Thursday, November 30, 2006

the vision thing

I have new glasses!

My contact lenses are on back order, or so said the receptionist at Eye Health Services when I talked to her yesterday and convinced her that I needed to see my doctor to get a prescription for glasses so I could function in the world without squinting. On the way to her office, I called a friend who works at LenCrafters’ Optique and asked if they could make the lenses this afternoon. I got to the doctor’s office at 2:15 and had glasses by 5:30.

It’s a Christmas miracle! What do you think?

My eight days of blurriness left me with a question for my doctor. When I wear contacts, I have to have reading glasses to see up close. Without my contacts or my glasses, I couldn’t see far off (if by far off I mean anything beyond four feet away), yet I could read up close. Before I finished my question, she was nodding.

“It’s one of the conundrums in eye care,” she said. (Extra points for word choice.) I won’t continue with quotation marks, because my recollection is not exact, but here is what she said. For near sighted people like me, our eyes are only able to focus close up. When she writes a prescription for me that will broaden my focus so I can see far away, I lose the near focus, so I have to have bifocals (or reading glasses with my contacts) so I can see close up again.

She had hardly finished speaking before my mind clicked into high gear, trying to focus on the wonderful metaphor I had just been handed. I was a kid when, for the first time in human history those of us who lived on the planet Earth got to see it all at once.

We are still coming to terms with seeing ourselves as “a big blue marble.” Even if we want to believe that “we are the world,” it’s hard to maintain focus when we go from seeing this

to this

How do we make sense and meaning out of our lives when most of the world is poorer, sicker, hungrier, and more frightened than we are? How do we focus on our families and the relationships that sustain us and find time and love to share with people in Iran and Indonesia? How do we invest ourselves in our local churches to do what it takes for us to become who God is calling us to be and find time and energy to generate hope and change in places like Darfur? How do we fight the good fights that need to be fought on our local levels to make sure our towns and cities are caring for our citizens and find energy and determination to bang our heads against the brick wall that is our national government to hold them accountable for their lack of coherent leadership? How do we save the whales, save the rainforest, stop human trafficking, feed the hungry, house the homeless, wage peace, demand equality, struggle with our own biases, cook dinner, get the kids to soccer practice, pay the bills, love our significant others, meet new people, care for our friends, take care of our bodies, get enough sleep, stay informed, have some fun, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?

How can both near and far stay in focus?

One of the responses I’ve generally made at moments like this is a quote from Billy Kwan, Linda Hunt’s character in The Year of Living Dangerously (put it on your must see list): “You meet the needs in front of your face.” That’s a good place to start, but we live in a world where even the faraway needs come close up, even if just for a news cycle or two, and then the view changes. We are tyrannized by the immediate and taught over and over that memory has little value, if any. The American Heritage Dictionary defines focus as “Close or narrow attention; concentration” and then quotes a line from one of Anne Tyler’s novels to illustrate: “He was forever taken aback by [New York's] pervasive atmosphere of purposefulness, the tight focus of its drivers, the brisk intensity of its pedestrians.”

A pervasive atmosphere of purposefulness – now we’re on to something.

Here’s the response I want to make right now: we can’t do it alone. One determined individual does not a pervasive atmosphere make. Several years ago, my friend Billy took me to a “star party” in the hill country outside of Austin. It was a clear summer night and there were at least twenty or thirty telescopes set up on the hillside. We arrived around dusk and set ours (his) up; soon after dark, people began wondering from scope to scope to see what they could see. Some had small scopes and were just learning the sky. Others had scopes that required a small ladder to reach the viewfinder and had come in search of a particular star or other heavenly being. No one gazed in solitude. We were all out there together, one group of beings in the universe staring up at all the others. Sometime after dark, a group of home schooled students showed up for the party as a field trip courtesy of the folks who organized it. I didn’t know they were there. About eleven or eleven-thirty, when the energy of the evening was picking up under a Milky Way as thick as a cloud blanket, the kids started singing:

this is my father’s world
and to my listening ears
all nature sings and round me rings
the music of the spheres . . .
My eyes welled up, filled by the convergence of what I was seeing and hearing, mindful, in ways I had not experienced before, of my place on the planet.

Perspective is a group sport. While I’m seeing one thing, I need you to both acknowledge my focus and call me to acknowledge yours. A pervasive atmosphere of purposefulness means no discards, no throw away moves. With all our eyes, we can see both near and far in focus.

I have one other question. When I look at the church, from both near and far, I wonder how we might describe what the pervasive atmosphere of Christianity is in these days. If it is not purposefulness (and I think it’s hard to claim that it is), then what consumes us? If it were purposefulness, wouldn’t the world be a different place than it is now?

I talked with my brother this week. He is a minister at a large, wealthy church that has an $11 million annual budget. His dream is to get them to see that they could give $100 million. “What if we could adopt a country and go in every year with $100 million to meet the needs we find there?” Purposefulness faraway.

Ginger has had conversations this week with folks in our church about how we keep up with those who feel marginalized, or have marginalized themselves from the community at large. We’re talking about ways to work to make sure no one falls through the cracks. Purposefulness up close.

The last verse of the hymn the kids sang that night begins:
this is my father’s world
o let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet . . .
Memory is essential to purpose and compassion. Let us look beyond the slight of hand that tricks us into thinking the immediate is all that matters. Look up. Look in. Look out. I can only see what I can see; the same is true for you. Together we can assemble a perspective of purposefulness with eyes open wide to let all the light in.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

aging, grieving, dreaming, and laughing

I have several disconnected things on my mind, so here they are in no particular order.


I got my first birthday-related piece of mail today: an invitation to join the AARP now that I am turning fifty. I am old enough to remember when AARP stood for the American Association of Retired Persons, but that didn’t bring in enough money so now the letters are the official name, the same way Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC so you would think they quit frying stuff.

In the course of conversations a couple of weeks back, I talked with an eighteen year old and an eighty-two year old. I got to thinking about it later and realized I am exactly the same number of years from either age. I don’t really have a point here, I just thought it was interesting.


I also got a package in the mail today from my friend, Billy Crockett, who has a new instrumental CD called Passages that is fourteen original pieces for classical guitar. (Listen to an excerpt of "Pilgrim I." There is also a companion score available. To quote him:
My hope is that you will, with Passages, be reminded of the wordless ways of the heart, of midnight voyages on the water, and of the simple gifts of old architecture and strings on wood.
You can purchase the record through his web site.


I read last night t
hat Robert Altman died a week ago of leukemia. He was eighty-one. Altman was a creative and unique voice in American filmmaking, hitting some out of the park and striking out brilliantly with others. His last movie, A Prairie Home Companion, is a gem. His first breakthrough, M*A*S*H, is worth a look, along with The Player and Shortcuts. CNN has a nice video tribute here. He never won an Oscar, but was given a lifetime achievement award this past year. "The major studios, since I've been involved with Hollywood . . . they make shoes and I make gloves," he said.


Speaking of movies, one of my favorites kept coming to mind today. I think I'm going to watch it tomorrow: Miss Firecracker. It is the story of Carnelle, a struggling girl who thinks winning the Miss Firecracker Beauty Pageant in her home town of Yazoo City, Mississippi will set her free to leave town "in a blaze of glory." Mary Steenburgen, Tim Robbins, Scott Glenn, and Alfre Woodard are also in the cast. It was directed by Thomas Schlamme, Aaron Sorkin's partner behind The West Wing and Studio 60 fame.

In the closing moments of the movie, Carnelle says, "I just want to know what I can reasonably expect out of life." Scott Glenn's answer is worth the trip.


I close with a video clip I Stumbled Upon: Tyson the Skateboarding Bulldog.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

the wait

Advent is un-American.

The malls have been decorated for Christmas since the day after Halloween and we are still days away from even beginning to wait for Christ to come. We, as Americans, are not really built to wait. We are accustomed to getting what we want when we want it. But there is more going on during Advent than God saying, “You sit there and wait and Jesus will be born when he’s good and ready.”

Heck, I can’t even wait to start writing about Advent.

There are two qualitative differences between what it felt like to wait before Jesus was born the first time and what it feels like to wait now when we know who’s coming and we capture the story with construction paper donkeys and towel-headed shepherds. The first difference is how long they waited. The four pages in my Bible between the end of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew’s gospel took centuries to turn. The Hebrew people had already been waiting for the Messiah, but by the time John the Baptist showed up, God’s prophets had been silent for three times as long as we have been a country. Generation after generation had come and gone without ever leaving the waiting room. Before there were Cubs and Sox fans waiting for the World Series, before there was a John Mayer, there was century after century of Israelites waiting for the world to change.

The second thing is, despite the grand arc of history, when it came to living their daily lives they didn’t know what or whom they were waiting for. Some might not even have known they were waiting at all. We already know the story. We know we’re waiting for Jesus to enter the world just as all of us have done: as a baby. We know the story so well that we wait, perhaps, mostly to tell it. We are not shocked like the shepherds or Mary or Joseph or Herod. The birth does not surprise us; we are too often participants in a sort of spiritual C-section: we get to schedule when the Child arrives. And he will look just like his pictures.

Since it was my day off, I got to listen to All Things Considered this afternoon. A commentary by philosopher Alain de Botton (who is one brilliant guy) caught not only my attention, but my imagination: “Motives Behind a Mantra: Revise, Revise, Revise.”

He stared off by saying that we often see art as a repository of values and meaning and we don’t expect an artist to take his or her painting off the wall to take home and reconfigure. When the book is finished and published, it stays that way. But, de Botton said,

Artists do have the option to pull a creation back into the workshop and mend and update it and then return it to the public realm . . . It’s a particluarly romantic myth that leads us to suppose that artists could never improve what they previously delivered to the world . . . Artists should through time grow more lucid about their work and infuse it with their lastest and most mature insights.
God is the quintessential artist -- every word, every breath, every move intentional and imaginative. God is also quite capable of revision. Every layer of the history of creation speaks to God’s dynamic creativity at work, every layer full of change. And we, created in God’s image, are both art and artists, called to give birth to God’s brilliance right where we are. One of the reasons we keep telling the story and making the journey to Bethlehem is to revise the artwork. As Meister Eckhart said, “What good is it if Mary gave birth to the Child fourteen hundred years ago if I do not give birth to Christ in my time and in my culture?”

We are called to revise the story once again, not as spectators but as participants, birth-givers, incarnations of Love and Grace in our time. We are waiting for our turn.

In Fiddler on the Roof, in the scene where the Russian army comes to evict the Jews from their town, their home, one of the men says to the Rabbi, “Wouldn’t this be a good time for the Messiah to come?”

Isn’t the answer to that question always, “Yes”?

De Botton spent some time in his commentary talking about the risk of revising. Sometimes the Revised Edition is not as good. So it is with the American revision of Christmas as a shopping holiday. What was once about anticipation is now about immediate gratification. The wonder of the Magi as they followed the Star has been replaced by the guy who got shot standing in line to get a PlayStation 3 so he could resell it on eBay. We’ve lost sight of the story.

Jesus was born into a desperate world. It was a time of war, oppression, abject poverty, gluttonous wealth, and religion with all the heart of a department store mannequin. Once he was born, the waiting was not over. It would be thirty years before the expectation of his birthday night ripened. All he could do was wait, just like everyone else. And, as Tom Petty taught us, the waiting is the hardest part.

We wake up daily to stories of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. And those are the stories they tell us. We are not made mindful of much in Darfur, or Congo, or Chad, or any number of countries in dire straits who have no natural resources to make caring for them a part of our national interest. We live in a nation who sees the Great Divide between rich and poor and seems content, overall, to leave things as they are. We live in a country – in a world – of wounded, hurting, and fragile people, all of them children of God.

Wouldn’t this be a good time for the Messiah to come?


God is waiting, in this revision, for us to be willing to go into labor. I’m not sure the world can wait much longer.


Monday, November 27, 2006

the old man and the kitchen

In the span of a day, I have gone from reveling in knowing that I am uniquely and wonderfully created in the image of God to feeling painfully in touch with my human limitations. I’m not speaking in metaphor here: I really hurt today.

Mondays are my longest days at the kitchen. I get there at ten-thirty and I leave at ten-thirty. In between, I’m the only chef in the house, so if it gets prepped, made, served, or sautéed, I do it. A Monday like today, on the heels of an incredibly busy weekend, means we’ve used up most of everything. One of the guys who worked Sunday night left me about an eight inch list of things that needed to be done. I read his note, changed into my chef clothes and went to work trying to check things off the list between cooking for lunch customers.

The big issue, as far as my work in the kitchen goes, are my feet, or should I say, my shoes. I have a pair of Birkis that have served me well for some time, but they have ceased to do so, leaving me to hobble home at the end of the shift. I don’t know if the change was in my shoes or my feet; either way, I’ve got to figure it out. I tried to buy a pair of Dansko clogs (which is what Chef wears), but the place I called on the way to work only had women’s shoes. Since he wasn’t at work today and we wear the same size, I decided to wear his to see how they felt. I came home with my feet aching in different places.

The bigger issue this whole week has been my eyes. I live with a severe astigmatism in both eyes, which makes finding glasses and contacts that let me see well hard to do. Last Tuesday, I ripped one of my contacts as I was putting them in. I wore my glasses to work. Normally, I wear glasses only for reading and have the habit of setting them down all over the place and then not being able to find them. Somewhere between changing clothes at work and getting out of the shower when I got home, I put my glasses down and have not seen them since. Serendipitously, I learned I can read my computer screen without glasses or contacts, so I have been able to write, but, as far as the rest of life goes, I’ve been squinting my way through.

Both things unleash very basic fears in me.

I love being in the kitchen cooking for people. I even like days like today when I’m challenged to work my butt off to make things happen. The fearful voice in me asks, “What if this is not a shoe issue but a foot or body issue that means you can’t do what you love doing?” The eye thing cuts even deeper. I am afraid of blindness because I can only see that it would separate me from reading and writing, two of the things which feed my soul.

Yes, I know both scenarios are extreme. Yes, I know I’m jumping ahead of myself. But this is not about knowing, this is about deep archetypal, this-is-what-I-think-makes-me-who-I-am feeling. I am a cook and a writer. Those are not just things I do; they are expressions of my being. I am working and squinting through the pain and discomfort, even as I hear the voice of fear inside me ask, “Where do you think this is going?”

One of the stories in the Gospels that has spoken to me most deeply over many years is Jesus’ encounter with Peter after both Peter’s denial of Christ and Jesus’ resurrection. Back and forth they go: “Do you love me?” – “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” – “Feed my sheep.” Then Jesus says something that has always had a difficult resonance to me. I thought about the verse on the way home.

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." (John 21:18).
Then Jesus added, “Follow me.”

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago dealt with the pain from the bones spurs in his heel by remembering that he had read that the great Joe DiMaggio had bone spurs and finding hope in Joe’s not giving in to the pain. “A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.” I thought about Santiago, a favorite literary character of mine after several years of teaching ninth grade English. I wonder if bone spurs feel like my feet do tonight.

The pain in my feet and my blurred vision pale by comparison to the situations of most people on the planet, I’m sure. I am far from fluent in the language of extreme suffering. My reality is I get my new contacts tomorrow and I have a couple of days to chase down some new kitchen kicks before I have to go back to work. I probably also have some things to learn about how to take better care of my feet. And my reality is I’m getting to experience the wonder of my humanity from the temporary side.

Perhaps, as I sleep, I can also dream of the lions on the beach.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

snowflake sunday

Since she got back from sabbatical, Ginger has made a point of preaching on some difficult texts and topics, rather than simply choosing the Gospel reading from the lectionary. She has been doing a great job. This week, her text was “the last words of David.” Her choice of subject sent me back to chorus my senior year at Westbury High School. We sang Randall Thompson’s setting of David’s words at graduation. I was then, and am still, a tenor, so I got to wail on the opening lines: “He that ruleth over men, must be just, must be just, MUST BE JUST.”

Trust me, it’s a killer tenor line.

The piece moves on into a beautiful melodic section that carries the lyric, “And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun rises; even a morning without clouds – after rain, after rain, after rain.” Such was our Friday morning after a Thanksgiving storm that deserved a name. We woke to a cloudless day washed clean and blown dry by the rain and wind of the night before.

David’s final words were to say that’s what justice looks like.

Before it was Ginger’s turn to speak, Kathy, one of our wonderful children’s workers gave the children’s sermon and talked about Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley.

No, not Wilford Brimley. That’s this guy.

Wilson Bentley is a man who lived his whole life in Vermont (1865-1931) and spent his whole life studying snowflakes and photographing them. He is the one responsible for our knowing that no two snowflakes are alike. As she began to talk about snow, I found myself thinking about those mornings I’ve spent shoveling out our driveway so we could get to work. All those unique falling crystals can stack up to create quite a barrier. Bentley grew up where the snow is measured in feet and was able to see beauty in individual, short-lived, unbelievably temporary snowflakes. And on top of that, he was patient enough to photograph them. Though he took over five thousand pictures of snowflakes, some winters yielded no more than a dozen useful images.

What amazing things are possible when wonder and tenacity unite.

Our children’s sermons create a very pregnant swirl at the front of the church each Sunday. Kathy has a way of shaping the energy and excitement into meaning with what I think must be the same kind of deftness and patience that Bentley needed to photograph flakes of frozen water. She began by quoting something Ginger says at each baptism – that we are wonderfully and uniquely made in the image of God – and then asking the kids if they ever wondered what that meant. They had not, but she had and she gave them cause to wonder by the way she unwound the story of Wilson Bentley.

She also took some time to describe how a snowflake starts from a single molecule and then, as it falls, adds more and more, developing its symmetrical six-sided shape, and taking its unique form from the unique set of circumstances – wind, temperature, humidity – that are occurring at the exact moment it is being formed. My mind moved from snowflakes back to the people in the room, each of whom was also formed by all that swirled around them as they were growing into who God created them to be. Some of us have been blown off course, some feel more handicapped than holy, some have caught a glimpse of who we are and who we are becoming. One of the best things we can do is stick together, like snowflakes in a drift, as we live out our faith as the church. Nothing we do or say is any more permanent than a snowflake and everything we do or say is crucial to what happens in our world. We, who are as unique and as temporary as snowflakes, can bring about a cloudless day when we incarnate love as justice and believe that things do not have to be as they seem.

The snowflakes had not melted in my mind when Ginger came to this quote in her sermon (sorry, I don’t have the documentation):

Our own future is not dependent upon what human power has realistically done or can do. For those who dare to imagine it, and give poetic voice to it, the future that is God’s future and therefore is always open to the possibilities of justice, faithfulness, and life no matter how realistic might be our assessment of the powers of oppression, sin and death. Surrounded by a troubled and broken world and the crisis of our own lives, we lose sight of God’s power at work beyond and in spite of our human limitations and sin. In the name of realism, we define ourselves, our goals, our communities by our failures and not by our visions. We settle for problems to solve rather than ideals to embody.
One other thing happened with the children before the sermon. I’m teaching them a song for the Christmas Pageant, so I walked over to the Parish House with them after the children’s sermon to teach them during their opening time. Last week, a small altar was set up and, after we sang, we lighted three candles, one for each person in the Trinity, and then prayed together. Today, when we got over there, things were not set up for either the song or the ceremony. One of the teachers had a boombox and the CD of the song we are learning, but the altar was locked up. I was getting ready to pray and send them to class when one of the boys raised his hand and said, “We can do it without the candles.”

He was right. And so I asked them what each candle symbolized and they answered:
for God, who created us;
for Christ, who loves us;

for the Spirit, who fills us.
I walked back to the sanctuary in the sunshine and took my place in the pew, among the other snowflakes who melted together in prayer and praise. David used his last words to say love has less to do with legacy than with listening, less to do with permanence than patience, more to do with community than accomplishment.

And he learned all that without ever seeing a snowflake.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

most of all that love has found us . . .

The last pie is in the oven.

Since I got a late start, there are only eight, most of which will end up on someone else’s table tomorrow. OK, half of them will be somewhere else. I made a couple of old favorites (chess, pecan, pumpkin, blueberry), a new one (chocolate whiskey pecan), and a mistake (walnut – I poured in the wrong bag of nuts). I have to shift into dinner mode for tomorrow, so the baking must come to an end. If you want to see how I prepare my turkey, check here.

The wind is picking up; a Nor’easter in on the way. It’s not cold enough for snow, so we are just going to get a bunch of rain, which is not nearly as much fun. But we have a house full of food and friends and a day to relax. Now that’s something to be thankful for. As I shopped today for my groceries, I was conscious of trying to keep a balance between making a wonderful meal and not going to excess, which I can do quite easily when it comes to food. Ginger and I both are working hard to think the same way about Christmas. It is, as they say, a growing edge for me.

Though I’ve referenced it before, I can think of no better words on this Thanksgiving Eve than those of Fred Pratt Green’s hymn, “Thanks be to God”:

for the fruit of all creation, thanks be to God
gifts bestowed on every nation, thanks be to God

for the plowing, sowing, reaping

silent growth while we are sleeping

future needs in earth's safekeeping

thanks be to God

in the just reward of labor, God's will is done

in the help we give our neighbor, God's will is done
in our worldwide task of caring
for the hungry and despairing
in the harvests we are sharing
God's will is done

for the harvests of the Spirit, thanks be to God
for the good we all inherit, thanks be to God
for the wonders that astound us
for the truths that still confound us
most of all that love has found us
thanks be to God

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

talk about pop music

Several months ago, I was walking down the aisle of our local Target store when a mother and her son, who looked to be about ten or eleven, rounded the corner and started coming toward me. They were obviously having a fight. I only heard one sentence. The mother said,

“You’re right. I don’t know who Slipknot is. But I know who Led Zeppelin is and I know who Lynyrd Skynyrd is.”

I felt like yelling, “Free Bird” right there between the eye care products and the printer cartridges. What I did was smile and think back to the faces my dad would make when I put on my Jimi Hendrix records. Ah, but those castles made of sand fall in the sea eventually.

I came home from work tonight to find Ginger watching the American Music Awards. She and I are both intentional about keeping up with popular music because we like a lot of it and because we like young people. That said, tonight’s lineup of nominees made me keenly aware of how the music business changes. Many of the folks I grew up listening to are still making good music. Many of them spend their summers singing songs from long ago without any new stuff so we can yell, “Free Bird” from the back row. But many of the ones getting the awards were not easily recognizable to me (except the Isley Brothers – I’m assuming it’s really the Isley Brothers’ grandkids).

When it comes to award shows, I’ve got three or four good essays in me. There’s the one about how cool it must be to work in a business that is determinedly self-promotional and affirming. We don’t have the American Dishwasher Awards, if you know what I’m saying. There’s one about the vanity, opulence, and waste of such an over the top evening. Wait – Vanity, Opulence, and Waste would be a great album title. Better yet: those are good names for rappers, except they would have to be spelled VaniT, Opwelens, and Wayst. I can see it now: “The Bring the Bling Tour.”

Where was I? Oh, yeah. There’s another one on fashion do’s and don’ts. After a few of those outfits, I want to sing, “Ya’ll gonna make me lose my mind up in here, up in here.” There’s one wondering why so many popular artists have to swear so profusely in their songs.

Then there’s this one.

American popular culture, in the form of most of those who crossed the stage tonight, is easy pickings. I like making fun of it because much of it deserves the ridicule, along with several other slices of our society. Most of what makes it to our radios and televisions is not the best stuff out there. The Billboard Hot 100 is littered with well-marketed mediocrity. Just ask Milli Vanilli, Rupert Holmes, and either one of the Simpson sisters. But I have to come clean. I like some of it, too. I’ve been a closet Christina Aguiliera fan ever since “What a Girl Wants.” “Any Kind of Man” is Ginger’s ring tone on my cell phone. Come on – you have to give the girl props for singing “You’ve got soul, you’ve got class, you’ve got style, you’re badass.” Now those are lyrics, my friend. Ginger has danced all of her life, so she gets a kick out of the choreography of the Pussycat Dolls and Justin Timberlake. She’s says I dance a lot like Timbaland.

However dismal I think much of today’s music is, I must remember I graduated from high school in the year that “Seasons in the Sun” was the number one song. It remains one of the worst songs ever inflicted on the world, along with “The Night Chicago Died,” “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero,” and pretty much anything Meatloaf has ever done.

And then, of course, there’s Celine Dion, or, as I like to call her, Satan.

You won’t find an phat beats or mad rhymes on any of those records. The rise of hip hop will not bring the fall of civilization as we know it anymore than Elvis, the Beatles, or Jim Morrison. But it will make me feel old, which is hard to take. Kelly Clarkson, who won the first American Idol competition as a teenager, won an award tonight as Adult Contemporary Favorite Artist. U2 has been making records for twenty-five years. A friend saw Bob Dylan last weekend and said in concert he can’t play guitar anymore because the arthritis in his hands is too bad; he only plays the keyboard.

As I age, I can choose to walk around yelling, “Turn that music down,” and talk about how they don’t write songs like they used to. I can choose to act like I’m hip and cool (or whatever the kids are calling themselves these days) and not act my age. Or, I can continue to do as I’ve tried to do most of my life and that is look for excellence in the sea of unimaginative marketing that is American popular culture. It’s easy to be condescending. When I was writing songs, which were played mostly on Christian radio, I struggled because I wanted to feel better than the guy who was singing about cartoon characters getting saved (that was a real song). It wasn’t easy for me to come to terms with his song and my song getting played back to back because I thought it put us in the same boat.

We were.

There are folks out there in every genre – in every field -- working hard to do it well and doing good stuff. There are also bunches of people phoning it in or just meeting the minimum daily requirement. Not everyone lives in the same category all the time. Most of the best songs I know never made it to Number One. When they did, it had less to do with how great the song was and more to do with timing.

I’m with the lady in the store. I don’t know who Slipknot is, other than a thrash metal band. I also don’t know much about Chamillionaire, one of the presenters tonight. I’m guessing, based on what I saw, that excellence is not his primary pursuit. But, that I don’t know who is doing excellent work in hip hop or metal has less to say about those genres than it does about me. I like guitars rather than drum machines. I prefer singer-songwriters to digital sampling DJs. And I wonder if we have hip hop Muzak to look forward to in the elevators of the future.

John Mayer, one of the young and excellent ones, sings:

me and all my friends
we're all misunderstood

they say we stand for nothing and

there's no way we ever could

now we see everything that's going wrong

with the world and those who lead it

we just feel like we don't have the means

to rise above and beat it

so we keep waiting
waiting on the world to change

we keep on waiting

waiting on the world to change
I remember feeling like that when I was his age. I also remember feeling like that driving to work this morning listening to the news. I’m not going to be much help encouraging him or me to do something other than wait if I spend most of my time stating the obvious about American popular culture.

Excellent work never settles for stating the obvious.


Monday, November 20, 2006

thankful boy: part two

About a month ago I found out I was going to have to work on Thanksgiving.

The Red Lion Inn has a long history of serving dinner on Turkey Day and we serve a lot of them. There are three seatings – 11:30, 2:30, and 5:30 – and over three hundred people will stuff themselves with everything from clam chowder to turkey and stuffing to pumpkin pie. The whole place has to fire on all cylinders to make it happen. The Head Chef simply said, “Everyone has to work on Thanksgiving.”

I came home and told Ginger and the first words out of her mouth were, “Then quit!”

She wasn’t joking. Despite the financial straits such a move would put us in, she was calling for a values check. Thanksgiving is the one major holiday for her, as a minister, that doesn’t carry religious overtones in one way or another. She never has to work on Thanksgiving. It is our best family day, as I mentioned yesterday, full of deep emotion, tradition, ritual, and meaning. The arc of the day goes something like this: we have breakfast (with bacon!) and then, while I get the turkey started, we bring in the old futon mattress from the garage (which has been well wrapped in plastic) and put it on the floor in front of the couch, where it stays until New Year’s. Ginger covers it with sheets and blanket and it becomes our bed for the holiday season. It’s something we’ve done since we lived in Charlestown, though I don’t remember how it started. I love it. There’s something that happens to our sense of expectation when we move downstairs for the season.

Ah, but I digress. Thanksgiving Dinner is always at two o’clock. Again, I’m not sure why, but that is when we sit down. Once we are seated, we stay a long time, way past the eating. Some of my best memories of the day are the conversations around the table after dinner. More than one year, we’ve sat there so long that we’ve filled our plates for a second time with what were leftovers by then.

What follows is a trip to the movies. The same is also true on Christmas Day. This year, I’m hoping we pick Happy Feet. After the show, it’s a late snack before settling down on the palate.

Every time the schedule came up at work, I talked about what the day meant to us and that we had friends coming for dinner. Chef worked hard to accommodate me, but couldn’t figure out a way to let me be off all day. On Saturday, he said he could get me out of there after the first seating if I would come in early to help prep. When I told Ginger that this morning before I left for the restaurant, she said, “I still haven’t given up on you not working on Thanksgiving. I am willing that you will not work.”

When I got to the Inn, Chef said he thought he could get me out pretty early if I came in at the crack of dawn to help get things ready. Late in the day, he came back to say something had come up that meant he had to be away from the restaurant most of the day tomorrow. He asked if I could cover for him. I said yes. What that means is by the end of my day tomorrow I will have worked twenty-two hours this week. The owner won’t let us work past forty.

“If you work tomorrow,” said Chef, “you can take Wednesday and Thursday off.” I said thank you.

When I called Ginger to tell her the news, what she said first was, “I knew it.”

My pie making will get pushed back a day, but I can live with that. I get to revel and relish in Our Favorite Day around the table with people we love and maybe even get to see some dancing penguins.

I am a thankful boy.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

thankful boy

I love Thanksgiving. It’s about not eating alone – what can I say?

I can begin by posting a couple of recipes:

We’re not talking gourmet here, but we are talking quick, easy, and pretty darn good.

I’ll have a few more recipes as the week goes on.

Apples were central to worship today. The children’s sermon was the story of Johnny Appleseed, a Massachusetts native who traveled across the Midwest planting apple seeds as an expression of his faith. At the close of the children’s time, as they headed for Sunday School, they handed out apples to the adults in the congregation as an expression of kindness and connection. Nothing like a good healthy snack halfway through the service.

Something about this week makes me want to bake pies. For several years now, a couple days before Thanksgiving Day (this year I only have Tuesday), I bake pies like nobody’s business (last year – fourteen), and then Ginger and I deliver them to neighbors, friends, and folks who are having a hard time for one reason or another. We also save a couple for our table as well, which provide sustenance in the days following the holiday as well. It’s one of my favorite things. I love the way the house fills up with the aromas oozing out of the oven. I love the tactile work of rolling the crusts, pressing my fingers into the dough to flute the edges, and mixing the various fillings: pecan, pumpkin, squash, and sweet potato. I love covering up the dining table with pies waiting to cool so they can begin their journey to their new home. And I love sinking my fork into slices of those that stay here.

One year when Ginger’s parents were visiting, I finished our pies late on Wednesday night and left them out to cool for the Big Day. When I came down the next morning, a little slice had been carved out of every pie on the table. My mother-in-law had come down in the night because she just needed to sample them – all of them. The biggest piece was out of the pecan pie; that’s her favorite.

Pie is good. Let us give thanks for pie. Amen.

On our way to church this morning, Ginger and I stopped at our local supermarket to fill up the Thanksgiving Bags for the food pantry. Walking through the grocery store with Ginger is an interesting and amusing experience because she is like an explorer in a new world. She saw the brownie mix and the cans of prepared frosting while I was loading up on soups and stuffing mix. She assured me the frosting would be quite popular at the pantry. I had no reason to disagree. Together, we provided a good balance of choices. As we loaded the bags into the car, I was aware, once again, of how much I have to be thankful for even in the midst of circumstances I would like to change.

Ginger asked me to sing a song Billy and I wrote many years ago that goes well with the season; it’s called “Thankful Boys and Girls.” Here are the lyrics:
let us be thankful boys and girls
for eyes and ears and toes and puppies with wet noses

for lessons we have learned and love we have not earned

we follow the beat of amazing grace

o let us be thankful boys and girls

let us be thankful boys and girls

for kisses on the mouth and teenage heartbeats pounding

for lightning in the sky and laugher in the eye

we follow the beat of amazing grace

oh let us be thankful boys and girls

for all that brought us here and all that will see us through

the passageways of life that lead to you, lead us to you

let us be thankful boys and girls

for a little common sense and painted picket fences

when packing up the plans in rented moving vans

we follow the beat of amazing grace

oh let us be thankful boys and girls

let us be thankful boys and girls

for mendelssohn and brahms and shadows growing longer

for years that slowly go and grandkids we can hold

for memories to keep and sorrow running deep

we follow the beat of amazing grace

oh let us be thankful boys and girls

for all that brought us here and all that will see us through

the passageways of life that lead to you, lead us to you

let us be thankful boys and girls

when hope is not enough that death can’t bury love

for wine and bread and hymns remembering again

we follow the beat of amazing grace

oh let us be thankful boys and girls

This week I’m going to have to fight for time to cook at home because I have to cook at work. For the first time in our marriage, I’m going to have to work part of the day on Thanksgiving, which in many ways is our favorite holiday. I hate it and I’m figuring out how to still make the day happen for us at home. In the midst of it all, I want to remember apples and pie and trips to the store, or anywhere, with Ginger.

I want to be a thankful boy.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

faith and phyllo

One morning this week, as Ginger and I were eating breakfast and getting ready to go to work, Martha Stewart was on the Today Show showing how to make some nifty Thanksgiving dishes. One of the things she showed Meredith Vierra how to make was a Sweet Potato Soufflé Pie. She made it all look not only easy but effortless. Here’s the thing: it wasn’t.

I understand the time constraints of live television, but what she did in about seven minutes takes hours of preparation and a fair amount of expertise. A look at the recipe gives a clue to what one is in for: bake the potatoes for an hour and fifteen minutes; put them through a ricer (yeah, everyone has one of those) and let them cool completely (another hour); mix in the other stuff; heat the milk and fresh ginger and then strain it through a “fine mesh sieve” (got that, too?); line the Springform pan with the phyllo dough, piece by piece, brushing it with butter (trust me, phyllo isn’t that easy to handle); mix in the egg whites; pour the mixture into the phyllo; cook for fifty minutes; and let stand another twenty before serving.

She never said a word about spending close to three hours making the soufflé. She never warned that working with phyllo dough will turn you into a serial killer (cereal killer?). She just kept pulling bowls and pans with stuff already done from underneath the counter as if that’s how it happens in everyone’s kitchen. I came away from the segment feeling as though the point was not to make me think I could make the soufflé (and I cook for a living!), but that I would notice how much better she was in the kitchen than I am. She was promoting herself, not teaching me.

My friend Billy’s dad was brilliant when it came to most all things having anything to do with computers and engineering. He had a problem solver’s mind and he was brilliant on top of that. At his funeral, the recurring theme had to do with how he responded when you went to him with something he knew how to do and you did not. Rather than impress you with his expertise, or fix whatever was wrong so he could get back to what he was doing, he would ask questions: what do you think is wrong? what do you think we should do? have you considered this? Before long, not only was the problem solved, but you had learned something knew without feeling stupid. What a gift.

I was pretty good at math until the second semester of my junior year, when we moved from Accra, Ghana to Houston, Texas. My Algebra II teacher was Ms. Gibbs; she was impatient and I was lost. The pivotal day, as I remember it, came when I raised my hand to ask a question about something and she said, after hearing my question, “I don’t have time for stupid questions.” I never took another math class, even though I placed out of my BA math requirement at Baylor because of my ACT scores. Whatever affinity I had for math she ran down and left as intellectual road kill.

I majored in history.

I’m a cook because of the way my mother taught in her kitchen. I was always an inquisitive kid and the kitchen was the best room of belonging in our house, wherever we were living at the time. While we were talking and she was cooking, I would ask, “What are you making?” She would answer by inviting me to help. The next time she was making the same thing, she would say, “You watched me do this the other day; you make it this time,” and before long I felt like it was my kitchen, too.

Much of what passes for Christian rhetoric in the public (and, I suppose, private) arena is not good teaching because it begins from the vantage point of “Let me tell you where you’re wrong.” Condescension is not a good conduit for grace. We can’t look down our noses at people in Jesus’ name and expect them to knock us over trying to get through the church doors. Jan Edmiston has a great post on “Radical Hospitality” that’s points out the incongruity between God’s expansive love and the exclusionary actions of some Christian groups. Those who are being labeled as sinful, and thus unworthy, are going to be as excited about finding hope in Jesus’ name as I would be about taking another class with Ms. Gibbs. If church is not a place for broken hearts, searching souls, and stupid questions, what’s left?

We make following Jesus sound as complicated as a Martha Stewart recipe. The path of discipleship is difficult but not complicated. It’s difficult because of its call to intentionality to love God with all of our beings and to love our neighbors – the smart, the stupid, and the sinful – as ourselves – who are also the smart, the stupid, and the sinful. It’s difficult because we are called to be encouragers, not experts. It’s difficult because Christ leads us more with questions than with answers – oh, and that line about “Love everyone as I have loved you.”

As I get ready to prepare Thanksgiving Dinner, I like reading through Food & Wine and seeing what newfangled versions of old standards they have created. Martha’s soufflé looked good despite all the grief I’ve given her. What I’ll end up making are not new things but favorite things. Everyone coming to dinner has at least one particular dish they want on the table, from sweet potatoes with the little marshmallows to Refrigerator Rolls to canned cranberry sauce. The point is not for me to prove I can cook fancy stuff but to create a table that makes everyone feel a place was created just for them. I love cooking all of it, and opening the can of cranberry sauce, because I’m cooking for family.

I watch Ginger do the same thing as she plans worship each week and works with the various committees in the church. We talk a lot about making people, both new folks and old timers, feel welcome and at home. It’s hard work and she makes us all feel like we can do it, like faith is easier than phyllo dough.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

kitchen philosophy

In the deepest throes of my depression, one of the things for which I was most grateful was Ginger wasn’t depressed. The Power of Two became increasingly evident to me: we thrive because we take turns having a hard time. The viability of any group of people relies on an assumption that we won’t all be crashing and burning at once. From two people together in a household to whole populations of countries, we depend on one another to not all go down at the same time.

Today I saw that assumption pushed to the limit.

For some reasons I know and others I don’t, pretty much everyone at the Red Lion Inn was having a crappy day and they were responding with an extra helping of surliness. A couple of folks came to work in a decent mood, but once they got their heads chewed off by one of the Surly McSurl Pants, they turned as bitter as everyone else. My focus was trying to keep the Head Chef from coming unglued, so I didn’t have time for surly. We have been friends for a while and he was hurting today. I understood why he was acting the way he was and did my best to be a good friend, which helped both my mood and my intentionality. The bartender was also in a good mood, as he most always is. Together, the two of us held things together without realizing that’s what we were doing until quite late in the evening.

I understand bad moods. I know them well. I even understand the skewed logic that makes us enjoy wallowing in our bitterness sometimes. What I don’t understand – even though I’m quite capable of participating – is why our reflex seems to be to lash out to make those around us hurt and angry. Randy Newman nailed it in his insightfully satiric song, “I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do.”

I ran out on my children
And I ran out on my wife

Gonna run out on you too, baby

I've done it all my life

Everybody cried the night I left

Well, almost everybody did

My little boy just hung his head

And I put my arm, put my arm around his little shoulder

And this is what I said:

"Sonny I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do

I just want you to hurt like I do

Honest I do, honest I do, honest I do"
As soon as we ask ourselves how any parent could say that to a child, we become aware that we know the answer, even if not to that extreme. Newman spells it out in the last verse of his song.
If I had one wish
One dream I knew would come true

I'd want to speak to all the people of the world

I'd get up there, I'd get up there on that platform

First I'd sing a song or two you know I would

Then I'll tell you what I'd do

I'd talk to the people and I'd say

"It's a rough rough world, it's a tough tough world

Well, you know

And things don't always, things don't always go the way we plan

But there's one thing, one thing we all have in common

And it's something everyone can understand

All over the world sing along

I just want you to hurt like I do

I just want you to hurt like I do

I just want you to hurt like I do

Honest I do, honest I do, honest I do"
Compassion, says Henri Nouwen, is “voluntarily entering the pain of another.” What is the word for voluntarily inflicting pain on another? Why does the first require such intentionality and the second come so easily? Thanks to Mark Heybo for steering my thoughts in a redemptive direction through the words of Walter Wink.
The belief that violence “saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience- unto-death . . .

In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo . . .

Redemptive violence gives way to violence as an end in itself. It is no longer a religion that uses violence in the pursuit of order and salvation, but one in which violence has become an aphrodisiac, sheer titillation, an addictive high, a substitute for relationships. Violence is no longer the means to a higher good, namely order; violence becomes the end.
Wink says the lie that pervades our world’s view of violence as solution rather than problem is we think violence was there from the beginning. The Creation account in Genesis 1, however, says over and over God saw that it was good. Violence came later as a problem to be solved rather than as a given of our existence. Maybe it’s too big a leap to try and make a connection to make between the sniping of the surly people at the restaurant and the fallacy of violence as a means to solve our problems. But the difference between how folks shot at each other tonight and the car bombers in Baghdad seems to be one of degree more than substance. The similarities between us as human beings are more substantive than we know.

As long as I’m being “quoteful” in this post, I offer REM’s words of hope in the midst of pain, “Everybody Hurts”:
Sometimes everything is wrong.
Now it's time to sing along--

When your day is night alone, hold on

if you feel like letting go,

if you think you've had too much

of this life, well hang on.

‘cause everybody hurts.

Take comfort in your friends.

Everybody hurts.
Let us both give and take comfort.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

it's a small world

We live in a small world.

Most of the time we use that sentence to mean we are all more aware of the whole planet: I listen to the BBC on the way to work in the morning; I have a link to Al Jazeera (in English) on this page; we can buy produce shipped from Chile and Peru in our supermarkets and even buy sushi; I can call around the world without hesitatinig; most all of my clothes are made in another country; and it’s not just ABC’s Wide World of Sports that spans the globe anymore.

As I drove home from work tonight thinking about what I wanted to write, the idea of a small world kept playing over and over in my head, but not for the reasons I just mentioned. I live in a small world and that troubles me. My life too easily becomes about going to and from work, running errands, and responding to life on such a local level that my eyes never see beyond the city limits of my own existence. Unless I work at it, life quickly becomes like living in Pleasantville, where it doesn’t matter what happens to the road outside of town because no one ever goes that far.

I like my life. My job is challenging and fun, even when I have to work three twelve hour days in a row, as I’m doing this week. I can’t think of anywhere in the world I would rather go than home to be with Ginger and the pups. I love my church and I love spending time making sure we have what we need for Coffee Hour every week. I like digging in the dirt to plant flowers and vegetables. I look forward to spending time in front of my computer screen each evening as I write. I don’t feel as though I’m wasting much time in my life and I’m aware how easily my world becomes smaller unless I intentionally figure out a way to zig where I normally zag so that The World Out There can break in.

Part of zigging for me is looking up from my task to see what is going on. I can be more focused than a homing pigeon when it comes to setting my mind to a task and getting it done. One of the good things about that is I get a lot of stuff done. The down side is a lot of stuff goes whizzing right past me without my noticing. A couple of weeks ago, I was going downstairs to change into my chef’s uniform, which meant I had to pass through the laundry room at the Inn to get to the changing room, and as I did I spoke to the Italian woman who does the laundry.

“How are you today?” I asked.
“I’m OK,” she said as I passed and then added quietly as I was closing the door to change, “Actually, I’m not so good.”

When I came out of the room, I asked what was going on and she told me her father, who was in Italy, had had a stroke the night before. She went on to tell me about her family and how hard it was to be so far away and how her brother in Italy was coming down on her pretty hard for being so far away and leaving him to take care of everything. Somewhere in there I realized I was standing with a bundle of kitchen towels under my arm and speaking a body language that said, “Sorry about your dad but the restaurant opens in thirty minutes and I’ve got prep work to do.” For once, I put down the towels and listened and made my world stop shrinking.

That was a couple of weeks ago. This week, my life has focused on me and on my family. I know there are things happening across the planet and in the lives of my friends and none of them is a part of my world right now. I’m not looking at or listening to much outside of my own orbit. I have my reasons and some of them are good. There’s a legitimate time to say, “I’m doing what I can right now.” There’s also a unending call to not let that be the last or only word. The creative tension between those two poles is where worlds grow, and hearts as well.

In the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (one of the favorite shows in the Brasher-Cunningham household), there was an episode called “Earshot” in which Buffy ended up being able to hear everyone’s thoughts. Ultimately, the sheer volume of pain was excruciatingly crushing. She needed some filters, some limits. We live in a time when it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. There are more worthy things asking for our attention and energy than we can count – and those are just the worthy ones. There’s also enough guilt to go around when it comes to struggling with the reality that we can’t respond to all the need in the world. We can’t even meet all the needs in front of our faces.

And when I feel overwhelmed, I let my world get smaller. I can't find the answers to my life, so I quit listening to all the questions. But there aren’t answers, only a call which requires that I listen and look up to hear and see more than me. Tomorrow, for the third day in a row, I will drive down Route 3A to work, spend most of the day cooking, and then drive home. Thursday, I will run errands and try to check a couple of things off a very old list of things to do around the house, and then spend two more days driving and cooking. On Sunday, I’ll go to church. In the nights and evenings sandwiched in between those days, I will come home to my wife and my puppies.

It is a meaningful existence, perhaps even noble in some sense, and it is small in the same way all human lives are small and particular. Yet, in the paradox of grace, I’m called to be both grateful and unsettled as I look at my life.

It’s not a small world, after all.


Monday, November 13, 2006

a good kind of tired

I had the kitchen to myself today.

Since I was gone this weekend and it turned out to be one of the busiest of the year at the restaurant, I worked today so the others could have a day off. I got to the Inn about 10:15 am and left around 10:15 pm, with a steady stream of customers and a prep list as long as my arm to work through. I'm tired and, as Jackson Browne sings, "When the morning light comes streaming in I'll get up and do it again. Amen."

As much as I work, I'm surrounded by folks who work more than I do. Robert, our head chef, pretty much lives at the Inn. Most of the other cooks and dishwashers have at least one other job. Pedro, who is my dishwasher on Monday nights, works a construction job all day and then washes dishes from six to midnight. He bounces in every evening with a loud, "What up?" and a smile on his face. Tonight, at 9:30, I could hear him singing in the dishroom. When he came out to put the clean dishes away, I told him his happiness helped me.

"It's good to be happy," he said. "I got problems, but I leave them at my house. Everybody got problems. Why I need bring mine to work? I like my job. I work hard. I like people. I'm happy."

Ginger got home tonight after an extended day of travel, thanks to Northwest Airlines and some nasty weather around here. I came home to a familiar and welcome sight of my wife and schnauzers all curled up together on the couch. I showered, put on my pajamas, and hung out with them for awhile before I came up to write. Gracie followed me upstairs and has curled up in the armchair next to my desk, as she usually does. With each tap on the keyboard, exhaustion gives way to sleepiness. In the few hours between when I left work and when I go back, I am, as Martina McBride sings, safe in the arms of love.

Tonight, I go to sleep more grateful than tired.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

random notes

Farrier was the word on the way to Birmingham; pedorthics was the word on the way home: “the art concerned with the design, manufacture, fit, and modification of foot appliances as prescribed for relief of painful or disabling conditions of the foot.”

On the flight from Atlanta to Manchester, I sat next to a woman who is a cobbler and had been at a pedorthics symposium to learn more about how to help people with their feet. Much like the guy who shoed horses so they could feel healthy, this woman did the same thing for humans. They also shared a love for their work. I came away amused that my trip had been bookended by feet.


Ginger doesn’t come home until tomorrow night, so I stopped at Blockbuster to pick up a movie to pass the time and ended up taking an unexpected journey. Kevin Wilmott wrote and directed The Confederate States of America, a mock documentary history of our nation as if the South had won the Civil War. It has the look and feel of Ken Burns’ work, using some original footage, along with old newsreels and educational films, and peppering it all with some bitingly satiric commercials.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when it started. I was half prepared for a very anti-Southern diatribe, which it was not. It was much more about “us” as a nation rather than “them” as the South. Wilmott does a wonderful job capturing our personality as a nation and resituating it in the changed outcome of the war; he also has a keen eye for what the consequences might have been. The most disturbing thing is some of them are not that much different than what life looks like in America today. It’s worth watching – and watching with some folks who can talk about it afterwards.


My father-in-law had a good weekend for the most part. There was obvious evidence that his short-term memory is fading and the family reunion offered him the chance to relish in the times he remembers with astounding detail. He’s a good storyteller and he’s got some great stories to tell. My favorite moment of the weekend came I was getting ready to fix dinner Friday night. Soon after Ginger and I met, I told her one day the difference in our families’ attitude towards food was when my family ate it was an event; her family ate so they didn’t die. Neither of my in-laws feel compelled to spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

“What are you fixing for dinner?” my father-in-law asked.
“Pot roast,” I answered.
With a mischievous look in his eye and a gentle smile aimed at his wife he said, “Pot roast – what’s that?” And then he laughed. We all did.


One more movie note that’s just too good to pass up. When I clicked back to the TV after the CSA movie was over, Cool Hand Luke was on. Paul Newman is the coolest guy ever. For no other reason than the scene just grabbed me, here is Luke’s prayer in the closing scenes of the film:
“Anybody here? Hey, Ol' Man, You home tonight? Can you spare a minute? It's about time we had a little talk. I know I'm a pretty evil fella. Killed people in the war and got drunk and chewed up municipal property and the like. I know I got no call to ask for much but even so, you gotta admit, you ain't dealt me no cards in a long time. It's beginnin' to look like you got things fixed so I can't never win out. Inside, outside, all 'em rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol' Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it's beginnin' to get to me. When does it end? What do ya got in mind for me? What do I do now? All right. All right. (He kneels on his knees and cups his hands in prayer.) On my knees, askin'. (pause) Yeah, that's what I thought. I guess I'm pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case. I guess I gotta find my own way.”

A few police cars drive up in front of the church. Dragline calls out to his friend from the church door: "Luke?"

Luke looks up and addresses an aside to God: "That's your answer ol' Man? I guess you're a hard case too."


Saturday, November 11, 2006

turn it up

I want to take time to mention three culinary-related adventures during my short visit to Irondale, Alabama.

  • The Irondale Cafe is better known as "The Whistlestop" because of the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, which they serve when in season. I went for the fried catfish and hushpuppies this time around.
  • The Krystal. (In this part of the world, you say "the" in front of most store names.) I've been in this monument to small square hamburgers everyday because they have free WiFi. Seriously, how can they have free wireless and Starbucks still make you pay for it? More seriously, you have to try the Corn Pups.
  • La Cucaracha. That's the name of the closest Mexican restaurant to my in-laws' house. I'm assuming they know they named their eating establishment for an insect whose presence violates the health code, but that's not important now. They have really good food and even better margaritas, but what I will remember most is the mariachi band who do a mean rendition of "Sweet Home Alabama." I wish Neil Young could remember what the song sounds like with guitar, fiddle, and guitaron. Roll, Tide, roll.

Time to sign off and get some sleep before my sunrise flight back home. But first, I think I'll have one more Corn Pup. Though I don't have video of the mariachi, I did find this:

Turn it up.


Friday, November 10, 2006

the friendly skies: part two

Not long after I finished writing yesterday, I boarded the plane for Birmingham and sat down next to a big guy from Moody, Alabama, which is not far from Irondale, where my in-laws live. He was ready to talk. Usually, I sit down and fall asleep when I get on a plane, but this time I was awake, so I listened and asked questions.

He told me he was returning home from a trip to Salt Lake City where he had been teaching. He was about six foot three, maybe sixty, with salt and pepper hair and a mostly grey moustache and goatee. I had the sense that he usually wore a cowboy hat, though he was not wearing one on the plane. He had an affable, Slim Pickens sort of manner, all of which left me wondering what kind of classes he taught. So I asked him.

“Proportional horseshoeing,” he answered.

I still had no idea, so I asked some more questions. He was happy to answer. After a lifetime of shoeing horses in Alabama, he developed a way of looking at the horse more holistically and then shoeing the horse appropriately.

“I look at horses to see what they’re built for,” he said. “You can learn a lot by looking. I look at you and I know you can cook ‘cause you told me, and I know you could play lineman for the Green Bay Packers. But you ain’t gonna play center for the Detroit Pistons. You could be a lineman. You’re a large man.”

I got the point.

“I stand on one side of a horse and take a perfect mental picture and then go around to the other side and notice what muscles are out of place. God made horses to turn left and right and go forward and backward. When they can’t do those things, something is out of line. I look at the horse and find out what needs to be corrected.”

“And then you can fix it by the way you shoe the horse?”

“That’s right. It’s like putting on orthopedic shoes. I may put a pad in between the hoof and the shoe, or something like that. I’ve got horses people thought were through that are back at work and going strong just because I taught the people how to shoe them properly. It’s worked out pretty good for me,” he continued. “I’ve been self-employed all my life and this has turned into a pretty good retirement plan; people pay good money for me to come teach ‘em.”

My mind jumped to metaphor like a well-shoed horse in a steeplechase.

“What strikes me, “ I said, “is how often life changes for us when we pay attention to the small stuff and take time to notice what’s out of line in our lives, or have someone else point it out.”

We spent the rest of the flight talking about what kind of eyes we needed to see our lives the way he looked at his horses. Just a half hour before, I’d been sitting on the floor in the airport watching people walk, lemming-like, to baggage claim and now I was sitting nest to a guy who paid attention for a living – and changed lives because of the way he looked at things. All this from a farrier (my word for the day).

As I sat down to write today, an old nursery rhyme rose to the top of my memory:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
The explanation that followed on the web site where I found the poem said:
A clever set of lyrics encouraging a child to apply logic to the consequences of their
actions. Perhaps used to gently chastise a child and explain the possible events that might follow a thoughtless act.
The horse sense I found in my conversation on the plane and the rhyme together leads me to think about the possible events that might follow a thoughtful act. The man next to me was making a living helping people see their animals in a life-giving way, rather than discussing how to cut their losses. The biggest consequence to thoughtlessness is we give up too easily. The more we are acculturated to expect planned obsolescence, the more intentional we must become in looking for ways help each other last.

When they brought the adulterous woman to Jesus, he saw her not as an exception, but an example of humanity worth saving.
When he saw Zaccheus in the tree, he saw more than a crook; he saw a philanthropist.
When he saw the blind man, he didn’t see someone who was being punished by God, but someone through whom the love of God could shine.

I want to learn how to see the world – to see the people around me – with those kind of eyes. For now, I’ll say thanks for the farrier: he made flying fun again.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

the friendly skies

When I was a kid, I loved to fly. Heck, for most of my life that’s been true.

There’s always been a certain romance to getting on a plane and crossing a continent or an ocean in a matter of hours. When we lived in Zambia, we used to drive out to the airport in Lusaka to watch the British Airways
VC-10s land. No one in the country had ever seen a plane that big. The flights were still long and often inconvenient, but we were stepping into the world of the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh and Ameila Earhart. We were doing what Icarus dreamed of and this time the wings didn’t melt.

When we came back to the States on leave, we took a flight from Amsterdam to Montreal to Houston twice. I was going into sixth grade the second time and I remember taking off from Amsterdam right about sunset and flying due west all night long just fast enough to keep the sun from going down until we landed in Canada. Then there was the time – a little more harrowing and turbulent – when we flew on an old
DC-3 from one end of Malawi to the other at about 7,000 feet. The next week, my brother and I were playing tennis at the Baptist encampment at Limuru, Kenya at the same altitude.

I’m writing tonight from the Atlanta airport, one of my least favorite places in the world. I’m sitting on the floor next to an electrical outlet (so I can plug in my MacBook) and wondering where the romance went. It’s not so much fun to fly anymore. Part of the reason is the size of airports like this one. It took me about a third of the time it did to fly from Manchester, New Hampshire to Atlanta just to get from the gate where I landed to the gate where I’m making my connection to Birmingham. In between, they’ve managed to turn the airport into a hybrid shopping mall, another dehumanizing environment. While I’m in hell I can still shop!

Part of the reason is flying is much more common. Airlines are flying buses these days; it’s how we get around. When the Space Shuttle made its first landing, I remember
Frank Reynolds lamenting the end of our romance with space. Now, he said, it will become commonplace – and it did. Mine was the last generation that stared up into the starry night hoping to see satellites and wondering what it felt like to be Neil Armstrong.

The rest of the reason is fear. (Yes, I realize this is a recurring them for me.) While I’ve been sitting here on the floor writing – about thirty minutes – the same Homeland Security (I hate that name) announcement has played telling me the alert color is Orange (relatively high) and I have to put any liquids and gels in a separate clear plastic bag, which they will provide and which can be searched separately of my carry on. The woman behind me in Manchester had to forfeit her eye drops because they were in a 4.5 ounce container rather than a three ounce one. Once they confiscated it, I was sure the color would drop to yellow.

Fear makes us lose our sense of humor. Southwest, I will say, has managed to keep theirs, for which I’m thankful. My favorite instruction came the day the flight attendant was telling us how to use the oxygen masks and said, “If you are traveling with a child, put your mask on first and then fix theirs. If you have two children, pick the one you like best and tell the other one you’re sorry.”

I’m not sure there’s much romance in that, but it was funny. I like funny.

There’s probably not a way to keep the romance in flying. The world got smaller and we kept getting on airplanes until it was not as big a deal. They really are buses with wings. Maybe it’s not the romance I’m missing. Chasing that turns me into a nostalgic those-were-the-days-and-you’ll-never-know-what-it-was-like kind of guy. I don’t want to be him.

As I’m writing, a flight has just unloaded at the gate across from me. The people walked out single file as if they were in Jonestown looking for Koolaid. Maybe that’s what bugs me. We know it’s ridiculous to give up our eye drops in the name of safety, but we do it. We know a bag of peanuts and a biscotti does not qualify as a meal. We know if we ever have to use our seat cushion as a flotation device we’re done for. We know the color of the day makes absolutely no difference. We know we’re being fed a load of crap.

And we still line up with our boarding passes and do what they say.

Rise up, O men and women of God; be done with lesser things.

At the end of
Arlo Guthrie’s wonderful song, Alice’s Restaurant – all twenty-five minutes of it – he tells his audience:

And the only reason I'm singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similarsituation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if your in a situation like that there's only one thing you can do and that's walk into the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say "Shrink, You can get anything you want, at Alice's restaurant.". And walk out. You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he's really sick and they won't take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both [nuts] and they won't take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. They may think it's an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it's a movement.
Hear me clearly: I’m not advocating bomb jokes or demanding to carry your Big Gulp sized shampoo in your carry on, yet there has to be a way to be creatively subversive to reclaim our humanity.

Sit in the corner and sing while you’re waiting for your flight.

Skip from gate to gate.

Give a package of Peanut M & Ms to the surly gate agent.

Maybe I’m crazy, but all I need are a few of you and we’ve got ourselves a movement. I guess that’s why I’m wearing my orange shirt today. I wonder if the TSA has noticed.