This summer we played with PlaSmart’s Watermelon Ball JR, a water toy I thought the kids might play with for a couple minutes and then get bored. But we all found it really fun!
As you can see, it floats! Here the predator stalks its prey:
But it also moves underwater really well. Whether at the beach or (better) in a swimming pool, we had lots of fun passing it to each other and playing keep away by pushing it through the water. Even though it pops up to the surface to float, you can move it around pretty easily underwater.
The ball comes with a mechanism to easily fill it with water from a hose—we filled it to probably about 2/3 full, which ended up working just fine. It hasn’t leaked at all.
Here are a couple of more images from PlaSmart.
The Watermelon Ball is so named because it is:
Designed to look, feel, and behave like a watermelon in water. Real watermelons are nearly neutrally buoyant: first sinking to the bottom then slowly rising to the top, making them ideal for all kinds of water games.
It probably would have been pretty fun to be among the group of people testing out real watermelons to discover that they are “nearly neutrally buoyant” (probably a pool party accident). I didn’t cross-test this toy against a watermelon, so can’t speak to the similarities, but the toy definitely does what it promises.
I made the mistake of not checking the van stereo’s volume before pressing play on “Letting Go,” the first track on Wild Nothing’s new LP Indigo (released August 31 on Captured Tracks). The kids and I all nearly jumped out of our seats at the opening sixteenth note hits on the snare. The keyboard, bass, and interlocking guitars join in to make it a great opening track (the album’s first single).
“Oscillation” is next, which—without taking away from its originality—sounds something like if members of The Cure and James and Amusement Parks on Fire formed a supergroup… in 1982.
The rest of the album maintains a (glorious) 80s vibe, complete with ethereal keyboard riffs and attention-demanding lead guitar lines. I kept thinking: this is what Prince would sound like if he covered early 80s CCM classics! (That’s praise, not a complaint.) The album’s saxophones fit perfectly, even if their first entrance on the album was a surprise.
I took great pleasure in having a traveling companion/listening partner try to guess what year the album came out. “2018” was not the expected answer!
The production is excellent on the album, the melodies are catchy, and all the instrument parts are interesting. It’s got a sweet vibe. I still like 2012’s Nocturne better—it feels a little more effortless—but Indigo is still a great record.
Check out the artist site here, the label site here, and the album at Amazon here.
Thanks to Wild Nothing’s PR team for early access to the album so we could review it.
The gap between the last two Innocence Mission albums was five years. Now, a mere three years after releasing Hello I Feel the Same (reviewed here), The Innocence Mission has put out Sun on the Square (Badman Recording Co).
The album begins with two measures of a nylon string guitar arpeggiating a major chord, which quickly turns minor as the vocals enter, instantly evoking a yearning for connection. This first track, “Records from Your Room,” uses piano sparingly and gorgeously. The haunting high-register melody perfectly compliments the lyrics: “I meet you there out in the air // I’m listening.” It’s a compelling way to link this album to ones before it, setting the stage for something new but familiar.
The second track, “Green Bus,” offers an exquisite interplay of guitars—soft and understated, but precise and tight. “I cannot find a thing beautiful enough for you again,” Peris sings. The song’s strings are beautiful, expressing more ineffable longing.
In “Look Out From Your Window” (featuring a Peris kid on viola!) Peris still wants to listen: “All I cannot say I hope you know // All you cannot say I hope I can hear.” There is a theme of disconnect mingled with hope, acknowledging the reality that we cannot achieve ultimate communion with one another, even asbut that we hold out hope that one day we will. It is on this track that there is (at last!) some percussion.
“Shadow of the Pines” is an instant classic, and easily a top 10 Innocence Mission song. The muted piano is as if they decided to use toy instruments and coaxed all the beauty they could out them. The song is like stepping out of the Metro in Paris on a spring afternoon, encountering a fantasy made real. The instrumental closing of the track gives the listener layers of melodic, moving riffs, which—were this any other band—could have built for another five minutes. (The song is a modest 4:01.)
The spare use of electric guitar on “Buildings in Flower” is a nice touch. Don Peris’s guitar is tastefully employed and never over-shimmery (if that’s even possible!). More drums! (But only for the last quarter of the song.) If “And it’s hard to know, now, where we should go” is the call, the response (in question form) is, “Will the lifting of a window let the Spirit in, and then we begin to vividly live?”
The sixth and title track, “Sun on the Square” is probably the most complex song on the album and maybe one of their most ambitious compositions ever. Loads of string swells as the rhythmic song goes on, which is a great sound for the band. “Let there be more kindness in the world,” Peris sings.
If the next track “Light of Winter” sounds familiar, it’s because a previous version (called “From the Trains”) appeared on a sweet EP called “the snow on pi day.” It could be a Radiohead song. The first version—which we like a little better—had a little more backbone to it—bass and drums where there is piano now. The songs are different enough that renaming it made sense. The new version is still great. The theme of light–and seeing it–continues.
Track 8, “Star of Land and Sea,” is practically brutal in its child-like expression of hope in a dark world. There are echoes of the same two-note, high-pitched guitar riff from the previous track, which ties them together nicely.
The second to last song is “An Idea of Canoeing,” the chords and mood of which are reminiscent of Lakes of Canada. Where else are you going to find a melodica? More wondering: “Will I cross the street to you / in the traffic breaks / in the light of this / in the light of this love / here and now?”
“Galvanic” is a nice way to end the album. She sings in hope, “I believe we are going to see, things will come right this time.”
Overall, this is a very good album (can the band create otherwise?) with a lot to dig into, both lyrically and aurally. The band seemed to write and record this album with a soft touch, not risking too much. But you’ll only find gratitude here for the ways this record returns to the lush notes and tones of My Room in the Trees and Befriended.
As with all their albums there is an undeniable authenticity that comes through in their music. Amazingly, the band’s songs could produce the same emotional response in the listener, whether or not they produce them with multiple instruments. Karen’s voice and heart-rending lyrics come through with every composition. Also amazing is her ability to write so skillfully (and for such a long time now) about such universally human themes as loneliness, disconnect, hope, light, and vision. The hope is uniquely Christian, or at least one that looks up. It’s this—and the unique and always moving music—that keeps us coming back to them.
Check out the album here at Badman or here at Bandcamp.
Thanks to Badman for early access to the album so we could review it.
Long gone are my days of reconciling expenses in the check register to a print bank statement at the end of the month. Instead, I’ve been tracking daily expenses in real time since May 2015 with the app You Need a Budget (YNAB).
YNAB is a philosophy (with newly released accompanying book) as much as it is an app. Here are the four tenets of YNAB, in their words:
Give every dollar a job.
Embrace your true expenses.
Roll with the punches.
Age your money.
Their Website is as clean and clear and informative as any I’ve seen. You could easily (and productively!) get lost in their articles, tips, and sources of support for hours.
YNAB 4—which I received a few years ago for review and which has now been replaced by a yearly subscription model—consisted of a desktop app and mobile app that stayed in sync with each other via Dropbox. YNAB 4 is still fully functional, so you don’t have to upgrade to the subscription-as-service model if you don’t want to; you just can’t buy the stand-alone apps as a one-time purchase anymore. But what I’ve seen of the new Web app is an impressive step forward for an already great app.
The best thing about using YNAB is that even the act of tracking transactions has made me a more prudent spender. I’ve had months where I was still using an outdated budget, but tracking my spending was sufficient for not overdoing it. That’s perhaps the best contribution YNAB makes to one’s financial practice.
The four tenets are great, too. “Give every dollar a job” helps you avoid, as YNAB says, the scenario where you are feeling flush with cash after receiving a paycheck, so go out and buy all your friends drinks, only to realize 10 days later you needed that money for car repair. Their idea is that you decide what to do with your money before you spend it. It may not be novel, but it is also frequently ignored.
YNAB is a massive movement with a huge following. Using the app (and accompanying YNAB resources) these last 3.5 years has been immensely helpful.
Here are some pros and cons of the app (YNAB 4) itself:
Cross-platform integration means I can track an expense with the receipt still in my hand and everything stays current
You can carry the same budget over month to month with the click of a button, or easily modify as necessary
The support articles, forums, and Webinar options are some of the best of any app I’ve ever seen. In fact, in the middle of writing this blog post, I went to see what Webinars there were, found a 20-minute “Learn the Four Rules” session starting in a matter of minutes, signed up, and sat in on the 20-minute session
The app moves users away from the need to rely on complicated Excel spreadsheets (although I still use one for student loan tracking!)
Recurring expenses are super easy to set up; then you watch them populate into your register each month, with no need to manually repeat them
YNAB remembers your payees, so that I only have to start typing “Mar…” now to get “Market Basket” to pull up as an auto-complete option. It also learns what categories certain vendors fall into
I typically include lots of screenshots in app reviews, but I’m not altogether sure how to do that in this case without disclosing sensitive info! There are a bunch of screenshots of YNAB 4 here, and of the newer subscription-based YNAB here.
All in all, working with YNAB principles has been a life-changing approach, at least in the area of finances. Check it out for yourself and see what you think.
You have a voice. And you have God’s permission to use it.
In some communities, certain voices are amplified and elevated while others are erased and suppressed. It can be hard to speak up, especially in the ugliness of social media. Power dynamics keep us silent and marginalized, especially when race, ethnicity, and gender are factors. What can we do about it?
In the introduction (“The Risk of Silence Versus the Risk of Raising Your Voice”) Khang gets right to it: “More often than not, raising my voice comes at some cost” (3). But not speaking up has a cost, too: “I learned that even when I chose to be silent and do nothing, I was still choosing to communicate something” (10). She says, “I want you to know that you have a voice. God wants you to use it, and the world needs to hear, see, and experience it” (10).
Khang roots our voice in the image of God and says, “Creation was not meant to be silent” (35). The God who spoke creation into being calls us to speak and even speaks through us.
This doesn’t mean raising our voice will be easy. Khang talks about fear, failure, and the risk of upsetting others. She shares experiences where speaking up for peace has been difficult for her—even times when trusted colleagues have (literally!) tried to silence her. Her sharing of her and her family’s life stories are a compelling part of her showing readers what finding our voice can look like.
I marked up quite a bit in this book. Here are some of the passages that especially helped me:
Rather than waiting for fear to pass, we must be willing to make small yet courageous steps toward the unfamiliar. We must simply be willing to “do it afraid.” (65, from a friend of Khangs that she interviews)
Speaking out is often labeled as rocking the boat or causing trouble, but silence is just as dangerous. (83)
Another thing to consider is what issue is pulling at your heart and soul so much that it might make you do something you never thought you’d do? (57-58)
I found the following idea especially compelling, and a great antidote to those who complain about “division” or “playing the race card” or whatever other reasons people give for avoiding difficult conversations:
Speaking up doesn’t increase division. It brings injustice and sin to the forefront. (66)
The book is not quite the step-by-step how-to guide I expected from the chapter titles, but Khang offers plenty of practical advice:
What issues do you care most deeply about? Identify what compels you to speak up. What people, problems, dreams, and values are near and dear to your heart? What things make you angry and question humanity? Where do you find hope? (57)
And her use of the Esther narrative as a lens through which to view using one’s voice is inspiring.
The book, by the way, is an excellent oceanside companion…
… and a good dinner partner:
It’s especially timely, given everything the current president does and says, as Christians try to navigate what to say and how to say it and in what venues.
Raise Your Voice releases July 31 and is available here (IVP) and here (Amazon).
Thanks to the good folks at IVP for the review copy, sent without expectations of the content of my review.
Helen Ahpornsiri’s Drawn from Nature might be the most beautiful children’s book we’ve ever read. (And we’ve read a lot of them over the years.)
Ahpornsiri uses plants pressed by hand to lead the reader through the four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. The text itself is informative and lyrical, but the artwork is stunning.
Here are some pictures:
I can’t imagine how long it takes to illustrate a book (let alone do one page!) with hand-pressed plants. This 64-page book invites staring and wonder at the beauty of creation… not just that Ahpornsiri created from pressed plants, but how she did it. The creations that emerge are gorgeous.
My kids have gotten lost in this book already, as have I. It’s really fun to read a section at bedtime, but any child—reader or not—can easily find themselves swept up in these pages.
You can go here to look inside. Find the book at Amazon here, or through its publisher here.
Thanks to the good folks at Candlewick/Big Picture Press for sending the book for review, though that did not influence my opinions.
Any church is an outpost of the Kingdom of God. There is the mission of the church, expressed in terms of what it does together as a congregation. Then there are the myriad ways members of a congregation—especially but certainly not limited to ones involved in teaching, social services, and other care-taking roles—live out the church’s call to love, to be salt and light, to share the good news of God’s love..
Even if we are at church four hours a week, we churchgoers spend some 98% of our lives not gathered with the congregation as a whole. How can churchgoing folks continue to build the Kingdom of God, not just when we are together, but when we are apart?
There exists among congregations an impressive amount of what Amy L. Sherman in Kingdom Calling refers to as “vocational power–knowledge, platform, networks, position, influence, skills and reputation.” As a pastor I am keenly aware of the importance of equipping the body of believers to use their “vocational power” for the growing of the Kingdom of God. How, as Ephesians says, can we “equip the saints for the work of ministry”—ministry not just at church but in our day-to-day lives, in all the places in which God has set us?
Sherman sets the course with a definition of vocational stewardship: “the intentional and strategic use of one’s vocational power (skills, knowledge, network, platform) to advance the values of the Kingdom of God.” In calling for “foretastes” of the Kingdom of God, she speaks of a righteousness that has three dimensions: up (God and me), in (myself), and out (the world and me). This robust understanding of righteousness gets at the heart of the Old and New Testament’s definition of righteousness as right relationship with God, self, and others.
Throughout Kingdom Calling Sherman tells inspiring stories of non-profit owners, teachers, pastors, small groups, construction workers, cleaning service providers, and many others who are helping to advance the Kingdom of God by offering foretastes of it in their own spheres.
As a pastor I appreciated Sherman’s focus on “four pathways for deploying congregants in the stewardship of their vocations” (22). These are:
“Blooming where we are planted by strategically stewarding our current job,”
“Donating our vocational skills as a volunteer,”
“Launching a new social enterprise,” and,
“Participating in a targeted initiative of our congregation aimed at transforming a particular community or solving a specific social problem.”
Sherman shares inspiring stories of church-school partnerships and congregation-wide initiatives, although it is hard to know how to replicate some of the successes Sherman mentions, absent more specific implementation suggestions. But insofar as her aim is to cast a vision to church leaders and attendees of vocational stewardship and the great potential found in vocational power, Sherman’s work has excited me to move ahead in my own church with what I’ve learned from Kingdom Calling.