Accidentally on Purpose

Who You Gonna Call? Lice Busters!

by Aaron Notarianni Stephens. 0 Comments

Just when you thought it was safe to share hats with classmates, lice lurk again. Like a horror movie with sequel after sequel of unstoppable monster, lice can be the elementary school equivalent to Freddy Krueger - a reoccurring nightmare for teachers, kids, and parents. It is apropos that this year’s first resurrection occurred the week of Halloween. The little  vermin just had to resurface the week when kids are prone to sharing clothing items like costumes and masks without a second thought. ... read more

Ocean City in August and Everything After

by Aaron Notarianni Stephens. 0 Comments

I sit on the seashore in Ocean City and reflect on my short time in Guatemala. In many ways I feel guilty that I’m at the beach after seeing such need. Isn’t there something I should be doing? Yet, at the same time and for so many years, Ocean City in August has served as the closing of one season of my life and the start of another. The city is one of the few constant backdrops of my life – and for the most part, a visit has always signified a time for change. As I look in the mirror ... read more

‘The message was a divine starting point’

by Aaron Notarianni Stephens. 0 Comments

On Sunday, we attended a worship service at Iglesia Resplandence. Pastor Fernado Arias’ message was from the book of Jeremiah. So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. His lesson focused on the fact that we, like the clay of a potter, are made from the dirt of the Earth and sustained by the water of the Spirit. ... read more

Guatemala Day 2

by Aaron Notarianni Stephens. 0 Comments

One room, aluminum shelled houses, dug out and carved into the side of a steep mountain, is home to the people of Maria Teresa, a ghetto community in Guatemala City. The few more fortunate have a second room so that kitchen, bedroom, and family room are not one. Laundry, dirty dishes, and bathing are done in the same sink. Concrete floors and walls are more representative of a decaying zoo in the United States than of a home.

We were told by our leader and guide for the week, Pablo, that this is poverty. He also told us that later this week, we will see extreme poverty.

The center of the community, located at the bottom of the mountain after a winding descent of agility that was often foot in front of foot thin, is a concrete futbol arena. This is the resident’s mall, Starbucks, movie theater, front yard, dance class, and everything else. Do they realize there is a mall, Starbucks, and movie theater? I am embarrassed to think this.

The community is under the authority of Juanita. She is their Presidenti. I do not understand their authority structure and how the community is organized. It is clear though, that Juanita is in charge. The strong woman of short stature has a spiritual authority that can be felt in a powerful way.

Juanita led us on a journey into several homes through Maria Teresa. Our purpose for the visits was to pray. As we were introduced to various people, intimate details of their lives were shared. In some instances Juanita gave specifics and requested prayer; in some homes people sought-after requests themselves; in one home we were prayed for. The prayer requests were brutality honest. I will respect their privacy.

We would hide behind our many facades in the United States rather than share so honestly. Or, we would go on a talk show and make a spectacle of ourselves. One of the last things we might do is bare our souls, deepest fears, ask for help, or share our sins with a group of strangers in our living rooms and ask them to pray for us.

Over thirty hands were raised up or placed upon each individual we were there to serve. Juanita asked us to simultaneously pray out loud and petition God for intervention. I had never been a part of this type of prayer. It was uncomfortable for me.

How dare my comfort matter? This is not about me.

Guatemala Bound

by Aaron Notarianni Stephens. 0 Comments

I didn’t start off 2013 with a vision to travel to Guatemala with my son, Jonah, to serve in an orphanage and near-by ghetto community. Just as my other son, Tyler, did not start off 2013 with a vision to travel to Uganda to serve the deaf community there. But, as this blog is named Accidentally on Purpose, life takes us where divine providence will lead if we heed the call. The seemingly mundane situations of our lives can equip us with talents, skills, and passions for a destination that we might not have set out for ourselves.

God is in control. And for me, that control is not easily given. I say this with embarrassed and humbled honesty. My inability to impart control is a character flaw that surfaced so evidently in the hours that neared take-off for Guatemala City.

Flying terrorizes me. I will do it, even though the thought all but freezes me. Each time I prepare to leave by airplane, I am stricken with a sick stomach, weak knees, and unnecessary thoughts. As I focused and prayed before this trip, I realized that it is not the means of travel that frightens me. It is the lack of my ability to control any technical aspect of the flight that panics me. But, if I don’t hand-over control and get on the plane, I can’t go anywhere. It is the same as if I don’t make an affirmative decision to hand over control to God - my life cannot fulfill His purpose.

Upon landing in Guatemala, we were greeted at the airport by Pablo and Abel, our hosts from Dorie’s Promise, an outreach of Forever Changed International. Pablo gave us an overview of our week which will include taking care of the children at Dorie’s Promise, preparing food and distributing basic necessities to families in the ghetto, laying concrete floors, and building chicken coops and serving in Village of Hope, an orphanage for children with disabilities and HIV/AIDS.

After lunch, we immediately began to serve as our team of sixteen was greeted by the at-first-hesitant, but ultimately trusting, children from Dorie’s Promise. As we entered the play area, children peeked out from their windows giving us a once-over before leaving their homes. The grassy play area was festively equipped with a swing set, basketball hoop, picnic table area, and other children’s activities, yet a backdrop of barbed-wire fences reminded us that the location is a safe refuge from the danger that surrounds.

The teens from our group were leaders and organized pick-up games of dodge ball, toss, and Uno. They loved the children individually as they pushed them on the swings, fed babies, and showed them the latest games on the iPad (which, somehow the children already seemed to know how to use. I am now convinced that kids are born knowing how electronics work, no matter where they are from).

More importantly than the innate ability for children to quickly understand technology, we are all hardwired for a need for have God in our lives. Our group hopes to share that need this week.

Shoe the Children

by Aaron Notarianni Stephens. 0 Comments

Bonfire-smoke-filled-beaches provided the perfect setting for my existential teenage years. On the shores of Lake Erie, nature’s incense sometimes clouded, and sometimes gave clarity to my wondering and wandering mind. It was on these beaches that I was reintroduced to an anthem I vaguely recalled being played from the radio of my family’s car in my earliest of earliest memories. The lyrics to Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle made an impression and left a lingering echo that has whispered to me as guiding principle in my life.

“Feed the babies, who don't have enough to eat; Shoe the children, with no shoes on their feet; House the people, livin' in the street; Oh, oh, there's a solution,” a verse of the song inspires and parallels messages from the New Testament.

The act of moving beyond one’s self and helping those who need it is a message for the past, the present, and the future. At times, I feel like I am living like this. At times, I am far from this creed. And all too often, I am too self-concerned to even gauge my attitude on the subject.

Recent reflection on my life caused pause and begged for action to move beyond myself. That is why, with insecurity and trepidation, I am stepping out in faith and joining others from my church on a mission trip to the underserved in various orphanages and other communities in Guatemala.

I write this not as the righteous boasting in a blog to draw attention. I write this because I strongly believe that we all have the power to help each other and be part of a solution, if only the conscious thought to do so took a more prominent intensity in our day-to-day lives. And I believe that eagerness to action can be achieved if we simply remind ourselves to do so.

So, look around our greater community and get involved. Support local non-profit such as The Arc of Frederick County or The Frederick Rescue Mission. Volunteer to assist with homeless pets at Animal Control. Look around the world and get involved. You can bring water to a community in Guatemala through Forever Changed International. You can connect the world together through technology at One Laptop per Child. You can provide basic human services to deaf children who have been shunned from their communities in Uganda through the Boanerges Deaf Initiative. You can shoe the children at TOMS.

The beauty of us all as a people is that we are hardwired to be passionate about something. And while those passions might vary, they vary so that all the different needs that exist can be filled. We need to remember to be ignited. That fervor burns in you because you were made to make a difference in that area. The difference won’t happen without you.

I close with a full circle trip that began in the flames on a beach and gave rise to an eagle in me. As I prepared for Guatemala, I was given an assignment to take advantage of a recent $1.00 flip flop sale at Old Navy. Fifty pair of shoes are crammed tightly into a suitcase and waiting for international travel. It is a very small gesture that I am told by others who have traveled before me will bring great joy to the children who will have shoes on their feet. 

Yes, In Our Backyards!

by Aaron Notarianni Stephens. 0 Comments

Friends of mine are vacationing in my hometown, Erie, Pennsylvania. In preparation for their trip, they asked for my opinion on destinations to visit. I was quick to enthusiastically rattle off stops such as the seven miles of beaches at Presque Isle, Waldameer Amusement Park and Water World, The Erie Zoo, among other destinations that I took for granted while growing up because they were always there for me.

I have a tendency to take for granted the things that are in my own backyard. The typical scenery and familiar faces who serve as extras in my life story become all too mundane. Every now and again, I need to purposefully step back and appreciate what is right in front of me. A few years ago, I incorporated this philosophy into my plans for summer vacation. Instead of leaving the area, my family had a Staycation.

By visiting local destinations, we got to know the Frederick and Washington County areas more intimately. We enjoyed the background of our lives with a renewed vigor and an appreciation for the every day. We also saved some money!

A perfect place for a true step back and different perspective on life in the Frederick area can take place at the 1,600-foot High Knob stone overlooks at Gambrill State Park. The view of the Frederick and Middletown Valleys and the northern reaches of the Shenandoah Mountains allows the natural beauty of the area to overcome the senses. The park also offers 16 miles of hiking trails for both novice and advanced explorers.

Celebrate Frederick’s events are another gem for the re-discovering in the Frederick community. The 2013 summer concert series runs on Sunday evenings, starting at 7:00pm, from June 9 through August 25. The festivities showcase jazz, swing, tropical, big-band funk, and a mix of other live music. Beginning on June 20 and concluding on August 15, Summerfest Family Theatre brings entertainment to children on Wednesdays at 10:30am. Dance, music, clowns, and even Shakespeare will be presented this summer. The concert and theatre series takes place at the Concert Bandshell at Baker Park. The events are free, an extra perk in appreciating your surroundings.

A long standing summer tradition in my family is midnight movies. As a kid, I enjoyed double features at the drive-in. From late seventies James Bond flicks; to Ghostbusters in the eighties; to taking our oldest son, Tyler, to Jurassic Park shortly before the drive-in in Erie closed down, being the first to see a movie creates an excitement for me that I have passed down to my children. This year’s pick will be Man of Steel.

Frederick County Public Libraries invests in a variety of summer programs for children and teens. The Dig Into Reading Kid’s Program features story time, movies, hands-on gardening, and other activities for children from birth to fifth grade. The Summer Reading Club for Teens from sixth to twelfth grade hosts dances, writing workshops, and skate boarding demonstrations by Pitcrew. Events are scheduled at various locations throughout the county. I like to conclude visits to the C. Burr Artz Public Library with a stroll down Carroll Creek and stops at Ben & Jerry’s.

A reflective pilgrimage to The National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes, a dip in Hunting Creek Lake at Cunningham Falls State Park, or a lecture at the Weinberg Center for the Arts can refresh the soul, body, and mind. And they are here for local residents to enjoy.

For a literal appreciation of your own backyard, set up camp right outside your door. A family needs to take just a few steps to enjoy a night under the stars. A tent can be set up in mere minutes, mountain pies and marshmallows can roast over a fire pit, and the bathrooms and other necessities are close-by. Most importantly, your family can establish traditions as they learn to appreciate what is in their own backyard.

Closing Up The Office

by Aaron Notarianni Stephens. 0 Comments

Over the course of nine seasons, the filming style of the television show The Office allowed the cast to “break the fourth wall” and acknowledge the existence of us, their audience. The concept of the fourth wall refers to the front of the stage in a traditional three-walled proscenium theatre. The invisible wall is the window that the audience gazes through to view the imaginary world.

For a television show, the TV screen serves as the fourth wall. The screen separates and creates the boundaries between two worlds - the actors stay in their box and the audience sits on their couches.

When the fourth wall is broken, fictional characters can address the audience as though having a conversation. The Office employed this technique and allowed Michael Scott to confess his inner most thoughts to us. Pam and Jim let us be a part of their in-jokes as they mugged and snickered as though we were in the next cubicle. We saw Dwight and Angela’s (and others) nervous shifty glances as office romances blossomed. They knew we were watching.

This type of direct connection between characters and audience helped to establish a more intimate relationship between the world of the television show and the real world. For me, it made me care more about these characters than casts of other television shows. Which is probably why I took the concept of breaking the fourth wall to a whole new level as the series prepared for its final bow.

Earlier this month, my family joined thousands of other fans for a finale farewell to the cast of The Office in Scranton, PA. The road trip was more of an impromptu adventure than a planned journey. Searching various websites for spoilers to the series finale, I stumbled upon an article announcing The Office Wrap Party hosted by the city of Scranton.

At first I figured it was just a promotion of small town celebrations – maybe a party at a local bar where people would gather to watch the last show. But to my surprise, a long list of main characters were scheduled to party with their audience. Characters Pam, Jim, Erin, Dwight, Creed, Toby, Phyllis, Oscar, Meredith, Kevin, David, Daryl, and behind the scenes talent promised to be there.

The afternoon began with a parade where the actors greeted their audience as they rode through Scranton streets. As the parade ended, cast members interacted directly with their fans and signed autographs before hopping onto the stage for a karaoke sing-a-long with the band The Scrantones. Creed Bratton played guitar, Craig Robinson was on keyboard, and Rainn Wilson on tambourine. Oscar Nunez danced to “Billie Jean” and the ladies belted “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. Phyllis Smith got teary eyed as the cast spoke about the show concluding.

As the audience took pictures and held their phones in the air to capture video footage, John Krasinski and other cast members pulled out their own iPhones and began to film us, their live audience. The cast seemed to want to capture these moments and memories for themselves. It was a humbling experience as the fourth wall broke in a way that I had never experienced before. We had been their audience, but then we all just became a group of people having fun and celebrating. There was no more them and us. It was a sincere moment of connectedness that actors strive to achieve. One that I believe the creators of the show would say they were proud to create.

The Office Wrap Party ended that evening with a question and answer session with the cast at PNC Field. A thunderous roar of cheers and applause erupted as a surprise guest – Steve Carell – walked onto the baseball field. The evening concluded with a blooper reel and sneak peak at the final upcoming episodes.

And for my son Jonah, the evening ended with a big hug from Phyllis Smith as she and the rest of the cast made their final exit.

From Headgear to CPAP:

by Aaron Notarianni Stephens. 0 Comments

I snore with the gusto of Pavarotti and the lack of oxygen of Darth Vader. Whether I am falling asleep on the big comfy couch in the living room or tucked away in my bed upstairs, my snoring keeps everyone awake. It can easily penetrate pillows over heads. Doors cannot contain it. Being separated by a flight of stairs and several rooms means nothing to my nighttime ballad.

I have been diagnosed with sleep apnea. My body forgets to breathe when I sleep and my snoring is actually loud gasps for air and a reminder to take a breath. I have never had strong stamina for cardiovascular exercise; to find out that sleeping is a bit too demanding of a task on my body was embarrassing.

“Dad, put on your machine!” is a typical evening demand in my home. My children are referring to my Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine.

Imagine what Darth Vader’s bedroom probably looked like. A mask on my face. The mask attached to a long hose. The hose attached to a machine the size of a large alarm clock by the side of my bed. The machine releases a constant stream of oxygen up my nose and hisses like a white nose maker. Most importantly, the CPAP allows my body to truly rest because my brain does not need to constantly remind my body to breathe.

I fear that my sleep routine is also reminiscent of the gossip magazine photos of Michael Jackson sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. I do not like to think of myself as that eccentric. The problem is, in actuality, my sleep preparation has always been a bit on the high maintenance side.

It all started in late elementary school. While I imagined other kids simply brushing their teeth and jumping into bed, I had to insert a plastic, custom made retainer onto my teeth. The retainer was attached to a wire that resembled a long, stretched out paperclip. The wire jetted from my mouth, circled my face, and fit uncomfortably tight into a harness in the back of my head. I am not sure of the orthodontic benefit of my headgear. I only remember that this fashion accessory made me look so cool well into the middle-school-sleepover-years.

It got better in high school. It was not that long ago that acne treatments were not dispensed in mall vending machines. Long before Justin Beiber was praising the benefits of Proactiv, harsher means of acne clearing solutions were prescribed. My high school nighttime ritual included slathering Retin-A on my teenage skin. Between the dry flaking skin, constant sunburned appearance, and the fact that results took well over six months, Retin-A was another nighttime nightmare.

Then came college. My diet of pizza and pizza eventually turned on me. I would lay down to sleep and feel a wave of burning acid build up in me. It got so bad that I am being one- hundred-percent-honest when I say Papa John’s butter sauce was actually dripping from my nose one night in my sleep. This kind-of concerned me and I eventually went to a doctor. I was diagnosed with acid reflux, told to reduce the acids in my mostly Italian food diet, and directed to take Prevacid before bed. One more thing to add to my list.

I know that I am not alone in my nightly rituals. Last spring, I went on a weekend service project where I shared a large sleeping quarters with several men and our sons. At bedtime, I noticed at least one young man put a retainer in his mouth. Almost all of the teenage boys had some sort of acne clearing cream they connected the dots on their faces with. And, I was pleasantly surprised when my friend, Jeff, pulled out a Darth Vader machine of his own.

As the room of about fifteen guys drifted to sleep, no one made fun of me because of my CPAP machine. No one teased the kid about his retainer. Everyone accepted the teenagers and their beauty cream. The only problem was one man. On the top bunk. Obnoxiously, continuously, and loudly snoring away. This time, thanks to the persistent demands of my family, I was not that guy.

Habits of a Highly Effective We

by Aaron Notarianni Stephens. 0 Comments

Now that we are a few weeks into the New Year, I trust that we are all much thinner, eat healthier, quit smoking, drink less, have saved money, found our way out of debt, and pray more.   

What?  You have not found perfection either?  Well, quit looking, it will not come.  We are imperfect beings, living in a fallen world.  Although not a Biblical proverb, the quote “the roadway to hell is paved with good intentions” can summarize many well-made plans and New Year’s resolutions.

While I am all for setting goals and trying to reach them, the process is a personal demon for me.  One thing in which I have found complete success is setting a goal and missing the mark.  I know that I can always count on myself to continuously disappointment myself.

After years of setting myself up for failure with lists of goals and resolutions and plans and promises that I knew I would break, I tried to take a different approach.  I have found an alternative to the resolutions of pop culture magazines in the writings of Stephen Covey, the late author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Through his contemporary teachings, Stephen Covey promotes living a life based on universal principles that serve as a foundation for lasting effectiveness.  As opposed to building a house on sand, Covey’s value based philosophy emphasizes strengthening one’s principles as a starting point for meaningfulness.

A sampling of Covey’s focus includes:

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Take initiative in life by realizing that your decisions are the primary determining factor for effectiveness. This habit includes accepting responsibility for your choices and the consequences that follow.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

This habit includes identifying character values, life goals, and the development of a personal mission statement.  It also includes identifying the accomplishments you see yourself making in the various roles you play such as: spouse, parent, employee, and citizen. 

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Prioritize, plan, and execute your day, week, month and, ultimately, life based on doing what is important rather than what might seem urgent.  This habit can help reduce stress by supporting you to maintain focus when exposed to distractions and other time wasters.

Habit 4: Think Win-Win

Genuinely strive for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

By truly listening, this habit can create a caring and problem solving atmosphere.  “Shutting up” can create an environment of reciprocating listening and a better understanding and respect of others’ ideas. 

Habit 6: Synergize

This habit focuses on the strength found in groups through positive teamwork.  When everyone contributes and their personal talents are utilized, goals are easier to accomplish.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Through prayer, exercise, and mental renewal you can create a sustainable, effective lifestyle. This habit also includes incorporating service to society as a whole, such as through volunteering.

Stephen Covey’s lessons can be incorporated into many different areas of life.  Business executives can use them to set strategic goals.  Families can incorporate his suggested habits into strengthening relationships.  The book was adapted by his son, Sean Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens .  The book and supplemental materials help teens prepare for college, the adult world, and beyond.   I have found The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens a useful resource in a leadership course for people with developmental disabilities that I facilitate at Frederick Community College.   

As we find ourselves at the start of 2013, we can resolve to make more than just the typical resolutions.