English Garden – Well, Maybe Not

There is nothing like Facebook to provide a forum for arguing with someone on the other side of the country or the world whom you will never meet in person.

My interests are varied: history, writing, music, and gardening. I’m a member of a number of Facebook discussion groups corresponding to my interests. In these groups, we have cordial and sometimes spirited discussions. But akin to those whom Stravinsky referred to as “arbiters of cultural taste,” there are some group members who believe it their job to correct the manners, politics, or in this case spelling, of absolute strangers. Normally I keep scrolling. Today my better angels did not prevail. I knew my response would be deleted by the administrator of the gardening group, as it eventually was, yet I could not resist the temptation for a tête-à-tête. (Yes, I know that technically a public post is not a tête-à-tête. But doesn’t it sound cool… and pompous.)

Let the snark begin!

The following is my sardonic critique for the group member who felt a need, in her words, to provide “this week’s lesson in English,” as she explained how to spell tomato and potato. (It’s not like Dan Quail is in the group.)

i no sum people dont no grammer as good as other’s. Butt i wood jest ruther leaf things along then other’s think im been a no it awl. 

Indubitably, the essential quality and nature of the English language is ne’er strained by one’s use of dialect, non-standard spelling, grammatical faux pas, or the garden-variety typo. 

I have a freaking PhD, but my great grandmother could garden circles around me. So there’s also that.

And that, gentle reader, is your life lesson for the day. You’re welcome.

Y’all come back now, ya hear.

From Lexington and Concord to Bagdad, thank you.

I can stand on the courthouse steps and criticize my government or gather with fellow believers and worship God openly without fear because from Lexington and Concord, to Fort McHenry, to Belleau Wood, to Iwo Jima, to Chosin, to Bagdad, and in thousands of other battles, large and small, for more than 200 years soldiers have put on American military uniforms and all too often have given their lives. Thank you!

Banana Heads

I enjoy cooking, and since I’ve been sheltering in place because of the threat of COVID-19 on every door handle and shopping cart, I’ve had more than enough time to cook. Throwing a handful of raisins into the sauce today, my mid drifted back to my undergraduate days. (Don’t be shocked at the raisins. They balance the acid and bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes.)

My first degree was in music from Jacksonville State in the middle of rural Alabama. Ironically, it was there in the foothills of the Appalachians of all places, I met a petite Italian (Sicilian)-American, Mr. Giovanni Maltese, who has remained special in my memory. He taught music appreciation, music literature, and class strings. He was a particular pleasure to be around, though if you talked during class he would keep you in line by admonishing, “Shut up, you bunch of banana heads, and listen to the damn music.”

Beyond his passion for music, one of the things that endeared him to me was how he welcomed his students into his home. As with the Maltese family, my dad’s family came from Sicily. Dad tells stories from his childhood of his father cooking spaghetti sauce overnight and of big family lunches on Sundays at Aunt Katti’s after she had spent half the night cooking. In similar family style, Mr. Maltese invited his classes to his home at the end of each term.

The memory of an evening at his home, as one friend said, is like a dream now, just yesterday and yet forever ago at the same time. That night his students arrived to find several small tables set around. Sauce was simmering. The smell, oh, the smell. He placed the sauce and pasta on the tables, along with bowls containing various meats. We sat. He bowed his head and offered thanks. As the meal began, he lamented “a rude student” who some years before had wandered around “looking for God under the tables” after grace. Then I tasted his sauce for the first time, biting down on a raisin plumped with sauce. Ever since, raisins have been in my own sauces. Beyond this, the details of that evening fade to shadow, except for the feeling of welcome and home that permeated the evening and has followed me for forty years.

A few years ago before Mr. Maltese passed away at the age of 95, I contacted his son John for the recipe that I recall enjoying around the table, after thanking God for the meal of course.  

I share the recipe below and hope you enjoy it, as well as the love of family and friends around the table again soon. I pray we will recall how being apart from each other felt and allow that to make each meal and each moment all the more special. I think Mr. Maltese would agree, and I think he would also remind you to thank God for your meal… and your health.   

In John’s words and shared with his permission, here is the sauce that Mr. Giovanni Maltese learned from his mom from Trapani, Sicily.

It’s very easy. Use cans of tomato paste (two cans of water per can of paste) as the base. I usually add a can of tomato puree. You can make as much or as little as you like, but if you add a lot of meat, you’ll need a fair amount of sauce (for this pot I used 16 ounce cans of paste – remember to add the two cans of water per can of paste) and one 28 ounce can of puree. That’s quite a bit of sauce, but I’m cooking for a lot of people, and I want leftovers (the sauce freezes well). Simmer. Peel a couple of large onions and add 8-12 cloves of garlic (leave them whole) and brown them in olive oil and add them to the sauce. Then brown some sweet Italian sausage and add it. I do the meatballs by feel: ground beef, Italian bread crumbs, grated Parmesan and Romano cheese, lots of finely chopped garlic, parsley, pepper, garlic salt, and enough eggs so that the meat won’t fall apart. Brown the meatballs and add them to the sauce. Sometimes I add breaded chicken or veal cutlets (also browned in olive oil before being added), pork chops, even chopped zucchini. Add a couple handfuls of raisins. Simmer over low heat for about three hours. It tastes best if you refrigerate it overnight and simmer it again for about an hour or so the next day before serving. Believe it or not, there’s no other seasoning – the garlic, onions, and meat add plenty of flavor. Mangia!

Peter Frampton is Bald!

(from June 28, 2011)

I’m sitting on my front porch and gently rocking in my porch swing. I should be grading papers, and I’ll get back to that shortly. But it is just so nice outside right now. It rained today and cooled things off. So it’s nice out here with the tree frogs and crickets serenading me. (Sorry, I waxed a bit sappy and poetic there.) Yeah, my front yard needs cutting, but it’s not that bad. I’ll get to it by the weekend. From here I can see the herb and flower garden in the front of the house. It’s looking good. It’s nice and green with a splash of colors from the flowers and has plenty of mulch, so it won’t require too much weeding as the summer progresses. I can see the new American flag I got over the Father’s Day weekend. It looks good hanging there, and if you’ll allow me a moment, I want to thank all the men and women past and present who served under it and who kept and continue to keep me safe to sit on my front porch.

Now, to some of my younger friends and students, it might seem odd to celebrate sitting on a front porch swing. But in reality, there’s a lot of peace that comes along with owning a front porch and a swing to go on it. My kids are nearby playing and are safe and healthy. In fact, I just got back from the doctor today for a checkup for Nick. You know, they say that when you have your health, you have everything. Well, I think when you know your kids are safe and healthy, that’s actually closer to having everything.

Sure, I have problems; we all do. Some of you know mine more intimately than others. But I have many, many blessings more blessings than problems, and I should count them more often. One, two, three, there’s another one and another one… Seriously, there’s a lot of good and love in my life. I have lots of family and friends who love me, and thanks to social media I get to trade messages with family and friends down the block or across the country or even on the other side of the globe. I really do have lots of things to be thankful for.

You know, I just thought of one more before I close. I have hair and Peter Frampton is bald! Have you guys seen him in those Geico commercials? For those too young to recall, the man had lots of hair “back in the day.” And now, well, not so much. Yes, I really do have lots to be thankful for.

Eternity Began Tonight (from August 16, 2009)

It was so special tonight seeing my babies baptized. Nick was funny. He’d listened to Pastor Rick and my dad about locking one arm with the other hand and holding his nose. He walked up to the baptistery in this position. In fact, we could hardly get him in the water because of the pose. I wanted to roll. Olivia was nervous. She told her mom something about being so nervous that she wasn’t sure she could walk to the baptistery. But they both made it into the water, down, and up again. It was precious and humorous, but it was more than that.

Baring Christ return, at some point we will be separated from each other, but it will be temporary because of Christ death, burial, and resurrection that we were portraying in the baptismal experience. We will never be separated from Christ. He will never leave or forsake us but will go with us all the way.
During praise and worship, somehow it was different tonight. I sensed Christ in such a unique way. He was Savior – from the foundation – for me. I knew I would see Him someday, that I would, indeed, be in His presence. My children had accepted Him as Savior. We would be together in His presence forever. My dad had baptized them. As a family we would enjoy His presence forever. These are things that I knew, and had known, but had never put them in the same context. It wasn’t abstract. It was real. In reality, eternity had begun already.

We sang a Hillsong chorus “Worthy is the Lamb.” There’s a line in it that always moves me, but more so tonight. The Son, very God of very God, eternally existing with and eternally loved by the Father, was the “Darling of Heaven.” He was loved above all by the Father, but He came and the Father allowed Him to be abused and hurt and maligned and so debased that I don’t have the words. He, in the form of sinful man, could have with a whisper ended it all; instead He suffered the pain and indignity for my babies, for my dad, for me, for whosoever will.

How could I not bow and love Him, worshipping at His feet? How could I avoid those eyes of love? Why would I?

God “ain’t” through until He says so.

God “ain’t” through until He says so. Society can tell you that you’re finished. Your family can tell you that you don’t matter. Your body might even tell you, no. But don’t listen to anyone except the One who called you according to His purpose.

Gideon was from the small tribe of Manasseh. His family was poor, and he was the least among them. Yet he became an innovative military leader and delivered Israel.

David’s father didn’t even think enough of him to call him in from the field, yet the prophet could not crown a king of Israel until the least in the family was presented to him.

Joseph’s brothers threw him out, expecting never to see him again. But God exalted him to power and through him saved the family that had discounted and discarded him.

Abraham and Sarah became the parents to the child of promise when they were well beyond the age when their bodies should have allowed them to become parents. But God’s Spirit made alive that which was dead in the flesh and gave them a son and made them the ancestors of Messiah.

Don’t count yourself out when God hasn’t.

I grew up smelling printer’s ink.

The kids and I went to Birmingham tonight and stopped at some bookstores, which is one of our favorite things to do. Yes, I know. We’re geeks. Anyway, after we got home Nick was on the couch reading his new book. He sniffed it and said, “I love the smell of books.”

I relied, “Yes, that’s printer’s ink. I grew up smelling it.”

And I did. I don’t mean I grew up sniffing books. I mean I grew up smelling printer’s ink. I still know the smell. Most print shops have gone to copiers. But I can walk into a shop and tell when they’re still using the real thing. I inevitably strike up a conversation. Are they running an offset press? Is it an A.B. Dick maybe?  I grew up hearing these presses seeing them and smelling them and for a short time running them, which isn’t as essay as it might sound. In fact, running an offset press is as much art as it is science. In the good old days you’d have to set type, shoot a negative, burn a plate, put it on the press, ink the rollers and keep the ink and water balanced and plate clean. Today, not so much. Things go straight from the computer screen to a copier most of the time. It’s more efficient, but not nearly as romantic.

So just why do I know so much about printing? Well, because my daddy was a preacher.

No, he didn’t print Bibles.

Prior to becoming a minister or even a Christian for that matter, my father had a profession as a printer. And he was pretty good at it. Even years after he was no longer a printer, he could pick up a paper that had been printed using three-color separation and immediately see if it was even the slightest bit out of register, even without using his printer’s loupe, a special magnifying glass used by printers. (There’s a story for another day about how he made me learn the language of the industry.)  

So, back to my dad being a preacher. My dad began pastoring when I was about five years old. He pastored several small congregations, which meant they didn’t pay a salary. The Bible tells us that a person who will not provide for his own family is worse than an infidel, so of course he continued working as a printer to provide for us. But in addition to the paycheck dad used to feed and house and clothe us, there were perks. We had notepads made from scrap paper and coloring sheets of overruns on jobs, and all kinds of paper strips of different sizes and colors and textures. While this might not sound like much, to a six-year old and his four-year old sister, it was a treasure trove!  

Even after he began pastoring churches that provided a more stable income, Dad earned side income for the extra his kids needed. Paul the Apostle made tents to provide for his companions and himself. Dad printed for the same reason. Printing was the primary side job he worked, though he held others through the years, such gas station attendant, house painter, and anything else he could to earn additional income.   

But it was mostly printing that was his go-to.

In addition to believing he should provide for his family, Dad also believed in being with his family. And if he couldn’t be with his family because he had to work, then he had his family with him at work when he could. More often than not, his part-time printing work was after normal business hours, so he could take us along with him. My mom, my sister, and even my grandmother, and I often accompanied him to his overnight shift. We got to experience many different office complexes and print shops through the years. This might sound odd to some. But Dad wanted us around, always, and we knew it – we felt it. It was nice then. The memoires of nights sleeping on the floor on pallets made from oversized shipping boxes, surrounded by art work and proofs hanging on the walls, listening to the clicking pulse of the press in the background lulling us to sleep, and smelling printer’s ink permeating the air – these memoirs are priceless.

Later in life when I was struggling to make ends meet as a musician, Dad taught me how to print. For several years, I paid my bills with my dad’s skills. But I never was the master of the press my dad was. Still, I learned a lot from him, a little about printing but much more about how to be a man and how to be a dad. You do what you have to do. You work extra and late.  But you also go to games and marching contests.  You show up for band booster and PTO meetings. You make sure your kids know you love them and want them with you and you want to be with them!

So now when I smell printer’s ink, for just a moment I’m a kid again and my dad is there, working late into the night to take care of me.  And most of all I know he wants me with him.

My dad passed March 2016. Christmas 2015, he gathered all of us around him – my mom, my sister, my brother, his five grandkids, and me, and told us one more time – in fact, one last time – that he wanted us with him. But he didn’t mean he wanted us there at Christmas with him. Dad knew his time on this earth was short. Where he really wanted us with him was in eternity. He emphasized that the only way to do that was by repenting of our sins and accepting Jesus as our Savior.

Three months later dad left us for a place prepared for him by his Savior.

Just like my dad always prepared a place for us to be with him, Jesus has done the same, not just for Dad, but anyone who will accept Him. I don’t know if Heaven will smell like printer’s ink, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Why don’t you make plans to go with me and let’s find out?

Self Improvement

(Be sure to read all the way to the end.) 

Self-improvement through personal introspection with personalized support is very important, especially if we want to be successful in this high-pace world we live in. Personal improvement is an investment in yourself. But it’s not selfish because if you improve yourself you can improve the world around you for the people around you. The better you are, the better you can serve. 

But to improve, you have to diagnose and identify areas, not even necessarily of weakness, but areas where you can grow and stretch. No one knows you better than you know yourself. Take the time to reflect on who you are as well as who you want to be. Then make an action plan to move from the person you are to the person you want to be. 

An action plan is just that, a plan of action. But it has to be specific and concrete. You can’t just say I’m going to get more exercise daily or spend more time reading. I’m going to walk 2 miles every other day. I’m going to read a chapter of the Bible in the morning – every morning. Make it realistic, but make it concrete because if it is realistic you can achieve it and if it is concrete you can measure the achievement.

Lastly, remember you cannot do it alone. What is the quote, no one is an island? You need folks around you who will hold you accountable when you let down but who will also hold you up. Confide in someone. Let a select few know what you are trying to accomplish. Let them help you get there.

I truly believe in this. In fact, I believe in it so much I’m willing to put myself out there and be one of those people to help you. I don’t want to just talk the talk.  I’m going to walk the walk. So let me help you. Send me a private message about what you want to accomplish. In return, I will send you my mailing address. Drop $100 cash in an envelope and mail it to me. Then for the next year, one time per month, I will send you a private message of encouragement, and when you have accomplished your goal I will stick $10 back in an envelope and send it to you as a reward for a job well done! (For those who are not sure, this part is humor.)

Now get moving. We can do this together!

Getting it right?

As I was driving through Birmingham yesterday, I began to reminiscence. When I drive down the side streets and alleys and rabbit trails that my daddy drove down in Birmingham or even as I explore new ones that I have learned on my own, I feel oddly like I am my dad. When I go to the school because my son has lost his keys, as I walk I look down and see my father‘s feet and legs walking. When I sit on the hillside at a funeral because another family is hurting and because my presence matters, I know I’m living out who he was. 

With all of these things and so many more, like when I look at my hands or my face in the mirror and I see that same little wrinkle of skin on the right side of my neck just as he had, I see my father. I hear his words coming out of my mouth, sometimes in jest, sometimes with admonition, and sometimes in frustration or even anger. 

I haven’t changed that much in the two and a half years since he passed. I was already becoming him. I will never be him, never be as much as he was, but I will always be becoming him. But it’s so stark now, now that the original is gone. And here I am – and my brother and my sister too – his walking, talking carbon copies, so much like the original… but like any copy, not exact and usually lacking just a bit.

I think he would be proud. He said he was. In a strange way it makes me miss him less and more at the same time. I guess maybe I wish I could say, “Daddy, how am I doing? Am I doing it right? I need you to show me just one more time.” 

So one more time I play him over in my mind. And I hear his words and I feel his breath and his big hands and those dark brown, often soft and sometimes glaring eyes, and I think I’m getting most of it right.

New Cars

I hate it when the new and shiny wears off. The first dint or ding is the worst. But, after that you quit worrying about the image and focus on what counts, transportation. If it gets you from here to there, it has done its job. Maybe you have to pull through tall grass or mud or even gravel or new asphalt on your journey. If you continued to worry about the smooth shiny surface, you might take the road more traveled by and instead of the one “least traveled by” and would have missed “all the difference.” (My apologies to Mr. Frost for messing with his poem.) So, thank God for dings. It’s His way of saying get beyond the surface and get to traveling. (Proverbs 27:17)