Favorite Pastime

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This was the moment that I realized soccer players are basically superhuman.

Last week Ann Coulter wrote a grotesque and loosely humorous column bashing soccer (not going to hyperlink it because I don’t want to associate with her more than necessary. Google it if you want). I read it over once or twice, and realized that, if her reasons were rephrased a little bit and with a better and very different attitude, her column could actually serve as an argument in favor of soccer. And after watching snippets of a few World Cup games – including our unfortunate loss to Belgium yesterday – I’ve come to appreciate the sport quite a bit. So, I thought I’d try to rewrite Ms. Coulter’s essay, and reflect on why America is joining the rest of the world in being obsessed with the sport.

Here we go:

1. Soccer is communal. It’s a team sport where players are constantly aware of everyone on the field. One of the things that I’ve been really impressed and intrigued by while watching the World Cup is how teammates relate to one another and their opponents during the game. These guys are able to pass the ball back and forth to one another across a field, while avoiding opponents, without looking – all in the course of literally a second or two. During gameplay, it’s like team is operating under some sort of collective over-mind. And, rightly so, teams rise and fall together. During those 90+ minutes, it’s not about any individual’s career of failures, but the team’s.

2. Everyone plays soccer. To play, all you need is a ball, some land, and something to mark the goal posts. For the billions of people in the world that don’t have access to lacrosse sticks, football pads, baseball gloves, swimming pools, and other various athletic paraphernalia, it’s the ideal sport. I assume this is why soccer is so wildly popular abroad, and why it has managed to transcend so many borders (geographic, socioeconomic, racial, etc.). I can’t think of any other cultural phenomenon that gets so many different people as riled up as soccer does, and it’s amazing to see them come together in recognition of this diversity.

3. Soccer is fast-paced and exciting to watch. Even in a low scoring or tie game, the ball hardly stops moving. And unlike in football or baseball, the clock rarely stops. Players don’t really pause between plays and regroup, they just keep going. Once a game gains momentum, it just keeps building.

4. America lost. In the Olympics, the economy, and most wars, it’s typically assumed that the U.S. is going to come out on top. Not so in the World Cup. It’s nice to be the underdog for a little bit, in part because it’s fun to root for the underdog, and also because it’s good to be reminded that despite our confidence and patriotism, we’re not actually the best.

5. Players can’t use their hands, which means that they need to engage the rest of their bodies in ways that I find astounding. The level of coordination and bodily awareness that these guys have is incredible, and their ability to make split-second decisions is something that you don’t see very often in any other sport, industry, etc. (at least not to this extent).

I’m looking forward to continuing to catch snippets of World Cup games over the next couple of weeks, and I’m even more excited to cheer on Team USA again in 2018. In the meantime, I hope that America’s enthusiasm for soccer outlives the hype of the World Cup. Caring about this sport brings us into the rest of the world, keeps us humble, and enables us to encounter a truly amazing kind of athleticism.

Home & Identity

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Photo courtesy of Philly.com.

Last week, the iconic diner in my hometown burned down. This was one of those places that is central to small town life, where people of all ages would gather day and night to linger over mediocre food and coffee. The Crystal Lake Diner sat perched on a hill overlooking one of Haddon Township’s main throughways. Driving in from Philly, it was one of the first things to greet you, no matter what time you got home. For many people, this was a place loaded with memories and meaning – the public reaction to its untimely demise reflected this. For me, the days following the news of this loss were met with a distant but lurking sadness, much like that which would accompany the news of the sudden passing of a childhood acquaintance.

I’ve been thinking about my hometown and what it means to me since before I left it over five years ago. When I was graduating high school, I thought that I would get over it. But I haven’t. Being away from it – on the Main Line, in Italy, back on the Main Line, and now in South Philly – and experiencing this big world, reading the great books, asking existential questions, has only made me appreciate it more deeply.

A couple of months ago, I returned home to Haddon Township for something random. It was an ordinary trip. At the time, I was experiencing a season of millennial angst, unsure about myself and what I was doing with my life. Full of questions and an ironic desire for instability, I found myself in Haddon Township. And for the few hours that I was there, I felt exceptionally safe, and sure, and okay with myself. This will sound strange, but I think that some of that comfort comes from physically navigating the town. I know Haddon Township so well – the buildings, stop signs, curves in the road – that when I’m driving around it I have no doubts. The act of moving about my neighborhood is second nature. These familiar places are a part of who I am, in a very bodily way.

Haddon Township has always been a part of my identity. I’ve understood this for a while now, but I’m beginning to realize just how important that is. Who I am is rooted in a tangible place – a place that has meant something to a lot of people for hundreds of years. It’s not going anywhere. It will continue to be home to many people no matter what I do. A significant part of my identity is entirely external to me, my job, my relationships, my achievements. For an angsty, unstable, and introspective millennial, this is so comforting.

I suspect that I am not alone in this. Many people never leave Haddon Township, and those who do often return, bringing with them their families, education, and experiences. There’s a reason for this. There’s nothing particularly exceptional about this mundane little suburb, but for those that live there, being “from Haddon Township” tends to be much more than a piece of personal trivia.

And this is why, when a tangible symbol of our town and its community suddenly perishes, it genuinely hurts. That mediocre diner, like the town itself, was a part of many lives and identities. It ought to be mourned it like a childhood acquaintance.

Nine Things I Learned from Working in a Restaurant

During college, many of my classmates spent their summers doing internships, research, and other resume-building things. I spent mine waitressing – on purpose. This was in part because the restaurant I worked at was a block from the beach, however, a few weeks into my time there I realized that that experience could potentially be just as vital to my formation as all of the classes I took, books I read, papers I wrote, and sermons I listened to. Here are just a handful of the things I learned from working in a restaurant:

How to use a restaurant. There are plenty of ranty articles and blog posts out there about this topic, so I needn’t add much more. But: restaurant staff are people too – and they have normal lives, needs, desires, etc. Restaurant customers should treat them that way. Banter with your waiter, thank the hostess on your way out, and if something goes wrong, give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt. And don’t be condescending. The world would be a better place if we always treated strangers this way.

How to have normal human interactions. The environment of the place I worked at is pretty far removed from the ivory towers of cushy academia. While I could have really stuck out, but I don’t think I did. I came to really respect my co-workers, boss, and the other members of the community. Furthermore, I was able to laugh with them, rant with them, celebrate with them, and work my butt off with them. This was extremely helpful in helping me transition from my small conservative college to the rest of the world.

Work ethic. I try to live with the philosophy that everything worth doing is worth doing well, and it’s definitely easier when the people I’m working alongside are also super hardworking. During one of my first shifts at the restaurant, it was really slow, and the girl I was working with kept finding things to clean, because instead of standing around, she wanted to actually earn her wage. With that precedent, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to slack off at this job. Restaurant work can be grimy and mundane, and sometimes the hours are a little insane, but all work is worth doing well.

Team work. In academia, your work is largely your own. While you might be learning in a community, your papers and your grades belong exclusively to you (unless you’ve plagiarized, but that’s different). But workplaces almost never function like this. This is especially noticeable in a restaurant. During a rush, everyone has the same goal: to seat as many people as possible and turn over tables quickly, as to increase revenue for everyone. In our most hectic moments, anyone with even a few seconds to spare would ask everyone else if they needed help, and pitch in where needed. We all ended up doing stuff outside of our job descriptions, including many things that wouldn’t directly benefit us. Why? Because it sucks to see your colleagues fail, and when we succeed, we succeed together. It might be easy to forget this in a classroom or office, but when there are people waiting to be seated at your restaurant, you don’t think twice about it.

Work and life are not mutually exclusive. In my experience, restaurant staff don’t care too much about stiff professionalism. This meant that the line between one’s personal life and work life was often blurred. I now know that that’s how a lot of workplaces (even offices) are, and I’ve come to appreciate it. A lot of people stress out about finding a “work-life balance,” and I think that one of the reasons that this is so stressful is that this line is never distinct, and maybe not even necessary.

Loyalty and stability. A lot of families who vacation at the Jersey shore have been doing so for generations. On more than one occasion, I served customers who had been coming to the restaurant and ordering the same meal since before I was born. Likewise, most of the people I worked with had been working there for years, some of them following in the footsteps of older siblings or cousins (or in my case, parents). In our flighty and transient culture, this kind of loyalty to a place and a routine is refreshing.

Justice. My freshman year, I took a class called “Justice and the Common Good,” where we studied what the term “justice” has meant to philosophers throughout the ages, and what it should mean for us now. The definition of justice that I walked away with was this: justice is doing your work well and giving people what they deserve. (That’s adapted from Plato and Aquinas, who phrase it more eloquently). It wasn’t until I started working at the restaurant that I really began to understand what this notion justice means, practically. The basic economic transactions that happen in restaurants (and stores, bars, etc.) is justice in its simplest form, and it’s vital to our society and the common good.

Piety. One of the first things that we read in my Great Books education was the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro. This is when I learned the phrase “filial piety,” which is the practice of being dutiful toward those whom we owe our duty. This generally means parents, but also elders, superiors, etc. In its most basic and practical form, filial piety is respecting your boss, even when what he tells you to do doesn’t make sense. It’s understanding that the most experienced waitress is going to be assigned the best section. It’s fulfilling the ridiculous requests of your most loyal customers (even if they don’t tip very well). It’s doing your duties without question, and I think people in service jobs are some of the best examples of it.

The Good Life. One of my college professors once said (jokingly, I think) that the Good Life is “beer and fireworks.” In the program that I graduated from, we spent a lot of time talking about the “Good Life,” and speculating what it entailed as to go forth and live it. We developed a fairly specific notion of what it means to live a “Good Life,” so during the summers, it was a little confusing for me to spend time with people who were hard working, good, and happy, but not asking big questions or reading old books. Over the course of several years, I came to the conclusion that sometimes, for some people, the good life might just be hard work followed by beer and fireworks – and that’s okay.

The Bubble

A few days after graduating college, some friends and I sat down with some guys from the American Bible Society and had an extended conversation about Christianity and culture. The conversation kept coming back to one central theme – “the bubble” – or, the idea that we were living and working in a particular realm of society, namely, Christian academia (in the Main Line suburbs, specifically), and that this particularity gives us a unique but limited relationship with our culture. There was a general sense that while this bubble itself was fine and good, the somewhat alienating nature of being a part of a sheltered subculture was problematic. (If anyone who participated in that conversation is reading this and would like to elaborate, disagree, etc., please do). It was a helpful and meaningful thing to reflect on, because most of us were preparing to leave this bubble, or at least shift our placement within it.

About a week later, I did just that – I left this bubble that had cared for me so well for four years. I moved to South Philly and started working at a growing church in Center City. For a little while, I stumbled around in this new life. During those first few months, things would regularly happen to me that heightened my awareness of how out of place I was. Mostly humorous stuff. But alas, that’s what life is like outside of the bubble.

Except it’s not. I never actually left a bubble, but simply transitioned into a new bubble, or perhaps, set of bubbles. I realized this after chatting with neighbors and becoming acclimated to my new neighborhood – South Philly is vibrant, nuanced, culturally robust, and, a surprisingly insular city-within-a-city, a subculture of its own. Church world (which I consider quite distinct from Christian academia) is also its own strange and unique subculture, one that’s trying very hard to engage with the society around it, which is just another interesting aspect of this bubble. So, I left one bubble for another, and it’s tempting to think of this as a failure of sorts.

But I’m going to suggest otherwise, and not just for the sake of my own pride given my life decisions. People in our generation and culture are really compelled by the concept of leaving one’s “bubble” or “comfort zone.” Intolerance and ignorance are considered deeply offensive, but even innocent sheltered-ness is widely frowned upon. The respectable, cosmopolitan person has experienced and is knowledgeable about communities other than their own, and is uncomfortable with the idea of settling into one particular niche. To me, this is an ironically limited understanding of the good life.

On one hand, I think the desire for a cosmopolitan and bubble-free life is futile. If we settle anywhere, even just temporarily, we’re settling into a particular niche. It could even be argued that unsettled cosmopolitanism – whatever that looks like – is its own bubble, a community with shared practices, ideals, and ends.

More importantly, I’m not convinced that it is possible to flourish outside of a bubble. Political theorist Mark Mitchell argues this as well. In his recently published essay, “Making Places: The Cosmopolitan Temptation,” Mitchell argues that psychologically, we simply aren’t capable of growing or loving outside of a particular realm of society:

A particular language, a particular cuisine, a particular geography, climate, manners, stories, songs, metaphors – these all serve to make me who and how I am. While I can imagine my abstracted self as a global citizen or as a brother to all humanity, such an extension requires significant effort and is as unlivable as it is unnatural. The limits of my belonging are determined by the limit of my love – and love, not an abstracted feeling of goodwill, has limits.

He goes on to claim that we need these limits and long-term commitments in order to flourish, and that “a life given to assiduously keeping one’s options open will, in the process of avoiding commitments, miss out on the very best kinds of human goods that are found in the wake of commitment.”

This isn’t an argument in favor of ignorance or intolerance, but simply a call to recognize that it’s okay to be comfortable in a particular place and/or subculture, and to prefer one’s own bubble to all others. This doesn’t mean hating all other (sub)cultures or anything, but simply loving one’s own more thoroughly.

There’s a sense that it’s good and challenging to leave one’s comfort zone, and we admire people who do this – who go abroad, spend time with people who look or speak different. This notion of leaving one’s comfort zone has always struck me as compelling, but not particularly challenging. It’s easy to leave, but it’s much harder to stay, to accept limits, make deep commitments, and invest selflessly in a particular people and place. I’m not always good at this, but I’m definitely trying to get better.

And I’ll start by admitting that I am in a bubble, a comfort zone. I’m proud of this, and I’m here to stay.