Monday, June 25, 2012

Fast food notion

I’m generally known as self-disciplined person, someone who sets and meets goals. I’ve beaten the odds, done the unexpected, gone beyond and proven doubters — and myself — wrong. It is a big part of what I do, helping others make progress through life challenges and toward desired changes.
About five years ago my Mom had a stroke, actually her third stroke. I had a habit of drinking three or four…okay five or more cans of diet Coke a day. My doctor had encouraged me to cut down. I blew it off, until that day. While visiting the hospital I decided no more. I have not had a diet Coke, or any other artificially sweetened soda, since. None, zero, period, end of conversation.
And I didn’t replace it with a similar course of sugar-sweetened soda. My “treat” is to drink about one (real) Coke a week and generally get by on unsweetened tea or water.
In spite of my discipline of ceasing to drink diet Coke, I fail when it comes to food. I could be referred to as a “fast food person.” Not that I frequent fast food restaurants — no, I eat fast.  Too fast.
“Hi, I’m Jim.”
“Hi, Jim.”
 “I eat fast. Way too fast.”
It’s something of a life long habit. The end result is that I not only eat too fast, I eat too much. I know the equation, eat fast and the message can’t get from your stomach to your mind soon enough to tell you to stop.
I learned much of my love of food in my extended family.  We would eat and then we would talk about eating. If you mentioned going out someone would ask, “Where’d you go?” which means, “What restaurant?” The follow-up is, “What did you have?” Which leads to comparisons with other restaurants, family recipes or a wandering conversation touching on various food related topics. Many of us worked in food services at one time or another. My first paycheck was from a restaurant, where my grandfather worked as well.  
My Mom’s identity was in feeding “the boys.” That included my Dad, my brother, me and any friends or family who might be around. She often said her greatest joy was seeing us eat. When my sons came along, she became known as the “cinnamon roll Grandma.” Neighborhood kids would swarm our yard upon her arrival in anticipation of the famous treats.
In my young adult years I was anxious, driven, overly responsible. I was worried I’d never do enough, get it all done or do things quite right. I pushed others, but never as much as I pushed my self.  As a program director at a Christian conference center, my responsibilities included coordinating summer staff. At mealtime I’d sit where I could see the room, all of the comings and goings, inhale my food. This would allow me to move from table to table checking in with staff members, keeping the flow of the day going.
As time progressed my work became less active; meetings, desk time and travel. Food related activities increased: mealtime meetings, working lunches, events and celebrations, and work trips with their endless parade of buffets and nameless restaurants. At the same time my metabolism went south. You can guess the result.
When the term multi-tasking became vogue, I felt I’d found my level. I loved the idea of being able to do multiple things as quickly as possible. I’d amaze mere mortals by crushing deadlines, managing an overly full schedule, holding together diverse interests, programs and people. Checking things off a list became a matter of identity. Accomplishment equaled value.
As time progressed, I was able to gain a better understanding of reasonable expectations for self and others. I became more aware of what could and couldn’t be controlled. I think others would agree that I became much more relaxed in relationships and responsibilities.  I found ways to live more by flow than a driven linear model. I learned it’s not always worth getting things done if relationships are sacrificed in the process. I’m much more at peace with life, the world, others and myself.  You might think this deep sense of balance would permeate all of my life. You might be wrong. I still eat too much, too fast.
I’ve developed strategies to change my behavior. I try to be the last served, wait for others in a meal line, chew more, put down my fork, sip water, converse — anything to slow my pace, but with little success. I hate when others notice and comment. It proves my weakness and failure at mastering this ever-hovering ghost.
I could make a case that this is some divine gift to keep me humble, remembering I can’t do everything. I know about strength in weakness, waiting, trusting, letting go, spiritual disciplines and self-control. And I still know I eat too fast.
Wisdom and science agree. Eating slower is better. Maybe someday my eating habits will align with best practices. Or maybe I’ll just have to keep working on it.
May God have mercy on us all.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

X, Y & Z

First day of summer
Always first of something
And last of something else
Who do I know,
Correct that, did I know, that
Won’t see this one,
This summer, I mean

If I stop and
Think and
The reality,
Possibly the stupidity,
Of spending today
Looking forward to
The completion of X,
The end of Y and
The arrival of Z
I can keep finishing,
Acquiring, accomplishing
Until there is no more
And, yes,
That would include
No more of me

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bittersweet, but I'll drink it anyway.

My wife wishes I liked to drink. In particular, she wishes I enjoyed wine. I think she envisions summer evenings, watching the sunset, leisure conversation while we each nurse a glass and let time slow its pace, eventually disappearing over the horizon. But I have never cared for the taste of wine or any other alcoholic beverage. I don’t like coffee either, but that’s another story.
If you knew of our two childhoods, I’d be the logical drinker. Her family had strict views against alcohol consumption and we’ve been told her grandmother was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Alcohol wasn’t allowed in the house and I’m guessing even its mention would have been discouraged. On the other hand, my family were drinkers — drinking and cards, drinking and dancing, drinking and friends, drinking and being alone and drinking and drinking (though my mom didn’t drink much compared to the rest of the tribe).

Exactly who were the alcoholics in my family is debatable from my youthful perspective. Some my parents named, others I’m only guessing, like the cousin from California who’d call and talk to whoever would listen, for a long time, long distance, and that was expensive — really expensive. Mom had an uncle who lived across the river. He was in and out of treatment until he died relatively young. There was an older relative who lived about a dozen years after his spouse died, drinking alone in the big family home. I remember a great uncle stone cold drunk, laid out on a picnic table at a Memorial Day family reunion. Little ones giggled and poked. Were it not for his occasional snoring and the movement of his chest, we’d have given him up for dead.

There were great parties at my grandparents’ home with a full bar in the basement party room. I would be upstairs with my brother supposedly sleeping. Within days my grandmother would cover the wall with pictures of the event. We rarely knew many of those in attendance.

And yet, I never liked the taste of anything with alcohol. I can enjoy looking around a wine shop and on occasion, I’ll buy a bottle for Connie as a gift. I’m fascinated by the places wine is made, the varieties, the names and the labels. Then, when we’re out for an evening, Connie might encourage me to try a sip of her wine. She thinks she may have found one I’ll like. I sip. “It tastes like wine,” is my usual response.

A few years back, we went to Europe and spent time in the Barolo region of Italy, a famous wine country with hills and vineyards, castles and cathedrals, twisting roads and town plazas, great food and friendly people. I enjoyed the time, but not the wine.  Sometimes I wonder if I stay away from it because of some fear that I could become an alcoholic. But then I try another taste and, no thanks. I just don’t like it.
There are times I wish I could enjoy drinking to be one of the gang, like happy hour overlooking Bellingham bay, at a ball game, holidays with gathered family and friends. If anything could push me to drink, it would be my concern over people thinking I’m not drinking because of some Christian conviction. Please — I spent my young adult years in that culture and it seemed to feed so much contrary to the way of Jesus.

In my early days I was the kind of Baptist for whom drinking was an absolute NO. There was an endless number of other taboos as well. I’ve spent most of my adult years as a Presbyterian. I learned quickly that many, if not most, Presbyterians drank, a few smoked and quite a few would swear — a big change from my Baptist days.  In both church settings, the so-called blood of communion was watered-down grape juice.  One church even noted it in the bulletin to quell the fears of any alcoholics in the crowd. Might have been a good caution based on my knowledge of some of the folks who attended.

This past year Connie and I have gone to the neighborhood Episcopal church more than anywhere else. I like it for a number of reasons. I love the old building, inside and out. I love homilies, in big part because they are short. There are no giant screens or dazzling PowerPoint presentations overwhelming the visual space. The people seem genuinely friendly and reasonably diverse for our community.  It’s close to home and the theology seems to allow some refreshing space.

Then there is communion, or, more accurately, the Eucharist. I knew it was going to be different than my past experiences. First, it happens every week (and actually, more than once a week if you want). There is more ceremony; it is clearly a focal point of the gathering. And I like that.

Then there’s the matter of the shared cup. My initial thoughts tended toward communicable diseases and my impending death. But I like it. I can fantasize that we either live together or die together. A bit extreme, but doesn’t your mind wander in church?

And then there is the wine issue. This is the real stuff, not juice and not watered down. I can’t say that turning wine into a liturgical element has changed my sense of liking it. There has been no divine moment, no miracle in which my taste buds were resurrected.
To be honest, I still don’t like the taste, and I try to drink as little as I can while still feeling that I have participated. But actually, I like that I don’t like it. I like that sense of inching closer to the altar, of getting closer to the moment of tasting. There’s a bit of a jolt, as I am reminded, “I don’t like it, but it’s good.” Maybe it helps me sense the power of the moment.  Maybe it’s being faithful beyond my convenience and comfort.  Maybe it’s remembering that Jesus’ bloodletting wasn’t a sweet ceremony.

I highly doubt that my distaste for wine will change and I don’t care. In fact, I hope I don’t get so comfortable with the taste that it becomes boring.  I want each sip to be bit of a wake up moment, a reminder that I am participating in something important, something truly holy and something different.
Maybe in the Eucharist — in the moment, in the wine, in the taste — I am gaining a new understanding of the term bittersweet. I may never like it, but my hope is that I will always love it.

May God have mercy on us all. 

Originally published in catapult Magazine: