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Americans’ Love Affair with Regional Cuisines

The eighth White Castle store was built in Minneapolis; later it became a jewelry store, but the architecture was left untouched.

Pete Gillespie was the first one to clue me in on this, way back when.

He was a music professor, director of the glee club at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. He was also a composer and, it turned out, one of the world’s leading teachers of Carl Orff’s schulwerk, an approach to music education that aims to pull rhythm, melody and dance out of any population, old or young, “musical” or not.

In my early 20s I was in love with him. He’s gone now, died young, but is still one of the most dynamic people I’ve ever met. Talent just oozed from him. He never became famous, but he was a star.

We were in Indianapolis; he was a Hoosier out of the Evansville and Terre Haute areas, but he also grew up in southern California, which made him as unlike most Hoosiers as you can get.

He’d been traveling that year, teaching and putting on workshops, and hadn’t been in the Midwest for awhile. He was dying to go to White Castle. “When I fly in to Columbus or Indianapolis, the first thing I tell my cab driver is ‘take me to White Castle!’ Don’t go to the hotel, get me some burgers!”

White Castle is based in Columbus, and once I lived there years later, I found out what Pete meant. When you’re hungry and you don’t have any other prospects and it’s late at night, White Castle is your place. But at the time I’d never even heard of the joint.

The company is the first American fast food chain. As the photo above indicates, you could get a hamburger (little tiny thing about three inches square) for 5¢.

Well, a price that cheap is always going to attract attention, and in time a certain kind of crowd: working men and women, students, old folks, regular people, those on the brink of homelessness, the occasional prostitute, addict and pimp — a nice diverse crowd, who almost always get along because they’re there to eat cheap and save their money for their more important projects.

Add some late-night hours, a friendly, efficient staff, and the Gay boys, the dykes and drag queens feel right at home. Grabbing some food on the way home after partying all night at the bar is part of the Gay experience; often it’s a way to keep the party going.

If you can find a smaller burger than this one, let me know.

McDonald’s and the other fast food chains can’t compare – and never wanted that urban crowd. Mickey D’s is about suburbia and kids, highways and cars, spreading all over the world; it’s about uniformity, not personality.

Regional cuisines are about this place, this crowd and this food.

I started learning about regional cuisines when I got exposed to a Southern pork barbecue sandwich WITH SLAW (not cole slaw) at a little dive in Charlotte, North Carolina. People down there tried feeding me all their delicacies; I didn’t think much of them, and finally gave up on grits altogether (“Oh, you should try these, these are different!” But they tasted exactly like the last batch). It’s true, Southerners are good cooks. But putting a perfectly formed layer of chopped cabbage on top of mildly flavored pulled pork was an eye opener. I can’t even tell you why but it’s the perfect combination.

In 1976 I moved to Cincinnati, and that’s where I really got hooked. The Queen City of the West has a chili parlor on every corner (sometimes three, competing with each other) and man, there’s nothing like it.

Cincinnati chili is an acquired taste; the first time you eat it it’s kind of strange. You get a little oval plate filled with fat spaghetti, on which is ladled 3 ounces of runny chili with ground beef, which everyone says tastes like chocolate and cinnamon. New Yorkers know this as coney sauce. It’s good stuff but it’s not exactly what Texans think of as chili. This gets topped with a huge mound of shredded Cheddar cheese. Greek immigrants in Cincinnati invented it, and it looks so decadent with all that cheese that you go ahead and try it.

A few Gay guys at a table, a smiling waitress and a Skyline 3-way, and you're set.

It’s mild, and the pasta soaks up all the beer you drank; the perfect thing after a night at the bars. (My favorite Skyline location is on Ludlow Avenue just down from the city’s oldest, nastiest Gay bar, the Golden Lions.) Of course the waitresses know, come 1 a.m., “the drunks are coming,” and we did. But there are a lot of Straight bars on Ludlow too, and everyone gets along.

Skyline is not my favorite company, however; that’s reserved for Camp Washington Chili on Colerain at Hopple Street, where the clientele is even grittier. The Camp Washington neighborhood is where the stockyards used to be. They’re mostly gone now, but it’s still a working class enclave of Appalachians, Black folk and Vietnamese. Plus Gay people with cars on their way home to Western Hills, Northside and College Hill.

The longtime owner of Camp Washington Chili helped build up his business by holding out for decades against the city’s plans to buy him out and widen the street. He’s only got the one store, which he’s worked at since he arrived from Greece in 1940, and he proved you can fight City Hall.

(I also like his deli sandwiches and pies, which most chili parlors don’t offer.)

My typical chili order is a 3-way (spaghetti, chili and that big mound of cheese), plus a cheese coney, no onions, heavy mustard, which is a tiny hot dog slathered in chili and topped with cheese. I took Peter there a couple of years ago when he was visiting from Amsterdam; he enjoyed the atmosphere, even in the middle of the day, as much as the food. The atmosphere is seedy, even at Mr. Johnson’s “new store” (20 years old by now) – and sometimes you just know that seedy is where the good food is.

Today when I get a hankering for Cincinnati chili I buy a can of Skyline at Murphy’s and build my own. I admit, this happens regularly; Skyline’s on my list of staple foods, never to be without. You never know when an emergency might happen!

Since I’ve lived back in Northwest Indiana these last six years, I’ve become acquainted with Chicago-style hot dogs. They are all the rage from southern Wisconsin, through the city and suburbs and down south another 50 miles, stopping a little bit short of my hometown. Chicagoans think these things are fantastic, and have big fights over which hot dog joint serves the best ones. But after sampling Chicago dogs several times from many different purveyors, I quit.

Chicago dogs are schizy. The toppings don’t fit in the bun and there’s really no easy way to eat them, all the stuff keeps falling out.

What stuff? Sliced tomatoes, not ketchup; Chicagoans are adamant about that. A dill pickle spear. Mustard, onions, pepperoncinis, celery salt. An all-beef wiener with a sesame seed bun. It isn’t a bad cheap meal but it doesn’t fit in a bun. Try eating one at a Cubs game and you’ll wear it home.

Maybe my problem is that A) I did not eat these growing up here, it’s taken time for them to spread this far south; and B) I’ve always eaten them by myself, so I’ve gone without the added attraction of friends saying how great this food is, devolving (with any luck) into a fistfight because someone else’s across town are even better. The arguments surely are part of the attraction for any regional food fetish.

However I can happily report that Chicago deep-dish pizza is worth driving for. People argue over it too but every one I’ve had has been fantastic.

I first ate Uno’s in Cincinnati, again on Ludlow Avenue; lots of meat and cheese and fresh vegetables in a great golden crust, baked in its own pan and served from it at your table.

You can do so much more with a pizza when you’re not just covering a flat surface. I love New York pizza too, especially when you can buy it by the slice as soon as you come up from the subway, but Chicago pizza is a real pie, stuffed full of goodies.

The signature dish from Ike Sewell's Pizzeria Uno.

Uno’s used to serve a seafood pizza with crabmeat, which was my all-time favorite. But I’ve since eaten at several deep-dish competitors and I swear, each is better than the last. Giordano’s makes a great pizza; the last time I got one I brought the leftovers home and invited two friends – who raved, even though it was used pizza!

A pie from Giordano's; the deep dish makes it so much denser, chock full of goodies.

Of course, Detroit and St. Louis each claim their own styles of pizza, and Los Angeles does too. Every city of any size has its local favorite joints, whether it’s ribs in Kansas City, lobster shacks from Maryland to Prince Edward Island, po-boys in N’Orleans, Dick’s Burgers in Seattle or Mexican food in Las Cruces and Mesilla. Sometimes the worse a place looks, the better the food seems to taste.

It’s all about being from here, eating what people like us eat, not necessarily paying a lot but getting filled up and satisfied. And then if an argument breaks out, much less a fistfight, welcome to the floor show!++

Kansas City barbecue. Yum!

Bush Campaign Manager Finally Comes Out

Ken Mehlman degrading himself: in the old days, such women were called beards.

Well, Ken Mehlman’s finally made it official. First, the news, then my commentary.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman says in a magazine interview that he is gay.

Mehlman, who was campaign manager for President George W. Bush in 2004 and then RNC chairman after Bush’s re-election, told The Atlantic in an interview published online Wednesday that he came to the conclusion he is gay recently and wanted to talk about it publicly because he wants to become an advocate for gay marriage. He also thought questions would arise when he participates in an upcoming fundraiser for the group challenging California’s ballot measure opposing those marriages.

”It’s taken me 43 years to get comfortable with that part of my life,” said Mehlman, now an executive vice president with KKR, a New York City-based private equity firm. ”Everybody has their own path to travel, their own journey, and for me, over the past few months, I’ve told my family, friends, former colleagues and current colleagues and they’ve been wonderful and supportive. The process has been something that has made me a happier and better person. It’s something I wish I had done years ago.”

Mehlman’s leadership positions with the Republican Party came at a time when some in the party were working to put anti-gay ballot measures before the public in several states. He has said he tried to convince Republican officials privately not to attack gay marriage, The Atlantic reported. He also said that, as a solitary Republican, he could not go against the party consensus.

Mehlman, who has never married, said he wishes he had tried to expand the GOP’s outreach to the gay community and worked openly against political initiatives opposing gay marriage.

Let me say three things at the outset: one, I’m happy for him. Coming out, like every other form of telling the truth, always results in personal growth and healing. He can finally live his life now, and I’m glad.

Two, Ken Mehlman is not a bad guy; I’ve always liked him slightly, because it’s been clear for awhile now not only that he’s Gay but that his personal views are a bit different from his public positions.

Three, he stabbed every Gay person in America in the back, because the Bush re-election campaign he presided over was driven by demonizing GLBTs.

Silence = Death, Ken. We’ve been telling you that for 25 years.

Let’s consider why Mehlman sacrificed his own integrity, lied in public and private, and even now is spinning his evolution. He didn’t just “discover” that he’s Gay; he finally accepted it. That’s the only part here that’s new.

He knew what he was doing in 2004 and all the years since. He’s responsible for betraying every other Gay person in America.

Why? For power, wealth and status.

Those were more important than his personal integrity.

After all, since leaving the RNC he’s now an executive VP at KKR, which isn’t just a “private equity firm,” it’s one of the greediest and most rapacious leveraged buyout companies in the world.

Kohlberg Kravitz Roberts uses debt (other people’s money) to dismember companies for a living; the list is long (245 of them since 1981) and famous (Beatrice, Borden, Safeway, Storer Communications, Playtex, Max Factor). They specialize in hostile takeovers and intimidation. They buy something, lay off 10,000 workers, break the company into bits and sell it off piecemeal.

KKR itself doesn’t actually produce anything; it just shuffles all the cards on Wall Street. You know the type; they’re predators. And this is the company Ken Mehlman springboarded into once he left the Republican National Committee.

He claims he’s now “discovered” he’s Gay “recently.” That’s a lie, as he plainly indicates a few lines down in the AP story:

”It’s taken me 43 years to get comfortable with that part of my life,” said Mehlman.

“Discovering” and “getting comfortable” are two different things.

When you discover something, you didn’t know it was there before. He’s known for 43 years “it” was there.

But he didn’t like it; it stood in the way of his ambition. He wanted to be rich and powerful, and now he is.

He’s good enough at his job that President Bush made him his campaign manager, while campaigning against people just like Ken Mehlman.

I could tear him apart more but I won’t. Instead let’s examine his regrets.

“It’s something I wish I had done years ago.”

But he didn’t. He was too busy selling his soul to the devil. And now he wants to buy it back by telling the truth – long after anyone cares.

I hope the devil charges him billions to buy back his soul – more than he’ll ever be able to make at KKR.

People like Mehlman claim to be conservatives; maybe they even think they are. But they don’t live by conservative values, things like hard work; honesty; integrity; responsibility.

Maybe he thinks he’s working hard these days, in his 3-piece Italian suit in his air-conditioned corner office. But that’s easy work; hard work is teaching school, patrolling the streets, picking vegetables in the hot sun, making steel, giving up 15 months of your life (times four or five deployments) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Any nitwit can pick on vulnerable companies, tear them apart and sell the pieces to other greedy people.

Now Mehlman wants to devote himself to good works. Good luck with that.

(He) wanted to talk about it publicly because he wants to become an advocate for gay marriage.

I’m sure everyone in the Republican Party will promptly repent from scapegoating the most vulnerable members of society, now that Ken Mehlman’s told them to. Illegal immigrants? Check. Gay people? Check. Muslims? Check.

I don’t know why a thoughtful, intelligent, educated human being would think, as Mehlman clearly did, that the Old Rules don’t apply to him. A real conservative would pay attention to the Old Rules about honesty and personal integrity. They derive from every religion on earth; love thy neighbor, etc. Do unto others, etc.

I can’t escape the conclusion that money is his god, not God. “The love of money is the root of all evil” was written a very long time ago; a true conservative wants to preserve everything good about the past.

Ken Mehlman’s crowd aren’t conservatives at all.

Still, all one can do is to hope that he hasn’t destroyed his last chance for personal happiness and fulfillment, that he truly does take responsibility for his hypocrisy and repent of his evil ways. With God all things are possible.

At least Mehlman’s come out at 43, not 63 or 83. I’m sure he can buy himself a cute young man for whom money is also god. There are plenty of them around; being Gay doesn’t inoculate us against that.

But if Mehlman’s really smart he’ll go down to the dirty trenches and pick out the cutest, most dedicated, self-sacrificing Gay activist he can find; someone who can kick his ass the whole length of Broadway, then let him back into the penthouse when he comes home apologizing and taking responsibility for his actions.

I’m not hopeful, though; I bet he finds himself a nice Republican hustler who fits right in with the money crowd at KKR.++

UPDATE: Michael Luo of The New York Times adds this:

There had been speculation about his sexuality, but Mr. Mehlman had in the past denied that he was gay.

One Million Prayers: A Letter to a Friend

Psalms, Bible lessons and prayers twice a day for six years.

Dear Leonardo,

Thank you for your Facebook greeting on the news that my Daily Office website and blog have together recorded one million page-views. It feels pretty significant and I’m still reacting to achieving this milestone. Let me tell you and other readers here what it means to me, in ways I would not do on the prayer sites themselves. There the focus is on God, not on Josh – though I can’t help but intrude at times anyway.

It took me awhile to get used to that; I select the artwork and write the captions, and those obviously come out of my faith, values and priorities. I follow the Episcopal Church’s official calendar and lectionary, rules and regulations and try not to deviate. But I do have some discretion at times, such as what saints we celebrate – and don’t. Last week I chose to feature news photos of a pilgrimage held in Alabama to remember the seminarian and civil rights martyr Jonathan Daniels every night; the whole Church celebrated his day on August 14, the same day the pilgrimage was held, and I alone decided he was worth an octave of days. They were good pictures, very moving.

A few years ago during Lent, I featured a trove of old lost photographs of the civil rights days, discovered in a closet at The Birmingham News. Since we were repenting of our sins, let’s show what some of those sins were and are. Page-views skyrocketed, and that’s really what put our sites on the map. We’ve also raised some quick money for tsunami relief in Sri Lanka and South Asia and other natural disasters. Editorially I covered Hurricane Katrina for a solid month, all along the Gulf Coast, with prayers to match. Then there’s the complete destruction of part of Haiti, our biggest diocese. Six months later we’re still using a prayer I wrote for Haiti twice a week. Those are all my choices.

Earlier this year, for the first time (I think) in Anglican history, and certainly the first time in Episcopal history, the 16th century theologian John Calvin had a proposed feast day; in other words, we’re testing whether he gets a saint’s day. I didn’t run it – and I won’t. I was lucky this year because it fell on a Sunday and we never observe saints on a Sunday. But I won’t run John Calvin Monday through Saturday either; this guy is the Protestant crank in the 16th century who tried to turn the capital of Switzerland into a theocracy – which meant killing a lot of people and hounding the rest to prove they believed and behaved “rightly” according to him. The same impulse was behind New England Puritanism and the Salem witch trials.

I’m Gay. I don’t do John Calvin and his ludicrous notion that humanity is “utterly depraved” and alienated from God, who then picks and chooses his friends (“the elect”) to get into heaven anyway, because he’s a nice God after all, if you’re the “right kind” of person. Jesus consorted with the “wrong kind,” including our kind, all the time; he didn’t like the “right kind” that much.

I then sent an official notice to the Church Bigwigs in Charge of Who Our Saints Are that my million-visitor website and blog will never celebrate John Calvin, who constructed his Reformed theology on a belief that the Bible is never wrong. Biblical inerrantists are also anti-Gay.

It’s beyond me why Episcopalians should be asked to cheer for this Presbyterian/Congregationalist fanatic. So I won’t ask them to. I’m the kind of Episcopalian who, if you turn too Catholic on me I’m a Protestant (protester; that’s what it means), and if you turn too Protty on me I’m all Catholic. That’s who Episcopalians are.

The Calvinists of the Episcopal Church are largely schismatics who’ve now left and tried to take our property with them – and their whole schtick is hating Gay people because they think the Bible says so. The proposed feast of John Calvin is homophobic, bigoted and anti-Gay – if his modern adherents can be taken at face value.

The next time General Convention meets, and will decide whether Calvin gets a day, is 2012 in my home diocese, Indianapolis. I plan to be there, and I’ve already started campaigning against him. A million page-views makes my virtual church bigger than any parish and diocese in this Church. I don’t go mad with power but baby, I’ve got some.

So it’s taken me awhile to realize that the personality, background and experience of the Worship Leader in any church or prayer website inevitably influences what goes on. I don’t feel guilty about it or apologize for it. Instead I think about the priests and lay leaders who have influenced me and my faith. I’m eternally grateful for them, even as I know they were just human beings. I’m allowed to be too. “Of course I could be wrong.”

Beyond this issue of how I intrude on and guide the prayers, which is a serious responsibility and about which I am sometimes wrong, there are two other things running around in my head. When I started this operation six years ago tomorrow (August 24, 2004), I was just a guy owing God a big thanksgiving (for a home of my own) and looking for an easier way to pray, instead of all the page-flipping that saying Morning and Evening Prayer requires. I wanted it online – and God immediately answered, “That’s a great idea. I nominate you.” She has a wicked sense of humor.

Often people thank me – you did, Len – for putting in the work. I have a two-part reply; one, sometimes I just hate it, because it can be work. Updating every day (now on three different platforms) seems to impress people the most, but that doesn’t bother me at all. I do want it to go smoothly and when it doesn’t I’m apt to let loose with more curses than all 150 psalms. When a computer stops working or there’s an electrical outage, that’s a major problem; people depend on me, and I like being dependable. I’ll get up in the middle of the night to post if I have to, and I always work a day ahead on the main site; I get visitors from all over the world and I can’t forget the “all-important New Zealand market,” where it’s already tomorrow. (That’s an inside-my-head joke, but clocks in Christchurch, Sydney, Kabul and Baghdad do in fact structure my day.)

My second answer is this: I tell people that if they want to get closer to God, saying the Daily Office is guaranteed to do that. I give that guarantee because I know from personal experience, doing the work every day, rain or shine, no matter where I am. I don’t get to pray the same way as my site visitors do, but the work is my prayer, and God has blessed me a million times with it. I’ll look over a Bible passage and ask out loud, “What the hell does that mean?” And often he’ll show me; maybe not right at first, but as I keep going.

Once I put together an online Festival of Lessons and Carols, which is a big Anglican thing around Christmastime. I spent hours at it, but I was ecstatic, and in the midst of it I finally began to understand the Sacrifice of Isaac. I won’t tell the story now but it’s not what it appears to be, God thirsting for a little boy’s blood; it’s human beings who are bloodthirsty (and don’t we know it today), while God put a stop, once and for all, to child sacrifice. That’s why Abraham, Isaac’s dad, is the father of three major religions and reverenced in all of them. The Jews were the first to get that God doesn’t need appeasing for sin.

Isaac also brings the crucifixion of Jesus, God’s own Son, into his supreme place in the whole history of salvation.

This is not primarily an intellectual exercise for me; I’m not a theologian and I distrust people who are, when they go off the deep end. It’s a spiritual exercise for me, and oh my my, I love everything about our God.

When, last Sunday, I ran the site counter numbers and realized we’d hit the million mark just two days shy of our sixth anniversary, I surprised myself; yes, I knew we’d get there, but not how I’d react to it. I looked at the number, 1,000,067 as of 12:34 p.m. on August 22, 2010, then I looked up at the crucifix hanging over my desk – and started applauding like Jesus just scored a touchdown or somethin’. I laugh now to think of it, but what I did was cheer him.

It wasn’t me who got to a million, it was the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I’m just the bus driver here, they tell me where to go.

But there’s something else, and this is the intimate part for me, that I can only tell a good friend who knows my story. And you do; you feel it with me, because we’re about the same age and we’re both Gay and we love this Jesus fella completely, and all his saints whether quick or dead:

I feel as if I’ve finally done the one great thing I was put on earth for, but had never accomplished.

True, we believe in faith, not works, but St. James taught that works are good too; and here is the work of my life.

One million views of the work of my life.

So I finally feel like I’ve arrived – not in heaven; but in my own mind, my own expectations of who and what I can be.

I have always, since childhood, expected greatness out of myself. But I’ve never quite achieved it before.

I’ve done many things I’m extremely proud of; I founded the world’s second-oldest AIDS organization, after Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, in Cincinnati in 1983. They’re still going strong and now have a million-dollar budget, but I turned it over to other good people and went to New York to work at GMHC.

I did very good work there, and spent Christmas Eve making hospital visits; one was pretty important, a middle-aged, friendless closet case with fundamentalist parents who came north from Carolina and cut off all contact with his support system, made up of Gay people in GMHC. He didn’t want to hurt his parents, but when I came to visit that night, he finally sent them out of his hospital room and talked to me, honestly and deeply.

It was an honor. I didn’t even make it to midnight mass that night, though the cathedral wasn’t far away; I felt like I’d already been to midnight mass, so I let it live in my heart.

In later years, back in Ohio, I ran the toughest, most hard-hitting (and journalistically reliable) Gay newspaper in the country. In the early ’90s the Gay and Lesbian Press Association named me the Best Investigative Reporter in North America, for breaking news and followup on a serial murder story, Gay men from Indianapolis murdered and dumped all across the Midwest.

That led to my first novel, which until Sunday and the million visitors milestone, is the thing I’ve been proudest of. It’s a fictionalized retelling of those murders, complete with a message to the killers in Chapter 2: “I know who you are.”

But it went beyond the whodunit genre by introducing the purest, most chaste Gay romance ever. The reporter (who is younger, blonder, smarter and richer than me) meets this cop… and they don’t even get their first kiss until the last chapter.

(I’ve been working on the sequel ever since, about how to build a Gay Christian marriage.)

I’m terribly proud of my second book, which is a Gay comedy. It has a serious point but it still makes me laugh every time, in the exact same spots where I’ve always laughed; where I laughed the day I wrote it, and in every rewrite since.

But however proud I am of them, these books didn’t sell nationwide. The first one sold well in the Midwest (and with heterosexual women) but outside these states no one ever heard of me, and book sales are publicity-driven. I could not say, “Well, I have a right to be on this planet, I’ve changed the world in some way.” I love the books but the world wasn’t changed, only a few readers.

In my definition “greatness” requires something that changes the world.

I’ve always expected something of myself and never done it. Never gone mass market. I’ve been in The New York Times but they didn’t offer me a job. (A commenter once kindly suggested they do so.)

I guess I’ve chosen to define “going mass market” and “changing the world” as a million hits on dailyoffice.org.

One could argue with that choice but I’m comfortable with it. A million prayers! All of them originating from my fingers, in my office, in my bedroom.

Last night, when reality began to sink in, I talked to God about all this; that I finally feel I’ve met my own expectations, much less hers. I mean, she knows what a sinner I am; I was drunk half the time. But I got those prayers and lessons up letter-perfect. (In the early days I typed it all myself. Now there are more resources online and I type less. Much of my job is formatting.)

When I was done talking, God gave me a rather serious but common affirmation for all this – serious so I’d remember it and know it was real, but familiar too, the same physical stirring we’ve shared countless times in six years and 2,190 services. It’s like a pat on the head but nicer! A rub on the spine, head to toe – or just a part of me.

So yes, I feel proud of myself; I feel like I’ve been on this earth for something. I feel like I’ve finally fulfilled my potential, that I had all along but never could channel before, in part because I don’t have much or any personal ambition. I don’t see how a person can have that ambition and get about serving God; those goals seem to clash. So I never made any money – and I couldn’t care less.

You can see why I was so thrilled to finally be able to afford a house! All that wandering, all those years, but now I get to grow marigolds and dill, chives and tomatoes. I can smell the dill from my back door.

Now I’ve got a little fox terrier to love, so I’m not pouring it all out of my fingertips (or the palm of my hand).

Those million visits are “great enough” for me. And that’s a major rearrangement in my psyche.

Y’know, I may never write a bestseller; may never get much credit for anything; may never be on Rachel Maddow or be intimate with a man again. John Calvin may get a feast day out of the Bishops’ Church, when he hated bishops!

I don’t care. Those million prayers – which relied on me but I didn’t originate, my congregation did – resound with the Holy One on whom all life depends. We, you and me, are part of the communion of saints. And no, we don’t understand that or see all the directional arrows, here to here and her to her; but they are part of the life-force that sustains us all.

So man, I’m content. Don’t got no laurels to rest on, and there are six more saints this month, but I can die happy. And that really is what it’s all about to us mortals; we don’t want to die, or get Alzheimer’s and be useless, but since we’re going to die, let us do it happy, knowing we did our part.

God doesn’t require me to be Moses; God requires me to be Joshua. And finally, for the first time, I am.



Claudio Cassio: St. Rosa de Lima, whose feast is today.

Dumb Dog Democrats

Yup, Joe Donnelly's an outsider, all right, but he's still got the flag and Capitol thing going.

They’re not Blue Dogs, they’re dumb dogs.

Ind. Democrat Donnelly blasts Pelosi in new ad

By Tom Coyne, Associated Press Writer

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Indiana Rep. Joe Donnelly is taking an unusual jab at his party’s leadership in a campaign ad that refers to climate change legislation as “Nancy Pelosi’s energy tax.”

The two-term Democrat is pulling a page from Republican strategists in trying to distance himself from policies that have some voters wary.

In one ad, Donnelly says he voted against Pelosi’s “energy tax on Hoosier families.”

Another ad touts his votes to crack down on illegal immigration. Donnelly says he doesn’t work for the “Washington crowd” as a photograph of President Barack Obama, Pelosi and House Minority Leader John Boehner flashes by.

Indiana once had liberal Democrats in Congress, but the dumb dogs don’t remember that. Birch Bayh, Vance Hartke, Andy Jacobs, Julia Carson, Ray Madden – liberals, all of them. They believed in a compassionate society full of opportunity, and they knew how to defend their beliefs and get re-elected.

The current crop of Indiana Democrats (including the worst of them, Birch Bayh’s son Evan) are hapless, craven and lily-livered. (I’d call ’em queers but it’d be a step up.) You wonder why they even bother hanging a D behind their names.

They’re pussywillows. They’re joyless. They live in fear of Fox News and Sarah Palin, who’s nothing but a female bully. They’re all afraid to knock her down, when it’s the only thing that works against bullies. She’s dumb as a rock. I know grizzly bears with more intelligence than Sarah Palin. She doesn’t read, remember? I bet she doesn’t know how.

Yet here are these guys catering to her, afraid of her.

So Joe Donnelly takes a swing at Nancy Pelosi instead. She oughta deck him. Pelosi isn’t afraid of a fight.

The other day Barack Obama tried to get me to commit to vote this year. I put his e-mail in the trash, so he sent me another one. I emptied the trash.

I mean, how pathetic; I was Obama’s county coordinator in 2008, and now he’s asking me to promise I’ll vote? Give me something to vote for, birdbrain!

Pete Visclosky, one of the 15 most corrupt members of Congress, according to the Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. To guys like this, the flag is just a prop.

I have nobody to vote for. My congressman? He’s a D, but he’s a crook. There’s no evidence that he benefits financially, but Pete Visclosky trades corporate earmarks for campaign contributions. It’s kind of sad, really; you’d think he’d at least get a fishing boat out of it, or an “institute of government” at NYU.

Rangel at work for the taxpayers of America.

Charlie Rangel, the Harlem Democrat, was once my Congressman; I was proud to vote for him. Not no more. He’s got four rent-controlled apartments (limit: one) plus a little villa down in the Dominican Republic he forgot to tell anyone about. It makes a nice chunk of change he doesn’t pay taxes on. And he was the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means?

Pelosi ditched him.

Mind you, I’m not too wild about her either, but at least she exercises a little discipline and gets bills passed – watered-down bills, health care by-and-by, which is all these bedbug Democrats can manage lately; but without her Obama would have nothing to show for himself.

We pulled “all combat troops” out of Iraq this week, while leaving 50,000 soldiers there. We’re still up to our necks in Afghanistan. Guantanamo is still in business, and Gay and Lesbian soldiers are still getting drummed out of Rahm Emanuel’s military.

The de facto president. Apparently the Oval Office is vacant.

I’m fond of Barack Obama personally. But he gets the worst advice any president has ever received, and at some point (like now) he becomes responsible for that; he picked these bozos, including half of Goldman Sachs as his economic advisers, and personal goodwill is not enough.

If he doesn’t have the mental flexibility to realize that Republicans are not going to compromise, they’re only going to obstruct; that they have no ideas and no candidates; that all they’ve got is Fox and Palin; that there is no point in being post-partisan when his opponents are all partisan; and that his only alternative is to become as partisan as they are, then he’s the new bus driver heading right over the cliff.

And no, sir, I will not vote for that.

You either come up with a jobs program and repeal the Bush tax cut for millionaires, or you don’t. Screw the deficit if you have to, interest rates are miniscule! Either be a Democrat or go home.

Stand up or shut up. Either the bullies rule or you do. Which is it going to be?

If you can’t beat this guy, you can’t beat anybody.++

Prop. 8 Judge Put the Facts on Trial—and Gays Win

LGBTs celebrate the Gay marriage decision handed down August 4. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

A United States District Judge has ruled that California’s anti-Gay marriage law, Proposition 8, violates the Constitution, denies Lesbian and Gay people who wish to marry partners of their own choosing due process and the equal protection of the law, and discriminates on the basis of sex and sexual orientation.

The case will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and eventually Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan will decide it with their colleagues. No one is predicting the outcome. The High Court currently looks anti-Gay, but Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote in every 5-4 decision the Court hands down, will have the last word.

That’s the news, but what does it mean, besides another convulsion in the world’s long and tortured history of figuring out whether Gay people are abominable scum or the best thing since Elton John?

I suspect that a lot will turn on the trial just concluded in California, because the judge there, Vaughn Walker, did something truly remarkable, yet utterly mundane and judicial: he put the facts on trial.

He took all the claims that LGBT advocates make, and all the counter-arguments of anti-Gay campaigners, and sorted through them one by one to ask, “Which of these are actually true? What can be objectively believed? What is mere hyperbole or exaggeration? What is nothing but spin and ideology?”

And most important of all, he asked, “What in all these statements is really prejudice, made to sound reasonable?”

He was as tough in questioning the Gay side as he was with the defenders of traditional marriage. He scared me a time or two; he made everyone defend their positions, back up their claims, give him some proof.

It wasn’t “Law and Order,” but he really wanted to know beyond a reasonable doubt that Col. Mustard did it in the ballroom with the candlestick. Don’t claim it was the rope if it was the candlestick.

The Prop. 8 proponents claimed they were protecting children; so he put child-rearing on trial. Do kids raised by Straight people turn out better than kids raised by Gay people?

Well, no; the social science is already done on that question. The children of Gay parents score higher on certain measures of adjustment, and otherwise they’re pretty much like any other kids. That’s the fact, established in his courtroom.

So how exactly does it protect children to discriminate against Gay adults?

Time and again the Prop. 8 proponents had to backtrack. Here’s how the Los Angeles Times reported it:

The backers of Proposition 8 called only two witnesses, and both made concessions under cross-examination that helped the other side.

The Prop. 8 proponents claimed they had other expert witnesses lined up, but they chickened out; listen to their excuse.

The sponsors complained that Walker’s pretrial rulings had been unfair and that some of their prospective witnesses decided not to testify out of fear for their safety.

So once again we hear the claim that sissyboys who can’t even throw a baseball magically turn into rapists.

The violence surrounding Gay issues is entirely directed at Gay people; but still these so-called Christians tell these lies.

It’s far more likely that Prop. 8’s “experts” got photographed in Miami last week with a hustler from rentboy.com.

On every point of contention—being Gay is a choice; Gay marriage is dangerous for children; religious rights to discriminate are being trampled; Gay marriage devalues “traditional” marriage—the bigots lost on the facts.

And that’s going to make Justice Scalia’s upcoming rant much harder to pull off.

LGBT people have always known that if our claims were ever examined objectively, we’d win; and our opponents have always known that too. But they persist; prejudice makes money, that’s why it exists.

It impoverishes society, but it enriches those who own the means of producing it.

In the 51 years since the Wolfenden Report and the 41 years since the Stonewall Riots, GLBT people have had to look deep inside ourselves to discover whether, as advertised, we are abominable scum. We were raised by Straight people, back in the days when everyone believed we were abominable scum, so what if they were right?

As a horrid king of England once said, “I thought men like that shot themselves.”

No, kingy, men like you shoot us instead.

Every question ever asked is one we’ve dealt with, every doubt, every stereotype, every accusation. We’ve even turned to God and asked him. (Turns out God’s cool with Gay people.)

Judge Walker put all those questions on trial, and has done the world a service.

Will the professional bigots now slink away in shame? Hell no, the Ku Klux Klan’s still operating ten miles up the road.

Finally, a matter of some interest to Episcopalians, who have been forced into lawsuits, schism and war over whether God is cool with Gay people: the house organ of Episcopal bigotry, a commercial website known as Viagraville, has taken little official notice of Judge Walker’s decision.

He has demolished every argument they ever made; so they’re trying to ignore him, though they have allowed a few attacks on the judge’s sexual orientation. Otherwise their site is filled with trivia and claims that Christians are “victimized.”

You cannot build a lasting church on hate when your Bible says God is love. I mean, how lunatic can you get?

It will work for awhile—the Flat Earth Society still has potlucks twice a year—but the longterm prospects are not good. Meanwhile they’re busy telling each other that The Episcopal Church is soon to fall.

The Church I know is rather happily carrying on, with a bit of a spring in its step today. Why?

Because long before Judge Vaughn Walker came along, the Church put the facts on trial and found that yes, it was Col. Mustard in the ballroom with the candlestick.

We will never resolve the existence of evil in the world, especially when there’s money to be made. The motive for robbery and murder is not far removed from what powers the Klan, the Flat-Earthers and Viagraville: I want what you’ve got, so I’m taking it.

I can’t wait to see Antonin Scalia pop a vein.++


Jerusalem: the Feast of Joseph of Arimathaea

I will not cease.

Hear it here.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Once She Started, She Couldn’t Stop

Purple echinacea stand tall in the backyard garden of Janice Becker. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Every now and then the Chicago Tribune reminds me that it’s still a great newspaper. It doesn’t happen often anymore — the talent level has dropped dramatically from the glory days — but occasionally I’ll run across an article so well written, so thoughtful, so obviously made of love for the languages of communication, that I think, “Well, the Trib’s still got it a little.” Today is one of those times; read the whole thing by Barbara Mahany here.

It’s about gardening. Years ago a woman and her husband went looking to buy a townhouse so they wouldn’t have any yard to deal with. They ended up with a house in the suburbs instead, with a yard that was a mess. She ignored it until one day, after her children were born, she took a notion to try and straighten up a little. Once she got started, she couldn’t stop. Now she’s a master gardener.

I do want you to read the whole piece, but I’m going to quote and comment on some of her tips. I found them helpful; maybe you will too.

Here are her sure-fire suggestions for the finest garden you can fit in any size plot:

Mulch, mulch and more mulch. Becker has 5 cubic yards of organic leaf mulch dumped on her driveway every spring. She hauls it by the wheelbarrow to every breathing inch of her garden. It’s all about amending.

Who says Chicago’s growing season is too short?: Extend your season, says Becker, whose beds are in bloom from March to November, beginning with thousands of bulbs in early spring. (“Pick any area you can see from the house, not next to house,” she advises, to provide an emotional pickup after the long dark winter.) Then wind up with the last of the asters, fall-blooming crocus and a host of colorful berries.

There are two ideas here really, and I want to separate out the one that struck me the hardest: Don’t just make beds next to the house; plant in the yard so you can see your flowers from inside.

When I bought my house, one of the things I liked best was that the entire perimeter of the building had already been made into beds. There were bushes in front and along the sides, most of them planted decades ago, perhaps by the original owner. But there weren’t many flowers, just a few crocuses here and there. Aha, I thought; I will put in flowers, and over the years I have, tulips from Amsterdam as well as Holland, Michigan; irises, mums, petunias, marigolds, pansies, peonies, whatever I could get my hands on. I didn’t have a plan; I didn’t know what I was doing, but I enjoyed myself. Spring planting is my favorite time of year.

I screwed in hooks on the ceiling of my covered side porch and hung baskets of impatiens; I learned over time not to buy plastic pots. I turned my porch into an outdoor room, with a tree and plant stands, table and chairs, lights and a charcoal grill. Everyone who’s ever visited knows I love that porch.

But when I look out my front windows I don’t see flowers, except for my cherry trees when they blossom; otherwise it’s just green trees and green grass. I have to go outside to see my flowers, and I don’t do that often.

What Ms. Becker is teaching me is to plant colors I can see when I wake up in the morning. My first thought is to dig up some of the grass along the sidewalk leading to my front door and plant tulips and daffodils there; when they start to fade, I can put in begonias. (I have begonias in planters on the back deck, and oh, are they gorgeous this year.)

Then I thought, however nice that idea might be, why not create a similar path along the public right of way, the sidewalk that crosses my lot? What would a person walking up the street feel if she suddenly encountered flowers at her feet? Wouldn’t that be a joy?

My dog Luke and I take walks every night, and one of the things I get out of it is seeing my neighbors’ landscaping. Last night we took a new route on less-familiar blocks and I saw the most amazing stand of zinnias (I think); multiple colors planted in bunches, 50 yellows, then 50 reds, a whole rainbow, 20 feet or more. When Luke and I walk and I find beautiful flowers in yards, I always want to get closer to see and maybe smell; but I respect the homeowner’s private property, so I have to enjoy from a distance. Last night at this particular house on 2nd Street, a woman was watching TV in her living room, with the windows open; I wanted to call out, “Your flowers are beautiful!” But I turned shy instead.

People in my hometown are pretty good gardeners and landscapers. I’m envious, in awe; I wish I encountered people in their yards more often so I could tell them how much I love what they’ve done. But alas, Luke and I take our walks in the cool of the evening, and by that time most people are indoors watching the boob tube.

It’s fashionable lately when pseudo-sophisticates write about landscape gardening to decry the “airport runway” look with outdoor lights; but they’re just snobs with deadlines and 750 words overdue. These are the same kinds of people as those who write about food trends, invariably nasty, stuff you’d never want to eat — because they have to write about something and they’re totally completely bored. The New York Times is full of that crap, because New Yorkers can’t stop competing long enough to have a good meal. Here’s my point: anything you do, including landscape lights down the sidewalk, that you can see from indoors, is good. A flowered walk is a great idea, especially one built with the neighbors in mind.

I have a friend Chris who used to walk her little dog past my house all the time. Her husband’s since had a privacy fence built, and Chris and her dog have stopped coming by; I miss them. But if they had a sidewalk landscaped just for them to enjoy, I bet they’d always come this way; wouldn’t you?

My next-door neighbor Debbie has built an amazing garden spot on the corner; it’s got a boulder or two, figurines and wonderful plants. But there’s no reason I can’t do more with my space, even though I’m not on the corner. Some homeowners in town have built flowered areas under their hardwood trees, full of hostas or impatiens or other beauties. It takes time and money, but I think I’d like to do something similar.

And all this is suggested by Janice Becker’s little comment. Here’s more of what she told the Trib.

Sun, yes, but water moreso. Sure, you need to pay attention to shade versus sun, but drainage is too often overlooked. Becker contends it’s more important than sun, and she urges you to pay attention to what the label says — and take it to heart. “The label might say, ‘Will survive dry conditions,’ but what they really are saying is ‘We won’t tolerate standing in water.’ And with so much clay in the soil around here, that’s key.”

I don’t have clay in my yard; that’s Chicago, this is Northwest Indiana, a long-drained swamp. I’ve got 99% black loam from the last time the Iroquois River flooded five miles away. This is the richest soil on earth, according to Purdue University. We’re even the home of the high school soil-judging National Champions 2005!

Shop nonstop.”Don’t stop shopping for plants or planting just because it is July and abysmally hot. If succession of bloom is the objective (and it is), you will miss some great late summer and fall blooming perennials if you don’t frequent the nurseries. For example, chelone (also known as turtlehead) is an absolutely great late summer bloomer that you will never see unless you shop later in the season. And everything is usually on sale then.”

Be ever on the lookout. “Visit gardens all the time. There is practically nothing in my garden that I did not see someplace else and copy. Take notes; take pictures; and ask questions, particularly why that plant is growing successfully here when you haven’t had any success with it.”

That’s good advice too. Don’t get so enthusiastic with spring planting that you fail to keep at it when the weather gets hot, or much of your work will go for nothing. I weed and tend my gardens every day, pick tomatoes and peppers, strawberries and leeks. As Jamie says in The Centurion’s Boy, my novel in progress, “Every day is a new opportunity to excel.”

That’s true whatever your occupation, pastimes and pursuits. Every day is new; no matter how much you screwed up yesterday, today is a new opportunity. Maybe you don’t like digging in the dirt; maybe music or art or furniture-making is your thing. Do it better than ever, because it’s today. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or a CEO, a monk in Mississippi or a gardener in Deerfield, today is a new chance. Build something; touch your loved ones gently; take your dog on an outing. Write, cook, plan, build, take a risk, pull out the deadwood, get dirty so you can get clean; let yourself be fully alive.

And who knows, maybe once you get started, you won’t be able to stop.++

Asters, from gardenersnet.com.