Sunday, March 29, 2015

A secret reason why all daisies look alike

From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

Did you ever pay attention, in your 20s, to a flower? If you are 30 or older, when you look back on your younger days, do you imagine this rose or that one, this azalea, that pistachio or crabapple tree, and how your heart longs to go back and … ?

Shoot, no. Me either.

Until I was deep into my 30s, I can never remember looking for any length of time at a plant or at a flower, not unless it was on the communion table in front of the pulpit. There were always pretty flowers on Sunday mornings, often left over from a wedding or a funeral. And they were right there so you almost had to look at them, unless you wanted to stare at the baptistery or at the hairdo in front of you. People my age know the visual challenges that come with sitting behind a beehive.

Way back then, the only other time I remember looking at flowers or shrubs is if my golf ball was in one.

We had a garden when I was a boy, annually. Lots of stuff grew. I don’t recall it being pretty. It was more of a rural appreciation for things you could eat. To most people in my hometown, a ripe tomato carried a lot more weight in the Pretty Department than an orchid, now that I think about it.

Also we were a shrub people. Low maintenance. Easy to mow around. Dependable. So we cut grass and pruned shrubs and tended gardens and saw flowers on Sundays and in magazines. Tobacco and soybean and corn fields were our begonias.

But with age comes an appreciation for things you’ve been looking at all your life but not seeing. Spring is a little different to us now than it was Back Then. I hope I appreciate color and texture more and just how odd it is, and unexplainable, that this keeps happening over and over.

The father of a son, I used to watch boys grow. But since I haven’t been to many little-boy ball practices lately, there’s a bit more time to pay attention to this thing I planted in my back yard late last winter called, I think, a purple leaf plum, and another called a forest pansy redbud. They are small trees. I hate to use the word “excited” but I was close to that when I saw actual purple leaves on the plum tree. How does it do that? I have not seen forest pansy leaves or any kind of leaves on the redbud and hope the frost or me personally didn’t kill it over the winter, but I think there are buds there. As the sun is doing around here after all the rain, my tree is trying.

The temperamental dogwood and a pink-leaved peach tree, both sophomores, are trying too. What if these things actually live and keep blooming every March? What if I actually live and get to see it? Daily Double!

But once they bloom, will I forget about them? It’s natural to take beauty, often viewed, for granted. Infants are too wise for that; what people who are tiny in age do is see the same things over and over again, but as if for the first time.

An Englishman named G. K. Chesterton lived from 1874 to 1936. A newspaper editor for much of that time, he wrote thousands of essays and, because he weighed about 400 pounds and was absent-minded, developed a reputation of having both a genius and a personality hard to fence in. Witty, you ask?. He’s credited with jewels like “Vice demands virgins,” and “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.”

An essay I read about him this week came at just the right time for me: springtime. His warned me not to miss it.

God, Chesterton wrote, “is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we are.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Wanted: Easter donkey, must agree to work weekends

From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

With Palm Sunday approaching, there are some donkeys in our area nervous about what they might be asked to do to add just that extra touch of realism to a church service.

Lowing cattle feel the same way around manger-scene time. You’ve seen them: the nervous hooves, the twitching ears, the quivering udder.

I have never been to a church service in which a real-live donkey participates, but I have friends who belong to a north Louisiana congregation for which this is old hat. Before you get too excited – “I wonder if I could rent them my donkey this year?” – cool your jets. They have one on standby, and he’s getting a fair shot next week on Palm Sunday.

My friends have eagerly told me the stories. For years and years, they had the same tame donkey who willingly walked the center aisle of the church each Palm Sunday, a modern-day reminder of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem as people – some worshippers and some admirers – celebrated his presence by scattering palm branches before him. Of course God has a sense of humor – (just look at us, for heaven’s sake) – so he had to appreciate, even then, how this would lead to some comical moments as believers grew and built actual country churches within walking or pickup-hauling distance of unsuspecting donkeys.

For years, the modern congregation we honor today appreciated the reliability of their Palm Sunday donkey. Crowd favorite. I don’t think they ever took him for granted. Around February, a deacon would call to see how he was doing, drop off some carrots, make sure he wasn’t busy on the crucial early-spring Sunday. Always, he was game.

But, as happens here below, the donkey died. They did not have a funeral in the church, which might have been a nice gesture, though possibly a bit too much. To the donkey’s owner, they did send flowers or a gift card, I can’t remember which. Even then, I think they knew how good they’d had it. If not, they knew for sure a couple of years later when, ready to get back up on that horse and ride him, they recruited another donkey.

This one didn’t fare as well. Remember that everyone is dressed in pre-Easter finery, that the moment is symbolic and solemn, that this IS, after all, Sunday morning at church. IN church. And here comes the new donkey, Palm Sunday, the children before him doing the frond thing.

He made it halfway, witnesses say. Stopped. A gentle pull and he’d continue – except he didn’t. Halfway down the aisle, like a bride with second thoughts, he got pillar-of-salt still.

The robed gentleman doing the pulling pulled harder. The donkey’s neck and jaws extended, his nose pointing up, like the high side of a seesaw. His front legs dug in. Like the tree planted by the waters, he would not be moved.

Another willing parishioner with more guts than I’ll ever have left his pew and got behind the donkey and pushed hard on the donkey’s backside with both hands, a dangerous maneuver on all sort of levels. Then he pushed with his shoulder. Finally with his chest. The front guy still pulling, the back guy pushing. The eternal struggle between good and evil?

Nobody cheered, but some wanted to. Would the donkey win, or the deacons? You can imagine the level of intrigue as Sunday-scrubbed necks craned to see who would be the first to crack. The janitor might have been the most nervous of all.

Parishioners had to imagine the rest of the event as the donkey began backing up. Apparently, he wasn’t a Methodist. He was forgiven on the spot, but no one’s asked him back.

Next Sunday it will be Brother, the donkey of a friend of mine, who will give it a try. I know Brother. I have faith in Brother. And hey, the pressure’s off, just like in athletics: You don’t want to be the donkey that follows the Hall of Fame donkey; you want to be like Brother -- the donkey that follows the donkey that follows the Hall of Fame donkey.

Of course, to be on the safe side, we probably still need to pray for him.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Culinary Tragedy: 'No Man is a (Thousand) Island'

From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

There are bigger problems in the world, sure. But since most of us eat a couple of times every day, this wild and frankly tacky prejudice against Thousand Island dressing really needs to stop.

I know it’s only a condiment, but enough’s enough.

Probably this is a losing battle. We have for years asked people to stop using the word “ironic” incorrectly, yet some running back “ironically” hurt the same knee he hurt two years ago (nothing more than a sad coincidence) or “the hot tamales were ironically served cold” (a tough break, for sure, along with poor service).

Annual occurrences are “the ultimate” and some champions win even though “everyone was against us” (really?, even your mom?) and others win because they are a “team of destiny,” which is so logically stupid and lazy that I’ve almost quit fighting the battle. Ironically. And ultimately.

But even knowing the odds are stacked against us – we are destined to fail! – we’ll jump here from the grammatical world, where we’ve made all the progress of a turtle stuck on a fencepost, into the culinary world.

Why? Because we are a Thousand Island people. We are from West Monroe and Mangham, from Mansfield and Oil City, and we deserve to be heard, and served. Just like the “bleu cheese” upper-crust crowd.

The bottom line is that not all restaurants stock Thousand Island dressing. I have researched half a dozen lists of Most Popular Dressings (those aren’t easy to find, sort of like Thousand Island itself) and found Thousand Island to rank from seventh to third on the Desirability scale. She’s a pretty popular dressing.

Yet often when I order it, I’m looked at as if I hadn’t shaved in a few days, have my hat on and haven’t washed up. Which is often the case. But still, I’m a paying customer. Or would be, if they had Thousand Island.

We can tell what the waiters at the non-Thousand Island establishments think of us. “He’s about to order the possum. Or the Rack of Roadkill.” And all because those of us born on Thousand Island don’t prefer the more lyrical French or Italian, or the vogue “vinaigrette.”

“Ranch” is what’s No. 1, and Ranch sounds much less exotic than Thousand Island. I wouldn’t touch Ranch with a 10-foot fork. Ranch is more popular than the Kardashians and “The Bachelor,” but as is the case with those two shows, I don’t have the taste for it. If you do, we Islanders think that’s fine. So why are we exiled?

Entire meals hinge on this. You’ve been there: you crave a certain entrĂ©e – most often a steak – but the kitchen doesn’t have “your” dressing. Steak is not as good without your favorite dressing on your warm-up salad. So then you have to re-think, and you’re hungry, and that seldom works well.

The bottom line is that Thousand Island is a poor man’s dressing. It’s the Mendoza Line of dressings. It is what it is. Why can’t the fancy eateries just stash a bottle in the icebox and swallow their pride so we can swallow our salads?

Probably no one made my point for me better than John Donne, a pastor and poet who lived, died and presumably ate salad from the late 1500s until his passing in London more than 450 years ago this very month.

You might have forgotten his name since English 202 class, but you haven’t forgotten some of his most famous phrases. He thought he was going to die, a victim of London’s Black Plague, in 1623. (He didn’t: he made it several more years.) Unable to get out of bed, certain his salad-eating days were numbered, he wrote what might be his most famous reflections. His inspiration was death, as in his bed he heard from his window the church bells, their ringing a musical broadcast that the Plague had claimed another of London’s lives.

Thus inspired, he wrote that we should “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Why? Probably because all they have is Ranch.

But it could be because, as Donne went on to scribe, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Ha! There is is! He is basically warning us that although we are each “part of the main,” as it were, that the world can be cruel, that the “scattered leaves” of the books that become our lives will one day be bound again, and by a Perfect hand, but that in the meantime, just in case, it never hurts to bring your own dressing.