Baking Day

Summer is when we like things not to break. If they do, they will most likely stay broken. Summers are relaxing but frugal here.

Last summer, then, the heating element in our oven starting malfunctioning. Only half of it seemed to be heating up, and it tended to stay on after the oven was turned off. None of this is good.

Replacing the element was easy, but there was apparently a short in the wiring or some other issue that is above my pay grade. Sometimes you need an expert. And sometimes you don’t want to spend the money.

On the positive side, my wife has always had affection for toaster ovens, for some reason, and we have a nice one, roomy and with convection cooking. We figured we could manage in the summer with that; the stovetop still worked fine, and it’s not the time of year when we’d spend a lot of time baking and just using the oven for what ovens are good at.

And it turned out that we could manage just fine, even when summer went away. Add that countertop oven to the microwave, slow cooker, and stovetop and you can cook pretty much anything, especially for three people or less. There’s a rotisserie* and everything.

There’s a lesson here, I think, necessity being the mother of many children, although in all honesty I think we mostly just forgot about the big oven. It comes up from time to time.

This is one of those times, actually. I’ve got several loaves of bread to bake this week, which is no problem at all, but also a few dozen cookies. Size matters here only because I can only manage to bake a dozen at a time, so it’s a little more work and twice the time.

On the other hand, these cookies are for church, and we’ve got a couple of sizeable ovens in the church kitchen. I could bake them all at once, assuming enough cookie sheets, and I might just do that. Easier, and walking into a church at dusk that reeks of chocolate chip cookies is not a bad way to do a Vigil, I think. Not bad at all.

The Vigil table from last year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Spelled that all on my own.

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Looking Back, Ahead

It’s not like I’m unaware that the club is shrinking. The entertainers of my childhood, meaning the entertainers of my parents and, by osmosis and lack of options, me, are almost all gone.

The ones that came up via radio, carrying with them the aroma of vaudeville and a hint of the 19th century, Jack Benny and George Burns and Bob Hope and Henny Youngman and so on, are long gone. So are Sinatra and Crosby and Dino and Sammy; the entire Rat Pack, Danny Ocean and all. By whatever grace seems to fall on certain celebrities, the big screen icons of my era are in large part still around: Eastwood, Redford, Nicholson, Hoffman, Hackman. And that weird longevity that seems to bless brilliant comic minds, or even just good comic ones, is still in effect with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, and Dick Van Dyke engaged and in some cases busy, well into their 80s and 90s.

And so we come to Don Rickles, may he rest in peace. He had a good, long run, a career that was taking off before I was born and never seemed to crest, just persist. For a bona fide headliner, he was a show biz second banana and seemed pretty comfortable with that, his friendships with Sinatra and Newhart understood as hierarchal and his spot nailed down. He was the court jester of famous people, and he seemed to relish the role.

I just never got Rickles, and it puzzles me. Even dumping the hagiography that happens whenever someone of his stature passes, people whose opinions I trust on these things have always had glowing things to say about Don Rickles.

Me? Never saw it, and I saw everything. I was fascinated by comedians, particularly the ones whose timing had that preternatural feel, like watching Ken Griffey, Jr. swing the bat. From W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers through Pryor and David Brenner and on, I knew their stuff. And I didn’t get Rickles’ stuff. I understood it. I just didn’t get it, and he never made me laugh.

So what’s up with that? Dunno. I have my share of odd tastes and strange things make me laugh; I just couldn’t get onboard with this guy. And it has to be me, not him.

***

I was brought up in a cultural Christian environment, by which I mean we celebrated Christmas in the usual way. I went to Sunday school for a year or so, and had a few other church experiences, but negligible.
Easter Sunday was another that we marked, and now it just baffles me. Objectively, I get it, absolutely. There’s nothing like an Easter egg hunt, or the candy, or spring taking off and pushing hope like a door-to-door salesman.

I just can’t relate to that these days, for good reasons. I’ve been married to a church musician and now minister for a long time, and this is Super Bowl week. Four services to be prepared, sermons to be written, music to be arranged. Holy Week for us is just hanging on and immersing ourselves at the same time.

On my side of the aisle, I just have to bake, learn a pretty simple song on the guitar to help out a couple of our musicians, and write a take on the creation story to deliver on Saturday at our Vigil.
Lots of churches do this. Lots don’t. Especially with the schism that’s always existed in the Presbyterian church, the Calvin wing and the Knox wing, you might find nothing particularly liturgical happening in one church and our crazy week in another. Ours, that is, anyway.

These are The Three Nights: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil. Easter Vigil is an ancient tradition that only was rediscovered with the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it can take different forms, but the way we do it has to be the most fun. Theologically, the deed is done; the rock has already been moved away in our minds. We tell our oldest stories: Creation, Noah, Jonah, Isaiah, etc., and give ourselves free rein to explore creative ways to tell them. It can last a couple of hours, sometimes longer, and always ends with the Lord’s Supper and then a feast of Easter goodness, with a big focus on chocolate. You gotta have chocolate at the Vigil.

All of these nights are infused with joy at some point, gently on Maundy Thursday, muted on Good Friday but still there, awakening at the Vigil and erupting the next morning. If you do it, and approach it in the right way, or at least this has been my experience, it can carry you a long way.

As can chocolate. You really need it to make all this work. I don’t quite understand this, either, but you do.

(My wife talking about The Three Nights and her journey)

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Preparing For Dinner

My Lenten season has not turned out the way I imagined it would. I’ve still got time, I guess, but mostly I’m just once again surprised at the way things just don’t work out, and yet they do.

My idea of jumpstarting a spiritual awakening by making more of an effort to stay engaged with the unknown was fine, I recommend it, but it was sort of hit and miss.

Then again, sometimes you head off in one direction, and a better direction shows up along the way. Like I need to explain this stuff. Humanity 101. We try. We fail. We are imperfect. We try again.

And then it showed up, whatever I was hoping for, expecting, imagining. None of my problems got fixed along the way. I wasn’t expecting a miracle, just maybe a tiny bit of transformation, and as is usually the case in these sorts of things, transformation is all about perspective.

I wrote a stewardship letter this year, sent out to the members of our church with copies of budgets and pledge cards for the upcoming fiscal year. This is a small church and the budget is relatively tiny. There are people in the congregation who earn more in a year than our annual budget, I’m pretty sure.

In it, I mentioned my experience, years ago, different church, with sending out to the local newspapers our Holy Week schedule, and how the pastor asked me to omit Maundy Thursday (the first of what is called The Three Days; it marks the night with the disciples when Jesus was betrayed but had dinner first). Maundy Thursday in this church involved an actual meal, followed by a brief service, and the pastor was worried there wouldn’t be enough food, so I told that story in this letter. How it made perfect sense, and how it still felt spiritually dissonant. The symbolism involved in welcoming all to the table gets a little watered down when you keep it secret. We should believe, even with perfectly sound reasoning suggesting otherwise, that there will be enough food, always.

Last night was our fifth and final Lenten meal at the church. My idea. My hope. My raising something up the flagpole and seeing who salutes. You get the picture. I had a notion, and I was curious.

And roughly half the church, or at least the members who attend regularly, showed up for these dinners. It felt like a successful experiment in fellowship and our drive to engage with each other. There was no program. We started a few with someone saying grace, and a few we just dug in and figured God would get it. Otherwise, there was nothing about church or God or Christianity or Lent or Easter or anything else along those lines on the table. Just food.

Afterwards, I’ve had choir practice, and still the entire area, dining and kitchen, gets spick and span somehow. Different people on different nights, but it gets done. I mostly just turn out the lights and make sure the doors are locked.

The way the food shows up has been left mostly out of the equation. People would come up to me and ask, and I’d suggest something, a casserole or bread or veggies or whatever. I’d usually make something myself.

Last night, though, with only a couple of offers to bring salads, I had nothing. No one had mentioned anything  on the Sunday before otherwise, and no inquiring emails were sent. I made a pot of soup, and a super-simple, cheap casserole that I threw together in five minutes and then tossed in the microwave, remarkably enough. And then I just waited.

Maybe the stars aligned in a certain way, and people had other things to do. I knew we’d have six or seven at least, maybe a few more. Our head pastor walked in, looked around, and asked me if we’d have enough food. I just shrugged. He went out to pick up rolls, and I stirred my soup and set the table. And waited a bit.

Here’s why this was an experiment: I’m not the social director at this church, and I’m certainly not going to cook for a bunch of people once a week. It was time to trust my instincts. Also time to trust some more profound ideas, but we were talking about dinner.

And at some point about halfway through our meal, with again half the church in attendance, everyone showing up with some dish to offer, no big deal, my pastor turned to me with a big grin and said, Who knew? There was enough food.

I had to smile and nod. Yeah. I almost said something like, oh we of little faith, but that wasn’t really applicable. Our faith was fine. We just wanted things to work out.

They worked out, and for just a second there was a sense that I was going to burst into tears. Happy tears, but kind of embarrassing, and it passed.

It’s just that at that moment, I got Lent. It’s not about sacrificing pleasure, or practicing disciplines, or seeking out clarity, although all of things can happen and do.

For me, though, it turns out to be setting the table, and preparing for what might come, and being ready when it does.

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Films Of Dreams

Four of my Lent dinners down, one to go, and I think my remarkable theory that, given the chance, people enjoy being with other people has been proven. Feel free to pass it along. “Idea by Chuck” or something like that would be appreciated.

And my involvement has become what it should have been, just the guy who functions as the clearinghouse for casseroles and sets up the tables. Last night we had breakfast for dinner, and I should have skipped the first breakfast I had. This was more food than I’d seen in a while, waffles and Danish and eggs and sausage and biscuits and gravy and a ton of fruit.

So one dusty idea with pretty worn treads turned out to work. If you cook it, they will come. They will also cook it if you ask nicely.

***

My little video interviews have gone well, too, although they’re personal stories  and mostly center around these people finding this little church, hidden away on a residential street in a modest neighborhood. If you watched these, and watched them many times, as I have in the editing process, you’d discover a pattern: These people are comfortable with their faith, and don’t seem to feel particularly compelled to talk much about that. What they talk about is finding a place where they felt at home, where they felt welcome, where they felt that anyone was welcome. That comes up all the time. This is the little church that did, and keeps doing.

I’ve thought for years that I had something to say, some long essay or book or something that took on perceptions and demonstrated a different reality. I wanted to write about the vagaries of faith, the different paths and journeys and philosophies that bring people into a room to do some pretty strange things. Things that feel natural and familiar.

And my experience is very different from others. Of course. I suspect anyone who visited our church who was used to attending a church would find little to be surprised at. It’s pretty conventional, if small. I belong to a mainline Protestant denomination that is considered among the most liberal, in general, and you’ll hear our prayers and concerns for all sorts of people we don’t know, including people our government is trying to keep out of the country. There’ll sometimes be stuff about our stewardship of the planet, which seems to be a liberal idea these days.

There would definitely be differences if your experience is, say, Pentecostal. Although we place a high premium on music, and we definitely do some rocking and rolling when the spirit moves. And there’s definitely a Spirit at work among us.

None of this is what I’m hearing on these videos. This isn’t about people discovering God; that journey has already, for the most part, been started. It’s about people needing a community, and how they found one.

Yeah. I think it would be hard to write what I’m feeling and thinking. I just know it when I see it, and I’ve seen it a lot lately.

Part of us, anyway, last night.
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If You Build It

What did I say yesterday? Hoping to break 20?

Ha. We had 25 or so at last night’s Lenten meal, having to add a second table for the spillover.

My son mentioned yesterday that it was maybe an odd thing to do during Lent. He should really know better, but in a sense I get it. Some people use this season to get rid of distractions, and some will actually fast a lot. I don’t know any personally, but I hear things.

But we’re not really marking the season in that way. We’re using it to attempt community building, which is to say our particular community. And I’ll tell you why.

Call it a microcosm, maybe, although I’m not fond of that word, mostly because it’s overused. Our congregation is not particularly diverse, but then it’s small. I mean mostly white, mostly over 40, although offhand I can name a dozen people in this little church who are exceptions.

Still, it’s hard to extrapolate with such a small sample size, so I’ll just note the need. There’s a need. It’s quiet, it’s sometimes rarely mentioned, but at others it’s mentioned all the time. People are nervous, uncertain, scared, worried. We’re looking for support, for solace, for a safe place to express their feelings about the world at large. We’ve done our best to accommodate this, and the people who don’t, in fact, share the same feelings of dread. As I said, a safe place.

But we don’t need a reason to eat together, share a meal and just chat, and having a solid hour or so to do this is sort of a miracle. People are busy during the week, and the fact that we got 25 of them to come to church after work (for most) is impressive, at least to me.

 

***

I’ve never been a hockey fan. There are lots of sports I don’t care about, but hockey isn’t exactly obscure. I went to exactly one hockey game as a kid and that was enough. Just don’t get it, the way people don’t get baseball (incomprehensible to me, but they exist).

But if I only had that one hockey experience, or even if I was forced by a parental hockey buff to watch a lot, and I decided from this experience that all sports were dumb, we’d probably all grasp the situation: Small sample, large opinion.

I understand not being interested in ideas of faith, of a faith structure, of tenets and commandments and creeds. It’s an awkward fit for the 21st century, this reliance on 1st-century testimony, after the fact, and that’s just the New Testament. It’s an easy mark for those who find worthless crutches or worse in organized religion, or really any awareness of things unseen.

I mean, I get it. I know what’s happened to our country at various times when that pesky first amendment looks designed to prevent free expression of religion to certain people. These seem to be not nice people, and their ideas are awful, so I can see how people want to rely on generalizations and feel smug at the same time.

I dunno. I don’t want to convert anyone. I don’t even want to argue some of the finer points, in which I suppose I could make a case that even a layman’s appreciation of quantum physics, as sciency as you can get, can imply that this is a big ol’ mysterious universe that we barely comprehend.

But I’m not all that interested in this discussion. I’m interested in what happens when you get 25 people to sit down, share a meal with people they might know well or just in passing. I’m not sure what exactly happens.

I just know that it can’t be rationalized, or folded into a neat theory of group dynamics or even faith-based actions. It’s just dinner. People have to eat.

It’s just that I have a feeling people need more than bread alone, and a feeling that I just witnessed part of what that need looks like.

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On Data and Databases, Maillard Reaction Version

I write nonfiction. I read almost nothing but nonfiction. Does this make sense?

Of course it does, but it still surprises people. People still give me fiction to read. I manage to read it, but there’s not a lot of enthusiasm.

There’s a weird vibe out there, something I was ignorant of until we moved into this era of sharing. Actually more than one weird vibe. A lot of women around my age really are into drinking wine, and not in a sommelier or snobby way. For example.

But the readers are the ones who knock me back a bit. Some of these people describe behavior regarding books and reading that looks pretty much like garden-variety compulsion, and they revel in it. Hard to argue with that sort of passion, although the assumption that it’s a guilt-free habit is the weird part. I love vegetables! I want more vegetables! I want a whole room of vegetables so I can take a week and eat all of those vegetables without leaving the room, and then I want another week and another room! I think I’ve made my point. Too much of a good thing is too much of something.

Although I’m sort of amusing myself by speculating on lives based on Facebook posts. This should not be mistaken for science.

I’ve been reading the above book lately, although it’s not that easy. My wife ordered it for me, having heard of it and thinking it might be of interest. Science and cooking? Call me Alton Brown and set me up. I can get into this.

Lately I’ve been reading about steaks. For some reason, I started having some minor digestive issues with beef years ago. Nothing serious; kind of a stomach ache sort of thing, and I drifted more toward other meat. I’ll still eat a burger or a steak occasionally and I don’t notice any discomfort, so maybe I grew out of it. Or maybe I just got tired of beef.

But my wife is another story. She does enjoy a good steak, and any time is a good time. Since I’m not usually going to join her, this is something I’ll pick up at the store for those late nights when she gets home hungry, but I leave it to her to cook. It’s a steak; stick it under a broiler.

Last night, though, having read a few pages of this book regarding pan-frying steaks, particularly the kind of steak my wife eats (smaller, strips or rib-eyes), I decided to go for it. It always seemed a little messy for me, but again: Not a big beef eater.

This was a good-looking New York strip, about 12 ounces. Following instructions, I unwrapped the steak and seasoned it generously, then left it on a plate in the refrigerator for about an hour (secret #1: Salt your meat if you have time to let it sit for at least 40 minutes; otherwise do it just before it goes in the pan. Between that and 40 minutes is not a good place).

I heated the pan and used a thin layer of canola oil (secret #2: The meat will actually bond with the metal used to cook it, and the oil also provides a smoother layer so that it cooks evenly), nice and hot. I seared the steak, 30 seconds on each side (searing doesn’t seal in the juices, but it does provide that nice crunch and flavor, the Maillard reaction), then turned down the heat and started flipping.

(Secret #3: Steaks of this size, less than 1-1/2 inches thick, are best cooked as quickly as possible. The quickest way? Flip those suckers every 30 seconds. A shorter time actually takes longer to cook, since the steak spends more time in the air being flipped. You don’t have to do this; it just makes it fast. I cooked that steak in about 5 minutes.)

I might have overshot a bit; I was aiming for 130 degrees F. internal temperature, which is medium rare and about perfect, but I was using a meat thermometer and that’s hard to do with a one-inch thick piece of steak. Should have just trusted the feel. At any rate, I got a bite and it was everything you could reasonably ask for in a steak cooked by a non-professional. Science. Go figure.

***

The other night, when we were showing Groundhog Day at church and I was setting it up, I mentioned to the group that I could answer specific questions about the film after we finished; I was a human IMDB for this movie, I said.

Someone suggested that I explain what IMDB meant (Internet Movie Database), but a few days later, with some of the same people, we had a conversation about who had the IMDB app on their phone and who didn’t.

It’s a useful reference tool, particularly since I suspect there’s an area of the brain devoted to storing titles of movies and books, and names of actors and actresses (and characters). This area is obviously the first to become less accessible, starting around the age of 45 or so. The IMDB app is like bifocals, then.

Here’s the utility in having a smart phone, one that wrestles with the downsides. It’s Memory Part D, supplemental insurance for failing recall. My phone will chime in a couple of hours to remind me to take a vitamin. Tomorrow it’ll nudge me to leave a tip for the paperboy, and so on. I’m just grateful, really.

And in this season, when I’m trying to minimize the distractions of this world, which mostly involve screens of some sort, it turns out that technology is actually a nice thing to have around.

I’m talking about my Fitbit again.

But, really. As unnecessary as it always seemed to me, and maybe annoying to boot, it turned out that I love this thing. Exercise has been erratic for the past year and a half, stopped because I wasn’t eating enough to compensate for the calories I’d lose and then increased, but inconsistently.

In the past week, then, Fitbit tells me I’ve covered 28 miles. Some of those are based on step counts, some on deliberate exercise tracking, but the latter is what’s mostly changed. A guy who two years ago was routinely walking/hiking 30+ miles per week, I’d dropped down to less than 10. We’re heading up again, and I can tell the difference already. Better mood, better sleep. Some weight loss, but minor and easily fixed. I seem to switch between weeks of light eating and those when I indulge more. I’m currently down a couple of pounds from the beginning of the year, nothing to worry about.

But I’m this guy now, I guess. Or for the time being. A guy who spent probably 30 years constantly fussing about his weight, accomplishing nothing but gain, then changed his routine completely and lost a bunch, now has to keep an eye on the scale for exactly the opposite reason. This reversal fascinates me to a degree that usually means it has to be incredibly boring to everyone else.

Ergo, finis. Yay Fitbit. Yay Lent. Yay exercise. Yay science and cooking and good steak, you betcha. All good here at the moment.

 

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Lenten Looking

I happen to believe that my peanut butter cookies are the best peanut butter cookies in the history of peanut butter cookie making. This has not been confirmed.

At the least, they’re pretty good. And I had four for breakfast. So it’s a fairly recent opinion.

Let’s wander into some fantasy world in which I’m a carpenter, or at least enjoy woodworking. Let’s go further and say I make a table. A nice end table, something.

I’m not going to brag on this table, even if it’s really nice. Not cool to brag. I’d probably point out a few mistakes, accept compliments, change the subject. Behave like a normal human being.

Back to reality. I’m not bragging when I say these peanut butter cookies are good. First, they are. Second, they’re cookies. Third, as with all of my attempts at baking and cooking, I really don’t understand what part I played, if much at all, in the end result. A lot of times it’s just using really good ingredients and having some patience. I’m not sure much skill is involved.

The secret to these cookies, by the way, is peanuts. No jars of Jiffy are ever harmed when I bake these cookies.

Bread is the same way. I dunno. People like it. I’ve been doing this for years now. It’s like taking out the trash or cleaning the stovetop. Routine, mildly boring, needs to be done, not particularly stressful. The oven does most of the work.

***

Pride is not something I need help with, in other words. I’m proud of some stuff, but not excessively so.

Yesterday I led an aftertalk, sort of an adult education class we hold after church services most Sundays. It being the first Sunday of Lent, and having just heard the Genesis story of the fruit and the tree, and the Matthew story of the 40 days of temptation in the desert, the subject matter just sat there, waiting. What tempts us, what distracts us, and what specifically about the modern world?

This was also super easy; people made long lists, with the usual suspects. It’s been a modern problem for a long time, which is to say…I’m not quite sure how to parse that. It’s a problem endemic to modern life, maybe. Distractions. Too many, too often, too ubiquitous.

I think we all got it, too. Lent isn’t about giving up chocolate, unless chocolate is somehow preventing you from engaging in more productive or useful activities, which is just an absurd thing to suggest. C’mon.

Lent, then, at least for us and at least for yesterday’s purposes, is about figuring out what’s keeping us from being better, and then figuring out how to work on that. We made a start. I’ve made a start.

The cookies had nothing to do with it, by the way. It was just Cookie Sunday.

And make that five. Really good.

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Samson’s Lent

I forgot how to smile like a normal person. I get crap about this a lot, but it’s just a habit, developed back in the years when I neglected to see a dentist and drank gallons of tea and smoked. Lots of stained teeth, so keep that mouth shut. One of my upper front ones still tends to get darker than the rest, and I could have used an orthodontist at some point along the line, but this is all water under the bridge (got one of those, too). I just forgot. I should work on that.

Yesterday I was sort of idly figuring out how to put together this video showing Bixie that grandpa is still grandpa, even beardless. When I upgraded my computer, I somehow misplaced my web cam, so I set up my Nikon on a tripod behind the monitor to see if that would work. And, as it turned out, while I was recording myself for about 30 seconds to see if I was in focus, I smiled. Took some effort but I did, just to see what it looks like.

 

So there you go. As I told JK this morning, this wasn’t a casual thing. I was used to having a beard. I figured I’d probably just always have one. No one seemed to think getting rid of it was a good idea. There was no imperative. And I’m pushing 60 and there’s no one clamoring for a change in my appearance, because all changes are likely to be unpleasant from here on out. Better to cover up what you can.

It was just Lent, and my strong desire to reevaluate and pivot off this season, which I normally only nominally observe. Figure out what I’m doing, where I’m heading, what I want from the rest of this life and how I can achieve that. Shaving was symbolic but then. This is really what we’re talking about, anyway.

And yet, it’s helpful. That guy there isn’t dead yet, and doesn’t look like he’s dancing around the grave. That’s important to remember, or it is for me. I’ve got friends who are now happily retired, and some looking forward to that. And some who struggle, who face eviction because they’re over 60 and no one wants to give them a job and you try affording an apartment in Seattle on Social Security.

Here we are, then. Heading into Lent, not knowing what I’m going to do but feeling as though I really should do something. I started small. We shall see.

And I can always grow it back. Look, it’s easy.

 

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With Friends Like These

I posted a little side-by-side, before-and-after picture to Instagram of the debearding. With some interesting comments.

I will note that I’ve always thought Instagram was the perfect social media platform; really, we’d all be a lot better off if we stuck to communicating with relatives and distant friends with snapshots, maybe a quippy caption.

People use it in interesting ways, too. Aside from the business ventures and the porn, I mean. People show their artwork, their kids’ artwork, remodeled kitchens, beautiful vacation shots; it’s a pretty pleasant experience, checking in, and I don’t feel compelled to do it more than a few times a week, for a minute or so.

And I post, occasionally, usually when I catch something interesting or amusing. Not that often. And rarely, almost never, will someone comment.

But this time, there were three. One agreeing with another, and then a third that offered the opinion that, sans beard, I resembled actor Hugh Laurie. This apparently is the second person who thinks this. I have no idea. I think finding doppelgangers is fun; I just can’t see myself in that way. Just my face. But I’ll take Hugh Laurie, why not? Fun actor, good sense of humor, same bald spot…

It was the first comment, the one that another agreed with, that stopped me. “Thank God,” it said, which, I mean, whatever. This person didn’t care for the white beard on me, I get it. But it continued. “Now go eat a sandwich.”

Ah. See, a year ago I took that drive with my mom from Phoenix to Austin, and I ended up with an extra day in Arizona because Mom had to see a doctor about her blood pressure being a little elevated. So I sent out messages to friends in the area, rented a car, and spent the day driving around and visiting. It was a great day, in fact, beginning with lunch with a former teacher and ending with dinner with a high school friend and his son. It felt like a solid way to fill an unexpectedly empty day.

And in the middle of those two events, I had coffee with this person, someone I hadn’t seen in decades. Another great visit, but I get it now. I was the shrinking dude back then, unable to eat much and dropping a pound a week when I should have been heading in the opposite direction.

I’m much better now, but my friend couldn’t tell that from just those two head shots. Thus the sandwich suggestion.

I almost never eat sandwiches anymore, by the way. I had a Subway club a few weeks ago, hungry and away from home, but I gave up sandwiches at some point. It seemed dumb to wrap bread around food that didn’t need the help.

It struck me, though, how much I depend on this sort of thing from my friends. How much we all do, or should, if we’re fortunate. Of the seven people I saw on that trip, four commented that I looked great, this coffee person made just a joke about me being a rail, and two didn’t have anything to say.

The seventh person, my daughter, just kept an eye on me. She understood how Bix’s diabetes has affected most of us who know him, how we look at sugar in a different way, and Lord knows I’m better off not carrying an extra hundred pounds.

Even my wife was fine with it, and I should point out that she sees me every day. She sees me naked. She sees me eat. She thought I was fine, if slender.

So I appreciate my friends who thought something was wrong, and said something. It was a tricky thing; dipping a little below 160 pounds is not exactly a warning sign; there are plenty of charts that show that as an ideal weight for someone my size. But people are different, and the whole point wasn’t the number, just the fact that it kept going down and I wasn’t trying to make that happen. That’s when friends come in.

There were several, then, including a couple of guys I have coffee with every few weeks. They were more than a little concerned. Good on them. I was in some serious denial.

All good now. My exercise has increased lately, but I’m trying to keep up with the intake. Seems like I bounce from week to week, but I’ve stayed about the same for a long time now, since September at least.

So here’s to Sid, and Larry, and Marilynn, and my dear friend Pat, who said nothing but later on told me how worried she’d been, her son having gone through some disordered eating earlier in his life along the same lines. I just love Pat.

And here’s to friends, just on general principles.

***

One of my friends is Gordon Atkinson, a long relationship that has been mostly virtual but we’ve had a few person-to-person visits. His latest book, “Foy: On the Road to Lost,” has just been published by Material Media. I have more to say about this, and about some of the concepts, but here’s the newspaper column published this week. Everything Gordon writes is worth your time to read; this one is no different, if, um, different. But, yeah. More later.

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Knowing Things

A bazillion years ago, my friend Dave and I had a game. He’d just moved to Seattle, three years after we had, and he was living in a sublet apartment down the block from us while commuting down to south Seattle for work. His wife was finishing up her job in Arizona, so for a while I was his only companion, and for the first few weeks I’d quiz him as soon as we left a building.

“Which direction are we facing?”

“How do you get downtown from here?

And so on. It was really about the only thing I could share from my own experience of moving from Arizona to western Washington. You gotta stay oriented, or it can mess with you.

I joke all the time about having no sense of direction, but it’s just a joke. First, whatever we’re talking about, it’s not a “sense” in the, sorry, sense that it’s inherent in most people. I don’t think it’s inherent, or it is at this stage of our evolution. I could be wrong. But I’m right on at least a conscious level. We don’t gaze toward the north and know it’s north. We might. The ability just doesn’t come with the original equipment.

So forget the jokes, although Lord knows I don’t know which direction I’m facing a lot of the time. But that’s because I’m just not thinking about it. Even at this age, I could train myself easily to know, in general, where I’m heading. Knowing where I’ve been would help, by the way.

This is mindfulness, which is unfortunate. First, it’s a word that looks like it was assembled by committee. I’m surprised it hasn’t been modified a few more times by now. Mindfulness-esque. Paramindfulness. It’s a mess.

It’s also a popular term, tossed around by those who would make us better. It makes me want to walk away when I hear the word.

But if you can tolerate the faddish nature of it, and strip away the Buddhist associations, although those are actually pretty good associations to have, you just have something our parents, grandparents, and teachers taught us: Pay attention. Be aware. Know where you are.

Now add in some of the stuff that feels woo-woo. How are you feeling? What’s up with that? Is it feeding you anything good? If not, figure out how to fix it. It’s not a big step; a little practice and it becomes second nature. You don’t have to wear special costumes or anything.

I was trained in some of this, but in a lifesaving class. So to speak. It was important, I was told, if I were pissed about something or bummed about something, to figure out what that something was and fix it, fast. People who don’t, who bottle that crap up and keep their mouths shut and wish it away, can end up unhappy. Alcoholics can end up drunk. Or worse. You know.

I don’t practice mindfulness, or meditation, or anything remotely resembling a spiritual or contemplative state. I get there sometimes, mostly through turning off the screens in my home and staring at the walls. I get some pretty good ideas that way.

So this is going to be my Lent. Try harder. Be nicer. Be more aware.

And know that what I do today affects tomorrow, and some things are better off doing now than waiting.

And that I don’t want to spend my days waiting for them to end, as I’ve been doing for months now, for whatever reason. I want to wait for them to start. Welcome to my Lent. I’m facing south at the moment. I’ll keep you posted.

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