Friday, June 26, 2009

The King of Pop and the Story of our Lives

While we made dinner we watched the coverage. While we ate downstairs we watched it still -- why, I'm not quite sure. One "close friend" after another, one "journalistic expert" after another -- all insinuating more knowledge of and insight into Michael Jackson than is possible -- droned on and on about this puzzlingly odd little character who has been an entertainment phenomenon almost as long as I have been alive, and now just as puzzlingly had died just a handful of weeks before his 51st birthday.

Perhaps those numbers offer some explanation. Just short of two years younger than me, Michael Jackson has been a constant in my musical universe, from his "ABC's" days -- when he was still young enough to be learning his ABC's as well as sing about them -- through his "Thriller" stage, and then into his...well, ahem...strange phase. I never was puzzled about his financial prodigality; excessive, it was nonetheless rational. But I never could connect the prepubescent little guy whipping and spinning his way across the stage, belting out "I Want you Back" and "Stop, the love you save may be your own..." with the skin bleaching, face reshaping, veiled and reclusive oddity that he became.

But he was always there -- like the stars, themselves, orbiting nearer sometimes, almost but not quite out of view at others; almost forgotten one minute, and making headlines the next. Real fans, I suspect, were always carried along in the suspense of it all: "Did he have another Thriller in him?" "Would he and the brothers make one more tour together?" The rest of us would happily sing along when one of the hits would come on the radio, shake our heads at the next outlandish antic or headline, and then go back to whatever else we were doing. A familiarity, to be sure, and a fondness, of sorts, for the genius he had and the entertainer he used to be, but a healthy and respectable distance from the weirdness he had become.

Maybe that duality, itself, offers some of the explanation. I can't pretend to understand Michael Jackson. I don't know why he surgically recreated himself; don't know why he walked around in a virtual shroud. I don't know why he suspended his baby over the balcony rails, and only he and the boys know for sure what really went on at the ranch. One can speculate about the ramifications of constant celebrity oiled by excesses of money. Everyone recognizes the peril of flying too close to the flame -- or, to sustain the celestial metaphor, orbiting too close to the sun. And we can only swallow hard considering the role that we, the audience, play as symbiotic partners in the drama. But all of us, I think, have this sobering and humbling sense -- inarticulate, perhaps, but real -- that all the light and darkness, all the generosity and paranoia, all the desire for attention and also the reclusiveness; the winsome little boy and also the weird and disconcerting freak, writ so large and publicly in him is somehow resident, in greater and lesser degrees, in us. Lori often observes that we are a package -- a combination of more and lesser desirable parts. If Jackson's package was full of loud and spotlighted and exaggerated extremes, mine is different only in wattage, not in diversity. Ask my mother and she will tell you I was a pretty adorable little kid. Ask anyone who has known me since and they will acknowledge that I can likewise be pretty weird.

Goodnight, Michael. We've enjoyed the music. Now, rest in peace -- perhaps for the first time ever.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Compost Happens -- and Who Knows What Might Grow

"Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’" James 4:13-15

It has, I recognize, always been an illusion -- the ability to look ahead and make plans -- but we have enjoyed doing it, nonetheless. Indeed, we have often remarked that the best part of our experiences is the anticipation of them. The savoriness of anticipation has been the impetus for planning vacations well in advance. We have chewed on the expectation, the advance reading and preparations; we have treasured the imaginary visualizations of what it will be like, what we will see, and what it will feel like to be us in the midst of those moments. Looking back, we haven't given much thought to vicissitudes; we have simply blocked out the dates, bought our tickets and dreamed our way towards the reality.

That eventual reality, however, is essential. Anticipation must eventually be met by consummation; absent that it is mere make-believe dreaming -- liking owning a yacht or flying to the moon or being a rock star.

There is nothing more dreadful than imagination without taste.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Anticipation is the psychological foretaste of the feast to come; eventually sitting down at the table is a necessity.

Perhaps it is now our age, or more likely the unfolding, shifting circumstances around us, but those illusions of certainty are evaporating. Life incurs. Realities change. Emergencies, crises, necessities and obligations interrupt. Or, as the bumper sticker advertising a plant nursery in Austin, TX observed years ago: "compost happens." Indeed.

I don't like to think that I have become a crotchety, inflexible old man -- at this age or any other. I hate the thought that I can't adapt on the fly; innovate in the moment; or simply adjust as circumstances change. It is, I know, simply a kind of grief: sorrow at the death of the naive joy of anticipation. James understood that such an arrogance was nonsense from the beginning, but it has tasted so good.

Perhaps the plant nursery had it right, but in a way I didn't at first understand. Compost -- that loamy, nutrient rich muck that might smell bad at the moment -- is the very food of growing things. Perhaps what I ought to take in hand is less the grief over upended plans and more the possibilities that might sprout from their decay.

There is, after all, that whole business of being "fully present" in each moment to think about -- that we can't finally live either in the past or the future, but only in the present. When Jesus discouraged worry about tomorrow -- that it will bring worries of its own and today's trouble is enough for today -- he was just as well speaking about anticipation. I think it was John Lennon, that other erstwhile messiah figure, who once mused that "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans."

Who knows the life that could, even in this compost of rotting plans, even now be growing? One thing's for sure: I won't really know until it's ready to be harvested. I'll not expend the energy on anticipating it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Getting Back to Real

The irony, I suspect, was lost on none of us who had gathered in Las Vegas to talk about - learn about - the economic ravages that have scorched, Sherman-esque - across the country these past several months. Here, in this movie sound stage of a city built of equal parts imagination, excess, and hubris, we shared data and stories about an economy sired by virtually the same trinity. I suspect the conference had been drawn there by the lure of cheap flights and rooms, but the juxtaposition was oddly, humorously, eerily poignant.

It was my first trip to Vegas - a city, as it turns out, more like an amusement park on steroids than a real community; a mythology more than a story.

The first day's sessions behind us, Doug and I ventured out into the human swell. Quintessential tourists, we stared, we gawked, we got lost, we asked directions; we wedged our way forward for a good view of the Bellagio's fountains;

we strolled through the artificial fog past Cleopatra's ship inside Caesar's Palace, and gazed up toward the tip of the Paris Hotel's Eiffel Tower. If we had somehow managed to miss the mobile billboard's provocative advertisement of "Girls at your Door," the gauntlet of hired hawkers on most street corners passing out cards advertising the same pressed the point. Just for the record, we declined.

Partly, I suppose, because it had been a long and demanding day; partly in recognition of the fact that the next would be the same, we did the almost unthinkable: we turned in early.

Now on the plane home, I realize that my brief experience afforded inadequate samplings of the city. It would be vastly unfair to paint the town with this trip's broad brush. That said, I'll not look for opportunities to return. The commercial claustrophobia made it hard to breathe -- everything, from sight to sound, taste and touch a trinket, commoditized, glamourized and merchandized. It will be nice to taste, again, real food and breathe, again, real air and not have to wonder if the stars overhead are merely well-camouflaged bulbs.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Consuming a LIttle Less Passively

Passive consumers no longer know those who grow their food, or even how or where it was grown. When...our understanding of the source of our food is limited to ‘it comes from the supermarket,’ we do not know its geographical derivation or remember its ultimate dependence upon the fertility of the soil. Thus, we cannot know how healthful such food is for us, for the land, or for those who grew it.” (Michael Schut, Food & Faith: Justice, joy and daily bread, Denver: Living the Good News Press, p. 17.

We first learned about CSA’s by reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle shortly after it was published a year or so ago. Subsequent internet searches revealed several such farms in the Des Moines area, but I quickly learned how difficult it can be to purchase a share. Every one of the Consumer Supported Agriculture farms I contacted had long-since been sold out. This year we started earlier – a quest underscored by our appreciation of the “slow food” initiatives in Vermont and elsewhere, and supported by our Vermont innkeepers and chef. Almost everything they serve is grown or raised within a several-mile radius, and we have admired the partnership enjoyed there between producers and preparers. On any given evening at dinner we are likely to be sitting next to the beef producer, or the mushroom farmer, or the cider house operators. Everyone seems to come out ahead – the chef who knows exactly what he’s cooking, the producers who know exactly where their products are going, and finally people like us who simply and delightedly consume the end result.

We were thrilled, then, this winter to learn that a share would indeed be available at the farm in which we were most interested. Certified organic, Turtle Farm makes available something like 160 shares to community partners who pay a set fee for the privilege of participating in weekly harvests mid-May through September. If the farmer has a good year, we get full boxes each week. If the harvest is thin, we share the pain.

Having attended the orientation session this spring, we eagerly awaited notification of the first box. Most apparently work out arrangements to pick up their boxes more proximate to their homes, so when I arrived at the farm that benchmark Friday afternoon, Angela, the owner, asked, “Where do you live that it’s convenient to come out to the farm, itself?”

“Oh,” I replied, “it’s not convenient. I live on the south side of Des Moines. I just enjoy the drive.” 25 miles of it, each way. Three weeks now into the process, I continue to enjoy it. I love turning off the highway onto the dirt road and easing up to the shed where the boxes are arranged. I enjoy visiting with Angela and Ben, her chief assistant. I value shaking the hands that sowed the seeds and cut the asparagus and dug the turnips. I warm at the sight of the rows reaching almost to where I’m standing that will give rise to several of my meals in the coming weeks. I enjoy asking questions and learning answers from the ones who know I have a vested interest in the information. And I love opening the box like a child at Christmas, eyes dancing on every leafy discovery.

This is food that doesn’t come on Styrofoam trays shrink-wrapped in cellophane. Unlike most of what I otherwise consume, I know exactly from whence this food comes, and the names of those whose ministrations have coaxed it out of the ground. And it’s good.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sunny Skies and Cool -- Let the Market Begin

So far it looks like my prayers are being answered.

Today is opening day of the 13th season of the Drake Neighborhood Farmer's Market. Each Wednesday afternoon, June through September, volunteers set up canopies and tables and chairs, vendors set up displays, a Deejay sets up a sound system, and customers wander around shopping for...well, all sorts of things. There is produce, jellies, baskets, free-range chickens and eggs, kettle-corn, childrens' activities, honey, barbecue, tamales, a health tent, and usually more. But mostly there is community -- neighbors from all around the globe, strangers, friends, urbanites, country-folk; Babel's residue of languages -- all rubbing shoulders in a church parking lot. Amazing.

And humbling. I remember its inception. A group of us were sitting in a meeting 14-or-so years ago now. I don't remember the nature of the meeting of the name of the group, but I remember the suggestion that popped out in the midst of it: "Why don't we start a farmer's market in the parking lot?" I was still new enough on the scene that I didn't venture an audible response, but internally I thought to myself, "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard. A farmer's market? In our parking lot? What's the sense of that?"

Thankfully I kept my thoughts to myself, for the Drake Neighborhood Farmer's Market has, through the years, become one of our most important outreach expressions as a church, and one of our biggest gifts to the community. Begun at a time when the neighborhood around us was deeply troubled and often dangerous, the market afforded a chance for people to mingle without getting shot; and a chance to gather some fresh produce when stores were in short supply. Recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, utilized by the state as a place to pilot new market initiatives, and voted this year the 2nd best farmer's market in Des Moines, the market seems to find no end to the ways to underscore how misguided were my initial impressions.

This afternoon, then, we open for a 13th season, and as I have done for the past several openings, just prior to the whistle blowing open the sales, I will offer a blessing of the market. Here is what I will pray:

God of soil and sun and rain and seed, God of muscle and patience and harvest and market, we give you thanks for this day, and for this 13th season of the Drake Neighborhood Farmer’s Market. We give you thanks for the joy that countless will experience satisfying the hungers that lead them here: the community that will be built, the diversity of the world that will be revealed, the health that will be encouraged, the wisdom that will be shared, the skills that will be displayed and the tastes that will be consumed. Bless, then, this market, O God – the chickens and the eggs, the collards and the squash, the apples and the berries, the honey and the bread, the baskets and the barbecue and the popcorn and the tamales, and all those who sell them; the vendors, and all who shop them; bless the exhibitors and volunteers who set up tents and tables, direct traffic and entertain children; bless the manager and the entertainers; and if it isn’t impertinent, we’d appreciate sunny skies on Wednesdays and cool afternoons – all of which is simply to say it again: Bless this market, O God, that it might be a reflection of your goodness, and a gift to this community. Amen.

Looking outside, the sun is shining after several days of rain. And it's cool.

So far so good.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Gospel According to Luther – Heggs, that is

It was touch and go there for a moment. Luther Heggs (played by Don Knotts), the goofy and high-strung type setter for the local newspaper, had just finished what he described as the best "pounded steak he had ever eaten" at the table of the beautiful town darling Alma Parker (played by Joan Staley) in the classic movie The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Now the pair of unlikely romantics had adjourned to the front porch. They swam under conversational water for painfully long moments, appreciating the stars, reiterating how filling the meal had been. Luther tried to break the ice with a few subtle karate chops to the night air, and when Alma took the bait and inquired, Luther smugly acknowledged that he had been studying karate for years by mail. More silence ensued. Eventually, Luther admitted to the awkward mismatch. "When you have an average guy and an above average girl…well, Mr. Average is mighty proud to be sitting here with Miss Above Average." But when Luther finally worked up the nerve to reach his arm around behind Alma's shoulders and she mirrored his smile, you had to taste some measure of confidence that all just might turn out right with the world. Ultimately, after enjoying some newfound celebrity, enduring potential humiliation and shame, and suffering nail-biting terrors, Luther eventually catches the crook and cements his heroic fame. "I made my whole body a weapon," he explained.

And that's the clarification that grabbed me. It usually requires that, doesn't it? I think about how many endeavors get far less of me; how many times I make half…um…hearted efforts at accomplishing noble undertakings, and often the results bear glaring, blaring witness. Most of the people whose accomplishments I admire -- average people, every one -- have followed Luther Hegg's example: they have marshaled the whole of themselves to face the usually above-average task at hand. They made their whole body a weapon.

Here, at the beginning of a new week, I recognize that not everything requires that kind of engagement. But surely a thing or two will come along that do not simply ask for more. They may well tolerate my awkward discomfort, and endure my banal conversation, but before the moment is finished will demand the rest that I have to offer.

Luther made his whole body a weapon, and as a result saved the day – and the girl.

We'll see what I manage to get done.