I think I have figured out why old people like strange things. In part, of course, I am discovering this because I am getting older. But I think the chief reason that I have discovered this is because I have been rereading the Acts of the Apostles, a book of the Bible that few people read at all these days.
The chief reason for that is, I believe, because few people read any of the Bible at all. They are content to recognize it as “the good book” (when in fact for Protestants, at least, it is comprised of sixty-six separate books), instructions and guidance from on high, from “the Man upstairs,” or the like. That metaphorical description of God is, of course, less than dignified, even unbecoming. And at any rate fits with a no reading of but “general respect for Holy Writ.”
But old people, perhaps because they are themselves getting closer to the “top floor” (if I may indulge the societal predilection for undignified religious metaphors), would seem to be more inclined to read the Bible. Now most do it through something called a devotional book, which means some author has preselected bits and pieces of the Scriptures and then explained them. But some old people (and some young people, too, of course) prefer to read the Bible the way country musicians normally purport to drink whiskey—straight up. And if they do that, then they eventually read, often for the first time, the book of Acts.
Which brings by back to why old people like strange things. For the book of Acts is not normally one’s favorite book of the Bible. It is action-packed, geographically challenging—one really needs a map to read it—and religiously complex (e.g. Acts 21:21 ff.). But old people really like this book anyway. Why? I think I figured it out. It is because the Church described in that book is so very unlike any church they have ever attended. The Church of the book of Acts is active, vibrant, exciting, spiritual, robust, bold, faithful. The church that the old people are members of tends to be just the opposite of these things. In fact, they have sat in their pews and from time to time wondered why people still come to church, when the liturgy is all that there is, and Holy Communion, of course, the latter of which in and of itself, they rationalize, justifies the fairly limited attendance. But then they get gloomy and wonder, when they see a young couple or, worse yet, a young family, whether that family’s child, when it grows up, will actually come to this church or attend any church. And then they think of their own children and wonder if they ever go to church any more, for they don’t ask their kids too much about that, as they are all grown up and it’s true: they have to make their own decisions. At least they come with them to church on the holidays. “Sally’s kids won’t even do that much,” they mutter to themselves before they head off to the after-church cake and coffee.
But when they read Acts, those old people really get excited. Their imaginations run wild, in fact, for they imagine a time when the Church was vibrant, was engaged in society, had meaning and was connected to something bigger, Someone much bigger. Not the “big guy in the sky” or the “man upstairs,” but to God himself. And they ponder whether it could ever be so again. And that’s why they like the book of Acts. And so do I, and I know that it can be so and actually is in some churches.
Now that does not explain why old people like bad coffee—for they do, it’s a well-documented fact—or why they get unduly excited about a slice of apple pie, of which I am still not a fan, which means I must not be that old yet. Or why they love babies inordinately and feel encouraged when they see one—I am not there yet either, for I still think the world is in a tough spot and I do not become instantly optimistic by seeing or even holding a baby. Or why elderly men have such a penchant for t-shirts. I don’t think I know a single elderly gentleman who doesn’t wear a t-shirt or, for that matter, carry a handkerchief.
But they all love the book of Acts. And you don’t have to be old to read it. But if you’re not a Bible reader, I would advise you to read it only after you have first read a gospel (like Luke), for otherwise you might not understand what all the old folks are so excited about. But they are excited, and they are, strangely enough, inspired by nothing less than the very book of Acts.
Two weeks ago I wrote a blog about a parrot with a Brooklyn accent. And just when I thought that I was done with talking animals, I went to Verona which made me think of a conversation I once had with my fifth oldest child. She was not born in America; in fact, she was born in Ethiopia, and she came to America with little English. When I was walking her home from school one afternoon, after her ESL class, she mentioned to me that she was hungry, so I told her that I would fix her a little snack when we got home.
“I don’t want one,” she said.
“Oh,” I replied, “I thought you were hungry.”
“I am,” she said.
“Well then,” I responded, “I will fix you a snack.”
“No, no, no,” she said, “I don’t want one.”
“How hungry are you?”
“Just a little.”
“Then a snack would be perfect. Just a little one. There’s no need to fix you a big one.”
“No, no, no. I don’t want one.”
Only later did I realize that her hunger pangs followed by moments of apparently complete lack of hunger were engendered by her misunderstanding of the word snack. She thought, of course, that I was saying snake. Now I know that some of my Texan friends eat snake. But I am not a herpavor. I come from Pennsylvania where, to my knowledge, no one eats snakes. But my daughter thought I was referring to making her eat a small snake (as opposed to a large one) after school.
Now I had almost forgotten about this event until we arrived in Verona two days ago and, on the advice of an acquaintance, went to one of the finer dining establishments in this beautiful town, a five minute walk from the House of Juliette, which features, of course, the balcony said to have inspired the bard. Drifting on from the mildly (if tragically) romantic courtyard of Juliette, we came to the aforementioned restaurant, one that astounded me, only in part because the tortellini that I ordered was deliciously garnished with fine northern Italian Balsamic—real Balsamic comes from either Reggio Emilia or Modena (whose accent rests on the first syllable). Indeed, the pasta that I had chosen was delightful, far more delightful than the menu which featured, to my great consternation, both pasta with a meat sauce made of horse flesh and another with a donkey ragù. Good heavens, I thought, it has come full circle. Now I have become my daughter—but this time they really are eating the forbidden animal. And the couple at the next table fulfilled my worst fears, he ordering the horse and she, with a chuckle that sounded to me a veritable bray, the donkey.
Now this seemed to me especially wrong on two counts. First, having been a mule skinner for much of my childhood years, I can never brook the notion of eating the father (a jackass) of one of my beloved coworkers—hybrid, yes, but certainly almost human. Second, the woman who ordered the spaghetti a la donkey ragù herself cavorted in an asinine manner. I’m not sure what nationality she was, but suffice it to say that the manner in which she displayed her discerning palate was a bit too much for my taste. Thus it seemed to me that a bit of cannibalism might just have been going on at table 12.
Coincidentally or not, there are only two animals in the Bible—that is the donkey and the snake—ever reported to have spoken Hebrew (presumably Hebrew). The ass, was of course, that of Balaam and the snake, well, that was Eve’s little friend in the Garden. But the horse, while never having been said to speak in the Bible, has human characteristics, too, as anyone who has owned one can tell you. Some horses have been very famous. Need I mention Silver, of Lone Ranger fame, who spoke, or rather at least understood, perfect English and would come when called and do exactly as he was told; or Bucephalus, who despite his ox-headed name was said to have been the best of horses in antiquity, his master’s favorite and often depicted in artistic renditions along with Alexander. The equus of Caesar was said to have been equally beloved of his master. Both were said to have been portrayed with hooves resembling human feet. And should I even mention Mr. Ed? Of course it’s a horse, of course, of course, but not ever meant to be a dinner course.
So, when the waiter offered me the spaghetti a la donkey ragù, I, as my daughter had once said to me, found myself stating repetitively, “No, no, no…!” I was amazed at how visceral my response was, but I simply could not and would not dare even think of eating a donkey or a horse on basically the same principal that my dear daughter had innately adopted vis-à-vis even a small snake. Even though the waiter insisted it was tasty; even though the woman at table twelve was by then ravenously devouring it; even though it is part of Veronese culture, new to me on this trip (new since Switzerland, where I was two days ago, studying more manuscripts in lovely Bern); even though I normally try to embrace as fully as possible a new culture when I am travelling. In spite of all this, I simply could not eat an animal like Bucephalus or Balaam’s ass, or even Eve’s slithering sidekick.
Wait, what about dogs and cats? They don’t speak in the Bible, but they certainly have human characteristics and are a part of many a family in ways that snakes and donkeys normally are not. Well, that can be gotten around easily enough. First, the dog is the one animal in the Bible whose name is everywhere, just written backwards, of course. So, the Eucharist notwithstanding, I think we can safely say that we should not eat dogs on roughly the same biblical principal as not eating donkeys. It’s a bit harder to come up with a biblical refuge for cats. The best I can find is about as convincing as Mr. Trump’s by now quasi infamous (but somehow not damaging to him) “Two Corinthians” reference. Still for the sake of the species, I will try. The word “according to,” used for titles of each of the gospels in Greek, is “kata,” which is easily shortened to “kat/cat.” So, cats, it seems, are if only indirectly, like dogs, in the Bible and thus sort of protected from being dinner—at least according to me. Besides, our own dog, Knight, is a Great Dane, and thus qualifies both under the backwards goD heading and the horse category, as well.
But I will eat balsamic, and I will eat palatable pastas in peculiar places. So I leave you with but a trifle this week–you should try a trifle as well, or I should say a truffle, which in Italy are fresh and quite lovely in late November. Indeed, though I normally recommend trying the odd foods and accepting the strange things that life throws at you, I don’t recommend eating animals that can talk or whose names can be somehow manipulated as to being semi-divine, even if they can’t quite talk. And I do recommend warm Verona and snowy Bern, both lovely. Bon apetit, mon ami.
It is probably unnecessary to state as much, but it is nonetheless true: when one first moves to a new region of the country, it is possible to feel awkward and out of place. This is particularly true if you grew up on one of the coasts of the United States and you happen to move toward the middle of the country, or vice versa. We were then, several years ago now, living in New Jersey only forty-five minutes from New Hope, Pennsylvania, where I had grown up, and, as we neared our departure date, one of my more opinionated friends said going to Texas would be like falling off the edge of the earth into a pit of fire, still another, a place where people pretended to be your friends but weren’t really, and another, even more negative (and vociferous) about the move than the others, stated plainly that Texas is a place where they kill animals and eat the meat; he was vegan. I could say little as I had as yet not spent any time in Texas, but I imagined that the first friend was overdramatizing the matter, the second, naively unaware that duplicity is ubiquitous, the third, equally naively unaware that meat eating is also ubiquitous. These were the circumstances of my departure.
It was quite a few years ago now, but I recall vividly my first few days in Texas. Though of course I found what I knew already, that the people, like all people, were not perfect, I quickly discovered that they were in fact far friendlier than advertised. I had not known but soon learned that they shared with Pennsylvanians the characteristic of loving football to obsession. I also swiftly found out, since we moved to Texas in early August, that Texas, even without fire pits, is truly hot in the summer. And many Texan folks enjoy something called barbeque; since moving here, I’ve eaten it at numerous backyard parties, weddings, and funerals. I should not have been surprised, I suppose, that nearly all Texan churches enjoy sponsoring get-togethers that involve barbeque, and that Lutherans, in particular, like to drink beer at such events.
And so it went: our arrival, a new church, a barbeque get-together in the heat of our first Labor Day in Texas. It was very hot indeed, and everywhere I went I saw that there was something else “hot” to remind me, in all capitals: HOT Rodeo, HOT Jr. Football League, even HOT plumbers (which sounded to me more like bachelorette-party entertainment than men handy with pipes). It was only later that I came to find out that HOT stood for “Heart of Texas,” and was not what I thought, i.e. “hot” in all caps, as if to remind the reader that it is screamingly hot in Texas.
As a strange welcoming ritual, I suppose, I was invited right off the bat to get involved with the church in a particular manner: I was to join the picnic committee early on the day of the barbeque, Labor Day, to prepare the brisket. Now, if you have read the Curious Autobiography, you may already have already inferred that I had no idea what brisket was. Yet here I was, in the heart of Texas—though I knew it not from the HOT signs, which I assumed referred to the temperature—warmly invited to slice a cut of meat, one that I had never eaten. I knew this would scandalize the third of my friends listed above, and I think I may have mentioned it in a letter to him later, undoubtedly to his chagrin.
“Don’t forget to bring your knife,” the picnic committee leader by the name of Jody said, having introduced me to his brother Cody just after church that Sunday before the slicing. I must have looked puzzled, because he quickly added, “You do have a knife?”
Taken a back, I paused as I gazed upon these strong men—both builders, as it turned out—both clad in jeans and what I fancied Texan-style shirts (Jody’s of a light blue color with trim around the pockets, Cody’s similar, but of a burnt orange hue). Each, though lacking a stereotypical ten-gallon hat, sported a significant but not oversized belt buckle that gleamed and befit—not in terms of shine but in terms of effect—their clearly oft-worn yet nonetheless well-kempt cowboy boots. In this case, with me they were building a relationship and nascent friendship, not a house.
“I’ve got an extra,” Cody, his brother quickly added. “He can borrow my old one.”
“No, he should have his own,” Jody responded, with the shamanistic authority of a guardian of a rite of passage.
“Perhaps I can buy one,” I said, trying to cut this Gordian’s knot. “There’s a grocery story within walking distance of the house we’re renting.”
“If it’s the one I’m thinking of, they won’t have it,” Cody quipped.
“Surely they’ll have a knife,” I added naively, thinking of grocery stores in New Jersey. “They normally have a section with cutlery.”
They both looked at me in a slightly puzzled manner. “Cutlery?” Cody chuckled inquisitively. “No, this knife is not ‘cutlery.’ It’s an electric knife.”
“What is an electric knife?” I said, looking even more puzzled than they had earlier. They both broke out in laughter, and I soon joined in.
Having obtained an electric knife at another location, I rose early on that still somewhat warm Labor Day, the day of the picnic itself, to go to the church to slice brisket. Upon my arrival, I was astounded to learn that Mr. Jander had been up all night cooking the brisket, which he had buried in a fire pit. These were all new terms to me. What was a fire pit?—I recalled having been warned of these back in Jersey, but I dared not ask at a church gathering about that hellish sounding word. I could only imagine that it was a subterranean cavern in which brisket is roasted to perfection.
“All night?” I thought to myself.
Jody must have read my mind. “Well, probably since two or three o’clock.”
Thus did I ruminate, “I have never heard of such dedication to a meal.” But I did not yet understand what a meal means in Texas. It is like building a house: it has to be done right and many will come to help. It is also a peculiarly Lutheran ritual, and thus it was an honor that I had been invited to join the other men—for they were all men—in the slicing of the meat. (I later learned that the reason for it being an all-male event was to give the women a day off from any and all duties—a thoughtful touch, particularly on Labor Day, I opined.)
I fully admit that I was far from dexterous with an electric knife and had to be instructed several times. Mr. Jander was pretty easy going about the whole thing, even though it was he who had been up the entire night. O.E., for he was called by his initials only (something I can relate to), was a bit more stringent about the cutting technique. Fred was perhaps the best of the slicers, always trimming with a smile. Soon Cody and Jody had taken me under their wings, and I was found myself slicing brisket like, well, if not a pro, at least not like a young man from Philly.
“Good cut,” Mike, another of the picnic men said encouragingly. I was a bit envious of his method, and was curious how an accountant could be so able with an electric knife. To my query about his technique, he simply said, “Not too fast, just a little at a time.” At that point in my life, that was a piece of profound wisdom, more profound than he could have imagined. Of course, Mike was also responsible for counting the briskets to ensure we would have enough for the entire church.
Yet, in the end, this blog will have nothing to do with brisket, for I have not mentioned (and I do not intend to) how succulent that feast was, or that brisket, unlike most other cuts of red meat, goes especially well with beer, or that Lutherans sometimes serve well-cooked zucchini (lightly sautéed in beer) as a side. Nor will this blog have much to do with building, Jody and Cody’s profession, unless that building should be a metaphor for giving extra effort, putting in the extra time to do things right or, even better, should represent relationship building and acceptance. For my friends on that day taught me much more than the art of slicing brisket. They taught me the art of friendship, of welcoming a stranger, of embracing someone a bit different than oneself. This is a lesson I’ve learned, and perhaps we can all learn, over and over. The picnic committee helped me to see it in action, for they lived out what is known as the golden rule, with which if you’re not familiar, I would refer you to just one verse of a book perhaps less than popular these days. That verse is the thirty-first of the twelfth chapter of the oldest of the gospels, Mark, and reads, “And the second is like [it], namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” The first…, well, perhaps that is the stuff of another blog.
Someone recently asked me why I write these blogs. My answer to that question is the same as the picnic committee’s to slicing. You, dear reader, and I are merely busy about the brisket, chatting and getting a meal ready for others. If you’re a vegetarian, there are some zucchinis that need to be sliced over on the counter. Jody and Cody will show you where to find them. Just be sure to bring your knife.