Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Sermonator

Things that I, lay minister, have found out about sermons over the past year:

First of all: Give me the more unfamiliar, unlovely texts; the ones that no one remembers from Sunday School. For some reason I find them more intellectually engaging and actually easier to tackle with the congregation than the ones that come with a lot of preconceived assumptions and sentimental baggage. My idea of preaching hell is doing so on Christmas, Easter or the Sunday we tackle the Beatitudes. I'm just weird that way. Good thing I'm a layperson.

I've also found that there's something about small worship gatherings that throws me off-kilter. You'd think it would be just the opposite; that an intimate group of familiar faces would set me at ease. No. To me, behind the pulpit those Advent or Lenten evenings, it's like doing standup at closing time in an unpopular bar. I feel like I'm dying up there.

And then there's The Sermonator. This is my affectionate name for someone in our congregation who has taken it upon herself to become my personal trainer for preaching. Now, you have to understand that, being the very anal-retentive, self-critical soul I am, I start mentally dope-slapping myself for my homiletical inadequacies the moment I step out of the pulpit. I need, and appreciate, having some knowledgeable, objective other give me honest feedback, positive and negative -- even when the latter feels like a final rapier-stab to the heart after my post-sermon self-recrimination sesson; because at least it's coming from somewhere other than my own head.

But The Sermonator does not fall into the category of respected reality-checker. Imagine instead the love child of Ethel Merman and Cheers' Cliff Claven, and you'll get some idea of her m.o. The Sermonator is someone who, after a Sunday where I was feeling ill and ran through the sermon a bit breathlessly just because I needed to sit down as soon as possible, collared me in the fellowship area after the service and told me, loudly, "YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE SO NERVOUS! WE'RE ALL FRIENDS HERE! JUST PRETEND WE'RE ALL SITTING HERE NAKED! I'M SURE YOU'LL DO BETTER NEXT TIME!"

Thank you. Thank you so much.

The other week I did a fill-in Lenten service for our pastor -- one of those dreaded small-group homilies; my discomfort compounded by the gravitas and majesty of the text, Hebrews 12:1-2: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Oy. I spent all day writing the homily; thought it was crap; gave it anyway.

Afterward one of my respected reviewers described my message as "interesting," an adjective that felt like a baseball bat to the solar plexus. I said a few goodbyes and fled to my car...only to notice The Sermonator hot at my heels.


At this point I felt a weight descending upon each shoulder -- my good and bad angels had chosen this moment to manifest.

My good angel was in the guise of a pleasant Southern matron sipping a sweet tea.

"Well, bless her heart," exclaimed the good angel. "That gal is doin' the best she can, just like you."

My bad angel bore a distinct resemblance to Chelsea Handler. In one hand she held a pitchfork; in the other, a large vodka martini.

"SHUT UP!" screamed the bad angel. "SHUT UP! SHUT THE *&#@ UP!"

I decided I'd better pay more attention to the good angel. But I poured myself a big ol' glass of merlot -- we're out of vodka -- when I got home.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Five: They Say It's Your Birthday

This week's RevGalBlogPal Friday Five asks us our opinions about birthdays:

1. What are your feelings about celebrating birthdays, especially your own?
I enjoy celebrating other people's birthdays far more than I do my own -- not just because I'm getting older, but because my family just didn't "do" birthdays well. Which brings us to...

2. Do you have any family traditions about birthdays?
Birthdays in my family tended to be more like the Costanza family's Festivus day -- Airing of Grievances and other assorted drama. I escaped this kind of thing on my birthday only because my birthday is the day after Christmas, and as such it was usually subsumed into that celebration; I mean, when your competition is Baby Jesus, you can't win when it comes to birthdays. When I was small my aunt M would take pity on me and throw a birthday party for me in June; but it just wasn't the same.

3. Is it easy to remember friends' and family members' birthdays? If so, how do you do it?
It's extremely difficult for me to remember people's birthdays, I think because I've never made a big deal about my own. I find Facebook to be very helpful in reminding me about birthdays; also those online card companies that, if you're a member, send you reminders about loved ones' birthdays several days ahead of time. This question, by the way, is inspiring me to add a "birthdays" sheet to our household Three-Ring Binder of Useful Facts, especially since Fellow Traveler also has trouble remembering birthdays.

4. What was one of your favorite birthdays? (or your unhappiest?)
My unhappiest birthday was when I was about five, sick in bed with pneumonia; definitely not fun. One of my favorite birthdays was a few years ago when Fellow Traveler treated me to a romantic bed-and-breakfast getaway up north on the Leelanau Peninsula. As luck would have it, an unseasonable warm snap hit the area when we arrived; imagine green grass, rain and peasoup fog in northern Michigan in late December. Then, just as suddenly, the temperature plunged again, bringing with it a combination ice storm and blizzard; this made for a rather cozy evening trapped at our B&B, drinking wine and playing Scrabble as the wind howled and ice pellets slammed into the windows outside...driving home the next morning, not so much. But in retrospect it was a pretty swell time overall.

5. Post anything else you want to share about birthdays, including favorite foods, songs, and/or pictures.
During the aforementioned birthday trip to the Leelanau, we visited a lovely rustic Italian restaurant called Trattoria Funistrada. Finding it involved navigating up and down curving, hilly back roads at night in fog thick enough to cut with scissors. By the time we crept into Burdickville, the little Glen Lake neighborhood where the restaurant is located, FT and I were both literally aching from the angst of stressed driving; so how wonderful to walk in and find a warm, friendly place that seemed to have been dropped into this unlikely landscape directly from rural Italy. We had a great meal there; conversed with the people sitting all around us because it's that kind of restaurant; had a lovely time. For some reason Funistrada's website seems to be down, but you can read some reviews (including mine) here.

Potlucks: The Original Food Rave

Today someone sent me a link to a story in the New York Times describing the phenomenon of "food raves" -- ephemerous underground restaurants, patronized via word-of-mouth, that give up-and-coming young chefs a chance to build a customer base without having to deal with the sometimes considerable licensing fees and bureaucratic hassles involved in the currently trendy pursuit of running a food cart.

My first thought, upon reading the article, was, " Good for them." My second was, "I wish we had food raves in our area." And then it occurred to me: What's another example of cooks showing off their signature dishes to a large crowd in a semi-spontaneous way?

Church potlucks.

Whoddathunk we were on the cutting edge of foodie culture?

Potlucks, at least in my state, have had to go increasingly underground because of onerous health department rules regarding advertising meals to the public; basically, if the food isn't made on premises according to state regulations, by people certified to handle food for public consumption, you can't advertise the meal outside your organization. Bulletin or newsletter blurbs are okay, for now; but mention a potluck on your church signboard or newspaper blurb and you're likely to get a frowny-faced visit from a local health department inspector. A couple of years ago our church ran press releases about our midweek Lenten worship that happened to mention a pre-service potluck, and we were promptly spanked by the Powers That Be. You can bet that schooled us.

People who know me are well aware of my liberal credentials. But these are cases where I feel real sympathy with my conservative neighbors who deeply resent this kind of nanny-ish state intrusion into what is simply a group of friends and neighbors coming together for a meal.  Especially when we all know supermarkets with perpetually sepulchral-smelling meat counters filled with irridescent steaks and gray chicken, or restaurants where we would no more order the egg salad sandwich than directly inject the salmonella into our veins, it seems inefficient, as well as petty, for local bureaucrats to make church kitchens -- at least in my lifetime experience a bastion of proud, obsessively hygienic church ladies who've never seen a church surface they didn't want to scrub with Comet, Pine-Sol or Murphy's Oil Soap, who'd likely commit hara-kiri with the ubiquitous church-kitchen electric knife if they ever inadvertently gave someone food poisoning  -- a front line of their war against food contamination.

I've worked in the public sector, engaging in what we believed was improving quality of life for citizens, catching that crusading spirit, and I truly understand how easy it is for health inspectors to see the world as one big, roiling cauldron of pathogens that they have been tasked with controlling at all costs. But -- I mean -- come on. For some reason I trust that Mrs. Tannenbaum's locally famous bratwurst potato salad isn't going to kill me. Not that I know a Mrs. Tannenbaum who makes bratwurst potato salad. Or that, if there were a Mrs. Tannenbaum, she would bring bratwurst potato salad to a potluck. Or that I know of any potlucks, anywhere, held by anyone. I'm just saying.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gathering the Crumbs

I have an appointment in the Nearest College Town this afternoon, after which I'm going to go grocery shopping.

What will I find today? Maybe a bag of interesting organic granola. Maybe a can of white clam sauce, or packet of mole'.  Maybe some spendy pet food for the fur-chilluns.  And of course I can't forget a couple of pounds of good coffee.

I'm not going to a big-box supermarket. I'm not going to our food coop, or to a specialty-foods boutique.

I'm actually heading about a half-mile down a dirt road, next county over, to an Amish-run discount foods store.

We started shopping here maybe a year ago; we'd heard that it sold mostly outdated supermarket rejects, which didn't interest us, but finally one day we stopped in out of curiosity. What we found was a clean and tidy little store that carried, yes, a lot of old grocery items (signs around the store alert shoppers to this) -- but also a lot of perfectly good merchandise, including fresh cheeses and cured meats.  Interestingly, much of the items in stock are organics -- the same brands carried by the food coop. Ethnic specialty foods are also plentiful -- and, again, not all past their sell-by date.  The store sells bulk brand-name laundry detergent and fabric softener too -- just bring in an old bottle. Prices are all drastically reduced.

So if you can picture grocery-shopping America as a big aquarium, merchandisers sprinkle their wares on top of the water...what doesn't get picked off their keeps falling down, down, down, until it hits stores like this, in the hinterlands.

For us it's a challenge to find bargains here. I make sure to bring my reading glasses so I can discern the tiny date information on boxes, bottles and jars, and we both spend lots of time inspecting the goods. We've gotten some incredible deals; a couple of weeks ago, for instance, we scored on specialty organic dog and cat food, both well within their sell-by dates, for half off the list price. The store's havarti cheese is considerably less than it is at the nearest supermarket. Awhile ago we hit the store on coffee delivery day, apparently, and were able to buy several pounds of decaf "boutique" coffee, again at half off the normal price.

Shopping in such a venue requires patience, attention to detail and the flexibility to accept that whatever delicacy one finds on the shelf on a given day is a gift; to take it and enjoy it and not expect it to be there again. (I think there's a lesson in there somewhere.)

It's also quite a circus of characters, and of character itself. About half the clientele seem to be people like us -- savvy middle-class shoppers hunting for a bargain while enjoying a jaunt into the countryside. The other half are people who look as if they need every penny they can save; for whom this store isn't just a rural novelty but a real godsend. It's also interesting to note shoppers' comfort levels in engaging with the young Amish women who staff the store -- some are polite and friendly; others seem afraid or resentful.  We sometimes catch a whiff of xenophobia; frowning shoppers mumbling to one another about how they're somehow being taken advantage of. We sometimes wonder what those Amish girls think of the lot of us English -- our relative loudness and assertiveness and occasional public crudeness; behaviors which, by the way, aren't exclusive to poorer shoppers. Especially when other customers in the store are being jerks, FT and I feel a certain responsibility to be especially courteous and friendly to the staff; even if they think we're weird, at least we're nicely weird.

Wonder what I'll find today?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Shop Talk

What I did during my blogging vacation: Among other things, got all entrepreneurial and stuff. Really.

Our slow process of cleaning up and clearing up our home and adjacent buildings made us realize that we really needed to do something with the collection of estate-sale items that Fellow Traveler has collected over the years. We've never had much good luck selling stuff on eBay or Etsy. When we tried selling a few vintage items at our last garage sale, we discovered that the local folks are just too poor to care; they were interested in my old beaten-up college-era casseroles and silverware, not the items of value to collectors. Meanwhile, some of our favorite television programs -- the pawning/antiquing/picking genre -- was making us want to visit some estate sales and "junque" emporia.  We just need to find the right people, we thought.

One weekend we decided to wander into the local antique mall. This was once a department store, the pricier one in town, back when I was a kid. It had three stories, which was pretty impressive for our little town. My frugal parents hardly ever went there unless Mom needed some special dress or Dad ventured into the sporting-goods section for hunting gear. Anyway, when it, like most small-town department stores, went out of business, the owner turned the building into an antique store, renting out booths to collectors.

I can't recall why we went inside -- I think just to see if we could find some deals; FT has an interest in antique marbles and toys, while I collect hen-on-nest covered dishes. But as we wandered from booth to booth, we noticed an empty corner. "The stuff in our garage would fit in there," murmured FT. We looked at one another. "I wonder what the rent is."

As luck would have it, Skip the store owner -- a rather dapper and genial 80-something -- happened to be in the store that day. We asked him about the rent. We found out that it wasn't very much -- and that we could reduce it substantially by working in the store instead of simply selling our wares there. We also got the impression that he thought FT and I were interesting, knowledgeable and responsible -- perhaps even likeable.

That next Friday we moved in.

It's been about a month now. And while at the time I felt somewhat equivocal about taking on another life responsibility -- I find I really enjoy it. I love opening the store in the morning; wandering up and down the stairs switching on an insane assortment of light switches; putting the sandwich board out on the sidewalk and hearing the zap of the neon "Open" sign as I plug it in.

I also enjoy being in the midst of good-quality antiques and collectibles from a time when craftsmanship was valued. Skip runs a rather tight ship when it comes to vendors' displays; the place is neat and tidy, not like an episode of Hoarders, and contemporary garage-sale flotsam-jetsam is kept to a minimum.

And I enjoy dealing with the public. (This is one reason that I was content to slum in a bookstore far longer than I should have been after my university education.) It's fun for me to talk to visitors from other communities and promote our area -- the other day I wound up drawing an "Amishing" map for one downstate couple looking for a reason to drive out in the country. And you just never know who is going to walk through the door and what they want. One day it was men's old shaving razors -- we sold three of them to different people. (I later read in the New York Times Style section that personal "mantiques" of the 30's-60's are a trending thing among decorators and collectors.) One day a woman was ecstatic to find a googly-eyed coconut monkey for her backyard tiki hut. We sold our amberina pattern glass canoe to a fellow for whom this one thing had become a magnificent obsession; he already had 30 of them, he said; he wasn't interested in collecting anything else; he just liked glass canoes.

This is, contrary to what you see on TV, not a way to make a living. This past month we paid our booth rent with enough left over for a pizza, and that's it. But it's fun. It's exercising some of my marketable-skill muscles after a long holiday. It's also reawakened the collecting urge in me; I'm thinking of maybe upgrading my rather pedestrian assortment of hens-on-nests to include one of the really choice Atterbury glass-eyed chickens, or pursuing an interest in collecting/trading in young women's books of the fin-de-siecle and 'teens -- those brave, smart and subtly feminist heroines of books like Polly Goes To College and the old Campfire Girls series.

It beats sitting on the sofa watching American Pickers, anyway.

What the Health

So anyway...

In my last post I had mentioned Fellow Traveler's latest health issues.

As long-time friends will recall, we have been patiently waiting for FT to get an all-clear from the VA for out-of-system surgery for her jaw, to replace her RA-ravaged cartilage and ease her pain. We had cleared one of the final hurdles in this long (two years, actually) process, when -- the day we returned home from a beekeepers' conference in East Lansing -- she woke up with a stabbing pain in her chest whenever she took a breath. Was it bronchitis? Pneumonia? A heart problem?

We wound up at VA Urgent Care for most of the day; I fretted in the waiting room while FT was poked, prodded, monitored and scanned. Initial diagnosis? Pleurisy; a very painful inflammation of the lining of the lungs. They pumped FT with antibiotics and sent her home with orders to rest and an appointment for some additional cardiac testing just to rule out any heart-related problem.

A few days later we got a call. The doctor reviewing FT's scans didn't like the looks of something on one lung, and was scheduling a follow-up CT scan in June.

This sent me into an internal panic, even as I was keeping up a brave face for FT. FT has never smoked, but her deceased former partner was a chain smoker; had breathing secondhand smoke for years taken a dangerous toll? Had years of asthma done likewise? Had a blood clot in the lung from back in FT's childbearing years left scarring?

While we were processing this news, trying to put a positive spin on it ("They said come back in June...not 'We want to see you next week'...") , FT took her stress test. It wasn't pleasant, but not as frightening as she'd anticipated after reading the scary procedural preparation sheet. She had an echocardiogram. A couple of days passed. Then we got another call: There seemed to be a diminished blood flow to part of FT's heart, according to the stress test results; could she come in for a cardiac consult?

More panic. It was a very quiet, pensive drive back to the VA.

But FT's other test results didn't seem to confirm that there was a problem with her heart. She has a normal EKG; her echocardiogram seemed fine. The cardiology person all but ruled out a heart issue; scheduled another stress test with a different dye medium just to make sure, but told FT, "If you can make the pain happen by pressing on your chest, it's not heart disease." She even suggested that FT's arthritis might be inflaming her sternum and rib joints.  But she wrote FT a referral to a pulmonolgist to further explore the possibility that the pain is lung-related.

If this sounds like a breathless, cursory review of our last month...well, it is. My anxiety response has pretty much burned out at this point. And we're taking things day by day: If FT wakes up with less pain, it's a good day; if the VA doesn't call, it's a good day.

And, ironically, as all this was happening -- FT got her formal, written clearance from the VA for her out-of-system jaw surgery.

I'm trying so hard to work up the intellectual gumption to return to blogging on a regular basis. But if I don't, you'll know why.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

My Future Flower Bed?

I'm too tired right now to write that catch-up post I talked about last night...but I want to commit to posting every single day, so in that spirit I present to you a handy video about starting a new garden bed. I'm seriously considering trying the "lasagna" method for the annual bed I want to start next to our front garage.,AAAAAEBQ1X8~,4LcKJKyjVWFA5YuyjNPXYzRLy0uw4H-T&bclid=773439037001&bctid=1521609018

Friday, April 01, 2011

Friday FIve: "Good Things" Quick Picks

This week's RevGalBlogPals Friday Five asks us for a "quick pick of five good things in our lives.

This challenge came at a good time for me, because lately we've been having to focus, not on good things, but worrisome health things. I'll write more about this tomorrow, when I catch you up on what's been happening in my life since my blog hiatus.'s good to remember good things. So here goes:

1. Our family extracurricular activities. Our footloose-and-fancy-free schedule has gotten a bit more structured these days, as we've taken on two very different tasks. Since our church secretary cut drastically back on her schedule due to health issues, I've been working at church one day a week as unpaid secretary/newsletter editor. There are four of us, each with a slightly different set of daily tasks. I've enjoyed this pretty much (although I did have to put my foot down about our church's heretofore que-sera-sera approach to its newsletter, and institute due dates for content).

Meanwhile, we were visiting the local antique mall about a month ago when we noticed a little empty corner booth. Fellow Traveler said, "That would be a great place to sell our stuff." (Said stuff being her formidible collection of estate sale goodies.) This is a nice, tidy venue, with real antiques and collectibles. We asked the owner about rent, and we discovered that, as long as we volunteer to work in the store one day a week, we can rent booth space quite inexpensively. The owner, after quizzing us a bit and finding out that we know a little bit about antiques and collectibles and have experience in "people" occupations, made us an offer and we said, "Sure!" About 15 minutes later, as we drove away, we turned to one another and murmured, "What did we just do?" But this has been a pleasant little pastime once a week. We meet lots of interesting people, get along well with the landlord, are learning more about the business -- and we sold a couple of our things.

2. Bear. Our adoptee dog -- Fellow Traveler's aunt's-and-uncle's dog, who was about to be put down after the aunt died and the uncle wound up in the hospital -- is a real joy. And this is an especially good thing for me because I frankly had not been completely sold on the idea of another dog. I wouldn't have let the cousins-in-law kill Bear; but I'd envisioned fostering her for a few weeks until we found some suitable adoptive family. What happened after we brought her home, though, was remarkable: After a week of getting to know Chica and Mollie and learning the rhythms of our home, and after regular daily exercise and a balanced diet, this largely inert, morbidly obese lump of a dog started responding to us; her sweet personality began to emerge; and she started moving on her own -- running, even. Now I have to huff and puff a little to keep up with her some days as she gathers the courage to explore our woods. Chica, for her part, after about a day of poutery, has become a good pal to her new, older friend.

3. My tomatoes. The photo to the left is not actually a photo of my tomatoes; but my little tomato seedlings are starting to look like that photo. I have mixed cherry tomatoes; mixed heirloom standard-size tomatoes; currant tomatoes; "Black Trifele" and "Black Zebra" tomatoes; and a few six-year-old seeds that I stuck in a couple of peat pots just to see what would happen, that successfully germinated.

4. Our beekeeping experiment. We don't have our bees yet -- but we do have our hives, our bee suits, our tools and various and sundry other beekeeping things. We recently attended a beekeeping conference at Michigan State University, my alma mater -- I thought Wolverine fan Fellow Traveler would spontaneously combust upon setting foot on campus, but she was a good sport all weekend, venturing as far as the Student Union for a taste of the MSU dairy's famous ice cream -- so we're also fairly knowledgeable, at least we think, about what to do when the bees get here at the end of the month. Maybe.

5. Our recent visit with Miss Ruby. We were surprised and delighted to get an e-mail from Daughter-in-Law telling us that she was coming to Michigan with Ruby to visit her mom, various relatives and her best friend from medical school. Since The Kids believe that we live in Terra Incognita, and since DiL's other visits were all in the southern part of the state, we traveled to the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area, both Fellow Traveler's and DiL's former home base, to spend the day with Ruby, stay overnight and then lead SiL to her aunt-in-law's home in Bay City. So we got to play with the grandbaby the better part of two days. Ruby is growing so fast -- she literally grew out of one pair of shoes the morning after we arrived at Other Grandma's house -- and she is not only on her feet but constantly on the move. She's also an enthusiastic talker, even though her active vocabulary right now is rather limited: "Mama";"Dada"; "No"; "Amma" (which we discovered means any convenient, attentive gray-haired lady). Her favorite word, out of all those, is "No" -- delivered without anger or petulance, mind you; just a matter-of-fact statement of opinion. She's a little pistol, is Ruby. And we're glad we got to see her.