Friday, September 30, 2011

eyebrow crap

I always forget, but each year when the weather starts to change the the high and low temperature gets 20+ degrees apart, I get crap in my eyebrows.

I have rather full eyebrows and what happens is that a scaly mess starts to form on the inside of each eyebrow and inexplicably spreads across the bridge of my nose.

Some years I've scratched it with the dirtiest part of the body--my fingernails--and it's gotten infected and I have to have topical and oral antibiotics. What a pain that is, a runny, pus filled bridge of my nose isn't a way to make people love and adore you.

I've experimented over the years and hope I can keep it from getting viral this year. (Maybe I should wear rubber gloves so I don't scratch it too bad.)

Even when I rub it, it's like the snow in those snow globes. Maybe I should put a reindeer and Santa on my nose and people would think the crap was part of a theme face.

Who knows.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Somewhere under the rainbow....

So it happened like this: I was on my way to a meeting in Portland and as I drove down Rt. 10 I saw an enormous double rainbow that seemed to stretch from Hamden to Southington. I even pulled into a strip mall to look at it. About a dozen people were in the parking lot taking pictures with their cell phones. (I don't have a cell phone that takes pictures, but if I did I would have taken one.)

It was a perfect bow. We could see it from one end to the other. The lower bow was bright and radiant. The upper bow was pale, almost opaque.

Simply astonishing.

I kept driving and when I turned onto I 691, I realized I was going to drive under the two rainbows. Lord knows how I didn't wreck, staring up as I tried to drive. In fact, there should have been multi-car pileups on both sides of the Interstate. Everyone, I'm sure, was craning their necks to see the bows when they passed beneath.

It was simply one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. Jaw-dropping wondrous.

I'm not one who traffics in misty-eyed emotionalism about God. An associate Rector I worked with me used to say, wisely, "God is not a feeling." And God isn't.

But those double rainbows touched me deeply (and probably almost got me killed looking up at them driving 75 mph!)

I won't stand by this and will deny I ever said it in the future. And, those rainbows, for just a moment made me imagine that all this stuff I talk about all the time about God might, maybe, perhaps, be True.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


My son and I both love fantasy fiction. I tend to like 'soft' fantasy--Ursela LaQuinn, Harry Potter, stuff like that. Josh tends toward the hard stuff. Gene Wolf and Donaldson, stuff like that. We agree on the Toilken and CS Lewis, but not much else.

So for years, Josh has been urging me to read George R. R. Martin's "Song of Fire and Ice" series. I resisted mightily, imagining it would be too weird for me.

Then the first book of that Series, A Game of Thrones, was made into an HBO series. Last time they were here, Josh set up his I-Pad and made me watch the first episode of the TV show.

Lordy, Lordy, I was hooked.

I borrowed the first book from him a few weeks later when we were in Baltimore. Then I bought the next three. There's only one next--Dances with Dragons--that is only in hard cover and will cost $30 probably, but I finished book four today and am already in withdrawal. I need those books! Each of them is over 800 pages, so I've read 3200 pages of the series and wish there were 3200 pages more.

I'll drive up to Waterbury tomorrow and buy the book and don't know what on earth I'll read tonight since I don't have Martin to read. And then, what a horrible thought, when I've read the 5th and final book, what will I do with my life then?

Maybe I should read a page a day for 800 days--over 2 years--just to satisfy my obsession but to drag it out.

Maybe I need "Song of Fire and Ice" rehab. "My name is Jim and I'm a Martinholic". I guess I could start at the beginning again, but there are other things I want to read and should read...but I need George R. R. Martin, do you understand? I've got to have it....I'm not sure I can live without it.....

Maybe the HBO series will do all 5 books, that could be a placebo of sorts, I suppose.

Have I made myself clear? These books are addicting.

Maybe I need an intervention and to read romance novels for a while....

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

strange bedfellows

OK, I know I'm too avid about sports. I could probably know a lot more about science, world affairs and French literature (not to mention opera) if my head weren't so full of sports junk. But it is. So it goes.

I am in the uncomfortable position the next two nights to root against the baseball team I love--the Yankees, of course--until I know Boston is losing to Baltimore. Boston and Tampa Bay are tied for the American League wild-card. The Yankees are in Tampa Bay for the last two games of the year, while Boston is in Baltimore. If Baltimore gets ahead, I can cheer for the Yanks since if both Tampa Bay and Boston lose they're still tied. But let the Red Sox get ahead and I become a Tampa Bay Rays fan. (They used to be the Tampa Bay 'Devil' Rays until idiot Christians complained so much. There are even people who think the Duke Blue Devils should change their name. Go figure.)

That's how much I hate the Red Sox. I'd hope the Yankees would lose two games if it kept Boston out of the playoffs. The Rex Sox are the AntiChrist so far as I can tell....

Last Saturday college football caused me to have another strange bedfellow: Notre Dame.

Normally when someone asks me who my favorite college team is, I tell them "West Virginia University and whoever is playing Notre Dame."

But I'm so mad at Syracuse and Pitt leaving the Big East that I was pulling for the Irish against Pitt.

What a tangled web gets woven when you get too emotionally involved with sports....

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bern Retired from Church

When I retired as Rector of St. John's in Waterbury, CT, Bern (my wife) retired from church.

The people in the Cluster Ministry I serve as Interim Missioner are all, understandably, curious about my wife. They keep dropping hints about how they'd like to meet her or ask, innocently enough, 'when is she coming to church?'

And I always tell them, "Bern's retired from church."

They don't know the whole story. For over 30 years, Bern went to church because she supported me, not because she wanted to. She was never a proper 'priest's wife' in the traditional sense. She didn't join the altar guild or the choir (though she sings beautifully). She did what she did and did it beautifully. Bern was an actress, so she always read lessons--read them so well that some people wanted to get off the rota to hear her read. And she would train readers if I asked her to, and she did that with passion and patience. She would, from time to time, direct some drama I was always coming up with for worship. And, at St. John's, she organized the nursery because by that time she was the Coordinator of a co-operative pre-school in New Haven and knew about kids in a way few people do.

And for years upon years, she hosted our New Year's Day Open House for anyone in the parish to come to our home.

When I retired as a full-time priest, she told me she was retiring from church. She had it coming.

What people don't know is that I promised her, when she agreed to marry me, that I'd never be ordained. I'd been to Harvard Divinity School and earned an M.T.S. but I had no intention of being a priest. I wanted to be a Professor of American Literature in some Mid-Atlantic states liberal arts college. Like William and Mary or Mary Washington or Washington and Lee--something like that.

So, I lied to her--it was an honest lie but a lie nonetheless--and when I was ordained she stuck with me and became a remarkable support to my parish ministry and never bowed to the expectations of a clergy wife, which made her the best clergy wife ever!

For over 30 years she not only 'played a role', but played it in an odd way. Luckily for her--and for me--the three parishes I served were 'on the edge' and not really typical. So they didn't object to Bern's claiming her space. God bless them all.

And I actually agree with her about church attendance. Sometimes when people want to know why I became a priest, I tell them "so I'd go to church." Left to my own devices, I'd read the NY Times Sunday edition and drink coffee and eat bagels on Sunday morning and watch all the Sunday morning News Shows.

I love the 'community' of church. That's most of all what I love about church. But if I weren't a priest my attachment to the 'community' would be Christmas and Easter and about 12 Sundays a year. I wouldn't be a good lay person. I would never serve on a vestry or any committee. I'm come to suck out 'community' about ever 4th Sunday and that would satisfy me.

But I am a priest. And I thank God I am. I love to be totally immersed in 'community' and the Middlesex Area Cluster Ministry gives me a group of communities to consume my need for community. And I'm a priest so I do it every week.

Bern is retired from that.I support her absolutely in her retirement. And, from time to time, I envy her freedom on Sunday morning.

I can see myself in the bed with the NY Times, a bagel with flavored cream cheese, a cup of Bern's hardy coffee and my dog and cat in bed with me as well about 10 a.m.

What could be wrong with that?

So, Jim, why did you become a priest?

So I'd go to church.

(Obviously there is more to it than that. But that is bottom line....)

Monday, September 19, 2011

something happens and then we talk about it....

One of the distinctions in the Making a Difference Workshop that I help lead is the distinction between the domain of 'presence' and the domain of 'representation'.

The easiest way to make the distinction is to remind people that 'something happens' and then we 'talk about it'. On the most basic level, most anyone would agree that of course, what we say about something that happened is different--distinct--from 'what happened'.

Think again, beloved. The reality is that we collapse the two domains and live in the collapse. For example, take the current political climate in our country--some event happens...the unemployment rate goes up, let's say: what Barack Obama says about that will have something to do with raising taxes on the wealthy and providing a stimulus plan. John Boener will say government spending and regulations need to be curbed back. And both of them will be convinced that 'what they say about what happened' is TRULY 'what happened'!

Also, consider how, if four people witness a car accident, you will get four different stories about 'what happened' and each will be convinced their story is True and the others not....

Or take what happened to me this morning while walking the dog on the Canal. As Bela was sniffing around, an older man passed us. I spoke to him and he didn't reply so I said to myself he was an odd person. After he was 20 feet or so ahead of us, he stopped in his tracks in the middle of the canal path. He didn't move when a girl on a bicycle came perilously close to him. Instead he stood stock still and stared. By now I have said to myself that his oddness may be dangerous. He seemed unhinged, deranged. I considered not approaching him. I almost told a woman pushing a baby carriage to watch out for him.

When I drew near, being cautious, ready to loose the dog on him or run if his twisted mind caused him to attack me.

About 5 feet away, I noticed he had hearing aids the size of outboard motors on. He turned to me, smiled, and said "Ducks."

So, what happened is this: the man passed me without speaking and then stopped to watch the ducks. And I had 'talked about what happened' in my head to such an extent that I had him a potential mass murderer.

We always live in the collapse between 'what happened' and 'what we said about it'--the challenge is to 'notice' when it happens and try to make the distinction between the two domains: the event and our evaluation, judgement, story, explanation, etc.

My deranged killer was, instead, hard of hearing and enamored of ducks.

Something to ponder in your life beneath your own Castor Oil Tree....

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Irony update

I heard today that hundreds of Chinese citizens were protesting that the air in their village was being polluted by a factory manufacturing solar panels.

Go ponder that.

Paul Ryan (Republican budget guru) today announced he would oppose the President's position to have millionaires pay the same tax rates as their secretaries. In the same breath, he said the Congress should let the payroll tax reduction expire--raising the taxes of people making under $106,000 a year. He said it was for the good of the Middle Class.

Go ponder that.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

400th Post

I just realized this is my 400th post on Under the Castor Oil Tree. I'm too intimidated to go back and read the first one. Jeter got hit 3000 and Mo got save 600 a few days ago. Now I've got blog 400. Who knew?

Since I waxed semi-eloquent on the weather in West Virginia, I decided I'd do the 400th blog with my favorite West Virginia joke.

A Washington lobbyist grew tired of the fast lane and retired to a cabin in the mountains of West Virginia. He couldn't see another house from where he lived and he was delighted with his new life. He read and wrote and ate simply. He couldn't have been happier.

But on the very day he began to feel lonely for the first time, about three months into his wilderness retreat, there was a knock at his door.

When he opened the door he was confronted by a huge, hairy mountain man.

"Hey there," the man said, "I'm your nearest neighbor. I live over the ridge of that second mountain out there to the west and I've come to invite you to a party."

The city man thought that might just be the best thing to cure his newly arrived loneliness--a party in the mountains.

"I'd love to come," he said to the Mountaineer.

"I hav' to warn you," the native said, "there'll be some drinkin'."

"I like a drink from time to time," the city guy replied.

"And there'll prob'ly be some fightin'," his guest told him.

"Well alcohol will do that," said the man from Washington.

"And, last but not least," the West Virginian told him, "there will most likely be some sex."

The city guy wasn't ready for that but he knew he was a stranger in a strange land, so he agreed and said, "well, I understand that might happen."

The mountain man gave him directions to his house, just a mountain or two over.

"Well," the DC guy said, trying to fit in to the culture, "what should I wear?"

"Dudn't matter much," the huge Hill-Billie told him, "it'll jist be you and me...."

Friday, September 16, 2011

fall fell

Was it just me but did we lose 35 degrees or so overnight between Wednesday and Thursday?

I'm writing this with a tee shirt, a long sleeve shirt and a West Virginia University sweatshirt on. It is chilly. Relatively from a few days ago.

I grew up in Anawalt, West Virginia in the southern most county of the state--the free state of McDowell. One of the things I've come to realize having lived in New England and Alexandria, Virginia is that southern West Virginia has arguably the best weather in the US.

Anawalt is further south than Richmond and Lexington. And the elevation is about 2700 feet above sea level. The highest spot in WV is Spruce Knob which is 4200 feet a.s.l.

Because Anawalt was so far south and so high up, surrounded by mountains about 1000 feet higher, the climate was remarkable. We had four months of Spring and four months of Autumn with about 2 months of Winter and Summer. Spring and Autumn were cool at night and warm in the daytime. Summer was sunny but not that hot. A town 30 miles away called Bluefield (nicknamed "Nature's Air-Conditioned City") gave away lemonade any time the temperature got to 90. In the 18 years of my early life, I don't remember more than a few days that free lemonade flowed.

It rained a lot and snowed a lot. But the snow seldom stayed around for more than a few days. Even in winter, the temperature would creep up into the 50's a lot, so the snow would melt.

I actually think McDowell County could be a really ideal retirement place--amazing weather, mountains, friendly people. But then there is this: of all the counties in the contiguous 48 states, McDowell County has the earliest death rate AND the oldest average age.

Ponder that for a moment. People die sooner there than anywhere in the US and yet the average age is the highest. young people at all. When I grew up there 50 years or so ago, the county had 12 high schools--6 white and 6 black (McDowell County has about a 50/50 racial divide, the highest outside the deep South, though in the whole state there are only about 5 % black population....go figure that!) Now, to my knowledge, there are only 3 high schools.

The population of McDowell County, when I was growing up there, was about 60,000. Now, bear in mind that the county is about the size of Rd. Island, so we're talking a really rural place. Now, if I'm not mistaken, the population is around 30,000 or less. Go figure. Well, deep coal mining lost out to cutting the tops off of mountains. All the young people left.

Don't tell me there isn't something called Irony: the place in the country with the greatest weather ever is poverty stricken, practically deserted, full of old people who die early and so isolated that even if you wanted to retire there there is almost no easy way to get there.

Ponder that.

What a shame....

the dangers of childhood

I just heard an interview with a New York Magazine writer who did a story about the death of a four year old child who was under the supervision of the Child Protection division of social services. The caseworker and his supervisor were forced to resign after the incident and have subsequently been arrested by the Brooklyn police to stand trial for negligent homicide.

The child's mother is accused of murder and the child's grandmother of manslaughter and now, two social workers are also under arrest.

It was a chilling story, but the author was not unsympathetic toward the supervisor and case worker. Interviewing others in the office she discovered that the two accused social services workers were considered two of the best in the division. Case notes were missing from the computer but other workers admitted they were all weeks behind in entering the notes because of the volume of their case loads. In fact, the conclusions of the writer was that it was a systemic rather than personal failure. The supervisor was alone in a unit that previously had two supervisors and spent much of her days in meetings that all the workers agree are meaningless. The social worker had visited the home five times in the month before the child's death but hadn't had time to transcribe his case notes.

Hundreds of social service workers have protested at the Brooklyn prosecutor's office but the charges have not been dropped.

And a child is dead--betrayed by the system that was designed to keep her safe.

I was a child protection specialist for two years between my studies at Harvard Divinity School and my decision to return to seminary and be ordained. I too lost a child to an inefficient and strained system. This was in the early 70's when the epidemic of child abuse was not so widely known. I was the person who removed children from their homes if I felt they were in eminent danger.

I removed a 4 year old boy and a 3 year old girl from the home of a professional couple. They were doing well in foster care and their burns and bruises were healing. The boy had suffered two broken bones in the previous two years but the hospital hadn't reported it. This was before the days of 'mandated reporters'--people who, by law, must report suspected abuse and neglect. Priest and ministers are 'mandated reporters', for example, along with school teachers and medical professionals.

The children's parents were well off and hired a top flight lawyer. The children's rights were protected by an assistant district attorney for the county. Child abuse cases were not what the assistant d.a. wanted to do and he was lackluster in the best of times. However, up against a tough lawyer, he caved in remarkably and the judge had no choice but to return the children.

I stayed in touch with the family though they sought a restraining order against the Department of Welfare. I went to the d.a.'s office for another order to remove the children and was turned down since that office had been embarrassed in the first hearing.

Two months later, the little boy drowned in the bathtub and I did get his sister out. The mother was tried for manslaughter rather than murder and spent one year in the county jail.

I left to go back to seminary before she was released. After losing Martin, much of the zeal and commitment had drained out of me. I know I did everything I could to protect him, but he was still dead, a victim of the system that was suppose to protect him.

I've never forgotten the experience and how impotent and guilty I felt. I'll carry Martin's memory with me always. Hearing the report from Brooklyn today just brought it crashing back on me.

A nation that doesn't protect its children from the ones who should be protecting them is a blight on the land. When will we ever learn how precious the lives of children are...and how precarious and dangerous the world can be to them?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Momento mori

Our microwave died yesterday. RIP.

It served us well. Between us, Bern and I realized it was somewhere around 23 years old. We brought it with us from Everitt Street in New Haven when we moved to Cheshire in 1989.

One minute it was with us--warming up the dog's dinner (Yes, Virginia, we warm the dog's dinner since Bern cooks it and it is refrigerator cool)--and the next minute (or about 20 seconds), it was gone.

I've sat by more death beds than I care to recall and it is often like that: one moment, the beloved is breathing, living, their microwave of a heart still beating. And the next moment, nothing....

People often ask, "Is he gone?" or "Is she dead now?"

I never answer but ring the 'call' button and wait for the medical folks to come, though I know it is still and done for the person in the bed.

Being a priest keeps you always close to that Good Door that leads from 'here' to whatever comes next.

I don't like most of the cliches we deal out at death. "He's in a better place," implies that being with the ones who love him is a 'worse' place. "She's at rest," simply begs the question of 'what happens next' to which I have no answer. Most of the stuff people say when someone dies is rather trite an cowardly. What matters is the pain of those by the bed, not the final disposition of the person who has DIED (I almost wrote 'passed', but that's another one of those cliches I dislike. Dead is Dead, not 'passed'.

So, our faithful microwave is dead now, out on our deck while we figure out what is the proper way to dispose of it. (Is there something in a microwave that shouldn't go in a landfill? Anyone out there know? Email me....)

Would that each of us should enter that wondrous and frightening door to 'whatever comes next' with the dignity and the integrity of our microwave oven. It never let us down or disappointed us or betrayed us in any way. A good life, I'd say, now over.

(I'm a great disappointment to people who want to know 'what happens' after we die. I simply don't know. I imagine that 'something' happens, so long as 'nothing' is part of the definition of 'something'. But to the people by the bed, I am the best person to have around. I don't lie or make up stuff. I don't try to 'soften the blow'. Death is dramatically important and should not be soft peddled. I usually say nothing besides, "I'm so sorry," and I hold them near for as long as they want or need to be held near. Just that.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Are you still there...?

I've been away quite a while. I've been on vacation and haven't read emails and haven't blogged and haven't watched much TV. I even lost touch with the American League East pennant race for a while but the Yankees are inexplicably 4 games ahead, so what could be wrong with that?

I've been catching up on the Republicans since I got back. Could the last sensible person leaving Texas please bring the American flag? Am I wrong, or didn't Rick Perry suggest, not so long ago, that it might not be a bad idea for Texas to secede from the Union? And now he wants to be President of the nation he wanted to leave? And his campaign promise about making the federal government 'irrelevant' in our lives--isn't that a bit like saying "make me Pope and I'll get Christianity out of your lives"? Maybe I've lived too long but Rick Perry makes Barry Goldwater look like a liberal.

We vacation on Oak Island, NC. There are three beaches on Oak Island--Yaupon Beach, Fort Caswell Beach and Long Beach. We go to Long Beach. I've tried to figure out how many times we've gone to Long Beach. Some 20 years in a row from the mid-70's to the mid-90's and perhaps 7 years since then. A long time, anyway. Five years ago our daughter Mimi called to find out where it was we dragged her most of her life until she graduated from High School. She and Tim, her boyfriend we love, went that year and then she suggested we go each year. We go in September since Long Beach is virtually empty after Labor Day, being a family beach. Our friend, John has gone with us the last 4 years and our friend Sherry went last year.

The biggest decision facing me each day at Long Beach is whether to walk East or West on my morning 'beach walk'. Long Beach faces South so the sun comes up on the left and sets on the right.

We eat and read and read and eat and Mimi and Tim go in the water, then there is reading and eating and this year ping-pong because the house had a table and then some reading and eating and sleeping. Naps are optional but often taken. If it rains, which it hasn't much the last four years, we go to a movie just off the island. No movie this year--just endless sunshine, 20+ mph winds off the ocean, and the ocean breathing its remarkable breath.

(There is, when you sit staring at the ocean and listening to its roar, a moment every once in a while when the waves break almost simultaneously and a deep Silence descends. It only happens once in a while on a beach that is almost seven miles long (LONG Beach isn't a misnomer!) but when it does it is magical, wondrous, spiritual, contemplative. Deep Silence is the gift of being by the ocean. The roar and whisper of the Ocean's breath is wondrous, but more wondrous by far are those rare moments when the Ocean inhales and there is Deep Silence. It happens about once every five minutes--and it is glorious....)

Fredricksburg, Virginia is about half-way to Long Beach. So we stay there on the way down and the way back. Mimi and Tim fly from NYC to Raleigh and rent a car. Bern and John and I are above 60. We deserve to make the 760 mile trip a two day thing. And staying in the Hampton Inn in Fredricksburg is a joy. We drive about 7 hours a day--always that or less from Fredricksburg to Long Beach--all Interstate until the last 30 miles and little traffic. From Cheshire to Fredricksburg and back is an adventure since we go through DC and Baltimore and NYC. Could be 6 1/2 hours (as it was coming back this year) or 9 hours if the GW Bridge and the Washington Beltway are uncooperative....

But that's what we do. And we've put the house on hold for next year--the same great house with the best kitchen equipment ever and 6 bed rooms and a ping pong table. What could be better?

Someday I'd like to go to Oak Island with my grandchildren, since we were there so much with our own children. It is a place of great beauty and great simplicity. Not a bad combination.

(Rick Perry makes Michelle Bachman look sane.....) But then I'm a 'tax and spend' liberal from way back....

Good to be back.

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.