Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Richard Houston Palmer, III

My grandfather died last Sunday, August 14. He was 95 years old. This past week I've been thinking a lot about my grandfather and trying to remember things about him: fuzzy impressions from early childhood, specific details about how he looked and sounded, stories he told and habits he had. Sometimes it feels like I don't remember very much at all. Sometimes it feels like I have a treasure trove of impressions and stories and visual pictures stored away.

He called my little sister "pixie." I remember being jealous that she got a nickname and I didn't. I wanted to be cute like a pixie, too, but I wasn't. But I knew even if I wasn't "pixie" that Grandpa loved me anyway.

He had a deep voice, and slow, and a wonderful TN accent. The way he sounded makes me feel at home. When I hear other people who sound like him, I feel warm and cozy. He told a lot of stories. I don't remember a lot of them, but my aunt and uncle and cousins who still live nearby across the old cow pasture from Grandpa's house made him record some of those stories and some of the family history. His voice got frailer as he passed 90 years old, but he never lost his sense of humor or the impeccable timing required for a really effective punchline. My dad says he still remembers hearing Grandpa say, "I've heard just about enough about that damn peafowl."

He ate chitlins and played Rook. In college I took up Rook partly because the game held a mystique for me: it was that mysterious card game with the big black bird card that Grandpa always played with all the other old men in the cabin behind the house.

I remember watching cartoons on the big, old TV in the living room on Saturday mornings. I remember eating breakfasts at the formica table--specially ordered and incredibly large to accomodate Grandpa's large family. I remember that Grandpa always had a glass of water to drink alongside whatever else it was he was drinking--orange juice or whatever--and it always seemed strange to me, a little idiosyncrasy that we all followed whenever we ate there, because that was what Grandpa did. I remember that Grandpa always prayed before meals, and it was always the same prayer, the prayer that all my life my sisters and I have called "The Grandpa Prayer": "Heavenly Father, We thank you for this food. In the name of Christ, Amen."

My mom told me that one time when my Grandpa was an elder and in charge of serving Communion on Sunday, a poor man slated to serve for the first time showed up without a tie. Instead of telling him he couldn't serve Communion to the congregration without a tie, my Grandpa took off his tie and told everyone else to take off their ties too.

I remember going fishing with my Grandpa and catching my first and only fish. I dropped it on my cousin's head trying to get it in the boat.

I remember my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary.

I remember my Grandpa being proud of me for going to China and for coming back from China and going back to school.

I don't remember my Grandpa the way he looked the last few times I saw him. I remember him big and vibrant and able to hop the fence and feed the cows. I'll always remember him that way, because that's who he was.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

punkin head

The Society of Mutual Admiration is pleased to present

"Punkin Head"

and invites you all to admire both the extremely professionally knitted chapeau and the adorable child modeling it.

Yes, yes, thank you, thank you. It was nothing, really. All I did was make the hat. John and Priscilla get credit for the kid--a much harder project, really.

Friday, August 12, 2005


Ira is out of surgery. It seems to have gone well. Again, you can go to Joe's blog, Brooklyn and Beyond, for details.
Ira Hays is in surgery now. You can visit Joe's blog to read more about it if you like. This is Ira, taken a month or so ago:

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


The Feminarian has a nice post up with pictures of her kitties. As you can tell I am having a rough time of it--little kids and old people dear to my heart are suffering, and I'm stuck here in NJ unable to do anything but blog about it--but I thought that I too would post a picture of my cat, who, like all wise cats, knows when to seek you out, settle down for the long haul, and purr. If only people could comfort that well.

She sleeps with her tongue sticking out. It's cute, isn't it?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Some people treat the world like it's a friendly place, full of rainbows and soft landings and certain success just around the bend. Maybe some people really live this kind of life. Maybe it's completely rational for them to think of the world this way--after all, as VH points out (see The Shaping of Rationality), one's own experience is always rationally compelling.

In a lot of ways, I have floated through life like this. I had a great childhood with sensible parents (despite that lapse which resulted in a 10:00pm high school curfew), sisters who grew up to be pretty cool, good grades without trying, scholarships to pay for college as the result of one good test day taking the NMSQT, a semester overseas which my parents were hellbent on paying for, a dream job overseas (in some ways) right after college, marriage to an amazing person (which I had seriously begun to doubt would ever happen), more school with scholarships, and more school with scholarships--at my first choice institution, no less, studying under a prof who's internationally known in his (and my) field. It's not that I don't work hard. I have, and I continue to, as I'm sure anyone who's read this blog knows, 'cause I complain about it on a regular basis. But look at all that. That is the trajectory of my life. Everything I have ever really wanted, everything important and serious and life-shaping, that is, I've gotten. It's come true, all of it.

John Hick's answer to the problem of evil basically proposes that all hardship, evil, suffering, etc., in the world is there because without these things, human beings would never come to spiritual maturity (which in any case he thinks takes longer than a human lifetime to reach--this goes on even after we're dead). The world is like a huge obstacle course, and in encountering obstacles, we learn and grow, and that's the ultimate point of obstacles. The obstacles being a metaphor for evil, of course. Imagine us all as toddlers, wandering around trying to learn something about our environment. If there was nothing for us to bump into, we would never learn anything. Therefore: humanity requires obstacles in order to progress.


If this really were so, beyond committing the unforgiveable breach of making senseless evil make sense (I like to think of this as "domesticating evil"--like, now that we've explained it, we can give it a nickname and keep it as a pet. "Here, Evil, here boy! Awww, good Evil, you're so cute, and helpful, too, aren't you, boy?"), Hick has some explaining to do, because I should be a naive nauseating idiot floating around telling everyone how good life is and God will bless them and nothing so bad we can't bear it ever happens and someday, someday we'll all be in heaven and it won't matter anyway.

But I'm not. I don't see a world of rainbows and happily-ever-afters and guaranteed successes, despite my coddled and overblessed life. Joe asked a few weeks ago how we view the world--optimistically, hopefully, or pessimistically, prophetically...

I see a world where little kids get run over in driveways and other little kids have recurrent CDH and old men get sick and old women get smashed up in car wrecks. I don't think that this is some kind of metaphysical learning experience for anybody. Not for them, and not for me, and not for you, either.

I'm mad. I am burning prophetic pissed that things like this happen in a world that Someone supposedly pronounced "good." I am raining down wrath on people who want to tie a bow on it and make it all better. I am sick to death of watching other people suffer for no reason and know myself to be completely helpless. I am embarrassed to have lived such a pain-free life that I don't even have a concept of how these other people suffer and manage to keep living.

These things haven't happened to me. I'm convinced my share of pointless suffering is down the road somewhere ahead, but that's not the point. They don't have to happen to me for them to matter. They happen. That's the problem. And if we can't see that from our cuddly cushy sunshiny happy place, then we too are the problem.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

what's that blue thing...DOing here?

Continuing on the theme of food. There is a legend in my household about the Blue Soup. Brent encountered the Soup back in high school, in Russia, as an exchange student. He doesn't know what made it blue. He remembers it vividly because, naturally, he really, really didn't want to eat it.

(Incidentally, our Ukrainian friends are mystified as to the possible culinary identity of the Blue Soup. They seem a little skeptical, despite Brent's earnest protests, that such a thing exists.)

My first time to venture down to the local government-run cafeteria down the street in China had me perusing a line of dishes which, for me, had no name and no immediately identifying factors. Pointing randomly I chose 3 dishes and sat down. The only thing on my tray I could be sure of was the rice. It turns out one of the things I had chosen was cow stomach, helpfully ID'd for me by my Australian companion, wise in the ways of the cafeteria after a year in China. It had a decent flavor, but the texture was unpleasant. I ate the peppers. And all of my rice.

The real problem was when I couldn't even decipher whether a dish was vegetable, or meat. The first time I saw Qie zi Bao I felt completely uninspired. This is a delicious eggplant dish, in case you're wondering, but unless you know it's eggplant, it looks like a nest of dead caterpillars in brown sauce.

This is not gratuitous mocking of other cultures' cuisines. My point is that, when you can't identify for yourself that a thing properly belongs in the category "food" then you simply do not want to eat it. It seems unnatural to do so and despite your best intentions and sincere desire to be courteous, you experience a strong revulsion and a desire to run away and forget that you ever saw that blue thing on the table.

(This is, I think, part of the horror of cannibalism; human beings do not belong in the category "food." I posted a short musing on this a while back at a few voices.)

What's really interesting to me is how strongly we feel about this. It's wrong to eat dog, it's gross to eat pig's ears. It's not just that we feel "this isn't for me." Our guts get twisted up and our world gets tilted a little bit when we consider eating the uneatable. And yet, the category of "food" is indisputably socially learned and formed. If it weren't, there would be no ex-pat cravings and no ex-pat food inhibitions. This category which is so obviously cultural-specific is somehow, in our minds and in our actions, transmuted into a natural/unnatural paradigm.

Perhaps, you may say to yourself, that's not true. We don't say people are "unnatural" if they eat pig's ears or dog. We say that's gross, or cruel. But let me point out that "gross" and "cruel" are not aesthetic pronouncements. They're not expressing a matter of taste. At core, they are moral judgments. And this is what I mean by saying that this matter is elevated to the natural/unnatural; when we make a judgment about practices which don't fit our category, we don't simply shrug and say to ourselves, "Oh. apparently some people like to eat donkey meat, while that simply doesn't tempt me at all." No, instead we feel repulsed. Not just by the unidentifiable Thing on the table, but by the people consuming it as well; we feel it strongly, viscerally, and express it in terms of moral condemnation.

You can, however, get over this. It takes some effort and repeated exposure to weird eating habits. You have to hang out regularly with people who eat Blue Soup, pig's ears, chicken feet, cow stomach, dog and donkey meat. You have to learn that regardless of these supposedly barbarous and repellent habits, these people are essentially just like you, and are doing what comes "naturally"--they are eating what they consider to be proper food.

The final lesson comes in the form of watching our home-video of our Chinese students attempting to eat some of our cherished sharp cheddar. Some of them managed to gag it down. Others raced each other for the kitchen sink to spit up. One student seemed to go into a mute Zen trance in order to gain the inner strength to swallow.

Brent and I enjoyed the spectacle immensely. They had just attempted to serve us frogs, after all. I don't mean like cutesy little Frenchy frog legs, either. Things come whole in China.

They were quite good, actually.

***this is also posted over at A Few Voices. For those of you that read both blogs, sorry for the redundancy.***

Thursday, August 04, 2005

ex-pat food cravings

Those of you who have never embarked on extended travels or lived overseas for a time may not know this, but there is a syndrome which I shall label "Ex-pat Induced Food Cravings." I've never been pregnant, so I don't know what pregnancy-induced food cravings are like. I tend to disbelieve the old pickles-and-ice-cream paradigm myself, but like I said, I haven't been there. Perhaps the moms out there can enlighten me. Or frighten me. Or both.

Ex-pat food cravings are different. They're not longings for the strange and unusual. They're cravings for familiarity packaged in food form.

I'm thinking about this today because yesterday afternoon I put down Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone in order to attempt making my own Wheat Thins. Yes, homemade Wheat Thins. This is a mission upon which I embark for the sake of my sister, the current ex-pat of the family. She has developed a craving for Wheat Thins, and though she has recently been pregnant, the diagnosis is ex-pat-, not pregnancy-induced, food craving. Naturally, of course, Wheat Thins are unavailable in Choluteca. This is part of the indication of the syndrome.

My Wheat Thins were, alas, neither tasty nor crunchy enough. I will try a second recipe after acquiring some more wheat germ. When I get it right, off the recipe goes to my mei-mei, who then (hopefully) will make a couple batches, and then discover that, upon availability, the cravings subside.

My own ex-pat cravings centered around cereal. (Cereal was nominally available in China--if you wanted to spend $10 USD a box.) I also had short but intense bouts of craving for a good creamy pasta. And cheese enchiladas. And, well, cheese. (Cheese was also nominally available in China back in '98--you can get all kinds of crazy French cheeses now, at Carrefour.) And I discovered that my liking for grits (yes I'm a good Southern gal in some ways, at least) had increased exponentially--and for grits, I was entirely dependent upon a collection of inherited envelopes of instant grits.

I won't call my year-long yearning for a decent cup of coffee an ex-pat craving; that's just garden-variety addiction and coffee snobbery. I'd feel the same anywhere.

Thanksgiving was a big deal for us Americans living in China. Some mistakenly attributed the emotional importance of the holiday to religious significance. It wasn't that at all. It was a Feast of Familiarity, and we would go to great lengths to "get it right." We had to have mashed potatoes--doable, but expensive because of the cost of butter. Had to have green beans. Had to have dressing. Had to have, of course, turkey. The turkey was a problem--my first year, we grudgingly made do with roasted chicken. Later, after my return to the States, I heard that one family had raised its own turkey. I don't know where they got it from. They had to hire a restaurant to cook it, because, difficulty #2, you can't stuff a turkey into a toaster oven.

I'm poking fun at us, sure, but Thanksgiving was a serious thing. It was important. It was a lifeline of sorts. It was a haven of American-ness in the middle of China. It was a chance to, for the length of a meal, feel at home in a place where we always felt out of place.

So, my Wheat Thins were a disappointment. But I shall redouble my efforts. I can't fly myself to Honduras or send endless streams of care packages stuffed with Wheat Thins for my sister. But hopefully, I can find a way to make a tolerable substitute, one which will evoke thoughts of home and feelings of familiarity, so that my sister can begin to feel at home wherever she is.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

the Anchorite

You may have wondered why there's been no new post for ages. It's just that there hasn't been anything to say.

My days pass with dreary uniform regularity; I wake up, I go to the computer to do online course work while I drink my coffee, I read some boring thing by some dead person who's usually German. I take a break to eat a late breakfast and then I read again. I take a break to snack instead of eat a proper lunch and then I read again. About 4:00, thanks be to God, I leave the apartment for the gym where I ellipticize for a half hour. Then I come back home, make dinner, and in all likelihood, read again.

This kind of routine makes one vulnerable to sloppy personal hygiene, frequent napping, and long conversations with the cat. It is, in fact, hardly distinguishable in some respects from clinical depression. (Perhaps my more psychologically knowledgeable friends will weigh in on this comparison.)

It makes me wonder what in the world people were thinking when they decided the best way to serve God was to huddle away in solitude. Or Thoreau, wanting to go "live deliberately" all by his lonesome. I don't even consider myself a real extrovert (officially I am right in the middle of I/E on Myers-Briggs, or at least, that was the case when I took it in college, 10 years ago), but this over-solitary existence is wearying. It makes me feel a little better to realize that Thoreau, the old fraud, was only 2 miles out of Concord, and Julian of Norwich (my latest mystic) was visited by all sorts of people seeking out her holy advice--most notably, Margery Kempe, who provides us with the majority of the information we have about Julian. Even Simeon the Stylite who decided to go live on top of a pillar in the desert drew an audience.

Which makes me just a bit skeptical about the whole thing. Perhaps the solitary existence bit was just a stunt, a ploy to get people's attention, a way of drawing a crowd instead of avoiding them. I don't really know. I'm not a historian and I am not an expert in mysticism and can't really say for sure. And if it was a stunt, well, I'm not sure that's necessarily bad. It at least sounds a lot healthier than a genuine desire to avoid all other human beings for years and years.

At least I have some things to look forward to on my calendar: a wedding on August 13 (already have the outfit picked out & brand-new shoes!), a trip to Texas, a trip to TN for my sister's wedding in December...hopefully I won't be so wacky from this anchorite existence that everyone thinks there's something wrong with me. Should I attempt to climb on top of a pillar, please, someone, take pity and haul me off to the nearest therapist.