What Am I Seeing?

Among my habits that others find irritating: reading a book before I gift it. This isn’t as bad in my mind as just giving a used book, like my great-aunt used to do. I may be wrong. The latest giftee/victim is Max, a grandson who turned eleven. His conscientious mother listed a book sponsored by his favorite author, Rick Riordan. Max loves Greek and Roman myths, so the Percy Jackson novels are a good fit. By sponsor, I mean something more complicated. The publisher is Rick Riordan Presents, part of the large Disney-Hyperion firm. Most offerings reflect a multi-cultural approach to the YA fantasy genre. So, the book I began reading before Max is Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia, a young man who lives in North Carolina and whose parents were scholars at the University of Wisconsin. It’s well written, fast-paced, and sure to engage Max’s interest. The gods in the plot are both African and African-American in origin. The one most familiar (at least to Southerners) is John Henry, represented here in a short video. A classic man-vs-machine tale, it  is based on fact; however, those of us who know the song remember Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version (great voice) or Harry Bellafonte’s (great voice + art).

But that’s not what caught my attention. Instead, Mbalia uses a bottle tree to introduce the idea of “haints” that challenge our young hero. Perhaps you’ve seen these garden creations—often a dead tree with its branches holding bottles, usually cobalt blue ones. The story, the explanation, was new to me. In the South, people saved the blue bottles from Milk of Magnesia, for example, turned them upside down on tree branches or whatever was handy. Evil spirits couldn’t resist going inside but once there were trapped and destroyed when the sun came up. So what I was seeing, even in my neighborhood, was more than a decoration. It was full of meaning.

Another rich example came this week when I listened to this podcast, “Rediscovering Mary, mother of God.” Catherine Taylor (no relation) earned her PhD from the University of Manchester and published Late Antique Images of the Virgin Enunciate Spinning: Allotting the Scarlet and the Purple. The title is a bit daunting, but when the author explains it all, I can almost understand. We have the birth of Jesus in Luke 2. An apocryphal book, The Protoevangelium of James, goes much more into detail about Mary’s life and history. When we see pictures from centuries ago, everything is symbolic: colors, animals, artifacts. Dr. Taylor discusses the weaving aspect in the podcast/transcript having to do with the making of Christ’s body. The spindle and distaff produce yarn, manually as the spinning wheel does more mechanically. This picture features a medieval woman holding a set; the background should remind you of the unicorn tapestry, which may further remind you that the unicorn is a symbol for Christ. So, Mary as a craftswoman has a deep history. This picture of the Holy Family shows the parents working and Christ in a walker, which is certainly a first for me. This one has Mary in the traditional blue dress, weaving. Thank you, Dr. Taylor. (Sorry. I just like the sound of it, really.)

Finally, a lovely gift arrived last week. It’s hard to describe: A rattle that is shaped like a heart. A spirit rattle. Actually, you can see it here. Without knowing its meaning, a rattling heart wouldn’t make sense: “Native Americans used rattles to ensure blessings upon their crops. Use your inner spirit rattle to help rattle some rain into your life, some rain out of your life, to rattle your worries away, or (if you insist) just to keep your papers from blowing astray.”

Sometimes on FaceBook I ask “What am I seeing?” Often there is a hidden frog (or snake!), not to mention the color of a dress or a shoe. That’s a literal interpretation, though. Most often, if we aren’t getting more, it’s because we don’t know to ask not just for an explanation of something that seems obvious (the dress dilemma wasn’t one unless someone explained people saw it differently) but for its deeper meaning. It’s a lifelong pursuit, and not everything we don’t get means it’s a symbol. I have, however, taken one of my cobalt blue bottles outside and hung it on a crape myrtle. Just for fun.





3 Nephi 3

For this week, I had a completely different plan. Cobalt blue bottles, the Virgin Mary, and a new middle-grades novel with African and African-American themes. Not finished maybe, but that’s what Monday mornings are for sometimes. Then I read the ten verses below and saw today’s theme: lies.

The most important element for the definition of a lie is intent. People say things that are factually inaccurate all the time, but to do so with the purpose of deception ups the ante. When I worked all those decades for Children’s Protective Services, I saw how much people abhor being lied to. Obviously, people lied to me all the time; it was part of the job. Most interesting, and most concerning, were the parents angered by their children not telling the truth. The reasons were generally to do with self-protection, and to me at least, didn’t seem serious, but some parents reacted more violently to the principle of lying than was appropriate, in my mind at least, because the intent was mitigated by the desire not to get beaten for whatever offense had occurred.

In the passage below, we have a master liar. Not a child. Not a teenager. He is a murderer, a thief, a leader of murderers and thieves. He challenges a ruler to give over his country and promises not to harm anyone if he does but threatens destruction if he doesn’t. What struck me on this reading was the subtlety of the wording. For all Harry Potter fans, it was like hearing Parseltongue. If you remember, the language of serpents usually indicates the presence of a Dark Wizard, so there is deep concern that Harry knows it. The liar below uses several techniques, strategies, whatever you want to call them, to try to inflict his will. It all sounded so familiar and so modern.

The year is 16 A.D. when Giddianhi sends a letter to Lachoneus, flattering him for being firm in trying to protect the liberty and property of his people. Quickly, he tells him that it is pointless to stand against the force that Giddianhi commands because they are ready and able to destroy Lachoneus and his people because of the wrongs they have wreaked upon his band. He promises not to destroy them if they surrender and learn the secrets of his order. None of this is true, of course. Lachoneus knows that and refuses to yield. Victory is his because he waits for Giddianhi to come to their newly fortified strongholds. That’s the short take, anyway.

Perhaps you’ll have the same experience I did when reading the actual words of the liar, whose skills are far beyond mine. Perhaps you’ll see applications all around just now. Or perhaps you’ll wait on the blue bottles, the mother of God, and a kid’s book. Excuse my diversion. Someone shared this quotation from J.R.R. Tolkien today: “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they have is not ours to rule.” It seemed to fit.

3 Nephi 3:

And now it came to pass that in the sixteenth year from the coming of Christ, Lachoneus, the governor of the land, received an epistle from the leader and the governor of this band of robbers; and these were the words which were written, saying:

Lachoneus, most noble and chief governor of the land, behold, I write this epistle unto you, and do give unto you exceedingly great praise because of your firmness, and also the firmness of your people, in maintaining that which ye suppose to be your right and liberty; yea, ye do stand well, as if ye were supported by the hand of a god, in the defence of your liberty, and your property, and your country, or that which ye do call so.

And it seemeth a pity unto me, most noble Lachoneus, that ye should be so foolish and vain as to suppose that ye can stand against so many brave men who are at my command, who do now at this time stand in their arms, and do await with great anxiety for the word—Go down upon the Nephites and destroy them.

And I, knowing of their unconquerable spirit, having proved them in the field of battle, and knowing of their everlasting hatred towards you because of the many wrongs which ye have done unto them, therefore if they should come down against you they would visit you with utter destruction.

Therefore I have written this epistle, sealing it with mine own hand, feeling for your welfare, because of your firmness in that which ye believe to be right, and your noble spirit in the field of battle.

Therefore I write unto you, desiring that ye would yield up unto this my people, your cities, your lands, and your possessions, rather than that they should visit you with the sword and that destruction should come upon you.

Or in other words, yield yourselves up unto us, and unite with us and become acquainted with our secret works, and become our brethren that ye may be like unto us—not our slaves, but our brethren and partners of all our substance.

And behold, I swear unto you, if ye will do this, with an oath, ye shall not be destroyed; but if ye will not do this, I swear unto you with an oath, that on the morrow month I will command that my armies shall come down against you, and they shall not stay their hand and shall spare not, but shall slay you, and shall let fall the sword upon you even until ye shall become extinct.

And behold, I am Giddianhi; and I am the governor of this the secret society of Gadianton; which society and the works thereof I know to be good; and they are of ancient date and they have been handed down unto us.

10 And I write this epistle unto you, Lachoneus, and I hope that ye will deliver up your lands and your possessions, without the shedding of blood, that this my people may recover their rights and government, who have dissented away from you because of your wickedness in retaining from them their rights of government, and except ye do this, I will avenge their wrongs. I am Giddianhi.


“If I Were King of the Forest…”

Leadership. One of the current tropes is that we have a dearth of leadership. There’s nothing modern about the lack, of course. Leaders lead; followers complain (see Moses et al.)

While the foursome wait for the Wizard of Oz to receive them and award their witch-killing efforts, the Cowardly Lion sings “If I Were King of the Forest.” His odd list of what would happen reflects an odd view that’s not consistent with modern sensibilities. (High-falutin’ words, I know.) Sure, it’s just a lyric, but to think of trees kneeling  and chipmunks genuflecting—even if he shows “compash/For every underling”—just doesn’t sit right. He disses queens, too, to which I will take offense in place of former female monarchs. Princes and dukes too, but they’re just fillers. Nathan Lane’s concert version throws in “the performer formerly known as Prince for good measure and good fun.  Even more odd, however, Cowardly Lion believes that courage alone will allow him to be a king, a good leader. Maybe so. That’s a really short list compared to the ones I’ve seen.

This one ends with courage and includes others that we would expect: vision, compassion, “walk the talk”, and communication. This one adds “Be human,” which I guess lets the robots and mean folk out. Here and here we have lots of possibilities (41—who could remember all those?). All this admittedly shallow research led me to think about the real leaders I’ve known, one of whom we’ll learn more about: Robert “Bob” Callanan.

A little history first. One year my college didn’t need my talents, nor did the State of Texas. About the same time, the federal government encouraged employees to explore long-term care insurance. I agreed to listen to the sales pitch but had no intention of buying anything. Although my grandfather had brought insurance to West Texas, paying for a non-tangible (that’s the real term) has always irritated me. Not that the woman who came tried to be persuasive, and even though I was prepared to say no, we bought a policy after I thought of an aged future when I’d hate to ask my children to do the care I might need. Men die first, usually, and that glimpse for me was sure. But not only did I agree to buy this insurance, I also decided to sell it. Paperwork was submitted, approvals were garnered, and an interview with the regional sales manager was arranged. From that first meeting with Bob until our last, I learned what the rules of leadership are.

  1. This mission comes first. His was taking care of people, whether his family by earning a good salary or his sales team by expecting their best or our clients by educating them and providing them the best possible product. Nothing came between him and the mission. That meant corollaries. For example, although he never used these words, there was never to be the appearance of evil. He would meet me at What-a-Burger rather than come into my home alone. We all sensed that he loved his family above all, so nothing that might jeopardize the family would ever happen. His faith was strong and deep and tangible, another support to the mission. As long as he was able, he attended Mass every morning. Even for those of us who consider ourselves faithful, that commitment is above and beyond. The long lists, the short ones—he lived them. He had his favorites (Diet Pepsi and “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”) but the integrity of his character earned him what might be called followers. Most of us aren’t very good at following (see, again, Moses), but Bob was good at what he did, so we were glad to be with him, going where he was going.

And that’s it. To quote Stephen Covey, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” So there aren’t 40 other things to say or remember. Today’s leaders—good, bad, or indifferent—should take note. Robert Callanan, 1940-2019. RIP

On the Importance of Discomfort: Two Documentaries

Strictly speaking, I’m not a huge fan of documentaries. Or, more accurately, they aren’t my first choice in viewing because they ask a lot of me that I’m not always ready to give. Sometimes, I find them memorable. One example was New York Doll (2005), the story of Arthur “Killer” Kane, former bassist of the group New York Dolls who had overcome drugs and become a Mormon. Reviews were excellent, and since I know virtually nothing about the rock band world, I found it compelling on many levels. However—and this is the point—it never made me uncomfortable.

Two people recently recommended two documentaries, one of which I avoided for at least six weeks. Once I’d conquered that one, I could move on to the next. Warning: I can pretty much bet some will be offended by one, if not both, of these films. Discomfort may not be the word you use, but the feeling will be at least contentious or negative or worse.

The first, Larry Elder’s Uncle Tom: An Oral History of the American Black Conservative (2020), consists of a number of Black men and women talking about their conversion to the conservative side of the political divide. The old saying that there’s nothing like a convert seems relevant enough. The stories these people tell, however, reflect a depth that a simple dismissal like that doesn’t capture. Reviews are hard to come by. This one from the Chicago Tribune quotes from the film and lauds the effort. Rotten Tomatoes is largely silent, with just one review. Yet even there the documentary earns a 94% audience score. The opening was verifiably successful, making Uncle Tom one of the most successful documentaries on record. And it’s not about Trump, if that’s an immediate turn off. It’s about conservative Republicans.

Several things make this documentary remarkable. First, the speakers are diverse in backgrounds, professions, and narratives. In fact, the person with the most continuity is a contractor named Chad Jackson. We see him applying joint compound to PVC, cutting tin, and working on drywall. Yes, there are academics and politicians, commentators and pundits, but it is Jackson whose straightforward explanations are key. Some policies are discussed, but the message is more directed at the pressure to conform to one way of thinking. Another element of that is the suppression of Black voices that are successful but conservative. Biden made two mistakes recently: Telling a commentator who said he had more questions, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” (He went on that the NAACP had endorsed him every time he’d run, which wasn’t true; the organization never endorses anyone.) Later, he said, “…unlike the African-American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes.” He had to walk both comments back, and while neither is particularly terrible, each reflects the attitudes that the film takes on.

Second, the documentary is important not just for Black people but for everyone else as well. We often lack insight into the lives of others in general, but unless someone has told how things are in other cultures, we remain ignorant and, often, content with that ignorance. Culture extends to people from other parts of the country, other countries, other races, other denominations, other religions. Understanding should come after education, but that’s not always the case; understanding our own limitations includes awareness of the things we think we think we know but are wrong about. That’s inelegant. Mark Twain (well, probably not really) said it better: “It ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Oh, for a touch of humility. For example, while most understand that “Uncle Tom” is a slur, few may know that the character from Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had nothing in his behavior that would suggest he was a turncoat or disloyal or any other pejorative term. Stowe intended him as a “noble character” who stood up for his beliefs. He dies because he refuses to disclose the whereabouts of two women escaping slavery. It is also important to remember that the book was a powerful anti-slavery tool. Published in 1852, it went on to become the best-selling novel of the entire century. Abraham Lincoln said to Stowe when he met her in 1862 (well, probably not really), “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

Our next film also sports a long name. Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020). Peter Debruge writing for Variety: “Rather than making audiences feel bad about trans-themed movies they may have naively enjoyed in the past, it educates on the larger issues while unpacking a legacy of problematic representation.” His is one of 47 reviews, compared to the single for Uncle Tom. That bit of a discrepancy could be dealt with elsewhere perhaps.

Disclosure has much the same format as Uncle Tom, without the plumbing scenes. Actors, writers, and activists discuss specific scenes in films dating from 1914 to the recent past. We all know some of them: Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl, and episodes in The Jeffersons and Nip/Tuck, to name a very few. The subtext is more interesting, as they discuss their own reactions and histories. At one level, then, we are taught or reminded to notice what we are seeing. Running the gamut, the reaction is reminiscent of our innocence (Bugs Bunny dressed as the Wagnerian soprano here at 2:24) or revulsion presented as comedic in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The speakers discuss their own reactions to these depictions, and the result is that we are better able to understand their viewpoints on a topic we have likely never considered.  Suddenly, we remember making unkind remarks about a topic without realizing someone affected by that topic was standing out of sight. (I did this once in my youth, and I have seen it done recently. Perhaps you have your own example. It stings.)

Recent transgender transformations have been notable for their publicity. Coming out was something of interest years ago, but the difference is revealing orientation versus dramatic changes in appearance is stark. Bruce now Caitlyn Jenner is one. Lana and Lilly Wachowski of The Matrix films and Sense8 fame  are others. It is a small community, however, with a demographic of 0.6% of Americans identifying as transgender. Not of this plays a part in the film, however. Rather, the focus remains personal.

People are free to align themselves with one party or another. People are free to seek reconciliation with gender dysphoria in ways that make them happy. Disagreement with the issues, one hopes, does not extend to an individual involved. This FaceBook picture captures perspective. This video from an American church has a group-building exercise. This one from Denmark begins with the same stage and script but deviates in several places. This one is called #RethinkLabels; some words will likely make you uncomfortable, but the ending makes it worth it. This one and this one and this one dramatize being judgmental. Most of us like to think of ourselves as savvy. These videos reveal a side of ourselves that is also tender.

The idea about pearls got me looking at their origin. It’s not true, for example, that a grain of sand inside an oyster produce the reaction that generates nacre to make a pearl. Usually, the culprit is some sort of parasite. And there are many kinds of pearls in many shapes and sizes; the perfect round white ones are actually the exception. (My hometown of San Angelo includes three branches of the Concho River, a source of freshwater pearls that have been treasured since the 17th century Spaniards tried to market them.) So mussels and oysters have the ability to turn an irritant into something beautiful. It seems like a good enough metaphor. Notably, vinegar dissolves pearls. That, also, seems fitting.

With these two documentaries, I learned a lot, I realized I was wrong about a lot, and I confronted some discomfort of my own. I think they call that having an open mind.

Betwixt and Between

The question these days is the sincerely spoken “How are you?” It is appreciated, of course, but I’ve come to believe the more appropriate question would be “Where are you?”

On one hand, the research on grieving began in earnest with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, about whom I wrote briefly just over two years ago in “Instead.” She identified five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. A nice visual can be seen here. Interestingly, depression is not at the bottom, and acceptance is actually pictured higher the starting place. The “Where” could mean one of these categories, and that could be helpful, but it’s not quite right. For the past 15 years, the process of loss moved between these various places, jaggedly, sadly. The last one—acceptance—assumes a moving on, but that is another complication. If I have, wouldn’t I know?

Where to, then? Betwixt and between, the place where the fairies are. It’s called “liminality.” You know far more about it than you may think. More common is the word “subliminal.” We’ve heard about advertising that inserts a suggestion onscreen too quickly for us to see it consciously (questionable) or the many examples of brands using subtle messages within their logos (the entire word “Toyota” is one). This sentence from Jon Goss, contains the message as well as a great pattern: “The market, standing between the sacred and secular, the mundane and exotic, and the local and global, has always been a place of liminality.” But the real scholar on this issue is Victor Turner, writing here about rites of passage. For graduates and mourners, bridges and grooms, many of those fell prey to the current pandemic.

No, I’m not teasing about the fairies. In popular culture, fairies are, well, very popular. Even the elves in all those Lord of the Rings movies were likely supposed to be fairies, according to this source. Their near-mortality, unusual beauty, and otherness support this idea. With the dwarves on one side and humans on the other, who wouldn’t prefer fairies? In the 1691 The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, Reverend Robert Kirk, minister of the Parish of Aberfoyle, Stirling, Scotland, wrote: “These Siths or Fairies they call Sleagh Maith or the Good People…are said to be of middle nature between Man and Angel…” (Oddly, the only Siths I’ve heard of are the bad guys in Star Wars.)

Their history extends far into the distant past, 5000 years with stories from India about nagas, beings who combined in form serpents and humans. Note, Harry Potter fans, that the females were called nagini, which is the name J.K. Rowling gave to Voldemort’s deadly serpent companion. She did her homework, possibly unlike a certain Darth-maker. The scholars in this hour-long podcast discuss all this at length (redundant?) and seem to be quite immersed.

There are a great variety of fairies: Sweet flowery ones as painted by Cicely Mary Barker; bad ones, often Scottish; beautiful Edwardian ones by Edward Robert Hughes; prank photographed ones, the so-called Cottingley fairies. Mention must be made of the most Americanized one of all, Tinker Bell, who was not, in fact, modeled on Marilyn Monroe as touted in urban legend. Most of these miss the point, however. When J.M. Barrie wrote, “When the first baby laughed for the first time, his laugh broke into a million pieces, and they all went skipping about. That was the beginning of fairies,” he hinted at fairies’ role at birth, but they also attend deaths and keep a place at hearths. They are to be found at the bottom of gardens, wherever that is, and near bridges.

So, back to liminality. It seems a long way to go, longer than usual because I get easily distracted and take myself places. The truth is, of course, that no one can go with me to mourn, not really. Early in the story of Job, when he has lost everything—all his children and all his wealth and was covered in boils—his three friends come to comfort him, but their reaction to his suffering is unexpected: “So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him: for they saw that his grief was very great.” There is nothing they can do besides be with him. They are, then, in the place that is between the happiness he had and the future he cannot see.

It’s often said we don’t know how to handle death in this country. I think, rather, that we don’t know how to mourn in this country. People do still wear black at funerals, but not for a year or more afterward, as was once done. It was an expensive custom, all those black outfits, but perhaps it signaled to the world where the mourner was. Many friends feel helpless, not knowing what to do or say. Worse, encouraging the bereaved to move on suggests that there is a choice in such things, reflecting perhaps the observer’s own discomfort at seeing grief.

The picture of the threshold is, of course, intentional. It’s earthy and underfoot. A more glorious symbol, the rainbow, more literally unites heaven and earth. A friend who lost a husband when both were young told me great stories about seeing rainbows when there was a reason, a need. I love them, too. ( Here is a horizontal rainbow, though the “bow” doesn’t seem apt: the actual term is circumnavigational arc. I didn’t know of such things.)

Having learned a good bit about fairies, and withholding my own potential tale of angering some Irish fairies some years ago, I think I have come to the conclusion that “I’m okay” is not a place but a signal. I’m in here, somewhere, where the new reality has formed just yet, so I can’t really leave the here and now for what is beyond the betwixt and between. I have indeed felt the comforting husband presence, unseen, unheard, but somehow here. It’s a place where words don’t so much can’t help but fail in their inadequacy to describe. And that is, at least for now, okay.

The Salsa Recipe

Tomatoes. Cilantro. Onion. Jalapeño. Lime juice. Salt.

When my son called last week to ask me about this foundational recipe (requested by neighbors, lauded by air conditioner repairmen), I explained it so he could make it himself. He asked, “How can anything so simple be so good?” And therein lies a tale. It’s not as simple as listing the ingredients. Here we go.

Should the tomatoes be fresh or canned? Yes. A friend who gave the original version said canned were fine. I’d been using fresh in a slightly more complicated version, but I don’t think it matters much. How much? Depends on how much you want to make. That isn’t meant to sound smart alecky. My last iteration used a 14.5 oz can of stewed tomatoes. Someone had said canned whole tomatoes work better than diced, which I had been using. Sadly, when I put the tomatoes in the blender, I saw teeny tiny bits of celery. The horror! I decided not to throw out the batch, hoping all would be well. A sensitive palate can detect the teeniest tiniest hint of celery, but it’s fine. Back to tomato theory. Fresh tomatoes ought to make a huge difference, and I don’t understand why they don’t. So it’s obviously much cheaper to use canned. Either way, if the final result is too watery/thin, I drain it with a colander. (Side note: Our mother had for some reason learned can sizes. The one I used is technically a #300 can. You, too, can explore this bit of info here. That doesn’t appear on the product but serves a purpose for commercial cooking—prisons come to mind. This video shows how they’re made from the show of the same name; the narrator enjoys her puns at the beginning “airtight reputation,” for example.)

Cilantro is the word we use in the US and Canada for an herb used throughout the world. A more common name, coriander, is also used but here usually as the ground or whole seeds. Not everyone likes it. Some people find that it tastes like dish soap, likely based on a genetic response. People do study these things. Since we buy cilantro in bunches, there’s not so much a measuring issue as a preference one. The stems are too bitter, in my opinion, so I cut off the top part and discard the rest. At about 39¢ a pop, it’s not a big investment. I’d guess I use about ½ cup usually. The rest usually ends up getting tossed. In case you have some who don’t like cilantro, I’d recommend two batches. This recipe calls it a key ingredient, but it also suggests using green pepper if you don’t like jalapeno. EEK! This recipe calls for 2 tsp. cumin and 2 tsp. sugar. I’d say no, but I guess you can try. I also don’t add garlic.

Onion adds not just heat but also flavor. I’m not a raw onion fan, but it has to be here. The variety doesn’t matter particularly—red, yellow, or white. Each has its devotees. The red ones are expensive, so I wouldn’t use one in an otherwise cheap dish. Plus the flavor is a bit different. Flatter onions are milder and sweeter, or at least someone told me once, and I believed them. I don’t use green onions because I don’t think they go in a blender well. How much? Again, to taste. About ¼ to ½ cup. (The Onion used to be a premier satire site. Not so sure any more. And then we have the Great Onion Recall of August 2020 which resulted in millions of onions being tossed before their time “out of an abundance of caution.” The risk of salmonella, you know.)

Jalapeño. You’ve heard about the Scoville Scale for measuring the level of heat. A jalapeño resides down near the bottom with 2500 SHU. A bell pepper has none, and Anaheim and poblanos have 500-1000. The chart goes up to 16 million, which—though it doesn’t say—must be fatal. I once burned my hands as I worked with jalapeños to can them. Seeds or no seeds, they are spicy. As newlyweds, we swaggered into a restaurant in Santa Fe and assured the wait staff we were from Texas so, sure, we’d take the green sauce. We slunk out, since it was way too spicy to actually eat. Lesson in humility learned. They probably do that to all the Texans. Because of the science of receptors, heat is more personal than anything else on this list. Adjust accordingly.

Lime juice. Half a lime if juicy, whole thing if it’s not. Bottled is okay if you have to, but go easy since it’s not a good substitute for fresh. And why not lemon, you may ask? I once read a recipe that called for chopped nuts. As in by hand. The instructions said that if you didn’t know why the nuts had to be chopped rather than ground, then you had no business making said dish. Technically, I don’t know why not lemon. It just is. Since you are anticipating a “to taste” here, I’ll just say it’s hard to get too much lime juice out of a real one, unlike a lemon. Rule of thumb: It’s easier to put in more but impossible to take out too much.

Salt is a wonderful thing. Someone I know once said you can eat anything with a little salt and a little oil. Yet I hope we’re never called upon to do such a thing. It’s one of the basic five taste groups along with sweet, sour, bitter, and savory, a relatively new addition with receptors discovered in 2007. It’s also called umami, the Japanese word for “tastes good.” Salt can also ruin a lot of things, so add it last and incrementally. The pepper is just a chemical burn, not a flavor, remember.

Throw it all in a blender but don’t make it a soup. Once it’s all finely chopped, stop and start adding the salt. It will keep about two weeks in the fridge, though it doesn’t last that long.

What to serve it with? Tortilla chips, of course, but what kind? White corn, yellow corn, thick, thin, ruffled, round, triangled. Cheap, expensive, homemade (do you do that?), salted. Sorry. Too many choices. Eggs, quesadillas, nachos. I like a salad dressing that is equal parts salsa and sour cream. Great on a taco salad, naturally.

So, how can something so simple be so good? I don’t know. It’s not really all that simple. Just that good.

Meet Larry Jefferson, a Real Santa


A native of Nashville, Arkansas, Santa Larry now works at the Duncanville UPS office, where our Mariah discovered him during hours of form signing and faxing. She came home saying she’d met Santa, with a literal twinkle in his eye. I believe (well, yes, that too) that his entire person twinkles: His laugh has deep tones reminiscent of theNorth Poler’s Ho! Ho! Ho! He has a beautiful beard. And he is quite famous. He allows that being the first African-American Santa at the Mall of America brought headlines, and still do. Interviews exist galore: NPR, The Undefeated, ABC13 in Chicago, NBC, The Daily Mail (UK), his alma mater Henderson State University, Tom Joyner, Texas Monthly, WFAA, Joy Reid, The Daily Show, Time, to name a few. This July 25 (!) on WFAA. Although this year will be a challenge, Christmas will come, and Santa will be here…and there…and everywhere. How does he manage? Santa has his ways. Why write about him in August in a pandemic in a time of widespread unrest? That “a” is intentional. Larry is part of a cadre of Santas through The Santa Experience MN. So while he is not “the” Santa, he’s going to be your favorite.

Christmases Past

Rural Arkansas, a Christmas Eve years ago. (Santa is ageless, so we can’t say just when). A young boy sees it all:  Billions of stars twinkling, the grandeur of nature is on display. The lights from the house shed their warming glow. The scents of traditional family treats—German chocolate cake, strawberry cake, turkey and ham and dressing. He and his ten siblings have drawn names for gifts and must be creative to make up for the lack of worldly wealth. Sisters and brothers, grandparents and grandparent come together, “rich in God’s good grace and the true meaning of Christmas.” Christmas—always thrilling—was a time when he’d wonder what God would have him do.

When did our real Santa realize he was to be Santa? 1999. In the military (Army, a captain), he could not have a real beard so he used a pretend one and a $30 Santa suit. When he retired in 2016, our Santa grew a real beard and learned his craft in Santa schools in Denver and Dallas and Branson. Yes, he was a “meant to be” Santa, and the beautiful beard is a plus. Its colors do change from time to time, but Mrs. Claus does know how to tweak its magic, chemically speaking.

Christmas Present

This year, ah, the differences. It’s not going to be wise to say Santa’s laugh is infectious, or that his kindness and generosity are contagious. No, Santa will be remote this year in order to protect himself and the children. He plans lots of virtual visits and will revamp his website to accommodate personal contacts instead of attending parties and visiting schools.

To say our Santa has been active is an understatement. Among his commitments have been the South Dallas community plus venues in New York, California, Chicago (Museum of Science + Industry), as well as the Mall of America.  He will appear in the 2020 DeSoto Christmas parade and for Williams Chicken at Change for Change at Southwest Center Mall.

These days, too, Christmas in July holds special meaning. Thinking the showing of A Christmas Carol (1984) on our interview day was providential, I learned from our Santa that several networks see this as a time to bring joy, peace, and happiness early. And perhaps we can add—always.

What about that nice vs. naughty issue? Santa Larry has the best answer ever: He tells children to CONTINUE being good. How powerful is that! No naughty children appear on his list—every child has some form of good in them, he emphasizes. But I added: Some children can be, well, challenging. Again, Santa comes through. At the Mall of America, his group has a special room reserved for special needs children, a quiet place where they can be safe and be themselves.

Christmases Future

Christmas will always be with us, as will Santa. To Larry, that means “the gift we have already received which is our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Gratitude is always in season, he explained.  And I offered him a gift: Christmas is about the Presence, if not the presents. He liked it, I think.

Yes, Larry Jefferson was the first African-American Santa at the biggest mall in America, but that has never been his focus; “Santa doesn’t have a color,” he added. His goal is to be Santa for All. He hopes to include his Mrs. Claus in more outings so children can see her participation, working with him as a unit, as a father and a mother especially so little girls can identify with her.

It seems, then, a great circle: love and joy and peace and hope in the past, now, and into the future. It’s a hope not easily won nor even easily understood. The saint on whom our practice of gift giving comes—Saint Nicholas of Myra—lived in the 3rd -4th centuries, so not much is confirmed about him. Sometimes he’s called Nicholas the Wonderworker. Larry is one, too. He said in another interview he has changed the world. I agree.

Listen to two of his favorite Christmas songs: Jingle Bells and “Mary, Did You Know?” here with Patti Labelle (Is that Gladys Knight doing backup?) and here with Pentatonix. So enjoy, then go do some joy yourself.  Twinkling, if you can…

Duty of Enmity: A Tale of Two Joneses

When I first heard of Mr. Jones, a feature film based on the life of Gareth Jones, I thought it might be one to miss. The more reviews I read, the more I knew it would be a difficult necessity. Two years ago, my family and I saw a play about the Ukrainian famine (Sickle in Chicago). At the end, we were all in tears. A microcosm of a few people reflected the horrors of millions dying of starvation. This very brief description of the events includes the official line that the famine was a success in establishing the power of the Communist party. That Mr. Jones was made seems almost miraculous, given the current urge to forget history.

Written by Andrea Chalupa (who, in spite of her name, comes from a Ukrainian family), the screenplay is her first. It’s not perfect, but neither does it seem to have a particular agenda other than telling the story. The frame is George Orwell (introduced by his real name, Eric Blair) as he writes Animal Farm. Again, micro versus macro in explanations of the horrors of Stalin. Chalupa wrote George Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm, available on Amazon. So there is that link. As a journalist, she begins with “Follow the money” as Jones tries to learn where Stalin get the funds to build everything in Russia. Someone says, “Wheat is Stalin’s gold.” That gold was stolen, along with literally every piece of food in the country. This article discusses the link between Walter Duranty, the writer for the New York Times who became a shill for the government. He didn’t say “To make an omelet, you have to break some eggs,” but that is his message. The eggs are lives; the deaths are in the millions, as many as 12 million, in a so-called “noble cause.”

So, what can be done? Educating people seems a lost cause in the best of times, but perhaps connecting some dots will help. Rejecting cancel culture would be a start. A young friend asked recently about those films we used to watch in the 60s about nuclear holocaust. Duck and Cover is not one I remember, but the ridiculosity of it all is clear enough: If we were bombed, we were doomed. More relatable, When the Wind Blows (1989) includes the title song by David Bowie and focuses on a British couple caught in a nuclear ICBM strike of MAD (mutually assured destruction). That never happened, or at least hasn’t yet. Perhaps nations really did learn, with the possible exception of North Korea. At least, war is not the stuff of my current dreams. My list is short:

  1. Read Animal Farm. It’s very short (60 pages), easily understood, and universally brutal. Power corrupts, etc. It is online here and available at your favorite bookseller. We read it in high school; a grandchild is reading it currently. Today’s title comes from the book. The second Jones is the farmer. The animals are encouraged to hate humans until they aren’t.
  2. Watch Mr. Jones. It says 16+ for the rating. A scene from a party shows debauchery. A hand over the screen will work, but it isn’t for children. Starring James Norton (Grantchester), Vanessa Kirby (The Queen) and Peter Sarsgaard (Knight and Day) round out an excellent supporting cast.
  3. Write the Pulitzer committee and ask them to reconsider their reconsideration of revoking Walter Duranty’s 1932 prize. Here is the address. They have their reasons, of course, and I will give them mine. Sometimes it becomes necessary in the course of human events…An action, even if symbolic, will be mine.


Enigma Variations

This week, just the ending of a story. Edgar is in possession of a pen that can draw in three dimensions. His friend, the inventor, died in a fiery crash but had left it with him after drawing a large X in which some felt they could see all of human history with Christ’s Atonement at the center, at the nexus. The story tells about the progress from that point through public viewings and media discussion. Edgar finally demonstrates a different perspective by drawing a large circle in front of an audience, with some seeing that shape which is the opposite of an X, a circle. Eternity ensues. The story has neither been read at a conference nor published. Maybe later…The title comes from the piece by Edward Elgar. A personal favorite within them is “Nimrod” which you can hear for orchestra here piano solo here. Brings me to tears every time. (The music, not the story.)

“Again Edgar interrupted but only with a gesture that indicated Kellerby should remain quiet. As the world watched, he moved the table toward him and brought the pen from his pocket. He studied the blank paper and chose a spot at which to begin. Although it had been thought impossible, Edgar drew a perfect circle, freehand, on the paper.

As the pen worked its technical magic, the crowd didn’t seem to breathe. Eternity began to unfold on the table as a circle found its expression not as a deep well into which an imaginary line dropped on and on for a very, very long time but as a vital roundness of being, robust and beautiful, renewing at every turn. On viewing the circle, those present could understand something of both the infinite and the minute, of glory and the mundane. With the first shape came repentance as the weight of the nexus honed into the hearts of those who sensed its meaning. With the second came confidence in the promises made through all the parenting ages weighing upon the future of the human family. Edgar knew that it was good. He looked up and smiled at Pamela. It was done. Tears could once again flow. And so it ended.”

Time Capsule: Dear Me

Strictly speaking, I already live in a time capsule, just not a buried one. Moving house eighteen years ago, I picked up a yellowed envelope from the garage floor and opened it to find the birthday card I’d made for my grandmother when I was five. Where had it been in the decades previous? No idea. How did it come to be at that spot at that minute? Clueless. Oh, for an organized life. Cleaning any closet results in such discoveries. A few weeks ago, I came across a rather dear Dear Santa letter my youngest “sent.” He asks for special gifts for others when he was about seven, reflecting an admirable quality at any age.

What I seek now is a way to remind my future self (tomorrow, next week, next year) to remember what I know now but will have forgotten by then. About yearly, I get a series of three shots in my right knee. (Another issue: right vs. left. My husband’s doctor came in to ask which eye he was about to repair. “The left?” I replied, “Right.” His response: “Don’t do that to me.” Then I got it.) When I was in for the procedure, first the nurse asks me to hop up on the examining table. There is no hopping. Lug, heft, even elevated crawl might be more appropriate. She puts the 6-inch-long needle assembly on the counter. I exaggerate slightly. Then the doctor cheerily enters and asks if I am ready. I am not ready. I am in full dread mode. But here’s the truth: It’s not at all bad, perhaps two seconds of a mild pinch. By the third one, with relief in walking already beginning, I may not be looking forward to the shot, but my fear has faded. I ask the doctor to remind me next year. He laughs. There will still be no hopping, but maybe I can be more ready.

Fear aside, I also wish I could learn from prior mistakes by reading some sort of warning before I embark on certain projects. “Don’t skip steps,” a motto that has carried much success, obviously was based on the times when I did skip steps. Of all the things people say to us, I wonder if we would listen if someone began, “You know, the last time you did ___, there was that terrible outcome.” But no. It’s not so much that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it; it’s as if somehow we suppose that having moved through some time, results will differ. Second clichéd response: The definition of insanity, same action expecting different outcome.

The phrase “time capsule” is rather new, from 1938. (Sorry for the lack of transition.) While humans have long preserved caches of relics, apparently the actual practice of preserving in containers began in the 18th century. World Fairs are a phenomenon now called expos. Dating myself, I was taken as a child to the 1964 World’s Fair by my great-aunt, a travel agent. The theme was “Peace Through Understanding.” Occasionally, some picture or memento will float to the surface of my home capsule.  In Texas, we have the Don Harrington Discovery Center with four time capsules in place at its Helium Centennial Time Columns Monument. Apparently, helium was discovered in 1868, so the monument celebrates that anniversary. I’ve always thought it odd that elements are “discovered,” since they have been there all along, but that’s another topic. There is also an organization dedicated to tracking time capsules. My garage is not included, though time capsule William Jarvis notes that most capsules are “useless junk” which does include said garage.

The year 2020 offers so many possibilities for items as to venture into self-parody. Toilet paper memes abounded for weeks. Sourdough starter wouldn’t live, of course, but recipes could go in. Masks, obviously. Unused wedding invitations, cruise tickets, movie passes. CNN has this handy-dandy piece on where to buy your capsule and what to put in it. (Binged media like Tiger King! not)

In my mind, the mack daddy of all time capsules are the golden records sent in the Voyager space crafts in 1977. Unlike missions to Mars or Jupiter, neither has a destination, as they were sent out in a hopeful exploratory gesture. Each record contains music, pictures, greetings in dozens of Earth languages, and illustrations, all carefully curated. I remember someone saying that Bach is there, but that’s bragging. You can get an overview here and listen here. If beings ever find and access these 12-inch treasure troves, I wonder if we will be but a memory. No, wait, I remember—that’s too grim a way to end. I’m reading Animal Farm for next week. History and truth and cycles—no need to be reminded about that, or is there? Dear Me: Think.