Monday, August 08, 2022

Becoming an Anglican in Austin


A  few months after we moved permanently to Austin, we joined an Anglican church in the south part of the city.  Both of our sons and their respective families were already part of the congregation there 
(including among those families five of our seven grandchildren), and of course this made the church very attractive to us.

What do “Anglicans” believe?  Are they "reformed" in their theology?  A clue to the answer to that question is the liturgy in which our South Austin congregation participates.  As I listened to the liturgy each Sunday,  taken from the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, itself based on Scripture, I found it sufficiently consistent with what I understand to be true Christianity to be willing on a faith level to join that church.

It certainly helped that, in the adult Sunday School Class at FPC Miami Springs, we had read works by John Stott and N.T. Wright, both priests in the Church of England, as we explored the Scriptures.  Furthermore, at FPCMS we had participated in several “Alpha” programs, an evangelistic program founded in London during the 1970s by a priest of the Church of England.

Since joining our Anglican church, I have been exploring the history of what is known as “The English Reformation.”  Among the books about that subject is a classic entitled The English Reformation by A. G. Dickens.  It is not a religious book; it is a history by an acclaimed British historian.

I participate in an on-line Sunday School Class.  For the last several weeks, we have been discussing the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone in our study of Galatians.  Getting the matter of works vs. faith straight has been challenging.  Dickens writes about that doctrine, a doctrine that he asserts came to the Church of England in the early 16th Century from Martin Luther via Thomas Cranmer.  Dickens writes that the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone is “the keystone” of what Luther believed. I find helpful Dickens's description of it, and I hope you will too:

“The antithesis between God and man presented by Luther, and indeed by the Apostle [Paul] himself, is stark in the extreme. On the one  hand stands the Deity in his unutterable majesty and justice; on the other languishes man in his corrupt self-centredness; his wretched nature being curved inward upon itself; he remains unable even to approach the divine standards by his own pitiful observances and good works.  But if God’s righteousness is terrifying, his loving purpose toward man is boundless.  In the Son he has furnished man with the sole means of transcending this awful inadequacy. God will justify men – put them in a right relationship with himself – only if they abandon all reliance upon personal merit and place their whole trust in the merits of Christ.  Truly, good works are an inevitable outcome of this faith, yet in themselves they contribute nothing to justification and salvation; they can form a dangerous stumbling-block to misguided men, who take pride in them as a title to redemption.  To this sequence of thought St. Paul repeatedly returns, and Luther took it as the very heart of early Christian theology.”

I would quibble with Dickens, however, about the idea that the doctrine is “the very heart of early Christian theology.”  It has been the true heart of Christian theology continuously from the beginning, remains so at this moment, and will continue to be so in the future.

 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Micael Punke's "Ridgeline" and Greenberry Jefferson Stokes

 For Father's Day last month, Mary gave me a bag of coffee beans and a couple of books. One of the books is an historical novel by Michael Punke entitled Ridgeline.  The book tells the story of  “the Fetterman Massacre,”  a massacre of 60 or so Federal troops and a couple of civilians that took place during 1866 in a Wyoming valley.  The event took place a few miles from a newly built fort.  Wittingly or unwittingly, the US Army built the fort on some traditional hunting grounds of the Sioux, pursuant to a treaty into which certain Sioux entered, Sioux who lived nowhere near there and who had no authority whatever over the tribes who did.

The fort is known as Ft. Phil Kearny.  There were about 400 officers and men stationed there, as well as a number of civilians, including wives and children of some of the men.  All of the senior officers and many of the other troops stationed at the fort were holdovers from the Civil War.  Some of those holdovers included individuals who had fought for the Confederacy.  In the following passage from the book, the author introduces the Confederates while describing a conversation about food around a campfire among some of the enlisted men:

A new speaker joined the conversation, and his accent .  .  . told a story –  a Georgia drawl as thick as tar. .  .  Barely two years earlier, the Georgian had stood on the opposite side of the battle lines from some of the men at this very campfire. There were plenty of former rebels in the Second Battalion – “galvanized Yankees,” they called them, Confederate prisoners of war given early release if they agreed to renounce the rebellion and enlist in the frontier army.

In the early 1950’s, my father visited his widowed mother (Hettie Louise Johnson Stokes) in Atlanta to help her "break up housekeeping" as people called it and move to Miami Springs.  (In Miami Springs she would live with my dad's sister, Frances Stokes Harris, her husband, Harold, and their two children, Ken and Tim.  The Harris family had earlier moved from Greensboro, North Carolina, to a house not far from ours.) 

My father told me that, as he was going through some old paperwork in my grandmother's home, he came across a pension certificate issued to his grandfather by the US Army, a grandfather that, at least as he understood it, had fought honorably for the South.  He asked my grandmother about that matter.  A little embarrassed, she said the grandfather had, indeed, fought on the Confederate side, but in one battle he had been captured.  His captors offered him a proposition: he could spend the rest of the war in a military prison or he could join the Union Army and go out west to “guard the Indians.”  He would not be required to fight against the Confederacy, they told him.  He accepted that proposition, served out West, and again conducted himself honorably. Upon his discharge, the federal government awarded him a pension.

Of course, when I read the above passage from Ridgeline, I thought about the matter of my father’s grandfather fighting for both the Yankees and the Rebs.  But I could not recall which grandfather that would be.  On my Grandmother Stokes’ side, there were the Johnsons:  All I recall about my dad's maternal grandfather was that my dad referred to him as “Pappy” and that he was from Dade County, Georgia.  But on the other side, on my father’s paternal side, there was Greenberry Jefferson Stokes.

My family knows a little about this ancestor with the unusual name.  Mainly we know that as a soldier, he was part of Confederate General John B. Gordan’s “Raccoon Roughs,” a volunteer company raised in Alabama.  We not only have a photo of him but also a photo taken at an1889 reunion of his Rebel Company. 

I am not at all proficient with genealogies.   But via the internet, I found my way to a National Park Service website that has, among other things, a directory of soldiers who fought in the Civil War for whom records are preserved in one of the national archives.  One enters a name and the website will give a limited amount of information.  For example, if there are records for the “Union” army it will show you the number of those records in the archive.  If there are army records for the “Confederacy,” it will show the number of those records.

For Greenberry Jefferson Stokes, there are 1,196 Confederacy records.

For Greenberry Jefferson Stokes, there are 925 Union records.

My son, Walter, who has done some genealogical work, confirms that it was Greenberry's pension certificate that my father discussed with my grandmother.  (Or maybe Walter remembers this story from my father better than I do.)

But I would like to know at which Yankee fort in the West he was stationed.  It is possible it was at Ft. Phil Kearny.  But if he had been stationed there, then at the time of the massacre of a number of the forts troops, he must have been back at the fort. 

He was back at the fort:  Where any self-respecting Stokes would be, if he could be there honorably, when the environs are full of unhappy Sioux and their allies, the Cheyenne.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Eggnog, Mark Twain, and Southern Baptist Women

 I'm looking at eggnog recipes in a cookbook that was a wedding present to Carol and me 51-plus years ago, Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker  There is first a recipe for a punch-glass full of the stuff on page 48 of our 1964 edition (the first edition was in 1931), and then for "Eggnog in Quantity" on page 50.

There are two versions of the "Eggnog in Quantity" recipe, the first, a "rich and extravagant version that is correspondingly good," and the second, "less powerful, less fluffy than the preceding nog, and a boon to a creamless householder."  (It seems odd to think of a "creamless householder."  In the case of the second version, condensed milk is substituted.  But the first seven editions of this book covered the Depression and WW II years.)

The first version of "Eggnog in Quantity," among other ingredients, calls for "2 cups of dark rum, brandy, bourbon or rye." But the writer says this:

Some people like to add a little more spirit to the .  .  .  recipes, remembering Mark Twain's observation that "too much of anything is bad, but too much whiskey is just enough."

Which reminds me of my grandmother, Hettie Louise Johnson Stokes.  She loved my mother's eggnog and each Christmas remarked on how good it was.  A Southern Baptist born in Dade County, GA, in 1884, Grandmother Stokes never realized that Mom's secret ingredient  was dark rum.  (Mom was also a Southern Baptist but from Fulton County, GA. Nita never told Hettie about the rum. Nor did anyone else.) 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Hands On, Even Slightly

 During 2019, we were able to buy our Austin home at a good price, in part because it was not in tip-top shape.  So, along with the house, we acquired a list of things that we needed to do to restore it, among them was to fix the sprinkler system.  We moved in at the end of March 2020 just before the pandemic closed in . 

By about 15 months after our move, we had checked off enough items on the renovation list to reach  the broken sprinkler system.  We located a local expert in residential sprinkler systems, and they did a good job in getting the system going again.  

Unlike the situation in Miami Springs, where the water table is high enough for a lawn sprinkler system to easily reach the water table, here in Austin the water table is very deep in the ground,  No home in our development, as far as I know, has its own well.  So, we must use, as other people do hereabouts for their lawn sprinklers and swimming pools (we don't have a swimming pool),  "city water," as folks from Miami Springs call it.

Our sprinkler-system contractor tested the water pressure from the city water utility in the course of his work.  He found the pressure was low, and well below what it should have been, sprinkler system or no sprinkler system. We contacted a plumber, as suggested by our contractor, to address the pressure matter.  (That's the way it is with an older  home, right? One repair leads to another.  But we knew that.)

The plumber came and examined the arrangement of pipes and gauges that connect our house to the water utility.  That arrangement is mostly accessible via a small man-hole in our side yard, but not completely and required some excavation.  After several hours of hard work, our plumber replaced the entire pipe and pressure regulation system, from the point where the city's pipe ends to the point where our pipe begins.,  I found the plumber's renovation work to be a thing of beauty, before he covered it all up.

Having the water pressure restored to normal limits had several consequences beyond a now robust sprinkler system.  In one of our bath rooms, the one nearest the water pipe that comes into the house, a noisy problem arose.  We found that after we push down the handle to flush the toilet and after its apparatus inside the tank completes the water-refilling cycle, an enormous sound filled that part of the house.  It was a huge groaning sound and it seemed to be coming from the wall behind the tank. I concluded that the increased water pressure had something to do with this.  Google told us we needed to call the plumber again.  And we finally did.  They came this week.

I had visions of our having to tear out the wall to get to the offending pipes, pipes now breaking down from the increased water pressure.  They seemed to groan, "What have  you done to us?!!"

The plumber came again, this time with a  helper, to look at our situation. The plumber lifts the porcelain lid from the top of the tank, just after I push down the handle to flush, and then he waits till the tank fills up.  There is no groaning until the very, very end of the filling process, and the groaning, the awful groaning, begins. 

The plumber takes his index finger and gives the slightest push to the metal rod that connects the ball to the valve, he pushes it up right at the end of the rod where it connects to the valve apparatus.  The sound disappears.  

What?!  That's it?!

I'm pretty embarrassed.  I've fixed toilet apparatus for years, only now and then having to call the plumber for help.  

So, we discuss the question of replacing the apparatus or getting a new, more water efficient toilet. (We'll probably buy a new toilet.)  And I know what the plumber and his helper are thinking as they walk back to their trust:  What an idiot.  The guy must be a retired lawyer or something.

No, guys, I'm really hands-on.  I just got it in my mind that there was something wrong with the pipes.  Else I would have fooled with the tank apparatus.  

After they leave, I fool with the tank apparatus.  I adjust a few screws; I spray the valve hinge with some silicon lubricant.  I bend the metal rod so that the ball, as it floats up on the filling tank, will give that valve just a little more pressure: Slight pressure is all.  Like from a plumber's index finger.

No more groaning.  Except my own.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Feeding the Five Thousand, Walking on Water

 My Sunday School Class (now on-line) last Sunday morning considered verses 1 through 21 of chapter 6 of the Gospel of John.  We covered the Feeding of the Five Thousand (verses 1 through 15) and then, in verses 16 through 21, where Jesus Walks on Water.  (The ESV editors provided those headings.)  How do these two events, one after another, relate to each another?  Was it simply a matter of temporal history?  Or is it God trying to tell us something more, and, if so, what? 

The commentators have been asking these sorts of questions for 2000 years and writing down their answers.  Here is my go at them in a few words.  I'm sure I have nothing new to say.

People have tried to explain away the Feeding of the Five Thousand in naturalistic terms.  For example, when the disciples poll the crowd about the matter of food, only the little boy, in his innocence, discloses what he has - and then offers it.   Other people had brought lunch as well, maybe in abundance, and the child's example led them to disclose and share.  Still others had the resources beforehand to canvass the nearby towns for provisions, anticipating the problem that Jesus described.  No miracle here.  Move along.  

Or maybe there was not such a crowd.  Maybe it was much smaller.  Whatever.

Then there is "Jesus Walks on Water."  I think that's there because of God's grace for those readers who still didn't get it, after reading about the Feeding.  In the Walk, we have Jesus' control over the elements, over physics, if you will, and over time itself.  Is the Feeding not miracle enough for you?  Then the God incarnate, the God of infinite mercy, offers this.

As to meaning, there are layers and layers more to do with both the Feeding (the first "Lord's Supper" or Eucharist for example), and the Walk.  One sees more just in the balance of the chapter and elsewhere in Scripture.  More of that later.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Heart for Lebanon

In September, Mindy Belz wrote in World Magazine, under the title An explosive reckoning for Beirut: A record blast leaves opportunities and new fears for a devastated Christian community, of the disaster in Beirut that occurred in early August. At the end of the on-line version of her excellent article, Ms. Belz identifies several charities as "Groups that are Helping." Among those named is Heart for Lebanon. Its US headquarters are in Black Mountain, NC, a familiar place for the Stokes kith and kin. 

Carol and I were moved by what Ms. Belz wrote, and we arranged for a small monthly gift to be sent to Heart for Lebanon. Today, we received an acknowledgement from HFL and a six-page brochure about its ministry. Based on that brochure and what Ms. Belz writes about the charity's work in Beirut, I think we made a good choice. 

The brochure, entitled Leading People from Despair to Hope, describes HFL's "targeted ministries," ministries meant to lead people along that path. The ministries are not only for the people immediately affected by the  Beirut blast but also for the upwards of 2 million Syrians now living in Lebanon as war refugees. (Our gift seems little more than a drop in the bucket of the great financial need, but we know better than to dismiss small gifts in God's plan.) 

The brochure describes six stops along the way from Despair to the Hope for which HFL has fashioned its ministries.  The initial stop is "the going," that is, a team of Christians showing up in the midst of such Despair, then (2)  Access Ministries, then (3) Relational Engagement, then (4) Spiritual Formation, then (5) Community Leadership, and, finally, to (6) Hope. 

I thought the following statement in the brochure's section discussing the Access Ministries (where the team distributes material assistance) to be particularly interesting:

In the Muslim culture, it is unheard of to help someone unconditionally. If a favor was received, then another favor was expected to be given in return. This leads people to ask the Heart for Lebanon Team, 'Why are you helping us? You know I have nothing to give you in return.' It's at this pivotal moment in all of our Family Care visits where we have the great honor of introducing Jesus Christ into the conversation. During these visits Heart for Lebanon Team members begin to share about the person of Jesus Christ. What starts out as simple conversation often turns into a life transformed by hope.

Our country's government has spent blood and treasure massively to bring peace and stability to the Middle East.  But a culture that looks upon any "gift" as the opening for a political or economic transaction may regard the provider as merely another powerful invader looking for dominance and opportunities for exploitation.  Perhaps communicating to that culture at a micro-level the reality of grace, of unconditional love, will lead to a greater understanding and acceptance of the unique Hope of the Gospel and the peace that it promises.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Investing Rationally

"All the money we have—the money in our wallets and purses, in our checking accounts, the money that fuels the stock market—all money—is like Confederate money in 1863; it is still negotiable, but it is the currency of a doomed sovereignty. If we continue to invest in the doomed sovereignty, woe are we. But money still has a little shelf life, still has a little time left; so invest it,  but this time invest it in God’s future, the world that, even now, is emerging by the grace and power of God."

Our pastor, Sam Miranda, in his own sermon last Sunday, quoted this statement by Thomas G. Long of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.  The quote appears in several other places, according to a Google Search, but may have first appeared in a sermon Long delivered in 2006 entitled "Making Friends."
The quote brought several things to mind when I heard it last Sunday.  The reference to Confederate money made me think of a story that came down from my father's family.  He was born and raised near Atlanta.  Generations before his included those who lived during the Civil War.  Among those generations, the story goes, was a grandmother who owned a lot of farmland, most of which she sold to reinvest in Confederate War bonds.  The result of that mistake was, if not to impoverish the generations that followed, to make things much more difficult. 

The other thing it brought to mind was the principle to which that Long refers.  To put one's wealth into God's Kingdom is a far better place than an investment that carries a high risk of declining in value.  I am on the board of a private foundation where we are charged not only with keeping the principal of the enormous fund reasonably intact, but also of making annual contributions to charities actively involved in God's work.  One of the other two board members holds that we should make relatively conservative annual distributions and preserve the funds for distribution when the person who established the foundation passes away, as that person directs.  To my mind, there are needs right now to be addressed, needs that if not addressed now will be much more costly to remedy when the time for ultimate distribution occurs, assuming that there will still be an opportunity.  So, there is quite a bit of tension on our board about this matter, tension that I believe is a positive and appropriate one for a board like ours.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Raquel Roque Comes to Miami Springs

Saturday, I attended a talk by Raquel Roque at the Miami Springs branch of the Miami Public Library. 

Raquel's "Downtown Book Center" was a favorite place of mine during the decades that I officed in Downtown Miami.  What a sad day it was for me (and no doubt many others) when she closed the retail part of that business, mortally wounded as retail bookselling was by Amazon and a fickle public. (The main part of  her business was international wholesale book distribution, which apparently thrives to this day.).  The link says that she closed the store in 2011.  So, I was five more years in Downtown after it closed, bereft of that place of escape from the stress of the practice.  (There was also a "Downtown Camera," another place for my therapeutic afternoon walks, and La Epoca, a department store that, like Raquel's business, had phoenix-like arisen in Miami from Havana, brought over by the generation ahead of us in the 60's and continued by the children. (Now all of those places are gone.)

The talk Raquel shared (and the food that she brought) was about Cuban cuisine, and its debt to Nitza Villapol.  It proved to be a controversial subject with some of  the 15 or so people in attendance.  (All but two of  whom appeared to be Cuban-exile children, now in their middle age, and a couple of grown-up grandchildren of those who came here in the 1960s.) Nitza had a TV show in Havana, and she hung in there through the revolution, teaching viewers how to modify traditional dishes to take into account the food shortages and rationing.  I learned, among other things, that a canned meat similar to Spam became a staple, and may have achieved a sort of comfort food position among the people who stayed behind.  (There was no canned meat in the delicacies Raquel brought with her.  They were delicious.)

There was a sort of triumphalist tone among those in the audience who were 60's exiles, something like "Our families escaped the Revolution, made it here to Miami, we succeeded to the extent that we now run Miami-Dade [a point that even Raquel made in an inoffensive way]; those left behind, well, are suspect at best, including but not limited to Nitza."  (The Atlantic magazine surely didn't help this view of the lady, when it published in article in 2016 entitled "The Revolutionary Chef of Havana."

So, the matter of the Revolution remains a very sore point, and it didn't take Raquel's visit to Miami Springs to make me aware of it.  The Revolution is a deep, deep injury, without doubt, a healing one in some respects, but an ongoing one.  Of course, I have seen that injury up close for the decades since then, and I understand it.  I just didn't expect to see it going to a talk about recipes.  In one respect, it was an encouraging thing to see, because people are remembering tyranny, remembering it at a time when our culture appears in some ways and as a matter of policy intent on forgetting what happened in the past.  For all is new, we are being taught, the past is not relevant, and history is over.  The exile community, at least those attending Raquel's event, don't buy that. 

Monday, October 01, 2018

Why I'm Not Slimming Down

In order to get to the coffee in our office, which is in our kitchen, one must walk through the lunch room.  The lunch room has a table and chairs where people who are lunching-in are supposed to sit.

But the real function of that table is for employees to dump edible things from their home kitchens and other places, mainly sweets that they want to get out of their reach and into our reach.  Once we had a rule that one had to put that kind of stuff in the fridge and then send an email, giving us all a warning.  But that rule lasted about 25 minutes.

Mondays are a particularly heavy day for depositing irresistible things on the lunch room table.  Today is no exception.

One of our folks attended "Dessert Festival Miami," which occurred in Wynwood over the weekend.  That event featured something called "Dessert Wars."  At this nasty confrontation, Miami's best dessert chefs battle it out with show-off pastries. The collateral damage must be immense, because, with a ticket, you may help yourself.  So, one of us went.  And this morning we were blessed with two boxes of little sample desserts, offered right there on the lunch-room table, by which every caffeine-addicted person who works here walks on the way to their fix.

We need to fire someone.  But how do you do that when your mouth is full, crumbs dropping down your chin, and one of your feet is just barely in heaven for a very brief moment?

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Lawn Mowers as Girl-Bait

Eight days ago, a Saturday, I took my Honda walk-behind but self-propelled lawnmower to Ace Lawnmower Service for maintenance.  I needed the blade sharpened, the oil changed, and whatever needs to be done with it every year.  The people at Ace were so backed-up with work, however, that they told me it would be over two weeks before the machine would be ready.   I left the mower with them anyway

Ace was very busy that Saturday morning, as it is every Saturday morning.  It is open upon just until noon on Saturdays.  A lot of people think as well of them as I do, and it seemed like all of those people were there that morning, waiting in line with me.  As I waited, I reflected on an important truth: the grass was probably going to continue to grow while they had my mower, and we are still in the once-a-week mowing season, even though the days are growing shorter and the rains have just begun to back off.  What was I to do.

Before I left Ace, after having given them a deposit, I walked around their small showroom and looked at the tools, including new lawnmowers and other equipage of a well prepared gardener.  They have really good stuff, because, clearly, a very large portion of their revenues must be from professionals.  Those professionals would range from the mow, blow, and go guys so beloved in  Miami Springs to the  people who are hired to care for gardens as I would want mine cared for.  As I was looking at the tools and equipment, I was wondering what I was going to do about cutting my lawn while my mower got its makeover.

Then I fell in love.  I saw one of these on the cramped showroom floor:


This is an Exmark, commercial walk behind.  What particularly fascinated me was that while Exmark is a US manufacturer, the engine is a Honda GXV 150.  Although the photo shows a red-body, the one I saw had a black body, which is cool, don't you think?  It also has a huge grass-catching bag: 2.5 bushels.  And the gas tank will take a full gallon of gas.

As I went through the process of rationalizing a possible purchase of this wonder, my mind went to the big pick-up truck commercials that support the TV network broadcasts of fall football.  A lot of guys must buy those things, as I mentioned to my friends at our weekly, all-male Starbucks session yesterday morning.  I observed that if guys were buying those big new trucks in what must be incredible volume, then why would I not get the Exmark?

One of my brothers at Starbucks observed that those big trucks are "girl magnets" that men purchase to lure young women into situations that would deny these men forever the opportunity to serve on the Supreme Court.  I had never thought about those trucks being girl magnets, but suddenly a picture popped into my mind.  It showed me cutting my grass with a brand-new Exmark, pursued by a throng of Miami Springs housewives. That picture was more disturbing than pleasant, which is I guess is what happens when one reaches age 72 and is not Senator Biden.

In any event, I left Ace that prior Saturday morning without buying the Exmark.  My plan was to ask my buddies from Starbucks if I could borrow one of their mowers to get me through.  I brought it up yesterday during the discussion of pick-up trucks as girl-bait.  One of the guys said his mower was a "piece of junk," that I wouldn't like it, and he was reluctant to offer it.  One of the others offered his mower, but as he described it to me, it sounded very much like a piece of junk too.  But he offered to bring the mower over, help me to get it started (because it was not easy to start), and maybe stick around, since it probably would not cut the whole yard without quitting at least once.  He even offered to cut the grass for me with that mower himself, which I thought was very nice, but not satisfactory.

So I went on line to see who rents lawn-mowers.  I found, of course, that Home Depot rents all sorts of equipment, including lawn mowers.  They had both a push-type power mower and a self-propelled, walk behind mower, similar in design to my Honda, but not a Honda, a Toro.  I could rent the latter for $24 for four hours.  Solution!  Over I went to the HD in East Hialeah, near Okeechobee Road and the railroad track (the same railroad track by which once lived Johnnie-and-Mack, but that's another story.)  An HD employee in the rental-equipment section and I lifted one of the self-propelled Toros down from a shelf.  He pulled the starter rope, it cranked right up, and we had a deal.

When I brought the mower home in our vintage 4Runner, Carol helped me lift it out and put it down on the driveway.  (Thank you, Crossfit.) She took a close look at it.  One of the most immediately disturbing things she noted was the grass-catcher.  It was liberally sprinkled with what my mom used to call "stick-tights," those things that are actually weed pods (the kind of round ones) and spikey seeds (the thin pointed ones), representing the evolutionary struggle of the plant kingdom as it seeks to take over the surface of the earth in such an unruly way that the Lord was forced to create Man to help him deal with it in what one of the the Lord's friends described as a "garden" in the Book of Genesis.

So, it took us about 10 minutes to pick these things off the grass-catcher, short-circuiting a clever plan to transform my yard into a weed-patch.

Then it took about 20 pulls of the starter to get the thing started.

Then, ominously and seriously disappointing, the self-propelled feature simply would not work.  This was something I did not test at the HD.

But rather than return it and start all over again, I decided to push it around the lawn.  It cut pretty well - the blades were still sharp enough to cut the grass cleanly.  There was at least that.  But what an effort it took!  I took several times-out in the process, but I got it done.  During the mowing process, I usually let my mind range over a number of different topics.  But this time, I focused on the letter I was going to write to Home Depot.  I went through several articulate and hard-hitting drafts in my head about how Home Depot had rented me a piece of junk.

When I took it back, I brought the problem to the attention of the HD equipment rental person who had helped me in the first place.  He went to his manager about it.  The manager came over, cranked up the machine, and then pulled the lever that was to propel it.  It did not work, of course.  I kept my cool.  I told them calmly that I was disappointed.  I perversely hoped that they would tell me that I could have brought it right back in, but since I didn't, well, tough luck.  They would do nothing.  What a great way to close my letter to the president of HD, with that sort of "customer service."

Instead, the manager refunded me $20.75 of  the $25 I had obligated myself to pay. He did so in a clever way.  He went back and redid the deal, so that he showed that I obligated myself to pay him not just the $25 but also a $2.50 "Damage Protection" fee.  Then he deducted $20.75 from the charge, and so my out of pocket was about $9.00.  True, I didn't "damage" the unit, but it was so clever, that I cooled off and let it go.

Back at the house, I sat and watched some football.  When I got up, I felt what I usually feel after a good Crossfit session.  Pushing around that mower as the bag filled up with cut grass, I had received quite a work-out.  I notice that my heart-rate elevated during the mow appropriately.  I got a $9 dollar training session - and a grass cut.  It was all really very good.

But the lawnmower was still a piece of junk.  I saw no girls, except for Carol, and she was already hooked and well in the boat.

Monday, August 27, 2018

So, How Does that Garden Grow?

It is summer, and the garden grows, everything in it, higher, faster, each element with its own imperative, seeking to be unruled and unmanaged.  Because it's summer we get "faster," but because it's life, I'm reminded, everything else.

Just cutting the grass burns about two hours a week, at least the way I do it.  That time would include not just the mowing, but the edging along the sidewalks, driveway and streets, and sweeping.  There are set-up and take-down tasks as well.  It takes time, and it is very hot and humid.

I will use a grass catcher and will not skin the grass to the earth's scalp.  The grass catcher is to catch not just the grass clippings, but the weed tops.  By not dropping the blade closer to the ground (dropping and skinning would add several days to the interval between cutting, which is tempting but to be resisted), I encourage the St. Augustine to grow thick and healthy, thus crowding out the weeds.  So that's the "how" of how that element grows, the turf.  I attempt to grow my garden in a managed way, with  lots of close observation, time, and sweat.

As far as I can tell, none of my neighbors takes personal care of the family yard.  Businesses known as "lawn services" take care of their landscapes.  These services consist of two men, usually, but sometimes three.  They come in a pick-up truck towing a trailer, usually an enclosed trailer.  The trailer holds their equipment, the major piece being a riding mower.  Each side of the trailer is a sort of billboard, announcing the name the business, often the owner's name with "landscaping" following the name, and a telephone number.  These services appear to be single owner enterprises, the owner driving the riding mower.  His associate or associates tend to the edging, usually with a weed-eater and not with a blade-edger.  There are no grass catchers and there are no rakes or brooms much in evidence.  The services deal with the debris that falls on the sidewalks and drive-ways with blowers, blowing the debris out to the street, where the wind will, in a day or two, blow it all back, some back into the family's yard and the rest on everyone else's.

(The lawn services have an interesting ecological impact that the owner of a top-notch lawnmower shop told me about years ago.  The lawn services spread seeds from yard to yard, because they don't "catch" the clippings nor wash their equipment as they go.  Your weeds, then, become your neighbor's weeds and the weeds of your neighbor's neighbors, and so on.  Several years ago, a new homeowner to the west of us re-sodded and landscaped his yard.  He is a young man and vigorous.  Going against the tide, he mowed the lawn himself, and I recall he caught the clippings.  But then he gave it up to the lawn services (he bought a big boat), and now, as I walk by his yard, it is full of crabgrass and other weeds in great variety.  The lawn is kept very closely and regularly cut by his lawn service and, from a certain distance away, it looks neatly maintained.  But I know.  I know.)

As I drive to work each business day, early in the morning on the Palmetto expressway, I see dozens of lawn service rigs moving with me southbound: towing vehicle, sometimes a van, usually a pick-up truck, but sometimes an impressive small dump truck, which would allow that  service to haul away its lawn debris, and the trailer.  These businesses are predominantly Latin.  In Miami Springs, the going rate seems to be around $55 right now.  They seem to be able to do the basic job in about 40 minutes or less, given the size of the yards in our neighborhood.  It is a cash business.

We use a professional service to help us to manage our trees (a very large oak tree in the back, a black olive tree near our driveway at the front, a gorgeous sea grape tree on the west side of our house, and some smaller palms).  They also spray our lawn with herbicide and insecticide on a monthly basis.  These people have given up lawn maintenance, because of the cheap competition from the lawn services I describe.  But their managers have deep knowledge of Florida landscaping, and I have gotten to know one of these men over the years.  Each year (before hurricane season, preferably) we will walk the yard together as he assesses the tree-pruning needs, and the gentleman will talk to me about lawn-care science.  He calls the lawn services that work on the neighbors' lawns, "mow, blow, and go" services.  In other words, you get what you pay for.  Surprise.

Once upon a time, the families in Miami Springs did the yard work.  Dad, mom, and the kids. Especially the sons.  Often a neighbor, being an eyewitness to the competence of one of the boys, would ask the boy to mow the neighbor's yard.  It would provide the boy-becoming-a-young-man with a little income.  Now and then, the young man would turn that work into an after-school business.  By the time of his graduation from high school, he would have accumulated a significant amount of money, not to mention significant business expertise of all sorts.  But whatever the eventual outcome of the boy, the families handled the yard work.

Now they don't.  Across the street is a very attractive family with three boys, all now teenagers.  They use a lawn service.  Once when I was working in the yard in the summer's heat, the mother came over and expressed concern over the effort I seemed to be putting out, and gave me the number of her lawn service.  I confused her.  I could read her mind: Wasn't I a lawyer with better things to do? 

Here toward the end of the summer I find myself having worked my way almost completely around the house, edging, pulling weeds and grass, and mulching,  But as I complete that first circuit, I see that the St. Augustine has shot its forces into and among the mulch that I first laid down weeks ago.   There is plenty of metaphor fodder here.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Hello to the Springs Gardener

Two years ago at our house, we had a professional landscaper renovate the lawn and shrubbery.  For maybe eleven years or so before then, our lawn, especially the turf (St. Augustine grass) gave a sorry look.   This mainly resulted from a renovation of our house at the start of that eleven year stretch.  We made the kitchen larger, more pleasant and functional - including the installation of a new window over the sink that offers a view of South Florida's gorgeous sunsets.  Off that new kitchen, we built a fourth bedroom with its own bathroom, and we put a roof over the back porch that had simply been "screened-in," as we say in Miami-Dade.  That little bathroom for the fourth bedroom, on the west side of our house, a bit toward the SW corner, required a trench for a service pipe, a trench that went north along the west side of the house, around its NW corner, and headed east until it met the main sewer line that came from Dove Avenue, the east-west street that our house faces.  What a mess all that digging made, not only digging for the trench but also for a foundation that needed to be laid for the  new bedroom and the back porch that adjoined it.  (Don't ask why that porch didn't have a foundation, but, as we discovered, was just a slab spread on the ground.) After the trench was filled in on the west and front sides of the house and the foundation dug and constructed on the south side, we completed the rest of the upgrade.  All that trench and foundation work tore up the lawn, and I did nothing much after we finished the project to make the rough places plain.  I even gave the yard up to a crew of grass cutters of the mow-blow-and-go variety.   I didn't realize how bad the outside looked until, two years ago, the professional landscaper, to whom I gave more or less carte blanche, did his good work, and I saw what a world of difference it made.

But all that good work created a much higher maintenance demand.  Either I had to improve my relationship with the lawn and shrubs (hereinafter referred to as "the garden") or I would see the look slide into mediocrity or worse.  And I was a Springs boy, having lived in this town from a tiny baby, taking absences only for college and law school, a year in New York City, and a year in a duplex east of the Gables, until we bought our first house back in the Springs.  A Springs boy takes care of his own lawn, and makes it at least better than average.  Furthermore, we had invested hard-earned cash with the landscaper, who pulled up all the grass and weeds, covered the ground with rich dirt, and then laid on top big squares of new St. Augustine, adding all sort of plants around the base of the house and along the back border of the lawn, lovingly surrounding those plants with a flatbed worth of 2 cubic feet bags of brown mulch he had trucked in.  This would take a lot of work to keep up, and what was I going to do?

One Biscayne Tower - Thanks a Lot, Joe!
I had learned, however, the secret of good landscaping maintenance from a friend, Joe.  Joe is a building engineer for a tall office building downtown, known as One Biscayne Tower.  It had great landscaping around its base, and I asked Joe if he would give me an insight into how he had arranged to keep it so beautiful.  He drew closer to me, and lowered his voice.  "Paul," he said, "the secret is a crew that shows up at 5AM several mornings a week to pull weeds, trim, transplant and replace the shrubs, cut the grass, water, fertilize, mulch, and pick up the trash.  That's the secret."

Thanks a lot, Joe.

So, this blog post is an introduction to my story of trans-planting Joe's secret to my new garden.  Personally. 
 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Reading Knack Slipping Away. How to stop it.

I feel the reading knack slipping away.  I want to reclaim it.  What is the problem?  What is the solution?

My favorite spot at home is on the sofa in the den, stage-left.  It is very comfortable. A lamp on the end table provides good light.  I can see directly into the kitchen, where very often Carol is working, and she is an attention-drawing presence (and always has been), easy to look at.  Her mere presence draws my attention away from my book.  Divorce is probably not the answer.  In fact, every man should have my problem, whether he is a reader or not.

To my right, as I sit on the sofa, the TV is almost immediately adjacent.  Although it looks across my point of view, its screen is very easy to see.  And there are a set of controllers within my reach, giving access to a cornucopia of fast-food for the brain, largely junk.  Either throw a brick through the screen or find another comfortable place to read.  Maybe in the kitchen.

A very large number of books waits for me.  They are in several places in our house, where they wait, but especially on the shelves of a sort of home office.  When I am in that room with the bookshelves, I find myself,  like the jackass who died of hunger, as he stood between two stacks of hay, not being able to make up my mind about what to read.  What we need here is a list.

There must be a reading muscle.  Like any muscle.  My endurance flags when I pick up a book.  I'm not a tough enough reader.  I see a new idea or a new word as I read.  My mind slips away from the book as I think about that idea or go look up the word in the dictionary.  Within limits, that's probably a good thing.  But most of the time,  for crying out loud, make a note on a note pad and keep reading.  And then go back to those notes.

Read no more than, say, three books at a time.  Not ten.

Always have a book that you are reading that is very challenging.  Commit X number of minutes to it each day. For that matter, when you sit down with any book, easy or hard, decide how long you are going to read, and then hang in there.

Ride MetroRail to work, not the car.  Yes, it takes longer, but you can spend the time reading, unless some idiot sits next to you and starts jabbering on his cell phone.  (Do not take weapons on MetroRail if you are a reader.)

Start a blog, so you can tell people what you are reading and what you think of it.  Or maybe you don't suffer from "show and tell" disease.  That showed up in me in first grade.  Never left. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Long-Term Care Insurance

My partner, Juan, gave me a heads-up on this from NPR's "Planet Money."

The link gives a pod-cast button that is worth a listen.  The related text includes the following;

Last week, General Electric said it was taking a massive loss — $6.2 billion — related to an obscure corner of the company: long-term-care insurance.

Long-term-care insurance is this kind of insurance that anyone can buy. It covers things like nursing home care, or a home health aide.

But recently, GE came out and said it was having an "adverse claims experience" with these policies. 
Basically, the company got the math wrong, and lost billions as a result.

This isn't just about GE. MetLife got out of this business and so has just about everybody else. They all said the same thing: we underestimated how much this was going to cost.

Carol and I have a policy on myself, and two policies on Carol.  The premiums have gone up in the last few years.  When I bought one of the policies years ago from Northwestern Life, the agent warned me that the insurance company was only guessing at what the premium needed to be, and that I should expect that the premium would go up at some point as the company began to figure it all out.  The NPR podcast to which I refer above states that they haven’t figured it out yet.

One thing that I have noticed in my law-practice experience is this: The better care one receives as an elderly person, the longer one lives, generally speaking.  So, perhaps the long-term care insurance model works against itself.  What the model seems to require, at least in part, is some certainty about when the customers will die.  If the insurance company looks at the mortality tables, however, it is looking at a universe of people for whom the level of care varies substantially.  But their customers, who will receive better long-term care than most, will not die on time.

The question Carol and I have is whether the companies will figure it out before they go under.  In the meanwhile, we pay the higher premiums.  I’m not sure that’s the right choice.