Thursday, October 30, 2008

On Halloween, Granddaddy, and I.P. Freely

For some, Halloween is a time for children.  It's a chance to watch them wear their imaginations on the outside and to eat so much candy that they become sticky all over.  For others, it flirts with reveling in all things unholy -- satan, poltergeists, demons.  But for me, it's more special than Christmas, and it's all because of one man: my grandfather.

My grandfather loved Halloween in an over-the-top way.  He didn't just kind of enjoy passing out candy; he turned his entire home into a haunted freak-show, and he let me help.  The first thing we did to ready the house was set up the trick coffin.  My grandfather would rig a pulley to a man-sized stuffed dummy, who would be concealed.  He would make his own gravestones to put around the grizzly scene -- most of them had really inappropriate names carved on them (like I.P. Freely), his signature crude humor.  Then, he would set up a soundsystem that would blare scratchy records of Halloween sound effects: screaming witches, yowling cats, howling wolves, creaking doors.  It could be heard all over the neighborhood, echoing off the pine trees.  It would have made Vincent Price proud.  The last step was to position my grandmother at the front door with a bowl full of candy, and to wait for dark. 

I would rush through trick-or-treating so that I could get back to grandfather's sound room (aka the guest bedroom facing the street) as soon as I could.  From where we sat, with the lights off, we could see the trick-or-treaters, but the trick-or-treaters couldn't see us.  It was a great way to view the prank.  As soon as the children decided they were brave enough to pass the ominous coffin to get to the candy they so desired, they would try to run for the door, where my grandmother stood with the bowl.  Their sprint never saved them. As soon as the children passed the coffin, granddaddy would yank the pulley and the life-sized dummy would stand straight up, face-to-face with the kid or parent.  Only adding to the terror, granddaddy had rigged the dummy with a microphone; as soon as the kid looked into the face of the gigantic dead guy, he (granddaddy/the dead guy) would growl in his lowest voice, "GIMME SOME CANNNNNNDY."  This would cause a frenzy of screaming, almost ALWAYS from the parents.  Most ran away.  Some punched the dummy in the face.  Many swore.  A couple just fell out.  Grandaddy and I would mute the microphone and laugh until we couldn't breathe.  

Those who were brave enough earned their sweet tooth that night. You might think people would avoid his house out of terror, but that isn't so.  We had lines and lines of people wrapped around the block.  My grandmother always -- always -- ran out of candy.  The night usually ended with a recruited friend, my grandmother, and I popping popcorn and stuffing mini treat bags with it so we could continue feeding all the people at the door.  (This was a small town and a time predating seals on food.)  

Eventually, when we ran out of all food for the crowd, we'd have to turn out the lights, lock the door, and huddle near the fire as we waited for people to stop coming.  I usually fell asleep in that year's outrageous costume, terrified from that night's ghost stories but exhausted.  

My grandfather died twelve years ago.  I do not mourn him at Christmas, or on his birthday. I don't cast a glance anymore at his empty chair at Thanksgiving.  But the first time I smell burning leaves, pumpkin pie, and the cold, clean air that signals October in the South, I think of him.  Now when I wait in the dark, out of candy,  near my own fire, in my own house, I know he's nearby.  And it's as if no time at all has passed.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Liberace in Church

This morning on NPR, I heard a piece concerning a new breed of church organ player.  Wait -- don't stop reading.  The man leading the way wears leather tights and wild hair, and he's replaced the church organ with a grandiose electronic keyboard. He's a youtube star, has rock albums, and has changed the way people in New York City think of (if they think of) organists.  His flamboyant musical style has drawn a few critics, of course; the dissenters generally refrain that church music should never be showy. His pastor disagrees.  She says that the "Greatest Story Ever Told" is a dramatic one, so what's better to represent it than a little theater? "Churches have lower attendance than ever," she said; "People need a grand performance to bring them back."

OK. That statement has had me scratching my head all morning.  My first instinct, informed by a very reserved Methodist background, was to bristle. Is it ok for someone to advocate bringing in congregants with a show? If someone decides to come to church, should it not be for a number of personal spiritual reasons -- not to see Liberace?  

Then I realized that habit, not how I really feel about the theatricality of church, initiated that reaction. Methodists, by their name, like order, neatness, predictability, logic.  You don't wave your hands or dance; he who speaks in tongues would probably be ushered out.  You don't shout out "Amen!" -- you sit with a kind of reserve that borders on boredom.  You take what you're given. You rise to sing, recite the creeds, sit, and file out. While I have represented this as dry and uninspiring, I have found the rituals comforting.  And I always get more from the hymns than the sermon. Always. Either silence or music lead the way to God -- not talking. It's never been talking for me.

So what if this NYC organist walked into my church this morning and began representing the gospel with wild runs, dramatic crescendos, and cacophonous dissonance? Whether it inspired or outraged, wouldn't it awaken me? Wouldn't it interrupt that slumber that descends over every person, now and again?  And what if people came for the music? What if they stayed for the verses? For the people? What if it led them to some other religion that inspired them? What if it led to soul-searching, inspired them to be better people, moved them to do something greater for the world than they'd thought of before? There's really nothing bland about Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam -- why should the services that represent them be anything less? 

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Grilled Pizza

Hey, South! The two weeks of autumn we get each year are here!  Get out there and fire up the grill before it drops to freezing and rains 'til February. If you're tired of the same old meat and veggies, though, give this recipe a try. I made it up, so nothing is exact, and everything is adaptable to your palate. If you have a favorite grilled pizza recipe, or this recipe inspires one, please share with me.

It starts after you have made your favorite homemade pizza dough recipe (or, if you're lucky to live in a city with frozen pizza dough in the freezer, use that).  If you don't have a favorite, Paula Deen's is great:  

My recipe list is long because I used just about everything I had left over in the fridge. It would have been just fine with the spinach and marinara mixture alone. 


(Whatever you need for your favorite basic pizza dough.)
About 3/4 cup bottled pizza or marinara sauce
1 package of frozen spinach, defrosted & squeezed dry
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 oz light cream cheese
1 oz  reduced-fat ricotta
1/2 cup diced ham
1/4 cup bottled, roasted red peppers
3 tbl diced black olives
1/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese
Cooking spray
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne 

1. Preheat the grill to medium-high heat.
2. Roll out pizza dough to desired size.
3.  Spray both sides of dough with cooking spray. 
4. Place dough on grill. (Trick: It's easy to transfer dough from one surface to another if you roll the dough onto your rolling pin to pick it up from the counter.)
5.  Grill 3-5 minutes on each side or until dough is firm and displays light grill marks. Remove from grill, placing on baking sheet or pizza pan. 

Here's what we put on ours, but at this point, you could add anything that inspired you:

1.  Place thawed, squeezed frozen spinach in a microwave-safe bowl.
2.  Add to the spinach one ounce of light cream cheese, about 1 ounce of reduced fat ricotta cheese, 2 minced garlic cloves, and a dash of salt, pepper, and cayenne.  
3.  Heat spinach mixture in microwave 1 to 2 minutes or until cheeses are soft. Stir well.
4.  Spread bottled pizza (or marinara) sauce onto your pizza shell. 
5.  Top marinara with spinach mixture, spreading to cover.
6.  Add diced ham, olives, and roasted red bell pepper strips. 
7.  Top with parmesan cheese.

Prepare grill for indirect heat.
 Place prepared pizza (on its baking sheet) on the grill.  
Bake 20 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the marinara sauce is warmed through.  (This last part can also be done in your oven.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

On Being Robbed

I should begin by saying that we have not been robbed. But this weekend, at least one odd thing happened to change my perspective a little bit.

So Sunday morning at 8 AM, about the time we were convincing ourselves to climb out of the massive piles of covers we're using to postpone turning on the heat, we hear a tap-tap-tap at our back door.  It's Marion, the 90something year old cotton farmer neighbor. The only time Marion climbs the big hill to the house is about once a week each summer to deliver the tomatoes. Otherwise, all conversations between us happen when we make the much easier downhill climb to see him. That he's at the back door in the morning in the fall, then, is strange.

The first thing he asks is, "Were you robbed?"  Well, despite knowing that I had not been robbed, I felt ice water in my stomach. "What do you mean?" Andrew asked.  He explains: "The cops were in my bushes last night with a high-powered flashlight, looking for the guys who were trying to break into your house."  Now, if I didn't feel light-headed before, it was now necessary to sit down and shiver.

Andrew asked him to back up and slowly explain.  He did:  "I heard your dogs barking like crazy and then I saw a bright light and saw it was the cops in my back yard. It had to have been midnight or 1 am, so I raised the window and said, 'What're ya'll lookin' for?' And they said someone had called to say they'd just arrived home late to find someone breaking into their house, and when the homeowners caught them, the robbers escaped, running through ya'll's [that would be, our] yard and maybe mine. I asked the cops, 'Was it the house on the hill?' and they said 'Yes.'"  

Hence the misunderstanding -- we're the house on the hill, to Marion, but as the property keeps slanting upward, his vague gesture could've indicated a host of other homes.  And anyway, we didn't call the police, so it certainly wasn't our house being robbed. But it still could've been our backyard that was the escape route.

This changed several things for me.  I no longer saw my house as protection but rather a glorified, decorated pup tent.  That night, I went through each room and closed the blinds and curtains so no one could see in.  Andrew taught me to use a 9-millimeter, a .38, and a shotgun, two of which are now loaded in various parts of the house. I currently sleep with a bat. I brought in the dogs, not because they've vicious -- anyone who knows Sierra would find that giggle-worthy -- but because they're loud. They now sleep in the house with us, near us.  And we are permanently keeping on the brightest porch light you've ever seen in your life.

I have never felt afraid in my house before. I grew up in a town where everyone knew everyone; as an example, one of my classmates in now in jail because he held up the Country Store -- one of only 2 convenience stores in the 2,000-person town -- with a bag on his head but everyone knew his voice when he said "give me your money."  The whole store stopped and said, "Mike? Is that YOU? Your dad would be so ashamed of you right now."  He was pretty easy to track down after that.

So this idea of drawing the curtains close, checking and rechecking the locked doors and windows, learning to load and fire a firearm, fearing this old house's creaks is alien to me.  It's not so much a sign of my neighborhood, which is OK, but a sign of the times. Who's hungry enough, withdrawn enough, desperate enough to come into your house when there's a good chance you're already in it?  It's that desperation, more than the person behind it, that worries me the most.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The New Dirty Word

This blog is inspired by an article by CNN's Campbell Brown that addresses the rise in hate speech at John McCain's political rallies.  In case you haven't caught the latest videos, at the past few public appearances McCain has made, the crowd has gotten increasingly ugly, particularly after Palin accused Obama of befriending terrorists (and by terrorists, she means William Ayers, and by befriending, she means he went to a campaign fundraiser he hosted).  One woman in McCain's crowd shouted "[Obama's] an Arab, and I don't trust him." Another yelled out, "Kill him!" McCain attempted to calm the crowd by assuring them Obama was a good man and not an Arab, and the crowd booed him. 

Most Democrats are quick to point out that Obama is a Christian, not a Muslim. They do this in part because it's true, but in part because the word "Muslim" has become the newest dirty word.  The rebuttal comes a little too quickly, the disdain a little too evident.  The reason the woman at the McCain rally spat the word "Arab" is because she deemed it the ultimate insult.  It's our version of the 17th-century "witch."  All you have to do is point to someone and say it (or "terrorist") and whoever is accused must swim, and be burned, or sink, and drown.  Whoever uses the label wields all power. 

But since when is Muslim a bad word? What if John McCain or Barack Obama were Muslims? I KNOW they aren't -- but so what if they were?  Since when is a Muslim incapable of ruling the country? If Americans think Christians should be the only ones allowed to run for office, then they should put it in writing (so I can move to Canada). Religion isn't a prerequisite for holding office.  What are people afraid of? That a Muslim president would break out some kind of crazy machine that turns them into jihad-loving terrorists? That logic is seriously flawed. Did John F. Kennedy convert the masses to Catholicism? Did George W. Bush turn everyone into evangelicals? Mitt Romney holds congressional power; do you suddenly feel yourself morphing into a Mormon? Of course not; people decide what they will believe by soul-searching, maybe by following the lead of a pastor or a friend. They do not expect their president to convert them to one religion or another.  

And even if the president were able to break out this magical crazy Muslim-loving machine, there's nothing to fear from Islam.  It's a peaceful religion that worships the same God Christians do, shares the same Bible (with additions), and holds the same values (often, tighter).  It stems directly from the Old Testament, in fact; its brother-religion is Judaism. Both share a family tree.  The people America fears are radicals. Just like Christians -- remember the Branch Davidians? Or those nike-wearing people who killed themselves to prepare for incoming aliens? -- that religion has extremists.  Extremists are not the rule; they are the exception.  They are not Islam, incarnate.  They are not model Muslims, just as the Davidians were not model Christians.

In short, we shouldn't stand for the stigmatization of Muslim or Arab. We shouldn't let the mob make dirty what isn't.  

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Fix It

I like Kenan's plan: fix it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

SNL VP Debate

Freaking Hilarious.