Saturday, December 31, 2005

My 100th Post, Happy New Year and All Aboard!

This is my 100th Post here, who'd have guessed?

I flew home early yesterday morning and have hurriedly finished up some things before the end of the year. That being done, I took down the Christmas tree that had dried out considerably in my absence. I’ve put away the ornaments and lights, retired the train for another year, and vacuumed all the needles up (well, I won’t go that far, I’ll be vacuuming needles until it’s time to put next years tree up). Tomorrow afternoon, I’m hopping on a real train, for the run down to Chicago and then southbound to New Orleans. I’m taking some students with me and we’re volunteering for a week of backbreaking work, cleaning up of that city from Katrina. I’m not sure what we’ll find when we step off the “City of New Orleans” and into the “Crescent City” on Monday afternoon. I am also unsure if I’ll have time for blogging or if I’ll even have easy internet access. So if you don’t hear from me for a week, don’t worry, I’ll be back.

The “City of New Orleans” is the only long train in America that I haven’t ridden. At one point in my life, I’d take a two-week train trip every year, taking advantage of the three stops they gave you to see new cities. I’ve ridden on the “Sunset Limited,” running just above the Mexican border through the desert southwest, the “Southwest Chief,” on the Sante Fe line across northern New Mexico and Arizona. I have made at least seven runs on the “California Zephyr,” providing a gorgeous view of the Colorado Mountains and the Sierras. And then there’s the “Empire Builder,” running across the top of our nation with views of the vast plains of North Dakota and of Glacier National Park in Montana. I’ve even traveled on some trains that are now defunct: the “Desert Wind” that rolled from Salt Lake City, through Las Vegas on its way to LA, and the Pioneer, that broke of the California Zephyr at Denver and raced across Southern Wyoming to Ogden, Utah, then northwest to Portland.

On the Eastern side of the country, I’ve ridden the Pennsylvanian many times from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, travelling across the great horseshoe bend west of Altoona. I’ve also taken multi-rides on the “Capitol” from Chicago to Washington and the “Lake Shore Limited” that hugs the Great Lakes as it runs from Chicago to Washington following New York Central’s “20th Century Limited” route. One of my favorite rides was taken in October on the Cardinal, from Chicago to Charlottesville, Virginia. Its tracks snake their way through the deep valleys of West Virginia, along the New River, passing abandoned coal towns. The Fall colors was just a bit before peak when I made this run. I’ve also been blessed to having had opportunities to ride the north-south trains. The Silver Star and Meteor run down to Florida, the Cresent to Atlanta (It goes on to New Orleans) and the Coast Starlight that rolls down the West Coast from Seattle to Las Angeles. There’s a wonderful section on this route, a hundred or so miles between Oakland and Las Angeles, where you can look out your window and see the Pacific surf below you. And there’s the Texas Eagle that runs across Texas and up to Chicago, stopping at St. Louis.

Now, at last, I’ll get the chance to ride the train Arlo Gutherie made famous when he recorded Steve Goodman’s song, “The City of New Orleans.”

Riding on the City of New Orleans, Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,

Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin' trains that have no names, Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

All Aboard! (And may you experience many blessings in the New Year!)

Pictures from

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Magic of Mistletoe

Lifestyle reporting by Nevada Jack

There’s something about the way southern gals kiss. They can get all mushy, warm and passionate as they close their eyes and pucker up their lips. Therefore, for the good of the rest of the human race, I determined to discover the reason. My hunch is that Southerners have more practice than their Yankee counter-parts. During the holidays, mistletoe adorns the top of doorframes of so many southern homes, that it provides plenty of excuses for women to get romantic with their lesser halves. Up north, the only mistletoe I’ve seen is plastic or imported in and all wilted. Neither is as potent as fresh mistletoe. Could you imagine a Roman poet wax about the erotic qualities of plastic mistletoe purchased at Wal-Mart?

From what I’ve seen, driving throughout Eastern North Carolina, this year’s mistletoe crop is a hardy one. The parasite is most often found in swampy hardwood bottomlands, where it grows between folks of branches in the upper portion of the trees. Although the trees are now barren for winter, some have so many clumps of mistletoe that tree appears to be an evergreen. Harvesting mistletoe is difficult. You first have to find your way out into the swamps which are often filled with water, then have to climb a tree and cut off a branch, unless of course you want to cut down the tree, which isn’t very good stewardship of our natural resources. Another option is a shotgun. Using #8 birdshot, you aim your shot at the base of a clump of mistletoe will lead to a showering of sprigs. Unfortunately the white berries, which add a nice contrast to the dark green, often don’t survive this harsh way of harvesting. Yet, this isn’t a terrible loss if you have small people around, as the berries are poisonous.

I had hoped to bring some mistletoe back with me to demonstrate it’s power to unsuspecting women up north, but I’ve spent too much time sitting around and am no longer good at climbing trees and scurrying out on branches. Furthermore, the idea of shotguns gives me the willies, as hunters tramping through the swamps down east have been known to use them to pellet the hides of my cousins with #2 buckshot. And besides, for most people, Christmas is over and to surprise them with a sprig of mistletoe now might get me a slap in my furry face. But there’s always next year. Who knows, with all those silly Christmas songs being introduced, maybe someone will sing one that goes, "I saw mommy smooching Nevada Jack underneath the mistletoe last night…" I know it don't exactly rhyme, but give me a break. Us bears aren't know for our musical ability.

On Being Home at Christmas

As most of you know, I don’t tend to write about family or work here. I’m going to break my rule with this post. I don’t think any of my family reads my blog as I haven’t told them about it, but just in case, I’ll probably only leave this up for a few days.

Although I have little desire to live there, as one raised up in North Carolina, the Old North State will always be home and it was good to be there for Christmas this year. However, it would be quite a stress to say that our little trip south was completely idyllic or stress free. Sure, there were moments such as running around in the boat off Lookout, or in the backwaters of lower Cape Fear, walking on the beach, and attending the Candlelight Services on Christmas Eve. But there was also a lot of tension. For the past year, my brothers and sister and I have known that something was happening to Mom. Last summer, after a series of test, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. So this year, we all planned on being there on Christmas. We almost made it; one of my brothers who lives six hours away had to cancel at the last minute when a stomach virus ran through his children. But the rest of us were there and even his family got down a few days later. It was good to see everyone and it was good to be there on Christmas morning.

Some might think that evenings around my parent’s house are strange. The TV is seldom on. We read and talk and listen to music and occasionally work puzzles or play games. Mom has always had a habit of reading aloud stuff she finds interesting, although some of the stuff that she read this trip left me scratching my head. Not only was it not interesting, I’m not sure she knew what she was reading. She read odd tid-bits out of the newspaper, and on several occasions re-read the same tid-bit an hour or so later without realizing that she’d already read it. Then there was the evening she picked up and started to read the Consumer Reporter Buyer Guide that had come in the mail. Although none of us, to my knowledge, are in the market for a new car, she’s read about each one, saying this one gets a solid black dot for reliability and this one model gets only half a dot for safety and so forth. Then she’d ask about different cars. "Who makes Acura?" she asked several times. It was all very strange; no one really listened. The rest of us were busy putting together my daughter’s toys or reading our own books and just acknowledged that she had said something. We went to bed when she started in on washing machines.

The touching part of all drama was my father. He really loves my mother, a love that has grown stronger in fifty years of marriage. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for my mother and it shows. Sometimes he does too much, such as answering her questions and taking over for her in the kitchen. But mostly he doesn’t seem to be affected by her strange behavior that, in a heavy enough dose, would drive me up the wall. He’s still her knight in shining armor. I don’t know how he does it and when I compare myself to him, I feel inadequate and wish I could be more like him.

One last thing, on Tuesday, my dad and daughter and I went out with my brother and his son, to do some target shooting out off the lower part of the Cape Fear River. We spent a good hour up on shore and when we came back, the tide had come in quite a bit. My nephew and father and daughter had a good laugh when my brother and I both fell into deep water when we stepped into a hole. Later that night, my daughter told me she was sorry she laughed and assured me that she was ready to go out and get me if I didn’t get up. But we got up fine and nothing except our clothes got wet and we got back into the boat for a chilly ride back to the dock.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Eve along the Carolina Coast

It's Christmas evening and everyone is in bed. I hope your day was wonderful. I don't think I'll write about Christmas day in the blog, but let me share a few memories from yesterday, Christmas Eve, which is even more magical than Christmas day. From this post, you can gleam something of my "raising up" along the coast. Blessings to you all...

Walking along the Masonboro Island side of Carolina Beach Inlet, we’re joined by porpoise 20 feet offshore, swimming in pairs through a deep cut. When they get to the point, between the inlet and ocean, they head further out into the water to where gulls enjoy a feeding frenzy. The birds fill the sky like Japanese Zero’s at Pearl Harbor. Every few seconds one or two of the birds pull back their wings and dive into the water, creating a splash upon impact. Those who get lucky stay fly away with their spoils, those who missed their dinner, return to the bomber squadron and prepare for their next attack. Flipper and his friends join the fun. Fish jump above the water as the big mammals’ dive into their school and feast. One animal’s fun creates terror in another. Soon, the porpoises have had enough and begin to play. Several pair, with the grace of figure skaters, surf. Parallel to each other, they ride the wave, cutting back and forth in unison, only to break away right before it breaks. Others swim in pairs just behind the breakers, their bodies arching out of the water, exposing their dorsal fins in unison. A few minutes later the birds settle down, mostly sitting on the water, bouncing over the choppy swells. The school of fish that provided their midday snack has moved one. Soon, the porpoises leave too. We resume walking on the beach, collecting shells for my daughter to take back to her school.

After our own seafood dinner (crab soup, several varieties of grilled and fried fish, sauté shrimp, hushpuppies and cole slaw), we head to church for the candlelight Christmas Eve service. I watch my daughter as she sits between my mother and me and realize things haven’t changed much since I first attended this service. I’d been just a couple years older than she is now. We sing the same carols and hear the same scriptures read and listen to a sermon on how God works through ordinary folk just like us. It’s all so familiar, yet comfortable in its familiarity. At the closing of the service, everyone holds a candle as we sing Silent Night. My daughter’s face is as serious as her black skirt and red blouse, as she looks into the flame that’s reflected in her eyes. The candlelight makes her blonde hair shine elegantly. I’m glad to be able to share this moment with her at this place where I grew up. I’m glad she can be here with my parents. I’m glad she’s beside my mother. We sing Joy to the World as we leave, our candles still burning and the sanctuary lights still off. At the door, we extinguishing our candles and hand them to an usher so they may be used another year. On the lawn of the church, we stand around and talk. I greet folks I haven’t seen in years. Many have to introduce themselves. Most complain about the cold, but it’s in the mid-40s. Several joke that it mustn’t be cold for me. They’re right. "We wouldn’t be lollygaging outside like this, not if we were up in Michigan," I respond in an attempt to humor them. Soon, everyone heads home. It’s time to get children of all ages to bed before Santa swoops down from the North Pole.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Boating off Cape Lookout

Yesterday my Dad, brother, and I went out of Harkers Island to do some fishing around Cape Lookout. Here’s a glimpse of the trip.

Coming back in from the north, we passed the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and the old Coast Guard Station, running parallel to the beach. Dad's at the helm, my brother and I each standing to the side of the console, holding on and leaning forward. The water is unusually glassy this morning, but that changes at the Cape Point. When we crested the first wave and dropped into the trough, Dad turned the bow of the boat into the next wave and cut his speed, carefully taking each wave. The shallow banks extending from the cape, well off shore, create turmoil in the water. Five or six times we rise over the crest of the waves and slid down the backside, until the water returned glassy and we head east, toward the jetty, where we stop to try our luck plugging and jigging for trout. We pull the boat into an open section, between other boats, turned the bow seaward, and set a short anchor, to keep the boat from drifting into the rocks. From there, the three of us stand at the back of the boat and cast toward the rocks. Nothing is biting, at least on our side of the rocks. It appears we’re too late for sea trout, who moved when the water got too cold. Yet, we’re too early for stripper. Other boats, mostly those on the other side of the rocks, caught a few fish, but almost all were too small and released back into the water. We fished for an hour, taking turns to eat a lunch for a can—beanie weenies and sardines—before continuing inland, stopping by Shackleford Banks to hunt for shells, wild horses and the lost community of Diamond City which use to exist there. We found plenty of shells and saw a dozen or so horses, but never found the site of the community that died after a hurricane in the 1890s exposed its vulnerability and sent survivors scurrying back to the mainland.

History runs deeper than the shallow waters along the lower portion of the Outer Banks. Native Americans fished and collected oysters and clams from the backwater sound. Edward Teach, the feared pirate Blackbeard, used the many inlets to slip away from the British Navy as he plunder shipping along the southeast coast. His fate was sealed 30 miles or so north of here when his ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, ran aground fleeing the British. Afterwards, small fishing communities sprung up along these islands, its residents fighting the sea as they struggled to make a living and to survive the elements. In addition to fishing, they supplemented their income by salvaging from ships that had run aground in the numerous shoals that extend out into the water. Legend has it, some would build fires on the beach during stormy weather, to confuse captains into thinking it was a lighthouse and causing them to run aground. After saving the crew, they’d help themselves to the loot. Because of the treacherous nature of the coast, a small lighthouse at Lookout was replaced in 1859 with one that still towers 163 feet above the sand. The light from the brick structure can be seen 20 miles out into the ocean. In the Civil War, the North sought to quickly gain control of these islands as a base of operation for their blockades of southern ports. After the fall of Fort Macon, a masonry fort that guarded Beaufort (pronounced Boughford in North Carolina), they effectively control over half of North Carolina’s coastline. In early January 1865, a large flotilla of Union warships sought harbor at Morehead City and Beaufort as they waited out a raging nor’easter. A few weeks later, after the largest naval bombardment ever on American soil, they’d capture Fort Fisher and close off the port in Wilmington, the last port open to the Confederacy. Losing their vital supply line to Europe, the Confederate States malnourished army was doomed. Following the Civil War, the island’s residents continued their lonely existence under the watchful eye of the lighthouse. In the 1870s, the lighthouse received its daylight markings, painted black and white in diamonds, to distinguish it from the lights at Hatteras and Oregon Inlet. Today, all the people are gone from the communities on these islands, although their weathered buildings remain. The string of islands is a part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Setting course toward the lighthouse, we run parallel to Shackleford Banks, going opposite of a herd of horses running along the shore. After the point, we turn hard to the northeast east and enter Barden Inlet. Hugging the red buoys, we snake our way through the channel through the brown marsh grass, into the back sound between Shackleford and the mainland, keeping a watch for the sifting sandbars. A dozen pelicans fly overhead. A seagull claims a perch on a buoy. When we get into the back sound, between Shackleford and the mainland, Dad opens the motor up. The wind is cold even though the December sun is bright, its rays shimmering along the water as we make our ways toward long leaf pines towering above Harkers Island.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Merry Christmas--from the World's Largest Christmas Tree

Last night my daughter saw the World's Largest Christmas Tree for the first time. When we moved to this area when I was 9, we seldom went into Wilmington as we lived out in the boondocks, in Myrtle Grove Sound. The one exception was at Christmas, when we'd go in to see the World's Largest Living Christmas Tree. The beautiful tree, with multi-colored lights (I know, I know, some of you are going to say I'm inconsistent as I prefer white lights on my tree), is a sight to see. It was first lighted in 1929 and, with the exception of World War 2, has been lighted every year. You should see it from the Cape Fear River Bridge, as it reflects in the water. My daughter wanted to know how big the tree was when I was little--I told her it was probably taller than now, as the tree has lost many branches and seems to be barely hanging on to life. Its sparse branches are covered with Spanish moss. Years ago they installed a utility pole next to the tree and that pole holds the weight of the wire and lights (which are quite heavy). I'm not sure how many more years the tree will be around, and I'll be sad when it goes for I thought I was the luckiest kid around to live so close to the "world's largest living Christmas Tree." Click here for a history of the tree and a daytime picture of it taken three quarters of a century ago. May your holidays be as bright as this tree.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Reminiscing about my childhood home

Sheba, our English Setter, barked incessantly at something back in the drainage ditch. Going to investigate, I found her moving around a pocket in the clay wall of the ditch. Water had been draining out of small caves such as these. "What is it girl?" I asked as I rubbed the dog and got down to peer inside the hole. A good-sized turtle hid inside, its head barely sticking out of its shell. "Good girl," I said, grabbing a stick. I slid the stick underneath its shell and tried to drag the turtle out when all a sudden its head, showing fangs, struck. Dropping the stick, I jumped back as the snake’s body recoiled and Sheba frantically barked. I was maybe ten years old and had come just inches from being bitten by a water moccasin. Leaving the dog to guard the snake, I ran inside and told dad who came out with a hoe and killed the snake. It was too dangerous for something that poisonous to be at the edge of our yard.

The drainage ditch behind our house was a wonderful place to play as a kid. When we first moved here, there was always water flowing through it (I didn’t realize this being an ominous sign as tehy were draining the swampy areas to the south of our house). As kids, playing in the ditch, we hunted for salamanders and turtles, and even caught a few small red-finned pike. Also exciting were the carnivorous plants, especially the Venus flytrap with trigger-hairs in its cupped hands that would imprison an unlucky insect as it feasted on its decaying body. The ditch also served us as a trench for us to re-enact Civil War battles. Having moved here from Petersburg, Virginia, we were well aware of how trenches were used during the Civil War. We fought our battles with friends, unaware that just a mile or so away our ancestors skirmished with Union soldiers, in an attempt to delay the fall of Wilmington until all the provisions at the port had been shipped to Lee’s troops held up in trenches at Petersburg.

Behind the drainage ditch were several square miles of woods and swamps. In this area, these swamps are known as Carolina Bays, low oval shaped depressions filled with peat moss. In all but extremely dry periods, the depressions were filled with water. Ringing these oval depressions were thick undergrowth including live oaks bearded with Spanish moss and towering cypress. The rest of the land, which was only a few feet higher than the bays, consisted of sandy soil that supported tall long-leaf pines, occasional patches of sumac or blackjack oak, and the ubiquitous wiregrass. In ages past, these pine forests of eastern North Carolina supported a thriving industry for naval stores and turpentine and as I got older we found evidence of such. The mature trees had slash marks where sap drained. There were also mounds, which we at first thought were Indian burial grounds, only to later discover they had something to do with burning pines in order to extract the pitch. The woods and bays made a great playground, but until we were older, we could only play there during the winter due to the snakes.

We moved to into the Myrtle Grove Sound area when I was nine years old. This was before the big building boom in Wilmington, which started around 1970 and has continued ever since. There were only seven houses on our street, each sitting on a half-acre. Ours was an exception for my father brought two lots, not wanting to be "crowded in." In addition to the woods behind the house, we could cross the street and ramble through more swamps and pine forest until we came to the headwaters of Whiskey Creek, which I thoroughly explored after I purchased my first canoe when I was sixteen. The woods across the street were the first to go as houses were built up and down the road. By the time I was in high school, all the lots had been used and new roads were being laid. I don’t remember just when the woods behind my parents succumbed to the great urban sprawl of the Southeast. My last trip out through the bays and pine forest was during a break from college. A few years later, as I was surprised to visit one day and discover the ditch had been filled in and where the bays had been stood houses.

I can’t imagine growing up down here now. Houses are everywhere. When I was a child, my friends and I freely roamed the woods in winter and rode our bikes in summer. It’s only a half a mile to the water, where we watched fishing boats and barges make their way up and down the inland waterway as we fished or caught crabs. Today, access to the water is severely restricted, the woods have all disappeared, and I haven’t seen one of those meat-eating flytraps in decades. They say its progress; I have my doubts. As a child, living here, the world seemed endless. Now, children growing up in this neighborhood will have worldviews limited to a fenced half an acre.

Monday, December 19, 2005

I'm out of here (for a week anyway)

I’m out of here tomorrow, heading to North Carolina for a week. I’ll try to get a post or two in while I’m on the road, but don’t hold your breath. I may be to busy trout fishing in the surf, or chowing down on oysters and shrimp, or visiting relatives. It has been almost 20 years since I’ve been home on Christmas Day! And what a year to go back to the Old North State! According to a post in Laurie’s blog (Slowly She Turned), I discovered that some think my home state consist of a bunch of Scrooges at Christmas. Check out the article in the Greensboro News Record. Some big-name accounting firm discovered that Tarheels are spending on average, $1,871 for holiday purchases. WOW, and that’s cheap? According to the article it is less than both the national and the regional spending for Christmas! I can’t believe it! Then, they said that North Carolina charitable giving (which is higher than regional and national averages) is $291. Supposedly, these numbers somehow indicate we’re all Grinches down there (I'd thought we'd get a pat on the back for being above average in giving). I wonder what Christ thinks about a holiday named after him, in which we spend six times more on ourselves and our friends and family than on those in need? Leave it to an accounting firm to determine Christmas joy by the amount people spend. With that thought, I’m out of here. Take care and have fun.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Cloning has come to blogland! Panthergirl, using some kind of Sim’s game which is beyond my level of technological expertise, has created a soap opera titled "Adventures in Cyberia." And Sage has just been introduced into the story line. I just wish I his 30 inch waist (you get extra points for that Panther), but wish I didn’t look so much like white trash (you lost your points there Panther). With that tank-top T-shirt, I look like one of my hands should be permanently attached to a can of cheap beer, maybe a Coors or Milwaukee’s Best, of course I wouldn't keep my 30 inch waist drinking that much beer. Panther does rack up the points by shacking me up with Lucy—a redhead with wonderful legs (Isn't she beautiful! I’m sure this will be a steamy relationship, and with her arms crossed like that, I wonder if she ain’t already mad at me). In real life, Lucy communicates with spirits. I thought maybe we had that in common, but then I read further and found out that she talks to dead spirits. Occasionally I’ll have a word or two with guys like George Dickel, Evan Williams, Jim Beam and Jack Daniels. She'll probably think I'm too much of a smart-ass and conjure up some of my high school teachers and get the scoop on me. We’ll just have to wait and see how this relationship hits it off.

Now, you should know that before being introduced into the story, I had no idea as to who my cyber-partner would be, or even if I would have one. Sage’s adventures in Cyberia are out of my control. (If he’d turned out gay, I would have gone into hiding.) Of course, this is all in good fun. I now have two lives—a real one and a cyber one—and have no control over either one of them. So it goes.

If I knew what was going to happen in next episode, I’d drop a hint or two to entice you to come back. But since I don’t (nor do I know when the next episode will be), you’ll have to wait like me. At the end of the first session, Lucy and I and our good friends are all prunes (we spent most of the evening sitting in a hot tub, for heaven’s sake). Maybe in the next installment, Lucy will get a chance to have a baby, or maybe a speeding meteorite will hit me… Who knows. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Truth About Pat Robertson's Disdain for Pie

Politically incorrect investigative reporting by Nevada Jack

The highly reliable news outlet, The Onion has reported that Pat Robertson made anti-American comments about pie. Robertson is a former Presidential candidate, a want-a-be target selector for CIA hitmen, the 700 Club host and the head honcho of his very own Regent University in Virginia Beach. "Well, he didn't publicly slam apple pie," his secretary said in his defense, "he just said pies aren’t delicious, then he got a little carried away and slipped into a tirade."

In an effort to understand Robertson’s latest jeremiad, I spent a day at Regent’s University talking to anyone who could shed light on the subject. In the cafeteria, I spoke with the pastry chef Eloise Smith who said that Robertson always had a piece of pie at lunch until last week. "Sometimes he’d even come back and get a second piece to have with his coffee," according to Eloise. "Something's fishy," I thought to myself, "that there must be some kind of catalyst to cause Robertson to snap." I set out to find the reason.

In the admission department, I spoke with Mr. Bringemin, the director. "You know," he said, "Mr. Robertson always ate pie until that cute little Minnesotan came down here."

"What can you tell me about this Minnesotan," I asked?

"She’s applying for our doctoral program in Communication. She showed up wearing a very short skirt, looked like something a figure skater might wear. It was totally inappropriate, for you know we require our female students to be more modestly attired. They don’t have to wear a burka, although many chose to do so. Some wear them to keep from tempting our male students, others because they’re down right ugly. Of course, we don’t require a burka, just that they have their legs well covered. But you see, this young lady strutted across campus with exposed legs creating mayhem. Over two hundred men received whiplash from doing a double-take, including several of our top athletics and preaching candidates who were temporary put out of commission. Confidentially, let me say off the record," as he lowered his voice, "there were even a few cases of whip-lash among our female students."

I was on to something fishy. I sat down in the chair across from Mr. Bringemin and asked if he’d tell me more. It turns out that this cute Minnesotan was wrapped in a blanket and escorted from campus by security. She kept shouting, "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please just give me a chance." With smiles on their faces, the two security officers just say, "Sorry madam, we’re just doing out duty."

"But what does a beautiful women in a skating skirt have to do with pie," I further plied.

"You see, this lady was so intent on getting into our school that she came back the next day. In an effort to prove she could fit into the "Suzie Homemaker" expectations we have for our female students here at Regent, she brought a pie. President Robertson was quite impressed and invited her into his office. It turns out she’d been a flight attendant. Quite professionally, she served Robertson a piece of cherry pie and just as he was getting ready to chow down, picked up a cup and asked, "coffee or tea," and winked. Robertson was hoping for a third option, but that wasn’t to be. "Either one," he said after a few tense moments, then he bit into the pie. Immediately, he spit the pie across the room. Those cherries left red pokey-dots all over her blue burka."

Something was fishy. I had to find this mysterious woman from Minnesota. I bribed a work study student with a stick of chewing gum. She immediately took it and hid it in an undisclosed place. I didn’t know that gum was considered contraband on campus (making it highly sought after and a good bribe). The student gave me her name (which will remain anonymous) and phone number (which I’m keeping for myself). I rang her up and she agreed to meet. I told her not to wear that silly burka, that I'd preferred the skating skirt. She suggested we meet at the Chatterbox Café. (A perfect place for a communication major, I thought) When I got there, she was easy to pick out of the crowd. She was the only one wearing a skating skirt and goosebumps covered her legs, but she had a smile that warmed the room. Everyone else looked as if they were dressed either for a reenactment of the siege of Leningrad or ice fishing. We got ourselves a booth and I gave her my vest to put over her legs to keep her warm and to reduce to the stares we (or more likely she) received from the other patrons.

"Who taught you how to bake pies," I asked?

"My grandma," she said, "she was the wife of a Norwegian fisherman."

"And what was her recipe?"

"For the crust, I take some flour and since grandma never had any Crisco or shortening, she’d use harden codfish oil…"

"That’s enough," I said. I knew immediately the reason Robertson now hates pie. As for the Minnesotan, she’s cute and will be a real catch for some lucky guy, but only if he doesn’t mind eating out or cooking for himself. After making a call back to my contact in the admissions department, I learned that Regent University will accept her as a grad student, but only as a distant learner via the internet. This arrangement protects fellow students and faculty from lustful thoughts about this figure skater with bright blue eyes and a wonderful smile.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Introducing Nevada Jack

Nevada Jack’s writings often appear in this blog. His preferred genres are satire and parody. I thought I better introduce him. Nevada Jack was given to me by some friends right before I first moved west. At first, I called him "Yukon Jack," after the Canadian-copy of Southern Comfort (both terribly sweet whiskies). But then I was asked to do a program for some kids and decided I could use the bear as a prop, but that some of the kids might know Yukon Jack and it wouldn’t be appropriate. So Yukon Jack got on the wagon and has been known as Nevada Jack ever since. He’s a great companion. He never complains and is always even tempered. I hope all my readers have at least one friend so dependable and stable.

I began to use Nevada Jack as a pen name when I was living in Utah and writing for an underground newspaper and didn’t want my house to be burned down by left-over Danites.

If you look back in my blog history, you’ll find many Nevada Jack articles:

November 24: Bush’s New Surprise: America Going Metric!
November 17: Good News for Dark Beer Drinkers
October 20: Organizations Unite to Challenge American Girl
October 16: Al Queda Barber to the Rich and Famous Nabbed
September 22: News you need to know, the 100 minute Bible
July 21: Condoleezza Challenges Satan's Lack of Credibility
July 15: The Short Summer of the Jesus Street Light in Chicago
June 13: And the Winner Is… (on the Michael Jackson trial)
May 28: A Warning for Viagara Users: The True Story

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A morning on skis

The picture to the left is of the neighborhood from behind the wheel (ignore the date, it was taken a week ago).

Below is my account of skiing...

It was a last minute decision. I’d almost decided not to go since no one else wanted to join me. But I couldn’t miss the opportunity and needed to take comp time. Throwing skis and poles into the back of the truck, donning boots and gaiters, a wool sweater and vest, and a fanny pack holding a bottle, extra gloves and a wind shell, I headed south of town to the nature center at the headwaters of Cedar Creek. By the time I get to the parking lot, it’s 30 minutes after sunrise and the air is still cold. I work some wax onto the skis, noticing that the edges have become a bit rusted. I’ll have to take care of that later. I debate putting on my shell, but know when I began to move, I’ll warm up. I quickly step into my skis and begin to stride across a prairie, heading for the hardwoods along the ridge overlooking the creek, picking up a few cockleburs along the way.

The wind bites my face, but I’m working hard enough that by the time I reach the forest, I’m a bit sweaty. I work my way up the hill, steep enough that my skis begin to slip and I break into a herringbone technique for the last fifty feet. There on the top of the ridge, I pick up the boundary trail, the center’s property line running the creek bank down to the opposite side. I make my way eastward, through old growth forest. At times the ridge drops and I quickly shoot downhill, only to have to herringbone again to get back up the next side. At one point, I surprise a large number of turkeys. Are they called a covey or a flock? After the ridge turns north, it drops into the marsh along the creek-bank, where the water out of several small lakes feed into the creek. The trail snakes through the swamp on ground barely higher than the frozen water. The fast flowing creek, in contrast to the still lake water, isn’t yet frozen and a flock of fifty or more duck takes to flight when I come along beside. Soon, I’m back climbing again, past an old milking barn, toward the snow-pack Cloverdale Road.

Crossing the road, I continue to climb, heading north by an old homestead, the house and barn still standing. Three dairy farms use to reside on the property now is set aside as a nature preserve. It must have been a hard life. The last glacier stripped off most of the good topsoil from this land, depositing to the south where it nourishes the fertile farms in north Indiana. From the appearance of the forest, most of the hills had been cut. The exception being a few along the south ridges near the creek and the lines of maples that highlight the former pastures and alfalfa fields. I sure the hills were used as pasture, put was probably contained poor feed and, especially in the spring when things are wet, were muddy from the hooves of cows. But that was another era, as most of the trees are now six to eight inches in diameter, indicating many decades of growth. The farmers struggled just to have some dairy products and maybe a little maple syrup from the trees that lined the fields to sell.

Coming to the north boundary, I pause and stick my skies into the snow, tucking the tops under my arms, as if a short-handled shovel. Its now calm; the sun is high about as high in the southern sky as it gets this time of the year. I’ve made four or five miles. I catch my breath, looking and listening. The faint roar of a distant jet climbing into the atmosphere fails to drown out a woodpecker digging into a nearby tree. A few other birds still hanging out around in winter sing. I notice the bark of the trees. The forest consists of mixed new growth, mostly maple but a few cherry and oak and an occasional cedar. Snow is perched on all branches. I take a drink of water, then continue on. At the northwest boundary point, the trail and property line turns south, across fields of alfalfa, back to Cloverdale Road and the parking lot where my truck awaits.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Daily News: So long Eugene, Richard, and a Christmas Story

Eugene McCarthy died today. I remember meeting him in college during the run-up to the ‘80 campaign, one of the many times he ran for President. He spoke one evening to a gathering of supporters and others of us who were mostly interested because of what he’d done in ’68, when he forced LBJ out of the primaries. At the time I was a registered Republican (This was going to be short-lived as I had a conversion experience and left the party with John Anderson and have never looked back). I remember thinking at the time that McCarthy said a lot of things that made sense. More importantly, he kept us laughing. The one thing I still recall is how he chided automobile makers for building cars with speedometers that go to 120 or 130 miles per hour. At the time, the speed limit was 55 mph and he proposed that having the gauge only go to 85 would allow a "reasonable disregard for the law." The next morning, Eugene was in the philosophy department drinking coffee. I’d stopped in to drop off a paper or something and was invited to sit with him and some of other students and professors. He asked questions and listened to us, seemingly interested in what we had to say. McCarthy served as a representative and senator from the great state of Minnesota, which has given us many fine figure skaters, statesmen and some of our most colorful politicians (their last governor being a prime example of the later).

In other news, Richard Pryor also died. I saw him in Silver Streak… (it was a train movie)

In other news that you’ll not see anywhere else, tonight I read to my daughter L. Frank Baum’s (the Wizard of Oz guy) short story "A Kidnapped Santa Claus." It’s really good; a fairytale that speaks volumes about how good trumps selfishness, envy, hatred and malice.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Glimpse of Grace

This morning was enchanting. Nearly a foot of fresh snow had fallen overnight, blanketing everything. As I was out digging out my truck and the walkway (a snowplow service does the driveway), the overcast sky was just light enough to let the rising sun paint everything pinkish red. I first noticed this looking west, away from the sun. The large white pines there, their green branches heavy with snow, suddenly became light a lighted Christmas tree. I turned around and was surprised not to see the sunrise, but the pinkish cast in the sky could be seen in all directions. I stopped and watched for a few minutes, kicking myself for not picking up any film yesterday. I probably wouldn’t have had time anyway, as the show only lasted a few minutes. As the sun rose higher behind the steely sky, everything returned to grayish tones. It was a grace-filled glimpse of how beautiful the world can be and a wonderful way to begin the day. Now I’m back inside, being warmed by a cup of dark Honduran coffee…

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Ethics of Striving for a Better World

My life is lived out in tension.

I want the world to be a better place. I also desire for people to treat one another with respect. Often, these two desires come into conflict.

How can we encourage people to be better without being perceived as attacking them? Is there a way to accept people without judgment? I hope so, but sometimes find it difficult. I try not to be judgmental. But I find I am judgmental, especially when I find judgments by others that I perceive to be made unfairly or for unjust reasons. Then I become judgmental toward those who are judgmental. Instead of building relationships,, they become fractured. Is there a way to stop the vicious circle of accelerating tension?

I also want to encourage people to live up to their potential. It is from this desire I often resort to parody and satire to challenge those whose actions seem self-righteous or who seem to take for granted their positions of power. The satirist critiques are based upon a strong moral ethic and the sharpness of his or her pen lies in the hypocrisy being practiced by those who are in control. “If mild reproof and counsel could succeed, the satirist would have nothing to do,” according to Ernest Tuveson in an article in “The Satirist’s Art. But when I critique, I run the risk of treating others with less respect that I would like. [for more on satire, see “Edward and Lillian Bloom, Satire’s Persuasive Voice, (Ithaca: Cornell, 1979). A warning however, the Bloom’s never met a compound or complex sentence they didn’t like—me being judgmental again.]

One of the most influential books I’ve read in the past 2 years is Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford, 2001). Woodruff draws from early Greek and Chinese philosophy to make the case that reverence is a classic virtue which helps us to do right. “Reverence arises out of an understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control—God, truth, justice, nature, even death…” “Simply put, reverence is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods…” “tyranny is the height of irreverence.” “reverence separates leaders from tyrants…” “the reverent leader need not pretend to be godlike; the ideals are godlike enough.”

Woodruff does not deny the importance of humor and mockery in reverence. “Mockery serves reverence in two ways: by reminding stuffed shirts about their imperfections, and by awakening a sense of shame in people who have allowed theirs to lie dormant.” This is good news for me—I can still use humor.

Since reverence makes few demands on belief (it can be practiced across religious lines), then a truly good desire would be that all people of all faiths practice reverence. I think there are deep wells within the Christian tradition from which we can draw. Jesus’ command not to judge, not to hate, and to pray for our enemies (anyone said a prayer for Bin Laden lately? And I don’t think Jesus saying to pray for our enemies’ means for us to pray that he meets his maker sooner.) Instead, we love others and pray even for our persecutors, for when we act in such a way, we will have a hard time demonizing them. We should pray that our enemies have reverence! I like that.

Okay, this is heavy stuff—reminds me of the Ethics classes I took as an undergrad in the philosophy department. Let me end it with one quote from another of my favorite reverent/irreverent philosophers, Edward Abbey (who died in 1989, but lives on in Ed Abbey’s blog): “I hate intellectual discussion. When I hear the words phenomenology or structuralism, I reach for my buck knife.” -from, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Monday, December 05, 2005

Thoughts on the Christmas Season

Suzie's stirring the pot again over at Assorted Babble, supposedly exposing some liberal conspiracy to neuter Christmas by ripping Christ out of the holiday. As I often do, I added my two cents worth. Just in case you’re wondering… I don’t think there is a vast left wing conspiracy to take away Christmas. Sure, there are a few radicals out there, but then again, the further right or left one gets from the mainstream, the crazier the folks get. As Christians, we make ourselves look bad when we feel threatened and start shooting from the hip. Such a response isn’t "Christ-like" nor does it bring out the best in us. So I don’t worry about folks trying to take Christ out of Christmas or whether or not the 10 Commandments are planted on the courthouse lawn. (another big issue for this group.)

I think some of the people leading such crusades to keep Chirst in Christmas or to keep the Commandments posted are prideful and want to be seen as the savior of Christianity. But Christianity doesn’t need a savior; unless I'm greatly mistaken and we're all fools, we already have the Savior. Secondly, they feel they are leading a righteous campaign, but in doing so they ignore the greater picture. If they want to be a Fundamentalist, they should realize there are a lot of things in our society that doesn’t conform to the teachings of Jesus—and shoving our symbols down the throats of others isn’t one of them. If we really wanted to be radical as Christians, we’d take serious the teachings of Jesus or the meaning of all ten of the commandments, instead of randomly picking and choosing those we want to follow.

As an example of our picking and choosing, we never hear much about the 10th Commandment—thou shalt not covet. Could you imagine Alan Greenspan telling folks to obey the 10th Commandment? The economy would come to a screeching halt, if people listened (which they wouldn’t). On the other hand, the only hope we really have is to build a society based on needs and not wants, one that doesn’t waste everything in an attempt to "have more."

On another note, as I get older I find that I like Advent hymns just as much as I do the more joyous Christmas hymns. The cry, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" in a minor key, reminds me that we often long for the wrong things and there is a whole lot more for which we should strive or desire. The hymn, "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" haunts me. Everyone should have an opportunity to hear its tune, "Picardy" played on a decent pipe organ in a gothic setting.

Christmas is a time to be with family, to watch the faces of children as they discover the excitement, to celebrate our lives and to do what we can to make the lives of others easier. It’s also, for many people, a time of great sadness. In High School, I lost one of my best friends the Friday we got out of school. He was riding on the back of his brother’s motorcycle and someone ran a red-light, crashing into the bike and throwing him across the intersection. It was a strange Christmas—to go to a funeral two days before the holiday. That was a long time ago, but it also reminds me that as we celebrate, we need to pay special attention to those who are not joyous.

There are big fluffy flakes coming down right now--it's looking a lot like Christmas!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

An Anniversary

It was a year ago today I set up this blog. Didn’t really know why or even what I was doing, it just looked like something fun to do as I read some other blogs. It took a while for me to gain a voice here. I’ve tried to play around with various genres: poetry, satire, parody, nature, food and travel. It’s been an interesting experience as I try to keep work and family out of the post for privacy reasons and so I can say what I’m feeling without looking over my shoulder or asking permission. Hopefully, some of you have been amused, some of you have been entertained, and occasionally, a few of you have had your conscience pricked. Some of you probably even find me to be a bit of a prick (like only baking pies in pottery pie plates or cornbread in cast iron skillets and some of my other "standards.) I appreciate all your comments and have enjoyed meeting and discovering the uniqueness about each of you that read and post. Thanks! Now lets see where this second year takes me…

Although today is an anniversary, there are no parties planned. Sorry to disappoint you, but if you like, have a drink this evening on me, toasting in my direction as I’ll be at a Christmas party and will need all the help I can get!

By the way, I still don't know what I'm doing. For the life of me, I haven't been able to figure out how to put people's blogs that I read on the sidelines or how to monitor where you all come from and all those other neat things that some of you are so good at.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Lunch at Cracker Barrel

Lunch was at Cracker Barrel today. That’s right, Cracker Barrel; the faux country restaurant chain littered along Eisenhower’s interstate highways. I wonder if Ike would have pushed his vision had he known its impact on American eating habits? Now, you might think I’d like Cracker Barrel since I write about baking cornbread and cooking beans. And normally I don’t mind eating there, especially if it’s a toss between Cracker Barrel and McDonalds. After all, for a bit over 5 bucks, I can get a bowl of beans and turnip greens, a couple corn muffins and some ice tea. That’s not a whole lot more than a big hamburger, fries and a coke. But today, I didn’t want to eat at Cracker Barrel. I was in Lansing, our state capital and right down the street from where we had been were several Middle Eastern and South Asian establishments. My mouth was watering for some good ethnic food that’s not normally available here unless I’m in the kitchen. The smells of curry and the taste of spicy hummus were calling my name. But that wasn’t to be.

"You know I don’t like Indian and don’t want to try Middle Eastern," I was informed. "Why don’t we eat at Cracker Barrel, you can get greens," as if I was receiving some great consolation prize.

Disappointed and disgruntle, I slouched into a Cracker Barrel out off I-96. The place was packed. We had to wait a good ten minutes in their kitsch filled gift shop. For 30 bucks, you can buy a complete cornbread kit including a square cast iron frying pan (pre-seasoned, none the less), a handy mitt (as if I’d need another), some mix, and a recipe booklet. I passed. You can also get all kinds of American trinkets, out-sourced to China no less, and enough sugary candy to pay for my dentist’s boat. I was boiling. We were finally sat at a table with a waitress who couldn’t seem to understand why I wanted to put hot vinegar (instead of plain vinegar) on my greens. Steam began to come out of my ears. I even ignored those brainteaser games found on every table in the chain. I’m sure you know the kind, where you jump golf tees in order to discover whether you’re a genius or a bumbling idiot. Today wasn’t my day to try it. I was already feeling like the bumbling idiot.

Okay, now I’ve let off steam… maybe I can sleep soundly tonight.

On another note, the snow tonight is beautiful. As it does when it’s really cold and the snow is crunchy, it looked like there were diamonds embedded in the snow.