World Series memories, part one

Over the course of a month, the Chicago Cubs earned a championship by winning eleven games over three opponents—the San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Cleveland Indians. To achieve those eleven victories, they played seventeen games, and I was able to see parts of all seventeen on television—in most cases I saw the entire games from beginning to end. I missed the beginning of some games because of the classes that I teach, and I left one game early because the Cubs were playing poorly. For seventeen evenings I welcomed Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Joe Maddon and the rest into my home. I should spend more such quality time with my own family!

Along with the baseball players and their manager and coaches, I also brought a few more people into the house those evenings. One of them repeatedly bought a cell phone from an attractive sales clerk. When she said “Enjoy your phone” at the end of the sale, he responded, “You too,” and then enhanced his awkwardness by walking into a glass door, to her consternation. He did so Every. Single. Time.

Then there was the complacent man who drove a Mercury when he wasn’t busy gazing into his own eyes in the mirror or falling backward into a pool of water.

There was also a gentle man with a well-groomed beard who posed as a customer research specialist as he tricked groups of people (Real people! Not actors!) into saying nice things about Chevrolet vehicles.

There was an actor who was fond of reminding me that he used to do commercials for Verizon but was now representing Sprint. One of his frequently-aired spots was set in a barber shop. An elderly barber stood behind the main actor, stirring a pot of shaving cream with a brush through the entire commercial. What was that supposed to represent? Was their some subliminal message involving that barber that I kept missing?

A pair of commercials for an insurance company cleverly portrayed situations in which different people said the exact same words in different contexts. In one commercial, a girl is given a new car by her father while a man is discovering that his car has been stripped by thieves. In the other, a girl is showing off her new suede couch to her friend, and later two thieves are admiring the same couch before they carry it away.

There were repeated advertisements for Live Facebook, none of which depicted anything I would bother to watch on Facebook.

Another car commercial showed clever split screen scenes accompanied by Cat Stevens’ catchy song, “If you want to sing out.”

I also recall a talking llama, a talking gecko, and a talking hockey puck named Alexa.

All of these commercials were part of my play-off and World Series experiences this fall. Even Taco Bell almost managed to make their meals look appetizing, not to mention a monstrously unhealthy sandwich from Burger King that I saw over and over.

Had the Cubs lost at any stage of the play-offs, I would have passionately hated every one of these products and the people responsible for promoting them. Aside from the Mercury guy, I’m not hostile toward any of them, thanks to the Cubs’ victory. However, had the Cubs lost, I would have been annoyed even by the AT&T actress (who happens to be from Uzbekistan, by the way). Granted, I’m not running out to buy a new car or a cell phone, or to change insurance companies, or even to get a sandwich at Burger King. I appreciate the fact that these companies spent millions of dollars to broadcast these commercials along with the baseball game, and that those millions of dollars made the players’ salaries possible. And I’m not one of those people who starts watching a game an hour late so I can fast-forward through the commercials. The commercials are part of the pace of the game to me, and after seeing the same set of commercials dozens of times over a month, they too are almost like family. J.

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The living room

When I was about eighteen months old my parents bought wall-to-wall carpeting for their dining room, living room, and hallway. One of my earliest memories–probably the earliest–is of that day. I was still being set on a table in my bedroom to be dressed. Having the furniture out of place throughout the house left an impression on my young mind.

When one stepped through the front door of my childhood house, one was practically in the dining room and living room. The two rooms were separated by a couch and by a china cabinet; there were no walls between them. A planter, about four feet high, was between the front door and the dining room; behind the open door was a coat closet, and the living room was to the right. The hallway was beyond the living room; from the hallway one could enter one large bedroom to the right, or either of two smaller bedrooms to the left. A closet was between the bedrooms. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway. Behind the dining room (as seen from the front door) was the kitchen. Next to the kitchen was a room we called the back entry: it had a small storage closet, a door to the back yard, a door to the basement across from the back door, and a sliding door that led into the nearer bedroom. The door between the kitchen and dining room was also a sliding door.

All three bedrooms had wooden floors, but the original floor in the rest of the house was brown tile with streaks of white and black. It looked something like a bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup after someone had stirred the ice cream and syrup together with a spoon. The carpet that replaced the tile floor was dark blue. It consisted of loops of different sizes, creating a textured flooring that did not show footprints. I loved the fact that the carpet was blue. At times, it was the ocean, and two or three small throw rugs were islands on which my toys lived.

The living room had a large picture window which faced the front yard. Across the room from the window was a fireplace in which my family burned logs during the winter. Between the fireplace and the china cabinet was a bookshelf built into the wall. The books included two encyclopedia sets, a set of books from Time-Life about science, and assorted novels and works of nonfiction. The couch (which was mustard-yellow with flecks of brown) was in two sections. One was turned with its back to the dining room; the other had its back to the window. A pole lamp lit the room from the corner where the couch sections met. A television set on a metal stand was against the wall farthest from the front door, with easy chairs on either side of the TV. The living room had three wooden tables–a coffee table in front of the couch, an end table with a drawer next to the couch in front of the picture window, and a matching table next to the easy chair in the corner of the room.

When I was little, I was told that Santa Claus brought the Christmas tree, along with the stockings and other presents, after I went to bed on Christmas Eve. Those years we always had a real tree, and we always kept it up for the twelve days of Christmas, after which Santa came to take away the decorations until next year and to throw the tree outside. The tree was centered in the picture window; the couch was moved into a V shape with the angle pointing into the dining room. Stockings filled with gifts were left for each of us in front of the fireplace, and gifts were left under the tree. I remember the frustration of hearing my mother vacuuming the living room late in the night on Christmas Eve. I knew that she wanted the house nice for Santa, but I also knew he couldn’t arrive until she and my father had gone to bed. The first sight of the tree Christmas morning was always spectacular, as it towered high above my head all the way to the ceiling. Today’s Christmas trees seem much smaller in comparison.

When I was little, my family had a dog and a cat. The dog was mixed-breed, but largely beagle. She liked to sneak outside and run through the neighborhood for hours; she had no sense of property lines and was difficult to capture. The cat was allowed outside during the daytime but slept in the house at night. The dog liked to sleep behind the couch, under the picture window. The dog was not allowed into the bedrooms. The cat liked to entice the dog by running through the living room, encouraging the dog to chase her, and then ducking into a bedroom. The dog liked to chase a small ball across the living room and then return it so it could be thrown again.

Needless to say, the carpet and furniture were replaced a time or two over the years, and a color TV eventually replaced the black-and-white set of my childhood. These early memories of the house, though, are the ones likely to stay with me the longest. J.

Christ in Genesis: the Promise to Abraham

When Abraham is introduced in the book of Genesis, one of the first things we learn about him is that God has made him a promise. “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will become a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Abraham does not earn God’s blessing by traveling to Canaan as God commanded. The blessing is a gift, unearned, and Abraham’s journey is a result of the blessing, not a cause of the blessing. Over the years, God repeats his blessing to Abraham, also to Isaac, and to Jacob. He says it different ways on different occasions, but generally it comes in three parts: Abraham’s family will become a great nation, they will live on the land to which God sent Abraham, and from that nation on that land will come a blessing for the entire world.

Abraham had to wait twenty-five years for a beginning to the first part of the blessing. Isaac was not born until Abraham was one hundred years old. Isaac did not marry for another forty years, and then he had two sons. His son Jacob had twelve sons and a daughter. The family had grown to seventy members by the time they moved to Egypt. When they left Egypt several generations later, the Israelites included 603,550 men of fighting age, as well as children, women, and the elderly.

They returned to the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and land became a very important part of God’s covenant with the Israelites. Each of the tribes of Israel was assigned a certain portion of land, carefully described in the book of Joshua—except the tribe of Levi was given no land. The Law of Moses ordered strict punishment upon anyone who tried to steal land by moving a boundary stone. Land could not be sold; families in debt could rent out use of their land for a time, but they would receive their land again at the next Jubilee Year, which came every fifty years.

Generally when the Romans conducted a census, they simply went door-to-door, counting the members of each household and collecting a tax. The Jews made this census more complicated than anyone else in the Empire. Joseph (and many others like him) was determined to be counted at his family’s land rather than at his current residence; so Joseph took Mary his espoused wife and traveled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, because Joseph was a descendant of King David. David had many other descendants who wanted to be counted in Bethlehem, so the inn (more of a guest room than a motel) was full, and Mary and Joseph had to take shelter in a cave, one that generally was used to shelter sheep. There Mary gave birth to her firstborn, the ultimate Son of David, who was swaddled and placed in a manger. According to the Law of Moses and the prophecy of Micah, the Son of David was required to be born in Bethlehem to inherit his kingdom.

Jesus is, of course, the blessing for the entire word who came from the family of Abraham on the land that had been promised to Abraham. He was born to inherit a kingdom and to win a victory. His victory was not over King Herod or the Romans. His victory was over all the forces of evil, including sin and death. His kingdom was for all people, not just for the Jews. John the Baptist and Jesus and the apostle Paul all insisted that the children of Abraham are all those who share the faith of Abraham in God’s promises, not necessarily those who can trace their family tree back to Abraham.

God affirmed his promise to Abraham several times. In Genesis 15 God commanded a ceremony involving several animals that were cut in half. I have read that this ceremony represented a form of covenant that was practiced in western Asia three thousand years ago. Generally two people making an agreement would walk between the halves of a slaughtered animal. In this case, Jesus walks alone (with a fire pot and a torch) between the halves, showing again that the fulfillment of the promise depended upon Jesus entirely and not upon Abraham in any way.

When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God gave another ceremony to Abraham and to his family: the ceremony of circumcision. A small bit of skin was snipped away from the most vulnerable part of a man’s body. Some pain was felt, and a little blood was shed. For the rest of his life, that man had a private reminder of his relationship with God. Babies born into the family, if they were male, were circumcised on the eighth day (the same day of the week that he had been born). Jesus was circumcised in this way, shedding a little blood to foreshadow the blood he would shed more than thirty years later in the battle that won the victory.

Abraham never owned any of the land where he lived, except for a cemetery he bought when his wife died. His descendants claimed that land under Joshua when they battled the Canaanites with the help of God. When they were unfaithful to God, they lost control of the land to Midianites and Philistines and other enemies. This was God’s judgment upon his people for their sins. As their sins grew worse, God called the Assyrians and the Babylonians to remove the people from the land; but because of his promise of a blessing for the entire world, God called the Persians to send the Jews back to the Promised Land. God’s Promise is always bigger than his Judgment.

God always keeps his promises. The accounts of Abraham and his family cannot be understood apart from an understanding of the promises of God. J.

How the Civil War nearly began in Arkansas

Most people who know at least a little history of the United States are aware that the Civil War began April 12, 1861, when shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Not many people know that the first shots of the Civil War were nearly fired in Little Rock, Arkansas, two months earlier.

In 1838, the United States government built an arsenal south of downtown Little Rock, on Ninth Street. Munitions were stored in the building and soldiers were regularly stationed there, while other units passed through the area on the way to the border outpost of Fort Smith, facing Indian Territory. With some southern states seceding from the Union after the election of 1860, the United States Army began to rearrange some of its troops. One relocation moved Battery F, Second United States Artillery, from Fort Smith to the arsenal in Little Rock. Captain James Totten was the commander of this battery, which left Fort Smith on November 27, 1860, and arrived at the arsenal on December 6.

In January 1861, a convention met in Little Rock to consider the question of seceding from the Union and joining the Confederacy or remaining with the United States. Because the convention was evenly divided on this issue, the delegates chose on January 16 to schedule a referendum on the question for the coming summer. Shortly after the convention disbanded, rumors began to travel around Arkansas that the federal government was reinforcing its units in Little Rock to defend the arsenal. These rumors were either the result of Totten’s unit being moved or were speculation about further actions which were not, in fact, being considered by the U.S. Army.

Because of these rumors, militia from various parts of Arkansas began to converge in Little Rock, gathering around the statehouse on the south bank of the Arkansas River. The local militia, called the Capitol Guards, tried to position itself between the other units and the arsenal, but it was outnumbered. Arkansas Governor Henry Rector promised to resolve the conflict, although what he could accomplish was not immediately obvious. Although the soldiers in the arsenal were badly outnumbered by the members of the various militia units, they were far better equipped for battle and were in a defendable position in the arsenal.

The hero of the event was Captain Totten. Knowing that armed conflict would lead to civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian property near the arsenal, Totten exchanged communications with Governor Rector. Understanding that Arkansas had not chosen to secede from the Union (and was not scheduled to make such a decision until summer), Totten offered to hand control of the arsenal over to the governor of the state of Arkansas. Rector agreed, provided that Totten and the men under his command left the state and carried off none of the cannons stored in the arsenal. At noon on February 8, Totten and his man left the arsenal. Totten signed papers giving control of the facility to the government of the state of Arkansas, and his unit began its voyage to St. Louis, Missouri. A group of 107 women from Little Rock gave an engraved sword to Captain Totten thanking him for his peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Nearly a century later, outsiders again poured into Little Rock, this time protesting the desegregation of the city’s main high school. On this occasion federal soldiers were sent to the city to defend the nine African American students who had been enrolled in Central High School. By this time, the arsenal was no longer a federal facility. Some years after the Civil War, it had been exchanged for property north of the river, and the building and surrounding land were converted into a city park. The park was named MacArthur Park, to honor General Douglas MacArthur, who had been born at the arsenal in 1880 while his father was stationed there. Today the arsenal is a military museum. The strength of its walls was tested and found durable when the building survived a direct hit from a tornado in 1999. J.

For additional information, consult David Sesser’s The Little Rock Arsenal Crisis, History Press, 2013.

Stretch Summer, Shrink Winter

In 2017, the United States government is going to try a new plan in order to extend the summer and shorten the winter.

After August 31, 2017, the calendar will revert to August 1, 2017, and the entire month of August will take place a second time. To balance this extension of summer, the month of February 2018 will be canceled, with calendars for 2018 skipping from January 31 to March 1.

The reason for this change is obvious. More energy is consumed during the winter than during the summer, due to the need to heat buildings during winter and to provide light during the longer nights of winter. By adding one month to the summer and shortening the winter accordingly, the U.S. government hopes to accomplish a five percent improvement in energy usage. Furthermore, shortening winter by one month should increase public safety, with four fewer weeks of ice and snow and other winter weather.

Schools that begin their academic year in August will have two openings a month apart, with a brief vacation at the beginning of the second August. Schools that begin their academic year in September will not be affected. Since there are no major national or religious holidays in August, most other schedules will not have to be adjusted, although citizens with birthdays in August will need to decide whether they want to celebrate during the earlier month or during the later month, or perhaps celebrate both birthdays during the same year. Plans are still being made to reschedule Groundhog Day, Valentines Day, and Presidents’ Day in January 2018.

Opponents of this plan have indicated that the year will be two or three days longer with an extra August and no February. Advocates of the plan respond that, since the extra days will happen each year during the summer, probably no one will particularly mind.

Expect to see advertising of this plan in the coming months, with the motto “Stretch Summer, Shrink Winter” employed to help people remember when to adjust their calendars to conform to the government’s conception of time. J.

 

Cubs fans: “We won!”

This is a repost of my very first post on this blog, from April 2015:

Two special days happen every spring. Sometimes they are a couple of weeks apart, sometimes they happen the same week, but only rarely do they fall on the same day. This year, 2015, they fell on the same day.

One of those special days is Easter. Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. His resurrection provides hope of our resurrection. His resurrection provides hope that our sins are forgiven and that we will live forever in God’s new creation. His resurrection provides hope that all God’s enemies (who also are our enemies) have been defeated.

The other special day is called Opening Day. Specifically, Chicago Cubs Opening Day. After weeks of practice games that don’t count, on Opening Day the games begin to matter. In my lifetime, the Cubs have not played many post-season games. Every spring, though, has had an Opening Day to celebrate. On that day, it is possible to hope that the Cubs will have a good season, one good enough to bring them to the postseason. At the start of Opening Day, all the teams are equal. Every fan of every team can approach Opening Day with hope.

Both these special days in early spring deal with hope, but the hopes are not the same. If I say, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,” I might get my wish, or I might not. If I say, “I hope the Cubs win the game today,” I might get my wish, or I might not. When I say, “Heaven is my hope,” I am talking about a guarantee. Jesus has lived a sinless life. He has suffered and died on a cross to pay for the world’s sins. He has risen from the dead. Our Easter hope does not disappoint us, because Christ has triumphed. Our Easter hope does not disappoint us, because God always keeps his promises.

Baseball is only a game. What Jesus did in Holy Week was no game. That week he fought and won the ultimate battle in the war between God and evil. Jesus took all the sins of history on himself and made them go away. Jesus faced the devil and crushed the devil’s head. Jesus died so he could remove the power of death and provide a resurrection for all his people, for everyone who trusts and believes his promises.

I truly hope that some year soon, some year in my lifetime, the Cubs win it all. I would like to see them celebrate a World Series victory. When the Cubs are champions, their fans all over the world will celebrate. Thousands of fans in the stands will cheer, and millions watching the game on television will cheer. All of us will shout, “We won! We won!” That shout is rather strange, actually, because the fans don’t win anything. Only the players on the team really contribute to the victory. The players who throw the ball, hit the ball, and catch the ball are the ones who won. Yet they don’t mind sharing their victory. They don’t mind that the fans say “we won” instead of “they won.”

Easter is much the same. All over the world Christians gather in churches and celebrate Christ’s victory. Essentially, we say, “We won! We won!” Yet only Jesus lived a sinless life. Only Jesus died on the cross to defeat evil in the world. Only Jesus rose from the dead on Easter to proclaim his victory. Yet Jesus does not mind that his people celebrate Easter and say, “We won.” Jesus wants to share his victory. He wants to make us more than conquerors—winners who did not have to fight to gain a victory. Jesus does not call us fans. He makes us members of his team. Then Jesus goes out and wins. And the win was provided, not by a home run, but by a sacrifice. J.

Fresh fruits and vegetables (and weeds to pull)

The soil of my childhood home consisted of rich black dirt. Yellow and gray clay lay under the dirt, as I found along the banks of the creek. The topsoil was fertile, capable of supporting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

My grandparents, my parents, and my uncle and aunt and cousins lived in three houses on three acres of land. Each household owned part of the land, and the property lines were known to all of us. All three households cultivated land in the center of the three acres. Although it looked like one garden, each household planted and tended and harvested from its own part of the land, according to the property lines.

Standing in my back yard, I would see the right side of the garden with a flower bed in front and vegetables behind the flowers. To the left were two grapevines, as old as the house. Behind the grapevines was a bed of strawberries and then some more vegetables. Further left, toward the creek, was an orchard. There were two apple trees, a pear tree, and a cherry tree. The cherries from the orchard were sour, not good for eating raw, but good for pies and jellies. The orchard also had a bed of rhubarb and some bushes which produced currants, gooseberries, and blueberries.

Late in the winter my father would start some tomato plants and pepper plants. These he would keep sheltered until after the last frost. By the time those plants were moved into the garden, rows of seeds were being planted for other vegetables. He would plant lettuce, peas, beans (green, yellow, and lima), carrots, beets, parsnips, and onions—usually one row of each vegetable. He would also plant several short rows of sweet corn, because the corn would not pollinate well if it was planted in one long row. He would plant small beds of zucchini, cucumbers, and sometimes pumpkins. The pumpkins were a particular challenge, because they would trail in various directions all over the garden, so we never knew where the actual pumpkins might ripen. There was also a bed of asparagus that renewed itself every spring.

Needless to say, weeds also thrived in our fertile soil, so pulling weeds was a task we all shared. It’s not enough to pick weeds—if you leave the roots in the soil, they will grow again, stronger than before. When pulling weeds, though, one must be careful not to harm the desired plants. Some vegetables were hardier than others; cucumbers, I remember, were one of the most fragile of garden plants. They would seem to wither if someone merely looked at them the wrong way.

I did not enjoy pulling weeds, but as my father and mother both said, “It has to be done.” When the three of us worked together on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, we would usually have a transistor radio in the garden with us, tuned to the baseball game. From experience, I learned the seasons of different fruits and vegetables: asparagus and peas in the spring, before the heat of the summer; strawberries in June; sweet corn in August; sun-ripened apples and grapes in autumn. I remember snacking on an apple and some grapes on many a weekend afternoon in the fall while I was playing in the back yard.

The benefit of a garden is, of course, fresh fruits and vegetables. The family also froze or canned fruits and vegetables for other times of the year. Nothing beats fresh vegetables from one’s own garden; I still cannot stomach canned peas. When we were to have corn on the cob for supper, my father insisted that the water must be heating to a boil on the stove before the corn was picked and the husks removed. The hottest and most humid days of August were always the days that corn was harvested for freezing. My mother would have large pots of water boiling on the stove as we husked the corn—and we had no air conditioning. All of us were dripping with sweat. The corn would be boiled briefly; then the kernels would be cut from the cobs and bagged and boxed for the freezer.

My parents were frugal, and we often continued to eat vegetables that had passed their peak of freshness. I remember stringy asparagus, tough and wrinkled lima beans, and woody parsnips. I remember my mother cutting a five pound zucchini in half, removing the seeds, and stuffing it with a meatloaf. But I particularly remember all the homemade foods: pies, jellies, tomato juice and grape juice, tomatoes left on the vine until they were red and ready to eat; and zucchini bread. I remember shelling peas so they could be warmed in a little butter and served with supper. I remember seeing tall yellow stalks of corn standing upright in the first snow at the end of autumn. J.