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What Exactly Does Jesus Have to Offer?

Jesus had no business talking to this unclean Samaritan woman; but he did. (Simon Dewey)

I’ll answer that question shortly, but first, a little personal news I’m excited about.

My friend Bob, an Episcopal vicar who lives in New Jersey, is visiting his family and friends in Ohio this week and will stop by my house on Monday for a day or three. That evening we’re going to celebrate Mass at my dining room table, then have what the ancient Greeks called agapé and normal people call dinner!

No matter what you call it, it should be a love feast, because I’m asking him to concelebrate with my spiritual director Marcia. Her husband Ote (pronounced like Oaty) will also attend.

Sixteen months ago when Peter was here from Amsterdam, I found a blue plate at a pottery shop in Berea, Kentucky, which I snapped up because it kinda matches a blue chalice I bought from a potter in New Harmony, Indiana. I’ve always intended that these two vessels for bread and wine be reserved and consecrated for the Eucharist, if I ever got the chance to have a priest come to my house.

This is a big deal when you live in smalltown Indiana as I do; my parish church is two hours away. (One for driving and one for crossing the twilight zone into Eastern Daylight Time.)

I have no way of knowing whether an Episcopal mass has ever been said in my hometown. Maybe we’ll make history, but even if we don’t we’re going to have a good time.

I’m asking Bob to consecrate the plate and cup, and to help Marcia consecrate the bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ.

This is a Big Deal to me in every way, because Marcia is a Presbyterian; the theology she comes from is Calvinist, not Catholic. To Bob and me, apostolic succession (a straight line of bishops from Jesus Christ, Peter and Paul to Our Gal Cate™) is crucial. But in the nearly two years I’ve been seeing Marcia, I’m totally convinced of her priesthood, even if she Didn’t Do It Right.

She’s been great for me, and I want her to preside.

(Afterwards we’re having Chicken Cashew, which is basically a stir-fry that won’t take long to throw together so we can feast. During and after dinner I’m hoping we can have a discussion on What Exactly Jesus Has to Offer.)

This is how I’ve phrased it to her: “Why is Christianity a difficult sell in the current American culture?” Or, “What do we have to do to share this Jesus we think so much of, in a spiritually-starving culture that thinks Jesus is morally reprehensible?”

It’s actually the Followers of Jesus who are disapproved of in pop culture, not The Man Himself, but you get my drift.

What’s the problem here in 2010? To me it’s fairly obvious; Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, the Pope and TV preachers are the problem. Guys or gals get on TV, make big bucks and fly in jet planes but make no moral sense whatever.

If they’re the spokesmodels for Jesus, thanks but no thanks.

They’ve turned nearly all GLBT people against Jesus because their message is immoral. As a Gay Christian, that hurts me, but I recognize what we’re up against.

Their message isn’t Jesus’s message, but you’d never know that from TV.

Still, I’m not going to attack fundamentalists here; they’re too easy a target and who’s got time. Instead I say: the problem is TV.

Mass media, YouTube, the internet – but much more, what’s behind them; the willingness of fools to tolerate corporate propaganda (advertising) in exchange for snippets of entertainment.

My dog Luke and I take a walk every evening. Every home we pass has the TV blasting.

So when TV’s what you “consume,” with its invariable corporate propaganda (“Fast food tastes great!” “Bank of America loves you!” “Save now while spending $50,000 for a car!”), Christianity’s self-proclaimed spokesmodels become your version of Jesus.

I’m fully aware that only a crank would blame all the ills of modern society on a household appliance. I mean, that’s just nuts.

The problem isn’t the appliance; it’s the greed and envy of those who turn on the appliance, subject themselves to the propaganda, buy the fast food, trust Bank of America and fantasize about the BMW until they can’t live without it.

The 7 Deadly Sins never vary, though the TV preachers never mention them, being greedy and envious themselves.

This doesn’t leave Episcopalians much room to proclaim an alternate reality.

What Jesus Has to Offer is a way out of the materialism, envy and greed that have taken over pop culture, all so you can be entertained.

The first Christians weren’t capitalists, they were socialists with all goods in common. (Acts 2:44 [NRSV], “All who believed were together, and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”)

Now the corporatists, Tea Partiers, Congresspuppies and preachers want to convince you not to live according to the Way. It’s in their financial interest to argue you out of it.

“Obamacare,” “socialized medicine?” Here’s how capitalized health care works. If you’ve got the capital, you get the health care. If you don’t, you don’t.

Sorry, Grandma. These million-dollar machines cost money.

Yet people stare at their TV screens night after night, absorbing one corporate propaganda campaign after another, in order to get snippets of “entertainment.”

In other words it’s your own damn fault. And I have no sympathy for you whatever.

Any photographer with talent can make a Big Mac look good; but there isn’t anyone who can make it taste good.

You’re eating corn they’ve convinced you tastes like beef. Cattle don’t eat corn, bucko, they eat grass. But that Big Mac is all corn, made to look like beef.

So where does this leave Bob, Marcia, Ote and me in our discussion? We live in a capitalist economy, and it takes money to live. None of us are powerful enough to change that; maybe Jesus himself doesn’t have that power. Here I’m making my little argument as an American, not a Haitian living in a tent camp eight months after the earthquake, wondering if anyone will give her babies bread. (Answer: no.)

I speculate that “Jesus doesn’t have that power” because he wasn’t a politician, but a spiritual leader. So let’s ask; what was his advice? Sure, he’s timeless, but does he have anything to tell us now?

Does he have anything at all of value to tell us in 2010 in Barack Obama’s (or Sarah Palin’s) America?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

He doesn’t say, “Blessed are the rich.

“Blessed are those for whom money takes the place of God.

“Blessed are those who exploit and poison the earth.

“Blessed are those who game the system for their profit.

“Blessed are those who watch corporate propaganda as if it’s entertaining.

“Blessed are those who think they’re saving money by spending more of it.

“Blessed are those who tout private property instead of feeding the hungry and housing the poor.

“Blessed are those who distort my teachings for their own profit.

“Blessed are those who scapegoat others who live on the other side of the river, the mountain or the sea.

“Blessed are those who buy lobbyists so they can get contracts.

“Blessed are those who lie, cheat and steal in my Name.

“Blessed are those who make war.

“Blessed are those who think they’re morally superior.

“Blessed are those who distort science.

“Blessed are those who testify one way, then hire rentboys when no one is looking.

“Blessed are those who exploit the poor and call themselves successful.

“Blessed are those who downsize and rob the children of bread.

“Blessed are those who carry guns.

“Blessed are those who lie on TV.

“Blessed are those who watch it.

“Blessed are those who say they are spiritual but aren’t.

“Blessed are those who fill their minds with excrement and call it ice cream.”

Jesus never said a one of those things. You know it and I do. He wouldn’t have been caught dead saying one of them.

And that is why, despite the current unpopularity of the Way, I humbly and sincerely believe Jesus was right, even the Son of God; and why I do not believe Robertson, Falwell or the Pope, even though they’re on TV.

Look at your own life, understand why you’re so unhappy with how you spend your time that you’ll sit through hours of corporate propaganda – “Bank of America, which got billions in bailouts of your tax money, loves you!” – for mere glances at celebs.

They’re not worth following; Jesus is.++

Looks pretty on TV, but it's garbage food and you know it.

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.

Having a Bad Day? Try Some Muffins

Leave good size chunks of peach in your batter so you can see the deliciousness.

I woke up this morning with peach muffins on my mind.

I’ve never even heard of peach muffins; I wasn’t sure they would work, though apple, banana and blueberry certainly do. But what spices go with peaches? I searched for recipes online first thing. Allrecipes.com, which isn’t where I usually turn, had exactly one peach muffin recipe. Cinnamon, it said; oh, I said, that might be good.

Why did I wake up with muffins on my mind? I never eat breakfast; the only way I can explain this peach jag is that I recently made some fresh peach cobbler, and that was great. Does the local supermarket still have South Carolina peaches? Yes, it turns out.

I suspect there’s more to my peach jag, though. My tomatoes are coming hot and heavy now, and I’m eating them at almost every meal. So this little peach obsession is part of a larger fresh fruit tear I’m on. This time of year only comes, well, once a year, and either you take advantage of it or you miss out. (The homegrown sweet corn is now gone. I had some good ears, though.) Murphy’s still has Indiana canteloupes, and I plan to save the seeds for next year’s garden.

But I didn’t have any peaches this morning so I proceeded to my regular routine of reading the newspapers, answering my mail, checking church websites and posting the Daily Office.

Today, checking church websites proved to be a mistake. Everything I saw upset me a little. On Daily Episcopalian, Dr. Derek Olsen offered part one of an essay about the Virgin Birth, which was appropriate considering that today has been the Feast of Mary’s parents Joachim and Anne. Derek’s inclined to believe that Jesus was conceived without sexual intercourse; so am I, even though we all know that what’s translated as “virgin” in English is actually “girl” or “young woman” in the original Greek. If, Derek says, one considers God to be Creator, and this does not conflict with scientific knowledge of the origins of life, an immaculate conception wouldn’t seem to be a hard trick for God.

Nearly all Episcopalians believe both in science and creationism. Our current Presiding Bishop used to be an oceanographer.

But Derek’s essay then led to a dozen mostly negative comments, including several from our ordained clergy, the net result of which is to undermine the very reasonable faith that most Christians have in the virgin birth, without (to my mind) any good reason except these half-baked half-theolgians’ own doubts, aired in public. I don’t like things like that. I left my own comment, agreeing with Derek and Fr. Bill Carroll, from my perspective having to do with prayer, which they’d all left out. My experience of prayer is that it usually or often leads to a perception of God’s near presence, which is what most Christians (for that matter, most Americans) report. Subjective claims of God’s presence don’t constitute evidence individually, but they do in the aggregate, and if God can touch us in Indiana, Haiti, South Africa, New Zealand and Brazil, then touching a young girl in Palestine way back when really isn’t much of a stretch.

Later today Episcopal Café reported about an Anglican priest in Canada who gave Communion to a dog during the Sunday service. “What say ye?” asked the priest in Wyoming who thought this was worth the attention of the faithful (she’d already weighed in doubting the Virgin Birth but claiming she could say the Creed, including the Virgin Birth, without crossing her fingers). What say I to the dog with Communion? Ridiculous, appalling, trashy, and the priest ought to be fired. There are now at least five angry rejoinders to my comment on Facebook.

So I haven’t had a great day. I get very tired of liberal clergy to whom we the People have bestowed the collar of ordination undermining our church and our faith, when there are so many others outside the Episcopal Church, from anti-Gay schismatics and wingnut fundamentalists to rabid atheists and the pope himself, doing the same thing.

Yes, I believe heaven is full of dogs and cats and animals. But I don’t think you feed them Holy Communion at any service of the church, for any reason, at any time. People have died for that bread and wine, first but not last Jesus himself, and I will not have it fed to dogs.

So some muffins would be really good right now, especially with some ice cream. I bought my peaches, but I also saw some bananas marked way down for quick sale, and bananas with spots are perfect for muffins. They’re in the oven now, while the peaches are in a brown paper bag to ripen a bit.

And for the rest of the week I’m on a muffin jag. If my dog Luke wants a taste, he can have it and no one will be hurt.

But God spare us these scandalous priests. Their questions aren’t bad but their answers can be awful.++

I don't think banana muffins need brown sugar on the top, but you can try it if you want.

First Tomato a Total Bust, but Ice-Licking Dog Makes Up For It

Here's a nice specimen; mine was rotten.

Yesterday I picked my First Tomato, which was nice and red but lying on the ground, so I knew it wouldn’t be any good. Tomatoes need to hang from the vine or they rot. I took it inside because I wanted to see what happened to it.

It’s a law here in Indiana that any thief who picks your First Tomato may be cheerfully shot with total impunity. But even the Tomato Gang wasn’t interested in this one.

You don’t think there’s a Tomato Gang? You don’t live in Indiana. We all belong to the Tomato Gang (and we’re thieves).

I brought it inside and sliced into it. The bottom half was rotten because it lay on the ground. But the top wasn’t much better, very woody, not juicy at all. I put it in the compost box.

Let’s get this clear, shall we? Tomatoes are supposed to be juicy, and I couldn’t care less if this does not meet the needs of McDonald’s, Burger King and Hardee’s. They don’t like juicy tomatoes, which drip on your skirt while you’re driving up I-65.

Those things are tasteless, which fast food specializes in. Don’t eat in your gol-dang car, hokay? That skirt never did much for you anyway.

Tomatoes, like oranges, exist for the juice. That’s where the flavor is. Never, ever buy a tomato hybrid designed for fast food chains.

Would you want to eat a dry orange that was all meat and no juice? Then why would you design a tomato that way?

It’s not my fault that people like to put tomatoes on their burgers and not oranges. (They’re both very rich in Vitamin C.) If you’re going to eat a burger Be Prepared. It’s called a napkin; you can do it.

My First Tomato was a total bust. I wasn’t that sad, I’ve got a lot more ‘maters on the way; the timing (practically the 4th of July) vindicates my decision to plant tomatoes early and wait to see if the frost got them, which it didn’t. Replacement vines would only have cost a buck or two, so I learned something this year. My tomatoes look like a rainforest, while my next door neighbor’s got these spindly pathetic things.

I’d have eaten part of the First Tomato if it hadn’t been so woody, but I threw it all away. (“Woody” is when the green part of the vine extends down into the flesh. It’s inedible, the whole thing is deformed.)

It was a hot day, and once I cut into it and saw it was worthless, I began to be concerned about my dog. Luke spends most of his time outside on a 30-foot lead, and it’s been hot here, our first hot dry spell of the season. He so likes the sunshine that I worry about how he eats and drinks. When we wake up in the morning he’s never interested in breakfast, he only wants outside, and it’s not because he’s desperate to pee; he takes forever to do that. What he wants is the sun, so I pour out food and water as he clamors to go outdoors. I take him out, and bring him back later, and sometimes he eats or drinks like I want him to. Sometimes he doesn’t, he just wants back outside.

I’ve tried taking his chow-and-water dish outdoors so he can feed when he wants to, but ants got into it and that was a mistake. In the morning I offer him food and water, but he’s not interested, so we go outside and play, and later I bring him back in case he’s hungry or thirsty. Then clamor clamor clamor, jump and turn in circles, “Outside!” Okay, dude.

But it was hot out, and I’d already given him a second chance at the doggy dish, which he rejected, and I didn’t know what to do. I took him an ice cube.

He loved it.

I held it in my hand and he lick-lick-licked; when he got tired I rubbed it on his belly. But then he wanted to lick it again, so we did that. He paused and stood up, and I rubbed it on his back. He thought that was great. Then he licked it again; in a minute it was just a nub. I finally dropped it and he licked it on the grass until it disappeared.

It’s an amazing thing to have another creature eat out of your hand. He totally charms you, while you feel strong and protective and goofy.

Since he likes being out all day, but I can’t trust him to stay in our yard, I check on him all the time; he can’t say if he’s hungry or thirsty, I have to interpret the signs. I wish I were better at doggie-speak, but maybe we’re doing okay.

Luke ate an ice cube; highlight of my day.++

Luke, ice cube-licker. Prettyboy, little wuss, total favorite.

Birthday Week Begins!

The clock is just past midnight as I begin this; it’s Monday, May 17. Today would have been my late brother Steve’s 62nd birthday.

Mine is tomorrow. Either he was born early or (more likely) I was born late; we were anniversary babies. I will be 59, gasp cough cough.

He and I went 20 years without speaking after I came out; he didn’t want a Gay brother. I was never allowed to see his kids, in case I would touch them and give them AIDS. (I’m HIV-negative, but that doesn’t matter to the paranoid. If a person could get HIV from touching, the whole world would have long since been infected.) He was a jerk; then slowly, he began to change.

Our mother got sick with cancer in 1994. He loved his mother, and the three of us debated over who would take care of her. He invited her to come and live with him in southern Indiana; but she wanted to die at home in West Lafayette, and I was an experienced caregiver, available to move in with her, so that’s what happened.

She didn’t last very long; January 9, 1995. Steve and I didn’t see that much of each other during her illness, but he did come north to spell me for a weekend so I could go to Indianapolis to watch Purdue men’s and women’s basketball. Her illness was hard on me, she was demanding, so I was very grateful he gave me that weekend. I know he took the best possible care of her.

After she died I stayed in her house, and he often invited me down south to his house for a visit. We became very close friends, although he never stopped giving me a hard time for being Gay.

On every other topic we were brothers. I miss him very much.

Because of the timing of our birthdays, we quickly developed a shared ritual we called Birthday Week; I commend it to everyone. Mom used to say, “My birthday is My Day.” Steve and I decided, why not a whole week!

Episcopalians and Catholics observe octaves of major feast days, an 8-day celebration. Birthday Week fit right into the calendar. Sometimes we’d start a few days before, sometimes a few days after, this was a moveable feast, whatever our whims decided, eight freakin’ days.

I loved him; he loved me. He was a very fine man with a prejudice. And he was a bit sadistic with it, but I always fought back.

He so loved his mother that he honored me for taking care of her, and that mattered more than our turnons.

I relied on him for certain kinds of advice; I have no mechanical ability whatsoever, while he always knew what to do when the water heater stops putting out, or the car won’t start, or moles invade the yard.

I miss him terribly, but I’m very grateful that we were close those last few years. He died shortly after the millennium turned.

But I still have the legacy of Birthday Week, and I’m going to take advantage of it. I’ve been waiting for this; Birthday Week starts now. I imagine him smiling up in heaven, right next to Mom.

Sunday I drove to West Lafayette and bought more landscape lumber, 8-foot-long border planks for my Proper Garden; I have reclaimed a wasteland in my back yard and made it beautiful. I’ve planted tomatoes, peppers, geraniums, cabbage and broccoli, and put in a strawberry patch; tossed out gravel, replaced it with topsoil, weeded and weeded and weeded, dug and raked till my back hurt, killed off these terrible trees that grow 10 feet tall in six weeks, sawed off the tree stumps, thoroughly knocked myself out. It’s taken a couple of years, but now I have a real garden, planted and marked off. The area’s still a little rough, the ground is uneven, but within those 8-foot planks, there’s a garden. Will the muskmelon seeds I dried and saved from last year do anything? I don’t know, but it will be exciting to find out.

Steve was a big fan of Vincennes muskmelons. In the gravel walkway on the north edge of the garden, I’ll plant gladiolus bulbs, some of my mother’s favorite flowers.

In the front yard with a northern exposure, Steve’s favorite azaleas are giving way to our brother Dick’s prize peonies. The Indiana state flower, y’know?

My garden is done, and I’m ecstastic. It isn’t even my birthday yet and everything’s done!

I also bought a little garden figurine, a foot-tall angel made in China with green and white mosaic wings, ten or twelve dollars; she now stands under the giant maple in the back yard, Our Lady of the Big Tree once featured in the Chicago Sunday Tribune.

The marigolds are happy, the begonias, three varieties of lilies; pansies, oregano, yuccas, impatiens; the hostas are doing okay, and so far I’ve been able to control the freakin’ ivy and the would-be kudzu. I worry about some gifts, though, that date to my buying this house six years ago; Peter gave me some excellent tulips, but they didn’t produce well this year, and a woman I used to work with at Southlake Mental gave me irises, which aren’t doing well either. I can picture her but I do not remember her name! It’s awful, she was very competent and good with clients, we worked so well together, but now, when irises are blooming all over town, mine aren’t. She deserves better, y’know? She deserves to be remembered by name.

But I’m getting older, and this s— happens, and it’s Birthday Week.

I got a dog last October, name of Luke; he hasn’t figured out flowers yet, and has made it his business to topple every planter in sight. He doesn’t mean to, but he’s a fox terrier, and they jump and run and boom, sorry begonias. And geraniums. And everything else he can accidentally knock over. I keep moving his stake-out chain, but I haven’t yet found the perfect spot where he can do no damage, and “Yowzah, Daddy, Arf Arf Arf! (Oops, bad dog, you don’t gotta tell me, I know.)”

He gets bacon anyway. I tell him that come August, when the tomatoes are ripe, I am eating all the bacon myself, BLTs, no matter how much he jumps and yaps and knocks things over.

It’s Birthday Week; my gardening is done. I have an 8×24 space marked off for flowers and food. I have a gravel walkway; the invasive trees are gone. Our Lady of the Maple happily presides in the shade. Maybe I’ll get a couple of jars of strawberry jam according to my mother’s recipe.

As for my homophobic brother: it was good to find someone who knew me all my life, loved me 90% and hated me just 10. It was mutual, after all, I never let him off the hook; attack me and I fight back.

I planted those azaleas for him, and they did better this year than ever before. Ninety/ten’s pretty good when you think about it. So Birthday Week starts now, on His Day. Mine is Tuesday, Jayne’s graduation party is Saturday, and Sunday is Pentecost, the Church’s Birthday with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I finally have a Proper Garden, and an Angel of the Maple Tree. Life is good.++

It’s Pansy Time!

Today, March 31, is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 83.

This is also Wednesday in Holy Week. Some years her birthday fell on Easter Sunday. (Some years my birthday is the Day of Pentecost.)

But today is also the day I planted tomatoes—far earlier than ever before.

The rule of thumb with tomatoes is that the safest time to plant is after the last possibility of frost has passed. Around here, that’s approximately Mother’s Day, the 2nd Sunday in May.

Pansies can be planted as soon as they appear in stores; they like cold weather. So mine are now in. I bought yellow ones this year for my planters on the front porch. I usually mix colors but not this year.

I fantasize that tomorrow the mailman will come by and think, “Well, he’s got his pansies in.” I imagine this every year, because I get such a kick out of planting my annual flowers. I want someone to notice them!

The lady across the street has a nice window box. I used to admire and envy it, until I realized she sticks in plastic flowers and calls it a day. No watering that way, I guess.

While I’m excited about the pansies, I’m really psyched about the tomatoes. They’re my favorite food, and nothing tastes better than a homegrown tomato. The ideal way to eat them is out in the garden with a salt shaker, and juice running down your chin.

I may lose this crop; there’s a reason the experts say to wait. When I bought this house six years ago in May and planted my first tomatoes, my friend Mark came down from Chicago to help with a couple of tasks, and told me he’d lost his tomato plants a few days earlier. Frost got them, of course. “What’s up with that?” he asked.

I was so eager to learn how to grow a tomato that I let my mind get spooked by what happened to his. So for the past five years I’ve faithfully waited until all danger was past.

I have now repealed that law, for several reasons. First, the eight plants I stuck in the ground today cost me all of $2.78. If I have to replace them I won’t go bankrupt, so it’s time I got over my anxiety. Second, last year’s experience was not good. We had a cool, wet summer and the tomatoes took forever to ripen; I didn’t get any till August, and mine were earlier than some of my neighbors’.

Third, my pal Peter visited me in May last year, and helped stake up my plants. I felt terrible about it, because I started later than normal; he’s from Amsterdam, and I would so have liked to be able to feed him some of my own produce. God knows he’s heard me rave about my tomatoes this whole time. But there we were, trying to coax along a few forlorn-looking plants that he wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy unless he stayed all summer. He did get to eat some local sweet corn, and marveled that here in the exotic Midwest, we actually eat it off the cob! He probably included this bizarre factoid when he inflicted his Travels in America slide show on his parents once he got home. “What’s next,” they must have wondered, “do they wear grass skirts?”

The bottom line for me is this. As soon as Murphy’s has plants for sale, buy them and stick them in the ground. I may lose a few but so what; God made more. The gardening industry knows when to put plants on sale for a particular market; doubtless Wal-Mart has elaborate data on when to offer what at all ten gazillion stores.

Since I am going to spend every day this spring and summer checking to see if I’ve got a tomato yet, I want my juicies sooner, not later. (I’m not sophisticated enough to do grow-lights in the basement, the way the hardcore tomato people do. And I can’t afford to build a greenhouse off the kitchen.)

It was 78º today in Chicago; we may have hit 80 here, the ideal temperature for planting. Yes, it will get colder, but I’ll keep my eye peeled for frost warnings and buy a newspaper to cover up my crop. It’s worth the risk.

Tomatoes are one of the best foods a person can eat. Here are some nutrition facts from learninginfo.org.

The tomato not only thrills the taste buds and brightens the dinner table, it also helps fight disease.

A review of 72 different studies showed consistently that the more tomatoes and tomato products people eat, the lower their risks of many different kinds of cancer. The secret may lie in lycopene, the chemical that makes tomatoes red, said Dr. Edward Giovannucci, Harvard School of Public Health, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the studies he reviewed, 57 showed that the more tomatoes one ate, the lower the risk of cancer. “The evidence for benefit was strongest for cancers of the prostate, lung, and stomach,” he reported.

Processed tomatoes (e.g. canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, ketchup) contain even more lycopene because cooking breaks down cell walls, releasing and concentrating carotenoids. Eating tomatoes with a small amount of fat enables lycopene to be better absorbed.

Even though eight plants is a lot for one person, there’s no such thing as too many tomatoes. I freeze them, I can them, I give them away; I can even sell my surplus back to Murphy’s. I could start my own farmer’s market!

My chives are coming back; I’ve harvested some already. The oregano is growing, too. Last week I planted onion sets as soon as I saw them at the grocery store. (Then I had to contend with my dog Luke, who naturally assumed that where I get to dig, he gets to dig too.)

My tulips, including some from Peter, are about 8 inches high; the crocuses are in bloom. The lilac bush is leafing out and will bloom in May. A few of the irises have sprouted, but they did very badly last year and I may have to replace them. The daylilies have new shoots. So far I can’t see any activity among the hostas, nor anything from the lilies-of-the-valley I planted last fall under the maple tree. But everything is coming along as it should; God, do I love spring.

And I haven’t even mentioned that the Butler Bulldogs are in the Final Four!

Butler's regional championship last week.

You know what I’m going to be doing Saturday, and it’s not thinking religious thoughts. The Easter Vigil begins at 6pm my time, but Butler tips off against Michigan State at 5:07. I’ll be going to church, all right, but not at Good Shepherd. Mass can wait until Sunday when there isn’t any basketball. I mean, first things first.++

Coach Brad Stevens of Butler.

What Do You Feed Your Dog?

You gotta like a name like Skippy

I went to the vet today for my pal Luke and bought a 6-month supply of Frontline and Heartgard (anti-fleas and ticks, anti-heartworm medicines) and a 5-pound bag of Science Diet. Cost about $120, of which $80 was for the flea killer.

That’s a lot of money. It seems disproportionate to me, considering that the inexpensive heartworm med is for something that could actually kill him, while the expensive anti-parasite only prevents something that wouldn’t really hurt him. I have to get used to veterinary bills, I guess. Luke does visit other dogs sometimes, and no, I don’t want fleas in my house.

(When I was in 7th grade my parents closed out their business, moved 13 miles south to this town and bought a house. For some reason they were worried that someone might break in; a crazy thought considering the crime rate was zero, but whatever. So I volunteered to guard the house, which meant sleeping on the floor before the furniture got moved. Little did we know that the house was infested with fleas, which bit my legs all night. So paying $13 a month for flea prevention is probably a great investment.)

But then I saw the bill for five pounds’ worth of Science Diet; $2 a pound. I could feed Luke chicken at retail for less than that; I could feed him pork chops and COTTAGE CHEESE. A little can of peas and carrots, mixed in with his supper, lasts almost a week. What should I do?

I wonder what other puppy parents do; kids are expensive. (And they attract fleas.)

Chances are the vet charges more for Science Diet than other retailers do; I’ll check that out next time I’m at Wal-Mart. I’m lucky really that there’s a vet in town with Science Diet for sale. But still, $2 a pound means the dog’s eating better than I am.

If I were to feed him human food, he still wouldn’t get all the vitamins and minerals he needs. Chicken, peas and carrots will only get him so far. He needs the other stuff too. But still, $2 a pound? Who does he think he is, a Rockefeller?

Is Science Diet that much better than, say, Alpo Dry? They’re both certified by AAFCO, which sets minimum standards for dog food, and I can buy a 17-pound bag of Alpo for ten bucks, the same price as 5 pounds of SciDi. I’m not looking to make him eat the cheap stuff, but $2 a pound seems awfully expensive. I want him to be healthy and happy, but it would be nice if I didn’t go bankrupt feeding him. Alpo costs 60¢ a pound, not $2. How do other dog owners handle this?

If you have a dog, please leave a comment.

Meanwhile here’s our feeding pattern. I give him pellets in the morning, which he doesn’t always eat, and “good stuff” at night; canned dog food usually (he likes Skippy, a cheaper brand, better than Pedigree, which is pricier and looks like crap). I often supplement his supper with human food, which might be scraps of chicken, pork or beef, peas and carrots, rice or COTTAGE CHEESE. He has a clear preference for the good stuff over the pellets, but once he’s had supper and pooped, he gladly chews the pellets he turned his nose up at earlier; crunchies clean his teeth. Every now and then he gets a bone if I’ve got one. I hope, between the vitamin and mineral-enhanced pellets and the protein-rich good stuff, he gets a balanced diet; and it’s a wonderful thing to watch him eat real vegetables and grains. Humans don’t like peas that much, but Luke scarfs them up when they’re mixed with Skippy Bar-B-Q Beef.

Probably I worry too much, but food is important to a dog. Did I mention he loves COTTAGE CHEESE?

I figure it’s a good source of calcium, and it’s cheaper than Science Diet. When I give him some CC, I always make a big show of licking the spoon afterward, just to see him go nuts. When it’s Skippy time, I let him lick the spoon.

He’s an endless font of entertainment, so sweet, so nice, even if he misbehaves at times; now that he’s been here two months and we’ve got toilet training down, I’m giving him more and more free time. He’s learned to run up the tiled kitchen steps instead of always racing around to the carpeted steps in the living room, and I’ve learned to interpret his behavior better. My favorite Luke things? When we’re going downstairs from my bedroom and he leaps down to the landing from the third step; and playing My Paw, where I grab one of his legs and he fights me with pretend-bites. Somehow he likes having my fingers in his mouth.

Now it’s time to walk around outside the house, our mid-evening pee ritual. He’ll try to drag me off to the street, but I won’t go (it’s cold out), so he’ll huddle under the evergreens, then the spruce tree, then the pine tree, before scrambling up the back steps saying, “What took you so long?”

A very good boy he is; a fantastic boy. Cute as the dickens, sweet as pie.++

I finally got a closeup of Luke's face.