RIP, Alex Trebek

Like “Jeopardy!” fans and contestants everywhere, I was saddened by the news that Alex Trebek died this past Sunday. I wrote the following tribute for While You Were Working SmartBrief on Monday, Nov. 9:

Alex Trebek left a legacy of caring, humor and smarts
Why it matters: I spent a big chunk of this past weekend reading questions and keeping score for academic tournaments for middle and high school students (held online this year because of the pandemic). I got the gig through a fellow “Jeopardy!” champion, just one example of how being on the show eight years ago changed my life. Alex Trebek was at the center of the experience, holding court while helping us contestants feel comfortable and less nervous. Over the course of my three games, I found him to be very engaging and encouraging.

However, when I read his book this past summer, I fully realized what a genuinely caring person he was, as evidenced by his extensive USO tours and global humanitarian work with World Vision. Now that he’s died, it’s hard to imagine “Jeopardy!” without him. Still, I’m sure the show will continue to be a quality undertaking that reminds us of the importance of knowledge, truth and facts while having a lot of fun — and even helping people learn English — in the process. The kids in the tournaments I worked at will never get to be on “Jeopardy!” with Alex, but they’re already continuing his legacy in their own way. — Cathy (the WYWW “Jeopardy!” expert)

Faith and writing amid coronavirus

Greetings from my house, where I’ve been spending the vast majority of my time lately because of the coronavirus.
You’re likely stuck at home as well — and for good reason.
At times like these, I like to have stuff on hand to read. And lately, I’ve written a few things you may like:
— A SmartBrief Original on how workplaces can accommodate employees with mental illness.
— A While You Were Working Shining Moment on my favorite sports memory (feel free to submit yours!).
— A review of Adam Minter’s very good book “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.” (Order it from IndieBound or your local independent bookstore.)

Since I’m a person of faith as well as a writer, I was disappointed that the Festival of Faith and Writing got pushed back to next year. I totally understand the reasoning, though, and I plan to be there in 2021!

Speaking of faith, I greatly appreciated Father James Martin’s New York Times commentary on “Where is God in a Pandemic?” and N.T. Wright’s piece for Time about the importance of lament during this crisis. I’m grateful to have a theology that acknowledges suffering is a part of life and teaches how to deal with it (as opposed to the health-and-wealth prosperity gospel), and to be part of a church that’s been offering its Sunday worship online, as well as morning and evening prayer, which has become a vital routine for me.

A big part of my faith is helping the less fortunate, and I’m doing that by supporting one of my favorite organizations: the Arlington Food Assistance Center. You can help them as well by donating money or food. Another organization I love is Restoration Immigration Legal Aid, and you can contribute to their Benevolence Fund to help their clients during this time.

As we move forward, not knowing when this will all be over, let’s remember what we’re learning so we can come out better and stronger on the other side.

(Updated April 4, 2020)


Welcome to 2020!

Happy new decade (sort of), everyone!

A few updates: I am thrilled that the Washington Nationals won the 2019 World Series (I still can’t believe it, in fact). I went to the World Series parade and loved getting to see the players in person.

I am also no longer single! I started dating a terrific guy last year. However, don’t worry, my single friends — I’ve still got your back and will keep standing up for you.

And, I enjoyed the recent “Jeopardy!” Greatest of All Time tournament, even though I predicted the wrong winner. You can read my thoughts in While You Were Working SmartBrief here, here and here.

More thoughts to come on this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing, and anything else that inspires me.

An ode (of sorts) to Alex Trebek
Alex's words, as depicted by artist Andrew Long. (Twitter: @nowhammies10; Instagram: @andrewlong103) Thanks to fellow Woman of Jeopardy! Michelle Cabral.

An ode (of sorts) to Alex Trebek

This week, after I heard the news that “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I felt like I should write something. So I wrote this for While You Were Working SmartBrief (one of the 200-plus email newsletters my company publishes). Thanks to editor Sean McMahon for running it and allowing me to share it here. (After you read this, go read this good Washington Post article that we linked to.)

(Note from Sean) Cathy Guiles is a SmartBriefer who sometimes helps me produce WYWW. She eloquently penned the following message of support for Alex Trebek:

This “Jeopardy!” champion can’t imagine a world without Alex Trebek

When I appeared as a contestant on “Jeopardy!” seven years ago this month, winning two games, I was so anxious that the only response I gave to Alex Trebek the two times he spoke to me outside of the contestant interview portion and the game itself was some nervous laughter. Getting to interact in person with someone I had watched on TV for most of my life was a joy I’ll never forget.

Like other “Jeopardy!” fans and contestants, I was heartbroken when I watched Trebek’s announcement Wednesday that he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. But his affable-yet-straightforward personality was on full display as he explained his plan to keep working and told viewers, “So help me. Keep the faith and we’ll win.”

Based on the reaction I’ve seen from fellow “Jeopardy!” contestants on Facebook, who are posting pictures of themselves with him and adding special frames (as I did last night), Trebek has a ton of support. A world without him is unthinkable to me — but for the time being, I’ll keep him in my prayers and keep watching “Jeopardy!” — Cathy Guiles

(Photo caption: Alex’s words, as depicted by Andrew Long. Thanks to fellow Woman of Jeopardy! Michelle Cabral.)

Solo? You’re still significant

Happy New Year! I closed out 2018 by writing my second review for the Englewood Review of Books — and coincidentally (or not?), it was on a book about singleness, just like the first review I wrote for the site. However, this one, “The Significance of Singleness” by Christina Hitchcock, is a different kind of book: part theological treatise, part history lesson, part memoir. I appreciated a lot of things about it — and I hope married Christians will read it, in part so they won’t keep saying the dumb things that I and other single Christians hear way too often, which Hitchcock points out are seriously flawed.

Since reading the book, I’ve realized how right Hitchcock is about how Westerners value autonomy and romance above all else in their relationship decisions, and I’ve noticed the ideal of choosing your own (consensual) sexual/romantic partner without any outside interference popping up all over. (Two terrific movies I saw last year, “The Big Sick” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” both preach that this viewpoint is superior to the Eastern belief that your parents should have at least some say in who you marry and that loyalty to family is something to take into consideration.)  In addition, I’m happy to see so many writers in the Christian market addressing singleness from a more understanding point of view, seeking to help us unmarried folks live fulfilling lives rather than just shaming us and harassing us to get married (although I do hope and pray that happens for me someday!).

I also recently found a good book that indirectly relates to singleness in another publishing category: cookbooks! After reading about chef Anita Lo’s “Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One” in The New York Times last year, I got it for Christmas. I’ve already made two of the recipes, and not only were they delicious, the process of cooking for myself in smaller quantities was surprisingly satisfying. (I usually make bigger recipes but wind up wasting a lot of food, so I’m grateful for how Lo’s dishes have gotten me to shop and prepare differently as well.)

These books have reassured me that being single doesn’t mean you’re less important or somehow forbidden from doing nice things for yourself and enjoying life. Jason Derulo sings that he “never knew single could feel this good,” and I encourage all the single people out there to discover that as well.

#FFWgr2018: By the numbers: Oprah, exorcisms and Dutch licorice

Children’s books are the best!

I had a really great time at this year’s Festival of Faith & Writing. It’s hard to believe the Festival will be turning 30 at the next one in 2020!

Keeping with the numbers theme, here’s a lighthearted final breakdown of my time in Grand Rapids:

  • 3: Number of references to Oprah made by speakers
  • 2: Number of references to exorcisms (Fleming Rutledge describing the sacrament of baptism as “a rite of exorcism” and Anbara Salam describing a cult leader who performed exorcisms on her and other women)
  • 2: Number of references to C.S. Lewis
  • 3: Number of references to Anne Lamott (who I heard at my very first Festival, way back in 2000)
  • 13: Number of books I bought
  • 1: Number of those that were for me
  • 4: Number of books I got autographed by authors
  • 2: Number of advance copies of books I got (Jonathan Merritt’s “Learning to Speak God from Scratch” and John Hendrix’s “The Faithful Spy” – about Dietrich Bonhoeffer!)
  • 2: Bags of Dutch licorice I bought and ate
  • 2: Number of times I rode the Grand Rapids bus
  • 3: Number of great Grand Rapids cafes/restaurants I went to (the Wealthy Street Bakery, Squibb and The Sparrows)
  • 2: Number of fellow copy editors I met
  • 2: Number of podcasts I’ve started listening to since the Festival (Jonathan Merritt’s “The Faith Angle” and Kate Bowler’s “Everything Happens”)

Here’s to two more years of reading!

#FFWgr2018: How to do good journalism amid layoffs and pressure

“No matter where you are in your career, have a servant’s heart,” said Barbara Bradley Hagerty (left).

I haven’t worked as a full-time journalist for over six years, but I still care about the field – and my friends who remain in it – a lot.

Amid the turmoil that news outlets, particularly local newspapers and TV stations, are suffering, it can be hard to see signs of hope for the industry.

In light of these realities, journalists who spoke at the Festival of Faith & Writing had some insights for both those who produce news content and those who consume it. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, a former longtime religion reporter for NPR and the author of two books, and Tony Norman, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, shared their thoughts in a joint session. (Full disclosure: Hagerty and I attend the same church, and Norman is also a Calvin graduate like me.)

Norman said he has remained in journalism because “I want to be part of the conversation, a more robust civic conversation.” That conversation has expanded with social media, as “you’re on so many more platforms now,” and people follow him on Twitter who don’t even read the print edition of his newspaper.

Although many people will also never be interviewed by a journalist, those who are care “that they are portrayed accurately,” Hagerty said. “I try to actually get in their shoes. Everyone has a cogent reason for believing what they believe.”

She also noted that audiences can turn to podcasts and online sources of news as local newspapers die off, and reporters can get bylines in other places.

Still, Norman said that to an extent, newspapers will always be a good way to convey information: “It’s going to be like vinyl records,” not completely going away even as new forms of media emerge.

At another joint session, Emma Green of The Atlantic and Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post also noted the effect of President Donald Trump on journalists, particularly regarding religion coverage.

“The media has in some way woken up to the religion world again,” Green said, noting that New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and others recognized there’s “a force at work here that we didn’t have our pulse on.” She’s seen “more good journalism in more places about religion” that wouldn’t have run such stories before.

Bailey and Green, who are both white, noted the need for diversity — religious, racial and otherwise — in newsrooms. (Norman, who is African-American, made a similar case in his session, noting that recruiting more journalists of color would improve representation in news coverage.)

Many prominent national religion reporters are women, partly because “religion is seen as a soft beat,” although it’s not, Green said. But no matter one’s background, “every journalist needs to write about people who are not like them.”

My biggest takeaway from both sessions was that American journalism as a whole isn’t dead. But, it will continue to change rapidly, and those who want to get the fewer and fewer jobs available in the field need to have the skills, right attitude and perseverance necessary to seek out opportunities wherever they can. To build on Green’s statement, reporters shouldn’t just cover people not like them, but their bosses should hire people not like them. The American public — and American democracy — will all benefit as a result of having stronger, more representative media that takes religion, among other subjects, seriously.

#FFWgr2018: Am I a writer or an advocate — or both?

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

1 John 3:18 (New International Version)

That Bible verse came to my mind Saturday night at the Festival of Faith & Writing after listening to author Jen Hatmaker and environmental activist and author Bill McKibben. (Only at Calvin could you hear both of those people on the same day — one of the many reasons I adore my alma mater!)

During her talk, Hatmaker praised writers as “word-builders,” saying they are needed to counteract “this world of deconstructionists, tearing down common ground that we used to share” by “building communities and onroads to faith with words.”

Although writers tend to be a solitary bunch, she said they need to overcome that, for other people’s sake.

“We’re not just a bunch of weirdos in our writing caves,” Hatmaker said. “We don’t get to opt out. It is our responsibility to speak out for our maligned neighbors.”

For her, that has meant being “an ally” of LGBTQ people and people of color, taking some theological stances that caused “tension with white Christian America.” When it comes to her writing, “I’m not speaking on [other people’s] behalf. I’m just their friend.”

As I listened to Hatmaker (and laughed a lot — she is incredibly funny), I wondered whether I needed to be an advocate in my writing as well — something I have usually shied away from. Since my background is in news journalism, I’ve sought to be as neutral as possible unless I’m writing an opinion piece. Washington Post religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey said during a panel discussion Saturday on civil discourse that journalists “don’t have to give answers.” Instead, she just listens and asks questions — and that suffices.

I do think Hatmaker is right about the power of words to shape reality and the necessity of using them for constructive purposes. (The Book of Proverbs agrees, and folk musicians such as Festival performer Carrie Newcomer represent another great tradition of words that can bring about change.) But, as the writer of 1 John notes, words on their own may not always be sufficient. In his talk, McKibben said that when he saw the very human consequences of Western pollution in Bangladesh, “it felt obscene to just write about it.” And since the books he had written about climate change and other environmental threats didn’t seem to be convincing people, he turned to nonviolent movements and organizing, although he continues to write.

Ultimately, I think the trick for a writer is to find balance — know when to be an advocate, when to let other people speak, when to speak up yourself and when to act. Together, words and actions are a powerful combination — and when they’re used in truth, the world can’t help but benefit.

Postscript, April 22: Thyra VanKeeken, a pastor in Canada, has some good thoughts on the power of words at the Christian Reformed Church’s Do Justice blog. (The CRC is the denomination Calvin is affiliated with.)

Festival 2018 checks all my boxes

Jen Hatmaker and Kwame Alexander aren’t journalists, but I like them anyway.

I’ve stopped keeping track of how many times I’ve been to the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College (my undergraduate alma mater), but I’m expecting another great one this week.

I’m looking forward to several sessions pertaining to gender, especially a lunch forum called “Still Evangelical in the Age of #MeToo?” featuring several prominent Christian women (including fellow Calvin grad Katelyn Beaty, whose work I admire). The word “evangelical” has become even more loaded since November 2016, and since I’m a woman, an editor who cares about using words accurately and a Christian, I’m curious to see what the panel members think. I’m also intrigued by a session titled “Why Don’t Men Read Women Writers? Closing the Gender Gap in Christian Publishing” because I would like to write a book someday, and I want men — and women, and maybe even children — to read it. And, since I love journalism, I’m excited for sessions by Emma Green, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Tony Norman (another Calvin grad!), Jonathan Merritt and Sarah Pulliam Bailey. Green and Bailey will be discussing how women have become prominent in religion journalism, which I can’t wait to hear. The best session title by far, though, in my opinion, is “Focus off the Family,” featuring none other than Gina Dalfonzo (whose book “One by One” I reviewed back in October). She and others will discuss how to write about “the struggles and joys of lives that don’t have marriage and/or children as their focus,” another subject that’s one of my pet soapboxes.

Of course, there will be plenty of great speakers/writers outside of my own professional and personal interests — Kate Bowler, Fleming Rutledge, Kwame Alexander and Jen Hatmaker, just to name a few. But I think the biggest temptation I’ll face this year won’t be buying too many books, but feeling compelled to unnecessarily compare myself to others. One of the things I love about the Calvin community is its humility, which shines through in the college’s willingness to host so many people from so many religious backgrounds and learn from them. I will try to model that quality myself and not be jealous as I catch up with old friends and make new ones. If you’ll be there, let me know, and hopefully we can meet in person!

At church, is one still the loneliest number?

This post is for all my fellow unmarried Christians out there. You know who you are, and you know life can be difficult, both inside and outside the church. That’s why I’m glad the good people at the Englewood Review of Books gave me the chance to review Gina Dalfonzo’s new book, “One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church.” I enjoyed it and hope it reaches a wide audience.

For a lighter look at what it’s like to be single in the church, check out Jon Acuff‘s classic “Surviving Church as a Single” scorecard. Thankfully, I only scored a five. How about you?

(Addendum, Nov. 15: The satirical site The Babylon Bee has a hilarious but all too true take on this issue. I’d be thrilled if the “Marriage is the only thing that can make you a better Christian!” heresy was never preached again!)

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