Sunday, November 29, 2009

Readying the Wait

So, on the way out of Minneapolis Friday -- "Black Friday" -- we made a quick stop by the "Mega-Mall" -- the Taj Mahal of merchandise, the St. Peter's of purchasing. Of course, a "quick trip" to the Mall of America on Black Friday is relative. It took us awhile to park, finally sliding into a berth on the seventh floor of the west parking ramp -- not to be confused, of course, with the north or south or east or "remote" ramps (again, "remote" being a relative term, essentially meaning "still within the state of Minnesota"). We were only headed to one store, in search of one thing, so apart from threading our way through the throngs and dodging clerks carrying boxes stacked too high to see over, it was a fairly simple excursion.

Arriving home a few hours and several dozen Christmas tunes later and, among other obligations, dragging out boxes of decorations and accomplishing a few more shopping errands, the lights are now strung, the tree is up, the knick knacks of the season are finding their way around the house and the Christmas letter is conceived, if not quite composed. I can't quite say that the "stockings are hung by the chimney with care," but by nightfall it all should be accomplished.

Then what?

Then, I suppose -- as the season of Advent suggests -- we wait. Wait, to be sure, but perhaps more accurately we watch...for glimpses of the holy we might happen to see. Unlike previous years our calendars anticipate a season reasonably paced, with an appealing handful of holiday events -- a party here, some concerts there -- seasoning a surprising number of quieter, breathable days.

The iPod holiday playlists are ready with a mix of quiet, boisterous, new, traditional, and even a handful of funny songs. The lights are twinkling. The temperatures are dropping. Scents of cinnamon and cider and nutmegged nog and evergreen are wafting. And the Story is beginning to evoke again deeper hopes; more poignant longings.

Who knows, then, what we may see in the coming days; and hear?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Feel A Poem Coming On

Somewhere deep in a memorabilia box is a chin strap -- from a player whose name was something like Lynsey Cole. I think he was a wide receiver, but that was a long time ago when I bummed it off the sweaty player after the game was over. I don't know if kids do that anymore, but it used to be a big deal -- conning a chin strap from a football hero. And Cole -- or whatever his name was -- was the closest thing I had at the time to a hero on the TCU football team. I have been a TCU fan for as long as I can remember. The only thing I can't remember is ever having much reason to be. I grew up hearing stories about the Hornfrogs' storied past -- "Slingin'" Sammi Baugh, Davey O'Brien, a Heisman Trophy and a National Championship -- but by the time I was conscious of such things those photographs had yellowed. By the time I was a student there, the football team was terrible. We used to count it a moral victory every time "we" kept our opponent below triple digits.

Nonetheless, I was a fan. As a kid I would even be inspired -- in the occasional victory and certainly in their frequent defeats -- to write adoring, even passionate poetry. It was terrible, of course -- predictable lines with wincing rhymes the likes of Edgar A Guest -- but it was heartfelt. Even in the sewer seasons -- decades -- I have been loyal, if less and less attentive, fan. I haven't written a poem in years.

All of which makes the Hornfrogs' national attention this season all the sweeter. To be sure, they have improved in recent years, becoming almost regular post-season bowl contestants. If some of those appearances have been at such celebrated venues as the Scranton Sauerkraut Bowl, well, at least they have been televised. Somewhere. At some hour.

But this year! Wow! Undefeated. Ranked #4 behind such storied teams as Florida, Alabama and Texas and touted not only as a major bowl candidate but even as conceivable, albeit unlikely, national champions. It all seems unreal -- surreal. We long-time fans have become so proficient at keeping stiff upper lips that we have to remind ourselves -- and give ourselves conscious permission -- to smile. Sure, there are two games left in the season, both against doormat teams; but of course those are the most dangerous kind. It's easy, as my old junior high tennis coach used to say, to "slip in your drool." The clock could still strike twelve and turn it all back into a pumpkin, but it is awfully fun for the moment.

Actually, it's more than fun -- it's exciting. Euphorically, passionately so. If I lived near enough to get close to the field, I would elbow my way through the fans and try to bum a chin strap. But here, 1000 miles away, the best I can do is cheer...

...for the Frogs I hold so dear. Victory is oh so sweet, it makes me jump to my feet.

Well, you get the idea.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Senseless in Every Sense

"What happened?" his neighbor phoned to ask after hearing what sounded like gun shots.
"I shot a cop," he calmly replied. "I just blew my wife’s brains out. Should I turn myself in or kill myself?"
"Turn yourself in," the neighbor answered. And then the line went dead.
Unfortunately, it was all true -- the shots, the wounded officer outside, and the dead wife inside. It all happened Wednesday afternoon and the disconcerting questions have distracted me ever since. How could a bright, apparently winsome young woman, a 3-time veteran of Iraqi deployments, get herself entangled with, pregnant by, and finally married to this man with a blaring history of abuse, assault and restraining orders requested by numerous women?
8-months after the birth of their baby boy.
4-months after their wedding.
How does a relationship that begins in euphoric love find its end in a kidnapping in a Target parking lot and a murder, less than an hour later, in the apartment they had, until a month ago, shared?

I suppose one answer is that few of us do background checks on the people with whom we fall in love. After all, since we are good and decent people, there's no possible way that we could be drawn to someone who isn't. Besides, wouldn't such a past eventually creep out into the open -- in the whispers of friends; in anonymous tips or newspaper clippings slipped surreptitiously under the door? OK, probably not that last one, but surely somehow. Right?

But then perhaps she knew. Perhaps she was fully aware, and believed that somehow she was different -- that those other women were really to blame, or maddeningly brought the worst out in him; or perhaps she naively thought she could change him; or perhaps refusing to think about such things, stuck a finger in each ear and began to sing The Flintstones theme song loud enough to block out the sound of the whispers.

In the end, she couldn't finally block out the sound of the gunshots.

Don't misunderstand me. I don't mean for a second to blow blame in her direction. She may have been uninformed, she may have been naive, she may even have been in denial -- she may have been all of these or none of these -- but none of these is a capital offense. He is the criminal. He is the one who stalked her, forced her into his car, and then killed her with a gun he was prohibited by law to possess.

No, it's just that I can't fathom any underlying story. I can't get my mind around the immensity of it.

And I can't imagine what the preacher will manage to croak out of his throat in the course of her funeral that will make anyone feel any better. I'm guessing that pointing out how "all things work together for good for those who love the Lord..." will be a tough sell. In some abstract or over-arching sense we can believe it as a tenet of our faith, but it is hard to hear while the sound of gun blast still echoes in the air.

Perhaps what I'm running up against in my inability to understand this terrible story is the fact that some things just make no sense. Senseless from every angle.

As her military friends observed with dismay, she survived daily threats from the enemy in Iraq, only to die in her own apartment at the hands of her husband. Senseless indeed.

May the Lord bless and keep her, be gracious to her, look upon her with a smile, and give her...
...and all concerned...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Where Does this Belong?

We have become cluttered again. The dresser surface in the bedroom is littered with miscellaneous receipts and Post-it notes and pocket change; the table between our living room chairs has become a repository of plastic newspaper wrappers, rubber bands, books, cords associated with this or that piece of technology, and CD's that need to be returned to the library. The wicker tray on the ottoman where we keep recent magazines is mounded and spilling its now well out of date displays. The dining room table is strewn with mail, crowded on one corner by a revolving string of one delivered shipping box or another.

In our defense, some of this disorder represents the usual flora and fauna that flourish in the wake of travels out of town. The piles of mail are inordinately deeper, and the necessarily focused attention on all the backlogged work-related responsibilities leaves little time or energy for the backlogged ones at home. We have stored the suitcases back in the basement, but subtler residue of recent travel isn't hard to find.

But the deeper truth is that every now and then we have to do a "gut check." Time goes by. Hours roll end over end. Days dawn and then darken. Calendars fill. Before we know it we are moving through our days rather than actually occupying them with any adequate degree of attention or appreciation or grounding. And then stuff stacks up. "I'll get to that tonight" becomes "have you recently seen...?" -- fill in the blank with the bill or note or button or book of your choice. After awhile we hardly even notice the disarrayed accumulations.

Until one of us -- OK, until Lori -- calls a halt to our self-induced blindness, insists that we remove the mental cataracts and actually look around us, and invites us into the Divine work of bringing order out of chaos. To be sure, our chaos isn't primordial, and the ordering won't likely take six days, but it will be interesting to see what new creatures emerge from the process.

And we will enjoy the glorious -- and decidedly neater -- sabbath that follows.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Still Tasting It

Typically when we are visiting the Inn, life for the staff is too busy for much casual conversation. Always professional and gracious, interaction is nonetheless measured. There simply isn't the luxury of more. This time, however, the autumn crowds had diminished by the time we arrived and life in the Inn was winding down for the November break. Tableside conversation with the waitstaff could be more relaxed. The Innkeepers were unhurried. And we got to have conversations with Chef Jason.

We had met the chef before in glancing encounters in the hallway, but like all the other staff members in previous visits, he had no time to stand around. There were meats to braise and sauces to prepare and fennel to shave. But this year we bumped into him in the entry area just as we were checking in. To our surprise, he recognized us and chatted for a moment. It happened again a day or two later. And then again that afternoon as we returned from our cooking classes at King Arthur Flour. He asked about our experience and I chuckled about the fresh pasta I had made and carried back without any real use since we wouldn't be cooking for awhile. Chef Jason volunteered to do something with it and took it off my hands. That night, the server presented as our appetizers "Tim's Pasta Two Ways." Two different pastas. Two different recipes. Two fabulous dishes. When the Chef came out to see what we thought, our praise led into an extended conversation -- about cooking, to be sure, but more broadly about farming and nutrition and sustainability and a passion for authenticity. Surely there were dirty pots that needed scrubbing -- or no doubt more important things to be doing in the kitchen -- but the conversation prevailed and this wonderful, powerful interaction was as nourishing as the food.

Despite our best efforts to slow down time, our last evening arrived and we found our table in the dining room. First the server appeared, and then Chef Jason, who asked if it would be all right if he cooked for us that evening. It seemed impolite to wonder who had been doing the cooking on previous occasions; besides, we were too flummoxed to say much but a croaking "sure." What followed was a harbor of food with undulating waves of courses that bore no resemblance the menu from which other diners in the room were selecting. A Latin theme -- the Chef had picked up on my Texas roots and culinary leanings -- each course presented a familiar concept elevated to grandeur: a chilled avocado soup with echoes of guacamole; a chile relleno stuffed not simply with cheese but silky sweet potato as well. And on and on until the delectable denouement of flan for dessert. The Chef, himself, presented each course with a description of the preparation, before slipping back into the kitchen to continue his work. Five courses in all, each leaving us more speechless than the course before. By the time we savored our final bite we had no words to offer proper thanks; the food, to be sure, but moreso the gift itself was far beyond words.

At breakfast the next morning we expressed our humility and puzzlement and gratitude to Innkeepers Dave and Jane. "What was that all about," we queried, "and how were we privileged to receive such an indescribable gift?" "It's simply Chef's way of expressing appreciation," they responded.

"Simply." That hardly seems an adequate word. And if appreciation was merited, it flowed that night in the wrong direction. It was the Chef who better deserves it: a young man of extraordinary talent, extraordinary vision, deep culinary integrity, a passion for honoring the good earth and those farmers who steward it, and an humble spirit that understands himself to be part of a larger cycle of sun and soil and seed and harvest and hunger and the delightful blessing of food, joined with the privilege of receiving it as an artist of sorts with the holy purpose of preparing and presenting it in such a way as to honor and celebrate the gift that it is.

That, I think, is what it means to be a Chef; and we are still tasting the joy of being fed by a great one -- fed in more ways than one.

Thanks Chef Jason. It was a dinner -- and a kind generosity -- that we will never forget.