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Dog & I Prepare for Winter

My backyard maple tree in October 2007, as published in the Chicago Tribune.

The weather’s been a bit unstable here lately in Northwest Indiana; we’ve had some cold days and some warm ones, and the clash between them gave us a tornado watch last night. Indiana is #2 in auto manufacturing, corn production and tornadoes, but Luke and I got through the night okay.

Football is giving way to basketball; Purdue football is gone with the wind after season-ending injuries to the starting quarterback, the #1 wide receiver and the leading running back. I expect we’ll beat That Other School though and win the Old Oaken Bucket.

The men’s basketball team is doing great, even after the devastating loss of star forward Robbie Hummell, who blew out his right knee again in pre-season practice. Purdue was rated a Final Four team before Hummell went down for the year, and analysts everywhere downgraded the team’s stock to second-rate, despite the presence of NBA prospects JaJuan Johnson and Etwaun Moore. So what’s happened? The bench has stepped up mightily, led by John Hart, D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson. Purdue has climbed in the polls to #8 in the nation; those kids are getting better and better at defense, and last year’s wildly inconsistent freshmen are turning into sophomores who can score.

Where I come from all this matters; you may not care for sports, but these are Indiana kids by and large, playing for and studying at the university our ancestors built.

On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band will lead off the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York; 9 a.m. Eastern on NBC.

Now the trees are showing off their nakedness and Turkey Day is almost here.

I’ve been raking and cleaning out the gardens on the warmer days, while my dog’s been taking advantage of what warmth there still is.

This year I have not been a diligent raker; I’ve maybe put out 10 huge bags of leaves, not 50. I deal with leaves the old-fashioned way, by hand; and yes, I do get tired of it and quit early. Maybe I should buy a $70 leaf-blower, but I just can’t bring myself to shell out even that modest amount of money for a power tool I’d use only two days a year. My neighbors have leaf-blowers and nice clean yards; I suppose I’m too rigid. But there’s something character-building about raking your own damn leaves, and I don’t mind doing it as long as it’s warm out.

The good gardeners on my block have long since cleaned out their gardens; I’m still working at it. The strawberries of course stay in the ground; I’ve cleaned out the peppers, broccoli and cabbages. The tomatoes are so gigantic and overgrown in this black loam that I’ll have to take clippers to the vines.

Tonight I indulged once again in a summer ritual. I saved several green tomatoes before the frost, and all have ripened now, so I ate one over the sink with a salt shaker in hand; delicious. I happen to think home-grown tomatoes are the world’s most perfect food; not milk, not bananas, Indiana tomatoes. Ones I grew!

But the wind does blow colder and it’s time for things to change. The biggest impact isn’t on me, but on my dog.

In warm weather I keep Luke outdoors on a lead for most of the day while I mostly work indoors. He loves sunshine and running around on his own, making his presence known to the neighborhood dogs and getting into whatever innocent mischief he can find. When it’s hot out I take him water or let him lick an ice cube in my hand; on the hottest days I bring him back indoors to the air conditioning. But today was cool enough that after two hours he wanted back inside.

He’s a little 11-pound rat/fox terrier mix, no fat on him, all energy, and I can’t tell that he grows more coat in the winter. I don’t want him too hot or too cold.

Now is that transitional time of year when he doesn’t want to be outside all day, so I decided it was time for us to go into winter mode as far as our routines. One thing I’ve learned from having this guy, he is all about the routines.

I got Luke a year ago last month, a rescue dog from the Humane Society of Indianapolis; he’d just turned 3, and we think he grew up on the streets until one day he got run over by a car, which led him to the vets and other kind people at HSI, who fixed him right up. He wasn’t house-trained and didn’t know much when I brought him home, though I could tell he was hugely affectionate. He still doesn’t know how to play ball or chew on a balled-up sock.

We’ve spent a year learning about each other; I think we’ve finally got the toilet-training thing down, as it’s been months since he had a so-called “accident.” He’s quite good at learning, as long as I can make him understand the rules. Indeed he’s so scrupulous about pleasing me that sometimes he misinterprets my confusing directions; in other words his guardian’s not that competent. My bad.

But he’s learned a trick or two and we’re doing just fine.

Since it was already cold weather when I got him, we established a winter routine last year; he spends his days in the office with me, except for mealtimes. After he gets food he spends 15-20 minutes outdoors on his lead for the poop-and-pee routine, then he comes back inside. Until this spring, that was what he knew. He learned to jump up in my office chair, where I’d pet him and spin him around. When he got tired he’d lie down in a sunbeam streaming through the windows.

Then last spring I changed things on him and put him outside all day.

Now it’s November, and today I decided to remind him about coming upstairs to the office so we can hang out together. He happily remembered, and I happily spun him around clockwise, then counter-clockwise, and when we came to rest he licked my hand.

So we’re back to winter mode, and I’m glad. I still shut my office door on us because I want to keep an eye on him, don’t entirely trust him in the P&P department, but he’s doing good.

The great thing about him is how much he makes me laugh. That’s sure worth a 59¢ can of dog food that lasts three days.

I like that he remembers “winter mode” from last year. He knows that summer mode has come to an end. As the days grow darker earlier, he tries to manipulate me into feeding him earlier, but I don’t do it. He’s a fascinating study in human relations.

I hate winter, but I love going into winter mode with my dog. He’s glad for his chow on a regular schedule, for being indoors when it’s cold, for hanging out with me and whirling around in my swivel chair. He licks my hand more in the wintertime, and when he’s sleepy he finds a sunbeam to snooze in.

I love my dog; taking care of him is just like posting tomorrow’s Daily Office, a spiritual discipline which I do whether I feel like it or not. Often (the work is mostly formatting, and ever-changing) I do not feel like keeping my promises.

But I have an audience, I have a dog, so I do what I said I’d do.

That’s how to get closer to God, by adopting a routine. When we have someone else we’re responsible for, we learn to conform our habits, no matter what our transient emotions. Most people don’t want to say the same “Magnificat” every day of their lives, but when we go ahead and do it, life becomes magnificent.++

Beta dog. Ice cube lover. Prettyboy. Sweet as cotton candy.

Garden Wrapup, and I’ve Got Broccoli!

To harvest, you need a sharp knife.

The forecast low temperature for tomorrow night is 27º, so I was outside this afternoon doing the last harvesting of my garden – and lo and behold, I’ve finally got two heads of broccoli!

I couldn’t believe it, but they’re beautiful things. One is as big as you’d see in a store, one is smaller – and there’s a little bitty floret all on its own, cute as the dickens.

Took ’em long enough; I planted them months ago, and they didn’t seem to do anything. My cabbage never did form a head, and though I only planted it for decoraton, I yanked it out today and put it in the compost pile. But I have broccoli, plus three whole shopping bags full of produce.

I ended up with two dozen bell peppers, three dozen tomatoes (some green, but they’ll ripen indoors), a dozen or so onions (which didn’t grow as big as I’d hoped) and a whole huge mess of leeks.

I ran into my friend Jayne this evening at Murphy’s grocery, and she’s coming by tomorrow after school to get some leeks, peppers, fresh oregano and green tomatoes. I love her, but I’m not giving up my broccoli!

[Sidebar: Until now I’d have said I am “almost never” a selfish person. I know a lot of others like me, including my best friend Stephen; indeed, none of my friends is the least bit selfish. They’re kind, loving people, which is pretty much my criterion for who gets admitted into my circle of real friends. I have a lot of them.

[But when it comes to my own produce, I am both generous and self-interested. I’ve only got 2.1 heads of broccoli and dammit, them’s goin’ into my soup!

[So come to find out that regarding food, I am as greedy and protective as my dog Luke. He’s developed a habit lately at breakfast. He’ll go and look at his pellets, but he doesn’t start eating until I leave the kitchen and start opening up the blinds to let in the morning. At suppertime he’s entirely different; he knows that meat and veggies are his, and he races to dig in. But in the morning I have to prove that I’m not interested in his stuff.

[The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are very concerned about human selfishness; “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” That constant refrain and warning have never really made total sense to me; I was already brainwashed/in love with Jesus at a very young age, I got the message the first time. I’m a social worker, a Gay activist, a commissioned evangelist; I chose voluntary poverty when I was 14 and I’m glad I did. I also have the tremendous blessing I call the Shared Gay Personality™, which in my experience is wonderfully altruistic. But here I am guarding a dollar’s worth of broccoli. “That’s mine, dammit!”]

This evening I made my friend John’s recipe for potato-leek soup. It’s perfect in terms of technique, though naturally I tweaked it a bit. Mind you, as a smalltown Hoosier I’ve never eaten leeks before, much less grown them. First the recipe, plus my additions in parentheses, and then my reaction.

Puréeing is good, but leave some lumps in, I say.

John’s Potato-Leek Soup

5 leeks, sliced (mine were less than an inch in diameter)
1 onion, chopped coarsely
2 T oil (1 T butter, 1 T olive oil)
3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
14 oz can of chicken broth
4 C water
S&P to taste
(1 C whole milk)
(chopped parsley to taste)

Heat butter and oil; add leeks and onion and cook to opaque but not brown. Add broth, water and potatoes; bring to boil, then simmer 10-15 minutes until cooked through. Purée in blender (but only two-thirds; I want some lumps so you know I made this by hand). (Add milk, return to low heat; add parsley.) Serves 8 maybe.

The result? It’s very good and technically perfect, since you also get the flavor of the potato broth. And it’s very, very easy.

But the leeks are too mild for this to be as good a potato soup as you can make. For that you need onions, not leeks.

Mind you, I regard onions as a kitchen miracle; they add so much to so many things I cook. Stir-frys, meat loaf, spaghetti sauce, pot roast, omelets, pizza; when I’m chopping onions I know I’m cooking.

Yet I would never describe myself as an onion-lover, as if I can’t get enough of that taste. I use them in proportion, they’re seldom the stars in my cookery, any more than garlic is, another onion relative that adds depth and flavor.

But I guess I do love onions, and my Grandmother made a fabulous potato soup with them, better than this potato-and-leek version. Potato soup was one of the first dishes I mastered, when I was maybe 13.

Leeks are wonderful (and the leaves are so pretty), but so far to me they’re bland. Why would anyone eat this soup when they could eat Grandma’s?

Leeks are described as sweet and mild. But the pungency of an onion adds so much more flavor. Considering that potatoes themselves are bland, why add mild to bland? I did find out to add more black pepper than usual, a dozen twists on my little mill at least, when ordinarily I’m cautious with the peppercorns; I’m a Hoosier, we don’t do spicy food.

My big satisfaction this evening was, as it’s been all summer, growing some of my own food. And you can’t get fresher than just picked today. No fertilizer, no herbicides, just good old Indiana loam, some of the richest soil on earth.

This land is so fertile that my tomato plants bent their cages double. I’m used to the vines growing a yard tall and five feet wide, producing scores of fruits per plant, but this year they just went nuts. Tomatoes are my favorite food, but I let some of them rot on the vine after I’d put up all I thought I could use.

Still, as the season wanes, the last few tomatoes become ever dearer; when winter comes the ones for sale in the stores are pretty much worthless. So even though I had bags and bags of produce to clean and make decisions about, I had to eat one of my ripe tomatoes fresh over the sink with a salt shaker in my hand. You ain’t Hoosier till the tomato juice drips off your chin.

At season’s end I feel like I made great progress as a gardener this year; I had an actual vegetable garden for the first time, instead of my previous haphazard experiments. I cleared out and marked off a good large space with a southern exposure, instead of planting things in flowerbeds next to the house and seeing what worked. I grew several new species; it’s not good to just grow the same old things year after year. I had strawberries and broccoli and leeks, as well as the usual herbs, tomatoes and peppers. I tried new things; I don’t know why the cabbage didn’t work – or maybe I do.

Some people love to eat cabbage; I mostly like to look at it.

The biggest learnings come from failures, including that cabbage. I should have enclosed it, and the broccoli and peppers, in chickenwire to keep the rabbits out. I’m so unmechanical I don’t know how to build things, but I think next year I’ll try driving some sticks in the ground and wrapping plastic fencing around. This won’t entirely deter rabbits, who are happy to dig underground for free rabbit food, but it will slow them down and maybe give me a cabbage or two to look at. I have nothing against eating cabbage, it’s good for you, but I’m a single guy who can’t possibly eat the whole thing before it goes bad.

My other big failure was not watering the garden when I should have. From spring to midsummer we had plenty of rain here, but by mid-August we went into a mild drought, and I should have been faster on the uptake; tomatoes are nothing but sunshine and water. Instead of huge and perfect juicy fruits as I had in early summer, in time they started to split, which invites bugs and then it’s all over. A good gardener keeps track of the rain.

I am not a good gardener yet, but I’m getting there. Most of my strawberry plants survived, but a few of them died, probably because I neglected to water them. That’s okay; instead of planting the ever-bearing variety as I did this year, I’ll plant the spring-bearing “ohmygod it’s a strawberry festival” ones next year, and make jam with the surplus like I used to for my mother.

I doubt I plant leeks. I don’t dislike them but I wasn’t that impressed, and I think I’ll put down onions instead, and maybe some radishes again. Planting leeks as seedlings, which is how Murphy’s offers them, is a pain in the ass. They are tiny little things, 400 to a four-compartment plastic container, and I didn’t find any good advice online about how to deal with them; all the articles from state extension services discuss planting from seed only. I separated my seedlings as seemed best at the time, planting 20 or 30 of them in a hole instead of one by one, but what that gave me was a clump of 30 ingrown leeks. Why would I want 400, especially when they’re “sweet and mild?”

Nope, I want onions instead.

This year I tried out a new type of triangular tomato cage made of plastic, where you can put the crossbars where the plant needs them, instead of where the stamped-out wire happens to go. That plastic cage is the only one still standing; the wire ones I’ve had for some years proved worthless in this rich and juicy rivermuck. In very fertile soil it’s much better to build a modular structure as needed, knowing the vine’s going to grow five feet wide and spill all over everywhere if you don’t control it.

Tomatoes supported on a cage don’t get down in the dirt where they can be attacked by bugs. I’m tellin’ ya, I had a tomato jungle again this year. Leonardo thinks Guatemala’s wild; he should see what grows in my loam.

One last thing: a very old woman who’s an expert gardener lives four doors down at the end of my block. I’m told she’s a farmer’s wife who moved into town with her husband when they retired; that’s common here, because life in town is more convenient. When old age stops tying you to the land, you move to town.

I’ve never met her, a widow now, though I’ve seen her hobbling along on occasional walks, a little old lady in Reeboks. Her home, lawn and vegetable garden are impeccable. She already has her garden cleared for next year; has had for a couple of weeks.

Today I learned that there has to come a time when you say about a garden, “That’s it, I’m done for the year, this is the best I can do.” She gets a head start on next spring by preparing her land this fall. For the first time I emulated her today, as I finished my harvest and started ripping things out.

Every year she builds her own rabbit fence; does her weeding in the morning before it gets hot. Doubtless she measures the rain day by day and waters her garden as needed; it’s always lush. I envy her for knowing so much more than I do, and doing her work instead of getting lazy once the thrill of planting fades away. Anyone can get excited about growing things in the springtime; the key to a garden is regular maintenance.

I did a better job of weeding this year than ever before, and I cleared that land, marked it off and planted new species. My marigold terrace is still half-fabulous, at least until tomorrow night; I had chives and oregano and parsley and tomatoes and tarragon to beat the band. My impatiens and dill, lilies and peonies gave me enormous pleasure. I grilled out on the side porch all summer, and taught my dog to stay there with me.

But there’s no substitute for experience; for trying and failing, for learning by doing. Grow some leeks, see what they’re like; switch to onions next year if you like, or petunias or pumpkins. Keep the water steady and the weeds under control.

The rules are pretty basic but you have to pay attention.

I hope I get to meet Mrs. Voglund someday; maybe we’ll talk about leeks, and why onions are really much better. Maybe we’ll talk about controlling rabbits.

Maybe I’ll tell her how fabulous Grandma’s potato soup was; how she chopped and cooked everything by hand, and never puréed.++

The only image on the internet of a simple potato soup, without garnishes, toppings, machinery or fanciness.

Life with Luke: One Great Year, One Fantastic Day

Luke on Day 2 at home.

One year ago I brought home a little 10-pound rat terrier/fox terrier mix from the wonderful Humane Society of Indianapolis and named him Luke.

He was three years old and had never had a home before. I could tell that he was shy around people, but that he had a good disposition, which in my limited experience is characteristic of the breed. But I didn’t know then what a great boy he was.

He wasn’t toilet-trained, so that became the first priority – and it took us quite awhile; I’d never trained a dog before. He was jealous of his food; I was the one who gave it to him, but he kept expecting me to steal it back.

Apparently he grew up on the streets, fending for himself. He wasn’t that friendly toward other dogs; I wouldn’t call him aggressive, but he’s certainly assertive, and he doesn’t care how big another dog is, Luke stands his ground.

He was good on a leash, though; I figure that was thanks to the Humane Society of Kokomo, where he was brought in after he was hit by a car. Kokomo patched him up, then transferred him to Indy for adoption.

When I got him he was used to living in a cage, being fed and treated nicely within the confines of life in a shelter. No doubt he felt the food supply was good, and he must have liked how the people treated him when it was his turn for some attention.

The day we met, he was stand-offish at first, but then he did take a chance on me, and I had no doubt from that moment that he was the one I was looking for.

Still, the first week he was here he trembled the whole time; it’s hard to get used to a new place and one primary human, especially one as ignorant as me. My family had a series of foxies when I was a kid, but I’ve never been the main caregiver before. I had to study all the training materials HSI gave me, and read a lot online. In a few days, instead of letting him sleep on a blanket in the dining room, I bought him a crate. That was a good move. He likes his house.

Still, his social development and even motor skills left a lot to be desired. He was afraid of stairs, and I live in a two-story house. He’s a little bitty guy, as you can imagine, but hardly the smallest of breeds; he could handle stairs physically, but he needed to learn. Then he got to where he’d run down, but not up!

He has made me laugh a lot this past year.

There are still things he can’t do; he has no interest in chasing a ball or wrestling over a tied-up sock; with him it’s either a squirrel or a rabbit, or no dice. He’s a hunter, though I don’t let him hunt. He doesn’t really know how to play, and maybe once they get a certain age you can’t teach them. I’ve never met a dog who wouldn’t go bounding after a tennis ball, but not this guy.

He’s learned a lot, though, this past year. One of the biggest lessons was Sit, but that only took a day or two. (Today when we visited the vet for his second annual physical, I saw him sit for the tech, then the doctor, which filled me with joy.)

He’s learned that at suppertime, he’s to sit quietly in the dining room while I get his food ready. I’ll be damned if I’m going to have a dog begging underfoot in my kitchen; I feed him canned food or some human food at night, which means I’m moving around, rinsing off utensils and putting them in the dishwasher, and he’s to sit and wait out of the way.

Considering that this is food, he doesn’t mind one bit.

But oh, the instant I’m done with the prep, he comes and sits on the little rug by the sink, still out of the way. We have a routine for this; he knows he’s not to move until I put the leftovers in the fridge. Once I pick up his dish, he used to try to follow me, but again that only took one time of being told to Sit for him to get the message. (I still reinforce it occasionally and pretend to give him the evil eye, with his dish in midair. He doesn’t move a muscle.)

Once he hears me set the dish down, though, on the other side of the breakfast island out of his sight, then he’s free to move. The first few times this meant we were getting our legs crossed up, and he quickly corrected that on his own; he politely waits for me to exit that little cramped corner – then he eats.

He never barks in the house, seldom whines (and only for a second) and isn’t as manipulative as some dogs are. Nor do I have to bribe him all the time; he gets treats, not bribes. He’s got his moves and isn’t a saint, but he knows who the alpha male is here and seems perfectly happy being #2. When my friend Bob visited a couple of weeks ago, Luke was even happier being #3.

That was a very good step forward in his socialization. Thank you, Uncle Bob.

Luke hasn’t “made a mistake in the house” in six months, and now we’re working on more freedom.

Every change in his routine is momentarily confusing to him, but he’s still young and flexible, and he thinks.

I’ve taught him one game: how we do Treats after our midnight walk around the perimeter.

1. He sits motionless on the kitchen rug by the sink.
2. I get out his treat, break it into pieces depending on the brand, put the extra piece in my pocket and keep one in my hand, then sit on the kitchen steps opposite the sink while he doesn’t move.
3. I show him the treat. I hide which hand it’s in, then put it on one knee and cover them both with my hands. Which side’s got it, Luke? (This is easy, I only have two knees.)
4. I count to three: “One. Two. Three.” But this is not sufficient, he doesn’t have permission to come yet; only when I lift up both hands is he allowed to race over.

I almost always lift up my hands at the count of three, but if not, he stays put. What he’s learned is One, Two, Three and Hands Up.

He grabs his treat, races back to the rug (where food jealousy is allowed), he chews – and sits back down for the rest of the pieces and the Game again.

I don’t know which of us is entertained more, him or me.

We might have a little petting afterward, then since it’s midnight and time for bed, I wave my hand and he runs back to his little house in the living room and curls up on a football blanket. I lock him in for the night and he has doggy dreams.

TODAY we had a fantastic day. All week I’ve been re-familiarizing him with Car Ride; to him it’s a big jump from the garage floor to the back seat, but he can do it. Today it was time to go see Dr. Kay again.

I knew from last year how good she and her staff are, but in October 2009 he peed 3-4 times; not this year. I rejoiced; he’s generalized the learning, no marking up indoors!

He got a blood test, shots, sat nicely around these new people he’s only seen once a year ago, didn’t bark and only trembled a little when we put him on the examination table. The doctor and staff of course are experts in loving care, they reinforce but don’t bribe, and he did great. He’s gained a pound and a half, but is still a lean little guy like a ratboy should be. Best of all the doctor spent 30 minutes with us, so I got to tell her all his progress, what his issues still are, and when we talked about his two runaway episodes, which were minor but worrisome the first time, that he doesn’t always come on command if I take a chance and let him loose, she found me some info about a dog park 45 miles away where he can run safely. Terriers need to run, and though I take him for regular walks on his leash, I want him to run freely and safely. I occasionally go to the city where the dog park’s located, and she also had an idea about the county fairgrounds, which are much closer.

All in all I felt she listened carefully to our story together for the past year, provided guidance and resources, and gave us both a great experience. Then he got a bath and a pedicure, like going to the doggy day spa!

Still, with this dog I worry about overstimulation, and when I got him home, instead of returning to his regular programming (outside in the sun on a longish tether), he wanted to go inside for a nap.

I fed him early, took him back out for an hour’s tether time in the sun, and as the day began to close I got his leash for our sunset walk around the neighborhood – where for the first time he did not come at the sound of the back door opening, nor when I called him. I went to fetch him and found two strangers plus a dog in my yard. No wonder he was yapping!

They were a grandma, a 12-year-old girl and an ugly little pugdog that Luke was being his usual assertive self with; not aggressive, but a little worrisome to me because I don’t want him in fights. Who were these people thinking they could come on my property? This is a small town, we don’t do that here. And he’d already had quite a day.

The grandma and the girl were very nice, and both aware that they were on my property with a foreign dog and apologizing, but we talked, I reassured them and kept an eye on Luke with the pugdog. They’d nose each other, then defend themselves with barking and growling, then quiet down and sniff each other’s butts before starting on another round of noisiness. (The smart little girl, who said she wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up, said she couldn’t understand why dogs would want to sniff each other’s butts. I did not tell her why.)

It turns out grandma and little girl and pugdog often visit Luke in my yard, “because he always looks so lonely” on his tether. I didn’t take offense at that; he likes being outside and I give him plenty of attention. But this meant Luke and the pug weren’t confronting each other for the first time, and these okay humans were dogpeople. I still didn’t like how Luke was acting, which didn’t look happy to me, but grandma said, “Oh, he’s very friendly, always wags his tail, these two like each other.” I was fairly amazed.

Maybe I’ve misinterpreted Luke’s behavior when we’ve encountered other dogs; he’s always seemed to me on the verge of fighting, but here was grandma saying no, this is great.

It’s been a year of learning for me too.

After another few pleasant minutes, I put Luke on his leash and, after checking with grandma, we headed off in the opposite direction for our sunset walk. Everything was back to normal, just Josh and his buddy making our rounds in the village, stopping every 20 feet to sniff someone else’s scent or leave some.

Maybe I’ve just been a worrywart; it’s an adult’s job to worry about the kid. It’s taken him all year to warm up to people, and he still doesn’t like strangers to pet him; I saw that again with the little girl. Let him approach you.

But he was good with Bob, and he truly is starting to generalize his lessons as he needs to (didn’t pee at the vet’s this year), and the girl said he licked her hand once. When Bob was here, Luke even licked Mike the carpenter’s hand, after raising holy hell for “invading our space” like I hired him to.

Today was the first day, after a year of living here, that Luke licked my face.

That, and his five-star healthy reports from Dr. Kay, made it a fantastic day.

I freely admit, I’ve had a lot to learn this past year, and I’m not done yet.

But even a death row inmate can’t be all bad, if a dog’s willing to lick his face.++

Luke's face, with its little vanilla drip from his forehead to his nose.

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.

One Million Prayers: A Letter to a Friend

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

Dear Leonardo,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One million views of the work of my life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Josh

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

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.