Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking Life in the Eyes

Waiting is not our long suit.  At the very least I am speaking autobiographically, but I think I am not the only one.  Speed is of the essence.  I curse the minute or so it takes for my computer to boot up, and I gnash my teeth at the slower internet connection at our new house.  I can't wait for Christmas, but then once it arrives I rue the endless months between now and the next one.  Even though we apply the query to matters of lesser and lesser consequence, we have made the plaintive cry of Martin Luther King, jr. and the Hebrew prophets our own:  "How long, O Lord, how long?"

I could blame our mounting impatience on technology.  Horses gave way to trains which gave way to automobiles which gave way to propeller-driven airplanes, which in turn gave way to jets.  Dial-up was consumed by DSL, and the U.S. Postal Service is being/has been replaced by e-mail.  We have come to expect that wherever we need to go we can get there quicker; whatever needs to be accomplished can be checked off faster and faster.  We have, in a sense, been trained that way.  Even major life issues we see encountered and resolved within the span of a 30-minute sitcom or at worst an hour-long drama.  Shouldn't our lives work that way as well?

And so the rub when we read one of the texts often scheduled for this Sunday of the year:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  (Luke 2:25-34)
Luke doesn't tell us how patiently Simeon had waited; only that he had done so -- presumably for a long, long time.  He had waited.  Day in and day out; watching and waiting.  As a friend pointed out, this isn't really a "waiting" story but rather a "fulfillment" story -- Simeon is finally able to prayerfully exclaim, "OK, now I can die because I have finally seen what I was looking for."  Fulfillment.

But isn't the reason we tell fulfillment stories is to reinforce the significance of the waiting still to be endured?  Not even Simeon, after all, could claim with any honesty the waiting was really over.  Moses, near the end of the Exodus through the wilderness, was finally able to see the Promised Land across the way, but there was still some distance to travel before their feet would actually land there, and that ultimate accomplishment would be beyond Moses' scope.  Simeon looked into the baby's eyes and could see the salvation of his people, but it was looking through a telescope lens not a window.  If it's possible for some to see a world in a grain of sand, it was apparently possible for Simeon to see the culmination of God's desire in a baby's eyes; but there is yet a vast difference between the "seeing" and the "arriving."

And we have not yet arrived.  There is waiting still to be endured for the time when all hungry bellies are full, when all naked backs are clothed, when all lonely hearts are comforted, when all estrangements are reconciled, when every human being is honored, and when all of creation is recognized and revered for the fingerprint of God that it is. 

We have a ways to go.  And so we wait, taking inspiration from the likes of Simeon who somehow managed the suspense and the lengths of days while never ceasing to watch and listen.  Eventually, after all, he recognized the sound and the sight he was after.  If he can do it, well...

     ...perhaps we can, as well.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's the Taste That Finally Matters

Some number of years ago I heard a lecture by Jeremiah Wright, a now-retired African-American scholar and minister from Chicago who had the misfortune of being the pastor to a future President, and the impertinence to read scripture in general and the Hebrew prophets in particular under the delusion that the words might actually have some relevance beyond the ancient Hebrews -- maybe even for Americans, an unforgivable sin that challenged our sacrosanct notions of exceptionalism.  But that's another story. 

The lecture I heard, titled "Different, Not Deficient", described the physiological, evolutionary, linguistic and cultural particularities of people from African descent.  It was a fascinating study, but what has stuck with me in the ensuing years is his observation that insiders can be critical of the "family", but outsiders had better steer clear.  It's funny, he noted, when Eddie Murphy tells jokes about black people -- even employing with impunity words long-since scratched from the pages of decency dictionaries -- while the same jokes told by a white comedian would sound hurtful and racist.  The same is true of deprecating Jewish humor voiced by Jewish comedians like Jackie Mason or Henny Youngman.  Told from the inside, it's funny; from the outside, it is offensive. 

That important pivot came to mind this morning as I finally got around to reading Stephen Bloom's "Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life" published earlier this month in The Atlantic Magazine.  Bloom, a Professor of Journalism at the University of Iowa for the past two decades, has the advantage or the misfortune of being just such an outsider.  Little wonder, then, that his observations have intruded on Iowans' own sense of exceptionalism; vilified in the state, as a result, because of his characterizations of the towns and traditions and demographics situated between, as he refers to them, the once-great Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  Indeed, an article in today's Des Moines Register reports that Bloom, on leave this year and teaching in Michigan, has essentially gone into hiding for the holidays because of the hate mail he has received. 

Like Bloom I, too, am a transplant, having moved to Iowa about the same time just short of 20 years ago.  My relocation brought me from the "mother of all" exceptionalists -- the great nation of Texas -- where I had been born and reared, and I'll admit that I unpacked with some sense of disoriented trepidation.  Yards were small, houses had a conspicuous absence of brick, overages were stored in basements instead of attics, there seemed to be a notable shortage of jewelry, women's hairstyles were small -- even demur, and of course there was snow.  But life as I have experienced  it in this foreign land has been blessed and good.  There have been opportunities along the way to move, but I have stayed -- not long enough to become an actual "Iowan", of course, but long enough to feel gratefully at home and appreciative of the people and places and sensibilities that surround me.  I like it here.  In fact, I have just sunk an even deeper set of roots here with the purchase of an acreage and a home "on the land."

All that said -- or perhaps because of those details -- I read Bloom's observations a good bit more charitably than most apparently have.  As far as I can tell, he has his facts straight, and of the data essentially speaks the truth.  We may not like having all these dingier details spotlighted for the world to see, but it is hard to argue with the assessment that they are, in fact, our details.  Indeed, I have heard much the same data named and lamented in public and casual conversations as long as I have lived here -- the drying up of small rural towns, the forced consolidation of declining school districts, the declining population, the "brain-drain" that is the departure of our young for "sexier" locales, the deterioration of infrastructures, the departure of manufacturing jobs for cheaper labor south of the border, and of course an often-forbidding climate.  Did Bloom write anything that even the governor himself has not decried, or for that matter virtually every mayor in the state?  Not that I saw.

Bloom, I think, got the facts straight; it is the spirit -- the ethos and the pathos -- he got wrong.  Iowans would contend, I suspect, that they are less defined or described by the data of our circumstances than by the essence of our community.  Frankly, I'm not sure that's different from any other city or state.  We are certainly not less than our demographics or economies or climates, but we are just as certainly more.  Except for the most parochially delusional, Iowans look out across the landscape of their lives and see the same realities as those listed by Professor Bloom, but simply don't recognize themselves in his characterization.  The two dimensions of his altogether dispassionate observation are, I would argue, unassailably accurate; they simply overlook the more revelatory third dimension of social and cultural intercourse that colors and animates the living of a people's life together.  In culinary terms, Bloom accurately listed the ingredients of our cultural recipe; he simply botched the way the finished dish actually tastes. 

The ingredients, to be sure, aren't unimportant; but it is, after all, the taste that one finally remembers. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In the Listening and the Speaking

It was a hospital story that dominated discussion this morning.  Sometimes it is a recent trip or political commentary; recently we delved into the varied nuances of deer hunting regulations at the county level.  Rarely, however, is there silence.  For the past 16 years -- or perhaps 17 or 18, I forget -- most of my Wednesday mornings have begun at 6:30 a.m. with a group of men who have little in common apart from that sausage biscuit, banana, the weekly conversation and our gender.  It isn't a religious group, nor is it therapy even though it was birthed by one of the staff at the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center who had a particular interest in men's issues. 

We read a book together from time to time -- about transitions, for example, or gender issues appropriately enough; we have read about soul work and parenting and currently happiness.  But the books and their topics have become less important over the years.  Indeed, a book may last us a year because weeks will go by with the upcoming chapter unacknowledged, sidelined by more important matters.  In the course of our meeting together we have shared the trauma of devastating diagnoses and the physical and emotional swings of subsequent treatments, even singing at the funeral of one of our "members."  We have patiently and presently listened until tears abated long enough to continue a telling about a marital separation or a breathtaking insight or a parental disappointment or a recent and still-stinging grief.  We have buried spouses, been part of foreign adoptions, nurtured the blossoms of budding romance and eventual marriage, counseled retirements and waved goodbye.

We have held each other in our keeping.  For some reason I have been reflecting on the miracle of this community.  In this Twittering Facebook world, there is certainly no absence of information.  We know all manner of detail about friends and family and virtual strangers alike.  We are made privy to political views, personal and sometimes questionable photographs, the details of new tattoos, shopping frustrations and the color of the baby's vomit.  But I'm not sure how much this tsunami of information creates real community.

Churches occasionally get it right, creating moments and spaces for sharing the substance of our joys and concerns.  But just as often congregations are better at advocating for community than they are at building it, worshiping side by side but too easily going our separate ways having shared little more than an attendance register and a common pew.

Genuine community requires a double-edged vulnerability:  we have to be willing to speak out loud about what we find in those nooks and crannies of our being moist enough for real life to germinate; and we have to be patient and available enough to listen as those around us are sharing it.  Of the former, we need be cognizant enough about ourselves to trust in the significance of small and often quiet inner voices.  Of the latter, we must keep in mind that "interesting" and "important" are not always the same.  Community requires a reverence for both the mouth and the ear. 

I'm grateful for this merry band of men who have long since been content to laugh together, cry together, mourn together, argue together, celebrate together, wait together and, above all -- or perhaps it is "through it all" -- to hold one another in our collective keeping.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Worthy and Blessed Adversary

I learned late this week of the death of Loren Cartwright -- a hundred-and-something year old member of First Christian Church.  His is a noteworthy passing, for more reasons than his advanced age.  Loren, whatever his other accomplishments, was a blunt straight-shooter. 

A retired banker, Loren always presented himself as a businessman with a clear grasp of the numbers.  Numbers, he would argue, don't lie.  What I hadn't known about him until a year or so ago, at his last birthday gathering in the private dining room of Scottish Rite Park, was that he had started out as a musician of some talent who had even played one night as a fill-in with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra.  "Playing in a band," he recalled, "was the hardest work in the world, and after that night I decided to go back to school and get a regular job."

But it wasn't his resume that impressed me.  It was his aliveness and forthrightness.  Widowed several years ago, Loren kept connected with family and the world through the internet.  I don't know how many computers he went through while at Scottish Rite, but I remember him showing me his new laptop years ago.  He wasn't one to coast.  Knowing that he was thusly "connected" despite being homebound, I emailed him my Christmas sermon a couple of years ago as we were headed out of town, thinking he might appreciate the token.  He emailed me back the next day, thanking me for the thought, but taking issue with the content of the sermon itself.  "I just can't imagine what relevance Al Capone has to the Christmas story," he wrote referring to my opening illustration.  I dutifully wrote back, trying to better explain my thought process.  He, in turn, wrote back; thanking me for my consideration but confessing -- or muttering -- that he "still didn't get it."  The truth, I suspect, was that he "got it," he just didn't approve.

What will always endear Loren to me, however, was his relationship to the sanctuary renovation project the church undertook several years ago.  In short, Loren was against it.  Vigorously.  Noisily.  It was foolishness, he said often and to whomever would listen.  "A total waste of money."  I no longer recall what it was about the project that offended him.  Maybe it was simply the expenditure of money on a room that, as far as he was concerned, was perfectly fine.  Maybe -- and this is likelier -- Loren was pessimistic about the future viability of the congregation and he saw it all as throwing good money after bad.  I don't know.  All I know is that Loren continued to vote against the project at every possible opportunity, even after the workers were well underway.

It isn't his negativity, however, that marks this particular congregational episode.  It is his public repentance.  After the project was completed and the congregation, after the six or eight months of worshiping in Fellowship Hall, had moved back into the "new" space, Loren stood up during the sharing of joys and concerns one Sunday during the service and confessed his mistake.  "I was wholeheartedly against this renovation project," he acknowledged before the congregation, "but I am here to say that I was WRONG" (emphasis his).  "This," he concluded with an arm sweeping around the room, "is WONDERFUL." 

I'll never forget that moment.  Loren didn't suffer fools, was a verbal curmudgeon, and he was never short on certainty.  We often disagreed on what was "certainly" right, and I still think he was wrong about the Al Capone story, but it takes a large person to stand up in a crowd and admit his error.  Despite his rather diminutive stature, at that moment Loren became one of the biggest men I know.

Loren loved life, but I have no doubt he was ready to go.  He never ceased to miss his beloved Ethel, and the world, as far as he was concerned, was getting crazier and crazier.  "Enough," I can almost hear him declare, "with all that." 

Rest, then, you signal centenarian, in peace.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rejoicing Always -- Even Amidst Happy Holidays


Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)
 This year's popular crusade has become the punishment of stores that commit the unforgivable sin of wishing their customers a "Happy Holiday" instead of Merry Christmas.  Political candidates rail against such diminution of religion.  An internet campaign is pushing a trite little song, sung in part by children, which advocates the boycott of Merry Christmas-less merchants.  "News" pundits decry the tyranny of "political correctness" that strips good old American Christianity from consumeristic discourse.  "It is, after all, about the birth of Jesus" they huff.  

Well, for many of us.  But for many others it is about a wide variety of other affirmations and celebrations and -- yes, it's true -- religious devotions.  Christmas may be the loudest jukebox at the party this time of year, but it isn't the only music playing.  And even Christians have to admit that we sort of pirated this season from an already existing semi-religious observance full in the hearts of many.  Nobody, after all, really believes that Jesus was born on December 25.  I wonder if the druids decried what they must have viewed as the lamentable shift from "Happy Solstice" to "Merry Christmas," and scratched their heads over how to reclaim what, as far as they were concerned, was the "reason for the season"?

I have a hunch that if you asked 10 random retail merchants why they opted for "Happy Holidays" signs in their store instead of ones encouraging a "Merry Christmas" not one of them would mention political correctness.  They would, instead, speak to the need to relate to a wide variety of consumers, only some of whom are Christian.  Especially in this challenging economy, retailers who rely on the goodwill of their customers can't afford to alienate any available constituency.  While Christians ought to feel perfectly comfortable and free to wish the cashiers who serve them a "Merry Christmas" as we leave, surely we can cut the same employee some slack for not choosing to predetermine the faith tradition of the stranger placing a nick knack or a sweater on the counter.  

Why is it that Christians seem always to pick such flimsy fights?  While we are busy fuming over slogans, who is worrying, meanwhile, about the unemployed who, in greater and greater numbers each month, simply give up looking for work because jobs are not to be found -- a statistical fact hidden in the rosier unemployment statistics published every few weeks?  Who is concerned about the long term effects of the shrinking middle class and the consolidation of the citizenry into merely the "ultra rich" and the "ultra poor"?  Just today the Des Moines Area Religious Council's Food Pantry announced that they are reducing the number of canned goods in the bags given to needy families because -- and this truly shameful -- the supply of food received by the Pantry is not keeping up with the escalating need.  I wish a candidate for President would condemn this state of affairs.  Or, I don't know, maybe all this would be instantly fixed if only the Shoe Carnival clerk would wish everyone a "Merry Christmas."

This is not the kind of distraction that ought to be consuming we consumers.  This is not an issue worthy of the church's energies.  The scriptures we purport to read and use for guidance are full of succinct reminders of stronger priorities.  When the prophet Micah recalled that "God has shown you what is good," he wasn't talking about season exclamations.  He went on to enumerate the doing of justice, the love of kindness, and the daily walk, in humility, with God.  When Jesus preached to his hometown congregation, he didn't announce that he had come to police appropriate holiday greetings; he claimed the enjoinder of the prophet Isaiah, acknowledging that "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, ro bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor..."  And when Jesus imagined the final judgment and the rubrics for reward and punishment, he didn't name Christmas signage.  He spoke of sharing cool water with the thirsty, sharing food with the hungry, sharing companionship with the lonely, sharing comfort with the mourning and clothing with the naked.  The question of how we greet each other in the marketplace during the month of December is too puny of a windmill for Christians to tilt at.

If I were preaching this Sunday I would focus on the epistle reading out of 1 Thessalonians from the Revised Common Lectionary.  For one thing, the passage strikes me as a powerful and light-filled word for a people living in a fairly dark time.  For another, it focuses our attention where, day in and day out, it ought to be in the first place:  less on judging others as to what we think they ought to be doing, and more on those behaviors and attitudes that we -- as disciples of Jesus -- ought to be exhibiting. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sears, Redux

Lori tells me I have to post an update.  The Sears saga has come to some resolution, and I agree that it's only fair that the rest of the story be told. 

For starters, I did, indeed, receive a follow-up email from Sears after my second rather spicy provision of feedback.  It was, I have to say, a rather patronizing response that suggested if I had wanted a stove equipped a certain way I should have mentioned that at the time of purchase.  Never mind that I had done precisely that, and had included that information in my initial communications.  Nevertheless, the message continued...
"If you had an issue where an installation occurred from one of our licensed installers, and they connected the appliance to your propane gas line without converting it and telling you, then that is a separate issue. If such a case has occurred, please contact [number deleted], and we will escalate your case to our Installation Solutions, and they will discuss further options."

"Escalate."  I love that. So, I took my "separate issue" into escalation, dialed the number, and after two or three tries was connected to a helpful man in Florida in the unenviable position of working in the central office of "I'm mad and want to complain."  He agreed that my experiences were unacceptable, and that while his options were limited he anticipated that the local store manager would not want a customer "out there" feeling the way I do, and that surely he would want to "participate" in some resolution. 

At this point I anticipated that my helpful Floridian was going to suggest I call the store.  Cutting him off I indicated that I had tried that, but that the Sears phone jail system made it practically impossible to ever talk to anyone.  He mentioned that he had a "direct" number.  After being on hold for several minutes he came back on the line to tell me that the store manager didn't seem to be available, but that an assistant manager was on the line who would help me.  After introducing us to each other, my first helper left the conversation in our capable hands.  Much to my surprise, the assistant manager listened, empathized, asked questions about how much money I was now spending on what should have been covered in the first place, clattered around on a calculator, and offered me $500 to cover the extra expenses.  After I happily accepted his offer, he took my bank card information and relayed that he would call me back when the refund transaction was completed.

Hours later I got a call from our original salesperson, apologizing for the mess and reassuring me that he had looked up our order and confirmed that what we had ordered was correct; the problems had started after it left his and our involvement.  "Oh," he continued, "and I understand that the assistant manager offered you $500 to cover the extra costs."  I confirmed the offer.  "Well, the assistant manager talked it over with the manager and..."

It was at exactly this moment when I thought I was really going to have to eat crow.  "They are going to up the ante," I thought to myself.

"...and the most we are able to offer is $450."

"Really," I thought to myself; "you are going to jerk me, an already mad and mouthy customer, around for a lousy $50 bucks?  Really?  I can't believe it."

But that's where I left it.  I took the $450 and ran, thankful that I had come out of the aggravation with anything but more aggravation.  It will likely cover most if not all the expenses, and I wasn't, after all, out for blood.

Simply what I had supposedly purchased IN THE FIRST PLACE. 

As for you, Mr. Cheapskate store manager, take your spouse out to dinner with my $50 and enjoy every miserly bite.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Because Sears Won't Return My Call

Fair warning:  this is a rant.  Think of it as payback -- retribution, the very kind of thing that a decent Christian is supposed to eschew.  The problem is -- as happens so often in these circumstances -- I'm not feeling particularly Christian. 

In short, I'm mad at Sears.  I know that inducts me into a rather large fraternity.  Almost any time I mention Sears I am met with eye-rolls and groans.  We aren't talking high reputation here.  If my experience is representative, it is derision honestly and thoroughly earned.

As you may know, we recently moved.  Two months ago.  In the process we purchased new appliances...from Sears.  In contrast to previous experiences, we actually found -- and liked -- a salesperson.  He was friendly, winsome, and helpful.  He went -- and I don't say this lightly -- above and beyond.  So did we, I might add.  We bought several appliances.  Nice ones.  Plus the extended service contract.

On the appointed delivery day, all seemed to go well.  Again, the delivery personnel were efficient and affable.  But when I found a floor covered in water from the refrigerator a scant two hours post-delivery, I called the super, handy-dandy, elite service number and, after talking with nine different people -- literally.  Nine -- who each solicited from me the exact same information, I learned that they would be happy to send someone out in two weeks.  "It's a brand new refrigerator that hasn't been here two hours," I replied.  "And it is flooding my house."  Two weeks was the best I could get.  "Did I want to go ahead and schedule that service call?" I was asked.  No, I responded, and suggested that I would prefer my service contract back.  I called a plumber who came that afternoon.

Meanwhile, the stove.  I don't know anything about propane -- our new fuel of record out here in the country -- so I don't know how to assess "normal."  But in our two months of use we have wearied of the black soot that cakes on the bottom of the pots sitting over the fire, and subsequently smears on clothes, rags, rubber dishwashing gloves, etc.  It's gross.  It's persistent.  But as I say, who knows?  Maybe that's propane's normal.  Before resigning ourselves to the nuisance, however, I once again called our local repair service.  I was concerned that I might not live long enough to see a service call from Sears.  I called yesterday.  A technician was here at 9:00 a.m. this morning.  From him I learned that the stove was incorrectly installed.  There is a conversion kit required for propane -- the very one I was promised actually came with the stove -- and a second adjustment that is supposed to me made.  Neither action had been accomplished.  "I can't believe you have been living with this," he marveled.  "Besides, it's not really safe.  See those yellow flames?  They are producing carbon monoxide.  That, and the flames are way too large.  That's dangerous, too.  Something could catch fire."  Yes, I muttered, and cover the world with soot.

So now I have ordered, for $165, the conversion kit that I supposedly already bought, will enjoy a second service call, neither of which should have been necessary, and Sears won't respond to my invitations for conversation.

So, as I duly promised them in one of my queries, I am ranting out loud, cautioning anyone and everyone who might have an interest to save yourself the headache -- and maybe even your life -- and shop somewhere else.  Anywhere but Sears.  Please, God, not Sears.  Your heart will thank you.  Your blood pressure will thank you.  Your pots and pans will thank you.  And quite possibly your insurance company and the fire marshal will thank you, as well. 

So there, I've said it.  My rant is officially over.  Go back to whatever you were doing.  My stove still doesn't work right -- and won't until the parts come in -- but it's nice to get it off my chest.  And maybe now I can get back to being a reasonably decent Christian.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Menu choices of the Absurd

The setting was in every way extraordinary -- elegant, dignified, gentle while at the same time quietly assertive.  Perhaps its reputation had co-opted my objectivity, but I rather believe the restaurant truthfully was what it held itself out to be:  quite simply one of the finest restaurants in the world, at least as adjudged by the professional muses of such matters.  In Napa Valley for yet another foray into cooking, both our hosts at the B & B and our chef instructor for the week at the Culinary Institute of America had called attention to the place.  I, of course, had never heard of it before their mention, and I will leave it anonymous; more than a bit embarrassed to have indulged ourselves with such an extravagance.  If, however, a sin, it was a glorious one that we will never forget.   We were ushered to our "lovely table" that had been "prepared for us" as though we owned the place.  We tried to contain our giddy grins with the aloof air of people who frequent such destinations customarily, but I am confident that no one was deceived.  Any opaqueness was scrubbed when, after one particularly delirious course, I asked our demur server how she kept from giggling her way through each night's dinner.  "It is quite wonderful, isn't it" she replied. We were not, however, alone.  Behind our "lovely table" was another, occupied by a couple on whom the room's otherwise library-like decorum was quite lost.  They talked business  (the state of the global economy, for which the man of the table seemed to possess all the answers), politics (they were not independents or moderates), and wine.  By the end of the evening the sommelier had to be delighted to see them go, having dominated her time the entire evening with arcane questions of vineyard sites, vintages, lot numbers, colonial varieties and alcohol content.  Before the oenological carnage was finished, three opened bottles had been rejected and the fourth only tepidly approved.   But however annoying the pair was through the rest of the evening, they provided one enduring and delectable gem.  Surveying the rather adventuresome menu, the woman of the table almost yawningly observed, "it all looks interesting, though I am particularly drawn to the cocks comb and the trout.  Ah, but we so rarely have trout." And let's face it, cocks comb can become so tiresome night after night.   Smugness, the comment reminded me, no matter how elegant the setting, is ultimately oafish and demeaning.   Maybe that's one of the reasons Jesus counseled guests at a dinner to select the seats at the places of least honor.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Putting the Garden to Bed

The sense of satisfaction certainly drowns out the melancholy, but the latter's voice is undeniably singing.  Yesterday, I drove out to the Baxter farm for the official wind down.  I took down the fencing and rolled it up for next year's use.  I surveyed the largely spent plants and plucked the languishing harvest -- a couple dozen more tomatillos, a couple of peppers, and some spicy lettuce.  There was an entire section of wispy green onions that for months I have been expecting to mature into something larger I uprooted and bagged.  And then the larger pulling and chopping began.  The marigolds that had offered such beautiful perimeters all season were the first to go.  Their dried golden blooms and weary stems came up easily -- almost grateful, it seemed, for the rest.  The tomato cages and the woody plants they supported offered themselves smoothly as well.  The okra plants refused to go -- roots apparently woven deep into the soil, no doubt accounting for their prolific output.  It all went quickly -- even with the digging and chopping required of the few; a surprisingly brief process given the hours and months invested in the creation.  The debris was hauled away to the burn pile, and then the work was done.

I have not been attentive to this precious plot of ground since the moving process began in earnest mid-August.  There is the only lament.  There were too many boxes to pack; too many loads to carry from garage to garage; too much to organize, thin and clean, and then the inevitable unpacking and fresh organization.  There was work to be done here, where the future is being built, but out there the plants continued to thirst and push out fruit as best they were able.  Regularly Larry and Shirley, the garden hosts, would bring me reports of its progress along with offerings from the late season harvest.  But it was tough to focus, given so much to do. 

It had been weeks, then, since I had made the trip up north.  The weather had changed and the season was passing.  Still present, its eyes were closing.  It had done its work as best it was able, and it was time to close this chapter.

I am profoundly grateful for the gift of the land that made the experience possible -- a generous wish to encourage my new passion.  My benefactors endured my routine visits for weeding and watering and mowing and tending around the edges of my professional life, early in the morning and late in the evening.  They looked after things when I couldn't, and offered advice and inspiration and encouragement throughout the months. 

And I am tenderly grateful to the plants themselves.  Some things turned out well; others shriveled without so much as a bud.  We gleaned too much of some things -- okra and tomatillos come to mind -- and too little of others, like the beats and the brussels sprouts and the melons.  But overall I am humbled by the results tendered to someone so utterly ignorant of the process.  It has been, from seeding to plucking, an educational experience.  I'm not sure what all I retain, but the plants have taught me well.  They had the temerity to sprout from their seeds in our living room window; the charity to forgive my ignorance about temperature and light, and the hardiness to withstand the transplanting and the tending and the vicissitudes of weather. 

And now the garden is clear.  It takes a careful look to recognize what actually went on there over the past six months; most signs of cultivation have been eradicated.  It's gratifying to learn that Shirley plans to sustain the project next summer, while I relocate my efforts to ground we have come to occupy.  But for now there is satisfaction in the completion. 

Until the seed catalogs begin to arrive.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Shifting Gears and Gasing Up

Seasons change.  I not only know that, I look forward to it.  One of Iowa's celebrative features is its seasonal diversity -- four of them, each unique and delicious in its own way.  Yes, even winter.  In addition to its own intrinsic wonder and introspective beauty, there is no more beautiful spring than one that follows a particularly bitter winter.  In future years, as this gardening project develops and becomes more familiar, I know that late autumn and the settling frost of winter will be welcomed respite from the exertions of the summer field. 

But we have just gotten here.  I have mowed a grand total of twice -- only just completed the greenhouse and cleared the space that will be my inaugural garden.  We have, after all, been unpacking and reorganizing and hanging pictures and baking for the open house -- vastly more pressing pursuits.  And only now for the most part on the "settled" side of those demands, it seems too soon -- and almost unfair -- to shift our attention to winter; never mind that our bodies are over-weary from the unusual demands and physicality of the move.  Knees and ankles and muscles seem imprisoned in perpetual ache, no doubt looking forward to the more sedentary pages of the calendar.  And it will be pure delight to nestle into the sofa in front of the newly serviced fireplace and listen to the icy wind howl and watch, through the windows, the flakes fall and drift. 

We moved here, though, to garden -- to open the soil and tend it and beckon out of it something edible and nourishing and good, and springtime seems a long time to wait. 

But we don't get to decide.  The leaves have fallen and the temperature is following in kind.  The foreshadowings of winter are insinuating themselves more and more.  And so we have officially made the switch.  With the help of kind and sympathizing friends, the mower deck has been disengaged and parked; replaced with the snowblower that sits ready and, if I can anthropomorphize a bit, eager.  Lori's prerequisite for entertaining this crazy idea was that I get her out of the driveway on snowy mornings.  Having, then, honored her side of the idea by moving here, I am ready to honor mine.  So, bring on the snow.  I'm prepared.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Eventually the Seeds

"So are you gardening yet?" 
Right.  We moved a scant two weeks ago and neither of us has scarcely done anything beyond unboxing and trying to find a place to nest the contents.  But we are making progress.  Even the guest room could accommodate visitors as long as they packed a modicum of toleration.  We've even begun considering which piece might accent which blank wall.  And we did plant fruit trees yesterday -- two apples, two plums, and two apricots that were birthday gifts from my kids; affectionately indulgent, even if they can't fathom what their crazy father has done with his livelihood. 

And for two days, Larry and Shirley have devoted themselves to the assembly of my 10' X 12' X 8' greenhouse.  The YouTube video made it look like a snap, but having consumed a collective 50 hours of labor to only get us as far as the frame, I take some issue with their attestation.  Thankfully, they have the grit to return tomorrow to hopefully see the project completed. 

Regardless of the pace, it is all underway -- the land, the house, the trees and the opportunity.  Eventually the boxes will be behind us, and the seeds will be in front of us. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Anticipating the taste of THIS place

Sleep dissipated before the night. It is a common problem when sleeping in a different time zone. The body can't decide whether to believe itself or the hands on the clock. After thrashing the sheets for awhile in physical debate I finally opted to split the difference -- too early to get up in Portland but past time in Des Moines. It's just as well. A little quiet time at the beginning of this day is a pleasant derivative of an aborted night.

We all arrived on schedule -- perhaps 15 minutes apart -- and found each other in the airport baggage claim for this our fourth and final Terroir retreat. It has been quite a ride these past 2 years -- and at least for me, quite life changing. This grant-funded experience that the four of us agreed to make a play on with no expectation that our application would be favorably received has taken us to upstate New York, eastern Vermont, downtown Chicago, and now Portland, Oregon. Along the way we have met some fascinating ministers, artful and thoughtful chefs, and passionate and sensitive farmers, all with an ear for hearing what they had to teach us about the uniqueness of locale -- the taste of place. And in the course of things, we four -- one from Oklahoma living in Texas, one from Texas living in Iowa, and two Iowans, a blend of United Methodist and Disciples -- have had a lot of fun in each other's presence and care.

It's hard to imagine the experience coming to an end. For the past two years it has been one of the "big rocks" in my pile -- first writing the grant proposal, then waiting to hear from the grant selection committee; designing and booking each excursion; reading the preparatory books in advance; and then savoring the trips.

And as I hinted, along the way my center of gravity has shifted. In a way that I can't help but assume is part of the purpose and hope of the grant program, I am a fundamentally different person as a result of all we have passed through together. I see differently. I think differently. I eat differently. The way I practice what I do is different, but moreover, I am in the process of dramatically changing the very "it" of what it is that I do.

All of which is to say that this study in Terroir will hardly be over at the end of this weekend only now commencing. There is much to contemplate, much to pray about and consider, much to write and much to share.

But all of that will have to wait. The sun has finally come up, and the experience -- this final experience -- is set to begin, offering some lesson on the taste of THIS place.

Monday, August 8, 2011

More than a few of the details are still missing

I know, I know, I should have been writing about all this.  Since the seeds and seedlings went into the ground the summer has washed by in a Monet-like blur -- clear enough to recognize the general shapes and impressions, but seldom enough to discern the details.  But as with the heat that has finally broken -- at least for the present -- accompanied by some liberating rains, perhaps enough has shifted in me to allow a few more words, here and there, to emerge and dare to bear a little fruit.

A lot has happened, after all.  Since the first of May I have resigned my job -- the 19-year expression of a vocation I commenced 30 years ago this December; we planted a garden as the first down-payment on a new field of study and ministry; bought a farm south of town, readied our house to sell and officially got it on the market; undertaken the arduous journey of transitioning out of pastoral relationships and roles, and now prepare for the final few weeks as Senior Minister of First Christian Church of Des Moines.  From the gardens as well as the church there has been fruit to harvest -- okra, swiss chard, lettuce, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, radishes, cucumbers, beets, beans and onions from the former; new members and heart-felt expressions from the latter.  And it has been profoundly good -- if more than a little physically and emotionally exhausting.  We have been lost in the morass of transition through which we are only beginning to find our way.  There is still plenty to be done -- more than seems possible in the allotted time -- but we are also beginning to make out the Monet-like shapes of the life beyond, trusting that eventually the Impressionism will transition into Realism.

Monday, June 27, 2011

One Way or the Other, It's All About the Rain

"It was a dark and stormy night..." 
OK, I know that sounds like a Mickey Spillane novel, but in our case it is true.  Close and jarring lightening, punctuated by thunderous grumblings and splattering rain whipped by severe winds spooked the night.  It was a meteorological melodrama that prompted more than one query as to whether we should sleep in the lower level.  It isn't a storm cellar by a long shot, but it is lower and at least feels more grounded, with a few more corners remote from the prospect of flying glass. 

Morning, however, finds all well and mostly in its place.  The sky is blue, with scattered clouds -- like a guilty child trying to pretend its innocence.  Walking Tir through the neighborhood we were serenaded by gurgling storm sewers while dodging puddle-bloated branches blown drown from trees and damming the gutters.  My deck garden seems to have survived intact.  My single pea-sized tomato looks no worse for the disruption, and the half-dozen or so peppers curling and dangling from their stems managed to hold on as well.  The rest of the tomato plants and tomatillos are still covered with blossoms.  Tir and I offer a sigh of relief.

Hopefully we will be able to get some work done at the big garden.  The almost daily rains will have elevated the mowing alert status to "red," and the trenches will be inundated with weeks.  It would be funny if it weren't aggravating:  at the Berclair farm, nothing can be done because of the drought.  At the Baxter farm, nothing can be done because of the rain. 

Go figure.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Neighborly Equivalent of a Song

It's somehow friendlier early in the morning.  Perhaps it is the coolness before the summer sweat simmers all the flavor out of our congeniality.  Perhaps it is the spirit of possibility still fresh before the day's inevitable jostles and sharp edges.  Perhaps we haven't yet turned on the morning news to see what new travesties nature -- or other human beings -- have inflicted on us overnight.  Perhaps it is simply that our muscles and demeanor have not yet had the chance to fist themselves into defensive postures. Or maybe there is simply a relational expansiveness early in the day that, like morning glories, opens only briefly -- beautifully -- before folding back up again until tomorrow.

Whatever the explanation, it was in delightful bloom this morning as Tir and I enjoyed a first walk through more remote portions of the neighborhood.  Sprinklers were already busy in lawns; one early riser with hose in hand was washing off his driveway -- and smiled and said, "hello."  Drivers of passing cars waved.  Even the hostas in the manicured landscaping seemed to swell into greeting, and the vibrant purple of the sage seemed to glow luminescent just for us. 

Before long I will be back at the garden, weeding out the interlopers, and trimming back the encroaching blades.  Someone, sometime in this day, will almost certainly speak a jagged edge.  But early, the day began with the neighborly equivalent of a song.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Market Blessing 2011

For the past 14 years our church has hosted a farmer's market in the parking lot.  By comparison, our market is tiny -- 20 or so vendors in contrast to the 200 or more downtown  -- but it is wonderfully accessible, delightfully relational, surprisingly multi-cultural, and, to summarize it in a word, neighborly.  From Kettle Corn to Barbecue, hand-turned woodcrafts and baskets and games, to artisan bread and local honey and vegetables of wide description. 

One of my favorite writing assignments for the past few years has been to offer a "Blessing of the Market" prior to the opening whistle on the opening afternoon -- a blessing and a whistle that both blew last evening.  I'm always amazed and more than a little humbled by the attention paid in those quiet and prayerful moments by eager vendors and hovering shoppers alike.  This year the sun was shining and the breeze was gently wafting and it couldn't have been more perfect.  And amidst all the anticipation, this year's blessing went like this:

God of the soil and those who tend it; of the seeds and those who plant them; of rabbits and weeds and those who contend against them; of running vines and swelling fruit, and all those who harvest them; of satisfying food and those who prepare it, we give you thanks for all those miracles of nature and ministrations of humans that go on in fields and kitchens and craft rooms to enable such a market as this. Bless our weeks together – we buyers and sellers, poppers and barbecuers, diners and growers and groaners carrying bags delightfully overfilled. Bless the conversations we initiate, the efforts we appreciate, the playfulness we stimulate, and the community that, in our comings and going and setting up and tearing down, we create. Bless this market, we pray, with a taste – a foretaste, even – of life as you intend it. Amen.

Pencil Marking the Growth

 LT calls it "Post Gardening" -- planting in a soil-filled PVC pipe.  The 20 such posts I have planted and ringing our deck are progressing nicely.  The lettuce is ready for a salad, the swiss chard is leaning toward saute, at least one pepper plant is showing off,

  and the tomatillo and tomatoes are starting to blossom. 

Rain has relieved some of the watering responsibilities, but the truth is I rather enjoy the chance to survey the progress and bond with the emergent harvest. 

How else, for example, would I have noticed the vivid yellow stems of the swiss chard, reminding me of the varietal's name -- "bright lights"? 

Now that the third garden is planted -- a community garden plot downtown -- there will be even more to water; hopefully even more to pay attention to and, if there were a door frame nearby, pencil mark the height progress like I used to do with the kids. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Slow and Gentle Moves of Disentanglement

“So how does it feel?” a friend and colleague asked yesterday.
“Strange” was all I knew how to respond. It has been just short of a month since I announced my decision to conclude my ministry here at the end of August, and the responses from others have been quite diverse. “I didn't know you were mad,” said one. For the record, I'm not. “I didn't know anything was wrong,” said another. I'm not aware that anything is wrong. “I am sure you are off to something bigger and better,” responded still another. Well, not so much. I am off to something smaller and dirtier. I'm planning, after all, to farm. More specifically, I plan to learn how to grow food, and to write about the process.

I know, that sounds bizarre. To me, however, it has come to feel compellingly important. For one thing, I don't know how to grow food; and while I am eternally grateful to all those who have done it on my behalf all these years, I am no longer satisfied being the passive benefactor of their efforts. If the truth be told, deep down I am more than a little jealous of them. There is, I am coming to realize, something powerfully mystical and fundamentally, elementally spiritual about participating with God in this process of growth, nurture and nourishment. And I have been missing out. Never mind that I am starting from scratch; I intend to catch up.

But it isn't simply a matter of my own spiritual vitality. There is something missional in all this, as well. As I have increasingly felt competent enough to talk about out loud, we can talk all we want to about “feeding the world,” but if the means we employ are not sustainable in the long term, then I am not sure our efforts stand much chance of success. If, as it seems increasingly clear, that our entire food system – from preparation, to cultivation, to fertilization, to harvest and eventually processing and distribution – is predicated on cheap and readily available energy, what happens when either one of those provisos ceases to be a given? Or both? What happens when energy becomes too expensive to afford, or too short in supply to service the requirements? It seems to me that the answer is, "we get hungry."  Will this happen in my lifetime? Probably not. Will it happen during the lifetime of my children? Perhaps. But will it happen sometime? I don't see how we can forestall it.

So, what should we do? It seems to me that somebody better remember how to grow food on different terms, on a different scale, closer to home – in back yards rather than epic but distant fields. I don't know very many in my generation who know how to do that. I haven't yet met anyone in my children's generation with that kind of knowledge. I am not delusional enough to think I can save the world, but I am hopeful enough to want to be a part of that “great cloud” of collective memory that keeps such knowledge and skill alive; to learn, but then also to teach. I figure that no one is better equipped to chronicle and share the process than someone like myself who begins by knowing absolutely nothing about it.

So, yes, I know it sounds a little crazy. But it feels, as I have shared with my congregation, every bit as strong of a calling as the one that brought me to Des Moines in the first place. I could refuse and ignore that call, but I haven't a clue how I could meaningfully live with that decision. And so Lori and I have made the other decision. To be sure, as I told my questioning friend, it feels strange now in this “time between times.” I am here and working for another few months, but daily becoming increasingly irrelevant to the plans and decisions and visions of the congregation that necessarily continue apace. And I am not accustomed to feeling irrelevant. Or, in some odd and disconcerting way that I don't even like to admit to myself, out of place.

But the transition is important to both the congregation and me. Our lives have been intertwined for almost two decades, and some patient gentleness is required for proper gratitude and disentanglement. Strange, after all, isn't bad; it's simply...well...strange.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It's All in Having the Right Kind of Tools

The problem, of course, with transforming the backyard of friends into your version of a farm is that you become hyper-sensitive about how it looks. It would be one thing if my seedlings were sprouting out on some random property off the highway, but given the fact that my 40-foot trenches were dug within sight of their sun porch means that they have become defacto agricultural landscaping. So yes, we mow the grass paths between the trenches, but that still leaves the edges. It is, I trust, a short term problem, as the flourishing plants will presumably and eventually spill out over the ragged edges. But at this point the naked shagginess requires some detailed attention.

We have tried the weed whacker - that gas-powered, twine-whirring whiz. But, alas, it's macro-trim, coupled with our unpracticed wielding has already decapitated nascent flowers and peppers. The world is already short on food; it can't afford such horticultural abortions. With a great deal more precision, we exchanged the weed-whacker for old-fashioned squeeze trimmers, but with 10 trenches that represents a lot of squeezing.  Our hands can only dream of being that strong -- and our knees that padded!  What is an aspiring farmer to do?  How to keep my hosts happy and my body functioning:  those are the questions.

The answer almost surely involves, as my late uncle routinely asserted, the right tools.  In this case that means a rechargeable handheld grass trimmer, and a manual grass trimmer with an extension handle that enables trimming without stooping or dropping to our knees.


Why is it that no local store seems to carry either one?

Never fear:  the internet is a wonderful thing.  The latter will arrive on Friday; the former on Tuesday.

Life is good!

Hopefully the trimming will be as well.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Eternity in This Moment

It is an odd thing to contemplate the End of the World. Today, after all, is the day all that is supposed to begin. I suppose I should feel chagrined that I have been up now for over an hour, am well into the enjoyment of my second cup of coffee, and am only now recalling the dire predictions.

I don't quite know what to think. Apparently there are only two options - being "Raptured" into bliss or being left to be embroiled in torment. To be sure, the whole timing issue has been murky for me, but here it is almost 8:30 a.m., and I am neither feeling any particular torment nor experiencing any supernatural transport. The birds are still fluttering and feeding just beyond the front porch and the cattle are mooing beyond the trees; the breeze is cool and the peacefulness is palpable. Is the Rapture scheduled for later in the day - after we have had breakfast, perhaps, so we can travel to paradise on a full stomach - or did the biblical calculators and code breakers get it wrong yet again?

If, as I suspect, it is the latter I don't quite know how to feel: relief or disappointment. After all, we have important plans for today that surely God would want us to see consummated - celebrating the 60 years of my parents' marriage. But, then, what are 60 years in the face of eternity? And aren't we supposed to be focused on eternity?

Well, despite all the hype and the titillating expectation, perhaps the answer is finally "no." Instead of spending every moment thinking about eternity, perhaps the divine intent is for us to spend eternity thinking about each moment - the gift that it is, the beauty it contains, the music of the spheres intrinsic in every every breath, blink, heartbeat and taste bud. Maybe God's most fervent desire is not that we spend all our time getting ready for something else, but treasuring the time that we have. And that the real torment is not something God imposes, but is the natural consequence of missing out.

So I think I will blow off the waiting and watching, and get on with the living - attentively, mindfully, gratefully.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Under the Music of the Wings

I remember the feeling I had that first week as a smug music major in college, cradling between my chin and wrist a viola for the very first time. After years of guitar, piano and organ lessons, after an intensive high school choral experience that not only involved challenging vocalise but also music theory education, I felt like I pretty much knew this world of music. I was no tourist here, I was a native - my heart a rhythm instrument and my breath a tuning fork. But in a single awkward grip on an instrument foreign to me in the company of a dozen other freshmen, I found myself in a whole other country. Far, far from "knowing this music thing", it became disorientingly clear that I had merely scratched the surface.

Sitting this morning on a Berclair front porch dotted with bird feeders, I marvel at the complexity and diversity of birds fluttering mere feet away. The hummingbirds especially captivate and punctuate a sense of both awe and ignorance. It's not simply that there are so many, it's that they all seem so different - as though to comprehend that it narrows it down about as much to simply refer to them as "hummingbirds" as it does to say "stringed instruments". Only in the narrowest of ways does it limit the vast generality. Differing colors. Varying Shadings. Nuanced patterns.

So I sit here in the coolness of the morning, animated by the purring wings, unsophisticated enough to fully understand the wonder around me, but fully able, nonetheless, to appreciate and enjoy it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Because Beauty Doesn't Last Forever

It is Barrington who helped me notice the iris.  That last morning in October I sat with him in the chair -- holding him, cherishing him -- I determined to notice the soft feel of his coat, the tender look of his eyes, the resilient flex of his ears...so I could remember.  It was a life and death exercise in presence; paying close attention.

I thought of him again a few mornings ago when Tir led me out the front door onto the porch.  In the flower bed off to the right was the yellow iris in full presentation.  The bud had been teasing us for days with peeks of pigment escaping from the edges of its fist.  This morning, however, while we slept it had relaxed and offered its full self to the birds or the sky or whomever might glance in its direction.  And remembering Barrington's lesson that life and beauty are both fragile and fleeting, I made a point of accepting the gift the iris had worked these past several weeks to deliver -- the yellow, at once subtle and rich; the crepe petals folded gracefully into a still life ballet; the stem, sentry straight and tall.

In a different time and frame of mind I would have noticed the bloom, perhaps even mentioned its loveliness, but moved routinely on; forgetting how short is the life of beauty.  Already the crab apple blossoms, so long expected, are all but gone, and the tulips are leaning and faded.  But the peony bushes are still covered in balls, and the cucumber flowers portend summer fruit.

And just this morning, the lavender iris -- last evening yet but a promise and a tease -- had opened.  I noticed, and I will treasure the joy of its splendor for however many hours or days it shares it.  Because Barrington taught me the importance of paying close attention.

Monday, May 9, 2011

In the Ground and Growing -- Hopefully

I know, I know.  I haven't been writing.  It's just that this gardening business is work.  For the past couple of months my indulgent wife has tolerated seedlings and gro-lamps in the living room; over the past week, sans gro-lights, the little sprouts have spent increasing hours on the deck, "hardening off" as the gardening books call it.  And now, just to telegraph our progress, I am in hopes that as of today there will be a little break -- but I'm not counting on it.  As of today, the main garden and the deck are planted.  Whew!

The main garden ended up 40-feet by 25-feet -- 10 trenches, including flowers.  And just for the record, that trench digging is no picnic.  Yesterday I shared with the congregation this little snapshot of the challenge:

The process had been demonstrated for me, and I had practiced with a mentor who had ultimately loaned me his equipment.  But when I subsequently set it down on the ground that I would be planting and pulled the ignition rope, progress was miserably slow and tedious; and when the time we had was exhausted for the day, we were exhausted, too, with precious little having been accomplished.  We were discouraged and maybe a little panicked about how we were going to get it all done. 
The equipment was part of – if not the primary – problem.  It seemed almost impotent in the face of the task at hand, and so when we got back home we began scouring the internet for better options.  And the next morning we became the proud owners of a brand new tiller of our own – sharper, more powerful, more suited to the task.  Reaching the garden site, I gassed it up, pulled the rope and smiled as its tines dug into the turf that had put up such formidable resistance the day before.  The task was going well, and I was growing tentatively optimistic with every pass that I might just get this done, when suddenly the engine stalled.  Pulling the rope, the engine quickly restarted, but died again only a few steps later – a pattern that repeated itself time and time again.  Quickly my panic about the work still remaining returned with the bitter encroachment of unborn hope that was dying. 



 Even when it got easier, it wasn't easy.  But finally the last one was finished, by yesterday afternoon the last seeds had been sprinkled, the last seedlings had been spaded in, and it was time to call it an evening.  This morning Larry and I set up the fence netting -- plus an added little bit of deer discouragement -- supported the tomatoes and tomatillos, watered one last time, and I exhaled.  If you are interested, you can view the layout online.

This afternoon, I tackled the deck garden -- those 20 PVC pipes, all but two of which are 4-inch pipes cut 40-inches tall and filled with soil.  Lettuce, swiss chard, both purple and green tomatillos, various peppers, and tomatoes.  Too many tomatoes.  Between the garden and the deck, exceedingly too many tomatoes.  But, we'll see.  Who knows what will materialize? 

For now, Tir thinks it is time for a rest.  For the record, I agree.

Monday, April 18, 2011

One Final Adolescent Pause Before Spring

The penultimate move. The tomatoes and the tomatillos were beginning to look like redwoods, towering out of their 4" pots, dusting the bulbs of the gro-lights suspended above them. Healthy, by all appearance, and aching skyward, the conclusion was unavoidable that the time had arrived for one last staging move. Steve had alerted me weeks ago to the need for multiple moves. It wouldn't be so easy as to poke a seed into some potting soil, water every now and then, and wait for the eventual day the weather permitted their relocation to the garden. There would be stages, each of which would require its own particular attention and intervention. Like any childhood, I suppose, each phase has its own work to accomplish -- crawling, walking, speaking, exploring, rebelling, until finally, if those prior phases have been worked well, thriving in maturity and bearing some kind of fruit. At this stage of my horticultural parenting, I can yet still only dream about the fruit. And I suspect I still have some rebellion to which I can look forward. But the little stems that once were tiny seeds are steadily growing up.  They may not yet have reached adulthood, but are well into adolescence.  "Sunrise; sunset..."

It was that "up" part that was preoccupying me. Having transplanted them once already, and with a few weeks still before the actual garden, it was time to make that penultimate move. To maximize root development, they needed more soil, which meant they needed a deeper setting, which meant they needed a taller nest. Large drinking cups were the appropriate solution, but a pass through Costco and Target left us empty handed. What we needed, it suddenly dawned on us, were some of those "generous" drinking cups that convenience stores offer. But we needed something like a dozen of the cups, and on this particular Sunday afternoon we weren't really quite that thirsty. Nevertheless, we pulled into a parking space at the nearest Kum and Go and, with our best "the worst they can do is say no" lack of inhibition, we scouted out the options near the beverage fountain, and approached the cashier. Wisely, I let Lori do the talking. "We are working on this gardening project," she began, "and we need to transplant our tomato seedlings into something larger. What would it cost to buy a dozen or so of these empty cups?"

"Well," the obviously flummoxed, but customer-centered employee responded, "probably nothing." With that, he proceeded to the beverage area, opened a cabinet and counted out 12 empty cups. Twelve 44 oz cups. Now we are talking "root capacity!"  We positively giggled all the way home.

Now successfully rearranged and no doubt curiously getting acquainted with their new digs, the seedlings -- along with the rest of us -- are anxiously awaiting bona fide spring when roots can sink themselves into genuine soil, and reach legitimately toward the sky and not merely toward the ceiling. Maybe it is only natural that garden planting and graduations happen around the same time of year. 

In the meantime, grow little roots. There are yet a few weeks to go.  Eventually and surely the storms will come and the winds will blow and the predators will come and nibble at your leaves -- and worse.   So grow -- grow deep.  Soon enough you are going to need all the strength and nourishment you can provide.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Celestial Dawning in our Living Room

We decided we needed more light.  It wasn't so much an existential realization, but yet another gardening one.  It had been that kind of a day.  Earlier, we had tangentially filled up the 18 deck tubes with soil in preparation for their planting in the upcoming weeks.  In the living room, the four-foot table supporting the seeding trays was busily soaking up the sun with a little reinforcement after sunset, but the grow-lights we had purchased were only marginally covering the seedlings -- and that only if we continued to move them around on the table every day or so.  Given the facts that we were in the process of planting a few more seeds that Steve had mailed us, and that in the next day or two we would need to separate several of the already-leafing sprouts currently sharing space into compartments of their own, more light was going to be a necessity.  The recent issue of Urban Farm magazine had a design for a build-it-yourself model, constructed from basic florescent shop light fixtures and 1 1/4" PVC pipe and connectors.  We decided to give it a try.

Thanks to the helpful employee at Lowe's who was willing to saw our two 10-foot lengths of pipe into the prescribed permutations, and gather up the various "T's", "angles" and "ends," all we had to do was assemble and place.  Now, with this addition of these 4 four-foot florescent bulbs to our previous 2 two-foot ones, our living room is aglow.  It remains to be seen if the new light will coax seeds out of the soil, but it almost certainly is drawing neighbors out of their houses to ponder this new celestial phenomenon:  the Aurora Borealis of Crown Colony Court.

Crop Report:
Cucumbers -- adding second generation of leaves
Brandywine Tomatoes -- strong, with true leaves
Green Zebra-striped Tomatoes -- questionable
Leeks -- wispy, but sturdy
Beets -- Hanging in there
Chard -- withered
Peppers -- encouraging
Flowers -- mixed bag

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Site in Sight

Yesterday was "Selection Sunday" -- though not for me in the same sense that it was for the rest of the country.  While basketball teams from coast to coast were biting their nails in anticipation of NCAA tournament invitations, Lori, Harold, Sandy and I were were tromping over the Ladd's property evaluating options for siting the garden.  I felt like Goldilocks tasting porridge.  One site was too wet.  One site was too near the corn field that receives regular chemical sprays.  One site was too shaded by surrounding trees...

...but eventually, one location seemed "just right."  Nearer the house, the human activity might discourage at least some of the deer, the pellet evidence of which was ubiquitous around the property.  Nearer the house also means nearer the water; and the storage building is easily accessible, as well.  Once accomplished, the selection almost seemed to have selected itself.  Yes, perhaps it is narrower than some of the alternatives, but it compensates in length.  In any case, it offers plenty of space -- 40 X 20 feet was how we stepped it off, plus or minus.  Good sun in both morning and afternoon, little shade; a slight slope for drainage; water, existing turf, and -- most importantly -- an invitation.

I deposited my new lawnmower (still in its box), and my new roll of net fencing (still in its box) in the storage building, took one last anticipatory look at the site, willing its fertility, and rejoined the others inside the house.

Later that evening I could hardly keep my mind off the seedlings busily sprouting under the lights on the table in the living room.  Earlier in the weekend Lori had commented about how protective she has come to feel about the delicate little stems creeping above the soil.  Ditto for me.  Already we have a great deal of emotional energy, affection and anticipation invested in them.  The prospect of freakish frosts, abusing winds, nibbling rabbits and deer and burrowing squirrels and moles feels a little like it did to drive out of the college dormitory parking lot the first time, leaving my children behind.  Exposed; vulnerable; subject to all the vicissitudes of real life's independence; hoping -- praying -- that the parts over which a parent has any control in their raising will prove to be strong enough; praying that the parts over which parents have no control will not prove too destructive.

To be sure, "dropping off" my little seedlings is still some time away.  It's weeks, yet, until the frost threat is safely past, and my wispy little green children still have lots of growing and strengthening to do.  There will be thinning, yet, and separating and re-potting to allow for still sturdier roots.  

But that eventual day is, nonetheless, approaching; and it's fun to move forward with a mental picture of where their roots will finally stretch.  Rooted, stretching, and hopefully producing something edible.

All the odds against it, notwithstanding.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Tracing the Seeds of the Seeding

Progress Report:
Swiss Chard sprouting wildly
Beets running a close second
Leeks whisping skyward
Green zebra stripe tomatoes progressing nicely
Brandywine tomatoes coming along
Finally some movement on the cucumbers
Marigolds, calendula, and sunflowers showing strength
Only two pepper sprouts.
Chiles holding firm at zilch.  Zero.  Come on, Anaheims, Anchos and pimientos!  Do something!

So how did this madness begin?  So far I have invested more in seeds than I care to confess.  I have purchased grow-lights, net fencing, a reel mower, organic potting mix, seeding cells, and base materials for 18 growing tubes to be positioned on our deck.
               ...And untold numbers of books.
                       ...Plus subscriptions to a couple of magazines.
 And let me just add that none of it has been cheap. 
Which is to say that I'd sure like to see some chiles.

How did all this begin?  It's hard to untangle the threads of it all to isolate that single one.  Indeed, perhaps it wasn't any single one, but rather the thickening accumulation of several.  It certainly reaches back a couple of years to our burgeoning interest in cooking.  Our culinary experience in Italy focused new light on real and fresh ingredients, which led to some heightened sensitivity to nutrition and health.  Reading about the industrial food system added a sickening feeling about the meats and vegetables we routinely used, and our involvement in two Community Supported Agriculture farms honed my appreciation and my intrigue.  More reading deepened my appreciation of agrarian values, and the grant work on terroir has put me intellectually spiritually in the thick of this passion.

But two awakenings dislodged me most violently from the relative safety and simplicity of my observational recliner.  I have no recollection which came first -- or if, more likely, they simply confronted me together like friends and family at an intervention.  One was the comprehension -- midwifed by the work of environmentalists armed with forecasts about peak oil, and readings about the simple mechanics of modern agriculture and its utter and complete dependence on cheap oil -- that food production as we have come to know it is unsustainable.  I don't expect it to happen in my lifetime -- maybe not even in my children's lifetime -- but not very far down this road we will reach an agricultural dead end.  If we can't any longer produce the fertilizers on which we have come to depend; if we couldn't transport it to or spread it on the fields it wouldn't do us any good even if we had it; if we couldn't fuel the equipment to harvest and transport it, it wouldn't do us any good to grow it; and then we would be stuck.  Empty fields.  Empty shelves.  Empty pantries.  Chances are that, shortly thereafter, we will get hungry, and hopefully somebody -- hopefully a lot of somebodies -- will still be around who remember how to grow something edible the old-fashioned way.

That is when the other hand slapped me:  I wouldn't be one of them.  I don't have a clue how this stuff happens.  I grew up in the Hamburger Helper, blue-box mac and cheese generation quite thoroughly trained to gratefully receive my meals from the ever helpful food engineers at Betty Crocker, Duncan-Hines, General Mills, Swift, Kraft, Hormel, et al.  They took care of all that "dirty work" and hassle; mine was simply the delicious job of boiling a little water, browning a little meat scraped off the styrofoam tray, microwaving a little of this or that, and enjoying.  Well, at least eating.  I have no idea how food really comes to be.  In fact, save how to put some words together, and some musical notes, I don't know how to do much of anything.

And that sobering reality started keeping me up at night.
Until I couldn't stand it anymore.
I had caught a bad case of farm envy.  Hatched in the deepest recesses of my soul was the disruptive determination to gain the holy experience -- to participate in the sacred synergy -- of putting food on the table, from literal start to finish.  Soil to supper.  Dirt to dinner.  Bat guano, worm casings, sphagnum, patience, attentiveness and all.

And so the education has begun.  Already I am unspeakably blessed.  Not every guy has a wife so loving, so supportive and indulgent as to allow a seeding operation in the living room.  And no nascent farmer with such a total absence of knowledge has any right to expect even a single germinated seed to give him such hope.  But there this table stands:  front and center in the living room, sprouting.

There is this other problem, of course.  A loving and supportive wife I have; organic nutrients I can get.  Grow-lights I can plug into a timer.  But patience?  That, shall I say, is a "growing edge."

That will have to be enough said for now.  It's time to mist my crops again.

And pray.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Watching for Old Fashioned Growth

Along the curiously winding path toward this whole "farming" endeavor was the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual conference that Lori and I attended in January.  During the course of that helpful event we became fond of two elderly but quite enthusiastic gentlemen in the exhibit area marketing a "revolutionary" snake oil reputed to accentuate photosynthesis, thereby accelerating and strengthening plant growth.  On a real farm you would apply it by the gallon.  In our application, a mister would suffice.  Of course we couldn't resist.  We bought it and have been eagerly awaiting the growing season.

Not quite sure of what it is -- and the research documents we were given notwithstanding -- and not quite sure, therefore, of it ultimate safety ("absolutely organic and safe" we were promised), we took the road more cautious and declined application on anything edible.  The flower seeds, however, were fair game.  We set up a kind of "test plot", with one row of flower seeds getting regular mists of this elixir of the gods; the companion row getting H2O alone.  All this, of course, was set in motion on Saturday when the grand seeding took place.  Since that time, my days have been happily anchored around animated misting -- 3 if not 4 times per day; anytime the soil betrayed signs of drying.  I am pursuing this project "by the book" since I have no experience, and the books say "keep the soil moist" -- a more challenging rubric than one might think.  A "day job" sort of gets in the way.

So, the misting -- both ways.  It was with some lament, then, that I jumped on a plane yesterday and left the "farming" to Lori.  She is, of course, immanently qualified and capable -- at least if my own expertise is any measure -- so it wasn't concern as much as envy:  she would get to tend and watch for precious signs of progress while I sat in day-long meetings.

Sure enough, then -- last night as I was getting ready for bed, my cell phone signaled the arrival of a message; a photograph, it turned out to be, from home, with the simple descriptor, "Growth!"  Sure enough, there, plainly visible in the grainy cellphone camera close-up, was green.  "Snake oil" green, it turns out.  Yes, the only seeding cells so far showing any movement whatsoever are those nudged along by our super mist.

Now I am having second thoughts.  Maybe we have been too cautious.  Just think of the pumpkin-size tomatoes we could have had if we had only sprayed the stuff on those seeds; just think of the beanstalk we could have grown on which we could have almost certainly climbed to the heavens.

But, then, come to think of it that whole beanstalk thing came with it own share of problems.  I reminded myself that I would be giddily content to see a tomato or a squash or an anything of any size at all sprout from one of these little seeds.  And, at the end of the day, I would just as soon watch it happen the old-fashioned way -- with water and sun, and soil and care...

...and time.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Let the Growing Begin!

Finally, they are in soil.  When it came right down to it, it took more effort than I had anticipated -- psychologically, if not physically.  For weeks, I have been accumulating seeds for my "farm."  I have relished the several experiences of browsing through the catalogs, making my selections, and anticipating the deliveries.  I have kept them bundled together in the box that contained the first shipment.  I have accumulated supplies.  I have counted the days, "anxious" in every sense of the word.  Eager.  Fearful.  Apprehensive.  Giddy.  And then for purely irrational reasons -- impatience, a full moon, whatever -- I decided that yesterday was the day.

On my way home from meetings, I stopped at the garden store and assessed my options for soil.  What a wonderland!  This gardening thing is a linguist's paradise.  I mean, where else do you get to toss around words like "sphagnum" and "peat"?  Where else do you find labels celebrating and extolling the virtues of earthworm casings and bat guano?  Even if nothing grows, I'll get to talk about all kinds of cool stuff.

Finally, it seemed like I was ready.   I laid out the seeding cartons...and then decided I wasn't ready.  I needed something under them or surely I would ruin the table.  I removed the cartons, and spread out towels.  And then I was ready...and then I wasn't.  Wouldn't it be better to have some kind of plastic over the towels?  Retrieving some rolls from the garage, I fashioned something as close to a waterproof membrane as I could manage.  And then I was ready.  I filled the cells with the casing and guano-rich soil...and then decided I wasn't ready.  I was going to need a mister.  As I was driving back from Target, it crossed my mind that something about my subconscious was imposing delay tactics.  Perhaps like the way that saying something out loud makes it somehow more real, actually inserting a seed into soil represented a kind of commitment to this large and largely unknown undertaking; as if sowing a seed was tantamount to crossing a line of no return.  As long as I was reading or shopping or studying or talking, I could pretend my way through this whole mythical farming/gardening undertaking.  But actually planting a seed, staking in the identifying marking stick, and, yes, misting the whole undertaking -- all of sudden, this was real.


But, as with a marriage, I am now committed; "in" -- for better or for worse; the dirt under my nails standing in as an enduring and virtual equivalent of the ring upon my finger.  Never mind that I hardly know what I'm doing, there is attention to pay; nurture to contribute; guidance to provide; knowledge to acquire; experience to gain; beginner's luck to appreciate and failures to learn from.  It isn't imaginary anymore.

I know that the very thought is preposterous, but I almost felt a hint of disappointment when I woke and passed by my little tabletop foreshadowing of a garden and found no green emerging from the brown.  After all, the very seeding had been so long in coming, it almost felt right that the seeds, themselves, would have somehow sensed the magnitude of the moment and hustled themselves into verdant growth.  No, not even I really expected it.  Even I know this much about the glacial pace of growing.  But that didn't stop me from wistfully looking twice.

I have a hunch that this won't be my last lesson in the great and powerful discipline of patience.  One more thing about which I have an almost infinite amount to learn.  What I can for now is that I have started -- actually.  No longer is it all about accumulation of supplies and tools and dreams.  Suddenly it is real.  The undertaking has commenced.  And I can't seem to take my eyes off of it...

...or stop smiling. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Yes, But Can She Wrestle?

The big news around here the last couple of days has been the match in the state wrestling tournament...that didn't happen.  Joel Northrup of Linn-Mar of Marion drew Cedar Falls' Cassy Herkelman as his first-round opponent at the 112-pound weight in Class 3-A.   A boy wrestling a girl.  No word so far about Cassy's reaction -- by all assumptions, she was ready to go.  It all, however, presented certain challenges for Joel.  As a distant -- and even more dispassionate -- observer, I can sympathize with him.  Don't get me wrong; I am fully aware that High School wrestling between the sexes has been going on since the beginning of time, though typically in quieter, more covert and typically more perfumed settings; not hardly sanctioned, coached, or conducted in front of thousands of screaming fans.  Wrestling seems like an awfully slithery, grabby and feely contest that might best be confined to only the most affectionate or disinterested combatants.  That, apparently, was Joel's sentiment as well.  If you will pardon the pun, it just didn't feel right to him.


So, he forfeited the match.  


In a statement released accounting for his decision, Joel wrote:  “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy and Megan (Black, the tournament’s other female entrant) and their accomplishments. However, wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner."


His Dad went on to clarify, "He wants to win state, just like anybody else, but his convictions and his beliefs are stronger than his desire to win state."


Everyone, of course, is weighing in on the topic.  Some condemning the match-up as inappropriate by definition.  Some have scoffed at Joel's reticence.  I can't help but agree with Lori's Dad who mused that it was a lose-lose proposition for young Joel:  if he lost to "a girl" he would never hear the end of it; if he won, the victory would always -- implicitly -- carry an asterisk beside it -- "triumph over 'a girl'."  Whatever one thinks of the proprieties involved, it does seem sensible to just sit this one out.


I grieve for the guy.  Nobody wants to arrive at the state tournament and lose out on one's dream -- let alone in the first round.  But what saddens me more is the total absence of conversation about young Cassy's ability.  We don't know if she is talented or a pretender.  Typically match-ups are sliced and diced as the relative strengths and weaknesses are balanced.  In this case, we have learned nothing about her skill -- only her gender.  


Chances are, we knew that already.