Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Word "Catholic"

I'm going to start a new thread on biblical hermeneutics (principles of interpretation). I've got a lot of things on my mind in that area, and I hope that, in unburdening myself, I can also bring help and understanding to others.

Today's "Hermeneutics" seminar is on the word "catholic." This is an important word, not only to Roman Catholics, but to all creedal Christians, since we confess "one holy catholic and apostolic church" (Nicene Creed); though the word "catholic" is sometimes replaced with "Christian." In the same clause of the Apostles' Creed, where we confess "the holy Christian Church," the original word there is also "catholic." And in the Athanasian Creed, which many Lutherans confess aloud on Trinity Sunday, we repeatedly mention "the catholic faith," without bothering to bowdlerize it.

I think the Athanasian Creed's use of the word "catholic" is key to understanding what this word means. But before I spill the beans, I'm going to point out a common misunderstanding which has become intensely irritating to me, if not downright offensive. I do not speak of the misconception that only Papists have any business identifying themselves as "catholic" Christians. Nor am I going to entertain silly quibbles about whether it's "catholic" with a "small c" or "Catholic" with a "large C." I am speaking of a view expressed in an essay I recently tore apart, namely, that the word "catholic" in the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds could be replaced with "universal."

I encountered an even clearer example of this misconception some months ago, while talking over lunch with a fellow LCMS pastor. He kept praising Missouri's new Lutheran Service Book for its "catholicity." By this he apparently meant LSB's selection of hymns from a variety of ethnic and denominational backgrounds. So, in order to bring the meaning of "catholicity" into sharper focus, let's distinguish it from what it doesn't mean. "Catholicity" doesn't mean "cultural diversity" or "ecumenism." It isn't a synonym of "ecumenical" (as in "ecumenical creeds"); it does not mean "universal, worldwide, general," etc. So what does "catholic" mean? The Athanasian Creed holds an important clue.

The Athanasian Creed, or Quicunque vult ("Whoever would be saved..."), encompasses all that the other two ecumenical creeds teach and confess. It strengthens faith by banishing harmful misconceptions and by repeating, in capsule form, the teachings of God's powerful and living Word. It draws very clear, essential distinctions between the saving, Christian faith and dangerous, poisonous false doctrine. Because it firmly identifies these distinctions with the one, saving, "catholic faith," anyone who can subscribe to the Athanasian Creed has a right to regard himself as "catholic," or as a "Catholic," regardless of whether he submits to the Pope's authority. In fact, as it flirts with strange Marian dogmas, the "catholicity" of the Roman Church is increasingly in jeopardy. "Catholic" Christians are those who confess the Trinity and the divine-human Person of Christ.

You might note that I speak of "catholicity," not "Catholicism." Or don't. It's not such a brilliant distinction, in my opinion. The point the Quicunque vult hits on is this: "catholicity" or "catholicism" is our manner of believing, the matter that we believe. The word "catholic" describes the doctrine on our minds, hearts, and lips. Its nearest equivalent is not "ecumenical" but "orthodox." It is not a reference to how widespread this faith is geographically, historically, ethnically, or denominationally. It is the very rationale for our confession: this is the gospel that is in accord with the "whole counsel of God," that agrees with and submits to the totality of Scripture. Our teaching does not ransack Scripture for a few select quotes by which to rationalize itself; it checks itself against the whole of God's Word.

A theologian I regard very highly describes this as a "balanced view of Scripture," but I would go farther than that. For the "catholic religion" is not simply a matter of steering between Scylla on the one hand and Charybdis on the other, charting a middle course or making a sensible compromise between two fanatical extremes. The "catholic religion" is a commitment to the full, albeit incomprehensible, truth of God's Word. It embraces both/ands. It enunciates not/buts. It accepts as an axiom that "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). Rather than offering correction to the Bible, it takes correction from it. There can be no profitable study of Scripture without that "catholic religion," or what Luther called "the analogy of faith." Which is to say, we interpret every dogmatic assertion and textual gloss by analogy to the doctrine laid down throughout Scripture. We do not rest our case until every biblical witness has spoken.

My diatribe against the unnamed "Church of Christ" columnist is only "about infant Baptism" to the extent that it uses an editorial on infant Baptism as an example. My main purpose was to show how to apply the "analogy of faith" - and the result of using Scripture without it. I never used the phrase "analogy of faith" in that essay, but my one-sentence thesis could have been stated: "Anyone who quotes Scripture to argue against infant Baptism is operating without the analogy of faith." Similarly, the framers of the Quicunque vult could have summarized their position by saying: "The analogy of faith compels us to teach that God is Three in One and that Christ is God and Man in one Person. To teach or believe otherwise is perilous because 'the Scripture cannot be broken.'"

Tiling Fool

I was a tiling fool today. Actually, other people did the tiling as such. I just mixed the mortar, cleaned tools, and sprayed water on the circular saw while someone else cut tiles to fit around the edges of the room. It wasn't my house anyway.

It was a perfect day for it. Beautiful blue, sunshiny sky with no mark on it but a few jet trails; cool, gentle breeze; low humidity, a rare gift in these parts. We had a fairly well-coordinated team too. We covered a lot of floor with tile in only 4 or 5 hours.

But I will admit that my body is in shreds right now. The first thing I needed was hand lotion, because even with latex gloves on, my skin was raw. A little bit later, the muscle pain set in - mostly in my hands. It's amazing how much elbow grease it takes to mix mortar, and when so much of that elbow grease migrates to your palms, you can end up griping where you would rather be gripping.

During the drive home the cough started. In pouring several sacks of powdered mortar into a large paint bucket, I created some prodigious clouds of dust. Inevitably, I inhaled enough pre-mix mortar to glue most of my bronchial passages shut. I am still coughing it up. Finally, my feet are kinda killing me too. I wasn't wearing particularly supportive footwear; and after my socks and boat-shoes got soaked, I wasn't wearing any footwear at all. So they're a bit achy and chapped too.

But all these boo-hoos have their compensation. The physical labor was a nice break from ho-hum desk work. My boss served me cold beer in the bottle - not once, but twice - and the one with the label (that wasn't somebody's remarkably successful home-brew) was a very nice "Honey Porter" by Sam Adams. Dinner followed the cessation of productivity, an enjoyable and sociable meal on a deck with the most scenic view of the Missouri River money can buy. The lotion, which I can still smell, had hemp in it (so, for all you know, I could be high right now). I took pride in my work, and the exercise didn't hurt. And after tomorrow's toils I have an interesting weekend to look forward to - more on that next week, perhaps.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Yes, of course, I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when it opened on Friday. Why bother asking? You know my taste in movies by now!

Did I enjoy it? I repeat: "Why bother asking? etc."

Of course, Indy has slowed down a bit. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and co. have made no attempt to conceal the aging of their character, or that of the actor who plays him: sixty-something Harrison Ford. Ford is still in pretty good shape, though. He can still turn on the charm, and he can still kick bad-guy butt. And with the setting moving on from World War II to the Cold War, there is still plenty of bad-guy butt needing to be kicked.

Chiefly, said butt belongs to a creepy commie named Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett with short dark hair, round sunglasses, and a fake Ukrainian accent that doesn't quite cover her British O's. Spalko, once considered "Stalin's fair-haired girl" (ha, ha), has Indy by the gonads from Scene 1 and oh, what doesn't she drag him through! On the trail of psychic weapons that the USSR could use against the USA, Spalko exposes Indy to betrayal by an old friend, a ten-second countdown to take shelter from a nuclear blast, a ride on a rocket-propelled rail car, losing his job, and a wild chase scene through an Ivy League campus on the back of a motorcycle driven by a Fonz wannabe played by up-and-comer Shia LeBoeuf. And that's just to get things going.

LeBoeuf plays a pugnacious drop-out named Mutt who wants Indy to help him rescue his mother and the father-figure in his life from Spalko. They have been kidnapped because said father-figure seems to have found the lost city of gold, El Dorado or what have you. Of course the commies are interested in much more than gold - say, some kind of paranormal power-source that could result in some serious, worldwide butt-kicking, and not the fun kind where the bad guys are the ones whose butts get kicked.

I've said at least enough about what happens in the movie. Be assured that it involves love rekindled, some wacky chase and battle scenes, thrilling encounters with wildlife, natives, and forces of nature, a good deal of spooky tomb-raider stuff, and of course, the quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo that adds a goosebumpy edge to the proceedings, and guarantees a spectacular climax. Ford is joined by a cast of great sci-fi/fantasy significance, including John Hurt (who once had an alien pop out of his chest), Ray Winstone (late voice of Beowulf), Jim Broadbent (who has a stake in Narnia, Harry Potter, and Inkheart), and Karen Allen (who starred in Starman). You may enjoy some at times clever reminders of the previous three Indiana Jones adventures (especially if I don't spoil them for you); and the final scene leaves the door open for a fifth installment - hat, whip, themesong and all.

UPDATE: And can you believe the protest the Russian Communist Party has leveled against this movie? "Distortion of history"?! Now who, I ask you, is having trouble separating fantasy from reality!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Omelet Over a Gas Flame

I have observed many omelets (also spelled omelettes) in the wild. They can be scary and dangerous, and they come in a wide variety of plumage. Before one attempts to domesticate them, one should be aware that there are two basic species of this not-very-rare bird - indeed, this very-well-done-at-an-early-age bird.

First, there is the type I first learned to tame while cooking at the Kountry Kettle Kafe in Krosby (whoops, I mean Crosby), Minnesota, back in the mid-1990s. Actually I had assayed some clumsy attempts to bring this bird to hand even earlier, resulting mainly in a trail of sticky wreckage from one end of the kitchen to the other. At the Kountry Kettle I had the advantage of a large, flat grill and the right tools for the job. Plus, you know, advice from experienced cooks who wanted to see me succeed.

Type I omelets are the type that give eggrolls their name. The idea is to take two or three eggs just shy of their best-by date (so that they lie down flat on the grill), whisk them just enough to mix the yolk in with the white, and pour it over a puddle of butter-flavored oil on a flat grill. Use scrapers (like spatulas, only with the handle on the long edge) to confine the egg to its fair share of the grill's surface area, otherwise it will spread until it covers everything. As the egg cooks, fold in the edges until it assumes a more regular shape. Before executing the last fold or two, top it with other ingredients which, in some cases, may have been browning on a separate area of the grill - such as diced onions, peppers, ham, shredded cheese, etc. - then tuck in the top and bottom edges, fold the sides of the egg over the top of the mound of fillings, top with a little extra cheese (which will melt as the omelet cools), and scrape the lot onto a plate next to a rectangular pile of crispy hash browns and a pile of buttery toast. This is the type of omelet you can buy at Perkins' and IHOP.

Type II omelets astonished me when I discovered them later. Served to order at buffet-style brunch banquets and at certain particular restaurants - such as Waffle House, the Larry Byrd Experience in Terre Haute, and a 24-hour Greek place near my alma mater - this type of omelet is made from room-temperature eggs, blended with a tiny bit of starch in a high-speed drink mixer, then cooked in a smallish, round, oil-soused pan held over a flame. The add-ins may be browned first, and the eggs added over the top of them so that they cook right in to one upright-standing, airy puff of egg. The cook will know a trick of flipping the egg at just the right moment, using a shrewd flick of the panhandle without so much as touching a spatula. For a finishing touch it may be folded in half so that the cheese (sprinkled on top) melts in the center of a fluffy, eggy, breadless sandwich that towers over everything else on your plate.

The nearest I could approach to bringing the Type II omelet home, without investing in a milkshake blender and swapping my electric stove for a gas one, was to buy a novelty omelet pan made of two half-moon-shaped segments, hinged in the center, with a handle at one end. The idea was to cook a little egg in each half, lifting up the edges of the cooked egg so that the raw egg on top would run underneath, then piling the toppings onto the segment nearest the handle before flipping the other side over on top of it. If the egg has been properly loosened from the far side of the pan, it should then drop down onto the near side and the two halves finish cooking in the now steamy environment of the closed cooker.

The results of this process were often fairly satisfactory. But since I moved to an apartment with a gas range I have been, once again, stymied. The gas burners are not large enough to heat the omelet cooker properly. So until today, I had given up on having Type II omelets and settled for eggs over easy instead.

Today, I decided to try a new approach, inspired by those geniuses at Waffle House, but without the drink mixer. First I broke two eggs into a 9-ounce plastic cup. I added a squirt of warm water and a dash each of paprika and turmeric, then began whipping the eggs with a plastic fork. I didn't leave off whipping even while the pat of margarine was melting in a smallish, round frying pan over "medium" heat - What do I know what kind of heat it was? All I know is that I kept turning the flame down until it didn't hiss up the sides of the pan. When the margarine was melted and sizzling nicely, I stopped whipping the eggs and poured them in. They immediately started puffing up in a gratifying way. While most of the egg on top was still fluid but the egg on the bottom had cooked, I lifted up the edges of the egg - first on one side, the on the other - and let the liquid run underneath. Finally, when I judged the bottom was done enough, I made my best effort to flip the egg over so that the top would cook as well. I weakened and used a spatula; don't hold it against me.

For toppings I sprinkled on a bit of feta cheese - perhaps as much as a quarter of a cup's worth - and some crushed dillweed. I folded the fluffy full-moon into an even thicker half-moon and, quite soon after adding the cheese, slid it all onto a plate. The cheese did most of its melting while the egg cooled on the plate. I knew from experience - particularly the spiritually transporting experience of a spinach-and-feta omelet that visited me in the aforementioned Greek place - that the yumminess curve would drop sharply after the cheese began to re-congeal, so I dug in immediately. My tastebuds applauded.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008


I decided to squeeze a cheapo six-pack of beer into my grocery budget this week, and I picked Widmer Hefeweizen, bottled by Widmer Brothers of Portland, Oregon. (You actually have to be 21 or older to view their website. No underage drinking, virtual or otherwise!)

Now, I have tried many decent brands of Hefeweizen (cloudy wheat beer), including some American brews, though the standard I always go back to - rather, the ideal - is the Franziskaner of Munich, Germany. Even after years of drinking other brands, a single sip of Franziskaner is enough to remind me how vastly superior it is.

On the other hand, if I want to feel better about drinking Boulevard Wheat Beer, or Schlalfy's, or New Belgium Brewing Co.'s Sunshine Wheat, I now know where to turn: the Widmer Bros. Their Hefeweizen is so wretched that the first time I drank it, I suspected a batch of India Pale Ale had been mislabeled. The second bottle was a shade nastier, and the third (which stands on my desk as I write this) was so horrid that I fear I may have been poisoned.

Everything in life is a gift, if you but know how to look at it. I will look upon Widmer Hefeweizen, thankfully, as a reminder of the principle that "you get what you pay for." Next time, chastened, I may buy one less box of mac & cheese and use the balance to upgrade to a six of Sunshine Wheat.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Four Flicks

In the last month or two I have celebrated each new paycheck (and its accompanying brief flush of solvency) with a movie. I haven't blogged about them because I was too busy with umpty-ump other things, but here's my chance!

My last movie was The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Only months have passed since the Pevensie children stumbled back into England through the wardrobe that had magicked them into Narnia. They are still struggling to adjust to being kids again (having grown up in Narnia while no time passed in our world) when a toot on the horn Susan left behind instantly summons them back, right off the train platform where they are preparing to go to school. They are astonished to find that 1,300 years have passed in their absence, and their magical kingdom has fallen to ruin under the rule of a barbarian race of humans called the Telmarines. Their biggest surprise, however, is that the blower of Susan's horn was a Telmarine prince named - whoops, wouldn't want me to spoil it, would you?

On the run from an evil uncle who wants to kill the prince and usurp his throne, Prince Caspian joins the Pevensies and loads of dwarves, centaurs, minotaurs, fauns, and talking animals - particularly a badger named Badger and a mouse named Reepicheep - to fight off King Miraz and his huge army. Even after Miraz is slain following a duel with King Peter, the fight is touch-and-go until the kids finally look up the great lion (and Christ figure) Aslan and ask for his help.

The story is exciting, romantic, with vague undertones of religious allegory and a truly intense "temptation" scene in which the White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe returns. The duel scene is gruelling, the battles thrilling, the creature effects convincing, and the film as a whole is a visual and musical treat.

Going backwards in time, my next movie was Speed Racer, a title which really sounds dumb until you realize that it is also the name of the main character. All right, it's dumb. Based on a Japanese TV show, written and directed for the big screen by the Wachowski Brothers of Matrix trilogy fame/infamy, this is an attempt to use their cutting-edge visual style in a family-friendly context. And it is truly a fun movie to watch, with only a couple slips into PG-rated language. I enjoyed the film's texture, with multiple layers moving across the screen at different speeds, a vast number of blue-screen shots, snappy special effects, and a sophisticated but clear way of inducting the viewer into the background of the story. I can, however, imagine how some viewers might be upset or confused by all this, though I think it is justified by the subject matter.

The plot is pretty basic, first-year-at-film-school stuff, but the dialogue is snappy and the cast does a good job. Emile Hirsch plays the young race-car driver of the future whose parents are John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, and whose older brother's death in a racing accident left scars on the whole family. Together with a Japanese driver and a mysterious "Racer X" played by Matthew Fox, Speedy enters the cross-country derby that killed his brother, against his father's wishes. This is all connected with busting the chops of a big-business CEO who makes a career of fixing races and the careers of drivers who refuse to play along. Blah, blah, blah, just enjoy the racing action, the attractive characters, and the hilarious scene where John Goodman beats up a ninja.

Prior to that, I saw Iron Man, the late Marvel Comics movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as a playboy arms manufacturer who gets wounded in such a way that he needs an electromagnet in his chest to keep himself alive. Using a futuristic power source of his own design, Downey plugs himself into a massive armored robot and escapes, then perfects his design back in the states in the hope of selling it as an unmanned weapon (in some idealistic attempt to take human casualties out of warfare). But he is betrayed by the bad guys and ends up having to fight them in his own machine, to prevent the ultimate weapon from falling into the wrong hands. Really, really typical comic book stuff, but with the added entertainment value of Downey's bad-boy charm, Jeff Bridges' bad-guy menace, Gwyneth Paltrow's good-girl sweetness, and Terence Howard's sidekickliness. It's no worse than any of the better Marvel Comics pictures, but it has the added attraction of Downey's wry sense of humor.

And finally (or rather, firstly), I saw - whoa, this was way back before Expelled, which I have already briefly mentioned on this blog - Nim's Island, with Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster, and Gerard Butler. It was a nice enough movie, but it did not live up to my expectations. The drama was mostly based on uncertainty about the fate of Butler's character - or rather, the character of Nim's father, since Butler also played the fictional alter ego of author Alex Rover (Foster), whose adventure novels Nim and her father have followed with glee. When Nim's dad is lost at sea, Nim contacts Alex by email and gets her to come all the way to their uncharted, south Pacific island to save her. Which proves entirely unnecessary, but results in lots of laughter as Foster plays her character's agoraphobia to maximum comic effect.

This is perhaps less than sensitive for people who really suffer from agoraphobia (a form of panic disorder that keeps its victims homebound). And it turns out to be less than helpful for Nim, who manages pretty well by herself and finds the reality of Alex Rover rather disappointing. At least she does until the last bit of magic happens - romantic, movie magic. Oh, well. It beats sitting at home watching the neighbors walk up and down in front of your building.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Post-Synodical Reality

Big things have been happening in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. It has been hard to hold back from commenting. Why hold back? For one thing, the purpose of this blog was not to address ecclesiastical matters. It's only meant to be a personal account of how very dangerous a little liberal arts education can make you. Plus, this blog is a spinoff from my book review column on Mugglenet, where I chose to use a flimsy pseudonym to prevent confusion as to whether or not I consider these writings "part of my ministry."

Now that I'm parishless that isn't much of an issue, but a popular public writer doesn't change identities in mid-stream-of-consciousness. This leads to two implications. On the "art, entertainment, and cat litter" side I sense that many of my readers have followed me over from Mugglenet and I don't want to bore them with sectarian drivel. On the "theology" side, I know and understand the distrust with which concerned members of the LCMS hold anonymous and pseudonymous bloggers.

So before I say anything about Synod, I must first direct your attention to the disclosure at the bottom of this page. I must also ask those who are here to read about books, symphonies, movies, food, and funny stories to bear with me. And finally, I must ask everyone to understand why I write this blog. I am not on a crusade. I have no personal axe to grind. I have no political ambitions. I am not writing for money. I simply one of those poor souls who suffers from the affliction of being a writer, a disease from which I have suffered since I learned to wrap my fingers around a pencil, and I can no more help writing than a kleptomaniac can control his urge to steal. I am also concerned about what is happening in the church body in which I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained.

And, finally, I am liberated by a sensibility of not serving in a parish, nor working for the Synod or its districts or auxiliaries. I think I can reasonably hope my job is safe because I don't blog about it and, as far as the Synod goes, I "can't be touched." Any more than I already have been, that is. And since I am now ready to acknowledge that the likelihood of my ever receiving a pastoral call in the LCMS is similar to my chances of winning the PowerBall (given that I don't buy lotto tickets), I may as well say my piece, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. And if you came here for entertaining gossip about "art, entertainment, and cat litter," bear with me; remember, "theology" has always been on the menu!

So, after lots and lots of ado, here's my piece.

The Eighth Commandment (by Catholic/Lutheran reckoning), the "false witness" one, forbids us among other things to speculate about other people's intentions and motivations. But given the Missouri Synod's public silence - and worse, feeble dissembling - where an explanation of several recent, public decisions was called for, the temptation to speculate has grown well-nigh irresistable. A plague of pundits has sprung up and they are doing more damage to each other than to the Synodical policies they oppose. They are like bickering shrews trying to attack a thick-skinned rhinoceros with toothpicks. One gets so distracted by all their nattering and their tendency to make the "opposition party" look bad that one almost suspects that is part of the regime's strategy. But one doesn't quite do so because that would be, you know, violating the 8th Commandment. Aargh.

I do think the "regime" does a disservice to its members by provoking this temptation. Plus, if one examines the regime's decisions (which are public knowledge) along with its stated theories and practiced methods, one can infer a few things that the pastors and laypeople of the LCMS need to talk about and think about. Here are some of the thinkings triggered by the LCMS regime's recent, publicly-known doings and talkings.

The time is coming, and now is, when the Synod will cease to exist for any practical purpose.

The "practical purpose" of the Synod is to furnish our congregations with pastors, our schools with teachers, and our mission field with missionaries so that they can "make disciples of all nations," etc. At present, the Synod as such is not doing any of these things. Far be it from me to speculate on what the Synod's current "purpose" is, but it doesn't seem to be anything most LCMS pastors and congregations care to support with their money.

If you want to fund a vibrant, evangelistic, distinctly Lutheran radio ministry, you must now support it directly because the Synod no longer has any direct role in it (and nor does the Lutheran Laymen's League and its broadcast program).

If you want to fund a college or seminary so that it can continue furnishing us with teachers and pastors, you must now support it directly because the Synod no longer etc. etc. To be sure, their Regents are elected by Synodical Convention delegates; but the authority of a Board of Regents is mainly theoretical these days. So the Concordias do what they please, and raise their own capital to do it with. Choose the one(s) most nearly doing what you think right and send your donations to them directly. Do not pass LCMS headquarters, do not let them collect your $200.00.

If you want to fund a school so that your church can more effectively "make disciples" of your own children - by rigorous catechesis - as well as reach out to other students who are unchurched... well, that's a matter of your personal stewardship, and that of your congregation. It's our Christian duty and, I dare say, ought to be a high priority for every LCMS church. It isn't. The schools are failing for lack of teachers we can afford to hire and lack of support via Christian stewardship. As soon as people start thinking of the school as so much financial ballast weighing down the sinking ship of the church, it is only a matter of time until the school gets jettisoned. Has the Synod offered any help or advice on this issue apart from hand-wringing and a stench of failure?

If you want to fund an African missionary who has been fulfilling the Great Commission, you must now support him directly since LCMS Mission fired him for baptizing children, teaching the faith, and other marks of "insubordination." Meanwhile LCMS Mission's late track record does not inspire one to open one's pocketbook. Steeped in the "Ablaze!" methodology, LCMS Mission has been recalling missionaries from planting churches and starting seminaries and sending, in their place, mostly short-term religious tourists who "witness the faith" by teaching ESL, doing mercy works, and (if the opportunity arises) sneaking a little Jesus talk in the back door. Plus, they have to travel on their own dime. So even what "mission work" LCMS Mission is doing isn't actually funded by LCMS Mission. Your mission dollars are truly going into a black hole. Why not just pick 3 or 4 missionaries in the field and arrange to fund them directly? Or, although LHF and CLEF aren't on speaking terms with each other, you could support either or both of them because they are currently doing things LCMS Mission promised to do 50 years ago.

If you want to support all the faithful pastors who have been persecuted and driven out of their parishes, forget it. You can't afford it, there are too many of them and the number keeps growing. What are they going to do with their skills and training? They're going to have to fall back on another line of work, because the LCMS has promoted lay ministry to such an extent that, even with a record number of "vacant" congregations, the seminaries can't place all their graduates. Guys like me, rotting away on Candidate Status after resigning or being driven from a parish, may not even find very much pulpit supply or vacancy work in a church climate where "lay deacons" are regarded as quite sufficient.

These conditions are the result of the Synod's recent teachings and policies on the ministry. A movement is in train to make the seminaries entirely redundant by setting up a different path to the pulpit more in keeping with this new "theology" of church and ministry. The result will be pastors who speak with less authority on the basis of God's Word, laypeople who derive less assurance of forgiveness and salvation from their teachings, and a move toward pastors as executives being hired, fired, and compensated in proportion to the growth and success of a commercial entity (formerly "church"). So far from furnishing the church with ministers, the LCMS regime is actively campaigning against the ministry of the Gospel.

In short, Synod for all practical uses has ceased to exist.

What will your congregation do in this post-synodical age? Will it join another Synod? I hope not. There are no greener pastures. There is only the real and present likelihood that, having joined the WELS, ELCA, or whatever, you will find yourself in the middle of an entirely different mess you are totally unequipped to deal with. It's time to face the fact that you don't need to have a Synod and you are better off without one.

How will your church get pastors? Simple. Keep the one you've got as long as you can. When he retires, dies, or takes a call elsewhere, make a list of the men in your church - men mature enough to provide leadership but not so old that they can have only a short ministry - men, say, in their late 20s and early 30s. Strike off the list anyone who obviously lacks the gifts and qualifications to be a pastor (not to put too strict a filter on), or to whom no one has a substantial objection. Write the remaining names on 3x5 cards, fold the cards, put them in a bag, and have someone pull one card out of the bag. Send the person named on the card to the seminary of his choice, with the congregation combining to pay all tuition-related expenses. Don't take no for an answer. And while he's at school, let the elders take turns reading the service out of a book, doing the Scripture readings, reading published sermons or even (by force of necessity) preaching. If you can explain what the Gospel lesson meant and why the doctrines it teaches are good to know, you can probably preach a better sermon than some people who have studied the craft at a high level.

Since the lottery drawing constitutes a commitment by your congregation to support that man and submit to his ministry, he can be regarded as your called and ordained pastor from that moment on. The seminary training is important, however, so that you can know greater assurance that what your pastor proclaims is the Word of God, and not the idle ramblings of a dilettante. Where he goes to the seminary is immaterial. If he goes to Concordia-Fort Wayne, he doesn't have to be placed in the LCMS. If he goes to Yale Divinity School, send him a set of Luther's Works and require him to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest every page of it. Ta-Da! A quick recipe for Lutheran Pastor Without Synod! Any other questions?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Nasal Decongestant Chili

When it comes to chile con carne, I am hard to please. Nothing spoils one like living in Yuma, Arizona (a quaint suburb of San Luis, Sonora, on the lower Colorado River).

Mexican food within lunch-rush range of two Mexican states (Sonora and Baja California) is quite different from the caricature of it one gets to know in the Midwest. Or even in Texas. Things you expect to find on the menu (like folded tacos, fajitas, quesadillas, and chimichangas) are emphatically missing. Things you may never have heard of (like albondigas, pollo con mole, menudo, and machaca) cry out to be discovered. And things you thought you knew are served in quite a different way.

Here I am speaking of Mexican restaurants run by Mexican people and catering to mostly Mexican customers. I am speaking of homestyle food, plain, unadorned, and savory; of the best breakfast and lunch burritos in the world; of rolled tacos that you buy in orders of 4 or 6 and dip in salsa as a side dish; of the luxury of knowing someone with a Mexican-American mother-in-law (e.g., any ex-Marine you know) and who thereby has an endless and ready supply of homemade tamales in the freezer; and most especially, of chile served on one-third of a large plate, with the other two-thirds divided between Spanish rice and refried beans.

Because beans are on the side, there are none in the chile. This makes a remarkable difference. In the midwest, except maybe in Ohio, we are accustomed to thinking of chile as a bean stew in a peppery tomato broth. In Sonoran chile, the recipe may include sizable chunks of tomato (along with peppers and onions), but the broth if any is of the beef persuasion. The main thrust of the argument is chili peppers and meat: green chilis, green tomatoes, and pulled pork if it's chile verde; red chilis, red tomatoes, and carne asada (pulled beef) if it's chile colorado. Either one is great with refried beans mixed in; that's why the Gutierrez family's restaurants do such a roaring trade in "green mix" and "red mix" burritos.

Yes, this challenges the orthodoxy of Midwestern chile, just as my theory that pizza is essentially "bread with stuff on it" (and so a pizza is only as good as its crust) challenges the orthodoxy of St. Louis's favorite "pizza," which I prefer to call "deluxe cheese and crackers." The "so spicy it brings tears to your eyes tomato-bean-and-beef soup" type of chile misses the point of the dish. My theory is that "chile," in and of itself, is the red or green sauce - chiefly made of chili peppers, onions, and tomatoes - that authentic Mexican restaurants serve on top of enchiladas. It's basically what comes in cans labeled "Ro-Tel." Add pork, beef, or lamb to that and you have "chile con carne." It doesn't have to be searingly hot. Most restaurants serve side-dishes of house-made salsa picante, and/or have bottles of red-hot sauce on the tables, so you can season your own food to taste and no one has to sweat more than they like.

Tonight I made my own personal, bastardized style of chile, whose successive incarnations I have consistently (and accurately) called "Nasal Decongestant Chile." I could have called it "Turkish Bath Chile" (because it flushes so many unwholesome humors out of one's pores). I could have called it "Sauna Chile" (because my glasses fog up while I'm eating it, so it evidently affects the local humidity). I could have called it lots of Sonoran Desert-related things, like "javelina chile," or "gila monster chile," or "the scorpion," or "the coyote." But I haven't come up with anything more apt than "Sudafed in a Pan."

Here's the recipe I went with tonight. In a medium-sized saucepan brown about a pound of 90% lean ground beef, crumbled up with a middling onion chopped into haphazard chunks. Rather large chunks, because you're lazy. While that's browning, stir in some chili powder (chipotle is more than acceptable), cumin (the essential flavor to the Midwestern palate), and garlic powder (because you forgot to buy fresh garlic when you were shopping - one clove minced would have been better). Once it looks pretty well browned, dump in one or two little cans of diced chilis (I went with "mild" this time). Sprinkle in one or two leafy herbs if you like (like basil or cilantro). If you remembered to drain the grease out of the meat mixture before you started adding stuff (which I didn't), you can add low-fat beef broth toward the end (only I didn't have room in the pan this time; no worries). Bring everything to a simmer until it's heated all the way through. Period.

I omitted the side of beans and rice, but I did garnish with a bit of shredded cheese and some Town House crackers. Recipe yields two fat-stupid-jerk-sized portions, one of which will taste even better after refrigerating overnight in a sealed container.

Isn't that simple? And hot... Excuse me. I have to go blow my nose.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Orff Week

One of the main reasons I was out of touch last week was the final performance week of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus's 2007-08 season. Under guest conductor Peter Oundjian we performed the 1937 Latin/medieval German cantata Carmina Burana four days in a row. Thursday we got one of the biggest Thursday audiences in recent memory; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday's performances were sold out.

I kid you not. After singing our hearts out to the beautiful music of Rossini, Haydn, and Beethoven in front of half-empty or one-third-empty houses, we sang Orff to three (3) full houses in a row. I knew something big was happening when the ushers told members of the chorus that they couldn't stand at the back of the hall to listen to the first (non-chorus) half of the program on Friday night. "We've sold standing room" was their explanation. By one estimate, 10,000 St. Louisans heard us sing Carmina Burana last week!

The piece is as close to rock'n'roll as certifiably "classic" music can get. And as an audience favorite after more than 70 years, it is certifiably "classic." The last time I sang it, 15 years ago, I was in college; at the time I thought it was just right for college kids. Even so, the mature singers of the SLSC did it better, with scrupulous attention to authentic pronunciation of the "German-Latin" lyrics, and with the strength, agility, and polished vocal musicianship that only comes with years of practice. Nearly everyone in the chorus had sung Carmina before; many of them had sung it multiple times; a goodly few had been with the chorus in the 1990s when they recorded it under Leonard Slatkin.

We had spectacular soloists. Tenor Stanford Olsen (above right; I will cast him as "Fitz" the very minute I am ever put in charge of a stage musical based on Cracker) sang only one number - the complaint of a swan being roasted - but he managed to make the audience laugh more than once with his antics. Even hammier was bass-baritone Lucas Meachem (left), who had the audience in stitches during his racier songs about sex, gambling, and possibly flatulence - but who also delivered one of the most moving moments of each evening with the glowing falsetto, effortless improvisational flourishes, and emotional vulnerability of his song "Dies, nox et omnia."

Soprano Anna Christy (right) looked right for the part of the embodiment of young and seductive womanliness; her final solo ("Dulcissime") is the musical epitome of an orgasm. Barbara Berner's St. Louis Children's Choirs contributed to two numbers, including the ever-popular "Tempus est iocundum," often singing lyrics in Latin which they were too young to hear in English; and of course there was the chorus with its lovelorn women ("Ubi est antiquus meus amicus? Eia, quis me amabit?") and the mocking, drunken, and lustful men ("Tam quo papa quam pro rege bibunt omnes sine lege") - to say nothing of the orchestra with its vast percussion section, its timpanist wholly surrounded by drums, its solos for every instrument including piccolo, and its occasional paroxysms of violent noise.

This piece is a rebellion against classical methods of thematic development, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. It is a revolutionary piece that, at the same time, revives poetry dating back to the year of our Lord 1280. It is music that revels in an excess of food, drink, love, and other amusements; music that celebrates spring, youth, and pleasure; and music in which all these things are held between two shattering statements on changeable and changeless fate. It is seriously pagan music preserved for centuries in a monastery; it is seriously primitive music that survives, like the text before it, as a great work of art; and it is seriously fun music that, quite understandably, draws huge crowds to this day - multigenerational crowds of lifelong and devoted fans who roared with approval at our performance that, even if it wasn't always perfect, had nary a dull moment in it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


American Fairy Tales
by L. Frank Baum
Recommended Age: 8+

One of the trophies of my shopping spree at New York's Books of Wonder is this charmingly illustrated collection of short stories, reprinted by Dover, by the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and many other magical stories.

Originally published in newspapers in 1901 as a syndicated series, the American Fairy Tales are a fascinating, though perhaps flawed, attempt to plant the magic of fairies and folk tales in the modern, scientific, commercialized soil of the U.S.A. Martin Gardner correctly points out in his introduction that a good part of the magic is squished out of the stories by such statements as "You are on Prairie Avenue, in Chicago." On the other hand, Baum more than makes up for this miscalculation with his sharp wit and his instinct for the right bit of nonsense at the right time. And perhaps, if you squint at them just so, these little mundane details (like "Prairie Avenue") work to the story's advantage. What American child since 1901 hasn't hoped that the paved roads, telephone wires, and steel I-beams of our world might not forever seal every door into the world of make-believe?

In "The Box of Robbers," a little girl living on guess-what-street in guess-what-town gets a silly surprise when she unlocks the lid of a trunk in the attic. The way she talks three Italian bandits out of robbing her house is as funny as the tongue-in-cheek "moral of the story."

"The Glass Dog" tells of the bargain between a magician and a glassblower, a tale in which everybody gets exactly what he or she deserves, though perhaps not in the way you would expect!

In "The Queen of Quok," a mischievous boy king cleverly avoids the awful fate of having to auction off his own hand in marriage in order to replenish the palace treasury.

"The Girl Who Owned a Bear" nearly gets eaten by it after a book agent, in revenge against her father, gives the girl a book whose pages come to life.

"The Enchanted Types" features a fairy-creature called a knook - a species that, I believe, Baum was the first to describe - who tries to do a good deed by freeing a flock of stuffed birds from a hat shop. The knook grows more and more desperate to make up for the harm his magic has unwittingly unleashed on the fashion world of 1901 - which, apart from a few details, sounds a lot like the fashion world of today!

An aspiring actress orders "The Magic Bon Bons" from a wizard, but someone else takes them home by mistake. First-year Potions students should read this is a cautionary tale.

"The Capture of Father Time" happens in a whimsical way, thanks to a cowboy's son named Jim and his skill with a lasso. As rare bit of early science fiction this story is priceless!

"The Wonderful Pump" tells how a poor farmer and his wife squandered a magical gift from a grateful beetle. (It's too bad that Baum spoils the magic by explaining how it worked.)

"The Dummy That Lived" is the wistful story of a wax lady in a shop window who, thanks to a mischievous fairy, comes to life. Unfortunately, knowledge of the world did not come with the package.

"The King of the Polar Bears" survives being skinned by humans, with the help of his friends the gulls. But can a feathered bear rule over his own kind?

And finally, "The Mandarin and the Butterfly" concerns a child-hating Chinaman (yes, it's that "politically incorrect," but remember when it was written). Forced to flee his native land, the Mandarin starts a laundry and makes a wicked bargain with a trapped butterfly -- a bargain that involves turning children into pigs!

If you love collections of fairy tales, especially books like Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories and Nesbit's The Magic World, check this book out. Perhaps you will agree that Baum graces the Mother Goose tradition with a delightful quirkiness that is distinctly American. If so, and again like me, you may also be interested in some of Baum's other non-Oz titles, such as Mother Goose in Prose and The Master Key.

The Enchanted Island of Yew
by L. Frank Baum
Recommended Age: 10+

Can a sex change take place in a fairy tale? Evidently, L. Frank Baum thought so. In Ozma of Oz, Baum transformed a mischievous boy into a perfect princess. And in this stand-alone book, recently re-decorated and re-issued by Books of Wonder, a female fairy is transfigured into a dashing young knight. Of course, with immortal fairies, one sex is as good as another; and in the medieval-type setting of the imaginary Island of Yew, boys get to have a lot more adventures than girls.

A fairy can only be transformed by the magical wish of a mortal. This particular fairy asks Seseley, a duke's daughter, to turn her into a knight for one year. Then, in the guise of Prince Marvel, she/he sets out to make her/his fortune.

All right, let's go with "his" for the time being. Though he is every bit a boy, Prince Marvel also remains a fairy, so there is really nothing he can't do and no trouble he can't get out of. This summons forth the main weakness of this book: the hero is never really in any great danger, and hardly anything troubles him. This isn't so for his faithful squire, a silly youth named Nerle whose fondest wish is to suffer misfortune, pain, and unfulfilled desire. Nerle is the one thing that saves this book from becoming a bore.

Marvel and Nerle travel through all the kingdoms of the Island of Yew, exploring realms no outsider has ever seen. They compel a band of robbers to reform. They become unwilling guests of a hideous king who is afraid to let them go because he doesn't want them spreading word of his ugliness. They visit a hidden kingdom where everything and everybody is doubled. (I know you won't understand that; you'll just have to read the book!) They free one kingdom from a tyrranical wizard (who rules by threat of turning people into grasshoppers), and another from a terrible red-headed giant. They face war, execution, enchantment, and even a magic mirror before Marvel's year as a human boy ends.

It's a charming story with a touch of romance and a very quirky ending. If you can't get enough Oz, visit Books of Wonder and look up this interesting rarity!

The Tiger's Egg
by Jon Berkeley
Recommended Age: 11+

I was delighted to hear from Jon Berkeley after I reviewed the first book of his "Wednesday Tales" trilogy, The Palace of Laughter. I would have been even more delighted to review the free copy of this second book that he meant to have sent to me. Unfortunately, his publisher never followed through. I ended up getting the book as a gift anyway, so all's well that ends well.

In The Palace of Laughter we met Miles Wednesday, an orphan devoted to his toy bear Tangerine; an angel-on-earth appropriately named Little; and many members of an evil circus that traveled around, stealing the joy from people's lives. Since the leader of the Circus Oscuro, the Great Cortado, has been locked up in a mental ward, his old clowns - the three Bolsillo Brothers - have started a new show and taken it on the road. The Bolsillos invite Miles and Little along on their summer tour, employing Little in a high-wire act and to arrange the music for the band (music which releases people from the enchantment the Great Cortado put on them), and employing Miles as a knife thrower's assistant, pooper scooper, and all-around dogsbody.

Things are going swell until the Great Cortado breaks out of the hospital and begins planning his revenge against the boy who put him there. Also, a less-than-trustworthy circus fortune-teller leads Miles into danger with the promise of helping him learn more about his parents' fate. Miles learns, almost too late, that Doctor Tau-Tau has betrayed him to a tribe of hairy, cave-dwelling people called the Fir Bolg. Tau-Tau and the Fir Bolg think Miles has a powerful treasure called the Tiger's Egg - perhaps because Miles occasionally meets and talks with a wild tiger that always turns up just when he is desperate for help.

Escaping the Fir Bolg without having his belly slit open (for they think the Egg is inside Miles) proves to be only the first of many hazardous adventures as Miles fends off attempts on his life, helps recapture the savage Null, begins learning to use powers he hardly understands (powers the well-named Shriveled Fella calls "the bright hands" and "the far eyes"), and prises the truth about his mother and father, morsel by morsel, out of the reluctant craw of the Bolsillo Brothers.

Those Bolsillos! They surely have the gift of comic patter; the Marx Brothers hold nothing over them! But good as their intentions are, they are reluctant to tell Miles the whole truth; so they use their patter to evade his questions. Among Berkeley's more astonishing achievements in this book is the way Gila, Umor, and Fabio Bolsillo resist Miles' inquisitiveness, managing to be breathtakingly funny, chillingly grim, and touchingly sad at almost the same time. Many other endearing (or, in some cases, repulsive) characters from the first book are back too, from the by-the-book constable to the police sergeant who yearns in vain for a good night's sleep; from the blind old sailor whose story-within-a-story is worth the whole book to the crooked Pinchbuckets and their latest dastardly daftness.

The most moving revelation of the book comes near the end, promising an even deeper and more dangerous journey in the final book of the trilogy. I will be looking for it. I may even spend money on it!

The Slippery Map
by N. E. Bode
Recommended Age: 12+

This story, supposedly told to N. E. Bode by the nuns themselves, is about a boy named Oyster R. Motel (!), raised in the convent where he was left in a basket as a tiny baby. Though the unpleasant Mrs. Fishback (who "helps" the silent nuns with any business that requires speaking) has nothing nice to say about Oyster, he is clearly loved by the nuns - especially Sister Mary Many Pockets, who found him on the steps. Nevertheless, Oyster is lonely. He longs to have friends, to have adventures beyond the rules and boundaries of the convent, and above all to find his parents.

Then weird things start to happen. Rips open in the fabric of the world, sucking children into them and spitting them out again. One of them finally comes for Oyster, taking not only the boy but also Mrs. Fishback's disgusting, fat dachshund named Leatherbelly. It turns out not to be alien abduction, though. Instead, Oyster has been sucked into an imaginary world created, a generation ago, by two children his age. The creators have become trapped in their own world, and now Oyster is the one who must save them. Why, you ask? Answer: They're his parents!

Oyster's parents are the authors of a truly odd little fantasy world, populated by various types and sizes of fairies, as well as by some dangerous creatures that take a good deal of avoiding. But their charming country has become an environmental and political nightmare, as everything has been taken over by a brutal ruler named Dark Mouth, whose toad-like minions force little people called Perths to slave in his sugar factory, eat sugar, breathe sugar, and so forth. Guided by an unlikely pair of Perths named Hopps and Ringet, and helped (sometimes reluctantly) by various others, Oyster sets off on a quest that takes him over a breathing river, through an underground world infested by dirt clams and spider wolves, through a dangerous forest, and up an unforgiving mountain. He meets a guru, a dragon, a TV personality (the personification of evil), and finally a monstrous warlord whose prisons are full of good people - including Oyster's mom and dad.

Here is a very sound story that should appeal to anyone who likes (for example) The Gammage Cup. It is a warm-hearted, sometimes moving, often funny tale full of strange images, happy surprises, and plenty of thrills. It seems there is, after all, a future for "N. E. Bode" (a.k.a. Julianna Baggott) outside "his" (?) series about Fern, Howard, and The Anybodies. In fact, this book is a healthy sign that, where young-readers' fiction is concerned, Baggott is just getting warmed up. I think this is her best work in this field so far.

Pure Dead Batty
(UK title: Deep Water)
by Debi Gliori
Recommended Age: 12+

The fifth of six books featuring the, ahem, colorful Strega-Borgia family of Auchenlochtermuchty, Scotland, is a bit of a downer, at least to begin with. At the end of the previous adventure (Pure Dead Trouble, a.k.a. Deep Trouble), the redoutable nanny Mrs. McLachlan sank into the waters of Lochnagargoyle and didn't come back to the surface.

What 13-year-old Titus, his sister Pandora, and their baby sister Damp - the most freakishly powerful sorcerer in training pants - don't know is that Mrs. McLachlan is immortal, and that she has taken refuge on an island on the edge of Death's realm, hoping to keep the all-powerful Chronostone from falling into the hands of the Prince of Darkness. Together with a fiend from hell, Flora remains marooned because Death refuses to take possession of the stone unless a mortal willingly passes into his realm with it - and because the thread that anchors her to her home has slipped out of the frozen fingers of the cryogenically-preserved Strega-Nonna.

How do the kids and their magical-beast friends get into deep water? Damp's growing ability to plunge into the world of stories and make-believe, along with her chatty bat familiar, has something to do with it. So do Pandora's camera with its mysterious power to capture images of the past, the new member of Titus's band with his non-mysterious power to cheese everybody off, the potion that makes Titus burst out into full (but premature) manhood just in time for the attractive young replacement nanny to arrive, the moving and talking portraits in the "ancestors' room," and the messages spelled out in letter-shaped refrigerator magnets. Meanwhile, their father has been arrested for murder, their evil Uncle Lucifer has hired The Devil Himself to put a hit on the whole family, and Marie Bain (remember, the worst French cook in the world?) gets her ultimate revenge.

If Harry Potter ignited in you a burning interest in things magical and Scottish, here's the series for you. It has loads of creatures that would make Hagrid's eyes dance with joy. It has bizarre, reality-bending magic. It has a castleful of whimsical marvels. It has bad guys of over-the-top campiness. It has violence, sadness, humor, and a lot of upchucking, besides other grossness. And it has one more book to go: Pure Dead Frozen.

Pure Dead Frozen
(UK title: Deep Fear)
by Debi Gliori
Recommended Age: 12+

In this sixth and last book about the flamboyant, magical, and chaotic Strega-Borgia family of Scotland, Satan (oops, I mean S'tan) becomes the star of a TV cooking show. Hell freezes over - literally. An army of miniature warriors settle a lifelong, deadly rivalry between two brothers. One lucky couple is struck by love at first sight. Two new members of the family come into the world, and one leaves it. A demon changeling is substituted for Titus and Pandora's baby brother. Time travel, trouble with wolves and dragons, a battle for the fate of the cosmos, a duel between a baby and a demon to see which can make the other more miserable, and a reluctant assassin's battle to protect his family drive the "Pure Dead" series to its final resolution.

In this book, you will meet a salamander with a lisp; an over-talkative bat; a pregnant dragon having second thoughts about her engagement to a loch monster; and a fairy tale come to life in "our" world, which makes an interesting change from Damp's growing power to enter the world of fairy tales. Like one of the characters in this book, it was evidently time for this series to "move on to the next great adventure" (borrowing a phrase from Dumbledore); but oh! what an end it makes, going out in a blaze of glory!

If you have enjoyed this series, as I have, you may be sorry to see it end. But I think it ends on just the right note, and at the right time too. If I had to complain about anything (and, you know, I usually do), it is the crowded canvas - crammed with so many character- and plot-threads, weaving together so densely and rapidly, that one worries whether it is really possible to tie them all up in a fulfilling way. But as to the sparkle, the energy, the vitality of Ms. Gliori's concluding fantasy, I can make no complaint.

From the obligatory "Dramatis Personae" list to the poetic justice that befalls its villains, Pure Dead Frozen strains Shakespeare through a sieve of children's cartoons, Mafia movies, Mother-Goose tales, and a joy of making evil look ridiculous. And as it ends, one feels a warm sense of knowing the author and the wild, weird, chaotic family she honors and lampoons. She both welcomes us into her home and warns us of the crocodile in the bathtub, the non-potty-trained baby dragon in the cellar, and the smart-mouthed tarantula whose nest is in the teapot. It is a home one enjoys visiting.

The Victory Garden
by Lee Kochenderfer
Recommended Age: 11+

For Teresa Marks and her father, their tomato-growing competition against Mr. Burt next door is very important. For one thing, growing garden vegetables is part of the war effort in a small Kansas town in 1943. In case you missed your history class, that's during World War II, when Teresa's brother Jeff and many other young Americans went to Europe or the Pacific to fight against Germany and Japan. Which brings up another, even bigger reason the tomato contest is important: it keeps Mr. Marks's mind off worrying about his son.

From the vantage point of 2008 (as I write this review), it is hard to imagine the burden this country's people carried, much less the courage and good cheer with which they carried it. We are distressed by a current war which claimed 5,000 American lives in its first 4 years; in my grandparents' generation, our country gave up over 400,000 lives to a war we were in for only 4 years. We are discouraged by prices in fuel (that haven't stopped us driving our cars), food (that haven't changed our eating habits), and other commodities (which we have continued to buy without letup, in spite of the late dip in our economy). Back then, the U.S. and the world in general was still recovering from a decade of depression, poverty, and famine in which many families lost everything they had; and in order to contribute to the "war effort," most Americans cheerfully gave up many of the comforts and plenties we take for granted. They saved pennies to buy war bonds; they saved junk that we would throw away as material for weapons and uniforms; and while farms grew food to ship to the boys "over there," people like the Burts and the Markses planted "victory gardens" so that they could save money and stretch the nation's food supply.

In 1943, just as the growing season is getting under way, Mr. Burt has an accident and must spend a while in a hospital out of town. Knowing what I have already said about the importance of their tomato rivalry, Teresa fights back against the plan to till Mr. Burt's garden under. She recruits kids from her school class to take over the Burts' garden as a project for the "war effort," selling the vegetables they grow to buy war bonds, and challenging her own father to the tomato duel at the county fair. Little does she realize how much work will be involved - sometimes backbreaking, sometimes heartbreaking. Little does she know that her do-good project will send her across the path of a runaway dog, a troubled boy, the local grouch, and a tragic young hero.

As Teresa follows the exploits of America's fighters in the air (like her own brother), tracing the war's progress on a big map on the dining room wall, so you will enjoy mapping Teresa's trajectory from naivete to wisdom, from childish bravado to courage, from focusing on the concerns of her immediate family to opening her heart to a wider community. It is an interesting journey to follow with one's imagination. We can only hope that such a spirit remains in our people, ready to rise to a challenge like the ones faced by Teresa's generation. [EDIT: Check out Ms. Kochenderfer's website for more information!]

The Nutmeg of Consolation
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

Book 14 of the "Aubreyiad" finds Capt. Jack Aubrey, Dr. Stephen Maturin, and 155 of their shipmates just where The Thirteen Gun Salute left them: marooned on an uninhabited South China Sea island after an uncharted shoal and a spectacular storm conspired to wreck their HMS Diane. With the local game population dwindling, the possibility of starvation looms in the not-too-distant future. Their one hope is to build a small boat out of the wreckage of the Diane, and send someone across perilous waters to fetch help for those left behind. But then a band of Malay pirates arrive, as desperate as the Dianes to control the island's water supply and prepared to fight to the last man to seize it. You think you have problems?

If you thus far followed the progress of Patrick O'Brian's twenty-part novel of naval and political warfare in the age of Napoleon, you might have started to grow restless after a long stretch with no fully-realized battle scenes. Might have, but probably haven't, because of the captivating characters of Jack and Stephen, the many passions of their lives (from music and botany to gunnery and deep-water sailing), and the people, places, and events surrounding them. Plus you have had courtroom drama, collisions of personalities (not all of them quite healthy), fascinating cultures, terrifying weather, and the intrigues of a highly skilled intelligence agent to absorb your attention. But even so, just suppose you have been hungering for a good, gruesome, shockingly violent battle. Would it thrill you to know that this book practically begins with one? Yes, I dare say it would.

It is a land battle, to be sure. But it's a ferocious one. And naval gunnery is what "floats your boat," fear not. Later in the book, Jack Aubrey outsails, outwits, and finally outfights a French frigate in an evenly-matched duel of naval maneuvers.

The Nutmeg of Consolation has all the loud bangs, flying splinters, and acrid smoke you could ask for; but it has so much more. It has a touching reunion with a beloved character we never hoped to see again. It has a duel of swords between a proud ship's surgeon and a boorish army officer. It has a duel of wills between a naval captain in the throes of a mid-life crisis and corrupt and hostile officials on land. It paints a picture of a savage period in the history of Australia that will leave you profoundly shaken. It shows the horrors of plague and the uncertainties of adopting children. It has perilous journeys into the outback, unexpected reflections upon the reading and writing of novels (coming out of the mouths of characters in a novel, mind you), long-delayed reunions, fortunes lost and regained, and an almost-fatal attack by -- ha, ha, I almost told -- but I will say this: I had already written The Magic Quill #126 before I read it (and 10 numbers after it), so don't go around calling me a plagiarist! "Great minds think alike" is my story and I'm sticking to it!

The final and decisive conflict of this story is one that threatens the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin. How this issue can raise more torturous suspense than anything else in the book is beyond my power to explain. Call it a miracle; one might well apply that word to O'Brian's work as a whole. Do, do come and witness this miracle for yourself. When you do, you won't waste time rationalizing it; you will simply believe, and be drawn out of yourself and into a time that now lives so vividly, but in words alone. And when it ends, you may find that "not a moment must be lost" before you set sail in Book 15, The Truelove.

The Truelove
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

The words "outraged platypus" appear on the third page of this book. Personally, I think that would have been a great title. However, for the title of his fifteenth installment in the adventures of British frigate commander Jack Aubrey and his physician-naturalist-intelligence-agent chum Stephen Maturin, Patrick O'Brian chose the name of a ship that doesn't heave into view for another 200 pages and more. Oh, well. We can't have everything.

Jack and Stephen are back aboard the Surprise, the privateer frigate Stephen recently sold to Jack. The nominal captain of the Surprise, as privateer, is faithful old Tom Pullings, but with Jack on board it sails as "His Majesty's Hired Frigate." And it's a frigate on His Majesty's business, too. British trade vessels have been caught in the crossfire between two rival chiefs on a Polynesian island, and Jack's orders are to figure out which side is most likely to swear allegiance to King George and help them rub out the other side.

It's a tricky thing, though. Ordinarily Jack relies on Stephen's advice. But this time, the nature of the mission seems bound to offend Stephen's anti-imperialist feelings. But Jack doesn't have time to agonize over the strain this mission will put on their friendship. The whole ship is being pulled apart and he is the last person to find out why.

Why? Because of a woman. A convict woman, escaped from the New South Wales penal colony, soon married to one of Jack's officers and, nearly as soon, the center of a tangle of romantic rivalry and jealousy that embitters the gunroom [or officer's mess, for those of you tuning in late] and threatens to undermine the discipline of the entire ship. What do you expect to happen when the officers despise each other, but that the foremast hands will choose up sides among them?

Prepare to behold Jack Aubrey's fury unleashed. Prepare for the seductive charms and vaguely chilling air of mystery that surround young Clarissa Oakes. Prepare for some gut-twisting battles, some thrilling naval-intelligence-type discoveries, some charming encounters with the nature and culture of the South Pacific, and loads upon loads of the tension that could, and often did, arise between strong-willed people forced to live for long periods between the decks of a small vessel in the middle of a huge ocean.

The Truelove has, above and beyond all that I have described, a virtually perfect plot that arcs gracefully from the first page to the last, and that nevertheless fits as snugly between The Nutmeg of Consolation and The Wine-Dark Sea as the battens fit into their cleats. (To understand this analogy better, read the book; Jack Aubrey's explanation of "battening down the hatches" is very helpful.) Replete with surprises, reversals, dark forebodings, dashing exploits, wistful partings, and the joy and anxiety of a brand-new father halfway around the globe from his firstborn, this book contains a rich world of experience for you to relish.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tags Again

I have moved heaven and earth. I have tirelessly stalked the wild goose of Mound City. I have beared (sic) the line (sic) in its den, and gotten its number (on a small slip of paper torn off a roll of tickets). I have crossed all the teas in China, dotted Irish eyes when they weren't smiling, and wrestled with the angel of red tape until it said "Uncle." And when I was done doing all that, I sprayed my automobile plates with WD-40, scraped the '06 and '08 stickers off with the flat blade of a screwdriver, and triumphantly applied the '10 tags that I brought home as a trophy.

I may have mentioned before that the process of getting vehicle tags in the great State of Missouri is an ingenious plan to expose the criminal tendencies that lie within the meekest bosom. For if one is never tempted to get one's tags illegally, one must be virtuous indeed. My fourth time around was no exception to this rule.

First, my car failed both inspections (safety and emissions), requiring me to buy a new part to pass each (a light bulb and a mass air flow sensor). I had to wait for the M.A.F.S. to come into the shop on back-order, sweating over my apartment complex's threat to tow cars with expired tags; I then failed to complete all the tests needed to pass the inspection even after driving two and a half hours, city and highway, and had to spend half a day in the shop's waiting room while the techs drove my car around trying to get the sensor to complete the remaining tests. Not a bad day's work - and I mean "day's work," since in three visits I believe I spent over 8 hours in that waiting room, reading Patrick O'Brian novels and sucking on Dum-Dums (a perk of having Dobbs as your primary-care mechanic).

Second - speaking rhetorically, not sequentially - I had to make two visits to City Hall, a charming building modeled on some German Rathaus or other. The first visit, two weeks ago, was to get a copy of my 2006 and 2007 personal property tax receipts, which I couldn't find anywhere. Getting the 2007 receipt was a simple matter of visiting the collector's office and paying $1 for a duplicate copy of my tax bill, showing that I had paid in full. 2006 was another matter; no record of my having paid 2006 personal property could be found in the city's records. After being directed from the Collector's office to the License office to the Assessor's office & back around in varying order by people who gave meaning to the saying about the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing (e.g., they could see each other's doors along the same hallway, but they didn't know each other's fax or phone numbers), I finally met a truly friendly, cheerful, helpful person in the Assessor's office, who prevented me from going postal and told me what I had to do.

What did I have to do? I had (second-and-a-halfth) to obtain a 2006 personal property tax bill from a county I haven't lived in since late January 2006, after a protracted argument with a county collector who seemed to believe I should drive down to Union, Missouri, to pay it. (Thanks, lady, I needed the laugh.) I am still mystified as to how I was ever allowed to renew my tags in St. Louis City in 2006, or even get a 2007 tax bill from the city assessor (the one I had paid) without showing evidence of paying 2006 personal property. I took great pleasure in infuriating the Franklin County Collector by telling her I believed I must have paid my 2006 personal property to Yuma County, Arizona, by mistake - and if I could prove it, Franklin County, Missouri, could go soak its head - but by that time she had already cut a bill (with "Delinquent" stamped all over it in red ink) and mailed it to my new address.

Then (second-and-three-quarterth) I made my second trip to City Hall and, in spite of another truly helpful human being in the Collector's office, had to run up and down between the first floor and the fourth floor several times. All right, I took the elevator; and the elevator gods must have been smiling upon me, because the door always seemed to be opening just as I walked up to it. There was some controversy, at first, about whether I could pay my Franklin Co. bill in St. Louis city, a controversy which finally came out in my favor (eat your heart out, Franklin Co. Collector lady!). Then it was a simple matter of running up to Room 410 to buy a money order - then running back down to Room 109 to use the ATM because Room 410 only accepted cash or checks - then running back up to Room 410 to complete my purchase - then running back down to Room 109 to turn over the money order so they could send it to Union - then taking a number (aargh) in the License Office so I could finally present all my paper work - renewal application, insurance card, both inspections, both tax receipts, and a partridge in a pear tree - then running back to the ATM to get more cash to pay for the tags - then waiting in line again (briefly) to finish the renewal process - and then I was ready for WD-40 and the blade of a screwdriver!

P.S. A funny thing happened this morning, which I didn't mention to anybody at City Hall. I got a ticket for parking along the curb in my apartment complex. Not that I had any choice; the parking lot was overflowing by the time I got home last night. This place has a chronic parking problem; there are more apartments than spaces to park in. What really stung was that my ticket accuses me of parking where the curb was painted yellow, though in fact, there wasn't so much as a flake of yellow paint anywhere near my car. A few feet further on the curb turned yellow. The injustice rankled until I realized that I had gotten away with parking hard by a "No Parking" sign during last night's Symphony concert, and an hour past the expiration of my parking meter on my first visit to City Hall. Well might one talk of bearding the lion in his den! So what if the lion comes around by one's den to do a little shaving of his own?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Tight Week

My hours, minutes, and seconds this week are packed so tight they squeak. Sorry no updates since Monday. This has been "one of those weeks," and you'll hear about it when I have a spare moment that isn't earmarked for sleeping and eating. For now, expect to hear about some musical joy, some automotive pain, and my ongoing (and somewhat feeble) efforts to live as lean as the times. The picture is a slight hint.