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Blueberry Season Opens – and Closes 4 Days Later

How harsh was last winter in Northwest Indiana? It killed off half the blueberries. Monday the season opened; it usually lasts a month. This year it ends on Friday.

Both of my cherry trees blossomed this spring, but one tree didn’t produce. I only got to pick two or three times and now they’re gone.

This is terrible news for fans of the Muffin King™. (I am both the king and the only fan – but look at these pretty babies.)

Royal Blueberry Muffins

I’ve always used frozen berries for my muffins; they work perfectly well. But on Monday I headed up to Little Holland (DeMotte, Indiana) where all the blueberry farms are, for Opening Day. I chose Eenigenburg’s Blueberries, the original blueberry farm in the area since 1943, because they have a website and are easy to get to. I couldn’t have been happier with the experience. The owners are very friendly and helpful, they know their berries and their customers, and their prices are good, $3 a pound for fresh-picked, $1.90 for U-pick. Since it was Opening Day the only option was U-pick, but they sent out a granddaughter to help me and we got five pounds in 20 minutes, gabbing the whole time. They tied a small plastic bucket around my waist so I could pick with both hands; that’s definitely the way to do it. (I should try it for cherries, too.)

Her mother told me it would be a short season this year because of the hard winter, but by Wednesday she had to post a message on their website, “Closing Friday.” I was lucky I got there in time! Now I kind of wish I hadn’t sold three of my five pounds to Scott’s family; I had no idea what five pounds of blueberries look like or how fast I’d use them.

Monday night Scott came over for dinner, so I made my mother’s fruit salad – though I’ve only kept two ingredients of hers, bananas and mini-marshmallows. She used canned fruit, but all mine is fresh. I grilled some Italian sausage, threw together a marinara sauce with my own garden herbs, and we feasted.

Tuesday I baked some muffins. Now I have about a pound of berries left and the season is almost over!

I’d thought I’d buy an extra five pounds and freeze them to tide me over this winter, but no such luck. I’d better freeze what I have left and hope next year will be better.

We’ve all heard of global warming, but when it starts killing off Indiana blueberries, that there’s serious! Sheesh already.

Today, Thursday, the Eenigenburgs called everyone on their customer list and gave us the news, “come ‘n’ get ’em or forever hold your peace.” That was nice; it’s why I wanted to buy from local farmers in the first place. Who wants to give all their money to Con-Agra? I will go back next season.

Turns out blueberries don’t grow just anywhere. I asked the owners why DeMotte and Wheatfield have so many blueberry farms and we talked about the sand that blows south off Lake Michigan. (The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is just 30 miles away.)

Indiana Dunes, on the south shore of Lake Michigan.

Indiana Dunes, on the south shore of Lake Michigan.

It has the right pH for blueberries, she said, though some years they have to apply lime (ground natural limestone) to reduce the alkalinity. I told her my Unca Deed, who lives about 15 miles south, used to sell and spread lime for his neighbors. Maybe he sold some to them back in the day – all the more reason to buy from Eenigenburg’s.

South of DeMotte, the sandy soil quickly changes to black loam – river muck from ancient flooding of the Kankakee and Iroquois Rivers – so Unca Deed grows the corn and soybeans most people think of as typical Indiana crops. Farmers grow what their soil is suited for, and it’s quite a science to match the soil type with the best genetic strain of beans or corn; the exact soil composition varies from one field to the next, and even within a field, because the dirt was there before the property lines were drawn.

On my way home I drove past Unca Deed’s farm and reminisced, but I couldn’t stop because a thunderstorm was coming and my dog Luke was in the backyard. Later that night we got the summer version of last winter’s polar vortex; temps went down to 50º and haven’t really warmed up yet.

All this climate change doesn’t seem to be discouraging the weeds in my garden one bit. They don’t need science to tell them where to plant themselves, right in my back yard.

On the other hand, my tomato plants are going great guns and I’m expecting a bumper crop; they have dozens of green fruits on their branches, but they’re waiting for warmer weather before they ripen. Tomatoes like sun and temperatures up to 85º. We’ll get back there in a few days, and I’ll get to bite into my all-time favorite food, a big juicy tomato from the garden.

Summertime and the livin’ is easy – except for the polar vortex, thunderstorms and tornadoes. I would rather spend the warm months here than anywhere else on earth. Indiana isn’t a glamorous place, but to me it’s all about the soil – which comes from the water – which first attracted the Dutch (and my British forebears) to these river plains.++

The Iroquois River in my home county; photo by the United States Geological Survey, 2000.

The Iroquois River in my home county; photo by the U.S. Geological Survey, 2000.

The Simplest Garden Can Be a Joy

The lilies are getting ready to pop. They don't last long, but they are glorious. (Josh Thomas)

The lilies are getting ready to pop. They don’t last long, but they are glorious. (Josh Thomas)

A few weeks ago I went to Indianapolis to see my bishop for our first official visitation, and she asked me a question I’ve been pondering ever since. “What do you do for recreation?”

I didn’t have an answer at first, but finally I said, “I garden.”

A bishop does not like to hear that her ministers have no recreations. Working all the time does not make a person healthy, but the clergy are prone to be consumed by their jobs, so they must have ways to relax and do something completely different, or they’ll probably develop burnout. Their job is demanding; people get sick, have emergencies, they die, and priests and deacons are apt to get calls at all hours of the day and night. I am only a lay minister without parish responsibilities, but dailyoffice.org is my full-time job, and I too receive pastoral demands in various forms. Bishop Cate was glad when I could tell her I go outside and do something physical, even just weeding my garden. It’s remarkably therapeutic.

So we talked for a few minutes about gardening. She doesn’t have much light where she lives, though it’s next to a forest and probably beautiful. I have good light in places and not so good in others.

I cannot say my yard is beautiful. But I can say it gives me joy.

Humble home. Annuals grow well in their sunny concrete pots, but the spaces on either side of the porch don't get enough light. (Josh Thomas)

Humble home. Annuals grow well in their sunny concrete pots, but the spaces on either side of the porch don’t get enough light. (Josh Thomas)

Of course I love planting, and enjoy the results of my labors – the rebirth in early spring of perennials (oregano, dill, chives), the progress of flowers, the blossoming of cherry trees, the first strawberries of the year. But it isn’t all about the harvest, it’s all about the process.

Some weeks it’s all about the weeds! And mowing the grass, which I do not enjoy. I’ve developed plant allergies in the past few years and have to remember to take a pill a half hour before I go out. I got all my planting done on time this year, then in mid-May I took off for eight days to visit friends in Kentucky, Texas and Louisiana. We didn’t get any rain here the entire trip, and I was a little worried for my plants. When I got home, most things had survived, the all-important impatiens on my covered side porch and the tomatoes back by the alley. I lost a few marigolds and petunias, but I felt relieved when I got home.

Since then (a little over two weeks) I’ve been out every day but yesterday, when we finally got an inch of rain. Today it was time to start mowing again. I only have a quarter of an acre, but I have to take two days to finish cutting the grass because my nose takes off for the races and I sneeze a lot. The weeds are mostly under control now; I’ve finally gotten around to working in the front yard with its problematic northern exposure. Much of what I planted there years ago needs more sunshine, and maybe I will do some transplanting after the peonies are done. Thus I doubt my front yard will ever be picture-perfect – but oh, I do enjoy the back. That’s where I live in the summertime, on my covered side porch and in the back.

My favorite place in this house. I have hanging baskets of impatiens all around, the same every year since I bought this place. I found what I wanted the first time out, so I stick with them. (Josh Thomas)

My favorite place in this house. I have hanging baskets of impatiens all around, the same every year since I bought this place. I found what I wanted the first time out, so I stick with them. (Josh Thomas)

It’s late but I will plant some gladiolus bulbs again this year. I cut back my lone surviving rosebush; it has a couple dozen blooms on it right now. I will trim it some more and make my first attempt at starting new bushes from cuttings. I’ve seen online that you can stick a fresh cutting in a potato and start it that way, or use growth hormone, which sounds creepy to me – or even dip the cut end in honey and plant that. So I will try the latter, and see if it fills in the dead space where I wasted $40 on rosebushes that didn’t survive. It will be exciting if the honey trick works; I will be proud of myself.

Today I took a notion to saw off the lower limbs on a pine tree planted on the west side; it’s probably too close to the house and I worry that the roots will crack my foundation, which already seeps water every time there’s a heavy rain. But I didn’t chop the whole thing down today, I started with eight or nine lower limbs that are in the way when I mow. Then I was shocked by how fast that tree has grown in the ten years I have lived here; it’s taller than my two-story house now, as is the blue spruce in the front yard, which I have never trimmed.

My little pruning made me realize I have cut back every tree I own except that blue spruce. There are only eight trees, but I am nobody’s idea of a lumberjack. And I don’t really know what I’m doing; I bought this house with no idea of how to take care of the greenery or how much work it would be. A decade later I am still learning. But surprisingly, I enjoy the work.

There is no one to tell me which limbs to cut, which bushes to try where or how to arrange things. It’s all learning by doing, trial and error. But oh, how delicious homegrown tomatoes are! And oh, what I’ve learned to bake with sour cherries.

Cherry cheese danish, before applying the top crust, 2012. (Josh Thomas)

Cherry cheese danish, before applying the top crust, 2012. My cherries start ripening about the 4th of July. (Josh Thomas)

So you will never see my place in House Beautiful. It’s just one more old home in smalltown Indiana. But it is mine, I’m not trying to impress anyone with it, and I probably get more enjoyment from it than a CEO with a $50 million mansion and a crew of landscapers. My failures are mine, and so are my successes. The chives on that baked potato I grew myself, and Lord, they taste good. I grew the basil in this pesto; that’s my dill in the chicken salad.

Those are my peonies, sickly though they are, planted in memory of my brother Dick; my lilies-of-the-valley in remembrance of my Grandma. My mother grew strawberries; my other brother loved azaleas. I bought that little foot-high concrete angel perched under my beloved maple, guarding another patch of impatiens. These are my onions, radishes, carrots and broccoli – my chrysanthemum that’s actually coming back.

Our Lady of the Maple Tree. (Josh Thomas)

Our Lady of the Maple Tree, with her $2 plastic border. The tree’s canopy is so full, grass can’t grow under it, but impatiens and groundcovers are happy. (Josh Thomas)

Grandma had lilies-of-the-valley. They need shade, so I planted mine under the maple tree. Martha Washington used to wear those hats, you know.

Grandma had lilies-of-the-valley. They need shade, so I planted mine under the maple tree. Martha Washington used to wear those hats, you know.

I hate yardwork, but I love gardening. That, God and friends are all I need. Oh – plus my dog!++

Luke loves summer in the backyard. (Josh Thomas)

Luke loves lounging in the summer; we like being outside together. (Josh Thomas)

Crop Rotation: My Hot Date with Orville Freeman

Orville Freeman in 1963.

He was about my speed in 1963.

When I was in 7th grade I took a mandatory course in agriculture at Morocco High School. My family lived in town, not on a farm, so I didn’t know a thing about the subject except what I picked up from visits to Grandma’s – where I mostly stayed in the house with her instead of out in the fields with Unca Deed. She owned about 200 acres in the same county, mostly planted in corn and soybeans; he also raised beef cattle and hogs, while she tended the henhouse. The two things I’d learned were that chickens don’t like you sticking your hand underneath them while they’re sitting on eggs (although you have to do it), and stay out of the “itch dirt” at all costs.

Hens get upset when they're trying to hatch babies but you come along and steal them. Plus I was always afraid of chickens; Grandma had a rooster once that attacked my brother at 5 years old; to this day he's got a scar on his cheek shaped like a chicken beak. (Vital Farms)

Hens get upset when they’re trying to hatch babies but you come along and steal them. Plus I was always afraid of chickens; Grandma had a rooster once that attacked my brother at 5 years old. To this day he’s got a scar on his cheek shaped like a chicken beak. (Vital Farms)

I was so good at reading the textbook in that class that I ended up winning the agriculture award that year, which was truly embarrassing considering that most of the pupils in the class (boys only in those days) were farm kids who already knew the difference between a bull and a steer, while I did not. So I asked, with no idea why hilarity ensued. Grinning, the teacher explained that steers had been “clamped.” That is, castrated; yuk yuk yuk.

When I was 15 and ready for driver’s training, I found out that all the farmboys (and half the girls) already knew how to drive – tractors, pickups, the family car. Not me – but in 7th grade I did know the name of the Secretary of Agriculture, which impressed the teacher quite a lot – and the farmboys not at all.

Thus I have never been a farmer, one dinky award or not, but I read all about about crop rotation; don’t keep planting the same crop in the same field year after year or you’ll wear out the soil.

Since then farmers have largely abandoned rotation, because corn is the big moneymaker, so they all practice monoculture now and repair the damage with chemical fertilizer instead – which runs off into streams when it rains, and winds up causing giant algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. When your world is as small as a farmer’s you don’t pay much attention to what happens a thousand miles away.

Mind you, I like farmers; I like the human culture where I’m from, but I still believe in crop rotation, especially when it comes to planting tomatoes in the garden. They’re a relative of nightshade, which is poisonous, and you shouldn’t keep sticking them in the same spot year after year.

Fruit of the silverleaf nightshade.

Fruit of the silverleaf nightshade; you can see the resemblance, but these guys are not good for man or beast.

This year I’m experimenting with growing tomatoes in containers on my deck – full size fruits, I hope, not those tasteless cherry tomatoes. I’m a little worried about whether this will work out; the vines can grow very large, so you’d think you’d need very big pots, but I only have one. So I did the best I could and we’ll see; I’ll learn something, and that’s half the fun of gardening (and half the frustration).

Is this a big enough pot for a tomato?

Is this a big enough pot for a tomato?

Meanwhile, what to do with that space in the back garden? Planting was late this year; spring has been cold and wet. But now, a month late, everything is in the ground or the pots, and all I have to do is weed and water. I actually like weeding; it’s something physical and mindless to do outdoors, so I don’t live in my head all the time.

All I have in the back are strawberries, a couple of rows of onions, and some flowers, marigolds and petunias. They don’t really fill up the space. I tried to buy some gladiolus bulbs, but Murphy’s isn’t selling them this year, so most of my ground will lie fallow. That’s good for the soil too; it doesn’t have to work every year, so let it rest, like in Bible times.

Strawberries mostly, with some petunias, marigolds and onions just starting.

Strawberries mostly.

Now about my big disaster last year: try to picture a Gay 7th grader who was all thumbs (none of them green), lived in town and didn’t know nothin’ about farming or gardening, because that kid is still me. I got very bold with my experiments last year. Previous experience had taught me that rabbits are the bane of my existence. We’ve got tons of them around here, 4-H projects gone awry maybe; smalltown rabbits love smalltown gardens. Two years ago I tried to grow green leafy vegetables and the rabbits got ’em; I would take Elmer Fudd’s shotgun to them if I could. Last year I mustered all my courage and built a fence, using bamboo sticks, plastic chicken wire and twist-ties. Afterward I felt so butch – so I checked it again the next morning and it was still up!

Take that, you wascally wabbits.

Ready at the rabbit hole.

Ready at the rabbit hole.

Well, my fence lasted a week or two, then one day I came home from Murphy’s to find a young guy and gal messing with my plastic fence, looking all concerned. I parked, investigated and found out what their problem was – a baby rabbit got caught in the fence and was now dangling by a leg.

Personally I’d have left him there as an example to all the other critters. But it was obvious that the girl was all worried about the poor widdle wabbit, which was hopelessly stuck, and the boyfriend couldn’t figure out what to do but for damn sure didn’t want his girlfriend upset. So I sighed and got the scissors and cut a hole in my handmade fence, thus inviting every rabbit in the county to free admission.

I couldn’t have cared less about the girl, and you already know my attitude about rabbits, so I guess I ruined my fence for the guy’s sake. Then a drought came, and what didn’t get eaten by the bunnies withered on the vine, while I swore off building any more damn fences.

I have no mechanical ability whatever. I’m not ashamed of it, it’s simply a fact of life; the same gene that turns on a Gay guy’s verbal ability turns off the switch on his motor skills.

So it’s time for some crop rotation. If I can grow tomatoes and peppers in pots on the deck, where rabbits seldom venture, maybe I’ll fill up my vegetable garden with perennials and tell the rabbits to kiss my grits.

***

Last year I didn’t get cherries because of a late frost after the trees had bloomed. The year before that birds came and ate all my cherries, because I didn’t pick them the very day they ripened. This year they’re back and starting to turn, but they’re not quite ready yet. So I will stay vigilant, with my ladder, plastic bag and maybe a stick or two of dynamite.

Almost ripe.

Almost ripe.

Elmer Fudd was right. When you live in the country it’s all about the shotgun, baby, whatever works, so you can eat.++

Luke would chase the rabbits if I'd let him - he caught a baby one last year and ate half of it - but he's too little to be left alone unsupervised.

Luke would chase the rabbits if I’d let him – he caught a baby one last year and ate half of it – but at night when the critters come out, he likes to snooze in his bed. A workin’ dog he ain’t. (He’s pure entertainment instead.)

Excelling without Recognition

What was it like for Vincent Can Gogh?

Blooming Plum Tree, 1887

Blooming Plum Tree, 1887

The public hated his paintings. Critics abused him, gallery owners threw him out in the street.

At age 37 he killed himself. Today his paintings go for $100 million.

He’s only the most famous example of a common phenomenon, the unrecognized genius – and now, his story has become too easy for us. We pigeonhole him as a tragic figure and tell ourselves he just lived before his time, as if that’s all we need to know.

What we never say is, “If I’d seen his work back then, I’d have hated it too. He was crazy, the poor sot. No one cared when he died. I didn’t either.”

We’re as guilty of rejecting excellence now as people were back then.

Have you noticed that, when the MacArthur Foundation’s genius grants come out, you’ve never heard of any of them? Or do you have Benjamin Warf, Nancy Rabalais and David Finkel on your Friends’ list?

I don’t either. Nor Terry Plank, Junot Diaz or Claire Chase. Wouldn’t know them if they showed up on TV, which they don’t.

It’s a mystery how the MacArthur Foundation finds out about these folks. But I figure they employ specialists to scour the world looking for geniuses.

They’ve sure never knocked on my door, nor of anyone else I know. My friends do tend to excel, though; maybe not geniuses, but they’re all pretty darn good.

Clearly there’s a big gap between doing great work and being well-known. That’s surely true in every field of endeavor.

This guy is suddenly well-known:

Omar Borkan Al Gala has manufactured publicity by claiming he's too sexy for Saudi Arabia. However, he was supposedly one of four men kicked out of the country, and no one's seen the other three.

Omar Borkan Al Gala has manufactured publicity by claiming he’s too sexy for Saudi Arabia. However, he’s supposedly one of three men kicked out of the country, and no one’s seen the other two.

This guy isn’t much known, but should be:

John C. Bogle, father of index investing and founder of The Vanguard Group of mutual funds, has made more "nobodies" rich than anyone in the history of the world. That's an awful lot of grandparents. (Scott S. Hamrick)

John C. Bogle, father of index investing and founder of The Vanguard Group of mutual funds, has made more “nobodies” rich than anyone in the history of the world. That’s an awful lot of grandparents. (Scott S. Hamrick)

I’m sure you can come up with your own examples – a favorite actor or singer who never quite made it, an unknown writer whose sentences take your breath away, a social critic who’s so accurate that no one can hear her, the rabbi who liberated Buchenwald but got shunned in Jerusalem.

Some people are good at the publicity machine and some people aren’t. If Theo Van Gogh had had the internet, Vincent would have died rich at 92.

Mr. Bogle’s a good example; he’s a titan of the mutual fund industry, but Wall Street billionaires won’t even make eye contact with him. He’s onto their game. Fame doesn’t interest him, but investor education does.

For a rich guy, he doesn’t orient his life around greed, but around ethics. Which makes him a worthy subject for the Gay Spirit Diary.

He was interviewed recently for Frontline, the PBS documentary series. Turns out he doesn’t think money is God.

Here’s what prompts my musings: A little while ago I posted tomorrow’s Morning Prayer on my Daily Office site for the Eastern Hemisphere. It’s a fairly ordinary post, the kind of thing I do every day – but it’s great, if I do say so.

Sometimes a person excels quietly, just doing what they do every day, whether people notice or not. There’s a lot to be said for consistency.

This post, if you haven’t seen it yet, celebrates the Saint of the Day, a poet named Christina Rossetti; notices the death of former Congressman Bob Edgar, a Methodist minister and social action leader; features a Song of Creation written by my friend Maria L. Evans, praising God for the landscape and critters of northeast Missouri; asks for prayers for the Diocese of Nevada by showing a photo of a country church on the edge of Lake Tahoe; and ends with a hymn by Charles Wesley, sung at the Anglican cathedral of Portsmouth, which isn’t one of the prestigious cities in England.

All in all, the post is kind of ordinary and kind of brilliant. For those who get into that sort of thing, it will satisfy the soul.

I like doing that. I am happy with my life. And I’m good enough at it that my prayer sites have had 2 million visitors; I have almost a thousand members on Facebook.

These things make me a “success” on some level. They don’t make me a MacArthur genius, but I’m doing pretty good. I will die content.

Part of me knows that Vincent Van Gogh didn’t give a solitary crap whether anyone liked his stuff or not. And part of me knows that he really did.

I feel the same way, both sides of that duality. I care, and I don’t. After all, you’re reading this; thank you!

I don’t need anyone to read it but you.

On the other hand, the more the merrier, and I sure would like a few more donations from the people who are getting my fabulous prayers online. Money’s the only thing I worry about – and then I shrug, because you have to; it isn’t God.

This happened to me recently: I found out that someone read my new book, understood it and liked it. Five stars on Amazon – to go with my previous one-star review.

I’d quit looking, frankly; I don’t market my books, I just write them. I don’t know who this woman is, or how she found my book. I do know that she understood it, and that’s very gratifying. “Vincent sold a painting! Yay!”

Of course I don’t compare to him; I only compare to me, though every publisher will tell you that all writers compare to everyone else in their “genre.” Amazon keeps track of these comparisons, it’s all numerical. I’m probably # 2,000,000 today; oh well.

Encouraged, I decided to check if any of my other books have reviews I hadn’t seen. Murder at Willow Slough, my first book which sold the best of the three, has 27 reviews – but look at this list of the headlines on them:

• Thoroughly unreadable
• Beautiful Gay Man meets Straight Cop
• Josh Is THE MAN
• A thrilling read
• Interesting plot, poor writing
• Great Thriller!
• Interesting plot, but could have been better
• Contemporary classic for the Hoosier State
• Stunning
• Compelling!

Keep in mind, Mark Twain gets mixed reviews on Amazon, and Shakespeare’s often called “overrated.” No one gets universal acclaim, and if they start to, there will be a backlash. I spent enough time in the newspaper business to know that the media builds you up one day, only to tear you down the next. Reporters have space to fill; that’s their job. And the public is fickle and mostly apathetic.

So I’ve learned not to expect much, though it does seem odd that I’m so polarizing to people. I get lots of love and a fair amount of hate. For every “thoroughly unreadable,” there will be an “OMG, this writing is perfect.” This is why I go months without reading reviews.

The worst, of course, is no reviews at all. If you want reviews, you have to work the publicity machine. And that takes a value set I just don’t have. (Mindset –> value set).

I look more like John Bogle than Al Gala! Though 30 years ago I was kinda cute. Didn’t take advantage of it; didn’t believe in it.

Recognition is important; it keeps an artist like Vincent alive. But at some point a real artist has to say, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.” Do what you do, keep at it, and maybe you’ll get recognized, and maybe you won’t.

Don’t kill yourself if you don’t.

IN CONCLUSION… I don’t really have a conclusion, except to take your comforts where you can. Be thankful for what you have, not regretful for what you don’t. However bad you’ve got it, somebody’s got it much worse; and similar clichés that are completely true. You have to be self-motivated; someday Al Gala will be admitted to Saudi Arabia without a second thought. What goes up must come down.

Make sure that what goes down, you bring back up.++

Luke loves me, whether you do or not!

Luke loves me, whether you do or not.

New Year’s Madness

Leonardo Ricardo/Len Clark: Feastival pot.

Leonardo Ricardo: Feastival pot.

There are times I am astonished at my own greatness.

Isn’t that the most ridiculous line you’ve ever read?

I want this essay to explore what it’s like to wake up one day and find yourself with talent.

A million people have that experience; “Hey, I’m Peyton Manning.” Or Julie Andrews, Barack Obama or Yo-Yo Ma.

Then they get up and go to the bathroom, the same as you or me.

Isn’t life crazy? You’re Frank Lloyd Wright, and then you get up to take a leak.

How do they stay sane? I do not know.

Of course I’m not Julie or Barack or Peyton. I’m not even Leonardo Ricardo, who is a certified genius and all his friends know it.

I’m not Stephen Helmreich. He’s the actual genius I’m closest to, and he’s so much smarter than I am it’s not funny.

But I am Josh, and that is good, and hello, 2013.

Think about “the hardest-working man in show business.” Who is that to you? Sammy Davis, Rich Little? The term has been applied to several performers.

What it actually means is “He’s not that talented, but he uses all he’s got.” They try to express their total admiration, “Look at how good this guy is!”

But “Everyone’s a genius on Skid Row.” A social work supervisor told me that in 1984 at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I didn’t much like her, but I’ve always remembered what she said.

Using what you’ve got, instead of peeing it away, is the name of the game.

“I’m John McEnroe! I’m Diana Butler Bass! I’m (fill in the blank)!”

Fame is public recognition that a person has talent and uses it, in public.

That takes courage, to do your thing in public; Emily Dickinson was very, very lucky. She was private, but she managed to attract a few devotés who loved her poetry and made her well known. Without them, I’d have to come up with a new example for Ms. Dickinson. In her lifetime she wasn’t famous at all.

But a few key people recognized she was a soul of uncommon beauty. So they talked her up and now we know her name.

Fame is happenstance. I bet right now you can name a hundred people in your life who are all-stars.

Few of them are famous, though. The set of people who are {famous} ≠ those who are {talented.}

Fame itself is not a thing one ought to pursue. (Kim Kardashian is pregnant! Who exactly is Kim Kardashian?) The person who is wise as well as talented pursues her talent, not her fame. She can’t help it; Susan Boyle was born with that voice, and she has to sing.

She would die if she could not; the people on Skid Row have voices but prevented themselves from singing.

God makes more talent than “men” make famous.

It’s kind of a scary thing. But then you look at a bowl by Leonardo Ricardo and just go, “Wow.”

How did he do that? And why? “It takes so much patience,” that pointilism of his. He’s in fucking Guatemala; who gets famous in Guatemala? But the place is teeming with talent, apparently.

He doesn’t need to be famous; he’s famous among his friends, and that is good enough.

If someday he becomes actually famous, won’t that be a joy. (Or not; it can go wrong.)

I do not know why I am not famous – except that I come from a particular place, which might as well be Guatemala, and I’ve never pursued fame, especially compared to Kim Kardashian, and “talent” I think probably seeks its own level and finds it.

If, years later, you go back and watch Susan Boyle’s introductory video on “Britain’s Got Talent,” you’ll see that whatever she lacked in looks, she made up for in chutzpah. She walked out on that stage prepared. She knew what her talent was, and that if she could get a chance to sing, she could bring down the house.

They gave her a chance and she brought it down. Instant worldwide fame.

Most of us don’t know what she’s done since, but she’s still got that voice inside her body. She still can make, and always will make, that sound.

I’m no Susan Boyle. I don’t even carry Doug Blanchard’s water. I’m just Josh, and that’s pretty good.

I’m happy with my life, this first day of 2013. I’m singing. It’s what my body needs to do, so I’m doing it.

What prompts these musings? Why am I yammering on here? Several things which fuse in my mind.

• I looked over ten days’ worth of posts from dailyoffice.org. This is the public performance I’m best known for now; Morning and Evening Prayer, plus graphics I select, with an occasional prayer of my own composition. I’m happy with my posts, with the art and little comments. It’s some beautiful stuff, and my site’s had two million visitors. I like what I’ve done, and I’m pleased to have a following. Every day, a thousand people get e-mails with my stuff. It’s mostly about God and not about me, but people sign up because, well, I deliver them God.

Leonardo does too; Stephen and Doug and Diana and Grandmère, Robert and Malcolm and Sara. We all do this; we all deliver God, which is a really fun thing to do.

But the other day some friend of Leilani’s posted a hurtful comment. She re-posts my stuff on Facebook for her followers, but FB gave her trouble with the link, which she mentioned in frustration, and some guy wrote, “Go to Mission St. Clare, it’s much better!”

That’s the competition, and no, it isn’t better. It’s run by a machine and not a person. But it’s good, and I’m happy to acknowledge it – because God is good, who you kiddin’? – and anything or anyone who delivers God is doing right. Still, I wondered if that guy knew how hurtful his Christian comment was. “Josh is bad, St. Clare is much better!”

Oh yeah? Sez who?

• I put out a book last fall, The Gospel According to Gay Guys. It’s extremely long, starts out with graphic Gay sex, and it’s not going to make me famous, but I’m proud of it. It distills everything I think I know.

It’s sold enough to pay my electric bill for a few months, and my genius friend Stephen raved about the first couple of chapters he read before life made him put it down. I was pleased by his excellent reaction.

This book has one reader-review on Amazon. It’s one star; I haven’t read it. I just know the person hated it.

I do have the ability to piss people off. Usually I don’t even know when I’m doing it; I make a simple statement, some truth that is evident to me, but whammo, I’m in big trouble.

The few times that Jack, my late beloved done-me-wrong, raised his voice to me, I rushed to stop what I was doing in the latest pissoff. But I can’t do that with strangers, and even Julie Andrews ain’t gonna win ’em all.

• Some part of me is glad I have that pissoff factor. The same thing led me to march for Stonewall in 1974, when sidewalk gawkers outnumbered Pride participants; in 1980, when I led a student rebellion at college; in 1982, when I founded AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati, the world’s second-oldest AIDS services organization. Prophets get stoned; I’m proud of my battle scars.

But I don’t like bad reviews, when I’m trying to deliver you God here.

• I’m engaged today in a mini-debate on The New York Times website. They ran an article about Lincoln and Walt Whitman, part of their Civil War series. I commented on Lincoln’s Gay sensibility, which I see dimly between America’s Poet and America’s President. This got some Likes, as well as a chorus of dissenters. A hundred and fifty years later, after three states have voted in Gay marriage, Lincoln’s hetero defenders still turn out in force. That’s fine, I’m not surprised by this, but it does get old after awhile. I don’t claim the fact that he slept in the same bed as other guys while circuit-riding in the wilderness proves he was Gay; for that I look to his relationship with Whitman, distant but respectful. Those two loved each other, but America still doesn’t want to hear it.

God cannot possibly be Gay.

• But God is Gay to those of us who are, and Straight to those who swing the other way, and female if you need her to be; Jewish, Arab, Christian, Black and utterly Japanese. What else would God be but Black or Japanese?

I do not whine; I’m not famous and never will be. Some people hate my books, my sites and my life. Some people like them, too, and for that I’m very glad. They enable me to keep singing by their belief.

Leonardo, down in volcanic Guatemala, keeps on making his bowls and pots and tables and entire house with pointilistic perfection, and if you ain’t been there it’s your tough luck. His doggies snuggle up; he’s got a Juan Carlos, too. The garden blooms, the feasts get made and he lives happily ever after.

Not famous, just talented. Happy New Year.++

To Luke I'm the center of the universe - or at least the guy with crunch food twice a day.

To Luke I’m the center of the universe – or at least the guy with the food twice a day.

A Gardener’s Hope Springs Eternal

I bought onion sets today at Murphy's.

It’s Monday, after a big weekend of good highs and one horrible low that threatened to leave me depressed all day. But now things are looking up, because I’ve been gardening on the first day of spring. It was 75º in Indianapolis this afternoon, tomorrow will also be warm, and I’m just back from the village market with onion sets ready for planting. Onions like cool weather, which will return by the end of the week.

My outdoor activity today consisted mostly of cleaning out the remaining beds I didn’t get to last fall. The vegetable garden is ready, the strawberry plants are putting out green shoots and the perennial herb garden is already producing chives, oregano and the first tarragon. I know there’s a baked potato in my future, and tonight when I make enchiladas the sauce will be enhanced by some baby oregano leaves. Plus my crocus are starting to pop.

Up front, with its northern exposure, the hostas are stirring; no sign of them yet under the big old maple tree in the back yard, but that may be because there are no leaves to shade them from the sun. I’m also hoping my lily of the valley bulbs start to wake up; May will be here in 40 days, my birthday month, and that’s the time for lilies of the valley. The azaleas have new leaves, the tulips are rising, and I even hauled a trunkload to the recycling center. Things are starting to look good at my house.

Two good things happened last weekend; I made a presentation to the adult education class at St. John’s, Crawfordsville about dailyoffice.org, and Luke spent a successful night at the doggie hotel, the first time we were apart since I got him. I accepted the speaking invitation before I realized I’d have to make provisions for him, and that proved surprisingly difficult; my hosts Helen and Marc have cats, so they really didn’t want me to bring him, my vet was full, the county extension agent (any pet sitters in the 4-H club?) didn’t return my call, and kennels in Lafayette wanted me to come in and fill out paperwork two weeks in advance when I was already past their deadline. (I don’t fill out paperwork for the privilege of giving somebody money.) But Helen found a pet boarding place in the country outside Crawfordsville, it was a lot cheaper than anyone else, and the couple who runs it were as nice as could be. Pa took a shining to my dog. Sunday morning he put Luke inside his jacket, went indoors to eat his own breakfast, and fed the boy a few morsels of toast. “They don’t come any better than him,” he told me when I picked Luke up. I was thrilled – because he’s right. He also wished all his dogs were as quiet as Luke, who doesn’t bark indoors.

The people at church were warm and friendly, a responsive audience, and I’d put together a little outline of what I wanted to say about the Daily Office online (Morning and Evening Prayer on a couple of websites I run). Saying the Office regularly is the best way I know to get closer to God, who gets closer to us every time we turn to him/her. The more often we do it, the closer we get; and after 1.3 million site visitors, I’ve learned some things about online community. I’ve come to “know” a lot of people I never would have met without the internet; when I ask them to pray for someone they do it, and they write e-mails and leave comments that fill me with joy. Now here I was with a real congregation (maybe 30 people) who wanted to know about the Church of the future and how the online experience fits with that. It’s no substitute for the sacraments and belonging to an ongoing community, but God wants us to communicate with each other. We looked at parish and diocesan websites on a big screen and watched part of a video of Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir singing his composition “Lux Aurumque.” It’s quite moving and we all wondered, “How’d they do that?”

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/D7o7BrlbaDs?fs=1&hl=en_US&rel=0

I’ve spoken in public a lot, and I was well-prepared for this gig, but I also felt myself rambling a little as I spoke; it’s the first time I’ve ever been asked to give this presentation, and I could probably have gone twice as long if anyone would listen. Praying the Daily Office has changed my life; I’ve learned an awful lot about the Episcopal Church these past six years, that we’re much stronger and more faithful than anyone thinks, but we do have to make some changes if we’re going to attract more people. Using the internet well is one way to do that.

At any rate Helen said the crowd at St. John’s liked it, so I guess I didn’t do too bad. It was lovely to go to church afterwards, since I don’t get to make my communion all that often, stuck here in the hinterlands.

Crawfordsville is also personally significant – it’s the setting for my next book – and I learn more about the place every time I visit. I have some rewriting to do now on my novel in progress; I’m writing this first, then I’ll break for enchiladas and spend the rest of the evening composing new sentences.

Meanwhile for the first time Luke is sitting quietly on my lap as I type; we’ve never done this before. Usually when he sits in my lap (a little rat terrier, ten pounds) he’s all hyper. Maybe he knows that farmer loved him like I do.

As for the thing that bummed me out, Purdue men’s basketball team lost in the NCAA tournament to a team they should have whipped like heavy cream, the worst performance I’ve seen in decades; it was bad coaching in my view, and it’s too bad because they’re great kids who’ve had a fantastic season. College basketball is my other religion, and it’s hard to watch your team Go to Hell, Go Directly to Hell, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.

But it was just a game, and when you’re down, do something constructive instead. Take out the recycling, love your dog, clean out the flowerbeds and the herb garden, ’cause there’s baby oreganos already, yours for the taking. It’s spring, and good eating’s on the way.++

Even with directions on their butts, Purdue lost.

Forgiving the Murderers, Part 2

Leon Bonnat: Jacob Wrestling the Angel, 1876 (Dahesh Museum of Art)

Three weeks ago I had a knockdown dragout fight with God, which naturally God won. Undefeated, that God; see previous post. Undisputed World Champion with the belts and trophies to prove it.

Whew. I feel so much better!

On December 21, 2010, I watched a documentary film on Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she founded a small museum called CANDLES, Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors – a memorial to twins who were subjected to medical torture by Dr. Josef Mengele. Eva and her twin sister Miriam were two of the kids Mengele infected with deadly bacteria.

No one who wasn’t there in Auschwitz can really know what this experience was like; our brains can barely comprehend the evil – and how much worse it was for children of little understanding, ripped from their parents’ arms. It’s the kind of ongoing trauma that scars a kid for life, like being the victim of pedophilia, child abuse, domestic violence.

Forty, fifty, sixty years later, the child keeps wondering, “Why?” “Why did no one stop him? Why does no one want to hear about it today?”

“Why did I survive? What do I do now?”

Mrs. Kor, who’s now quite elderly, has made the most remarkable response imaginable, in the face of unmitigated evil.

She remembers the abuse; in her museum she tells the story she and her sister and hundreds of other children underwent; she speaks to school groups in high schools and universities; she’s written a couple of books; and finally she came to the realization that to truly survive and thrive, she had to forgive her abuser.

The film “Forgiving Dr. Mengele” is the result.

A film by Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh.

My mother, brothers and I were/are survivors of domestic violence. My father wasn’t the same as Dr. Mengele, although we have a few things in common with those twins. We didn’t know there was worse evil in the world, though of course there was. Somehow we got through it. And though my life was horribly twisted for many decades by the experience, I did eventually grow wise enough to forgive my parents.

I thought that would be the end of my need to grieve, and to claim my right to exist. But it wasn’t; I had more forgiving to do, which I only found out once I saw Mrs. Kor’s movie.

I had to forgive the homophobes too – the kids who terrorized me in high school, the criminals who tortured Matthew Shepard, the despicable president Reagan who refused to utter the word AIDS until his friend Rock Hudson came down with it years later; the Falwells and Robertsons and other professional hatemongers who drive GLBT kids to suicide.

I had to forgive them all, so in my boxing with God, I was the one who was knocked down and dragged out.

I waited for several days before I wrote about this in my last post. I was exhausted from the fight. I wasn’t sure my brain could properly understand what I went through in those days just before Christmas; I didn’t know if I could communicate clearly to you.

I also had to wait a couple of weeks to tell my spiritual director Marcia about it. When you need to see your therapist it can be hard to wait for your next appointment. But I did wait and she responded wonderfully. I also lent her my copy of the video, which she showed to her friends, and soon we’re all headed to Terre Haute to visit Mrs. Kor. If the timing works out we’ll take my pal Leonardo with us, and if not, I’ll drive him there myself.

In the meantime, have I been healed? It’s early yet, but the preliminary results are quite striking. I have almost no desire to destroy myself with alcohol.

That is a huge advance, because I’ve been fighting booze for decades. Whether I was drunk or sober or cycling between the two, I have always had a constant impulse toward the slow suicide. Alcoholism killed one of my brothers; our mother died of lung cancer from smoking. I never had much desire to jump off a bridge, but the longer I lived the more entrenched the motive became to show “the world” how damaged I was by my childhood traumas.

Of course, the world pays no attention to such scripty messages and will cheerfully let you jump off a bridge or land on Skid Row if you must, but I was caught up with something to prove. Because of this, a simplistic approach like AA never did me any good, though God bless ’em for all the people they do help.

Instead I had to deal with my version of Dr. Mengele – and ultimately walk away from him, stop fighting and accept that This Is What Homo-Haters Do.

“Father, forgive them for they know not.” I’m quoting Jesus here, people.

Besides being joyfully sober, I am eating up a storm these days; I’ve always been one of those people who doesn’t eat when he drinks, which is a guaranteed way to make yourself pathetically, disgustingly sick. I’d go days without a morsel, then I’d pay and pay and pay.

As I write I’m eating a ham and cheese sandwich. I’ve gained ten glorious pounds just since Christmas and am up to 125!

My sleeping schedule is still screwed up; a drunk doesn’t sleep, he passes out. But I’m paying attention to my body now, sleeping when I feel a need no matter what the hour, not regulating myself with drugs. Eventually I’ll get back to a normal schedule as my body rights itself.

I still have an enormous backlog of postponed work to do; my bedroom office is a huge mess of papers I avoided deciding what to do with. The garage has more recycling in storage than Oscar Winski & Co. I have stacks of books I haven’t started, much less finished.

BUT the dog is doing good; my sidewalks and porches are clear of snow; the dining room positively sparkles, and my Daily Office websites have been up to date no matter what; 1.1 million served!

Best of all for my mental health, I’m back to working on my next novel, a ten-year project almost. I have three new chapters since the first of the year. It’s really hard to create something at the same time you’re destroying yourself.

So I have a bit of a personal miracle to live through in this my 60th year. I have been or am being healed, not from my own act or decision but from being visited by a junior-grade angel from Terre Haute.

Eva Kor doesn’t like it when people praise her; she isn’t a hero, she’s just a survivor of evil, a person who learned, over decades, what healing would actually be like and what it takes to get there.

She says it doesn’t have anything to do with religion. So while mine does (I was writhing on the floor in front of a crucifix), hers doesn’t. Fine with me.

She is still a bit of an angel to me because she has the courage to live her life in public, for others, as well as privately for herself and with her family. She has always understood that she and Miriam weren’t the only ones the monster tried to murder. Therefore her remembrances and her working it out have had to be public too.

When Hercules and Pugh wanted to make a movie, she went along with it, in case it would help someone else.

This hasn’t prevented public criticism or repeated anti-Semitic attacks, but she is stronger than her seeming enemies. The funniest scene in the movie recounts her attempts to get a job as a real estate agent. She went to Realtor school, studied hard, graduated easily, then no one in Terre Haute would hire her; they’d hire less qualified people, but not her. And they’d lie about it; they’d give excuses. She has an Eastern European accent, but really it was more that she was damaged goods, a Holocaust survivor and public about it, which broke the rules about how to be Invisibly Jewish in smalltown Indiana. So all the real estate companies threw up roadblocks—which she took one look at and finally knocked down. “I survived Auschwitz,” she tells her interviewer. “They think I can’t sell real estate?”

You could say she has an iron will, but I think her quest has always been more personal than that; how she can survive, and especially how to honor her twin sister Miriam, who died several years ago of the lingering effects of Mengele’s Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments.

How does a victim of pedophilia, child abuse, rape or domestic violence—or organized racism-for-profit—hang onto life, cope, grow and eventually come to terms with it all, so she can become her own true self?

Mrs. Kor’s answer is that she found a way for herself through forgiveness. She doesn’t say everyone has to (and there are plenty of people who utterly refuse), but she does tell the understanding she came to.

I am the one who hears echoes of Jesus in her gospel: “Love thine enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.”

If you still have an old giant hurt in your soul that you cannot escape, ask yourself a simple question: Who else do I have to forgive?

I thought I’d let go of my big trauma, but it turned out I was wrong, I still had big work to do. Three weeks later, without conscious effort on my part, I happily report that I am becoming free.++

On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts shot and killed all ten girls in an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. The chief mourners at his funeral were his Amish neighbors.