Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins

Color me still naïve, but when I first saw the headline for this piece (from which I have more or less stolen this post’s title), I assumed it was an entertaining spoof, dealing with the absurdity of the gourmet decorative pumpkin explosion.  Since it was something a tad more serious, I offer here my own assessment of our current state of emergency.  If anyone has further thoughts about how to saw through this gourdian knot, by all means leave them below.

It has come to my attention that in recent years, we have descended as a nation from our previous greatness, the greatness established by our foremothers in the kitchen—and our forefathers in the field—in their ceaseless efforts to perfect the perfect pumpkin for the hallway, the table, and the pie.  Having reached Peak Pumpkin sometime around 1950 or so, we now find ourselves in a strange, psychedelic world in which you have only to imagine any kind of pumpkin you like in order for it to appear.

Pumpkins are no longer orange; they are white; green; brown (brown?! the rainbow’s most boring color); even on occasion a hideous, sickly yellow.  No longer smooth, but bewarted.  No longer round, but distorted, tortured, even squashed—and they were already squash.  Once invariably large, they now come (like heroes) in all shapes and sizes.  The used to be respectable vegetables, and now their attitude can only be described as punkin’.

If you saw a produce product at any other time of the year that looked like this …

… would you ask it out? take it home?  I thought not.  You would shudder, avert your eyes, and wheel the grocery cart on.  If this turned up in the back of your fridge, you would shriek and call for your husband to remove it, stat, even though it was probably your fault that it got that way.  If teenagers left this in your driveway, you would call the police.  If its white cousin …

… apparated anywhere within a block of your house, you would dive for the holy water, in sure and certain fear of having seen a ghost.  Ghosts, respectable ghosts, anyway, used to buddy-buddy with pumpkins; they certainly did not impersonate them.  But to such depths we have fallen.

This, my friends, is what has gone wrong with our democracy.  Not education, not the lack of any virtue in particular, but our inability to distinguish proper vegetables from the escapees or a horror film has brought us to this pass.

It may already be too late to salvage your Halloween, but may I proffer an humble suggestion?  Find the nearest sledgehammer, walk outside to your front porch, and smash those pumpkins now. I promise, the kids on the block will be impressed.  Think of the example you will have set for future generations.

As for Thanksgiving: please keep those winter wonders in the appropriate sizes, shapes, and dimensions.  You don’t want to serendipitously poison the pie.

Don’t even get me started on Indian corn.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

We're All Going to Die

A large bowl (a sieve, actually) of leftover candy is sitting by the front door, taunting me.

For we, alas, did not encounter the expected hordes of Trick-of-Treaters.
There will be some happy college students this evening, though.

I’m fairly certain there is no diet in which Tootsie Rolls and Smarties are part of the suggested balance.  Then again, most of the diets that become popular enough to sift down to the level of my attention don’t seem to be especially “balanced”.  One either cuts out fats, or grains, or meats; one always cuts out sugar.

Sometimes I wonder what poor sugar did to anyone …
Aside from being saccharine, that is.

Supposedly one of the secrets to such diets is that a reduction of variety in the options available nearly always translates into a reduction in calories consumed overall, a notion which makes sense intuitively, though it never worked for me.  It is a far, far butter thing (or for me, at least an easier thing) to place butter on one’s white bread, and develop temperance with said item, than to eat ALL the gluten-free fiber-rich toast, or ALL the saturated fats.  Perhaps I am simply more tempted by the same sort of gluttony as the Patient’s Mother, than by the more recognizable kind?

At any rate, many people do seem to find Special Secret Food Groups diets helpful.  But an additional reason for their adoption is that such diets nearly always come armed with a fascinating theory about body chemistry, in which familiar words like “gut” partner with exotic foreigners like “lipid” or “alkaline”.  And I had always imagined that these explanations were mostly, well, bunk.  After all, it can’t be true that the Paleo diet and the Mediterranean diet are BOTH good for you …

Except that it seems that they are both good for you.  Also, they are both bad for you.  At least, that is the news from a recent (so you know it’s true) study.  We can eat Paleo, and lose weight and look amazing …

Emaciated, beautiful Frenchwoman who enjoys steak and bacon every day.

… or, we can eat Mediterranean, be sort of chubby, and live longer.

Happy old Italian lady who has been eating pasta her entire life.
Also, apparently, eggs.  (Oh, and she's probably Dutch.  But anyways ...)

As if eating healthily weren’t already hard enough, now we have choices, and choices to which there is no right answer.  It’s not the poison but the dose!  What makes you stronger kills you!  We’re all going to die!

Which is actually true, and a very useful consideration, on this feast of All Saints and this eve of All Souls.  We are, in fact, all going to die; and in the grand scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter much whether we go to heaven having satisfied our vanity or our carb cravings.  Neither will really be “satisfied” anyway, if heaven is the only real, the ultimate satisfaction.  And it would indeed be not simply a useful, but also an amusing consideration if the human search for The Perfect System to nurture the body should turn out, in the end (as this latest fallible study suggests) to have no solution.  Bodies, all bodies, and indeed all matter—as Aquinas warned us a several hundred ago—are doomed to wear out sooner or later; and any purportedly scientific system which tantalizes us as if we could avoid the fatal day is at best a distraction and at worst a temptation to Be Like Gods.

I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t be prudent and temperate and good stewards of our bodies.  But I do think that it is ironic and appropriate that an age absorbed with physical satisfaction and perfection might ultimately have to face up to the realization that these are unobtainable—not merely obtainable at an unacceptable price, as our nightmarish dystopian movies love to remind us, but unobtainable simply speaking.  The physical is not the sort of thing that is perfectable.  Glorifiable, someday, God willing.  But not perfectable.  And at some point everyone has to face up to the this reality that he not only isn’t a perfect specimen, but also he can’t be, and, in fact, no one can.

Now, to check up on that bowl of smarties …

Saturday, October 29, 2016

"It's a Ghost"

One of the pleasures of reading the Gospels in particular are those moments when, following the sequence from one day to another, one notices things which remain obscure as long as one’s exposure is limited to weekly or even daily Mass.  One reads slightly larger chunks, one reads them in order without omission, but also at a slow enough pace—unlike those marathon Lenten do-the-whole-Bible-in-forty-days sessions—

Which are helpful in their own way.

—that one is able to actually absorb the connections between the various scenes.  Last night’s portion, for example, involved the following ghost story (just in time for Halloween!).  At the end of chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has just concluded a series of parables about the nature of the kingdom of heaven with an encounter with his dubious neighbors in Galilee:

they were scandalized in his regard. But Jesus said to them: A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.  And he wrought not many miracles there, because of their unbelief. (Matt. 13:57-8)

Chapter 14 opens relating how Herod hears of Jesus, and how he reacts:

At the time Herod the Tetrarch heard the fame of Jesus. And he said to his servants: This is John the Baptist: he is risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works shew forth themselves in him.  (Matt. 14:1-2)

Notice the rich irony here.  Jesus’s own former neighbors have just finished “wondering” at (i.e., doubting) him (“How came this man by this wisdom and miracles?  Is not this the carpenter’s son?”, 13:54-5); he can work few miracles in Nazareth because they doubt the report of his miracles elsewhere, because they know who he is—though not the full truth of who he is.  Herod, on the other hand, does not know who Jesus is—indeed, completely misidentifies him—because of his belief in the reports of the miracles.  The superstitious king has in an odd way more “faith” than the presumably religious neighbors.

Thus far the parallel is merely ironic.  But as chapter 14 continues, the parallels grow richer.  For the entire chapter turns out to be a flashback to the time of John’s death.  Having noted Herod’s fear, Matthew continues:

For Herod had apprehended John and bound him, and put him into prison, because of Herodias, his brother’s wife.  For John said to him: It is not lawful for thee to have her.  And having a mind to put him to death, he feared the people: because they esteemed him as a prophet. (14:3-5)

Here begins the whole sad story of John’s eventual beheading at the hands of Herodias, using her daughter Salome (14:6-11).  At the conclusion,

[John’s] disciples came and took the body, and buried it, and came and told Jesus.  Which when Jesus had heard, he retired from thence by boat, into a desert place apart, and the multitudes having heard of it, followed him on foot out of the cities.  And he coming forth saw a great multitude, and had compassion on them, and healed their sick. (14:12-14)

Humanly speaking, this is not a good day for Jesus.  I am not trying to be humorous: his cousin has just died; we know their mothers were close, and presumably the boys were close as well, although John’s reaction to Jesus at his baptism can tend to obscure that probability.

 Close, no?

Jesus does what anyone would do at such a moment: he “retires,” goes “apart,” to process what has happened (again, speaking on the human level), and undoubtedly to pray.  But “the multitudes … heard of it,” and follow him even in this time of mourning.  So as must often have happened with Jesus (think now of every such person in a ministerial position, from Mother Teresa to your humble parish priest), he has to turn around and extend compassion to others, when feeling most in need of it himself.

Since Jesus has tried to “retir[e] … apart,” he and his disciples have inadvertently led the multitudes into “a desert place”; evening falls, and the disciples urge him to “send away the multitudes, that going into the towns, they may buy themselves victuals” (14:15).  This is the cue for Jesus’s miraculous multiplication of the loaves and the fish, a corporeal extension of the compassion he has been showing to the multitudes all day, since he heard of his cousin’s death.

Only once the meal is over does Jesus dismiss the crowds—AND his disciples—and “[go] into a mountain alone to pray.  And when it was evening, he was there alone” (14:23).  At this particular moment—I hope it’s not too impious—I think of my own mother, and every other mom I’ve heard, talking about that moment when ALL THE CHILDREN ARE FINALLY IN BED.  “He was there ALONE.”  Thank goodness.

Meanwhile, the poor disciples—like so many children with nightmares and coughs?—are having a bad night of it: “the boat in the midst of the sea was tossed with the waves: for the wind was contrary” (14:24).  So Jesus, like any good mom or dad, eventually comes to check up on them: “in the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking upon the sea” (14:25).

Here, I have to tell a story of my own.  My father used to have—they are, alas, long passed from this world—a pair of red pajamas.  We also kept a nightlight burning, either in our bedroom or the hall or both, for many of the years when I was young.  One night, I remember distinctly my father appearing, unexpectedly, in those red pajamas and illuminated by the light.  This was where my brain went:

My mother used to make the most wonderful 
deviled ham biscuits around Easter time ...

And I shrieked.  Yes, my poor parents.  Anyway, keep that moment in mind; because the disciples’ reaction is similar …

And they seeing him walk upon the sea, were troubled, saying: It is an apparition. (14:26)

Douay Rheims, you don’t usually fail me: the word in the Vulgate is phantasma: apparition, spectre, phantom … But the real chill of the moment is better captured if we use the word we would employ colloquially today: It’s a ghost.

Does this sound familiar?  It should.  Remember the beginning of the chapter:

Herod: “This is John the Baptist: he is risen from the dead …”
Disciples: “It’s a ghost.”

We’ve come full circle.

And they cried out for fear.  And immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying: Be of good heart: it is I, fear ye not.  And Peter making answer, said: Lord, if it be thou, bid me come to thee upon the waters.  And he said: Come. And Peter going down out of the boat, walked upon the water to come to Jesus.  But seeing the wind strong, he was afraid: and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying: Lord, save me.   And immediately Jesus stretching forth his hand took hold of him, and said to him: O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?  And when they were come up into the boat, the wind ceased.  And they that were in the boat came and adored him, saying: Indeed thou art the Son of God.  And having passed the water, they came into the country of Genesar.  And when the men of that place had knowledge of him, they sent into all that country, and brought to him all that were diseased.  And they besought him that they might touch but the hem of his garment. And as many as touched, were made whole.  (14:26-36)

Thus the chapter concludes, and we come full circle to the sort of miracles of which Herod hears and cries out “This is John the Baptist: he is risen from the dead.”  And those words of Herod’s lend a further clue to the whole chapter.  It is not only a beautifully-crafted self-contained story (speaking as a human writer) but, like so many moments in the Old Testament and the Gospels, a foreshadowing of the Passion narrative as well.  Here in chapter 14, Jesus, heavy in heart at John’s death, feeds multitudes miraculously, goes up to the mountain alone to commune with his Father, and comes back when his troubled disciples least expect it, only have to disabuse them of the notion that he is a ghost; Peter’s leap of faith follows.

By comparison, in the final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel—chapter 28, perhaps not coincidentally the double of chapter 14?—we find a similar conclusion to a similar story.  The Passion has been led up to by a similar series of parables as led up to chapter 14; while the parables in 13 focused on the kingdom of God, inevitably concluding with the Last Judgment, the account of the Judgment in chapter 25 is more explicit and threatening .  Chapters 26 and 27 contain a history of the Passion.  Here, once again, Jesus, heavy in heart—now at the knowledge of his own impending death—feeds his disciples miraculously, with a yet greater miracle; goes up the Mount of Olives and eventually Mount Calvary alone to commune with his Father, and comes back when his troubled disciples least expect it …

It is only fair to add that the full account of Jesus’s appearance to his disciples through closed doors, and Peter’s second leap of faith, does not appear in Matthew, or for that matter in Mark.  It is only in Luke that we get the conclusion of the story, in which Jesus must disabuse the apostles of the notion that he is a ghost:

Jesus stood in the midst of them, and saith to them: Peace be to you; it is I, fear not.  But they being troubled and frightened, supposed that they saw a spirit [spiritum].  And he said to them: Why are you troubled, and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?  See my hands and feet, that it is I myself; handle, and see: for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as you see me to have.  And when he had said this, he shewed them his hands and feet. (Luke 24:36-40)

And it is only in final chapter of John that the parallel is fully complete:

After this, Jesus shewed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias. … they went forth, and entered into the ship: and that night they caught nothing.  But when the morning was come, Jesus stood on the shore: yet the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.  Jesus therefore said to them: Children, have you any meat? They answered him: No.  He saith to them: Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and you shall find. They cast therefore; and now they were not able to draw it, for the multitude of fishes.  That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved, said to Peter: It is the Lord.  (John 21:1, 3-7)

Not “it is a ghost”—they’ve moved past that point now—but “‘It is the Lord’ … And none of them who were at meat, durst ask him: Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord” (21:7, 12).  Like Herod, but also much unlike him in his superstition, they now know: this is not a ghost, but a man who has risen from the dead.  And Simon Peter takes his second, more successful, leap of faith, followed by a meal of bread and fish, reminiscent of the multiplication in Matthew 14.

(Interestingly, John omits the ghost line from the upper room scene—see John 20:19-23—so you really do need a harmony of the Gospels to get the full story.  BUT John’s version of the upper room scene IS the one where Jesus bestows the Holy Ghost.  So, there is still a “ghost” in the room … Alright, I’m done now.  But how much cooler can the Holy Spirit’s work get?  C’mon, even the gospels’ order—the ghost business starts in Matthew, and concludes in John?  I only wish my novels showed that much attention to structure …)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Open Letters to the Insurance Salesman

I know not what it is about moving and changes in one’s state in life, but they always seem to trigger additional calls from salesmen hoping to provide me with things that I already have—usually, with some form of insurance.  By whatever curious breach of privacy (I suspect some doctor’s office is the innocent culprit in this case) I have become the target of a particularly persistent and obnoxious specimen, who by the current count has called my twice and texted me three times (good heavens man, do you not know this costs some people money?) within the past thirty-six hours or so.

Given the particularly sleazy nature of his tactics, I have been resisting the temptation all morning to reply.  Here, for the record, are his missives to date:

First text: [My first name], Youve caught me off hours.  My hours are M-F 9AM-7PM EST.  Is there a good time during those hours I can schedule a call for you?  [Received 6:06 a.m.]

Reader, I have no clue who this person is, and emphatically did NOT get in touch with him prior to receiving the above text.  Oh, also—6:06 a.m.?  Dude: that IS off hours.  I was asleep (or trying to be).  It’s a good thing that I turn the phone off, or you probably would have gotten an earful.

Second text: Good morning [my first name], I just tried calling you to follow up about your inquiry for your free health ins quote.  Can you call me now to get your results?  [Received 9:41 a.m.]

For the record, I was still asleep at this point.  (What?  The night before last was a rough one.)  Also, I had and have submitted no such inquiry.  Moving right along …

Third text: [My first name], you didn’t answer when I called earlier, is there a better time to call you?  [Received 11:19 a.m.]

The unmitigated gall.  It’s probably a terrible idea to respond.  But the real reason I’m not replying is that there are so many irresistible ways to do so that I can’t decide which one would be best.

The grammarian: As of last Friday, I have determined to no longer associate or do business with those who use incorrect capitalization, lazy abbreviations, and comma splices in their text messages.  Only the Queen’s best English for me!  Better luck with your next victim.

The Miss Manners: Dear sir: As we have not been introduced, do you not think it would be better to address me as Mrs. [surname]?  Sincerely yours, a Well-Wisher.

The lawyer’s daughter:  Since your first communication, I have been in contact with my attorney.  He informs me that you are in violation of statutory law, Florida code §1027(b)(4)(C), and 30 U.S.C. §401(c)(1)(D)(xiii) (2012).  I recommend consulting your own legal advice, as we are preparing to file harassment charges in state and federal court.  Try 1-(800)-773-0888, or visit

The biblical one-liner: What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world, but to lose his soul?

The frank and heartfelt scolding: This is possibly one of the most disgusting attempts to get me to buy something that I don’t need that I have encountered in my life.  Who do you think I am, some poor befuddled Floridian grandmother with early onset Alzheimer’s?  Is that the sort of person you prey on, in order to make your living?  Because they might actually think they HAD called you, and become confused, and call you back?  Bloodsucking jerkface.

The phishing-back-at-yah response: Dear Hubert, I do apologize for missing your call!  Could we perhaps try again at a quarter past three?  My phone refuses to ring except when the atmospheric conditions and the prevailing winds permit (cf. The World of Pooh).  Also, NASA’s recent realignment of the zodiac has presented some difficulties in communication since my formerly BFF device was cursed during my visit to New Orleans, and I discovered that we were created under incompatible signs.  It is turning against me.  Have you tried the insurance market in New Orleans?  I’m sure it is booming in the wake of the recent hurricanes.  You will need to use the following code to get through to me: After the tone, refer to Thomas Starkey’s Dialogue between Pole and Lupset (1989 edition only!!!), page 42, first word of the first line, using a 5x5 grid alphabet substitution method.  Read your message slowly and distinctly one letter at a time.  Only then will Siri preserve your important message.  I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible!!!!  Dosvidanya, and gospodarstvo do movve.

Happy Windsday, mon frères.

Update, Thursday:

Fourth text: Good morning, Sophia, I couldn't get a hold of you yesterday?  Can you call now so I can explain your health insurance quote options?  [Received 9:05 a.m.]