I just got back from an epic road trip halfway across the North American continent. Unfortunately, we drove across several southern states where everything is deep-fried. Oh well, it was only 10 days. But in that time we witnessed a total solar eclipse, took part in Cherokee rituals, saw elk sightings, a bent tree, and many other strange and beautiful wonders.

During this time, I realized the 21st century has a stranglehold on us. We are constantly connected to our world via mobile devices and wifi internet. For most of us, this is a relatively new phenomenon; many of us were born before the web was fully realized, and we can remember when instant messaging meant passing notes in class. But by the mid-90’s, things were changing quickly. The generations that followed may not feel the change, like that proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. For anyone born in the 1990’s, their expectation is that information is perpetually within reach, and like we modern, post-industrial, space-age humans who never knew a world without electricity, there is no going back. At least not willingly.

Deliberately ditching your mobile for a week is harder than you think. Being among the various parts of Appalachia, Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge, Pisgah, and so on, where wireless coverage is spotty at best makes it easier to keep one’s resolve to remain disconnected. I must admit, I failed to maintain absolute isolation; my phone would periodically find a signal every other day, and a deluge of messages would drain the battery, forcing me to scramble for my charging cable. As a result, I actually turned off the device – yes, it is possible – when I could not find the cable. Problem solved: no signal, no phone. The device was reduced to a pocket calculator and a low-resolution digital camera.

This idea that being in continual contact with the rest of the world is to me a little absurd. Bear in mind I remember a time when being unreachable was a distinct possibility when leaving the house. Before we all had mobile internet in our pockets, going out into the world untethered was not as scary as it might seem to some of you. Pay phones were ubiquitous, and you always carried some change in case you needed to call someone to check in or ask for a ride. By the way, I saw more than a few pay phones in Appalachian North Carolina. Apparently, this is still a good way to connect. Wifi was available in our motel. And I took advantage of it to plan a route back home. But I felt a little guilty doing this, even though we really needed help finding our way out of the mountains. Like I said, I wasn’t perfect.

2017 08 26_4390_edited-2
Chimney Rock viewed from Lake Lure, North Carolina

I have to recommend trying this for a few days at least. Go to the Smoky Mountains or Chimney Rock or any of the small, isolated communities surrounded by peaks, and when you realize maintaining a connection is pointless, simply turn off the phone. After one or two days you may see things differently. I am not saying that these devices are inherently evil, although some have gone as far as to blame mobile phone use for an increase in brain cancer. Maybe we are too dependent on mobile devices. It seems tragic that we forgot how to follow a map using a compass. Maybe we have devolved a bit by losing certain skills. Without our phones, what skills do we truly have?

Most striking, I found that without my connection to the internet, and thus, no ability to instantly share my experiences, I enjoyed savoring the moments in real time. The pictures I snapped would simply have to wait until I returned. The stories, updates, comments –  everything – were being stored mentally. The experience was just mine. Naturally, I shared the moments with my wife, and in terms of the eclipse, that was a mass event, so that was pretty cool. Also, we rode the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, and we listened to stories from the people with us on the train. These moments are what life’s all about. They can be documented digitally, but they become the planar, two dimensional aspect, less than an echo, and the experience cannot be transferred with the degree of fidelity as first acquired. In other words, you had to be there.

I have been converted. I am a believer now. I’m sold on the notion of unplugging, disconnecting if only for a few hours. I was fortunate to have been compelled into isolation. That made it impossible to cheat, at least for a while. But now there is a larger question looming: if being disconnected makes life a little better for a short time, should that be our natural state? I spend upwards of 50 weeks all year getting stressed out, then take off for a few days here and there to “unwind.” Why would I not want to live my life unwound? Well, some of us have to work for a living. But it does seem a shame to put off living until retirement.


Summer Fête

Summer is in full swing. As it is July in Texas, summer has been upon us for many weeks already. And since there was no true winter in 2015-2016, that is, nothing froze. The air temperature got below zero* a few times, but the ground didn’t freeze. Therefore, we have an abundance of insect life here in the suburbs this summer. But this also means that there is plenty to eat for other creatures, and for the creatures that feed on those smaller creatures, and so on. Thus the so-called “food chain” of which humans believe they are not a part.

Summer means vacations for some. Others choose not to travel during summer, people like me and my wife. We don’t have children, so we travel when it is convenient for us. It’s little consolation, but there it is. Summer is a time for barbecuing, picnicking, and going to the pool. There are many sights, smells, and sounds that go along with the season. Today on KERA, during “Anything“, a listener wrote that she had moved to Texas a few months ago and wondered when the cicada noise would come to an end. Jeff Whittington, the program’s host, blithely, and with a little schadenfreude, welcomed the listener to Texas, adding that this “noise” was more symphonic than discordant, at least to the locals’ ears. After some time you are able to tune out the cacophony.

Jeff also mentioned that this year was not as bad as others in terms of the cicada serenade. He’s probably right. I can’t imagine a summer without them, their near constant buzzing and whining from the trees. The noise seems to stop during thunderstorms and at night. But since the sun sets late in the evening this time of year, you still hear them singing until nearly 9:00 pm. It’s then that the crickets take over until dawn.

I like to hear kids playing in the neighborhood. They play basketball in the street until it gets dark, and it reminds me of days when my friends and I would play baseball or Wiffleball at all hours. The neighbors probably hated us. During the day you rarely see people out on the sidewalks. It’s not that it’s hotter in North Texas than anyplace else – I think it was 50ºC in Fallujah last week – but we’re used to air-conditioned space now, and people are a little wussified when it comes to sweating. But this weekend, this Independence Day weekend, people will be outdoors. There will be concerts, parties, picnics, barbecues, and of course fireworks.

I love watching fireworks. Years ago, I enjoyed setting them off. But fires ensued, and things could have gotten way out of control. So we stopped with the fireworks. But it was a lot of fun, and every time I smell powder and sulfur burning, it takes me back. Not everyone likes that, I understand. Maybe it’s just me. The smell of charcoal is another favorite. I also like the way cut grass smells. And the combination of coconut oil and chlorine. I love summer.

I like the heat. Many people do not. I like it when it gets over 30ºC. Like certain plants, I need warmth. I’ve been known to enjoy a day of 40º or higher. Keep the ice cold drinks coming, and give me a hat, and I can stay out in the heat for hours. Something a little salty, too, to help keep me hydrated. You have to watch yourself. Dehydration can sneak up on you. If you stop sweating, get hydrated and cool off fast. Don’t stay in direct sunlight for long periods. And wear a hat, if you are balding, like me.

Enjoy your summer. Really live it up, because in a few months it will be time to elect our next leader. You will need to be prepared. So have a cold one, get the grill fired up. Go to a ball game. And take it easy.

Think Metric


Food: the Bad, and the Ugly

Topic number 2 from 642 Things to Write About is to identify the worst Thanksgiving dish I’ve ever tasted. Well, I tend to cook Thanksgiving dinner for a lot of people every year, so without trying to sound smug, I don’t usually screw it up (okay, I tried). I posted about my feelings for this holiday a while back. And now that spring has arrived, I thought it a little strange to revisit fall. As for the worst dish I’ve ever had, I’m not very picky. I consider myself gourmand as much as gourmet. But, I have to say the worst thing I’ve ever eaten is a McDonalds chicken sandwich that I had several years ago. The “meat” was hideously overcooked, lacking any hint of flavor. The bread was very stale, most likely frozen at some point. And the texture of the sandwich was entirely – well, gross.

Now, I’ve had some kitchen mishaps. I over-cooked some miniature eggplants once, and I tossed out a casserole that went horribly wrong, much to the shock of everyone in the house. Sorry. You may have discerned that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Note that I do not take pride in this; I simply acknowledge my faults like my hubris regarding my own cooking. I’ve been guilty of refusing to let guests help me cook. Actually, it feels weird for someone to ask if there’s something they can do when I invited them to let me make them a meal. Of course there is some pride. But I am improving.

Humility is like medicine. It’s unpleasant, but it heals. Realizing that I can, and do, make mistakes, and that there is always someone better than I, has helped me more than any self-help DVD or motivational speaker or scripture verse. We don’t like looking as if we don’t know what we’re doing. No one likes to be humbled, but without the experience, you are left with nothing but the shell of conceit.

I’m still working on technique and timing. Timing is almost as important as the ingredients themselves. Bring eggs and milk to room temperature. Grow fresh herbs rather than using dried, if possible. Use fresh tomatoes instead of canned. Simple things make a big difference. In olden times, people went to the market daily because refrigeration was not available. That meant that meat and milk and eggs and vegetables were consumed closer to their point and date of origin. These days, one can still find farmers markets, and we might have the illusion of “farm fresh” produce, whatever that means. But it will never again be like what our great-grandparents knew. Those days are gone, unless you move to a kibbutz.

Insist on food with flavour. Don’t settle for fast-food insult. Our bodies are not evolved to accept the toxins in processed foods, and something’s gotta give. A little pride is in order. If you’re going to make a sandwich, make it the best damned sandwich you ever had. Make mealtime about the food. Otherwise, why bother?

Happy New Year, Sinners!

I am making challah tonight, which is a traditional Jewish bread. It requires two whole eggs and two egg yolks in the dough. I love making this bread because it displays well: it makes quite an appearance, braided and baked to a patina and covered with sesame seeds. I make this bread only a few times per year, saving it for special occasions. Since tomorrow is New Year’s Day, I thought it might be nice to include it along with the black eyed peas and perhaps some buñuelos.

But every time I make challah, I am reminded of a conversation I had years ago with someone for whom I cannot remember her name. I was talking to her about cooking, and I mentioned some recipe that required separating eggs. (If you do not cook, and you were wondering how I add two egg yolks to the dough, it is accomplished by separating them from the egg whites carefully. They make egg separators for this purpose, but I use the shell halves, gently transferring the yolk from one side to the other, discarding the whites in the process.) The woman I was speaking with suddenly interrupted me and said, “separating eggs is a sin against God!”

I was more than a little surprised at the notion that God hated my cooking, so I asked her why she should say such a thing. Her reply was representative of the problem I have with organized religion. She said, “the Bible says, ‘What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.’ It is a sin to separate eggs.”

The Bible passage she quoted – and she quoted the King James Bible, by the way, which told me quite a lot about her – is from Mark chapter 10, verse 9; however, this chapter begins with some religious conservatives (Pharisees) calling out Jesus and challenging him about the legality of divorce. Verse 9 is Jesus’ reply, quoting Genesis, adding that God intended married couples to be “unseparated”, not just anything. By this woman’s interpretation of scripture, it was a sin to separate eggs, because God “hath joined them together.” But by this same “logic”, it would be equally sinful to crack walnuts, harvest wheat germ, make butter, or even to clip your fingernails. (If you read Deuteronomy and Leviticus, you’ll learn a lot more things you aren’t allowed to do.)

What really upsets me about this, however, is that people are going around telling other people what they should and shouldn’t do based on religious doctrine, not necessarily common sense. I know because I grew up Roman Catholic, and these people are absolute nutters. Religious people love telling you and me how we are offending God by laughing at jokes, drinking a little, and having a good time. I think they’re doing this because they never had a good time themselves. Or maybe they’re suppressing something – homicidal, psychotic rage or something juicy. I’m pretty sure – I’m not a Bible scholar or a theologian, but I can read – Jesus would be sick to his stomach at the way some of his so-called followers are treating their own. I know that many “Christians” support the death penalty and have no tolerance for immigrants and gays and lesbians. Fine, but don’t say you’re a Christian if you aren’t trying to be like Christ. I don’t usually say I’m a Christian. I go to church, but I know where I stand. I’m no saint.

We are basically all sinners. Anyone who says he’s not is deluding himself. I don’t know if there is a hell or a heaven. I don’t know anything, actually. But I feel fairly certain that God doesn’t care about whether you eat pork or that you even go to church. There are people suffering. There is evil in the world, and we are the instruments of either good or evil. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “I am a little pencil in the writing hand of God, who is sending a love letter to the world.”

We are pencils. We can be used for good or for bad, but we ourselves are neither good nor evil. If a person believes he or she to be sinning against God for their perceived transgressions, they ought to keep it to themselves. I’m sure I would offend many people if I said they were going to hell for wearing cotton/polyester blended fabric. And in the grand scheme of things, what does it matter?

If you really want to rid the world of evil, start by educating your children. Teach them to be accepting and welcoming of everyone. And I mean everyone. Teach them not to hate each other because of differences in beliefs or lifestyles. Teach them to have compassion for prisoners and the mentally ill. Teach them to recognize their own faults before judging others. I suppose I could practice what I preach and be kind to the kids proselytizing at my front door. Maybe I can save them. I’ll offer them a slice of bread, and I’ll tell them it was made with sin…and love.

Adam and Eve and North Dallas

The following is a true story, but you didn’t need to be told that. I mean, yes, don’t believe most of what you read or see on the internet, and certainly don’t buy everything I say. This is a blog, afterall. But, this really did happen.

Several years ago, my wife and I attended a fairly conservative and traditional, orthodox Episcopal church in Dallas. The congregation were a Texas version of a high C of E parish in any upscale London suburb. Women in nice hats would be a common occurrence. Fairly posh, right and proper. Not sure what I was doing there, but that’s a story for another time.

One bright Sunday morning – Easter, perhaps – we were sitting in a pew downstairs. Normally we would be sitting in the choir loft, but the choir was given the morning off after the long Easter Vigil mass, which lasts about three hours. Actually, this might have been a few Sundays after Easter, but the mood was the same.

Lecturn - Acton Parish Church, Poyntzpass
courtesy cranneyanthony, Flickr.com


In the Catholic mass, along with Episcopalians, and many more, there are prescribed lectionaries – readings that are assembled to illustrate something – that are read for certain occasions. Around Easter, it is customary to review the creation of the world and explain humanity’s dismal place in it. On this glorious Sunday morning, a well-dressed woman in her 30’s walked to the lectern and proceeded to read from Genesis chapter 3. For those who may not be familiar with this particular passage from the Bible, Adam and Eve have defied God by eating the “forbidden fruit” and are now hiding in shame in the Garden of Eden.

She read:

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were nekkid; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

“Did she say, nekkid?” I looked over at my wife to see if she had heard the same thing, but she either didn’t notice or didn’t react. I glanced around the church surreptitiously, but ostensibly, no one seemed to hear it. The reader kept going:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

(Now, I think this is kind of strange, because God knows all, right? So why didn’t the Almighty know where the man and the woman were hiding?) She continued to read:

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was nekkid; so I hid.”

This time, my wife and looked at each other and smiled. She had heard it! The sound of the word nekkid in this venue, with these finely dressed, upper-class Dallasites – literally in their Sunday best – was very much like seeing a woman in a bright red cocktail dress at a funeral. The sheer redneckedness (red-nekkid-ness?) of this moment was coming through in spite of the way things appeared. At first I thought she simply made a mistake, an error, a slip. But twice? Now I knew this was just how she was used to pronouncing the word “naked.” My wife recalls that perhaps the reader was doing it on purpose, to see if anyone was paying attention. I don’t buy that.

And [God] said, “Who told you that you were nekkid?”

By now more than a few people were holding back laughter, but they heroically maintained their composure. The fact was, this was hysterical, and I appreciated that others recognized it as such. Comedy, it seems, can be found anywhere, even while reading the account of man’s fall from grace. I’m sure God appreciated this moment.

My wife and I recall this day often, simply by repeating the well known passage from Genesis, “Who told you that you were nekkid?” A friend of mine once told me the difference between nekkid and naked. He said, “naked is when you have no clothes on; nekkid is when you have no clothes on, and you’re up to something.” Adam and Eve were definitely up to something. They hid themselves because of their shame, a shame only known to some people, by the way. As for those fine folks in North Dallas, well, who knows what they’re up to.



Why I Hate Christmas – I Actually Don’t, but Bear With Me

Okay. I actually do not hate the Christian holy day of the nativity of Jesus. What I hate is what Christmas or Xmas or “the holiday season” or Noel or the “most wonderful time of the year” has morphed into in this country and across the pond, and what it does to people.

When I was a kid I loved Christmas. I loved the lights and decorations, and of course, the presents. I loved seeing Charlie Brown and listening to Mel Torme. We would buy a moribund tree that had been cut down in October and shipped from Michigan and erect it in our living room in keeping with a tradition that was started in England as a fad patterned after a German custom imported by Prince Albert, husband to HM Queen Victoria. In Texas, the sad excuses for pine trees are just, well, Charlie Brown-ish. (About an hour drive east of Dallas, you can peruse acres of parched evergreens and saw down the tree of your choice for less than $75. But late November in Texas offers two types of weather: too cold to have fun, and too warm to get into the spirit of Christmas tree-hunting.)  I can’t deny that I don’t have good memories of yuletide, but much of this can be chalked up to the rose-colored lenses of nostalgia. There are for me some genuinely good memories of the holidays rolling around up there, and practically everyone has a their own Rosebud, even if they had never seen snow.

@2011 Chris Zuniga Photography

But the sacred traditions of our youth evolve, and the deeper meanings to cultural rituals can be lost over generations, centuries (I won’t get into the ugly truth about the pagan rituals that Christmas was originally based on). Do a little research, and you will find that the Santa we all recognize here in the States was based on a Coca Cola ad from 1931. Before then, Santa or Father Christmas or Père Noël or Saint Nick or – the list goes on – was just an old dude in a coat. His beard was usually gray or gray-white, and his trappings resembled something a 14th century monk would find inappropriately flashy. Then in the early 19th century, a poem titled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published which would radically change our image of Santa and Christmas. Suddenly, there was a jolly elf delivering presents, dropping down the chimney. Never mind that not everyone has a fireplace, that wouldn’t stop this juggernaut of imagery from establishing a foothold in American tradition. Many people can recite at least part of the poem from memory, even naming the fabled reindeer in order. And it has become a favorite tradition in this country for the head of the house to read the poem on Christmas Eve.

All this still does not bother me, even though many of our traditional themes came to us from advertising. But in the 20th century, things got really shitty. Even Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, was keenly aware of commercialism’s effects on the holiday. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Peanuts gang try putting on a Christmas play, with Charlie Brown as its director. He starts out – and continues through the program – being depressed about Christmas and how commercialized it has become, and can’t get into the holiday spirit. He eventually gets some help from his friend, Linus, and the rest of the gang.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, Christmas had become the main vehicle supporting commerce in the otherwise midwinter slump. Businesses began bringing in shoppers right after Thanksgiving, starting another bleak holiday tradition, Black Friday. The consumerist ritual of bringing out shoppers a mere hours after the yearly gluttonous act of devouring a turkey dinner while watching multimillionaires playing football is the starting bell of the shopping season. Market analysts will watch closely while shoppers go completely insane trying to beat the crowds so they can be among the first to get their hands on the latest PlayStation, just to keep up with the Joneses. God bless us, everyone!

This brings me to my point of why I hate Christmas. Somewhere along the way, capitalism creeped into what had been a precious and cherished holiday. Even if you are not very religious, the Christmas season can represent all that is good in the universe. It had been a time when people would come together, setting aside differences and celebrating, at least for a moment, a season of brotherhood, togetherness, hope, and joy. Add to that the idea of Jesus being born that night – which he wasn’t, but that hardly mattered to early church leaders – and you have yourself a beautiful celebration. Light the candles, sing some songs, and enjoy one-another’s company over a glass of whatever you choose. Perfect just the way it is. I’d like to leave consumerism out of it for once. If your idea of a perfect Christmas is to build a fire on some beach and gather your friends to sing Beach Boys songs, make that your tradition. If Christmas is a big dinner with your family (as it is with mine), or a midnight mass or Laser Tag, it still adheres to I believe to be in the spirit of the holiday. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to get stressed out going all over town to find that “perfect” gift? Wouldn’t Christmas be better if we didn’t have midnight madness sales, last-minute blow-outs and Truck-a-thons?

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Charles Schulz

Okay, so I really don’t hate Christmas. I fully intend to make my own traditions, and people and retailers who don’t agree can still go on doing whatever they want, and it won’t affect me. Like Charlie Brown, I have found meaning in Christmas, what it means to me. Sure, the Church™ can try and tell me what I should get out of this. And Target and Wal-Mart can pitch their ideas. But my holidays are not for sale.

Have yourself a merry…