Monday, April 30, 2007

Mah-Jongg for Dummies: Part 2

To continue ticking off devotees of Mah-Jongg from every corner of the world, let's move on to the next step of playing the remarkable game of Mah-Jongg...simplified, to prevent our poor Midwestern brains overheating.

My first proposal, to tick off the faithful, was to stick to exactly 144 tiles. That's 4 sets of each suit of numbered tiles (1-9 in Bams, Craks, and Dots); 4 each of 3 dragons (red, white, and green) and 4 winds (East, South, West, and North); plus 1 each of 4 numbered flower tiles and 4 numbered season tiles. Even these last 8 tiles are optional, strictly speaking, but the game has many variants containing even more bonus tiles, jokers, wild tiles, etc., none of which add anything to the game except needless complexity and pointlessly inflated scores.

And now, moving on into actually setting up the game and dealing the tiles, I have even more tick-off triggers in store! You see, the orthodox (and yet varying) procedures for deciding who sits where, who goes first, etc., are so absurdly complicated that simple-minded newcomers are apt to give up before the game gets moving. Maybe all this has been arranged on purpose to prevent simpletons from meddling in the game. But suppose you don't have anybody to play with except simpletons who need to learn as they go along? You could be one lonely Mah-Jongg enthusiast. So here is my second proposal to get up the nose of you orthodox players:

To start the game, each person rolls three dice. Then the players sit down around the table counterclockwise, in descending order of the sum of each person's dice. The high roller gets to be the first dealer. Then let's just call whoever is dealing East, and the other players (in order, counterclockwise) South, West, and North. The dealer gets to keep dealing as long as he wins the hand; if he loses, the next player to the right becomes East. The game lasts until each player has lost the deal 4 times. Keep score on a (big) pad of paper. If you have trouble remembering who dealt how many times, put a dot next to the dealer's score. Many Mah-Jongg sets come with a marker that you can use as a visual aid for remembering which player is East at any given time.

Now you shuffle the tiles and build a wall with them. Place all the tiles face-down on the table and scramble them up. Then each player builds a wall of face-down tiles in front of himself, two tiles high by 18 tiles wide.

Finally, it's time to deal the tiles. The dealer (East) rolls 3 dice again, and counts around the four sides of the table, starting with himself and going to the right until he reaches the sum of the 3 dice. The row of tiles on the side of the table where the count stops is where the wall must be broken. Starting from the right end of the row, the dealer counts rows up to the sum of the dice. Then, beginning with the next row to the left, the dealer takes the first four tiles (2 piles). Players take turns taking the next 4 tiles, going around counterclockwise until each player has 12 tiles; then each player takes the next 1 tile each, and the dealer draws 1 more tile because he has the first turn. Tiles will continue to be drawn from the wall at the point where dealing stopped, except when a player draws to replace a bonus tile or a tile used in a Kong (see Part 3).

You may think this is quite complex enough, but you'd thank me for simplifying this if you realized how most sets of Mah-Jongg rules require you to keep two sets of "winds" straight in your head at the same time. Also, most American rules have a little ritual called the Charleston in which tiles are passed to and fro between the players, which again, seems to exist for no other reason than to confound beginners and outsiders. Away with it, I say!

And so, you're ready to play. You still don't know what on earth you're supposed to do with all these tiles, but that's all right. I'll tell you about that in Part 3. For now, so long as the dealer isn't ready to declare himself the winner on his first turn, play proceeds with each player drawing a tile from the wall, or from someone else's discard pile, and then discarding a tile face-up. The rest is pretty much rummy...but there are enough subtle twists yet to come that you'll be glad of a little light.

Syncretistic Tackiness

The Temple of Tackiness (ELCA) has struck again: "BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD--GANDHI"

I would like to see all "Lutheran" churches actually teaching the Christian faith. Such a change would do a great deal of good in the world; it would cover much of the globe with a Christ-centered, biblical comfort and assurance that can be found in no other confession. People are dying for that Word. So, in obedience to Gandhi, I will be a Lutheran. I will go to a really Lutheran church and support it as far as I am able.

And I will have nothing to do with purveyors of easy, empty platitudes (like the aforementioned T. of T.). They seem content to sample a little of everything on the religious salad bar. But the Lord's message to that spineless, directionless church is: "Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth" (Revelation 3:16).

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Messages from my cats

My cats, Tyrone and Lionel, have been with me for nearly five years now. We have gotten pretty good at reading each other. For my part, I have grown increasingly aware of subtle distinctions in my cats' vocalizations, and I have learned to interpret a variety of non-vocal cues. In short, I am learning cat language.

When Tyrone darts out the apartment door into the hallway, rolls over, and rubs his back on the carpet, I tend to think he's laughing at me in a feline way. "Gotcha again," he says, knowing that his little prank has held me up either going out or coming in. Sometimes, for a bit of extra spite, he runs upstairs to the landing, or even all the way up to the next floor. I know he has never tried to run away; I couldn't coax him outside if I tried. He is just messing with me.

Tyrone also has his own, special way of saying: "I want some lovin'." If I am sleeping, he jumps onto the bed and pushes his forehead against my face. I call it the "head-butt of love." I usually wake up just enough to scratch behind his ears for a moment, then fall asleep again; then he head-butts me again to get a little more stroking. Typically, my alarm clock rings about five minutes later, so it doesn't really cost me that much sleep. Maybe I'm misreading this; maybe Tyrone's inner clock is running a touch fast, and what's he's really saying is, "Hadn't you better be getting up about now?"

On very rare occasions, Tyrone will walk right up onto my chest and lie down on me - and only when I'm reading on the couch. He is more the type of cat who will hold down a corner of the foot of my bed at night, or who will stretch out on the foot-rest next to my couch while I am reading, or who will rub against my leg while I'm working on the computer, inviting me to pick him up and scratch his belly.

Lionel is the cat consistently voted "most likely to hop on Pop." Almost every evening, whether I am trying to read or trying to sleep, he climbs on top of me and tries to snuggle. Sometimes this results in an extended session of full-on TLC, which Lionel encourages with his virtuoso purring technique. I massage his ears and he massages my chest right back. Things only get uncomfortable when (A) he can't find a comfortable spot without sticking his knobbly knees and elbows into me, or (B) he takes it into his head to kiss my nose or ears with his bristly tongue (see close-up at left). Then there's the odd occasion when he tries to groom my hair, which mostly tickles just a little bit, and occasionally hurts a lot.

Tyrone occasionally kisses, but he never gives any tongue. Actually, it's more like he's checking my breath to see what I had for dinner. But there is still something tender about the way he sometimes cranes his neck to touch his nose to my lips, sniffing slightly.

Particularly when he was younger, but even to this day, Lionel has enjoyed having his back scratched just at the base of his tail. His reaction is always the same: he bristles a little, arches his back a little, and sends a variety of body language signals that, at first, seem like a prelude to clawing and biting. Yet he stays put and purrs, encouraging me to continue. When I translated this behavior to my stepmother, she laughed out loud; but I stand by my translation: "I hate that - don't stop!"

Also, I have heard my cats talking to each other. My mother made noises of concern and worry when I told her that much. But that was before I added: "I don't understand the language they're talking." Nevertheless, on three or four different occasions I have heard an exchange between my cats in what sounded like monosyllabic words, grouped in sentences. I can't help but stop and listen when I notice this going on. Usually I find them staring each other in the face, and the conversation ends with one of them giving the other a stiff right hook and chasing him out of the room. Makes me wonder whether my cats are tuning into soap operas while I'm out at work.

Even with the claws removed from their front paws, cats can punch pretty hard. I know it because Lionel has smacked me in the face a few times, usually for handling him in a way he didn't like - such as trying to give him medicine. I now know better than to try that. God did not give me enough hands to hold Lionel still and force an eye-dropper down his throat. With Tyrone it isn't difficult, but Lionel is a real fighter. He can fight his own diseases, then, without my help.

Finally, my cats can make their displeasure known. For example, when I don't come home at a reasonable hour, they send me a feline message which I can smell from two rooms away: they make a B.M. in such a way that it balances perfectly on the edge of the litterbox, defying Tidy-Cat to cover up the odor until I go and clean up the mess by hand. It makes me sick, but I get the point: after they have slaved over a hot windowsill all day, letting no neighborhood squirrel, rabbit, or bird go by unremarked, the least I could do is get home while the sun still shines, so they can play the slip-past-Daddy-and-roll-on-the-hall-rug game, and get some serious loving.

They Call This News?

I don't watch TV at home, but now and again I dine out at a restaurant or bar that has a television playing, volume muted, in the corner. One night this past week, I even managed to sit at a bar next to a TV that had the volume turned up. And this is where I noticed something weird about CNN News.

Every news story, one after another, was basically harping on the same theme: "The Bush Administration sucks." First they thoroughly canvassed the topic of one congressman's crusade to impeach Vice President Cheney, on the grounds that Cheney lied about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction in order to trick the U.S. into invading Iraq.

Then there was a story following up on recent incidents of contaminated food getting past government inspectors and making people, or even pets (in the latest case), sick. Seven dogs and cats die and it's a national crisis. CNN editorialized on this event by saying that America's "food supply is broken." And, wouldn't you know, just when we need more government food inspectors, the Bush Administration has been firing FDA officials. So clearly, Bush doesn't care.

Then there was a story about the Attorney General. Democrats, and even some Republicans, are calling for his resignation because he fired eight U.S. attorneys. Hardly anyone remarked when Bill Clinton fired ninety-some U.S. attorneys and replaced them with his appointees, but now that a Republican administration is doing the same thing (on a much smaller scale), it suddenly stinks of dirty politics.

Maybe CNN should drop the charade of reporting news and "come out of the closet" as propaganda instrument for the Democratic Party. Because after a whole dinner of hearing nothing from CNN except variations on the theme "The Bush Administration sucks," I had to ask: didn't something happen in the world, all day, besides the Bush Administration sucking?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Where was the Gospel?

Representatives of four religions made remarks at the Virginia Tech convocation, the day after the shootings that killed 33 people there. Those who spoke on behalf of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism delivered words in keeping with their faith. But the Christian speaker - an ELCA Lutheran pastor - said nothing distinctly Christian. Read about it in Frank Pastore's devastating Town Hall article - and be sure to read both pages!

This takes me right back to September 23, 2001, and the disgraceful performance by one of the Missouri Synod's District Presidents at the Yankee Stadium "Prayer for America" in the aftermath of 9-11. It is leaders like this who seem to be telling the Lutheran Church that we must set aside our hair-splitting doctrinal quibbles and be embracing, accepting, and inviting if we are going to make an impact on the "unreached" world. But I believe that, if Lutheranism cannot steel itself to confess its faith when the world is listening, it will neither "reach" anyone, nor grow, nor survive. Nor will it deserve to do so.

And before you call this a rash assertion, let me mention a certain man I know of, journeying from Roman Catholicism to Lutheranism, who heard Rev. King's words at Virginia Tech, and who was so offended by the Lutheran church's poor response to this tragedy that, for all I know, his journey may lead him elsewhere now. As a Lutheran minister, I am sickened and ashamed.

Political Beef: Mental Illness

I was planning several additional posts on my "Political Beef" thread, beginning with a tirade on the stupidity of our nation's political stance on mental illness. But then, novelist and psychologist Jonathan Kellerman wrote this opinion article, which really stole my thunder.

Having worked with the mentally ill for the year of my adult life in which I think I learned the most; having talked extensively with others, including my mother, who work in that field; and having more than one case of mental illness in my family, I have seen close-up our country's failure to address the needs of the mentally ill with justice, kindness, and wisdom. I wanted to discuss this before the tragedy at Virginia Tech; even more so now.

What Kellerman writes is, in my experience, dead-on. I spent a year working as a case manager in an outpatient program for severely mentally ill adults. In my service to the mentally ill, I was continually frustrated by our society's inadequate measures to prevent the tragedy and heartbreak that can befall the mentally ill and their families. I was frustrated by the uncaring pragmatism of Medicaid, Social Security, HUD, HMOs, local law enforcement, and the justice system. I grieved and struggled when, over and over and over again, patients were discharged from a hospital and immediately "decompensated" and had to go back in; when disabled people with no income were unable to collect their SSI benefits because they needed representative-payee services that no one could or would provide; when clients dangled and twisted on a months- or years-long waiting list for public housing, residential treatment, group homes, etc., only to be thrown out soon after placement because of the very behavior that had gotten them in trouble in the first place.

Patients were arrested for behavior caused by their illness, treated as criminals, and sent to jail where they were cut off from treatment; their condition spiraled out of control, creating a vicious circle of aberrant behavior, extended punishment, and further decompensation due to lack of treatment. Patients were put on probation even though they were too disabled to meet the requirements of probation, leading to more trouble with the law. "Independent living" patients were housed in inadequately staffed sites where they scared the neighbors, sued each other blind, and shared drugs, beds, and wasting diseases with each other. Patients lived in terror and despair, some of them fighting every waking hour against the voices in their heads until they didn't have energy enough for anything else; whilst day programs that could give them some relief and supervised social contact (and that could give a break to their caregivers at home) were being restructured to exclude the people who really needed them. Patients were passed around like hot-potatoes between programs that could only deal with some, but not all, of their co-occurring problems (such as mental illness and substance abuse and homelessness). Patients who had personality disorders, or who should have been diagnosed as developmentally disabled when they were younger, were screwed to the umpteenth power.

Patients were routinely discharged from hospitals before they were really stable, on the orders of "resource utilization" personnel (i.e., HMO lackeys) who applied the flimsiest imaginable criteria for discharge, resulting in almost immediate decompensation and re-hospitalization. Patients were confused and distressed because outpatient doctors and staff treated them as if they should understand things, and be able to do things, which they could not; and so totally unqualified, non-clinically-trained case workers (like me) had to be hired to maintain the link between the patient and his clinical care; which basically made us case workers the people most intimately familiar with our clients' lives. It also made us the only people dedicated to arguing "Yes!" when every other agency and service-provider was briefed to argue "No" until every conceivable reason NOT to help had been exhausted.

Some examples of what I mean may come up in future posts on my "Stupidity" thread; they'll make you wonder whether to laugh or cry.

And the stupidest thing is, it's getting worse. Nebraska, where my Mom works in the behavioral health system, is phasing out its state hospitals and replacing them with "community-based treatment" programs, which will mean: (1) more hunger and homelessness; (2) more substance abuse, a.k.a. self-medication; (3) more slumlords collecting mentally ill tenants who then proceed to spread hepatitis and AIDS like wildfire; (4) more crimes perpetrated against and/or by the mentally ill; (5) more seriously disabled people left to their own devices, without the mental equipment to connect themselves with the social services they need; (6) more behavioral-health outpatients missing appointments or going off meds and getting sicker; (7) more inmates the criminal justice system isn't equipped to handle; (8) more suicides that could have been prevented; (9) more families worn to the bone by the burden of caring for severely ill loved ones; and (10) in the long run, a higher cost in tax dollars and insurance claims, when all the additional trips to the emergency room, state hospital, courthouse, jail, prison, and other expensive programs, that could have been avoided by treating severely ill individuals in a safe, stable, humane asylum, are totted up.

Kellerman is so dead right. I mean, I had chills when I read about his prof's vague anecdocal "evidence" about Belgian farmers taking discharged aslyum inmates into their homes. When my family lived in rural Nebraska, which followed a similar model, we took in a discharged patient, and he ended up splitting up my parent's marriage and becoming my late stepfather. And my mother, while working full-time in the state hospital caring for people who really, really need to be there, came home every day to care for a husband who eventually needed 24/7 supervision. Do you think I would willingly see her go through that again? Why should I wish it on anyone else? Much less the millions of people who will endure that, or worse, if Nebraska - and other states - continues to follow the "liberationist" trend Kellerman so ably exposes. It is to NO ONE's advantage to do this. It is stupid; it is hateful; it is harmful; and it is wrong.

In his conclusion, though, Kellerman seems to despair of being able to fix these problems. I think there may be some solutions, but they will be slow to happen at best. One solution is to work on ridding people of applying a "social stigma" to the mentally ill and those associated with them. Superstitions, stereotypes, and urban myths about mental illness need to be busted; such as the idea that schizophrenics are more violent than the average mentally-well person (in fact, the opposite is true), or that they are stupid people who have mostly gotten that way because of something bad that they did, or that they are mostly malingerers, drug-seekers, system-users with an "entitlement" mentality. You do see that sometimes. But you can't blame people for having an "entitlement" mentality, when their "entitlements" are the only cards they hold. People need to be better informed about what mental illness is, how to know it when you see it, what kind of help to look for, and how to know whether or not you're getting that help. And then, of course, the public should be encouraged to support government funding, and mandates, for research and treatment based on clinical evidence - not vague anecdotes and politically-correct platitudes!

At the very least, our society's response to mental illness should be in proportion with the number of people who suffer it and the depth of their suffering (often leading to death from a variety of causes). Statistically speaking, you probably have someone in your family who is mentally ill, perhaps even severely so. So you know the suffering of which I speak. If all the people suffering from mental illness, or caring for those who suffer, would speak up about what they are going through and what they know needs to be done, their voice would be heard. And since they are probably too busy, too tired, too poor, and too humiliated by the aforesaid stigma, it is up to the rest of us to lift up our voice in their stead.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Going to be a great wit...

The other night the Symphony Chorus had a rehearsal in spite of a downpour of rain so heavy that getting out of my car was akin to jumping fully clothed into a swimming pool. During the rehearsal, we heard that this coming weekend's piano soloist, playing Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations with the symphony, recently found out that she is pregnant with twins. Upon which my mouth slipped into auto-pilot and said, of its own accord: "So now she's practicing for three."

This is why my father used to tell me, "You'll be a great wit some're a half-wit already."

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Fistfuls of Notes

Yesterday I got a real treat: my latest order of organ music from "Sheet Music Plus" arrived. And unlike some of the books I've picked in the past, I can immediately tell that these will be very useful in my work as a Lutheran chorale-based organist.

Exhibit 1: Max Reger's Chorale Preludes for Organ, op. 67, in three volumes. I have played a few of these before. I am already aware of, and hopefully prepared for, the great big fistfuls of notes involved in playing mostly five-part hymn arrangements, in a highly chromatic, late-Romantic style. (Reger lived 1873-1916). Here are the tunes it contains, listing the title of the English-language hymn(s) probably most closely associated with each one:

  1. All glory be to God on high
  2. All depends on our possessing
  3. From depths of woe I cry to Thee
  4. Ye sons of men, O hearken / Arise, sons of the kingdom
  5. Abide, O dearest Jesus / For me to live is Jesus
  6. A mighty Fortress is our God
  7. Jehovah, let me know adore Thee
  8. We sing, Immanuel, Thy praise / That Easter day with joy was bright
  9. Lord Jesus Christ, be present now
  10. Salvation unto us has come
  11. Comfort, comfort ye, my people
  12. Thou who madest earth and heaven
  13. Lord, as Thou wilt, deal Thou with me / Lord Jesus Christ, Thou living Bread
  14. O sacred Head, now wounded
  15. O man, bewail thy sin so great
  16. Let me be Thine forever / Through Jesus' blood and merit
  17. Thee will I love, my Strength, my Tower
  18. Jerusalem, thou city fair and high
  19. Jesus, I will ponder now
  20. Jesus lives! the victory's won / Jesus Christ, my sure Defense
  21. Jesus, priceless Treasure
  22. Come, O come, Thou living Spirit
  23. Praise God the Lord, ye sons of men
  24. Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
  25. Come, follow Me, the Savior spake
  26. Jesus I will never leave
  27. Now thank we all our God
  28. The day is surely drawing near
  29. Savior of the nations, come
  30. What is the world to me / When all the world was cursed
  31. Renew me, O eternal light
  32. Lamb of God, pure and holy
  33. O world, I now must leave thee
  34. Soul, adorn thyself with gladness
  35. Jesus, still lead on
  36. I will sing my Maker's praises
  37. Rise, my soul, to watch and pray
  38. Farewell I gladly bid thee / All glory, laud, and honor
  39. Our Father, Thou in heaven above
  40. From heaven above to earth I come
  41. Wake, awake! The night is flying
  42. From God can naught divide me
  43. Why should cross and trial grieve me
  44. What God ordains is always good
  45. If thou but trust in God to guide thee (minor-key tune)
  46. If thou but trust in God to guide thee (major-key tune)
  47. Speak, O Lord, Thy servant heareth / Like the golden sun ascending
  48. Who knows when death may overtake me
  49. How lovely shines the Morning Star
  50. My soul's best friend, what joy and blessing
  51. Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal
  52. O how blest are ye whose toils are ended (minor-key tune)

Wow! One piece per week for a year, right? Only four of these tunes (15, 46, 51 and 52) should be unfamiliar to people who know The Lutheran Hymnal. No. 51 is in Lutheran Worship, and the others are known to me through other American Lutheran hymnals. Nearly all of them are connected with hymns that I consider to be of the highest order, artistically and theologically. (I have doubts about 3 or 4 of them, such as No. 50). So basically, this is a book I could get a lot of mileage out of...provided my pastor picks hymns with tunes that have German titles!

I also bought four books of Healey Willan's organ music. One of them just contains two pieces (Matins and Evensong), neither of which is tied to a particular text. The other three books are sets of "Ten Hymn Preludes for Organ." I have bought books of Willan's preludes in the past, and found that hardly any of them were relevant to tunes used in my church; so buying these 3 books was a bit of a risk. It paid off this time! Of the 30 tunes contained in these books, I found the tunes LCMS Lutherans widely associate with the following hymns:

  1. Hark the glad sound! The Savior comes
  2. Lord of glory, who hast bought us
  3. The saints on earth and those above (variations, even!)
  4. O Spirit of the living God
  5. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow
  6. The King of Love our shepherd is (Lutheran Worship/Lutheran Service Book tune)
  7. Ye sons and daughters of the King (Lutheran Worship tune)
  8. Savior, when in dust to Thee (Lutheran Worship/Lutheran Service Book tune)
  9. Come, gracious Spirit, heavenly Dove
  10. Thy strong Word did cleave the darkness
  11. O wondrous Type, O Vision fair / Oh Love, how deep
  12. Draw near and take the body of the Lord (only not "abbr." - the tune has an extra phrase)
  13. As pants the hart for cooling streams
  14. Behold the Savior of mankind
  15. Only-Begotten, Son of God eternal / Lord of our life and God of our salvation (Lutheran Worship tune)
  16. Christ is arisen
  17. Now let us come before Him

Some of the other tunes in these books are familiar to me from other sources, and I think one or two of them might be in the new Lutheran Service Book. Willan, who I think was a Canadian composer, writes very attractive music with a kind of high-church Anglican, "pomp and circumstance" feel to it, very effective for festive processionals and postludes.

Finally, I also purchased the op. 70 set of 10 chorale preludes by Flor Peeters. I already own tons of his stuff, which I have admired since I was in college. Bridging the gap between Willan's tonal music and the virtual atonality one sometimes finds in Walcha, Peeters wrote in a very accessible modern style which basically says, "Yeah, I know it's dissonant, but it's nothing to get worked up about." When I grow up to be a composer some day, I hope to write organ music somewhat like his. This volume includes the hymn tunes for:

  1. We all believe in one true God (Apostles' Creed hymn)
  2. Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates
  3. From heaven above to earth I come
  4. Now sing we, now rejoice
  5. The star proclaims the King is here
  6. O dearest Jesus, what law hast Thou broken?
  7. Lamb of God, pure and holy
  8. O sacred Head, now wounded
  9. Awake, my heart, with gladness
  10. Holy God, we praise Thy name

Am I ever in for tons of fun...and work!

Pukescent Tackiness

Today's message from the lighted sign at the ELCA-Lutheran "Temple of Tackiness" in St. Louis's south city: "STUCK ON HIGHWAY 40? THE ROAD TO GOD IS ALWAYS OPEN!" This is a reference to a construction project on the busiest road in town.

Ugh. This is not only another example of the opportunistic tackiness some churches call "outreach." It is also a disgrace to Lutheran theology. It has more in common with the theology of that horrid Methodist billboard (about "open minds, open hearts, open doors") than with the biblical Lutheran faith. "The road to God is open" suggests (1) that it's up to you to go up that road, and (2) that you are able to choose that road, and travel it, in and of yourself. It's all about you and your choice - what you choose to believe and do.

Jesus teaches otherwise. "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (John 6:44). "No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father" (John 6:65). "You did not choose me, but I chose you" (John 15:16). Paul also makes this point, when he scolds the Galatians for letting unfaithful teachers lead them away from God's free gift of the Gospel, back into the religion of rules and works. His words in Galatians 4:3-9 resonate powerfully in the face of what passes for "Christian" and even "Lutheran" teaching these days:

[We] were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God. However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?
Notice how Paul actually catches himself using a phrase ("now that you have come to know God") that sounds as if your coming to God is something you accomplished. And then notice how Paul immediately corrects himself: "...or rather to be known by God!" He knows, as John did, that those who believe in Christ "were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). And he is so careful - and rightly warns the Christians in Galatia (and us) to be equally careful - not to stray into a teaching centered on man, trusting in man and the powers in man, which is ultimately worthless! The true message is: God set us free once and for all through the redeeming work of Jesus, His Son. And God sets us free now by sending His Word into our ears, and His Spirit into our hearts.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Can't Be Had At Any Price

When you listen to as much fine-art music as I do, and read as many books for entertainment, you are bound to run into a few roadblocks in your plan for pleasure. Books will go out of print. CDs get yanked out of circulation and bricked into a basement wall somewhere, apparently, between Indianapolis and Terre Haute, Indiana. Sometimes even used book dealers are no help. It's one of my "pet peeves" (a phrase I have trouble saying with a straight face after reading Tanith Lee's unicorn trilogy).

Right now, I'm having particular trouble getting hold of two items. Amazon keeps asking me to confirm my order for the book Aunt Maria by Diana Wynne Jones, because they never seem to be able to find a copy of it and they want my permission to delay its E.T.A. rather than letting them cancel the order. This is more than Arkiv Music does when it comes to a CD of Gustav Holst's Cotswolds Symphony. I have repeatedly ordered it, and repeatedly been informed that my order was cancelled because they ran out of time before they were able to find a copy of the disk. Nevertheless both items are being sold as if they are available for purchase. It's very vexing.

The Holst symphony is vexing, because I keep hearing bits of it played on St. Louis' fine classical radio station, KFUO-FM. The very recording I am trying to buy, which seems to be the only recording in print, keeps teasing me with tantalizing excerpts as I drive to and from work.

The Wynne Jones book is vexing because I once had a chance to buy it at a Barnes & Noble in Escondido, CA, and didn't bother. Now I can't find it in any store, and I can't get Amazon to cough it up. The one time I did get my hands on a used copy (courtesy of an outlet store in Osage Beach, MO), it turned out to be missing 50 of the first 100 pages of the book, thanks to a misprint that replaced those pages with an identical copy of another 50 pages from later in the book. If I ever do get Aunt Maria from Amazon, and if it has the same misprint, I will probably just buy a plane ticket to wherever Diana Wynne Jones lives, knock on her door, and ask her to loan me her personal copy. I would be that vexed.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mah-Jongg for Dummies: Part 1

I've taken an armchair interest in Mah-Jongg over the past several years. Armchair, because although I've bought a couple of sets, studied several systems of rules, and even once or twice tried to teach a group of people to play it with me so that I can really experience it, I haven't had much success in starting a "beginners Mah-Jongg" club. So my sets collect dust and I periodically have to re-study the rules to keep from forgetting them.

Now, I'm not talking about the solitaire game many people enjoy playing on their computer. That's all very well; but the REAL Mah-Jongg is a highly ritualized, clickety-clack, rapid-fire form of gin rummy with an extra touch of complexity to keep it interesting. Plus, a lot of history is woven into the many sets of rules for the game - from Imperial China to the Chinese Communist Revolution, from WWII Japan to modern-day east Asia. Chinese-Americans, Jewish women, and Air Force wives each have their own sophisticated scoring systems that reveal something about their cultural outlook and diverse experiences. By getting inside the world of Mah-Jongg, you could learn a lot on many subjects. At the very least, you could get inside a group of people who have experiences to relate, such as you have never imagined.

Here is a modest (i.e., totally arrogant and undoubtedly heretical) proposal for a dead-simple set of Mah Jongg Rules, to help know-nothing beginners get started and learn enough to move ahead without getting so frustrated that they give up.


Mah-Jongg sets from different areas have varying numbers of tiles, because different communities have their own sets of rules, including bonuses and wild cards, etc. Below is a picture of the tiles that most sets have in common:

The left 12 columns are the 3 "suits" of numbered tiles. There are 4 of each number per suit, running from 1 to 9, top to bottom. The four columns farthest to the left are "dots": 1-dot, 2-dot, 3-dot, etc. The next four columns are "bams" (short for "bamboo"): 1-bam, 2-bam, etc. The 1-bam often looks like a bird and is sometimes referred to as the Sparrow tile. The next four columns are "craks" (short for "characters"). Sorry, but unless your set is made in the U.S. and has Arabic numerals up in the corner, you're just going to have to learn how to count one to nine in Chinese characters. It's really not hard. 1, 2, and 3 are obvious, and that leaves only 6 characters that you have to learn.

The last four rows in the first picture contain the same tiles shown here. These are not numbered tiles, but bonus titles. There are four of each of the first seven bonus tiles, which are also known as "honor" tiles. First there are three dragons: Green, Red, and White (the last of which may simply be a blank tile). Then there are the four winds: East, South, West, and North, respectively. Finally, in the bottom row, you see 8 one-off tiles representing Flowers (Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, Bamboo) and Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter), in that order, corresponding to the sequence of winds. Both "Flower" and "Season" tiles can be collectively described as "Flower tiles."

American sets may include an additional quartet of Joker tiles (like wild-cards), and in Singapore (from which I got my set) they include a third variety of Flower tiles. These aren't really necessary; they only make extra bonuses possible.

I'll give you some time to digest which tile is which before dumping the next bunch of rules on you. You'll thank me later. Meanwhile, thanks to Wiki for the photos (though I have never found their explanation of the rules helpful).

Discomfort Food

All right, all this "comfort food" blather has reminded me of another instance of the world's insanity. I don't know whether the place still exists, but when I lived in Kansas City there was a horrid little restaurant called "In A Tub." I think it was a chain, and if so, it probably ranks alongside "Papa-San Rice Bowl" as the worst fast-food chain ever.

I first became aware of In-A-Tub while visiting a member of my church in the hospital. She had been on a strict diet for a while, and she remarked to a relative who was also in the room that she would murder for an In-A-Tub taco. I asked what on earth that was, and she explained that it was a greasy little restaurant in Such-and-Such Mall, and to know it was to love it. It was her idea of "comfort food."

The next time I was at Such-and-Such Mall, I went in search of In-A-Tub. I simply had to know what all the fuss was about. I finally found it, almost completely hidden behind an escalator at the "bad neighborhood" end of the mall, where most of the stores were closed. The Mall as a whole wasn't in very good shape, to tell the truth. I found out that "In-A-Tub" took its name from the long, narrow, disposable dishes in which it served its fare. These "tubs" were made out of the same kind of paper as those old-time, cardboardy egg cartons, before styrofoam packaging came in. It was plain, unmarked, heavy paper in a nondescript shape. So, clearly, In-A-Tub could afford to devote more of its budget to producing high quality food - right?

Well, actually...

I ordered a taco and a hamburger. Both were made using the same meat, ladled out of a dish on the steamtable, which turned out to be more like a greasy sloppy-Joe than what one usually finds on a taco or hamburger. In the case of the burger, they glopped this stuff on bun, added a slice of rancid-tasting pickle, and maybe squirted mustard or ketchup on it. As for the taco, once the meat was added to a folded tortilla shell, the whole kit was clamped shut and dipped in hot oil; then they added shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, a squirt of red enchilada sauce, and - here's the clincher - some powdered cheese, like the stuff that comes in a paper envelope inside each box of storebought macaroni & cheese.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I got heartburn just watching this stuff being served to me. As bad-habit food goes, In-A-Tub was rock-bottom. When you reach the point where you drive miles out of your way to eat food like this, you have to admit: you have a problem.

Squeaky Comfort Food

Another easy-to-make comfort food I have served myself many times, this one also comes to me in my stepmother's handwriting. I gather from the fact that it is named after a sometime Twin Cities radio personality (left) that my stepmother didn't invent it. It's a remarkably tasty, simple combination, and even seems to have a mildly bowel-loosening effect. Trust me: in bachelorland, this is a good thing.

  1. Chop 1 medium head cabbage and parboil 2 minutes, then drain.
  2. Brown 1 lb. lean ground brief with 1 small chopped onion, then drain.
  3. Mix these ingredients together in a 2-quart casserole.
  4. Pour 1 can (10 oz.) cream of tomato soup over the top.
  5. Pierce with a fork, cover, and bake for 30 minutes at 350 F.

Deluxe Corn Flakes

Here's the best thing to do with Corn Flakes. Or, it's the least fancy way to make fake fudge. Like most of the recipes in my album, this one is written in my stepmother's handwriting. I've made it several times and shared it with people at church or at work, always to great applause. It's also a sweet, gooey, chewy delight. So it gets the bachelor's burnt-thumb-up.

  1. In a heavy saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar, 1 cup white corn syrup, 2 cups peanut butter, over medium heat for 2 minutes.
  2. Remove from heat and stir in 6 cups Corn Flakes.
  3. Press mixture into buttered 9"x13" pan.
  4. Frost with 12 oz. melted butterscotch chips.
  5. Let cool before cutting into squares.

That's MISTER Casserole to You

Here's another recipe I've shared with others, and in every case it was a big hit that no one had ever thought of making before. Again, I get this recipe from my stepmom, bless her. Usually I err on the side of more dressing.

  1. Mix 1 quart drained sauerkraut with 12 oz. crumbled corned beef in a 9"x13" pan.
  2. Mix 1/2 cup plain salad dressing and 1/4 cup Thousand Island dressing and pour over top.
  3. Sprinkle 2 cups shredded Swiss cheese over over top.
  4. Mix 2 tablespoons melted butter with 1/2 cup bread crumbs and sprinkle on top.
  5. Bake 45 minutes at 325 F, and let it cool for a moment before serving.

Best Leftovers Ever

This recipe is one that my stepmother used to make when I was in high school in rural, northern Minnesota (wild rice country, don'tcha know). We always ended up with extra portions, which was just fine, because the leftovers, whether frozen or refrigerated, made an excellent meal to come home to after a shift at my after-school job. Almost every time, the meat came out juicy and tender, the rice fluffy, and all the flavors gloriously intermingled. Even a bachelor with slender cooking experience can pull this dish off, though I think it isn't as well-known as it deserves to be. I give you:

WILD RICE WITH...[insert name of white meat]
  1. Wash 1 cup uncooked wild rice.
  2. Grease a 9"x13" pan and cover with wild rice.
  3. Add 1-1/2 cups water and 4 undrained 4-oz. cans mushrooms.
  4. Spoon 1 can cream of mushroom soup on top.
  5. Sprinkle onion powder and garlic powder over all.
  6. Brown 6 pork chops (or boneless, skinless breasts of chicken or turkey), seasoned with salt and pepper.
  7. Place meat on top of rice mixture.
  8. Cover pan with aluminum foil and seal edges carefully.
  9. Bake at 350 F for 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
  10. Let it cool for a bit before serving.

Upside-Down and Not a Pineapple in Sight

I just found my personal recipe collection (only a year and a quarter after moving), so here is one of my favorite things to bake. I've had this recipe since about 1998 and I don't remember where I found it. It's really fun to make, and yum, yum, yum! My favorite part is steps 7-8. It's so cool!

  1. Peel, slice, and core 2 large apples.
  2. Pour 1/4 cup melted butter or margarine into a 9-inch square baking pan.
  3. Arrange apple slices over the butter.
  4. Sprinkle apple slices with 1/3 cup (packed) brown sugar, and set aside.
  5. Combine 1/2 cup belted butter or margarine; 1 egg; 1/2 cup molasses; 1/2 cup sugar; and 1/3 cup packed brown sugar.
  6. In a separate bowl, combine 2 cups flour, 1 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1 tsp. ginger, 1/2 tsp. clove, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg.
  7. Brew 3/4 cup hot tea.
  8. Slowly mix flour mixture into sugar mixture, alternately with tea.
  9. Pour flour-sugar-tea mixture over apples.
  10. Bake at 350 F for 45-50 minutes or until cake tests done.
  11. Cool 3-5 minutes, then loosen sides and invert cake onto a serving plate. Serve warm.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

One Film and Three Trailers

Last weekend I saw the movie Disturbia. Having seen a trailer for it and read a bit of the hype, I figured it was a remake of Hitchcock's Rear Window, with some cosmetic updates such as the involvement of wireless technology and the main character being under house arrest, instead of in a wheelchair. The similarity was actually very slight, but I have to applaud the cleverness of the people who marketed the movie, as they used this slight similarity to great advantage.

The film centers on an almost-eighteen-year-old boy named Kale, whose social and school achievements have been in a skid since his father was killed in a car accident while Kale was driving. His problems reach a head in Spanish class, when Kale decks a teacher and ends up under a sentence of three months' house arrest. The GPS bracelet on his ankle is set to notify the police if he tries to leave his Mom's yard, and the cop who is always "first responder" when he does so is a cousin of the Spanish teacher. With his Mom denying him TV, iPod, and video game privileges, Kale soon has nothing to do for fun except spy on his neighbors. He very quickly pegs one of his neighbors - a solitary, middle-aged man - as a serial killer.

Kale relies on the help of a hyperactive best friend and a sexy girl-next-door to do a little snooping around, but the creepy neighbor knows they are after him and tries to intimidate them into leaving him alone. Kale sends his buddy on one last sortie into the neighbor's garage, leading to a series of increasingly spooky and shocking scenes right up to the end.

Though I didn't think this was really a Hitchcock remake, it was an effective movie. The viewer experiences Kale's shock and loss at the beginning of the movie, his shame and anger in the classroom scene, his frustration and boredom during the early part of his sentence, and his understandable agitation as the danger from next door grows and nobody will believe him. A good deal of the credit goes to 21-year-old actor Shia LeBoeuf (as Kale), whose star has been on the rise since Holes and The Greatest Game Ever Played, and whose young-yet-mature looks enable him to play a range of roles from teenager to 30-something. He gets strong support from Carrie-Ann Moss (Matrix, Memento) as the concerned mother, David Morse in one of the creepiest of his many "heavy" roles (recent examples include Dreamer and 16 Blocks), and cute youngsters Sarah Roemer and Aaron Yoo as Kale's teen sidekicks. Matt Craven (Timeline, Deja Vu) appears briefly as Kale's father.

When I'm at the movies, I usually enjoy the trailers almost as much as the main feature. Three of the trailers that played before Disturbia deserve note. Two of them are upcoming Shia LeBoeuf flicks: the animated surfing-penguins movie Surf's Up (in which LeBoeuf furnishes the voice of the main penguin); and also Transformers, an apparently Terminator-inspired action film based on toys that were popular in the 1980s. But the trailer that got me excited was Stardust, a film based on an exceptional book by Neil Gaiman.

The story is about an English youth who swears to the girl he loves that he will go beyond the wall that separates their village from the land of Faerie and bring back to her a star that appears to have fallen just beyond the wall. When he gets to the impact site, however, the star turns out to be a beautiful and spirited young woman. Suddenly a bevy of deadly enemies are after the pair of them, from a devious witch queen to a family of fratricidal princes. From the looks of the trailer, "Stardust" looks like a spectacularly produced adaptation with a powerhouse cast that includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Claire Danes, and Peter O'Toole.