28 December 2009

The Ghosts Are Gone

Every year I re-enact Dickens' great Christmas tale, literally and figuratively.

First literally - On the Sundays of Advent I read it aloud after church, to a small but devoted crowd. Reading aloud has all but died, and what a shame. For generations this was the way most people 'read' a book. Reading Dickens is especially fine because he wrote it to be read aloud, I think.

Much of the humor and insight is in the words, you see, and not just the dialogue. The anonymous narrator's voice begins the tale and ends it, and along the way embellishes and explains and critiques the whole story. Even fine cinematic versions lose this. Reading silently, though also fails as the sound of the words, the clauses piled on clauses, gives pleasure to the ear as well as the mind.

I am contemplating recording it as a podcast. Copyright is no problem of course. Would you like that? Do let me know.

Figuratively - I am an Advent Grinch. The whole run-up and hoopla and constant racket of Christmas merriment drives me to distraction. Scrooge had three ghosts to contend with, but I have thirty, for each day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mine are less terrible but they make that up in sheer volume.

But Christmas Day and the week between it and New Year's are among the most pleasant of the year. Exhausted by the lunacy, there is a lovely calm to the days as the two holidays are too close to attempt serious work, and too far apart and too different to blend together. They force us to leave off serious plans and just let the days pass.

The best thing so far this season was Christmas dinner, a large affair even for the four of us, as it requires roasting some seriously fine beast, and surrounding it with suitable companions. The menu varies slightly each year, but this year I fired on all cylinders and there was as much huzzahing as there was at the Cratchit's table when the goose spilled forth.

In case you are interested here is what made the perfect meal for us.

1. Boneless rib roast. Departure from tradition, the boneless part. And I seasoned it with a coating of 2-3tb soy and 1-2 tb Dijon mustard mixed and layered on, upon which I stuck thin slices of onions, over which came another lathering, followed by generous grindings of salt and pepper. This sat for 30 minutes or so until it went into a 450 degree oven for 20 minutes, reduced to 350 for an hour and reduced again to 300 for another hour. I took it out and let the juices settle before slicing it.

2. Roasted vegetables. Most years there is something mashed along with something cooked. But the simplicity of cooking with the roast made me try this. Yellow squash and zucchini chopped into 1.5 inch hunks, along with carrots and potatoes of similar size. Two whole onions, peeled of course. Bathed in olive oil and rosemary leaves and more salt and pepper, they sat in that until the 70-75 minutes of the roast.

3. I needed a something with a different texture and character, and decided on cucumber salad simply dressed with whole milk yogurt based tzatziki sauce and a hefty seasoning of dill. This was mixed up first actually, and allowed to get acquainted while I prepared the first two.

Then I was free for most of the next two hours.

After the vegetables went in I prepared the kicker, Yorkshire pudding, or yorkie puds as my son's Canadian friends call it. It is completely unhealthy - flour, milk, eggs and fat from the roast. But once a year is forgivable. The "Joy of Cooking" has the basic recipe but you don't need to refrigerate it long. Just let is cool enough to settle down.

This year though I followed the advice of the Minimalist and cooked it in muffin cups. First I put the muffin pan in the oven, which was not back at 450 while the roast cooled a bit. Leave the veggies in for the next 15 minutes. I put the roast back in for this portion to keep it from getting too cool.

Remove the pan and quickly slosh some rendered tallow from the roast and melted butter in the bottom of each cup and then spooned enough batter to fill each half way. Back in the over for 15 minutes. Turn down the heat to 350, remove the veggies and the roast. Cook the pudding for another 10-15. They become extremely rich popovers with tiny flecks from the beef roast on them like a dusting of cocoa.

In those ten minutes slice the roast, and when the puddings come out plate it all lickety split. Memorable, I promise you. Made me want to exclaim, "God bless us everyone."

26 December 2009

One Last Chance

End of the year is here, and one last chance to use the tax code to your benefit by giving away money. This week we will be writing a few checks that will amount to a goodly sum, and as I have discovered in the last five years to goodly effect on my heart as well. I am glad to be able to tithe, when all our donations are amassed and counted. Being able to support causes and institutions we believe in is very satisfying, and the more I can give the more satisfying it is to support them.

What makes me write, though, is not my charitable activities, but my church. (As you probably know I rarely talk about my church. This blog is not about my outer work as much as I my inner life. Less adventurous perhaps but no confusion about who speaks for whom as it were.) But I just gotta brag.

Last January, with my enthusiastic support, our lay leaders decided to take all 'free cash' from the Sunday offering and set it aside from community support. That was daring for us. Through 2008, you should know, we put social ministry money in the overall operating fund like heat and copy machine supplies. The collection was added to pledges and other income. In 2008, for example, social ministry was budgeted for about $10,000 and the cash in the Sunday plate amounted to $16,000. This year we put no money in the budget for it and said that whatever came in on Sundays would be it.

Tomorrow we come to the end of the first year of 'giving away the plate.' And the total through Christmas Eve is over $32,000. Yes, twice as much as we put in the plate all last year. Twice! It represents 3% over and above our operating budget.

This is during a recession, remember? This is Michigan, remember? Back in March we cut our operating budget, cut back on personnel hours, I personally took a pay cut. But we stuck with our promise to reach out and at the end of the year twice as much had come in. As far as anyone knows, this is the most the church has ever given to the wider community.

And we feel great. Great enough to do it again.

Oh, we still have to struggle when it comes to pledges and operating funds. We even disagree about why it's a problem and how to solve it.

But we are all feeling good about what we did for the wider community this year. It feels great to hold up your part of the sky.

20 December 2009

Nothing Up My Sleeve...

But sometimes it feels like folks are pulling a fast one. Consider this article from today's NYTimes, about 'cancer treatment centers.'

Now, I would never wish to dishearten someone who is facing medical crisis, but the idea that hospitals and clinics are playing a little fast and loose with facts is distressing to me. Sure, we all should be able to promote our services and products, but this strikes me as playing too obviously to people in a state of emotional intensity. Who makes good choices when your own life and limb are suddenly insecure?

Of course, there are those who actually use numbers. But few do because of the hubbub over mammography recommendations. But as another article shows, even numbers can be confounding. (The graphic connected to the article is really good!)

Numbers sound factual, so many this and so much of that. But I know numbers are just as easily misunderstood or put to obfuscation as words. Just look at how both Republicans and Democrats cite the CBO about health care reform, and how there are so many different numbers about the deficit, and so on.

Numbers are powerful, but we still have to think about them. Thinking, it seems, is what is in short supply everywhere. I commend it as a New Year's Resolution. It's on my list, for sure.

16 December 2009

Officially Over The Top

They say you can't be in two place at once, but I managed it on Sunday.

My Friday radio show (hyperlinked there in the left column) is rebroadcast on Sundays at 7 am. A few days ago I recorded a pair of programs for another show, "Common Threads" which airs on a different station and is broadcast when?

Sundays at 7 a.m.

I was in competition with myself, you might say. We all know that the yuletide season is way too busy, but I never thought it would get so frantic that I would be literally beside myself.

Doesn't it seem odd that we constantly bemoan the frenzy of the holiday season even though it is entirely of our own devising? Was it John Grisham who wrote a book called "Skipping Christmas?" Sometimes I wonder what it would be like not to take part. That would be easy in Asia and the Middle East where Christmas is a minority voice.

(I got a taste of that when I was in Istanbul, where Christianity is mostly an historic thing - old churches and stuff. The two actual operating churches I saw were outnumbered by the dozens of mosques. Iznik, the ancient city of Nicea where the creed was formed and which I visited, has no working church and likely no resident Christians. And I must say it was oddly exhilarating refreshing to be in a place where none of your cultural assumptions preside.)

I suppose what I want is not the end of Christmas but spreading it out more, not packing all that merriment and charity and good will into a few weeks. Do you find it odd, as I do, that on December 26th it is all over? Carols quit, trees are hurled into the street, and we just stop.

At our house we actually begin our enjoy the day itself, but then observe the full "twelve days" through Epiphany by opening a small gift each day (thank you Hannukah!), indulging treats, making each day a little more than just a day. We spread the cheer out as it were. Our tree is among the last to arrive and the last to go, like reluctant hosts who want their guest to stay longer. And we use winter, those long cold nights, to compose and send our greetings to others, be they New Years greetings or Ground Hog greetings or even St. Valentine's greetings.

Hardly Skipping Christmas, and yet subtly subversive. If you find the season too demanding, so that you are beside yourself with business, you are allowed to do things differently. Who knows, you might start a trend - "keeping Christmas" not just spending it.

13 December 2009

Ho Ho No

As Grinch-in-chief, being merry is never high on my list even though I read the eponymous book aloud in church this morning (with my black Santa cap on) to robust applause. No, my lack ho-ho-ho-ness is more immediate. The chimerical senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman has announced he will vote against the Senate Health Care Reform Bill. Read more.

Tomorrow my gall will be more settled, and my spleen, but these items are less likely to be in good health if the senator has his way. I truly hope this is a matter of principle for him, myopic as those principles seem to me, because if he is doing this to leverage his influence or win favor from the minority or because he simply cannot vote against the moneyed interests and keep his job then several poxes be upon him.

And may they be judged previous conditions as well.

12 December 2009

I Had An Idea

Then the snow came. Big snow, the second in as many weeks. This one lasted two days. All in all about 8 inches, not including the sleet and the slush that started it.

Today is sunny, and for the first time my brain isn't snow bound either. How intriguing, that the mind can be so affected by things out there. At least mine is. All of which is to explain why I have not written for a week, and how even when I have an idea to share it vanishes quickly in the flaky landscape.

One thing I have done is write, finishing (almost!) a manuscript I have been writing for the last 2 years. No you can't see it. Too raw, too personal, too unruly. But a few wise friends who have previewed parts will give me feedback. From what I understand, writing is easy; editing is hard. If so, then I may not live long enough.

This means that my mind has been on that project and not on the continuing saga of health care legislation, the president's trip to Oslo, the Pakistan 5, and certainly not Tiger Woods. On this latter matter I saw that virtually every major network - broadcast and cable - was talking Tiger last night. I ended up watching the Food Channel.

What I can give you are some juicy hyperlinks to articles I have caught of late. Check these out.

- Carl Jung's Red Book has been published. He kept it secret because it was too weird to share. Take a peek.

- I have known several people who had 'essential tremor,' which until now has had little understanding. There's news.

- And sometimes I really wish I were in the big city, in this case to see a peculiar and powerful one man play called "The Last Cargo Cult."

That should turn your head around a little, like mine often is. And for those who want to focus on the yuletide hoopla, there's lots of stuff at my church website. Check it out.

Now, back to my sermon and my delectably close to complete manuscript

04 December 2009

Echoes

When you pass the halfway mark in life it means new stuff tends more and more to remind you of old stuff. You hear echoes.

This evening, standing on my back porch, after the first snowfall of our very long snowfall seasons, the cold had that familiar snap and bite I remember from the few winters I spent in Vermont as a college kid coming home for the holidays. It was only three holiday seasons actually, 1974-76. My folks moved there in the summer of 1974 and I was married in late 1976.

Anyway, I remember the cold there because all my life up until then had been in Maryland where winter is cold but not frigid. Arriving there from St. Louis where I was a student my breath fairly froze on my lips the first time I breathed the local air. At the house I marveled at the frost forming on the inside of windows and the roar of the winter wind. Any romance I had about snowy mountains cracked like an icicle.

Over time, though, I adapted. Being in my early 20s I did not feel the cold quite so deeply then as I do now.

What I remember this evening, the echo that tingles the edge of memory's ear is a morning back then, after a great snowfall, when the sun was wildly bright against the snow. Mother sent me out to shovel the area from outside the door of the mud room (New England term for the air lock one enters in winter to put off wet and muddy boots before actually stepping into the house itself) to the kitchen porch around the corner. Not a long way, but it was a handsome snowfall of about a foot. Serious work.

I was bundled well, and booted, my hands mittened and head encased in toque and scarf. But in only minutes I was unwrapping the scarf as my breath steamed, and then I was loosening the top of the coat, then taking off the hat, then even the coat, as the work made me so warm I was sweating in the cold morning air.

When it was over I marveled at how warm I was standing outside on that Vermont January day. I could feel the sunlight on my face and see straight up to it through a sky swept clean of moisture and haze, so blue no paint or pixel could match it.

Those skies are still there, now and then. And the snow of course. But perspiration in the snow, that is gone. Back then I was so young and vital that my body could literally ignore winter.

Maybe that is why the only thing I anticipate with pleasure in winter is snow shoveling. Bizarre on the face of it, I know. But sometimes, even when my hips mock me and my hamstrings refuse to stretch, I can feel a little trickle of sweat on my back and at my brow. The coat stays on and the gloves, but even now there are days when I doff the hat because it is too warm.

And for a brief while the blood runs as hot as it did back then, radiating like a stove, and life burns its way up from the belly as if reaching for its source and cousin, the sun.

Not so often now, nor so easily. But it does happen. And I wipe my forehead with my sleeve and stomp the snow from my boots and walk back into the house as juicy and alive as I was in 1975.

03 December 2009

Pick Me!

Did you hear, Fritz Henderson is out at GM? The board fired him because he was too much a company man, having worked for them 25 years. The board chair, Ed Whitacre, said "that G.M. was 'on the right path,' but needed to more quickly under new leadership.

the board decided that the 25-year veteran of G.M. was too tied to the company’s past mistakes to bring a fresh approach that could help reverse its decades-long slide.

According to a person with direct knowledge of the board’s deliberations, there was no final straw that led to Mr. Henderson’s forced resignation. Rather, G.M.’s directors began discussing weeks ago that the company needed to seek an outsider to lead the company.

“Fritz was just not enough of a change agent,” that person said.


Well have I got an idea for them.

Me.

I'm an outsider, way outside, as in walk to work and drive a 2003 Toyota my mother left me when she died. (Our other car, a 1991 Toyota, was damaged over the summer and we sold it, but it too came to us when my mother-in-law died.) I am the un-CEO and yet have been leading organizations for all of my 30 years of service. And believe me I know how organizations can get into ruts. One I led was founded in 1655. GM has nothing on that.

Honestly, people underestmate us clergy as leaders. They think that because there are no big numbers or fancy campuses that our work is light weight. Just ask any business leader who has ever served on a church board and they will tell you the minister has a way tougher job.

And the best part, I do not need to succeed. One thing I have learned anything over the years Jesus taught me, "Whoever would save his life (job) will lose it." You gotta do what's right and if that means you get fired, OK. Obviously, playing it safe did not save Fritz his job.

So what would I do?

Tell them to make the car that will save the industry. The future belongs to home grown renewable fuels, to people who want to choose whether to drive or walk or ride the bike or the bus. GM ought to provide transportation solutions, not surrogates for power or pleasure or sex. They should make the Swiss Army knife of cars, the dependable tool people need to live solid and satisfying lives.

Then I would ask them why this can't happen, what is keeping us, America, GM, from being the leader not just in profits and market share but in ideas and hopes and dreams. GM is trying to do what Henderson did, keep its job. And that's why they will fail. But who will tell them?

Yep, that would be me. And besides, I do not need anything close to the salary they paid Fritz. Mr Whitacre said this would be a problem in searching for a new CEO:

“The biggest impediment to hiring someone from the outside as C.E.O. will be the compensation issue,” said Jerome York, a former G.M. director who had pressed for new leadership at the company. “Most executives of that caliber expect a boatload of money to join a new company.”

Mr. Henderson’s cash salary, for example, was cut 25 percent, to $950,000, once the government became majority owner after it helped G.M. emerge from bankruptcy.


Since saving money is important right now, I would settle for half that, easy. They would only have to change the last name on the door and the business cards, as Fritz is a common nickname for Fred. (Kinda like it actually. Zippy sounding, and not a whiff of Flintstone in it. My dad sometimes called me that actually.) And if they want, I can commute from the west side of the state. No need to relocate. How sweet is that?

01 December 2009

On Another Subject

I know this is my second post today and also that there is clean laundry to put away and papers to file and the garbage to take to the curb, but as I was reading this evening something popped into my head that may be worth mentioning.

There was a conference in Alexandria Egypt in November about Darwin and his ideas. Now, if we think evolution is having a tough time in America, you should do to an Islamic country. But my point is not Muslim suspicions of Darwin. It is why, which the article focuses on as well. Here is a quote:

While defending Darwin, it was this broader theme, the idea of at least listening to new ideas, that the library’s director, Ismail Sergaldin, emphasized in his opening remarks. He pointed to the Koran, which he said emphasized study and scholarship, as well as early Muslim scientists, to make his point. He cited the words of the pioneering 13th-century physician Ibn al-Nafis:

“When hearing something unusual, do not pre-emptively reject it, for that would be folly. Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies. Truth is truth unto itself, not because people say it is.”


What happened between the 13th and the 21st century? Lots of things of course, but one of them is imperialism. From the 18th through the 20th century, European powers effectively controlled much of the Islamic world. And occupying powers almost automatically treat those occupied as lesser, often as children. They maintain their parental authority by treating those they control as being unable to control themselves. Those who saw the movie "Ghandi" remember how well Sir John Guilgud oozed condescension as he explained British rule as necessary because Indians were incapable of self rule.

I now wonder if the sorry state of education in once highly sophisticated cultures is part of the result of being treated like children. I have seen it in individuals, families, and organizations. We see it in the state of African American culture and Native American culture. When you treat people as children they tend to become children, especially when you have parental like powers such as an occupying armies or absolute economic or physical power.

What I see happening in the Middle East and Africa often seems to be the long term effect of centuries of imperialism. Western culture is reaping what is has sown. If, after all, Irish Catholics still remember with intense anger battles fought 400 years ago between British and Irish armies, enough to propel them to modern violence, we should not be surprised to find a similar residuum in other places where the imperial boot was planted.

I'm Curious...

Every week I get a spike of visitors on Sunday-Monday. Why is that?

If you are among those who stopped by recently I would love to hear what made you do that.

I would also love to know what you think of what you read and what would make this better. Like it or not, the personal digital connection will be the dominant medium for the near and foreseeable future and knowing how to use it well is important.

As the man used to say... "I'm listening."