Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bars, Beers & Mormon Public Affairs: What a Few Questions Taught Me About Writing

I was in a bar sipping a Diet Coke when it happened. One of the journalists from the press tour I
was hosting leaned in, lowered her voice and said “So, do you ever interact with the Mormons?”

I smiled, waved my hand and said, “I’m a Mormon.”

It’s interactions like these that gave me the perspective I needed to be an advocate for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“The Mormons”) in Frankfurt, Germany. Although admittedly, growing up in Utah, these types of interactions were sparse. My family’s move to the East Coast when I was a junior in high school opened my eyes to how different some of my everyday choices seemed to others. “Why don’t you drink coffee?” my peers wanted to know. “Why don’t you come to track practice on Sunday?”

There were also those questions that hit more unexpectedly: “Can you eat chocolate?” and “Are
your family polygamists?” I found these inquiries amusing but also troubling—She thought that about me this whole time? 

It was with this fresh perspective—I am more different than I think—that I applied to be an intern in my church’s Europe Area Public Affairs Office headquartered in Frankfurt. The mission of this office is to build relationships with communities, governments and faith leaders throughout Europe in order to promote goodwill. The office is led by lawyers, international relations experts and communication specialists who work together to effectively communicate about their relatively unknown religion.
I did a lot of writing in my position, mainly press releases and feature stories catered to European journalists and German community members. But while I completed my work in English, it almost felt like I was writing in a different language. Turns out, Mormons have a vernacular of their own. To my audience, words that made perfect sense to me (“Ward,” “bishop,” “stake”) were meaningless. So my writing changed. A ward was a “local congregation,” a bishop was a “leader of a local congregation,” and a stake was a “group of congregations within a defined area.”

With these small changes, I began to alter my entire approach. I asked myself questions like “Would this make sense to me if I had never heard of my religion before?” and “What does my audience need to know first in order to understand what I am about to say?” and “What part of this story will be interesting and useful to my readers?”  I thought of my friends and acquaintances back at home and the questions they asked. I tried to make my writing as simple, frank and approachable as the casual
conversations I had with them.

This strategy has served me well in my career, even when I’m not communicating about religion. I have learned that as a communicator, my job is to make information as intuitive as possible. When I
begin a project, whether it’s an email newsletter, a press release, or a simple website update, I consider the assumptions I might unknowingly be making.  Psychologists call it the “curse of knowledge bias”—the fact that it’s so easy to forget that your realities aren’t the same as someone else’s realities. I now make it a point to step back from my work and think about my audience. Frequently as a result, I re-organize the information to make it more easily skimmed. Sometimes an entire re-write is in order.

A Utah Mormon in an unfamiliar high school, an American in Germany—I’m grateful for questions and experiences that make me feel a little different because they push me to understand others and improve as a communicator. And while my friend the journalist might have been sipping beer while I nursed a Diet Coke, it turned out we had plenty to talk about.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Home from Paris

I am home from Paris and what was truly one of the most idyllic, glorious weekends imaginable. I love this city! I took a total of 515 photos over 2.5 days and had some incredible experiences. I wore my feet completely out and loved every minute of it. I'll let the photos speak for themselves in a post to follow...

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The pasta sauce alternative

Those who have known me long enough know that  my life can be organized into periods of food obsessions: frozen peas, sweet potatoes, watermelon, oatmeal with Greek yogurt, peanut butter toast, peanut butter and banana toast, peanut butter and dark chocolate chip toast, peanut butter...

Despite these whims, one thing that hasn't changed is the fact that I have a really hard time waiting until the typical dinnertime window to eat. I'm ready at about 4:45 pm (and I'm gearing up for lunch at 10:45 am). 

With my new schedule, I've had to adjust to eating around 6-7:30 at night (how terrible for you! you say, with an eye roll), which means that I when I get home from work, I want to whip up something fast. 

Whole wheat pasta's always been a go-to of mine and it's also a filling/cheap meal. Buuuut, when you've had it three times in one week, it's time to mix things up.

Which why I love this recipe! Fifteen-minute creamy avocado pasta. It's fast, filling, and tasty. Just throw an avocado, some olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and salt in a blender, cook the pasta, mix, and devour. 

It's light and filling and creamy without the cream. Today I added a local spin on the recipe and bought half a rotisserie chicken from a chicken n' chips truck and piled it on top.  

Tomorrow I'm planning on breaking out of this pasta phase. In fact, I might even drop by this place :). Falafels here I come!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The secret to passing time

How do you get through those hours when the minute hand seems frozen in place? Since moving to Frankfurt, my daily commute has meant I've had a lot more time to pass than I'm used to. 

I have a 12 minute walk-run to the train station in the morning (this morning it was more like a ridiculous gallop with my backpack flopping against my back and my haphazardly bobby-pinned bun coming loose), a 45-minute train ride to the office, and then another 45-minute ride home and a more leisurely 15-minute walk finally, finally to my apartment.

The train rides go by quickly since I usually doze, read, or people watch, but for all of the walking in between, I need a little more distraction. So here's what I realized I do: I pick a song, turn the volume of my iPod really loud, and vaguely imagine I'm part of a movie montage. 

I know.

But it totally works. 

The music swells, I live out my brief life as a tragic heroine or whoever else the music inspires, and before I know it I've arrived at my destination.   

Some of my favorite montage music as of late: 

Thisthisthis and this

Does anyone else do this? Maybe I'm crazy :).

Tell me what you think // Follow me

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On living alone

Before coming to Germany, the longest I'd lived alonewithout roommates or relativeswas three weeks. For those three weeks I lived like a millionaire's daughter. As an employee in a global pharmaceutical company's unusually generous internship program, for 21 days I sort of was.

That June, I had an elegant private Marriott suite, a maid who cleaned my bathroom and neatly lined my shoes in a row, and catered breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the evening my fellow interns sipped white wine and I ate endless fresh-cut watermelon as we watched the sun dip below the cloudless summer horizon. On the weekends we drove our rental car to stormy east coast beaches or took the train into New York City.

We frequented the city, browsing vintage stores in Brooklyn one day and dining in Little Italy another. If we stayed in Manhattan latethat was alright, a taxi was sent to pick us up.When I wasn't traveling or training on the job, I went on runs through the beautiful New Jersey greenery to the top of a memorial park overlooking the NYC skyline.

It still shocks me that this was my life.

But while I relish the details, I also realize my experience smacks little of realityor at least a lasting reality. I moved to Chicago immediately after to complete the next part of my internship, and though a maid didn't organize my shoes and the mid-western heat was at full force by 7 am, I still felt like I was living inside some sort of urban dream.

What does this have to do with living alone? Well, it took me stumbling exhausted and frustrated into my small, suburban apartment late at night only to be greeted by a sink full of my dirty dishes and clothes strewn all over the floor to realize that I hadn't really lived alone until now. 

Or maybe I realized this the day I got sick and couldn't leave my bed. Or the night when, still suffering from jet lag, I woke up at 3 am and couldn't go back to sleep. Both restless day and night filled with no other sounds than the occasional rush of a car passing by, the whir of my computer fan and my own breathing. 

I'm struck by the thought that now more than ever before, my life is truly what I make of it. 

Except that I show up at the office and put in a good day's work, no one is terribly bothered with what I do. No one waits for me to arrive home. Once I walk through my door, I'm not confronted with anyone else's mess or warmth. There is no one to thank—unless, of course, I reach out for help. There is no one to blameexcept, of course, myself. 

Those dirty dishes? All mine. The state of the apartment itself, a reflection of me.

Living alone has been a sort of vacuum. An experiment. Who am I really when requirements and expectations are stripped away? How do I use my time? 

As it turns out, I'm still me. I still drink apple cider religiously and split my time between silly TV and good books. I'm still working on studying my scriptures longer and more earnestly and I still seem to walk the thin line between productivity and distraction. I still don't mind solitude and actually often prefer it. 

But what I've really come to see is that expectations and requirements aside, my life has always been what I've made of it. 

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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Marburg - Guest Photographer!

Hey. It's me. The girl who didn't bring her camera on a day trip even though she knew she was going to a charming old university town. Luckily, photography is a hobby espoused by many and luckily, one of my travel companions, Les Feil, was armed and ready. 

Les, who I call Brother Feil, and his wife Dianne--Sister Feil--are the senior missionaries working in the public affairs office with me. Brother Feil is a former furniture salesman, and Sister Feil raised so many daughters I can't even remember the number. They have a lot of cute grand kids. They let me sneak in the car with them on the way to the lovely Marburg, and below are the featured photos of Leslie Feil. 

Quick history trivia: Marburg developed at the crossroad of two major medieval highways. It's the home to the oldest Protestant university in the world--shockingly named the University of Marburg-- founded in 1527. But the town has been around since 1140! The architecture's mainly Gothic because Marburg was completely neglected during the 18th century. The castle and cathedral are tucked up onto the hill, making it an ideal vantage point. The views were stunning!