Friday, April 23, 2010

Gordon Gano and Hope

Now I might be silly, I'll admit it. I discovered the Violent Femmes in 1991, my 11th-grade year, just as I realized that my life never would line up with my expectations and hopes. The last two years of high school and the next two years of college remain the darkest days of my life, with extreme depression ruling most of my decisions. As a depressed, promiscuous, 17-year-old girl on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I fell hard for the idea of Gordon Gano the lyricist based on their wild, uninhibited, and (to me) very new sound on the 1981 Violent Femmes album. I played Blister in the Sun over and over and over, cackling to myself that my mom didn't know it was about masturbation. I played Add It Up at full volume, and I shouted Gano's words and channeled all the fury and hatred I had through my voice, trying to feel the horribleness that I felt leaving my body through my mouth.

It's really a very good thing that I never saw this 1984 photo of Gano as a teenager. I think I would simply have imploded. At 34, I still might:

Much later I discovered their album 3. I loved it, too, but not with the intensity and excitement of that self-titled debut. I found some of the songs more singable if less infectious. My particular favorite for years was Fat, a song I've taken as a bit of a theme song for myself. I'm sure Gano wrote and sang it just for me. And oh! just for a moment to sing the praises of Guy Ritchie's bass playing on that song! The song is utterly predictable and an absolute masterpiece. It never fails to make me smile, and I always end up dancing.

I digress. Here and now, I'm writing for a different reason. In spite of the angst and worldly teen suffering he codified and recorded for posterity, Gano always has described himself as a devout Baptist. Knowing that, in my later years as a Christian, I've found hope in a good bit of his supposedly profane (as opposed to sacred) and secular music.

Over the last six months, I've suffered awful, terrible depression. Some of the worst depression I've endured since those years at the end of high school has haunted me right here and now. I have been overwhelmed by it, and have often had to remind myself that you can't "lose" hope. You either choose to have it, or you don't.

This morning on the commute to work I plugged my iPod into the truck stereo system as always and scrolled through the bands. I'm sick of Sting, of the Police, of the Chemical Brothers. My depression has been too serious for me to risk listening to Nine Inch Nails (another discovery of those horrific late-teen years) or Tori Amos.  I saw Violent Femmes at the bottom of the artist list and thought, "Ah, just what I need." I selected the ever-so-slightly more mature 3 album for the ride in.

As I pulled onsite, a song I'd completely forgotten came on, and it spoke to me. The first hope I've felt in a while welled up, and I sang along thinking, "Oh my God. He's done it. Gordon Gano has fought this very depression in this very way, trying to reconcile it to this very faith. And he wrote it down and sang it out for me."

Now I'm certain good old Gordon's never gonna see this blog, and that's okay. But I have to say, it's been nice hearing him all these years, and I surely would like to thank him.

Outside the Palace
I've been outside the palace
I've been outside the gate
I still don't feel that I made any mistake
When I got off that train
I felt my feet hit the ground
I didn't want to know
Where that gravy train was bound

To me, the palace here is the protective home we have as Christians. The palace is that shelter that Christian parents want to give their children. We want to save them the sorrow of knowing and being hurt by that world; ultimately, though, we can't do that. They (and we) choose to step outside God's palace, to know the world. And that might or might not be a fundamental mistake. Regardless, how do we appreciate the palace for what it is if we never leave it?

God help me to see
I've been loved all along
And not to get too confused
Between the moonlight and the dawn

The moonlight and the dawn here represent the actual depression. The confusion and darkness that descend when you've been too long in the world and you begin to question God, his love for you, his desire for your happiness, and our purpose here. I read these lines as a literal prayer, and a literal promise. I have been loved all along, but I need help remembering and living that; the depression, the time of darkness between the moonlight and the dawn, confuses me and obscures the fact of God's love.

If I go back to the palace
I'll walk right through the gate
Nobody knows how much here was at stake
I might get on that train
In feel the wheel on the track
Move it on up the mountain like a foregone fact

Going home to the palace really is as simple as walking right through the gate, but the simplicity of the act masks the incredible cost of staying away. It's simple to forget the palace, or to relegate it to a time in my life, a phase I went through, and to continue in the world as though it was ordained that I must: I can forget the palace, leave it in the past and stay on the train (here representing the world). Now working on the world's mountains becomes a foregone fact of my life. My purpose becomes about the world and its problems.
God help me to know
I've been in love my whole life
And not to get so confused
Between the struggle and the strife.

Maybe it's a function of the depression in my head right now, but these last lines make me want to weep for their reassurance and simple faith. Again, this is a prayer, one that asks God for the simple reminder that I am in love with him, that he is my choice; I am not bound as a Christian just because the Hindu gods didn't get to me first or because I'm not Buddhist. My faith is not by default, and it is not a reflection of God's ownership of me. No, God relinquished his ownership by giving me the freedom to choose him or any other god. The struggle and the strife, the products of the world and of being outside the palace, can so easily overwhelm and confuse, sending me back to depression and separation and allowing me to forget that I chose this faith and this walk.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dog Barf

Mark got himself in trouble a couple of weeks ago.

I tried a new recipe: pasta with arugula and parsley cream sauce.

Now I like arugula in salads, so I thought, "Hey, why not be adventurous?" I am a fool.

First, in accordance with the recipe, I went outside and picked a handful of Mark's arugula. Now the recipe called for a bunch, so I felt that with only 5 or so leaves, I was really skimping. It also called for four sprigs of parsley, so I dutifully picked those as well.

Back inside, I washed and dried each leaf, then chopped them up fine and put them in the blender. I put in a cup of my precious homemade sour cream and another 1/3 cup of goat and feta cheeses and pureed it all together for a nice, springy, Easter green sauce. I have to admit: it smelled funny, but I decided to trust my sense of adventure. "It smells woodsy and earthy," I told myself.

I boiled the pasta, thinking, "Oh boy, this is going to be gourmet." (Note to self: If you start having delusions of gourmet about a given dish, it might be best just to throw it out preemptively.) I drained the pasta and sprayed it with cold water. One of my nicest serving bowls appeared perfect to showcase this spring green pasta wizardry: two-tone cornflower and sky blue, and set the table. Congratulated myself on getting adventurous in the kitchen, on feeding healthful food to my family, and on using the food in our garden. I poured the "earthy" sauce onto the pasta and mixed it together in that beautiful blue bowl.

Burgundy came into the kitchen; I speared a piece of pasta and said, "Taste it!" with a big grin. Burgundy grinned back; she's learned to trust my cooking. After all, how many times have I said, "I know! It sounds awful, but just try it." Without trusting me, she'd never have had buttermilk pie. Zucchini bread. Peanut butter and honey.  I held the fork between us, smiling happily, flush with the accomplishment of a new dish, fresh from our yard and my labors. She sniffed the fusilli and immediately, involuntarily assumed her Careful Face. "I know," I said. "It smells funny; just try it."

Ever the obedient child, Burgundy opened her mouth and gingerly took the fusilli from the fork. Her eyes widened, her head tilted to one side, then the other. The Careful Face prevented me from determining whether these were signs of surprised delight or surprised disgust. I decided to walk the line: "It's not bad, is it?" She shook her head and swallowed. "See? It's maybe not something I'd make again; I mean, it's not delicious, but it's a passable meal." Her sweet smile and affirmative nod, eyes still wide, should have told me everything. Unfortunately, I lay in the grips of my own inflated ego. I ate another piece myself and waggled my eyebrows. Burgundy excused herself to do algebra. Another clue.

About that time, Mark came home from work. Sauntered in, smiling innocently, and kissed my cheek. "What's for dinner?" I grinned and told him about my awesome arugula-sour cream-goat-cheese-and-feta pasta. "Arugula?" he said timidly?

"Yeah, smell!" I said, and thrust the bowl under his nose. He inhaled deeply, recoiled sharply, and didn't even try to hide his disgust. Count on Mark for honesty. "I know, It smells funny, but it really tastes okay, honest!" Unfortunately, Mark trusts me in the kitchen as much as Burgundy does, and I still suffered under my delusions of culinary grandeur. "Here, try it," I said, holding out another lone noodle on the end of the fork. He looked at me, looked at the fork.

"Um." He looked back at me and sniffed the concoction again. "Well, there's always Casa Ole." Casa Ole is our go-to crap food. Everything is smothered in cheese, lard, and corn syrup. It's awful and awesome and a threat and fun. He leaned forward, took the fusilli between his teeth, and pulled it into his mouth. I waited; he chewed. Swallowed. "Hmm," he said, looking at my hopeful face, "uh, how about Casa Ole tonight?"

I admitted defeat. Suddenly I knew the dish really was that bad, and I had tormented my child and my own stomach in hopes of its salvation. Burgundy, who'd come back in to watch Mark taste it, heaved a long sigh of relief and punctuated it with, "Oh thank God." I suppressed a self-conscious giggle, and we all prepared to leave.

I know. If you're still reading, you're wondering why Mark would be in trouble. Well, honestly, at that point he wasn't. He simply told the truth, and I know the food really was that bad. It's what happened next that really has him in the doghouse.

While Burgundy got ready to leave, I looked at the bowl full of expensive sour cream and cheeses and pasta and said, "God I hate for this to go to waste."

Mark nodded and said, "Mm, yeah. Cost a lot?"

"Just the cheeses and sour cream, but yeah." We both looked mournfully at dinner's lost cause. "I bet the dog would eat it."

Mark looked at me a fraction of a second too long, and then said, "Uh, do you really think he'll want that?" He placed just a little too much emphasis on 'want that'.

"Only one way to find out," I said, and I place the bowl on the floor. Soren immediately began inhaling the green, smelly pasta without even a hint of hesitation. I turned to Mark in triumph. "See? Not a total waste."

Mark looked from me to the dog, who paused to hork a fusilli spiral out of his lungs and transfer it to his stomach. Soren looked up at us warily, as if we might try to take this miracle of deliciousness from him. He bent his head back to the bowl, now half empty.

"Maybe," Mark said, not weighing his words, not considering the punishment he would earn or his impending immortality on this blog, "Maybe we should put him outside on the patio in case he barfs it all up."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Anti-Pop-Tart Post

Aside from The List, I have personal goals and changes I want to pursue regardless of the impending crisis. I have posted a few times about our local eating efforts, and I want to expand that to local living. My friend Hannah and I talked last weekend about local living for hours while we drove to and from Brenham, Texas to buy fresh, local meat.

I concluded that I want to try to live and shop only in my own hemisphere, preferably only in North America. Yes, this means no more Belgian or German chocolate, and it means no more Ethiopian Sidama coffee. However, I can buy sustainably farmed coffee from this continent and hemisphere without paying for the tons of petrochemicals involved in transporting the Sidama from Africa. Sure, we still pay for oil to transport the coffee from Columbia (yeah, I know. Not my continent) or Central America, but it's certainly less than from Africa. And before you suggest it, no, I will not stop drinking coffee. Mother Earth can kiss my Heiny if she thinks I'm taking that one for the team.

This also means I need to shop for American-made clothes, shoes, electronics . . . you name it. I might not succeed all the time. Given the job situation, if I need a car part and it costs twice as much for American as for Asian, I might have to buy the Asian-made part for now. I feel I must at least make the effort, though.

Here are my proposed guidelines and challenges to myself:
  1. The experiment will last six months: the period of time remaining before we enter the Season of Unemployment Armageddon.
  2. 90% of food should be raised and grown within 200 miles of Houston. The only reason I'm giving myself such mileage is that most ranches and my source of raw milk are between 90 and 100 miles away. The only reason I'm giving myself a 10% freedom to buy from farther away is for items like coffee, chocolate, and avocados. I don't know if avocados grow within 200 miles of Houston or not, but I want to make sure I can have them.
  3. 90% of consumer goods should be made on this continent. Again, I'm giving myself room so that if it turns out that the ingredients of my homemade laundry detergent are only made in China and I can't find any other US-made detergent, I'm not screwed. I want to make sure that I still can buy toilet paper, you know? Oh, and DH thinks I'm being dumb, so I need room to not have to fight with him about every little thing.
  4. When we eat out, we suspend the experiment for obvious reasons; however, we should try to eat only at locally owned and run restaurants. I want to limit eating out to twice a month.
  5. I want to prove a corollary theory: That while shopping only locally is more time consuming, it should be cheaper. It's true! Local, humanely raised chicken might be more expensive per pound (a lot more!), but if you eat less of it (a common surprise when people begin eating locally and in-season) and dress it with locally grown, in-season vegetables, it's practically the only expense of the meal. Our $12 chicken with $5 in vegetables from Sunday before last fed us for four days. That's about $4.25/day or $127.50/month. Um, that's cheap. The average American family spends about $289 on food prepared at home. Our current grocery budget is $90/week or $360 - $450/month for food and non-food items. I want to show at least a 10% reduction in food expenditures over the next six months. That means I should have $9 left at the end of each week. I'll put that money into an envelope and keep it in the desk.
  6. I want to prove (for myself) another corollary theory: That eating locally is more healthful. I do not believe that weight loss is a good indicator of physical health, nor are body size and BMI. After thinking a lot about how to prove this, I've settled on bloodwork. I'm going to ask my doctor for a blood panel to figure out where I am right now. I'm not going to do anything differently than I do right now. I will not restrict calories or intentionally up my exercise. I won't not exercise either. I'll just do whatever comes naturally. I enjoy soccer, and the season is starting; therefore, I'll play soccer once a week if I feel up to it. At the end of the six months, I'll have another blood panel done. I'll publish the results of each panel here.
If any of you smart people out there can think of a better (read: less expensive) method to prove the healthful theory, please tell me in the comments.

As I re-read this for publication, a co-worker brought me a Pop-Tart, and I devoured it. I might have snorted the icing without ever once considering the irony of what's displayed on the screen. I might have, but I will neither confirm nor deny such an allegation. I have avoided bringing snacks and food to the office because I work only half-days. Clearly I need to change my approach. Pop-Tarts do not meet a single criterion listed above. They are everything that this effort seeks to remedy about my life. This post is my Manifesto! My Master Plan! My Anti-Pop-Tart.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Unemployment Armageddon

We found out two days ago that in addition to the end of my current employment on September 30, Mark's contract ends October 1.

I feel angry, paralyzed, motivated, frightened. I am a walking maelstrom of emotions.

The only things we can do are the obvious:
  1. Job hunt. My company has said that if we can move, they will help us find positions elsewhere in the company. In addition, Mark's skills transfer easily across industries. If he can find a position in petrochemicals or one of the other industries around here before the rest of NASA is laid off and saturates the market, we can stay in Houston.
  2. Cut expenses. This will be the most difficult proposition because we already live pretty close to the bottom of the threshold, and there still are many things we need to buy. Burgundy wants to attend the Rice summer school again, this time for enrichment. Given the trouble she had in Algebra last year, we really want her to take a pre-Calculus enrichment class before she takes it for credit next year. She wants to take a class in writing, a class in Chemistry (she's taking Chem next year), and a class in US photographic history. We will pay for this because her education is important. It's worth it. $775. And that's only one expense. There's my truck, repairs to the house, medical bills . . . you name it.
  3. Save money. As much as we can. We're working on that now. Mark is selling his books again over the internet, and I'm thinking of selling all but my most cherished yarn, fiber, and fabric. With all the above expenses, we're going to have to be brutal with each other about saying no.
  4. Sell the house. This decision hurts the most. Mark loves our house. His garden is thriving, and we like our neighborhood. We're five minutes from Burgundy's high school, great location, yada yada. However, once NASA "refines" its workforce, housing here will plummet, and we'll lose our meager equity. We need to sell it now. Mark and I disagree on this, so the common ground we reached is that we need to get it ready to sell. I plan to call a realtor friend next week and ask her to help us prioritize what needs to be done. I know we need to get the clutter out of the house; Mark won't want to get rid of anything, so that will represent more expense. As will new carpet, replacing the tub in the guest bathroom, painting rooms and landscaping. We have pine trees.* I hate pine trees, and I have ten of them in my front yard.
I'm not sure exactly how, but I know we'll make it. Even if we end up drawing unemployment, we should be able to make it.

* Good God I hate pine trees. Perhaps it's that I grew up dirt poor in pine country, Mississippi, but they scream, "I AM TRAILER TRASH AND CAN'T AFFORD OAK TREES OR LANDSCAPING, SO I PLANTED UGLY, WEEDY, FAST-GROWING TOOTHPICK TREES INSTEAD! FEAR MY SHOTGUN!"