Friday, May 15, 2009

Uncle Neil, Aunt Dot

Over the last few days, conversation in our home has included Memorial Day plans, which is largely pointless because we always go to Pap Paps, the mobile home and cottage along the Juniata River which was where my wife grew up, and was home to our boys' Pap Pap and Gramma. Such conversation always sparks memories of childhood Memorial Day activities, which were slightly less predictable. An ensemble of relatives and we would visit one of several picnic venues that seemed to be on a rotating list. Memorial Days, July 4ths, Labor Days, and Grandpa Senft's birthday (actually my great grandfather) we would visit either Pinchot Park, Pigeon Hills Park, sometimes Laurel Lake (if someone on the planning committee was feeling frisky-it was further away, less familiar, and therefore a bit adventurous for us), or, once per year, the home of one of the ensemble members. At this point in the recollection, the positive endorphins' flow ceases as a dark, suppressed, sub-chapter of childhood surfaces-my memories of visits to Uncle Neil and Aunt Dot's home.
The other members of the extended family that made up the picnic entourage were normal, in a Pennsylvania Dutchified, slightly nosy, Lutheran way. But Uncle Neil was, I was firmly convinced as a child, not from Earth. And there were plenty of clues that I was right. For one thing, his appearance. I only saw him 4 times a year, but I knew what he was going to be wearing before we actually got there. He had a collared, pullover, V-neck shirt that looked like aluminum foil with a red and olive green plaid pattern which he always wore, and always paired with porch-paint gray Sans-a-Belt shorts, the shirt smartly tucked in, of course. He wore calf-high white socks and black wing-tip shoes. I always thought the shirt looked like it was cut not from fabric, but from Christmas wrapping paper that was too gaudy for Lutherans. The only variable in his outfit was his hat. He always wore a hat when outdoors, which was, I suspect, only those 4 picnic occasions. He wore a toupee that looked like a squirrel pelt that was ironed and velcroed to his head, so I guess the variety of hats were an attempt to fool us regarding his hairpiece. He fooled no one. As a kid, I typically couldn't spot artificial hair, but my grandmother would whisper in my ear-''that man's wearing a wig...''. No need for such an alert with Uncle Neil. I sometimes noticed other nearby picnickers gawk alarmingly at Uncle Neil, and it seemed even passing wildlife-robins, chipmunks, grasshoppers paused to stare. Those onlookers surely concluded, as I did, this must be an extraterrestrial. Just examine the facts: that shirt was not sold in any store on this planet. Uncle Neil's name was actually Cornelius Louis Booth. He was married to my Mom's older sister Dorothy, who not only was married to him, but seemed to like him. They had no children, which further fueled my suspicions of his secret origins, since surely an earthling and an alien could not reproduce. It occurs to me just now, that they drove a Galaxy 500! Aha! (he always said the name of their cars wrong-the Galaxy 500 was his ''500 Galaxy''. Their next car was a Ford LTD he always called his LDT. They later got a Ford Ranger pickup he called a Rancher.) I felt some relief in knowing he was an uncle by marriage, and therefore shared no genetic material. Uncle Neil had no visible means of support. He was, supposedly, retired from a civilian job at Fort Meade where he and Aunt Dot met. I was convinced that was a convenient cover story for the stipend he received from his home planet, and Aunt Dot was complicit.
At these picnics, in addition to the charcoal lighter flavored burgers and hot dogs (''doggies'' as Mama called them), the menu included each lady's signature summer dish. My Mom brought deviled eggs, Aunt Winnie brought sauerkraut for the doggies, Mama made pies, usually from things she either grew or picked or both-grape, apple, or sour cherry. (in the dialect of Hanover, Pa ''sour'' rhymes with car and far, not flower or tower. Even though I've mostly rejected that dialect, pronouncing ''sour cherry'' correctly sounds wrong) Aunt Dot always brought a salad made from macaroni, peas, Spam cubes, and hunks of Velveeta. I had to take some, and Mom would kick me under the table until I ate some and told Aunt Dot how good it was, which, of course encouraged her to bring a bigger bowl next time. Uncle Neil would smile smuggly, basking in the envy of those without his access to such culinary mastery.
While Neil and Dot added a touch of background nausea to these get togethers, it was manageable since I could escape them by either looking for snakes in the woods, or swimming in the turtle soup colored water at Pinchot or Laurel Lake while unseen fish nibbled at my toes. But the worst news I could hear during the summer, except someone reminding me school started in X number of days, was that it was Uncle Neil and Aunt Dot's turn to host the upcoming picnic. There was no escape. I was too young to stay home alone and my Mom saw through feigned, sudden illness. It was a sentence without possibility of parole. I only actually remember being at their home 3 times, but that was traumatic enough to scar for life.
They lived in a one story, stone house with a carport on a rural road near Dover. As important as his snappy appearance apparently was to Uncle Neil, that concern did not extend to their home. To say it was unkempt would be like calling the Susquehanna damp. The carport hadn't held, or had room for a car in years. It was piled and stuffed with cardboard boxes; a rusty, long inoperable Gravely riding mower; a tilted, sagging, mauve recliner that smelled of cat pee; bundles of mildewed newspapers; and, probably, missing children.Their lawn was rarely, and poorly mowed. The largest, squarest areas showed evidence of having been cut at some time, but near the house or around trees and bushes the grass was as high as the window sills. Out back there was a stagnant, ''8'' shaped, brick lined, hole they called the goldfish pond, which may have held goldfish but it was impossible to tell since the surface was coated in a green mass that looked like overcooked spinach. There was a full sized, completely rust covered tractor, in roughly the middle of the yard, exactly where it stopped, long, long ago. I imagined that, like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, it was trudging through the yard when it suddenly became paralyzed from rust. It was there before I was born, according to Mom, and was there when Uncle Neil passed on 10 or 12 years after our last picnic there. The inside of the Booth home was similarly inviting. It smelled like vinegar all the time, in every room, even in the basement. Their kitchen table was covered-I mean completely covered-with cereal boxes, magazines, mail, empty jars, shoes, and plates with unrecognizable dried up food, as if a staging area for the kitchen sink. I have a clear memory of their bathroom, too, which was atypically clean and orderly, and smelled not like vinegar, but like the round box of powder on the toilet tank lid. It was the d├ęcor of the bathroom that I remember, though. The walls, from floor to half height were tiled in pink and black glossy tile, there were 2 sinks, pink, and a shiny black statue of a panther between the sinks. It was like a tacky, art deco refuge, and I would have loved to sit in there until it was time to leave, but that was not an option. It was, after all, a picnic, and there was Dot's Spam salad to enjoy!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Divine Conspiracy

I finally FINALLY finished Dallas Willard's Divine Conspiracy. I'm a slow reader anyway, but this turned into an odyssey. It is not a difficult book in terms of vocabulary, style, or even concepts. In fact, many points are ones we've probably heard since Sunday school as children. At the same time, however, it is, potentially, a life changing, radical manual for the pursuit of Christlikeness. I found myself rereading sentences or paragraphs, sometimes repeatedly, until I felt I achieved enough understanding to continue. A large portion of the book focuses on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, or as Willard calls it The Discourse on the Hill. It is a clear, refreshed, insightful look at the teachings, the heart, the personality, the very nature of Jesus while He was here on Earth, as revealed in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. Throughout the book there is the theme that the Kingdom, the eternal Kingdom of God is not to be seen as some future-time development, but as Christ taught, the Kingdom is here, now, all around us, and accessible to us even in our current, temporary bodies through trust in Jesus as the doorway, and then the development of understanding, obedience, and discipleship of Him. The latter portion of the book Willard calls A Curriculum for Christlikeness, and is virtually a recipe for growth toward discipleship.

I can't say I agreed with every point made by Willard. There were some generalizations about the condition of modern churches, and about the nature of human beings I had differences with. But I always felt, from earliest exposure to "church stuff", that there was a disconnect between what we recited as beliefs on Sunday mornings, and the way we conducted life the other six and three-quarters days of the week. Consumer Christianity, Willard calls it, and his book is a welcome advocacy for those that share that sense of disconnect, and long for some authenticity in their lives.

Monday, May 4, 2009


I watched the 1953 movie The Wild One over the weekend, starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin. They each play leaders of a pack of outlaw bikers, Brando as leader of the B.R.M.C.-Black Rebels Motorcycle Club. In one scene, a girl in a bar asks Brando's character Johnny "what are you rebelling against?" Johnny, in his brooding monotone replies, "what ya got?"

I've been thinking about the word "rebellion" for several days, trying to dissect and understand just what rebellion is, and why we do it. says, in definition #2-"resistance to or defiance of any authority, control, or tradition". In the Christian lexicon, and the broader Judeo-Christian tradition individuals and whole nations are said to be in rebellion against God. As individuals we rebel, or have, against our parents and our upbringing, school authorities, and the laws of the land. We rebel, to varying extent, against the prevailing wisdom of a healthy lifestyle-nutrition and exercise. We rebel, some of us, against accepted conventions of dress and appearance. Everywhere there is a boundary, it seems, someone will test the flexibility of that boundary. I have some thoughts on why rebellion, at some level, is so pervasive as a human trait. I propose, that the opposite of rebellion-or the opposite behavior to rebellion is belief. Or, stated differently, when we have confidence in the correctness or virtue of a policy, guideline, tradition or law we are less likely to defy them. Additionally, when the consequences, the downside, of defiance are sure, and swift, and direct we, I assert, are less likely to rebel. I rebel against my doctor's recommendations of avoiding carbohydrates because the effects, the consequences are, in the immediate sense, unnoticeable and, in fact, seem untrue. The instant gratification from Marino's linguine with marinara are much more real, and believable than the eventual look of disdain from my doctor when he looks at my glucose numbers. We, in large numbers, rebel against speed limits when, for example, 32 seems plenty slow and safe in a 25 zone or 55 feels like we are in every else's way on an interstate. We simply do not believe the posted limits are necessary, or correct, or in the best interest of ourselves or others. But, that unbelieving rebellion against speed limits quickly dissipates when we spot a police car ahead. Now observing those limits are in our best interest! One of my earliest recollections of conscious, calculated rebellion was against the rules pertaining to my walk to and from my elementary school in first grade. I did not believe the rules against stepping on the grass, crossing the street anywhere other than at guarded crossings, or running were valid. I decided, as soon as informed of them, that this was the street I lived on, not Mr. Noble (our principal who was, it seemed, 7 feet tall, looked like John Wayne, and had hands the size of catcher's mits). I had been crossing our street successfully for a long time, knew my neighbors well enough to step on their grass, saw no downside to running and had no fear of the sixth grader safety patrols. I discovered, however, about the third day of my academic career, that those safety patrols reported directly to Mr. Noble, relished reporting infractions, and that he believed in those rules and their enforcement. That was the beginning of a lifelong, continuing questioning of authority and rules. At the heart of my own personal rebelliousness, was the observation that many of the societal restrictions on behavior are arbitrary, not well thought out, and often without predictable consequences. These observations regarding the reasons for rebellion on a personal level also apply when I focus on my diminishing, but real and lifelong rebellion against God, and His laws. At the core is, again, belief-or disbelief. There is, I'm sure, no universal timing or pattern or process by which we cross into genuine belief, but I suspect many share my own struggle and very gradual ascent into "faith" becoming a personal reality. Just like the elementary school "walkers" rules, speed limit laws, and many other policies we routinely rebel against, we know the correct answers to the quiz. Those of us raised in a Christian tradition or engaged with a church as adults can probably accurately recite what the official, correct beliefs are. But, rebellion persists. Do we turn the other cheek? Do we "do unto others as we would have them do unto us"? Do we love our enemies? Do we remember the Sabbath? Do we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, or with the portion remaining after career, or our Lexus, or our Harley? Though it is uncomfortable to admit, it is hard in the 3D, technological, science-as-truth, no moral absolute world in which we breathe to have an instinctive, unwavering confidence in a present but invisible God, a risen, available Jesus, the dire consequences of being in unrepentant rebellion against their Kingdom, and the reward of seeking reconciliation. It is the struggle first illustrated in Adam, repeated over and over in the nation of Israel, and our own individual, personal battle. And, I believe, is why we find ourselves in rebellion. When, in the heart of our heart of our heart, the present God, and the living Christ are as real as the table my feet are on, or as real as Mr. Noble, so, too, is the risk of rebellion, and the wisdom of obedience.

The Wrestler

We just rented and watched the film The Wrestler, the 2008 movie starring Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei, for which they received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. If you're looking for a movie that's uplifting, inspiring, and celebrates triumph this ain't it! But as art, as a brutally honest sampling of the grime real lives are too often covered in, it is masterful. It is a story about people whose self-worth, whose identity, whose reason for being alive is tied to what they do, and the punch-in-the-gut, crushing of the soul when success flees or eludes, and there is nothing else. Whether an over-the-hill professional wrestler, a failing salesperson, an assembly line worker whose job is eliminated, or a business owner whose enterprise fails, without the foundation of family and faith they are left with nothing. It is simultaneously a story of abandoning dignity or sense of personal honor in order to make a living, and deluding ourselves that there is a wall of separation between our real lives and our money-earning life, like the film's stripper who clings to the rationalization that she's not a stripper, she's a mother. There is also the subtle message of how the personally disastrous choices we make can affect others-our children particularly. The stripper must each night leave her young son with a sitter so she can go dance, and we are allowed to infer how that reality will wound the child. Does he know? Or does she lie to him? How will their relationship and his self image "adjust" to the truth? Mickey Rourke's character has a grown daughter that he abandoned early to pursue his stardom. We witness her intense bitterness and hatred toward her father. She is living as a lesbian now, and we can infer her father's abandonment as underlying her rejection of men. There are cinematically clever parallels and juxtapositions as well. Compare, for example, the crowd's jubilant adulation of Rourke's character-The Ram-when he enters the arena to the disinterested, even insulting reception the stripper receives from her audience. Notice the parallels between The Rams "backstage" preparation for his supermarket deli-counter day job, and the prep, then walk through the curtain at a show. Notice the juxtaposition when The Ram again surrenders to the draw of the ring, just as Pam, the stripper known as Cassidy, can no longer suppress her shame and loathing for what she does. The Wrestler is depressing, and excruciatingly realistic. It raises some questions it doesn't answer, because, I suppose, some questions have no answer. But it should be seen!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Cavendish, Big Mike, and the Panama Blight

While the title may cause readers to infer this is a post about a new reggae band, that would be incorrect. It is, in fact, a post about bananas. (Feel free to use your browser's backpage button at this point.) The inspiration for the post began a recent early morning, minutes after becoming vertical, still in that semi-comatose brain state when there is no coherent, linear thought-just random, spontaneous firings of phrases and pictures as the mind "reboots" for the day. I was waiting for the coffee to drip enough to steal a cup, and staring at a lovely, yellow, bruise-free banana that I would consume as soon as my brain got the help files open to the "Bananas-Peeling and Eating" tab. One of those random thought firings was that the folks who claim eggs are nature's perfect food are misguided. Bananas are, in fact, the perfect food. I have heard over the past few years of the threat to the banana industry from a disease, the Panama blight, that was destroying vast acreages of bananas and threating to ultimately wipe out the entire world crop. I was wondering what, if any, progress had been made in fighting this threat, and formed the hypothesis that American ingenuity driven by strong capitalist motivation would solve the problem. I resolved to find out. Thanks to Google, I now have read more and learned more about bananas than it is rational to do. I learned the curvaceous beauty pictured above is the Cavendish species, one of about 300 species of bananas and plantains, but accounting for nearly 100% of North American consumption. It is not, however, your Grampa's banana. Prior to 1960, American breakfast tables were adorned by the Gros Michel, or Big Mike, species. Those were attacked by Panama blight in the '50's and are now extinct. They were softer, creamier in texture, and sweeter than the Cavendish. Both species are seedless clones-genetically identical "monoculture" plants that produce fruit consistent with the traits necessary for success in the American marketplace. They have the color, taste, resistance to bruising, and shelf life consumers demand, but that identical nature makes them all equally vulnerable to a specific disease. If one plant lacks resistance to some microbe, they all do. It is hard to gauge, from my reading, how imminent the threat of extinction is for the Cavendish. There has, apparently, been more destruction of crops in China and Southeast Asia than in Central America, but it is definitely there. I was reading in the online Panama News about strategies to slow the spread, and the impact of affected crops on the already impoverished farm workers who cultivate and harvest bananas. That article had a sort of assumptive confidence that all the efforts to produce a new more resistant species would bear fruit. (sorry-I've tried, until this point successfully, to avoid the words "bunch" or "slice" or "split" or "yes, we'll have no bananas". That one slipped through.) Besides the 2 blights, there is a whole other dark underside and backstory to the cheery looking banana in our lunchboxes. In the late 1800's, Americans were first introduced to this exotic fruit by a Boston area importer, who found them a big hit. He and investors formed Boston Fruit Company, which evolved into Chiquita. Together with United Fruit Company, now Del Monte, and others, they set about turning Central America and the Carribean into their plantation, exploiting the land, the laborers, and the governments. They cleared vast acres of jungle and built railroads to get their product out to market. They propped up governments sympathetic and cooperative to their industry and financed the overthrow of those that were not, giving rise to the phrase "banana republic" to describe these puppets (coined by O. Henry in the 1904 book "Cabbages and Kings".) As recently as 1974, an investigation following the suicide of Chiquita C.E.O. Eli Black revealed a scheme to pay $2.5 million in bribes to Honduran officials to keep export taxes favorable. So, the next time there's banana on a co-workers desk resist the temptation to pick it up and pretend it's a telephone, or the other silly (or obscene) things bananas seem to tempt people to do, and consider the story of violence, political and corporate corruption, exploited workers, genetic engineering and possible extinction it represents. But they sure are good!