Thursday, September 30, 2010

When Comfort Food Turns Ugly

Here’s a piece I did back in 2006.
Robert L. Withers April 21, 2006

It’s cold and rainy. Yesterday was 85 degrees and today is 69 degrees. Yesterday I was outside in the sunshine, today I’m inside and chilly. I’ve done some good writing this morning but now my eyes are bothering me, the result of a cataract that will be removed in another week. The headache will probably be with me the rest of the day.

Lunchtime. I’m yukked and need some comfort food. I haven’t had Campbell’s tomato soup with saltines in a long time. Sounds like a good idea. My comfort food group is pizza, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas, tomato soup and grilled chasse, and ice cream. If Vickie is around to do the grilled cheese then I’ll have that with my tomato soup, otherwise just soup and saltines.

Meatloaf is a bit much to fix for one person, besides it takes too long. We do have frozen pizza and I am capable of eating an entire pizza, but that wouldn’t be healthy (though it would be pleasurable) and if I ate the whole thing I’d probably nap the rest of the afternoon. Tomato soup is the way to go.

In the pantry I select a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. I guess Campbell’s has me brainwashed because I can’t imagine eating another brand of tomato soup. Oh, I know there are a lot of fancy brands out there and we do purchase other brands when it comes to other kinds of soup, but eating a tomato soup other than Campbell’s would be like saying, “Why that’s as American as baseball, Toyota and apple pie.” See what I mean?

I guess watching all those TV commercials in the 1950’s did it. The little fat Campbell’s chef running around with a big smile on his mouth singing, “Uh-um good, uh-um good, that’s what Campbell’s soup is, uh-um good.”

A few years ago at an office Christmas gift exchange where you draw numbers and pick a gift, the kind where you can steal another person’s gift, my eye lit on a set of Campbell’s soup mugs. I didn’t want the cutlery, the wine glasses, the lottery scratch tickets, or the screwdriver set, I wanted the little fat chef painted on the side of the four soup bowls. Go figure.

Do you think the 1950’s Madison Avenue types knew that I’d be purchasing Campbell’s soup in the twenty-first century because of their little jingle and fat chef? Did my parents have any idea that the smiling chef was making a home in my head? Whether the advertising types in the 1950’s knew the power of their propaganda or not you can bet your sweet bippy that they know it today. I’m surprised hospital nurseries aren’t sponsored by McDonald’s or Barbie or Power Rangers with logos plastered on walls and ceilings and with music videos playing 24/7.

I can see diapers, receiving blankets and pacifiers with corporate logos on them. A visit to daycare reveals little Johnny with Ronald McDonald on his butt, and Susie is displaying Barbie in places where no self-respecting lady would want to be seen, while Howard is sporting a rendering of a Tonka toy dump truck on his rear end. Get it? Dump truck?

This Campbell’s soup can looks pretty much the same as one from the 1950’s. The big difference is the top with a rollback tab on it. No need for the twenty-first century seeker of comfort food to wrestle with a can opener, which can be an experience in itself.

I roll the top back and coax the contents into a sauce pan. I say coax because the condensed soup has an aversion to leaving its comfy home. I would expect no less. This isn’t like those foofy soups that don’t require adding water or milk. This is real condensed soup that requires added liquid. It takes a chef, someone with culinary aptitude, to work with condensed soup.

After I coax ninety-seven percent of the congealed mass from the can to the sauce pan I fill the can halfway full with water and then fill the rest of the can with milk. I know some folks like it either all water or all milk, and I’m told that my classmate Frankie Oliver once tried chocolate milk with his Campbell’s tomato soup. You wouldn’t be too grossed out by the chocolate milk thing if you knew the other things that Frankie tried, but I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that I’d never eat in a restaurant where Frankie was cooking.
I pour a little of the can’s contents into the saucepan and stir, then a little more and stir, then a little more. As I stir the liquid and the congealed matter blend together, more and more looking like soup. I think the reason people purchase soup that doesn’t require this process is that they are intimidated by it. After all, lumpy soup is nasty, a bad presentation and not pleasant to the palate. The pressure of blending liquid with concentrate is akin to the pressure of balancing the right amount of milk with cereal. I know people who simply can’t stand the pressure.

I turn the burner on medium, finish the blending process and place a lid on the pan.

Back to the pantry I go and retrieve the saltines. I open a fresh sleeve of crackers and sample one, letting it dissolve in my mouth.

I check the soup, stir it and replace the lid.

I call my wife at work to see how she’s doing.

I check the saucepan. The soup is still getting hot. I sprinkle some pepper in the soup. This is going to be good. Proper comfort food for a wet and cold day.

I put a sweat shirt over my short sleeved shirt. Man it’s cold today. I look in a mirror and see that the collar of my shirt is sticking out of the sweatshirt. Kind of tacky. Suppose I should get visitors? Of course I never have visitors, unless they are strangers with religious pamphlets, but then again, you never know. I mess with my shirt collar. I mess with it some more. This isn’t working. Do the colors match? The sweatshirt is red and the shirt is yellow. What would Vickie say? Can I wear this combination out to dinner tonight? Will she make me change?

I can’t get the collar right. I’ll just take the sweatshirt off and mess with it later. As I step out of the half bath I glance into the kitchen while picking up a hissing noise.

A Niagara of soup is pouring from the saucepan, cascading down the stove front onto the floor and racing across the stovetop and adjacent countertop like high tide at the Bay of Fundy. My comfort food is reprising the Great Escape. At any moment I expect to see Steve McQueen riding a motorcycle across the kitchen in the guise of the little fat Campbell’s chef.

The two dogs are eyeing the red ocean dripping onto the floor. Knowing the soup is hot I sharply command, “No! Back! No!”

How many paper towels does it take to absorb a can of Campbell’s tomato soup? I lost track at twenty.
My comfort food had turned ugly. All but a quarter inch of soup had boiled out of the saucepan.

After the mess was sopped up I contemplated dumping the remaining soup down the drain but couldn’t do it. Certainly I must have some fruit of reward. I ate the remaining spoonfuls from the pan.

There were other cans of tomato soup in the pantry. I could go and begin the process again. The little fat chef was singing in my ear, “….that’s what Campbell’s soup is, uh…um good.” Where was the little fat man when my soup was boiling over?

No, I’m not going through that whole thing again. Once is enough today. There are frozen dinners out in the freezer, I’ll get one of those.

I turn the oven on to 350 degrees and head to the garage where the freezer is located. Walking back into the house I read the heating instructions:

“Conventional oven bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Microwave oven cook on high for seven minutes.”
I’m tired and I’m hungry. I know it will taste better if it’s cooked at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. That is the way frozen dinners are meant to be cooked. Swanson’s taught me that back in the 1950’s with their advertising for TV dinners. Swanson’s is still in my brain along with the little fat Campbell’s chef.

I’m hungry. I turn the oven off, take a knife and slit the plastic on the frozen dinner, put it in the microwave and set the timer for seven minutes.

Maybe I’ll have pizza tonight.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Pay At The Pump

A lady in a monster SUV pulls up to the pump. We pull in behind her, deciding to wait in line. Ahead of her is a man pumping gas into his pickup.

She reads the streaming message on the pump asking her if she has a certain grocery chain's customer card. Into her purse she goes, in a manner of speaking, and a minute later emerges with a card which she scans. The streaming message changes, now it wants to know if she has a shopper's card from a drug store chain, if so she can save 5 cents on top of the 10 cents she'll save with the grocery card. Back into her purse she goes, in a manner of speaking, and emerges with yet another card.

After scanning that card she takes her credit card, but before she can scan it yet another message appears. If she has given blood in the past 3 months, and will be so kind as to scan her blood donor card, she'll save another 5 cents. Yep. Back into the purse she goes - of course, in a manner of speaking.

The guy in the pickup in front of her is putting the gas cap on.

After scanning the blood donor card she looks into her purse for the credit card she had been about to use but it is nowhere to be found. She dumps her purse out on the back seat - no credit card. As her eyes fall to the pavement - in a manner of speaking - she spys the credit card on the ground, picks it up and scans it.

The streaming message asks, "Debit or credit?" She pushes credit.

The streaming message asks for her zip code.

She, having recently moved into a new area, tries to recall her zip code. She punches in the numbers and the streaming message says, "Invalid zip code. Transaction canceled."

By this time the guy in the pickup has pulled away.

The lady puts the gas nozzle in her car, leaves it there for all of one minute, and returns it to the pump. She gets in the monster SUV and drives off.

I say to Vickie, "Did you notice that she only had the nozzle in her vehicle for one minute? She couldn't have filled that huge SUV in one minute. She just put the nozzle in her car because she was self-conscious about having been at the pump for 5 minutes...let me tell you what really happened."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cell Phones and Voices

Why do many folks speak louder when they are on a cell phone? Why do they speak much louder on a cell phone when they are in a public place? Is it because they want people at the other end of the restaurant to hear them? Is it because they fear that the sound of their voice may dissipate as it travels through the ether? Perhaps they think that if there is a cosmic disturbance between them and the one they are speaking with their voice has a better chance of making it through?

My first introduction to telephone technology was two soup cans and a line of string. I don't think we yelled through the string - maybe we should go back to that?

Did Native Americans have smoke signal etiquette analogous to email etiquette? Did they consider ALL CAPS as yelling? Did they have LOL? What about :-)?

Where there Native Americans who were compulsive about returning every smoke signal communication just as soon as they received it? What about spam - did they put up with that? Chain emails? Oh yeah, I can see that:

"If you don't forward this to 10 friends all the buffalo will leave your area."

I won't even touch the issue of whether they engaged in that truncated form of expression known as blogging.

But this cell phone - raised voice thing puzzles me. I mean why use a phone if you are going to shout from Richmond, VA to Richmond, IN? Save yourself the monthly fee and the worry that you'll exceed your minutes.

Come on now, tell me that truth. Haven't you ever wanted to join in a cell phone onversation that you've been forced to overhear in a restaurant?

"Tell 'em I said hi!" 

"No, Manicotti is not the capital of Italy!"

"Hey, are you going to eat that or talk all night? If you're not going to eat it can I have it?"

"Sir, sir. Excuse me sir. The people you were having dinner with left 45 minutes ago."

Friday, September 24, 2010

Ann - Part II

If you had an inner wart in your thinking, your moral or spiritual life, or in your heart the size of a grapefruit Anna would have found a way to address it that showed you the glory of Christ and your destiny in Him. She was one of the few incarnations of 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 that I have ever known; love is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered...bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Now I don’t know about you, but in my life the sad thing is that I usually haven’t realized such treasures in others except in retrospect. I may have seen the radiance, I may have sensed the “Otherness”, I may have recognized the grace and love; but because of my drivenness, because of my focus on the mind as opposed to the heart, because of my insistence on consistency in thinking – I have been more prone to accept the grace and love and enjoy it rather than learn from it and pass it on. Oh, and did I include my pride, selfishness and vanity in the foregoing list that shields me from graciousness toward others?

I am a “yeah but” person. I see a wart in someone’s thinking and while I know 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 I have simply got to say, “Yeah but I need to challenge so-and-so about this idea.” I think the only “yeah but” in Ann’s life was, “Yeah, maybe that is true – that’s our Father’s business – but I’m going to just hug that person and squeeze that brother and love him with the love of God.”   

Ann’s passing comes at a time when I’ve been exploring what it means to overcome evil with good – a Biblical teaching that most Western Christians, including myself, ignore. I wonder how many of us who love Ann are willing to incorporate Ann’s life of overcoming evil with good into our own lives? Whether it is Corrie Ten Boom, Desmond Doss, Ernest Gordon, or Anna Nichols; isn’t the reality that we pay a form of lip service to them – well-intentioned of course – put them on our fireplace mantels as figurines every proper home should have, display them to our children, and certainly enjoy their stories and presence – but do we incorporate them into the fabric of our lives when things go against our grain? Where are they when others do us hurt, harm, and inflict pain? Where are they when we inflict pain on others?

How easy it is for us to relegate those who have learned how to love to “a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away,” lest they get too close for comfort, too close for our self-centeredness. After all, who really wants to conquer the Empire with love? Isn’t a star fighter or a light saber so much more fun to respond with? Don’t we derive so much more satisfaction from returning destruction for destruction? Mutual Assured Destruction was with us eons before nuclear missiles – it has been our mutual way of life from families to nations – thank God every generation has had its Anns to give us hope, even if we haven’t recognized the hope.

Maybe I’m just beginning to understand and appreciate Ann – but the only way to actually tell whether that is true is to roll the video on my future life.

To be continued…

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ann - Part I


It’s one thing to read about a person, it’s another thing to hear that person speak, it’s yet another thing to meet the person; but to know the person, well, to know the person is to recognize the person – not the person’s body or physical features mind you – but to know in some measure the person’s soul, the inner man or inner woman.

Yesterday evening Ann Nichols put off this earthly tent and was clothed with immortality. This was not a sudden thing with Ann; it was a way of life, this putting off and putting on, this being clothed with Christ. She knew that it was time for her to be “gathered to the fathers and mothers”, she knew that sometime ago – and she basked in the Presence of her Lord Jesus and the Father in this final earthly-season of mortal life – and I think it not blasphemy to write, “The person that saw Ann saw the Father.” Isn’t that, after all, our calling in Christ?

I don’t know how old Ann was in earth years, and as I ponder that it occurs to me that I never thought of chronological age when I thought of Ann because the light of eternity was glowing through her earthen vessel for as long as I knew her – and compared to others I didn’t know her long, twenty-one years – then in another sense I haven’t stopped knowing her, nor has anyone else who knew her; we continue to know her.

I suppose many folks who heard Ann’s testimony decades ago will remember her as, “The woman who laid hands on her daughter’s murderer and prayed for his salvation and healing while he lay in her home from self-inflicted wounds after killing her daughter in her presence.” Little wonder Ann was invited to share her testimony to groups in the Richmond area years ago – and yet, it isn’t the act of forgiveness and the act of praying in that incredible circumstance that has made the impression on me, though I will confess that initially I was drawn to the “act” just as many are; it is the person of Ann Nichols and the wedding of Ann to our Lord Jesus Christ that has produced a lasting influence in my life. To the observer this may seem strange in that I’ve seldom seen Ann in the flesh in the past fourteen years, and only once in the past four years – but to those who “know” Ann this is not strange, they recognize this as part of her legacy – for when the grace of God flows through a man or woman such as Ann it continues its working regardless of time or space.

To be continued…

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Conversation I Never Had – Maurice III

I think it must have been when I was in seminary that I began serious reflection on Maurice. Yes, I was waiting at the “T” station to take the commuter train from our home in Beverly, MA into Boston and it was around Thanksgiving.

As I stood on the platform I thought how thankful I was that Maurice had given me a job and other opportunities. (You see, he opened a very large door for me in our industry that led to some fabulous opportunities, it was a door he didn’t need to open, but he did.)

I thought, “I need to send him a note telling him how thankful I am for him.” I didn’t send a note that year, nor the year after, nor the year after that. I think that every subsequent Thanksgiving season I’d count Maurice among my blessings and say to myself, “I need to send him a note,” but I never did.

A few years later we moved back into the metro area where Maurice lives and I thought, “I need to stop by and see him and tell him how thankful I am for him. I also need to share the grace of Jesus with him,” but I didn’t do it.  No note, no visit.

Once, a few years ago, I had occasion to telephone Maurice about something and when he learned that I was pastoring he said, “Well Bob, there can’t be much money in that kind of thing.” A golden opportunity to talk to him about eternal things, but I thought, “I’ll go see him and then we can talk,” but I never did.

A few months ago I learned that Maurice came down with a disease that robs him of his ability to know people. That means he can’t read a note from me, it means he can’t carry on a conversation with me, it means it’s too late for me to tell him that I am thankful for him, it’s too late for me to share the grace of Christ with him…well…we’ll see about the latter, for hopefully I’ll get permission to see him whether he knows me or not – hopefully I’ll not put that off any longer – and I do believe that God speaks into the depths of our souls, whether our minds are working or not.

But how much better would it have been for me to have sent the note I never sent, to have had the conversation I never had.

Do I have any other Maurices in my life that I need to connect with before it’s too late?

Do you?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Conversation I Never Had – Maurice II

I eventually left Maurice for a better position. As the years passed I’d see Maurice from time-to-time on industry committee’s or at industry functions, but we never really had an in-depth conversation; though that was pretty much the way it was when I worked for him – we dealt with facts more than anything, the facts of the business; the only exception was sports, he was good for a sports conversation now and then.

When I later found myself back in operations (rather than finance) and training people I realized something that had escaped me during my time with Maurice; Maurice was a great trainer. Now I need to qualify that by saying that Maurice was a great trainer when it came to me, and perhaps even to a few others who could withstand his personality, but that with most people the good elements of his training were defeated by his “hardness” and lack of encouragement. But I don’t want the foregoing to obscure the fact that he was, for me, a great trainer for I found myself using the training techniques that he taught me with others. In fact, I carried those techniques into some of my pastoral duties and they were quite helpful.

I consider training “great” when it becomes natural, intentionally natural you might say. It is natural in that it is a part of you, but it also is intentional in that you remember how to thoughtfully execute that which has become natural.

The best training in the world is the US Military; or at least it used to be, I can’t speak for it today. It’s been 40 years since I was in the Army and I still know how to deploy as part of a squad as well as a number of other things – and the other old guys I talk to are pretty much the same way; that’s good training, it’s natural, it’s instinctive.

I’ve had a couple of other training experiences like that, including some of my seminary training as it relates to submitting myself to the Scriptures; rather than forcing the Scriptures to submit to me. Maurice’s training was of that caliber, I found myself instinctively using it in appropriate situations.

Have you had great training experiences? If so, have you expressed your appreciation to the people who trained and influenced you?

To be continued….

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Conversation I Never Had - Maurice

I have worked for some hard men in my life; hard in the sense of the way they thought about others and life and money.

One of these hard men was Maurice, not his real name. Maurice gave me a job when I really needed a job, though he didn’t know I really needed a job that doesn’t matter, he still gets credit because he didn’t have to hire me.

Maurice had been through other executive managers before my arrival, and none of them lasted; because you see, Maurice was a hard man. You either produced or you were gone. Let me rewrite that, You either produced quickly or you were gone.

Maurice also wasn’t one to care about certain legal rules and regulations and that attitude was common knowledge within our particular industry, as I may have written already, Maurice was a hard man.

On the other hand, Maurice generally left me alone to oversee operations the way I saw fit, including changing our policies to conform to the rules and regulations he didn’t care whether he followed or not. More than once I had to tell him that the law was the law and the regulations were the regulations and that we were going to train our people to follow them. He never gave me a hard time about this kind of thing; sure, he’d be blunt about his opinion of the laws and the regulations, but he never once tried to stop my adherence to them.

I recall that once Maurice visited one of the locations I managed and had been harsh with the staff – which was generally his way. A local staff could be doing 99 things exceptionally well, but Maurice would find the one thing they weren’t doing well and would come down on the staff like a ton of bricks – he could devastate morale in 0 –60 seconds and it would take me weeks to rebuild it.

In this particular instance I arrived at the location shortly after Maurice left and when I found out what had happened I was “hot” as they say, in other words, I was angry. So off I went to see Maurice at his office; he wasn’t there so I waited for him, and waited, and waited. Finally he came and I followed him into his office and shut the door.

I exploded at Maurice. I told him to never ever ever talk to my people the way he had just done and I told him about the damage he did when he acted that way. He could have fired me. I may have fired me if I had been him and he had been me; for I really lit into him. But do you know what? He was cool and calm and I left with my job intact and he never acted that way again  while I was with him and the subject was never spoken of again. He handled himself better than I did in his office, a fact I’ve pondered more than once.

To be continued…

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Green Form Of Transportation

When is the last time you skipped? Skipping seems to have fallen out of favor, and yet skipping has many benefits as a form of transportation. Consider the following:

You cover more ground in less time than walking.

You don’t use fossil fuel; unless you’re an old fossil and then it’s a good form of exercise.

Whether you are an old fossil or a young person it’s good cardio exercise.

It is good for keeping your ego, pride and vanity in check. I mean, how seriously can someone take you when they see you skipping, and how seriously can you take yourself?

It’s likely the happiest form of transportation – how can you frown when you’re skipping? How can you keep from smiling when you’re skipping?

I can’t imagine people being ugly to each other when skipping the way they are when they’re driving.

I think more folks would use those “Fast Passes” or “Smart Tags” on toll roads, for who wants to slow down a skip and turn it into a stop or hop in order to use exact change or hand the toll collector a dollar bill?

Perhaps there could be “skipping lanes” on highways?

If people skipped to work or church or a community civic meeting they’d likely arrive with better attitudes.

I’m sure you can think of many other benefits of skipping. May I encourage you to write your state and Federal representatives, encouraging them to promote skipping on a sate and national scale; encourage your employers and pastors to promote skipping to and from work and church. If you work in a large office building with long halls, do your best to model skipping when you move from office to office.

Skipping – it’s a green and happy form of transportation!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Rooster, Wallace, and Sally

The rooster over at Patrick and Alice’s is now a real rooster. What I mean is that he isn’t a little guy anymore and that he knows his job is to protect the hens.

When the hawk swooped down a couple of months ago and carried away one of the hens I think that may have been the rooster’s wake-up call – he was pretty distressed over the affair, as I’m certain the departing hen was as well.

When the rooster was a little guy and Sally and Wallace, the Rat-terrier, would come over to Patrick and Alice’s, Wallace chased the rooster. Now that the rooster is a real rooster he chases Wallace down the driveway; he chases Sally too because he associates Sally with Wallace. I guess that’s a lesson in being known by the company we keep.

Last night Vickie and I had to shoo the rooster and hens into the coop for the night since the Revere family is out of town. Because the rooster wasn’t keen on calling it a day Vickie used a broom to encourage him into the coop. I’m concerned he’ll associate me with Vickie and come after me. I imagine Vickie will bring a shovel for protection today, that’s what she used as a kid on her grandparent’s farm for rooster protection. I think I’ll just wear a helmet and body armor.