Saturday, January 31, 2009

Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (a book review)

I’m still backlogged, but wanted to get something up. This is a book that I found interesting and decided to do a review on it. My review may be a little rough; I’ll try to get back and edit it later. As for me, I’m doing well. I spent Saturday morning doing the dishwasher shift at Applebee’s! That was fun; especially since it was only one morning (I don’t think I’d like a steady diet of dishwashing). I wasn’t on their payroll, just a volunteer for a fundraiser for our mayor who has a serious battle with cancer. I’m looking forward to tomorrow night. Go Steelers!

Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 169 pages

We live in a fearful world. There is the treat of terrorism. On the medical front, we fear cancer, AIDS and other diseases. In our unstable economy, we fear unemployment and worry about losing our investments. There is always the fear of violent crime. All we have to do is to watch the evening news and we’re reminded of the danger lurking in the shadows. Will we or someone we love be the next victim? Although living fearlessly is foolishness and not a good option, Bader-Saye suggests there are theological problems created us being overly obsessed with fear. He doesn’t suggests that fear is a vice; instead, he explores how “excessive or disordered fear can tempt us to vices such as cowardice, sloth, rage and violence (26). For Christians, living too fearfully destroys our ability to trust in God and to love others and to practice basic Christian virtues: hospitality, peacemaking and generosity (29). In his closing appendix, Bader-Saye notes that we need a better theology, not a political theory, to overcome the fear what we do (154).

Bader-Saye begins his book with a chapter exploring “fear for profit.” Quoting Al Franklen (who’s possibility the new Senator from Minnesota), he builds upon his idea that instead of a liberal or conservative media bias, the one we should be most concerned with is the profit bias (16-17). Fear sells and the past few decades (especially since the FCC deregulation of broadcasting in the 1980s) the demand on news shows to create a profit and to boost ratings have lead to more sensational and shocking news coverage, which often unnecessarily increases our fear. Numerous examples are citing in support of his theory. We worry about toxic residue in food when far more people die from an inadequate diet. We fear little known illnesses or operating room accidents while ignoring other more tangible things we can do to protect our health. We believe we live in a more dangerous world than in the past, but those of us in the West actually live much longer than our grandparents and great-grandparents. In the 1990s, when violent crime rates were falling, most people felt crime was out of control. Our elected leaders run campaigns of fear: “if you can’t woo voters, scare them” (19). Even the church isn’t immune to this obsession. Without naming names, Bader-Saye reminds us of how “religious groups are particularly vulnerable to the kind of demagoguery that creates and capitalizes on fear” (20). Groups like Dobson’s “Focus on the Family,” Robertson’s “700 Club,” and Falwell’s “Moral Majority” all come to mind.

Although much of this book is devoted to fear in a macro-sense (especially in the political realm and in relationships between nation/states), Bader-Saye also notes the role fear plays in our personal lives. Perceived fear has even changed the way we parent as the emphasis shifts from “good parenting” to “safe parenting” (13). Fear also impacts our relationships. One who fears abandonment will have a hard time risking love, for if one does not love, one will never know abandonment. One who fears rejection may have a hard time trying something new. In an attempt to protect our hearts, we shield ourselves from that which we most desire (45).

This book has much to say about international politics. Out of fear, preemptive strikes against an opponent are often prescribed. However, what defines the threat and the politics of preemptive strikes leads us down a road to where the only way to be safe is to eliminate all who could potentially be an enemy. This philosophy obviously has problems. Bader-Saye suggests that one way to control fear is to have faith in God’s providence, but he also notes that too often a politician invokes providence “as a divine rubber stamp for human ideologies and interest” (120). In a study of George Bush’s State of the Union Addresses in 2003 and 2004, he notes how in the first speech, Bush claimed that God’s providence was hidden, but in 2004 was willing to link the Iraq war with providence. (122). Bader-Saye also explores pacifism and just war (126f), as well as economic philosophies. I felt he came down a little hard on Adam Smith, whom he described as having the “perfect economic philosophy for the modern age-all the calories, none of the guilt” (136). He links Adam’s “invisible hand” of the market place with providence, saying that Smith’s philosophy gave us a providential excuse not to be generous (137).

Reclaiming the original view of providence will help calm our fears as we trust in a good God. But providence is often misunderstood. Too many people see it “as a guaranteed protection plan [which] is to mistake both the real contingencies of life and the kind of power God chooses to use in guiding the creation to its goal” (89-90). We do a disservice to God and to others when we propagate the myth that our troubles are the result of our sinfulness and that following Jesus will take them all away. Such a belief isn’t even Biblical as both Job and Jesus point out.

Bader-Saye draws heavily upon popular culture to illustrate his points. He quotes from all kinds of musicians, from Bono to Tim McGraw to Dashboard Confessionals (alternative rock). He draws upon many varieties of literature, from plays and movies. Theologically, he draws heavily from Thomas Aquinas, but also from John Calvin and Karl Barth and others. Although in discussion of the police of pre-emptive strikes necessitated much discussion of George Bush’s policies, when discussing the role fear plays within the political process, he didn’t limit himself to bashing just one political party, but made it clear that both political parties were guilty (19). He gives us a lot to think about in this short book. Each chapter concludes with a series of questions for the reader to ponder. For me, this has been an important book and has caused me to do a lot of thinking. I recommend it.

A few quotes:

On listening to the flight attendant’s instructions: “I’ve heard it many times before, but this time I could not help but hear ‘first secure your own mask’ as a kind of motto for the new ethic of safety.” (28)

“I used to think that the angels in the Bible began their message with ‘Do note be afraid’ because their appearance was so frightening. But I have come to think differently. I suspect that they begin this way because the quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us.” (59)

“Even the darkness cannot rob our lives of purpose, since ultimately our purpose is not constructed but received.” (86)

“The political search for security today relies on the conventional power that comes from strength and wealth. But if we believe the biblical witness, that kind of strength is no strength at all.” (92)

God draws history to its proper end not by conventional power (that is, control and domination), but by entering the fray of human history and transforming it from within. Jesus reveals to us a God who refuses to make the world out right by violently enforcing the good. To do so would be to betray the good by betraying peace. God’s ways are not the ways of the world. God is not a ‘superpower.’ God does not swoop in to rescue when things get really bad.” (93)

“This is part of the intention of terrorism, to create a climate of fear that poisons ordinary human relations with suspension.” (103)

“Believing that Christians are called to be peacemakers does not necessarily mean that one must be a pacifist, but it does mean that one always begins with a presumption for peace and a very limited set of circumstances in which that presumption can be overruled by tragic and just use of force.” (118)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I'm Busy, But Prepared!

I've not forgotten you all nor have I become an ice cube in this deep freeze we've been experiencing this month. Life has been busy, but it all goes on hold Sunday evening when the Steelers return to the Superbowl! I try not to wear a tie anymore than I have to, but that may change this week thanks to a gift from my staff. The perfect tie!

I've been working on several memoirs and have several book reviews I hope to do soon. I also need to find time to catch up with everyone's blog, so bear with me a bit. And GO STEELERS!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Writing About Your Life (A Book Review)

I’m recovering. I’m not yet up to running or cross-country skiing or heading to the gym, but I am back to work and feeling pretty good and hopefully by Monday, I’ll be back at the gym. Thanks for your concern. As I said, it was minor surgery, but as I’ve never faced a scalpel in my life, I was apprehensive. A few weeks ago I reviewed Zinsser’s Spring Training. I enjoyed that book so much that I also read another of his books and I recommend it to you.

William Zinsser, Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past (New York: Marlowe & Company, 2004), 228 pages

Years ago, I read Zinsser’s classic work, On Writing Well, which came out of Zinsser’s experience of teaching Creative Writing at Yale in the 1970s. He was in his fifties when he wrote, On Writing Well, having already done stints as a journalist and a free-lance author. Now, late in his life, Zinsser has published a new book on memoirs. This book is based on lectures given during his “post-retirement years” as a professor at the New School in New York City. Although the title sounds like a text book, and the work could be used as one, this book is a pleasure to read. In each chapter, Zinsser draws from stories of life and he presents them in a way to engage the reader to think about their own stories and how they might tell them. Zinsser life has been variety and he constantly reminds his readers that “change is a tonic” that often leads to new discoveries. (126 & Chapter 13)

Borrowing Dickens’ cliché, Zinsser describes the 1990s were the best of times and worst of time from memoirs. Great works such as McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Karr’s The Liar’s Club were published along with a host of tell-all books that “wallow in self-pity and self-revelation.” (157) He reminds his readers that if you expose your own humanity and the humanity of those whose path you’ve crossed, you will connect with your readers, but that readers won’t connect with whining. (173) Writing should be useful, he insists (156). Readers need to have our “terrifying age” explained honestly. (155) Zinsser, who sees his writing as a ministry, strives to affirm, to build up and to celebrate. (176)

Although our stories often contain universal themes, Zinsser suggests that we don’t set out to write about such themes, but instead tell our stories and let the theme(s) flow from our experiences. He also suggests that we not set out to write about events we see as important and interesting for others. “Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them it’s because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives.” (7) Later, Zinsser suggests that if we have the choice between two projects, one we feel we ought to write and the other we see as fun, to take the fun one for it will show in our final product. (48) “Write about things that are important to you, not what you think your readers will want to read or your editors will want to publish or agents will want to sell.” (201) When we write from our passions, we are more convincing and more able to connect to our readers. The challenge is to tell our story in a way that connects with our readers.

Zinsser reminds us that “an interesting life doesn’t make an interesting memoir. Only small pieces of a life make an interesting memoir…” Instead of writing a memoir, he describes himself as cannibalizing his life for memorable moments. (29) In writing about places and institutions, we have to remember they “have no life on their own.” The writer brings them to life through the stories of people who inhabit or experience such places or institutions. (22) Zinsser also warms about writing on big events which can overwhelm us. Instead, write about something manageable. As an example, he quotes extensively from an article he’d been asked to write for an anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. Instead of focusing on the invasion itself, he tells his own experiences as a member of a reserve unit in Algiers, who watched the invasion of Europe on a large map in the center of his camp, and how as the days went by, painters would color in the newly liberated territories on the continent. (30-32) As for travel writing, he describes it as “detective work,” where the author collects the small details and then crafts a story. (75)

Writing About Your Life is so much more than a writing manual. It’s Zinsser desire to give his readers permission to be who they are. (216) This has been the ministry of his writing and it shows throughout this book. In the opening pages, Zinsser recalls his father’s work (he owned company that made shellac). “Quality was my father’s passion. I never felt that he thought of his business as a means of making money, but as an art, to be practiced with only the best materials.” (2) The quest for quality has remained with Zinsser and is evident in his writing. Even if you don’t inspire to be a published writer, I recommend this book.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Big News (and why I'm unable to do a joy dance)

I know, I should be all excited and doing a joy dance! After all, the Steelers are headed to the Superbowl and Georgie Boy is back on his ranch in Texas and his frequent flier miles on Air Force One have expired. That said; let me start with the events on Sunday evening. The game was incredible. I was a nervous wreck (but not so nervous that I couldn’t iron shirts) until the 4th Quarter when Troy Polamalu incepted a pass and ran 40-some yards for a touchdown which pretty much assured Pittsburgh the victory. Then I could breathe a little easier and put away the iron to enjoy the remaining few minutes of the game. I hope McGahee is doing okay. On another note, it’s nice to know our President is a Steeler fan and that he received one of the game balls from Dan Rooney, the Steelers' president.

And then there was yesterday. When I first started this blog, Georgie Boy and his henchmen (and women) were often the target of satire. I wrote about Georgie encouraging America to adopt the metric system and how he and his fellow Republicans switched to dark beers. I also commented on Dead-eye Dick’s hunting forays and how Condi in one of her fashionable pantsuits, challenged Satan on his lack of credibility. But then, reality became so absurd that it overshadowed satire and writing about Bush & Company was no longer fun. So it was with great excitement, mixed with fear and anticipation that I watched the inauguration and Obama’s speech. He was wonderful reminding all of us that we have a responsibility in making this great nation work. But as I watched, I got more and more nervous. For you see, I had a meeting with the doctor yesterday afternoon, at 1:30 PM, for some minor surgery… When I set this date back in December, the inauguration didn’t cross my mind. So instead of watching the gala in Washington last night, I slept soundly thanks to the wonders of some little pills.
Today I’m a bit sore. Joy dances, along with shoveling snow and cross-country skiing will have to wait a few days. But don’t worry, I am doing okay. In other news, for the second time in a week, we had temperatures in the positive this morning (it was 16 degrees F). Of course, that was at 8:30 AM, I didn't get up at my usual 6 AM, so I'm not sure how low the temperatures dropped last night.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cold Weather, Skiing and Birthdays

It’s still cold here. Yesterday morning it was -16 degrees F; it was about half of that in town. Today, it was -11 F, but there was wind, making it bitterly cold. This evening, I’m enjoying listening to the crackling of a fire and glad I’m inside where it’s warm. The first photo is a trail that is often skiied and walked, that's just outside of town. This afternoon, I started out on this trail (later on the trail runs across a dam that I write about). The second photo shows the row of large maples, flanked on one side by a dirt road and on the other by a rusty and broken wire fence.










I enjoy being outdoors when the sun is low and the shadows are long. Today, my birthday, I went out for a late afternoon cross-country ski. It was cold and windy, but felt down right balmy after our morning low of -11 and the good thing about skiing in the woods is that much of the wind is blocked. Hearing the wind overhead, where it swayed the tops of the trees, reminds me that I am in the elements and am not completely in control. I ski across the dam of a lake, long frozen. To the north, a creek appears at the base of the dam, a small trickle of water flows mostly under a sheet of ice. Crossing the dam, I head south and climb the hill and pass through a pine forest that is need of thinning. Bob planted these years ago; he’s no longer with us but his wife allows me to ski through their property. Coming around the lake, I take the old farm road that crawls up and down hills, along side of large maples and a broken down fence. Nobody has been back here since the last snow and I break trail, my skis sinking into the deep snow. It’s good that I’m wearing gaiters to keep the snow out of my boots as I plow through the powder and set the trail. I pause occasionally to take it all in. The giant limbs of the maples are blanketed with snow. The pasture to my east, where Bob kept horses and a generation earlier had cows is now slowly maturing into hardwoods, with trees eight and ten inches thick. I ski around one a maple that has fallen and blocks the road. It’s been decades if not a half-century or more since these trees have been tapped for their sweet nectar. I ski till the sun dropped behind the horizon and its rays are no longer striking the top of the trees, then I turn around and head back, making better time as I’m flowing my own broken trail. With the disappearance of the sun, the temperature drops and I’m glad to get back to my truck.


I got a surprise delivery today, a new ski hat for my birthday (and I do believe it's Carolina blue!). If these photos look a little skewed, it’s because I held the camera myself and the lens was a little wide for such close-up photography. Also, Murf has honored me for my birthday, digging into her archives and coming up with some of her more creative inventions.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

It's cold here--but warmed up a bit overnight (it was -5 AM at 10 PM and 6 degrees F at 6 AM). Last night started out clear with brillant stars (or maybe they seemed that way as we have so seldom been able to see the sky over the past few months). Then it clouded back up and started snowing small flakes, the kind of snow you get with real cold temperatures. The snow squeaks under your feet. I've had night meetings ever night this week--which makes me sad as I haven't been able to curl up with a book in front of the fire place. I read this book back during the Christmas break--it's great.
Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir (New York: Broadway Books, 2006) 270 pages.

In The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson writes about his childhood years in the fifties and sixties in Des Moines, Iowa. With his keen memory and ability to take small, often absurd, things and blow them out proportion (a trait that Bryson has honed over the years), Bryson has written a very funny book. Writing must be in Bryson’s blood as both parents worked for The Des Moines Register. His father was a sportswriter and his mother an editor for the “Home Section.” I found myself both envious of his childhood (what boy wouldn’t love to have a father that was a sportswriter who would take you along on a trip every summer where you get to meet the greats of baseball). At first, like most children, he seems ashamed of the stupid stuff his parents did, but you a sense of his great love for both of them. In addition to writing about his childhood, he includes some of his fantasy life as the Thunderbolt Kid who, with his laser gun, could vaporize bad guys, morons and teachers. Bryson also provides insight and commentary into the changes that was going on in America during the 50s and 60s.

This was the era of rabid anti-communism and the fear of the bomb. Bryson couldn’t imagine any enemy wanting to bomb Des Moines, but his father informed him that since the Strategic Air Command was headquartered in Omaha, 100 miles away, they’d be bombed and Des Moines would have fallout and they’d all be dead before dinner. Knowing this, Bryson refused to participate in the schools nuclear drills, earning him the scorn of teachers and principals. It also leads to him nearly becoming the only American casualty in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hearing the President somber words on TV, he stole the last piece of pie that had been saved for his sister and went out onto the porch to watch the fireworks over Omaha. They never came, but his sister did come home.

Bryson seems befuddled that the Gallup Organization named 1957 as the happiest year in America, even going so far as suggesting it might be because the next year the Giants and Dodgers moved west. (235) Unfortunately, living in the American heartland, he was unaware that in North Carolina a woman was giving birth to her first child, a son (and no, she didn’t wrap him in swaddling clothes, as he was also the first grandchild and thereby spoiled). This child now wishes he had thought to describe a tornado as a “killer apostrophe.” (181). He is also glad to see that Bryson paid due respect to Bill Mazeroski’s homerun in the 1960 World Series, giving the Pirates a victory over the loathsome Yankees. (82) Knowing that Bryson’s father was there, at Forbes Field, in the press books, gives Bryson more respect than he previously had as a slacker along the Appalachian Trail.

Most of this book is about his early years, but he does have a few stories about junior and senior high. Here, we meet Katz, who went from buying beer with a forged id (made by Bryson) to stealing cases of beer from railcars. Katz would later join Bryson in his feeble attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. (Told in Bryson’s best seller, A Walk in the Woods). He also tells about the Willoughby brothers, who built a confetti bomb. They set it to go off at 3 PM, as school was being released, but they set it the night before and was using a clock as the timer and when 3 AM came around, it went off in their bedroom, waking the community. Bryson also had his troubles in high school (he graduated in 1968). After having managed to stay out of reformed school for his “license forging ring,” he insulted a guidance counselor and found himself being required to write a letter of apology in order to remain in school. This he did, he says, for in 1968, “the only thing that stood between one’s soft tissue and a Vietcong bullet was the American education system.” After handing the letter to the counselor, the Thunderbolt kid struck one final time. (258) In his last chapter, Bryson admits he used pseudonyms for all but one of the characters in the book. A few months ago, while traveling and bored, I saw Bryson on C-Span (late at night, they often feature authors). It was a tape made just after the publication of this book and he said he and his family were moving back to Britain. According to him this was because he and his British wife wanted to give their children both the American and British experience. After reading this book, I can’t help but to think that another reason might be that a few folks in Iowa were planning an ambush.

This is a great read. If you’re in your 50s, fond memories will come to mind. If you are younger, you need to know what those who passed before you endured. In both cases, you’ll laugh.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Honest Crap, Take 2

It’s cold and snowing here in West Michigan. But last night, the clouds parted long enough to allow the moonlight to bathe the landscape. It was beautiful! The photo of the road was taken last January, but it pretty much looks the same around here this year.

Earlier this week, when I did the original “Honest Scrap” meme, Murf cried foul and challenged me to do it over with things that have happened since I turned 18…. All of these ten "honest" events happened between my 18th and 30th birthdays…

In college, when I didn’t have time to read the book assigned in those “book a week” classes, I’d always read the first twenty or so pages and then speak up at the beginning of the class. Seldom did the professor call on me again.

I once fell asleep in a lecture class. The professor asked a question then directed it to “Sage.” Hearing my name, I sat up and the girl beside me whispered the question to me, and I tried to bluff my way through it, but I didn’t fool the professor.

I got the measles in college. After visiting the school doctor, she called and got me excused from a chemistry exam—this was quite a feat for the professor didn’t believe in excuses. I felt that as a health care provider, she didn't seem sufficently concerned with my peril. She was only concered that I get off campus as soon as possible and that I had not been around anyone pregnant (which, to my knowledge, I hadn't). I got the measles from my brother. There had been an outbreak at his college a few weeks earlier and he was visiting me when he came down with them. Isn't it great the way families share?

I once took a friend into Yesterdays, a private club in Hickory, NC. My friend was African-American and, as we’d come from a business meeting, we were both well dressed (in suits). As I signed him into the club, an over-stuffed bouncer pulled me aside and whispered that I could lose my membership for bringing niggers into the club. This was in the mid-80s. I told him to go ahead and try, that I was sure it’d be perfect grounds for a law suit. He lets us in, but afterwards, I avoided Yesterdays.

The only thing I remember ever buying from a telephone solicitor was the call-waiting option for the phone. I’ve developed the art of quickly saying, “No thanks,” and hanging up. But there was this one occasion when the caller had such a pleasing voice that I started talking and she ended selling me the call-waiting option. This was back when such features were a novelty and the telephone solicitors didn’t speak broken-English.

A week later, I was talking to a woman I’d dated a couple of times when a call came through from another woman I with whom I’d been out with a few times. At that point, I wasn’t dating either of them seriously, but I felt awkward by having both of them “online” at the same time. This, by the way, was long before caller-ID. When I got them both off the phone, I called the phone company and canceled call-waiting.

I think I was 27 or 28 and doing a program for the scouts in a local elementary school when I meet the most adorable young woman. She was an 18 year old college freshman, doing an observation for one of her college classes. I invited her to lunch and was surprised that she agreed. At the restaurant, I was horrified to see two members of my Rotary Club and was so self-conscious of being with someone that much younger than me that I never asked her out again.

Once, when at a meeting near Pinehurst (where I was born), I was with a bunch of guys I worked with at a night club. There was a real good-looking woman on the dance floor and we all enjoyed watching her and her date dance. Right before the club closed, she walked over and said, “Sage? Sage, is that you? I haven’t seen you in like, forever!” Everyone looked at me and I had the deer in a headlight syndrome, trying to figure out who she was. Then she said, “I’m ----, your cousin.” She was in her early 20s and the last time I’d seen her was at our grandma’s funeral, ten years earlier, when she would have been about 12.

Once, after a week long backpacking trip, I found myself staying at the Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon, Virginia. It’s a grand old hotel and I felt seriously underdressed (with only hiking shorts and t-shirts). One of the hikers insisted that we eat in the dining room. I was for going to a more causal place in town, but instead found myself being a part of a group heading to a formal dining room (and hoping they would have a dress code and turn us away or at least make us eat in the kitchen). Instead, we were seated in the absolute center of the room, where folks in sport coats and summer suits could look at the hillbillies that had come to town.

I am normally very honest and will often surprise folks by returning return any overpayment I receive. But I have had my downfalls. One night, while I was staying in a hotel on business, and feeling depressed, I went to get something to eat out a vending machine… I placed the coins in (this was a few years ago as you could get a candy bar for 50 or 75 cents) and not only did I get my candy, I also got my quarters back. So I decided to play the game again, and again, and again, feeling like a gambler at a winning slot machine. I continued till I had accumulated 10 candy bars. I’m sure I’d been more honest had they not been Zagnuts in the machine. Zagnuts is one of my favorite candy bars and are hard to find. The devil must have stocked that vending machine, knowing that I'd be along shortly.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Memories of my Grandma's House

Last week, on my way back up from down South, I swung through Western North Carolina to see Grandma. She's now living in an assisted living facility near my uncle, her younger son. It seems strange for her not to be in her own home, a place she lived in for nearly 70 years. Her home was my second home. Although I don’t remember it, I stayed there when my brother and sister was born. I celebrated at least two of my birthdays there. In the picture to the left, taken 50 years ago next week. This is my second birthday. Next to me is my cousin Marie. We both have cakes as we share the same birthday. I also had my sixth birthday there. It was right before we moved to Virginia and my parents were in Petersburg, finding us a place to live. My siblings and I would again stay in Grandma’s home for several weeks the summer I was nine, listening to my teenage uncle (the guy to my left in the photo)wear out “Satisfaction” on his record player while my parents packed up our stuff in Virginia and found us a place in Wilmington to live. Then, for the time I was 12 or so, until I started working at the age of 16, I’d spend a few weeks every summer with my grandparents, helping them out around the house and garden and spending the evenings fishing with my granddad… Her house is filled with memories; this is a memory of staying there on the weekend in the winter.

The second photo is of my family, at my grandparents, on a Sunday, in the summer of '63. I'm the good lookin' kid sporting a bow tie!

Grandmother always planned a great Sunday morning feast. She’d get up and get dressed long before anyone else, putting on her Sunday finest, and then put a full-length apron on over that and headed for the kitchen. The first thing she did was put the coffee on. She always perked her coffee, nothing but the best for my granddad and her family. She then turned her attention to the stove and put on a pan of grits to cook. It would have never crossed her mind to use instant grits. Then she’d fix the biscuits, cutting shortening into the flour, stirring in buttermilk, kneading the glob lightly, rolling the dough out and then punching out biscuits. She’d slide the biscuits into an oven, preheated to 425 degrees, where they’d bake for approximately 12 minutes. And as soon as she slid the biscuits into the oven, she’d begin frying bacon or sausage.

My grandma did most of her work before anyone would wake, but pretty soon the smell of fresh coffee, baking biscuits and fried bacon would fill the house. Such smells are more humane than alarm clocks and we’d get out of bed and began making our way to the dining room. In the winter, when frost were on the window panes, she’d have turned down the heat overnight and we’re hurry to the kitchen as it would be warm from her cooking. Once there, she’d have orange juice waiting and begin to take orders for eggs. “Over easy,” was the preferred choice for my mom and me. We’d both cut up our eggs with our folks and pour coffee off it, slopping the egg and coffee mixture up with bits of biscuits, a technique learned from my mother’s grandma.

Of course, we had to wait; we couldn’t chow down until we were all at the table and my granddad blessed the meal with his usual prayer. He not only thanked God for the food and the one who prepared it, but also acknowledged our dependence upon God for all that we have and asked that his family be consecrated for God’s work. Then we’d dig in, passing around the butter and various jars of jellies and preserves, the salt and pepper. The jam was always homemade, my favorite being grape-hull and pear preserves. The butter was from an old farmer who churned it himself. The butter had been pressed by hand, a flower design on top. The farmer use to stop by once a week, delivering butter and eggs.

We had a big breakfast on Sunday morning because it was an important day. Soon after eating, we’d all dress up in our Sunday finest and head over to Culdee Presbyterian Church for Sunday School and services. First, we’d gather in the sanctuary for the opening assembly. Grandma was often in the nursery, so we’d sit with Granddad, who’d sing loudly and off key. After a few songs and announcements, we’d go off to our various classes, only to come back into the sanctuary an hour and a half later for worship. Afterwards, we’d talk to folks in the front yard of the church, under the big pines. My grandparents friends were all be there and they’d all want to see us: Coy and Martha, Art and Florence, Sam and Lula, Polly and Lionel. After visiting, we’d come home from church and sit down for a big lunch. Gluttony wasn’t a sin discussed much during my childhood. Or maybe Sunday’s feasts were so big because it was an important day, a day of worship and of learning of how God has chosen us for his work in the world.

Last November, when I was home and helping move my grandma from her house, Lionel and Polly stopped by for a few minutes. Unable to drive, their daughter Diane brought them over to say goodbye. I hadn’t seem them in years and Diane, who’s my age, I haven’t seen since those summers when I stayed with my grandparents. Lionel wasn’t doing well, but Grandma and Polly sat on the couch and joked and laughed and carried on like kids. Polly asked my grandma if she remembered all the work they use to do for the church and grandma replied, “I remember all those meals we cooked for the men, we sure made them enough stuffin.”

Grandma told me that Lionel died just before Christmas. Evening is falling on another generation.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Honest Carp

Lisa, the Butterfly Farmer, recently tagged me to complete the meme “Honest Scrap.” I could think of a few other names for this meme: “Honest crap,” “Murf’s fodder,” “Mother Hen’s peckings,” "TC's BS" and “Am I really mentally sane?” I don’t do all the things I’m tagged to do, but occasionally feel obliged to respond and it does . So, here are the rules:

"The honorees are to: a) first list 10 honest things about yourself - and make it interesting, even if you have to dig deep! b) pass the award on to 7 bloggers that you feel embody the spirit of the honest Scrap."

1. When I was a child, my brother and I shared a room and slept in bunk beds. I always slept on top and told my brother that I would be safe if we had a tidal wave or a volcano would mysteriously appear and send out a lava flow. My brother always said he was safer to sleep on the bottom, in case of tornadoes and earthquakes. The real reason I was more than happy to sleep on top was because I was afraid he might pee in bed.

2. The reason my handwriting is so bad is that I spent three years in elementary school writing sentences.

3. I know the teachers never read my sentences, because I would often replace the sentence I was assigned (something like, “I’ll be a good boy and stay in my desk) with something like “I hate Miss Freeman and hope she’s kidnapped by pirates.”

4. As a kid, I had a thing for pirates; perhaps this comes from living along the Carolina coast and having seen the movie “Blackbeard’s Ghost” too many times at the drive-in.

5. In the 6th grade, I signed my father’s name to a test that we had to take home and have one of our parents sign. When picking up the “signed tests,” the teacher stood behind my desk for at least an hour, examining the signature. She never said anything, but it was the last time I forged my father’s name in elementary school.

6. Obviously, I didn’t do very well on that test.

7. In high school, I once again took to writing my own excuses for coming late or being let out early from school.

8. When writing my own excuses, I signed them with my first and last name. The way I saw it, I had to get some benefit from sharing my father’s first and last name.

9. I don’t know why parents called their children by their middle name. It was always a problem, except for when I was in high school and needed an excuse.

10. I have been known to tie a tie while driving. It seems to be the only place I can tie one without having to redo it several times. This also means that I occasionally wear a tie.

Okay, I know these are lame… But I ain’t ever claimed to be Abe Lincoln! Besides, it was an exercise of the mind to think up things that are both honest and that I’d be willing to share in a public forum. I’m going to skip the part about tagging seven of you folks, but I invite all who are so inclined or have a streak of masochism to participate.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Skin Tight: A book review (and a note about being home)

I’m home now, arriving here last night and kissing the snowing ground, thankful for a safe trip. I’ve never seen as many accidents as yesterday—when a freezing rain came through western North Carolina. At nearly every bridge there were accidents. One involving a jack-knifed double-truck closed down I-77 for 90 minutes. When it got opened, we had to detour through the countryside around another accident, causing another ½ hour delay. Then, right after getting to Michigan, there was another pile up on the east bound lane of the interstate and cars were backed up. It didn’t bother me as I was heading west, but all a sudden a car in the east lane jerked and jumped up on the concrete barrier separating the lanes. For a moment I thought the car was coming over on my side as his headlights were pointing straight at me, but he didn’t. Somehow he (or she) managed not to roll the vehicle as the car stayed in the eastbound lane. I don’t want the last thing I see on this earth being two headlights flying over a medium! The driver must have fallen asleep and woke up and panicked with a line or stopped cars ahead. Enough of that…

As I let you know earlier, I spent December reading only humorous or feel good books. Here’s my review of my latest Carl Hiassen book, which I listened to on an ipod.

Carl Hiassen, Skin Tight (Putman, 1989). Audio book,

Carl Hiassen must be a nightmare for the South Florida Chamber of Commerce. This is my fourth Hiassen book (and third to which I’ve listened) and from these funny stories, one has to wonder if there is anyone sane in South Florida—including Hiassen. In Skin Tight, Haissen takes on the plastic surgery industry. Four years earlier, a greedy plastic surgeon accidently killed a young coed upon whom he was performing a nose job. Unbeknownst to Mick Stranahan, the surgeon thinks the former cop has incriminating evidence and hires a mob hit man from New Jersey to take him. The mobster ends us dead, impaled by the bill of a stuff marlin (Mick had to use what he had on hand to take out the killer). This begins a wave of killings of bad guys. Most die at the hands of Mick, but the doctor’s new hit man, Chemo, takes out Mick’s ex and a police officer friend of Mick’s gets the doctor’s brother. The doctor does some killing too, but it’s only on the operating table.

Hiassen overdoes the characters and the killings in this book. There’s Chemo, a huge formerly Amish man who’s wanted for murder and who has a horribly scared face (hence, his name). Chemo, without the benefit of worker’s comp, loses a hand in his pursuit of Mick (when Chemo falls in the water outside of Mick’s home, Mick’s pet barracuda decides to strike at his watch, taking off his hand. Chemo becomes an even more refined freak when he adds a weed whacker to the stump at the end of his arm. Then there’s Mick’s ex, who is more than willing to show the hit man (whom she assumed was a bill collector) where Mick lives. When she discovers that Chemo plans to kill Mick and objects (she didn’t want him dead, just hurt), she’s tossed overboard, wrapped in the anchor chain. Then there’s a Geraldo type TV star, whose death is let me just say, surreal. (I don’t recommend this book if you’re considering liposuction.) Then there’s Rudy, the plastic surgeon who, having caused two deaths while supposedly practicing medicine, just wants to retreat to Costa Rica with his Hollywood actress girlfriend. Instead, he experiences a literal case of “eye for an eye justice” (or in this case, nose for a nose). Then there’s Rudy’s brother. He’s in the lawn care business with a tree chipper which does wonders at making bodies disappear. Again, there’s eye for eye justice. Then there’s Rudy’s former nurse, who wants to sell what she knows about the surgeon to the highest bidder. Then there are the crooked cops who also want to see Mick dead, but whose best laid plans are brought to a quick end by Mick’s better laid plans (or tighter strung marlin line). Then there’s Mick’s sorry lawyer brother-in-law, who can’t keep his hands off other women. Then there’s the beautiful young woman who just keeps showing up at Mick’s house, but fails to seduce the former cop because she can’t name all the members of the Beatles. And then there’s Christine, the TV producer, who can’t seem to decide if she loves or hates Mick, but at least she can name the members of the Fab-four. Like I said, there were a lot of characters in this book and after creating this list, I need a nap…

This was one of Hiassen’s earlier books which may be why there are so many characters and even a few strings left untied. His other books seem more tightly constructed. But even in his early books, Hiassen makes murder funny. Having now read four other books by Hiassen, I see some names and themes that are common. Mick later appears in Hiassen’s book, Skinny Dip. Mick’s fish (the barracuda) seems to find a parallel with Shink’s big hog (largemouth bass) in Double Whammy (which was published before Skin Tight). Hiassen seems to often create bad guys which home one can detest while also feeling sorry for. Chemo and the hired thug in Skinny Dip both fall into this category. However, Chemo doesn’t find redemption (unlike the thug in Skinny Dip), just a 17 year prison sentence.

This book is funny and if you can laugh and not get to squeamish, I recommend it.
An update: In the "Business Insider," a catch all area for weird business news in today's Detroit Free Press (have you ever known a newspaper that was truly free?), there is a story about a Hollywood plastic surgeon who fuels his and his girlfriend's cars on people's fat that he harvests from liposuction... This guy sounds too much like a resurrected Rudy Graveline, including the fact that the surgeon was now in South America after having been sued by patients and sought after by the state of California for breaking a law regarding using other folk's fat as fuel. To quote Dave Barry, "I'm not making this up." (But someone else may have made it up). Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that the newspaper puts their "business insider" column online, or I would have provided a link.