Saturday, March 31, 2007

Busing Stupidity

I have already provided a mountain of documentary evidence that I am a fat, stupid jerk. However, as you may have guessed, I did this mainly to establish my expert credentials before I bear witness of all the fat, stupid jerkitude going on in the world around us. This is a subject on which I have kept people in stitches for hours at a time. Take a deep breath and prepare to laugh...and maybe, worry.

Exhibit One in my case for the stupidity of the world: the bus that didn't drive me to school when I was in eighth grade.

Bordering Minneapolis on its south side is a small suburb called Richfield, where the scene of today's Featured Stupidity lies. A good deal of the line between the two cities coincides with a freeway, known locally as the Crosstown Highway. However, right where the Crosstown swerves to the north and enters Minneapolis, there is a very small neighborhood within Minneapolis City limits, but south of the highway. A few blocks further on, residential development has been cut short by a park, then another highway, and some land belonging to the airport. My family's house was right at the swerve in the highway. From the eastbound lanes of the Crosstown Highway, if you looked over the top of the sign that said "You are entering Minneapolis," you would have seen our house.

The street in front of our house also swerved, to get out of the way of the highway, and turned right into the north-south street at the next corner. But from our house all the way down to the park, the street had two kinds of pavement on it with a crack down the middle. The north side of the street was maintained by the City of Minneapolis. The south side of the street, by Richfield. That's how seriously they took city limits in those days. Our neighbors on the block facing us across the street belonged to a different community.

During part of my eighth-grade year, and all of my brother's (the following year), we went to a parochial school in Richfield. It would have been awfully convenient if we could have taken a bus there and back. But we had a problem. The bus taking Richfield kids to our school wouldn't pick us up, because we were in Minneapolis. This bus actually stopped right in front of our house and picked up kids who had to walk, in some cases, several blocks to their bus stop. But it only ran on the Richfield side of the street.

There was also a bus taking kids from Minneapolis to the school. From the upstairs windows of our house we could actually see it picking up and dropping off students who lived just across the highway. It came across the bridge only three or four blocks away, by the park. But it wouldn't turn down our street to pick us up because, in order to get back on its route, it would have to turn around and drive on Richfield pavement.

We were at an impasse. We were in a tiny, triangular sliver of Minneapolis where no bus could pick us up. Eventually, if memory serves, we got over the impasse by crossing the bridge and catching the bus on the Minneapolis side of the highway - a walk of several blocks when, just past the end of our driveway, a bus going to the same school wouldn't pick us up. That's the world for you. And guess what? It's a fat, stupid jerk!

Bourbon Routine

Here is another portion of my unfinished comedy routine. The fictional town of Bourbon it describes was inspired by roadsigns I have passed for actual towns in both Indiana and Missouri (but not dry towns, as far as I know) named Bourbon. I wrote this "orally" (i.e. it only got written down when it was this far along) and once declaimed it to my Dad, who said the character voice I used reminded him of "that actor who used to play Mark Twain in a one-man show." Gosh.

"When I first heard there was a town called Bourbon, I just knew I had to live there. It sounded like my kind of place: streets flowing with whisky and beer. It didn't turn out to be quite the way I'd pictured it. Matter of fact, Bourbon is a dry town. I'd never heard of such a thing before I moved there. It's just ain't natural. I'm thinking of suing the city for false advertising, luring me there under false pretenses. I haven't been so disappointed since I moved to Hooker, Georgia.

"Folks in Bourbon prove every day that taking the drink away don't solve everybody's problems. You can be just as miserable without alcohol as with it, only it ain't half as much fun. Why, folks in Bourbon don't have anything to do for fun except sit around sipping lemonade and listening to country-western songs about Jesus. You ask me, if it don't mention alcohol, it ain't music.

"I'll give you an example. There's a well-preserved old lady in Bourbon, her name is Naphthalene. I won't tell you her last name, out of respect for her privacy. A creature of habit was old Naphthalene. At the same time every day she worked in her garden, went to the grocery store, cleaned the house, played bingo, and served tea to some of her neighbors. One day Naphthalene realized that she wasn't going to live forever. A horror came over her, not at death as such, but at how it would change her daily routine. Lying around in a coffin all day, doing nothing, would be quite a change from her high level of activity. She didn't think she could stand it.

"So old Napthalene goes around asking people what's the best way to break old habits and get used to something new. Most folks told her she should work her way into the new stuff gradually, get used to it little by little. So Naphthalene goes to the funeral parlor right then and buys herself a coffin, has it delivered to her house. She sets it up in her living room and starts spending a few minutes every day lying in it, to get used to the feeling.

"Napthalene had it all planned out. Little by little, her quiet time in that coffin got longer and longer. The time came when she could lie there for hours without twitching a muscle. We were all so proud of Naphthalene.

"Then it came to her that she had to be prepared for people looking at her while she was lying there. So Napthalene started scheduling her lying-down times to coincide with the tea parties she threw every afternoon. The neighbors would come by and sit around, drinking tea and eating cookies and paying their respects, and then leave. Naphthalene would put everything out with a card saying, 'Don't mind me, I'm just practicing being dead. I'll wash up after you're gone.'

"At first, we were all a bit uncomfortable, calling on Naphthalene when she was like that, but we got used to it. The cookies were good, the tea was refreshing, and old Naphthalene never was much of a conversationalist anyway. So it was all going swell until the day Naphthalene's guests noticed that the tea was stone cold, and the cookies were the same ones left over from the day before.

"They started whispering among themselves: 'Do you suppose she's really...' 'Naw, look at her, she's so natural,' and so on. Finally one of the neighbors decided to do something, to test Naphthalene's vital signs. He goes over to the coffin and does something with his hands that nobody could see. Suddenly Naphthalene sits up and slaps him right across the face and hollers, 'Shame on you, Johnny Bob! What do you think you're doing? Is this how you show respect to the dead? If this is the behavior I can expect at my funeral, why, I'm halfway inclined never to die at all!' And with that, Miss Naphthalene sent us all packing. She sold the coffin back to the funeral parlor, and she's alive to this day, is old Naphthalene."

Campaign Speech

Here is part of a comedy routine I've been working up for a while. It's based on the name of a city in Missouri, near St. Louis. Picture this campaign speech taking place under a banner reading "Des Peres Voters for Change":

CANDIDATE [addressing a crowd of voters]: I’ve been in Despair since six o’clock this morning...

AIDE [whispering desperately from 20 feet away]: It's Des Peres, you idiot!

CANDIDATE: ...and if you ask me, nothing could be better than to live in Despair. I would like to raise my children in Despair, and send them to the schools of Despair.

AIDE: Two silent esses!

CANDIDATE: My wife and I would go to work every morning in Despair, take an evening stroll in the streets of Despair, buy everything we need in the markets of Despair, and invest our earnings in the banks of Despair.

AIDE: Requiescat in pace...

CANDIDATE: If you vote for me, you can be sure I will represent the spirit of Despair. In fact, I will be the voice of Despair wherever I go. Despair will never leave my heart...

AIDE: I'm right there with you, brother.

CANDIATE: ...even if I should never be so lucky as to own a share of this city of Despair.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


I love Hitchcock. I am fascinated with his films. Even some that have been considered failures seem wonderful to me. So I do not speak lightly when I declare that Topaz (1969) was a dreadful movie. I have watched the final cut and the uncut, preview version; I have watched all three endings that were filmed for it; I have even sat through a video in which film historians "appreciate" the film, and attempt to rehabilitate it. I did all this with an open mind. But the stink of an abysmal artistic failure remains. The movie is just plain bad.

Based on a Leon Uris novel, the movie begins with the family of a high-ranking Soviet official defecting to the U.S. while visiting the Netherlands. The official tells the CIA that his government has a contact in the French intelligence service, code-named Topaz. A CIA spook tells the resident French spook in Washington about it, and said French spook runs down the lead via a circuitous route that includes a caper in a New York hotel, a mission in Castroist Cuba, and finally some high jinks in France.

The badness begins, perhaps, with Frederick Stafford playing the lead role. (Stafford is pictured at right with co-star Claude Jade.) I can understand Hitch's reluctance to work with a "big star" after his negative experience dealing with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews on the set of Torn Curtain. I understand he was trying to prove that an auteur can make an effective film, even with little-known actors of fair-to-middling talent.

Nevertheless there is something to be said for a bit of "typecasting." It's easier to find your footing in a film where you immediately know who the main character is, and a good deal about him too, without a line of dialogue or even a moment of expository footage. You see Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Sean Connery, and BANG! you're off on exactly the type of adventure you should expect them to be in.

But what do you make of Frederick Stafford? He doesn't show up until 30 minutes into the film, and even then he only gradually grows in importance, and he is so little known and (I'm sorry) lacking in charisma that you still don't accept him as the main character for some time afterward. Such is the dubiousness of Stafford's position as the leading man that, when John Forsythe reappears near the end of the movie, you wonder if there's going to be a third act where Forsythe's character assumes center stage. You almost wish it to be so.

But the lack of star power isn't the main thing. It's just a stupid movie. It's long-winded, badly structured, and confusing. Some of the acting is dreadful. The beginning (including a freeze-frame of stock footage of a May Day parade in Red Square) looks silly and cheap. The longest and best of the three endings is the one that Hitchcock withdrew after the preview audiences declared it ridiculous. The short one that played in most theatres is quite abrupt and practically incomprehensible. The in-between one, in which Stafford cheerfully tells his wife that Operation Topaz is over, is so inappropriate that it's downright eerie.

The only part of the movie that I care for is the Cuban interlude, which is an island of Hitchcock genius in a sea of mediocrity. John Vernon is terrifying as a Cuban spook-soldier who stays one step behind Stafford. The moment when he realizes that the woman he loves is a double agent is stunning - as much because of Hitchcock's editing as Vernon's acting. And when he holds said woman in his arms and shoots her, and when her dress pools around her body like a puddle of blood, your heart stands still. But the movie is only 2/3 over at that point, and it's all downhill. Too bad, too bad.

Lenten hymns from my Treasury

Here are a couple of sample pages from a Treasury of Hymns I have been working on for some years. Appropriate to the season, I picked a 2-page spread from the "Lent & Passion" section of the book. The Treasury currently contains only tunes and words - well over 1,000 hymns and still growing. They are intended to reflect the best of Lutheran practice, including hymns from other traditions that are friendly to Lutheran spirituality. Click on the images to see larger versions.

A note on performance - a fermata ("bullseye") need not mean that you hold the note longer than its normal value. They are simply how I chose to indicate the final note of each "line" or "phrase" of melody. I borrowed this use of the fermata from J. S. Bach's chorale settings. In actual practice you can hold the note, sing right through it at tempo, pause after it for a breath or for dramatic effect, or whatever you deem appropriate to the text at any given point.

I hope I'm not infringing any copyrights here. I haven't gotten as far as compiling a copyright-info page.

Please pray that I will have the time & energy to complete this work. Or, if it isn't the type of work that can ever really be called complete, may I at least get it ready to be published! A couple more summers should do the trick, with the blessing.

Oscar-Winning Cop Flicks

I recently saw two films on video, hoping to find out what it takes to make a cop movie win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Having seen them, I find that the question has gained a new dimension, but remains unanswered.

VIDEO #1: “The Departed.” It just won the Oscar for best movie of 2006. It also snagged a Best Director statuette for the longsuffering (though not always deserving) Martin Scorsese. It is one of those “ensemble cast” films where nobody ends up looking very good, you sometimes wonder whether there are any good guys, and just when you think a character might be good he gets his brains blown out in what, amazingly, becomes a tedious pattern of cranial matter splatter.

After (pardon me for spoiling) Nicholson’s character gets his, the life goes out of the picture. Yet there are quite a few minutes to go. Then, after Leo (excuse me again) gets his, the movie seems cruelly pointless. The last character to make the jump from person to red stain on wall is Matt Damon (I'm only sorry that he was the last to go). His final words, while staring down the barrel of Mark Wahlberg’s gun, are: “O.K.” I’m trying to think of another movie that so completely goes off the rails and loses its way...but a comparable example doesn’t come to mind.

Martin Sheen also dies in this flick (he falls off a tall building and his corpse hits the ground so nearly within the frame that you see blood jumping out of it). But Alec Baldwin, God help us, lives (and he also gets the best line: “You are a cop, my son”). There is only one female character of any real significance; she sleeps with two characters who are trying to kill each other (neither of them knowing their connection through her), and then she breaks all movie conventions by living to tell about it. In compensation for her survival, I suppose, any number of other characters die, including at least one scene where the carnage aspires to the effect of farce.

VIDEO #2: “The French Connection.” It was also a Best Picture winner (1971), besides grabbing a Best Actor award for Gene Hackman, best adapted screenplay, directing, and film editing. You wouldn’t think, after winning all these important awards, that it would be such a lousy movie. I liked exactly one scene (you guessed it, the chase scene). Supposedly based on a real-life case featuring a couple of charismatic narcotics cops staking out an international heroin deal, you start out wondering what this movie did so well that it had to win Best Picture; you end up wondering how 1971 could have been such a bad year for Hollywood, that this boring, ultimately pointless, and often obnoxious movie got the big prize.

The film has a gritty (i.e., unattractive) look. The dialogue, at times, sounds improvised (i.e., you wish somebody would yell "Cut! Give the shmuck his line again!"). Its music is avante-garde (i.e., atrociously ugly, and—to risk sounding like Woody Allen of “the food is bad and the portions are too small”—not played very well). The cops turn out to be jerks and the bad guys pretty much get away; the movie finally peters out in a manner bizarrely similar to Hitchcock’s “Topaz” (another phenomenally bad movie). But when you get down to brass tacks, "The French Connection" has a very sexy chase scene involving an elevated railway and the road under it. And I must admit that Roy Scheider pulls a pretty interesting impression of an Italian cop. On the other hand, what on earth does “Did you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie” mean?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Covers for Harry Potter 7

Today, Scholastic and Bloomsbury released 3 covers for the upcoming seventh Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I'm psyched. I'm also, for the last time as a fan of this series, seriously scratching my head about what these covers do (or don't) reveal about the book, which is set to be released on July 21, 2007. The American editor says that he sobbed all the way through it. For something so emotionally affecting, and expected to be quite grim, this cover is surprisingly bright - a sky gilded by late-afternoon sunlight, a seemingly hopeful or perhaps defiant gesture by the hero...

At the right is Mary Grandpre's full cover art for the standard, US edition of the book. Click on it to see a larger version. Once you see the whole spread, things become a bit clearer. Harry and Voldemort seem to be meeting, perhaps for a climactic confrontation. What is this place in the background? My guess is Godric's Hollow, the place where Harry's parents were killed. Evidence in favor of that guess is the hint of ruins (the Potters' house was destroyed when Voldemort killed them). Plus, the place just generally looks like a hollow, and one with some history (maybe those shapes in the background are grave markers). On the other hand, it could also be some kind of stadium, in which case Harry and Voldemort are having some kind of grudge match. Does it look perhaps like You-Know-Who is trying to make something fall down, while Harry is trying to keep it up?

Then there's the cover for the UK adult edition. It shows an amulet with a snake design on it. I don't think it takes much imagination to guess this is one of those horcruxes that Harry is supposed to destroy because they contain pieces of Voldemort's soul. Once they're all gone, Voldemort will be mortal again, and Harry can finish him off for good and all. Could this be the last horcrux? Could the "S" stand for Slytherin?

Finally, and to me most interestingly, here is the cover of the UK children's edition. Click on it to see a larger image. The inside of the front flap shows Harry's horcrux, a ghostly stag that represents Harry's father. The inside of the back flap shows what may be another version of the horcrux shown on the UK adult cover. The back cover is a beautiful picture of Hogwarts as seen by bright moonlight.

But the most fascinating part is the front cover, in which Ron, Hermione, and Harry appear to be going down some kind of chute full of gold and jewels. This is an unexpectedly bright and almost humorous picture for what many people expect to be the darkest book in the series. Whoever drew Ron's face must have taken a cue from Rupert Grint's portrayal of the Weasley boy - frightened but in a vaguely comical way. Hermione looks like she's lunging for someone's throat; where did she get the wound on her arm? And of course, coming at you like Superman is a tattered and slightly wounded Harry, looking very focused.

But who or what is that riding on Harry's back? You can see one hand gripping Harry's shoulder, and another holding a sword aloft; Gryffindor's sword? And just visible behind Harry's head is a bit of long, white hair. My first thought was "Dobby the Avenging House-Elf!" But then I thought...hmmm. Could this be Dumbledore coming back?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

My Favorite Limerick

I just obtained a book called The Penguin Book of Limericks, compiled & edited by E. O. Parrott, a very catholic collection running the gamut from intellectual wit to X-rated humor. My favorite, so far, is the following limerick by "Anon."

'I must leave here,' said Lady De Vere,
'For these damp airs don't suit me, I fear.'
Said her friend: 'Goodness me!
If they don't agree
With your system, why eat pears, my dear?'

UPDATE: Here is another one that gave me a stitch in my side for laughing. The author, again, is "Anon." That guy sure is funny!

Said Queen Isabella of Spain,
'I like it now and again;
But I wish to explain:
That by "now and again"
I mean now, and AGAIN and AGAIN.'

Check Engine

Today the "check engine" light lit up on my dashboard for the fourth time in a week. I have reached the "I don't care any more" threshold. I don't have so much uncommitted time that I can afford to spend all of it in the waiting room at the dealership.

Last Tuesday, the light came on for the first time. I had just had an oil change over the weekend, so I knew it was possible the folks at Jiffy Lube had left something sideways, but I took it to the dealership anyway. A year ago when the "check engine" light came on, it was because I needed a new catalytic converter, a repair job that only the dealership could do because it was covered by the warranty. I wanted to keep that base covered.

So I took the car to the dealership on Wednesday. And the people at the dealership charged me $30 to tell me that the reason the light came on was that the people at Jiffy Lube forgot to clamp down the air filter housing. So I took the receipt from the dealership over to Jiffy Lube and got them to refund the $30.00. Happy ending, right?

On Thursday, the "check engine" light made its second appearance. Since the Jiffy Lube people had whined about me not going to them first, I went to them this time. They plugged the car into a little gizmo that analyzed the code that had triggered the light. They said, "The dealership people don't know what they're doing. If they had done this, they would have seen the problem wasn't an air filter housing, but a bad oxygen sensor." For $85.00 I had a new one put in. Problem solved, right?

It looked that way until Sunday, when the light came on for a third time. So yesterday, I took the car back to the dealership. With glee I told the people there that the Jiffy Lube crowd had called them jerks for not catching the oxygen-sensor code, though now it was the Jiffy Lube folks who looked like jerks. The dealership didn't charge me anything, except several hours of my time, to determine that the only thing wrong with the car was that the guys at Jiffy Lube had turned off the check-engine light, but they hadn't re-set the test values, so the car's computer still thought there was something wrong with the oxygen sensor. They reset the sensor for free and that should have been the end of my troubles - right? Right?

Today, a week after the first incident, "check engine" lit up for the fourth time. And I just don't give a spit. I can't afford to. This stupid car has devoured most of my spare time during the past week, and the people who ought to know what's ailing it don't have a clue. My next step will be to go to a self-employed mechanic I know. Maybe he'll actually look at my car with both eyes.

Barfalicious Tackiness

The ELCA church down the street from where I live has struck again. Its lighted sign continues to aspire to ever greater heights of tackiness: "GOD'S LOVE IS NOT LENT, IT IS GIVEN."

Compare this to the following sentiment from an LCMS church sign an hour's drive from St. Louis: "LENT MEANS GOD GIVES UP HIS SON FOR YOU."

Clearly there is a thin line between tackiness and profundity. These messages have a great deal in common. But there are signposts to tell you which side of the line you're on. The one relies on a lame pun to convey what is at best a weak generality, at worst a trite cliche. The other turns an old cliche (giving up something for Lent) upside-down in a way that approaches irony, and elicits an "Aha!" Which one is doing ministry here?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Synonyms for Nauseating

Ralphable - Pukescent - Barfalicious - Sicktorious - Vomitudinous - Hurladay - Upchuckward - Spewtiful - Retchonical - Gagricultural - Regurgitatorial - Refluxive - Cacktive - Heavingly - Emetogenic - Effluential - Ejectifying - Spitworthy - Hoctuine - Splaterial - Effermescent - Chunktractive - Blowdown


When I was in high school, I participated in forensics. For those of you who watch CSI, that doesn't mean analyzing evidence left at a crime scene. It means public speaking. I was on the speech team.

My junior year, as I recall, I competed in the category of "extemporaneous reading - poetry." Walt Whitman was the poet of the year, so any poem by him was fair game. You drew the title of one of his poems and had 15 minutes to get ready to read it out loud. It was an interesting category. I got to know Whitman pretty well.

My senior year, I switched to a category called "Creative Expression." Each participant had to write his own 10-minute routine. Mine was a one-man play, a comical send-up of the Ten Plagues of the Book of Exodus, titled "The Fall of the Ancient Egyptian Bureaucracy." I loved performing it because it made most people laugh. Unfortunately it made a few people angry - a demographic I have consistently pissed off with my sense of humor. At the regional finals, from which the top two placers from each category would go on to state competition, I performed my routine in front of three judges. Two of them gave me First Place. The third gave me a total thumbs-down, and I went home with a third-place medal. So ended my stand-up comedy career.

The reason I tell this sad tale is to introduce the following poem, which trust me, was never EVER meant to be taken seriously. Between repeat performances of my Creative Expression routine, I got to hear many other competitors do their routines. I recognized some of them as sketches plagiarized from Bill Cosby and other comics. But most of the Creative Expressions were performed by "goth" teens - dressed in black from head to foot, with facial piercings and makeup apparently intended to make them look like victims of end-stage leukemia. And there were striking similarities between these goth numbers. 50% of them were titled "Why, God, Why?" And 75% of them were the tragic story of an idealized female whose name, in every instance, was Cassandra. I came to loathe the name Cassandra. And this is what I did about it:

Oh, woe to my amorous eye, yea, and woe
To the moment Cassandra I saw,
For she’s stolen my heart like a bandit I trow,
And continues upon it to gnaw.

Her eyes put the dazzle of daylight to shame;
Her hair, less of flax than of gold,
Overhangs such a frame as would make a man lame
Were he cut from a mushier mold.

Alas, my Cassandra she loveth me not;
Oh, my cardiac muscle is rent!
I tell my beloved to get in my arms,
And my love telleth me to get bent.

IMAGES: Thomas Webster, A Classroom Recital; Julie Philpaut, Racine reading "Athalie" in front of Louis XIV and Madame de Maintenon, 1819.

The Electric Koan

I don't remember when I wrote this. It was a long time ago - before I actually stopped worshiping the electric god. It just goes to show that good preachers target themselves...

Look deep into the crystal, let its light
Dance on your retinas. Your brain inert,
A calm steals over you. Now feel its pulse,
So rapid, only intuition hears
It. Puzzles will unfold themselves; the One
Is speaking, you and all, all one.
The world of love and death and hate becomes
A passing dream, devoid of meaning. Now
Your soul at peace, go out and buy
Some cereal and soap, to keep your soul
In harmony with your electric god.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Moving with a Hyundai

In July 2002, I moved to Yuma, Arizona with a fully-paid-off, quite workable car. Only two things were wrong with my old car: (1) It didn't have air-conditioning, and (2) I couldn't roll the driver's side window down because of a chronic problem, which any number of replaced parts had failed to repair. The combination of the two spelled intense discomfort, if not danger to my life, in a climate where daytime temperatures approached 120 degrees Fahrenheit. At my earliest opportunity, I traded it in for the cheapest possible car: a Hyundai Accent with a 10 year, 100,000 mile warranty, A/C, and windows that I could roll up and down. I'm still paying for it, in more ways than one.

I have learned since then that you get what you pay for...and you pay for what you get. One of the unexpected joys Hyundai ownership came to light when I moved.

Actually I have moved houses 3 times since I bought the Hyundai. The first time, I didn't use the car at all. I was moving about 1 block down the street. Everything that would fit in boxes, I packed in boxes and wheeled down the street on a 2-wheeled cart, which I picked up from its owner and dropped off again on foot. I made a LOT of trips around the corner with that 2-wheeled cart. Some of the larger items, including my piano, I moved with the aid of a 4-wheeled furniture dolly, and somebody or other helped me. For the couch and a couple other awkward items I imposed on a friend with a pick-up truck. It was the simplest move I ever made, notwithstanding that I was moving into the first house I ever owned.

Moving out of that house wasn't so simple. I had to get all my stuff from Yuma to a small town in east-central Missouri. Obviously this couldn't be done on foot. But when I looked into renting a moving van and towing my Hyundai behind it, I ran across an interesting fact about Hyundai. The car is so low-slung that it simply cannot be towed on a half-dolley, the way I moved my previous car to Yuma. None of the rental outfits even seemed willing to vouch for my vehicle's safety on a full dolley, with all 4 wheels off the ground. I finally ran out of possibilities for having my car towed, and ended up having someone from Missouri fly to Arizona and drive my car while I drove the van.

It was an interesting trip in many ways. It was interesting, for example, to leave Yuma on a cool, drizzly spring morning and reach Flagstaff, six or seven hours later and 7,000 feet higher, on a bitterly cold winter day. It was interesting to share the cab of a moving van with two curious, affectionate, and mostly well-behaved cats. Along a pitch-dark stretch of I-40 in New Mexico, I could tell which one was which mainly by familiarity with their habits: the creature who crawled up on the back of the seat and stretched out behind my shoulders had to be Lionel, and the dead weight that threw itself down against my right thigh had to be Tyrone. It was interesting, to put it mildly, to drive all the way to Amarillo, Texas, in one day with stops only for gas and a couple of meals. But where it really got interesting was on Day 2 when, in Lebanon, Missouri, the transmission on the moving van gave up the ghost.

We spent a good part of Day 3 finagling a new truck out of the local U-haul people. We had to unpack everything off the old truck and pack it on the new truck. Then we started on our last leg of the trip...and found out before we had gone a quarter of a mile that the springs on the new truck were shot. It took a few more miles to catch up with my "chase" driver (who until then had chased me) so we could go back and get this straightened out. But the local folks couldn't do anything for us except give us a 12-foot trailer, into which we now packed some of my belongings, in order to take some of the weight off the bad truck springs. And then, on a rainy day, as night fell, I had to drive on some fairly lousy roads to get to my new home, mindful not only of the truck springs (How could I forget? The whole truck rocked sickeningly from side to side the whole trip) but of the trailer I was towing. I had to spend an extra night in a motel because we got into town so late; I had to unpack almost everything by myself because my schedule change upset the plans certain people had made to help me move in; and when I dropped off the U-haul equipment, the maintenance guys at the store gaped at the completely bald tires (which hadn't been bald when I left Lebanon) and wondered that I hadn't had a major blow-out on the way there. Angels were definitely watching over me (they've made that evident quite a few times in my interesting life).

All this was because Hyundai sold me a car built in such a way that no rental company wanted to take responsibility for towing it on their equipment. When I called the Hyundai Corporation to ask about this, I wasn't encouraged by the voice-mail system that answered. One of the options on the push-button menu was: "To inquire about the low-horsepower class-action lawsuit, press 6..."

The third time I moved, a little over a year ago, was from small-town Missouri to the great city of St. Louis. That time I didn't even bother checking to see if I could tow my car. Here's what I did: I reserved a U-haul at shop in the small town I was moving out of. The day before I planned to move, I walked down a very long, steep hill in very cold weather and picked up the truck, drove it up to my apartment building and left it there. Very early the next morning, I drove my car to St. Louis, parked it at the AmTrak station, and rode a train back to the small-town. Then I walked back up the same very long, steep hill, packed up the truck, and drove it to St. Louis. I had a little help packing the truck; I had almost no help unpacking it.

When I finally tracked down one of my new neighbors (a total stranger, mind you) and bribed/cajoled/guilted him into helping me move the last couple things, he expressed awe at my physical strength. He had watched me move solid-wood dressers and desks into the building unaided. Aw, shucks; I've never considered myself strong, but where there's a will, there's a way. It would have been nice if my new neighbor hadn't paused to say this while I was holding one end of a studio piano 8 inches off the ground.

Then I simply had to drive the van to the U-haul drop-off location, take a cab to AmTrak, and collect my car.

Unfortunately, Uhaul didn't have the size of van I had reserved; I had to settle for what they had, which was several feet shorter. I couldn't move everything in one trip; I had to make another reservation, and follow the same ridiculous plan the following weekend, to get the rest of my stuff.

When I think of things like this, I find myself wishing three things: first, may God save me from having to move again for at least a few years; second, may mankind come to his senses about U-haul and force it to deliver better service or be overtaken by a better competitor; and third, may Old Nick take me before I buy another machine made by "low-horsepower class-action lawsuit" Hyundai.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Vehicular Assault?

A week ago Tuesday, a bit after 10:00 p.m., I was on my way home from Grand Center (the theatre district in St. Louis) when a hunger came over me, so I pulled into the Open-24-7 Drive-Through at Del Taco. It's a crummy Mexican restaurant in an even crummier neighborhood, but nothing else is open at that time between Powell Hall and home, so that's where I went.

The first sign that my late dinner wasn't going to be up to even Del Taco's standards of service was that I had to wait next to the intercom for several minutes before the staff was ready to take my order. Then, after ordering, I pulled ahead to the window to wait for someone to take my money and give me food. There was no one ahead of me in line, and only a couple of parties ordering inside the restaurant, but no one came to the window to help me. From my angle of view there didn't seem to be much going on in the restaurant - now and then an employee slouched into view, but never got close enough to the window to do me any good.

After an unprecedented wait, in my drive-through-dining experience - perhaps ten minutes - someone did come and take my money, and after a few more minutes they gave me part of my order. I checked the bag to make sure it was all there, and it wasn't. So I reminded the employee about it.

Meanwhile, several other vehicles had lined up behind mine. The drive-through lane is bounded on one side by the Del Taco building, and on the other by a curb with short concrete columns rising out of it at about six-foot intervals. The guy in the pick-up behind me was effectively stuck, boxed in between me and the customer behind him in the drive-through lane.

So I truly sympathized when the driver of the pick-up leaned out his window and asked if I could pull ahead for just a moment, so he could get out. I shouted back that I was expecting one last piece of food to be handed to me through the window at any moment, if he could wait just that much longer. In truth, I was suspicious - like I said, Del Taco isn't in a very good neighborhood - and I didn't trust the intentions of the stranger behind me.

The last of my food arrived only a few seconds later, but it was too late for the rear bumper of my car. The impatient guy in the pick-up decided he couldn't wait one more moment, and he began trying to sidle his truck through a gap in the intermittent barrier to our right. In the process, he bumped into the rear of my car.

You can imagine how furious this made me. Did I get out of my car and exchange insurance information with the guy? Did I lecture him about respecting other people's property? Did I call the police? You bet I didn't! Of course not. I thought the guy was going to kill me next. While he was still angling his truck between the concrete pillars, I snatched my burrito out of the cashier's poky fingers and fled for dear life.

This incident was brought to my mind today when I had to take my car into the dealership to have the "Check Engine" light turned off and its reason for being on explained. Even though I vaguely suspected it had something to do with Jiffy Lube changing my oil this past weekend, I couldn't be sure it wasn't a sign that yet another catalytic converter was shot. (It turned out my first guess was right; Jiffy Lube screwed something up - and they later refunded the money I paid to the dealership for setting it right). The service person looked the car over to make sure there wasn't any damage on it that I could later blame them for, and she pointed out the small mark on my bumper where Mr. Can't Wait 30 Seconds hit me. I wonder if the poor guy had to go to the bathroom. Whatever his hurry was, he gave me a good scare.

FROM THE TACKINESS ON HOLY GROUND DEPARTMENT: Right now the ELCA church near my home displays the following message on its lighted sign: "CAUTION: LENTEN JOURNEY CAN RESULT IN LOST BAGGAGE." Translation: "We've moved from 'Christ crucified' to 'baptized psychobabble'."

A couple weeks ago it said: "LENT: U-TURNS PERMITTED AND EVEN RECOMMENDED." If that message gets out, it ought to give the traffic cops plenty of work.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Gideon Reed

Years ago, when I was the kind of person who recorded my life in the form of poetry, I hurt a friend's feelings with the sonnet below. It was a description of our relationship and, unfortunately, I chose a pretty disgusting metaphor. Not flattering at all. Don't read too much into this poem. All it's about is the fact that some people are so open and confiding that they almost scare you off. Or something like that.

For each the blister of his confidence
Has diff’rently enduring skin, some tough
To pierce, some sweating pus; too deep to lance
The first, the other not quite deep enough.
One of these last stood brimming to explode;
My nudge enloosed a deluge of regret,
Dead tissue sloughing forth, all waiting to unload
Old venom on the first new flesh it met.
The friction of two selves create such welts:
The bruis’d but clinging reed, against the great
Horn-blowing Gideon flashing battle-pelts.
The lancer, I spread on the salve of faith,
But even that in pus (still unexhausted) melts,
And from my hand his wart calls out a mate.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Italian Food, Mystery Music

Today's taste of St. Louis took place at Bartolino's, one of "the Hill's" numerous Italian restaurants. For one price off the dinner menu, I got a soup, salad, main dish and side dish, dessert and bread; plus they were able to offer me an interesting imported Italian beer.

The beer was Menabrea. I hadn't had it before, though I have found other Italian beers to enjoy - and a few to avoid. It was a nice, mildly hoppy ale, which is a nice change from the "Budweiser with an Italian accent" that one finds under most Italian birra labels. It reminded me vaguely of a Salvadoran brew I rather miss (I haven't seen it in years), called Caguama - a very decent-tasting blond ale that feels good in the mouth.

The soup was a spectacular minestrone. The salad was actually pretty spectacular too, with a house dressing that turned out to be a cut above the usual flavorless, purple vinaigrette too many Italian "houses" run toward. It was more of a creamy Italian with a tangy bite to it, and the salad had some artichoke in it, as well as grape tomatoes and shredded white cheese (but not the overabundance of cheese that also seems to run in Italian "house salads"). Several slices of a nice, full-bodied, crusty bread rounded out the "befores," though unfortunately the butter was ice cold and had to be warmed in my hands before I dared try spreading it on the bread.

I can't say much about the main course. It was something called saltimbocco romana, which apparently means veal marsala. For you deprived people who don't know what veal marsala means, it's veal cutlets and sauteed mushrooms covered in a garlic-butter-and-marsala-wine sauce. And though you can get veal-marsala-to-die-for here on the Hill, this wasn't quite it. It was "OK veal marsala." The side dish was cheese-filled tortellini in a cheesy tomato sauce, and again, it was OK but not "to die for." However, after the very special spumoni ice cream that followed these merely-OK dishes, all is forgiven.

The waitress claimed that Edy's makes this particular spumoni only for Bartolino's restaurant. You can't buy it anywhere else; the Edy's spumoni you can buy in your grocery store's frozen section is far inferior. I believe her at least on this last count, because this was a remarkable spumoni. The main body of the ice cream was a creamy-caramelly flavor and color, marbled with thin lines of light-green pistachio ice cream. There were crunchy bits of pistachio in it, as well as jellied cherries that I could swear were steeped in Amaretto. Shazam!

TONIGHT'S SOUNDTRACK: Gerhard Samuel's world premiere recording of a Symphony in E purported to be the long-lost symphony which Franz Schubert (1797-1828) composed at Gastein, Austria in 1825. The music was discovered as recently as 1960 and may or may not be authentic; and it does seem that Schubert wrote a large symphony in 1825 that was subsequently lost. The symphony quotes from several of Schubert's string quartets and songs of the period, as well as his well-known Wanderer Fantasy for piano.

The scale of the piece (60 minutes of music, including the repeats) puts it on a par with Schubert's "Great" C Major symphony, which he composed in 1828 and which was also discovered some time after his death. The evident inferiority of this E Major Symphony may stem from its being an experiment inspired by the 1824 premiere of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Like Beethoven's 9th, but unlike Schubert's other symphonies, it swaps the order of the middle movements so that the scherzo plays ahead of the slow movement. But its similarities to the "9th" of Schubert (as many people number the Great C Major) are much more numerous. This earlier piece in E could almost be taken as a sketch for the later masterpiece in C.

In fact, hearing the second, third, and fourth movements of this E Major Symphony is a profoundly weird experience. One frequently encounters textures and themes eerily similar to ones found in corresponding sections of the C Major Symphony. Sometimes the rhythm, instrumentation, and accompaniment figuration are the same, but the tune turns in a different direction - or even more bizarrely, is a tune you recognize from a different work! It's like hearing the same story told in different words, or rather like hearing the same words used to tell a different story.

Of course, this doesn't mean this E Major work is necessarily a forgery. I've listened to all of Schubert's other symphonies, apart from the so-called Seventh which officially exists only in sketch form. And there are definitely points in his earlier symphonies where you can recognize bits that he recycled from one work to the next. Self-plagiarism is the sincerest form of egotism, etc. Plus, you also have to admit that this piece reeks of a composer turning a page in his career, from Haydnesque conservatism toward innovation on a grand Beethovenian scale, and rather falling on his face at it. He's trying out things that don't quite work, using borrowed tunes; three years later he wrote it again, and did it right, but using brand new tunes. Had he lived longer, imagine what he might have done!

I do wish I could hear this piece played by full-time professionals, though. I don't know from this Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra, which published its "world premiere recording" of the lost-and-found Schubert work on the Centaur label in 1992. Whoever they are, they sound about on a par with the St. Louis Philharmonic - a no-pay, town-gown outfit that performs about four times a year on a local college campus, and that compensates for its less-than-perfect tuning and occasional clumsiness by playing something you've just got to hear. If a major symphony orchestra played this piece, I would be first in line at the ticket kiosk.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

I-8 Right There!

Speaking of Yuma, the last year that I lived there I had a job in which I frequently drove to Tucson with a co-worker, picked up a customer, and drove back to Yuma - all of which took about 9 hours, give or take. Somebody had to do it. I didn't mind; it beat working. I got to drive a rental car, dine out on per diem, and occasionally have an adventure (such as the time the customer had a bladder problem and needed to go to the potty every 15 minutes - a real challenge when you're in the middle of the Sonoran Desert).

My favorite story from these trips is another illustration of this blog's overarching thesis that I am a fat, stupid jerk.

My co-worker and I had picked up our customer, who seemed to be a somewhat confused and cantankerous old man. He sat in the backseat while I drove and my co-worker and I kept up a lively stream of conversation. As we approached point where I-10 turns north toward Phoenix, and where Yuma-bound travelers must exit onto I-8 to continue westward, I drove by in the left lane, oblivious.

The customer noticed, however. He became increasingly agitated as the exit approached, interrupting the shop talk in the front seat with ejaculations of "I ate there! I ate right there!" I looked around, saw nothing but desert, and decided to humor the old fellow. "That's nice," I said. "Did you have a picnic? 'Cuz I don't see any restaurants..."

It was only as we blew right by the exit that I realized he wasn't saying "I ate" but "I-8."

You see why I say these things can only happen to me? God put me in just the right place, at just the right time, to enable my stupidity to shine in all its glory.


I live very close to a Greek restaurant called Ari's. The folks at Ari's have an interesting use for the Kasseri cheese that I used in yesterday's mousse-de-foie-de-canard sandwiches. They bread and deep-fry the cheese, soak it in brandy, set it on fire, then put it out with a squirt of lemon juice while shouting "Opa!" at the top of their lungs. I'm not sure what role the "Opa!" plays in the recipe. Perhaps it is some kind of magic. Knowledgeable customers join in the refrain.

I haven't actually tried Ari's Opa Cheese, but I've overheard the "Opa!" on several visits, and tonight I sat a couple tables away from where the ritual was being carried out. It looks good. I know the cheese tastes good. I'll have to give it a shot. However, even knowing that this was a possibility, I still chose a good old All-American cheeseburger (only with feta cheese) and fries (only I dipped them in tzatzike sauce). I washed it all down with a bottle of Fat Tire, served in a cold glass.

I love Greek food; I've had all kinds of it; but tonight I was in comfort food mode. Nevertheless, tzatzike sauce beats ketchup any day, and a little feta can lift any mood, even on a day of gray skies and snow flurries like today.

Before I sign out, I want to put in a plug for one of the Two Wonders of the Omelette World. It is the feta cheese and spinach omelette, which I first tasted at Fort Wayne's Omega restaurant. I don't know if Omega is still there (it opened while I was at the seminary in the late 1990's). It was a very convenient spot to study because it was open all night and it wasn't far from the sem. They made the thick, fluffy type of omelette that must have a bit of pancake batter added to the egg before it is whipped in a drink blender; the kind of omelette they serve at Waffle House and at catered brunches, that only gets folded once (in half) and stands up taller than anything else on the plate. With spinach for sweetness and feta for tartness it was just perfect - at least, as long as the cheese remained in its molten form. It did lose a bit of its charm as it cooled and the cheese congealed. And since huge plates of food were the only kind Omega served, there was a good chance this would happen unless you wolfed the omelette down right away.

The other Wonder of the Omelette World is the Blue Ribbon Special Omelette served at Tyler's Taste of Texas in Yuma, Arizona. The next time business or pleasure takes you along I-8, do stop at one of Tyler's two locations, where they serve a diabolically delicious decoction of egg, cheese, onion, pepper, and I think maybe ham, topped with slices of avocado and a dollop of sour cream, plus a side of salsa if you want to add that (do). Complete your order with the country-style potatoes (sliced and fried to perfection) and toasted sourdough bread, and you'll be their driveling slave every time you're in town.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Party for One

This week I planned, and tonight I carried out, a party for one - i.e., me. It was quite enjoyable. I had a late lunch / early dinner at a restaurant I have never visited before (some kind of noodle outfit that majors in cultural diversity, with dishes ranging from Pad Thai to Mediterranean and Italian cuisine - it was interesting at least).

Then I went to see a Sandra Bullock movie called Premonition, which was creepy and interesting and effective except for the bonehead ending. In the movie, Bullock goes through the unnerving and hard-to-describe-without-sounding-unintentionally-funny experience of living the seven pivotal days of her adult life out of sequence. She starts the week on Thursday, then wakes up the next morning on Monday, then jumps ahead to Saturday, then - if memory serves - Tuesday, Friday, the previous Sunday, and finally a climactic Wednesday in which all the missing pieces of the puzzle fall into place...but too late to really change anything. After which a weird little ending is tacked on, an ending that really left me cold. Considering the confusion and desperation that comes out of experiencing a major life-changing event in a before-after-before-after-before-after sequence, it's not surprising that Bullock's character went a little bit crazy. Un-crazying her just seemed to happen too easily, in my humble opinion.

I've been home for a while now. I've been leafing through some new books that arrived by mail order - maybe I'll discuss them here another time. Then I got the party really going by opening a bottle of hard cider, toasting some Italian-style bread (the sesame-seed variety) and adding various combinations of Greek sheep cheese (Kasseri), Brie, and duck-liver pate. I snuck a few bites of the brie yesterday, on rosemary-and-olive-oil crackers, and was disappointed by its lack of flavor - I guess I was expecting something stronger, more in the spirit of the gorgonzola-brie torte that someone always brings to the Symphony Chorus parties. Tonight, however, I discovered that the combination of full-bodied, toasted bread and duck pate brought out the best qualities of the brie, sort of a nutty, pleasantly musty flavor.

I don't always party by myself. Next week, for instance, I'm going to the Symphony Chorus "Hungarian" themed party, in honor of our upcoming performances of Bartok's Cantata Profana. I don't really know what to expect from a Hungarian-themed party, except probably some goulash, some paprikash, and some made-in-Hungary booze out of a bottle with a stag on it (remember, the Bartok piece is about nine young men being turned into stags). The chorus administrator sent out a memo speculating that the dessert might include "chocolate with a heavy dose of barangoltak or, hmm, csodaszarvasnyomra" - a joke best appreciated if you've been trying to sing Bartok's music while pronouncing those words, and many more like it. Apologies to anyone who knows Hungarian; I thought it was hilarious.

Another party I'm looking forward to - or rather, two parties that may almost run together into one - is the release of the 5th Harry Potter movie followed, within two weeks, by the 7th Harry Potter book. Some friends of mine who share my Harrymania are already making plans to line up for the big events, and (in the case of the book) to stay up late together, eating, drinking, reading, and discussing. Actually two of the people I plan to party with are staffers at Mugglenet, where I write a regular column and book reviews (under a very thin pseudonym); one of them is also in the Symphony Chorus. There's a funny story about how we recognized each other as fellow fans.

Last spring, I flew to New York and back with the Symphony Chorus, where we sang a program "presented by Carnegie Hall." One married couple in the chorus sat across the aisle from me on the return flight. It was the wife who emailed me the following week, through the Mugglenet feedback system. She had noticed my byline saying I lived in Missouri, and she wanted to know if I was anywhere near St. Louis. If so, would I be interested in attending one of her Harry Potter movie marathon parties, like a recent one attended by Amy Kaiser, who directs the Symphony Chorus? I replied that not only did I live in St. Louis, but I also knew exactly who Amy Kaiser was, because I was in the chorus and, in fact, I had sat right across the aisle from the questioner on the flight home from New York. Her reply illustrates her typical level of enthusiasm: "AAAAAACCCKKKK!!!! You are effing effing kidding!!!"

Observation 1: Not that my head has been turned, but it is nice to get a bit of starstruck recognition now and again. Observation 2: It's a ridiculously small world, after all! Observation 3: These will be fun people to party with.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Anatomy of a Fat, Stupid Jerk

I have long since confessed to being a fat, stupid jerk. I'm sure the last post is merely a confirmation of that. How did I get to be that way? Here are a few details of the process. I don't recommend subjecting your children to this, however.

I was born in a certain state of the U.S. which, on more than one occasion, someone has failed to guess in 50 tries or less. (It's not fair to go down the list in ABC order. You must think of the states off the top of your head.) I was the older of two sons born 16 months apart. My parents' marriage was falling apart before my brother was born.

I love, love, love my family with all my heart. I need to say that up front before I start dishing serious, bad-ass dirt on them.

My father has a way of making me laugh, and of making me feel loved, though once in a while I have also found him very intimidating. My mother has a completely different way of making me laugh (and I love making her laugh), and I'm sure she loves me, though there have been long periods when we weren't on good terms. I probably picked up a good deal of my argumentative streak from listening to them bicker and, more and more often, brawl.

Towards the end of their marriage they threw dignity to the wind and began propagandizing my brother and me, with the idea that we would side either with him or with her. At least my mother did this, though she incessantly complained that my father was the one doing it. It was really, really uncomfortable for a while, but I got used to it. This may explain why I don't seem to feel quite at home unless I'm at the center of a storm of controversy.

My father came from a large family of devastatingly clever people who, on their bad days, can sometimes strike other people as meanspirited. To borrow a phrase from the British, the Fish family excels at "taking the piss." When you're around them, the flow of biting wit is nonstop. It is a family of droll, stand-up comics (Dad even won a talent contest in stand-up comedy once); they are so naturally good at it, and have so much practice, that there is almost nothing you can say that won't suggest a punchline - one that flows out so naturally that it never occurs to them to stop. I find this same tendency in myself at times, especially when I am around other members of the Fish family, or when I am nervous and under pressure. Unfortunately, some of our jokes are pretty weird and, if you don't quite get them, you might get the idea that we are being unspeakably rude.

My mother came from a large family of Sicilian immigrants whose values and habits are so close to the "Corleone family" stereotype that, whenever my mother tells me who said what at the last family reunion, I invariably find myself humming a tune by Nino Rota under my breath. If I take after them at all, which I doubt, it may be in a certain emotional reserve (which outsiders may interpret as coldness) and a fondness for food (though that runs on both sides of the family).

My immediate family, on the other hand, was quite small. My father studied to be a pastor and I looked up to him with pride and admiration. My mother vacillated between being a submissive housewife and a feminist rebel, but mostly excelled at embarrassing me in front of my friends and playing the kind of emotional games that the mothers of serial killers play in the movies. I didn't spend much time with my other relatives, but with my mother's family I was the oldest and favorite grandson (until I grew up to have nothing in common with them), and with my father's family I was the smack-in-the-middle, least-regarded grandchild (until I let them down less than the other grandkids and wound up being sort of a favorite for a while). So I was a little spoiled and coddled, somewhat forced to fend for myself, often allowed to engage adults in conversation at their level, and always surrounded by people who enjoyed arguing for its own sake.

Then my parents split up. I was 11 years old. So I have tended to think of the divorce as a fault line running down the center of my childhood. Before the divorce the only thing remarkable about my family was that my father often made me proud and my mother sometimes embarrassed me. After the divorce I felt like the only kid in the world going through what I was going through. I partly got that impression because the small-town, Lutheran school I attended was full of kids whose parents were still married to each other. I was almost the only kid in the seventh or eighth grade who could talk about "my Mom's boyfriend." Another reason for the sense of isolation was that I belonged to two different households now, in two different states, and what with a bit of moving around (including a parental kidnapping caper I'll tell you about sometime) and a bit of paranoia (fallout from the aforementioned caper), I didn't have much involvement with other kids outside school and church. I developed different interests, different habits and values...and an inability to partake of "groupthink" that persists to this day.

Mostly I learned to think of myself as alone from the lesson my parents' divorce taught me: even within your immediately family, you can't rely on anyone but yourself. Especially when everyone is vying to be the one indispensible person in the household...and they'll make you the bad guy for a day if they think it will help them.

My stepfather and I didn't get along very well, as I think I have mentioned in another post. By the time I was 12, he was already skewering me with remarks like, "You always have to be right, don't you?" Well, I did have some pretty firm convictions by then, and I had thought them out for myself, and once you agreed to engage me in discussion about them I didn't let up until you enforced a change of topic with threats of bodily harm.

My stepfather actually didn't do any bodily harm. He perfected a range of punishments that hit me where it hurt: the intellect. Things like forbidding me to practice the piano for a week, or canceling my music lessons; making me sit idly in a room by myself with nothing to read; forcing me to read something odious and then to write an essay on it; etc. When I grew up beyond his ability to set punishments, things really got ugly. Hours went by when we said nothing below the top of our voices. Years went by when we didn't exchange a word. I don't know if I learned anything positive from this, except perhaps some basic survival skills - and a habit of losing my temper when pushed around in certain ways that remind me of my stepfather.

Meanwhile, I grew closer to my father and began seriously considering following in his footsteps. One of the best things that happened to our relationship resulted from my musical skills. For the last two and a half years of high school, while he served a dual parish, I played the organ at both of his churches and rode to services with Dad. I got to spend a lot more time with my father than many pastors' kids do. Which also meant observing a lot of preaching, teaching, arguing, and pastoral thinking-out-loud (which combines all of the above). In our discussions, my father was never high-handed the way my stepfather sometimes was. It helped me see the reason in what he was saying...even when we disagreed!

My poor stepmother didn't have the kind of upbringing my father and I did. She has never quite understood our magnetism for trouble and conflict. She's a saint for putting up with us. When I have argued with her it was like communicating with an alien life-form; her approach to "dispute resolution" is so completely different from the one I was brought up on. But we managed not to scratch each other's eyes out during my teen years, and we're good friends today. My stepmom's main impact on my fat-stupid-jerkitude is her good cooking.

In high school and college I surrounded myself with friends who enjoyed spirited discussions of political and religious issues; but I also got in trouble, now and then, for disturbing the peace. Clearly, not everyone likes the kind of animated, argumentative discourse I thrive on. I still haven't forgotten the time I was debating religion with my Catholic buddy on the school bus, when a girl took an apple out of her lunch bag and stuffed it into my open mouth. The really humiliating bit was when everyone applauded.

I think I have valuable things to contribute to the church and the world. I judge myself to be a good writer. I have been told that my sermons and Bible studies are effective; nothing is sweeter to my ears than "Pastor, the way you explained that, I finally understood it for the first time in years." When I talk to a group, unscripted, I get a jazzed-up feeling and the ideas flow freely. I have gotten good feedback on my conduct of liturgy, singing, keyboard playing, and general musicianship. I work well with kids, disabled people, the elderly, the sick, and the mentally ill.

But I also have some weaknesses. Chiefly, I am a big, fat, stupid slob and, at times, a total jerk. Heavy, malicious, and unrelenting opposition unnerves me. I lasted less than four years in the parish before I reached my threshold for stress, after which point I simply couldn't deal with church meetings any more. If the ministry were all about preaching, teaching, visiting, and administering the sacraments, plus weddings and funerals, study and prayer, I would be all over it. And in my opinion, it should be. But the reality also includes interminable meetings with people for whom Word and Sacrament isn't good enough, and for whom pastor is an employee (in my case, a grossly insubordinate one). It's a truth that does not bode well for the church: guys who are good at handling board meetings, but not much else, succeed in the ministry while guys who are good at everything else, but bad at the meetings, drop out.