28 October 2006

I Hear That Train a Coming...

It is not sunrise, and a train whistle comes up from the river where the tracks have been since they first arrived. The sound throws me backward in time, like Proust’s madeleine.

- I am eight years old and hearing the Capitol Limited coming from Union Station on its way to the impossibly remote and exciting Chicago. I hear it from my bedroom window in the dark of early winter evenings.

- I am on ten years old and on the train itself, in a Pullman roomette, heading into Pittsburgh at midnight, seeing through my window the flames of the steel mills. And the next morning, chugging through Gary, going slower than the cars on the highway alongside and panting to get there.

- I am thirteen, and on the North Coast Limited going to Missoula where we are all getting off to go on a wilderness camping adventure in the Bitterroot Mountains. The bears eat our cured meats one night and we all have to fish for our supper, great cut-throat trout draped over our broad mouthed Sierra Club cups.

- I am twenty three and married and now living in Chicago, and our apartment looks over to what was called the IC tracks, the commuter line that ran down into the south suburbs and beyond. They did not sound their horn, there being no grade crossings, but their huge mechanical whoosh came as reliably as Big Ben’s chimes. At first we despaired of ever getting to sleep, and then five years later, in the remote woods of Massachusetts where I first served we lay awake in the vast silence, needing the noise to get to sleep.

- I am thirty eight, and living in a settled suburb of Austin Texas where the Mo-Pac line carries Amtrak into town once a day. My baby boy rides on my back as I walk the neighborhood. We wave to the train as it passes.

- I am in New York City, where there are not trains except underground, but at least once a week I am standing on a subway platform – horribly hot in summer and numbingly cold in winter, waiting for the whoosh or the air that comes before and the shrill brakes that pummel the ears.

I remember so many trains – the little toys that ran under the Christmas tree and fired my imagination of power and travel, the mad dash from Grand Central to Penn to change trains on our way home from the Montreal Expo in 1967, the ceremonial trains in Maryland and Pennsylvania and Vermont meant to entertain and preserve, commuter trains into Boston, day trips to DC to see the sights, posh journeys by office car to the Canadian Rockies, being over crowded on the way to Naples, and evicting presumptuous nuns on the way to Florence, eating on a diner while climbing the Dolomites, carving mountainsides in the Austrian Alps at night, tearing across France to Geneva, lumbering to Canterbury or flying to Edinburgh.

But mostly what I remember is remembering. Trains carry me forward and backward in time, to my next destination and back to my origins. And when I hear the whistle now, it all comes back in a terrific rush of recollection. And with that recollection comes a poignance that is almost unbearable.

It is as though with each train my whole life goes tearing by as I listen or watch, and in each window sits some earlier self - a boy or a young man. They see the landscapes and cities, the horizon that betokens all adventures and dreams. They look out on a world unfolding and full of promise. And I long to be with them again, to remember with every sinew the moments when the world was new.

26 October 2006

My Dinner with Destiny

So where was I?

Yes, the anniversary. Good day that was, though it began and ended with spitting snow on the windshield. We decided to have a decent dinner out, not too late as we are not night owls. We chose a sea food restaurant, something not as preposterous as it was once in the Midwest. I had been there before for business purposes, but my wife had not.

One stark difference between restaurants here and back in NYC – size. I never liked the trop intime snugness of so many places in NYC. Elbows and knees never had a comfortable place. Neighbor diners might inadvertently drink from your water. And I still know far too much about stranger’s love lives and businesses. But eating in the Midwest feels like moving to the country. Tables are as huge as farm houses, with acres between them. The place we ate could have been five to seven separate places in NYC.

That did not stop the prices from being lush. Entrees started at 25 and ran up easily into the high forties. Starters were somewhat less but not cheap. And drinks, well, when a glass of shiraz costs as much as the bottle – true because I know the brand, and the glass is none too generous - one is my financial limit. OK, there was good bread, which here in the Midwest is important that it be ample and served warm. The service was attentive and the food was unusually and well made. Michelin? Heaven’s no, the crowd looked more like Bibendum than like those who read his commendations.

Which suited us fine. The arch smugness of NYC diners can curdle hollandaise before it reaches the table. If the bourgeois manner is far from dashing, it is at least relaxed. We were by far the most dressy people in our neck of the woods. Wedding rehearsal parties (Friday night + long tables + three generations = rehearsal dinner) were on our far flanks. One was quite religious as they sang – yes they all sang – the doxology as their grace. In NYC it would have sent a glacier of horror through the room, as though Osama Bin Laden were suddenly in their midst and yelled “Allahu Akhbar.” Here it was amiably tolerated as part of the landscape.

I had a seafood cassoulet that was very spicy and overall nicely conceived. It was a little meager in size and the sea food portions more ceremonial than substantial. Advertised as a mixture of prawns, mussels, and andouille sausage among the beans, there were three prawns (large I must admit) five small mussels and one sliver of andouille. My wife had stuffed prawns, crabmeat stuffing in this case. The prawns were complete – down to their knobby eyes and spindly legs.

We declined dessert. The drama of the anniversary dinner was actually something extraneous to it. As we arrived in the car, my wife noted a call on her cell. It was our son who left a message about wanting to spend the night with a friend. She tried to call him back so as to refuse permission. The call got cut off and so he left another message. I grew quite impatient as he would not accept our decision and called yet again to make his case. It was already 8 p.m. and we were hungry and this was not how we wished to spend the evening. I called him, leaving a message on his phone this time telling him in no uncertain terms that he could not spend the night and he was not to call back as this was our one and only 30th anniversary and we were going to have dinner alone and undisturbed.

He did not call back. I thanked him later.

21 October 2006

Details, I Want Details

Well, it has been a week without posting here. For those who keep track, I have been busy on the political side of my world, http://www.ranting-rev.blogspot.com/ because the election and other stuff is such a rich vein to mine these days.

Still, I owe you faithful onlookers a synopsis of the last week. Let me tell you about my anniversary, as that was the occasion of my tantrum in the last post.

I was miffed that morning, as the rain and snow spat down. I tried to feel flattered that the earliest snow on record came for my anniversary, but was relieved that it did not spoil our trip. We went to Chicago for the day. That’s where we were married, and there was one soul left from that day (the former wife of one of the officiants, now deceased sadly) with whom we have stayed in touch. We agreed to meet up in the afternoon, visit the chapel in the church where it all began, and have a celebrative piece of cake.

The weather got better the further from GR we got. South of Benton Harbor the sky cleared. In Chicago it was sunny but quite cold and windy. We were glad to have our winter coats on. After arriving in Hyde Park, and finding a parking place, now much harder than thirty years ago, we enjoyed a lunch at a familiar haunt from those days (actually a new location for an old haunt. The Medici brought their old booths with many a carved initial, as well as their old menu now supplemented, from a smaller place across the street from out first apartment to a digger place three blocks west.)

Then we walked for almost two hours up and down streets we knew as well as our faces back then. Mostly it was familiar, and I pondered the power of durability on our souls. Why is it that stability is so consoling, even when we know it is not ultimately so? Yet I could feel it, enjoy it, and got a sense of peace from seeing things that I remembered. Yes we walked past our old apartment house, noted that the place looked pretty good, new windows had been installed in appeared. Some things had changed of course, the Medici was elsewhere as I mentioned. A new café, the Florian was there in its stead. To balance the change, a bookstore from the block where the Medici went moved down into the block where the Medici was. That was sad as O’Gara’s was known for its corpulent long haired cat that basked in the great window among the books. We have a picture of it snoozing away back then.

Powell’s, yes, the used book dealer also in Portland, was still right across the street. Modest by comparison, it was and still is quite enormous for a local store. And it still puts useless books out to give away. Many volumes in my theological library came from that benevolence.

We passed beneath the old IC tracks, now the Metra system for trains. Old murals we knew have peeled almost beyond recognition. We noted the place where years ago we stood alone to wave at HRH Prince Charles as he came by on a tour. Trolling along we noted the 55th street Point, a promontory on the Lake Michigan where runners and sun bathers go – although it was empty in this cold. We enjoyed the familiar looks of large apartment houses (now mostly university housing) called Windermere and Flamingo and such. This area briefly approached the style of the more opulent gold coast just north of the Miracle Mile. You can see vestiges of it in the names and architectural details.

Then we strolled back under the IC/Metra, through shopping areas where we spent our meager dollars, made sure our memory was not playing false with us, and surprised that places like Mellow Yellow and Ribs & Bibs were still at it. The blight of cell phone stores was apparent here, and yet they did not significantly change the feeling. We zigged and zagged down streets, looking for homes we visited back then, appreciating the domestic building styles – shingle, queen ann, english tudor, mock wright – and ended up about four miles later at our car to retrieve our camera and other bits before heading to the chapel.

Arriving at my seminary, where we held the reception back then, much more has changed. Not just students, but the building shows evidence of new ways and means in its task. Enough, though, has stayed put that I could find the library and the washroom. We found our friend, now a staffer at the school, and after a short conversation repaired to the church and chapel.

Here I must digress a bit, despite this lengthy post. The chapel is a wing of a neo-gothic structure built as the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. The Chapel may be the oldest part, and it still serves as the convening place for seminary services each week. It can hold maybe 100 easily, more broad than wide, in the flamboyant gothic style favored by academic types. The back was open to the church which is a few steps below. Last week the carpet was being replaced so that it was less than pristine, but we did not care.

What mattered was that it was still there, and we briefly stood on the spot we stood to get married and where we had our picture taken before.


On that day two friends served as officiants, one ordained who signed the license and the other in training like me. Both named Al - Alfred and Albert respectively. Alfred is Japanese American - and serves in the clergy of a Japanese faith that grew out of Shinto, so I guess we were married by a reformed Shinto priest. Albert was a Mainiac, who when he came to Chicago came with wife, two chidlren, widowed mother and her mother as well. It was almost the northeast version of the Beverly Hillbillies, down to the rocking chair for granny. They were as out of their element as Alfred was in his. Somehow I had gotten close to both. Alfred is still thriving in LA where he came from. Albert turned up with diabetes a few eyars later and died from hypoglycemia.

On that day about 100 people, mostly seminary folks were there, as I mentioned before. Afterward, we repaired to the seminary social room, an elegant place where wine and canapes were all we served, presented by students who volunteered for the occasion. Somewhere in the midst both our fathers approachd us at the same time with a cork in hand, to remember the occasion. We still have the corks but not the fathers.

Our wededing night was a dinner at a snooty restaurant and returning to our apartment for the night. We had to leave the next day, not on a honeymoon I am afraid. That would wait for 17 years. No, we went to Kalamazoo where I would perform the ceremony for my brother and his new wife.

Back to the present now, Wendy brought the pictures from the first day with us, which our friends enjoyed very much. That she was wearing the same dress was no a small pleasure for her. I could not wear my wedding suit today, in my case because it would be too big. Age had changed us both, of course. Of the two of us, I had grown up and old the most.

Then we visited the columbarium below the sanctuary, where some old friends are now reposing – former husband and his family in the case of our friend Nan; infant daughter of her current husband, in the case of Jim; the gay black man who was the church organist and took his life back then; scholars and members and names with faces.

Finally, we sat down in a parlor now named for a man I worked for one year, a colleague and among the most interesting and difficult people I have known, and shared a sip of champagne and a slice of cake. It was perfect, as the day was crowded with memory and could not have stood a boisterous reunion with more.

We hurried back to the car to get ahead of the rush hour, almost succeeding. Our trip was slightly longer because there was traffic to contend with, but it did not last very long. North of Benton Harbor it clouded up. East of Holland it began to precipitate again. This time I felt little umbrage. We went to the restaurant we planned on, enjoyed a slightly too expensive meal, and got home by 10 p.m.

Rare is the day that is preponderantly pleasant. Most are good overall, but there are enough moments of frustration or annoyance to interrupt the flow of joy. This day, despite its cool beginning, opened into a true passage of grace. Shorn of deadlines, tasks, measurements of adequacy or the drive of urgency, it was about twelve hours of delight. I really should make sure it is not another 30 years before it happens again.

More on Saturday, the day after, next time. At this rate, though, I should never catch up.

12 October 2006

I'm Out of Fingers and Toes

It snowed today. Out came the brushes and on came the defroster. Some of the trees have yet to turn (though the big maple in my front yard loves to carpet my lawn) and now there is about an inch of snow.

It will not last. By the weekend it will be gone and seasonable temperatures resume. But I am tiny bit miffed. Tomorrow is my 30th anniversary. Initial notions of taking a weekend off and going back to Chicago where we were married withered under the facts of our chockablock life. We are not party people, at least I am not. And where is the pleasure in throwing a party for yourselves – you clean, cook, entertain, then clean up again afterward? Besides, we have already had two receptions at the house in the last weeks and another to come this Sunday afternoon.

So we settled on a day trip to Chicago, it is only 3 hours away. We are going to spend but a few hours there, including a short visit to the chapel in the church where we were hitched. Of those who were there back then there are only five or six left who can gather and so we will. Many are still alive, I would emphasize, but now scattered to several regions. Being a seminarian at the time, at a small school, there were but a 100 people there, most of them students and faculty. Our parents were there of course, and my siblings. My wife is an only child. But as small as it was, and modest in its ways (we had only a cocktail reception afterward in the school across the street) it was notable in that it included a present and two future seminary presidents, a future bishop, a passel of Ph, D.s and if I read the stars right the next president of my denomination. Hardly the Trilateral Commission, but pretty good for a young man of 23 and his fiancée of almost five years.

So it irks me, in a petty way I am so good at, that our anniversary will be cold and snowy instead of cool and colorful. Not that the universe owes me a favor. Far from it. Of all those most unlikely to succeed wildly, I have defied the odds at every turn. My career as a clergyman has been a steady march up the ladder of status and success. My marriage has had its bumps and mistakes, but they are barely potholes compared to the lives I have seen around me. My sons are healthy, decent, honorable sorts whom I now try to equal in quality of soul and character.

So why does it bother me that tomorrow will not be the perfect day? Because I want to bestow as many blessings as I can on this mate and helpmeet who has now spent more than half her life with me and, unless cruel fate overtakes us, will probably spend the rest of her life with me. I am stunned, amazed, undone by it. Until I realize I have done the same thing.


What a colossal act of faith it is to marry at all, to stay married when the gauze of romance has been blown away by reality, and when the evident demands of old age begin to appear on the horizon. If it were not so common it would be breathtaking.

Isn’t that the way of things though? The most courageous and religious acts are those we commit everyday – marriage, parenthood, friendship. Each of them can wreck the soul, even ruin our lives, but we persist in loving, mating, and trusting despite its actuarial peril.

I have just finished a little book by Matthew Perry – “Population: 485” - that records his experiences in his own small home town after he returns after a long hiatus. What he writes about is this overlooked treasure of human honor in plain places. I commend it to you. I shall never be able to do for my town or family what Perry does, lacking his gift. So my little prayer, if I am really honest is this: Holy One, help me to recognize all the blessings I truly have. And remind me to give a blessing for all those I receive.

07 October 2006

Root Root Root For the Home Team

The Yankees are about to lose. For most people this is a welcome fact, but for me it is sad. You see, I am a Yankees fan. How did that happen, not being a native?

I was born in DC and saw the Senators play once in the old field. I was very young then. We moved to Baltimore, and I spent my formative baseball years in that place, rejoicing in their rise in the 1960s and their successes (and struggles) through 70s and into the 80s. We did live briefly in Detroit in the 1970s, but I was in college then, in St. Louis, and so did not form an attachment to the Tigers (through I did see a game at old Tigers field.) In the late 70’s I was in Chicago, on the south side, so I rooted for the White Sox (but did see a few games at Wrigley including a wild blowout of the Padres.)

My first ten years in ministry was served in Massachusetts, so I fought for the Red Sox. I remember to this day the evening in 1986, after an evening meeting, lying down to bed in my rural home and barely touching the mattress when Bill Buckner let the ground ball get past him in the series and said, right there to all who would listen, “It’s over.”

Then we lived in Texas, right between Astros and Rangers. College ball was bigger for us then, and we enjoyed Rocket Roger even more, as he came from UT to the Sox. Our connection, as it were.

Anyway, we moved to NYC in 1994, and because the Mets stole it from the O’s in 1966, and again from the Sox in 1986, I could not love the Mets. So I went to the dark side, and rooted for the Yankees. I lived there longer than anywhere else. It is my home in terms of years spent.

People love to hate the Yankees, and rejoice in their downfall. I understand. They have won more series than any other team. They are almost always in contention. They spend gigabucks to steal talent away from other teams. No wonder so many people hate them. I do not begrudge them, as it is part of their baseball weltanschauung.

But there’s the secret you need to know. We Yankees fans do not hate you. Sure, we love to win, but when we lose we do not begrudge it because so often it is a team that has been away from the series for a while.

So right now, as they are on the verge of losing to the Tigers, I am sad for them but glad for the Tigers. They deserve a shot and by golly they are playing like they mean it. You go guys. And as an American league boy who lived in Detroit for a while, I will root for you to womp the pennant and lay the Nationals low in a few weeks.

That’s the advantage of being a Yankees fan. We never really lose, because whoever wins deserves it and we’ll be back in the race next year. It would take about a generation for any other team to equal that record, and only if they won most every year and the Yanks lost as many. We have nothing to prove and thus nothing to lose.

Still, another subway series would be fun to watch. Maybe next year.