Food Addiction

Each of my parents had a love affair with food.  This contributed to the heart surgery and related stroke which took my father, and has caused the diabetes and related foot problems which now threaten my mother with total lack of mobility.  For all of my childhood, “fat” was the defining word for my mother.  For the few years we lived in South Carolina, people were more polite, referring to her as “stout.”  But when we returned to New Jersey, it was back to “fat” again, and indeed, my mother grew stouter each year, drinking a lot of gin.  There were less fat people in the 1970s, and they commented seeing my mother wrest her considerable bulk out of the car at the grocery store.  I remember “how’s it going, slim,” and stares.

Fat was not fixable, because food had become a proxy, initially for my mom but eventually with dad also, for a normal relationship with their spouse.  I think both people craved torrid abandon romance, straight from the movies of their childhood, but there was no opposite in their marriage who could reciprocate.  My mother certainly was not attractive during the years which should have been closest for them, and even if my mother had looked better, my father didn’t form communicative relationships with people.  He enjoyed flirting with waitresses and “joking” (from what we heard of his work, it sounded like “joking” and then “roaring” were primary), but I can’t remember my parents having a serious discussion about anything, without it ending quickly in an argument and tears.

But they could agree on the benefits of a basket of fried clams, so the missing, missed and anticipated other became food, preferably fried, creamy or cheesy, and most enjoyed outside the home.  When they found a place with hot comfort food, they became regulars, going most weekends and paydays until the charm wore off.  The vaguely indecent oohs, ahs and smacking noises when the shrimp, pizza, smothered baked potato, tacos or other luscious stuff came out were gradually displaced by complaints, that the food was not hot (hot was always a priority with them), that the french onion soup was not crusty enough, that the service was not sufficiently attentive or deferential.  Eventually, my parents sought their satisfaction elsewhere.

I saw this sequence play out as a child at Cutters in Morristown, NJ, at a Mexican restaurant in Ponca City, OK where my father thought the owner’s wife enjoyed being called “my little enchi” (his take on enchilada) in front of her husband, and even in Norway, where they expected (but did not receive) the same deferential service as from enchi.  I don’t remember seeing any fat people except my mother in Norway when I visited during vacations in the mid-1980s.  If there were any commments, at least my parents could not understand them.

My mother had long been a diabetic by then, and my father received the same diagnosis as he ate, drank and gradually became as sedentary as my mother.  I took the summer of 1987 off from the Aspen Music Festival, in hopes that regular walks on the beach at Sola would moderate my mother’s drinking, weight gain and depression.  It worked while I was there, but stopped when I left.  Food and drink resumed their reign, and my parents were fine with it.  Given the choice between walks on the beach and dinner with drinks in town, there was never any question which choice would win.   

Now, 25 years later, my father is dead and my mother may be facing the amputation of a foot which seems to have lost sensation and is becoming infected.  During the five months we hosted my parents in Philadelphia, while my father was recovering from inadvisable kidney surgery which hastened his death, they formed a fast, intense relationship with a pizza place down the hill on Midvale.  They ordered several times a week from Halloween through Christmas, raving about the authentic east coast pizza they could not have gotten in Florida, as the greasy pizza boxes collected in the garage.  By winter, the charm began to wane.  We heard about cold pizza, a surly deliveryman, and finally some topping which made them sick.  With pizza as in marriage, they needed to find their delight elsewhere.

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Foreign Policy

Three weeks after the Cairo uprising began, we learn that the US, through the conventional wisdom of Hillary Clinton and the administration, was wrong to initially support Hosni Mubarak.   What else is new?  The history of US foreign policy for the past century has been a series of dismal failures.  These could not be questioned while in progress, but afterwards it was ok to wonder how things went so badly wrong, without any seeming obligation to fix the problem.  In the interests of time, two things seem self-evident: (1) the outlook of our government is poorly suited to conducting a perceptive and productive dialogue with other nations; and (2) the US will back the current plantation owner, whoever it may be, everytime.

This may be due to US history.  The colonies were not founded to be the land of the free.  They were designed to be the place of bondage, first for generations of European indentured servants, and after they would not take it anymore, for generations of Africans who broken and far from home, could not effectively rise up.  This was done in the name of maximum profits, first for Virginia tobacco, and eventually for southern cotton.  300 years later, it is as though the US has a genetic memory, and continues to support the current plantation owner in foreign policy.  Character and good behavior don’t matter, as long as the farm is really big.  If the latest failure by so called smart people in office unmasks US policy for what it is, so much the better.  RM

Trinity Lutheran in Germantown

My family and I attend Christ Ascension Lutheran Church (“CA”) in Chestnut Hill.  CA is thriving as churches go – blessed with an exceptional pastor, a congregation which includes at least four other ministers (each with a deep understanding of religion and how Luther changed the church), and a sanctuary of ideal dimensions – unmistakably spiritual, yet small enough to maintain.  The congregation is prosperous, well educated, and sings in tune, plus our cantor and several congregation members are accomplished instrumental musicians.  In summary, CA is an enriching, excellent place to spend Sunday mornings learning about Christianity and faith.  If there is a “best” when talking about Churches, CA gets the prize in my experience.

Today, as part of an outreach program among the Lutheran churches of Germantown Avenue, my daughter and I attended Trinity Lutheran, at Germantown Avenue and Queen Lane.  The most obvious difference is the building.   Trinity is huge, surrounded by a cemetery filled with greening, leaning grave markers, and capped with a rusting, peeled steeple which is easily the tallest structure for many blocks around.  It obviously needed maintenance, a great deal of expensive maintenance, which nobody but the government (not now but in better times) would be able to provide.  I recently saw a picture of a Church in similar exterior condition, but it was located in a depopulated village in the Ukraine, and was vacant.

The next difference was the worship space – a basement area without an organ, with music predominantly supplied by CD.  The impossibility of give and take between the congregation and the digital accompaniment made singing with the small number of available voices more difficult.  At one point, the music for worship sounded like a Barney singalong for small children.  There was no communion, and the service ended in about 40 minutes.  After the service, I learned that Trinity does not have a full time Pastor, or a cantor.  All of this could be improved through greater attendance.

Based on the vast dimenstions of the Church exterior, I asked where the main sanctuary was located, and a friendly congregation member named Michael led Kate and me upstairs.  The main sanctuary was incredible.  At least a 45 foot ceiling, with numerous stained glass windows depicting the life of Jesus arrayed on the sides.   Confirming the German roots of the Lutheran Church, one of stained glass windows had been dedicated to the memory of Katherine Maurer, by her husband, William Maurer.  This was an interesting thing for my daughter, Kate Maurer, to see, whose great-grandfather was named William.

This space was evidently the work of a prosperous, settled congregation, built by local trades, paid by people who could afford the best when it came to religion.  Evidently, this congregation no longer exists, and I wondered, where did they go?  I suppose to the Main Line or a similar area where not so many buildings are empty, where there is not so much trash on the dirty snow, where one does not hear police sirens throughout the night.

It turns out that this main sanctuary has sat unused for the last two years, apparently based on concerns that the congregation is too small for it, and will be lost in the vastness of what looked like a 1/8 acre of wooden pews and the soaring ceiling.  Is restoring worship to this waiting space a mission which is more in line with what we are supposed to do as Christians?  Should we be grateful for CA, which shines in contrast to Trinity, or should we try to fix the latter?  We talk about missions to far off places, yet it turns out there is a mission waiting to happen not two miles from our home in East Falls.  I plan to learn more about Trinity’s situation later this month and will write more then.  RM

Going to the Recording Studio

Kate and Bina busked at the Headhouse Market in Old City two summers in a row, so they have a lot of performance experience, but recording in a studio is a completely different setting.  On Groundhog Day 2011, K&B spent eight hours in a studio in South Philadelphia, mainly recording the guitar and drum tracks, but also finishing the vocals for one song.  This afternoon, they go back to do vocals for the remaining six songs.  As I write, Bina is warming up by singing through her Paramore repertoire.  She can sing all of Haley Williams’ songs, while playing drums.   Kate is a bit edgy, asking about our scheduled departure time.  In uncertainty, she seeks order, predictability, a train which runs on time.

K&B are 13 and 11 years old respectively.  They want to have a demo ready for circulation next month, to get rock gigs and eventually tour.  They have the voice, fingers and talent to play live.  It’s getting there that will be the challenge.  More this evening, by which time we will return, most likely exhausted.  RM

East Falls Library

The cornerstone of this church-like building at the corner of Midvale and Warden indicates that it was built in 1918.  That was a tough year for Europe (last year of the First World War, destroyer of life, wealth and empires), and with the outbreak of a world-wide flu epidemic in November of that year, for the US as well.  But despite those conditions, the City of Philadelphia built a large, stone, Tudor revival library with huge windows, ornate wooden interior moldings and a still-functioning clock on the inside of the entryway.  This morning, the library continued to do exactly what it was designed for – making a deep collection of learning available to us, the citizens, for absolutely no money whatsoever.

Today, in 2011, it is inconceivable that the City would build a brand new public library on a good lot, in a good part of town, from the ground up, in a structure with integrity and ample architectural interest.  There is no money to take on these types of projects anymore.  So what changed?  Based on the number of abandoned factories I see from the R6 between here and Center City (and the crumbling Autocar plant I can see from the windows of East Falls Fitness, itself a former industrial building of some description), I suspect that when Philadelphia stopped making things, it began the long slow decline, hastened by increased taxes on businesses which stayed, white flight, a notoriously ineffective and corrupt City government, and that strange Philadelphia habit — a sense of inferiority, that the City will always be substandard and deserves this. 

I did not feel that way this morning in the library.  My oldest daughter and I arrived shortly after it opened at 10 am, and spent the next hour or so moving from one bookcase to the next – amazed at the variety and quality of the material.  After we selected books ranging from an English translation of the Qur’an to a 25th anniversary edition of Goedel, Escher and Bach (Kate likes math and music), I found an issue of Philadelphia Magazine and found a comfortable empty table while Kate looked for a new book about a one-legged snowboader called “Just Don’t Fall.”  I would never spend the money on Philadelphia Magazine, but reading it for free, about the downfall of Old City, and the general lament of our condition, was truly enjoyable.

Our forebears, long since gone, planned and left us something useful and improving, a well lit space filled with books, two blocks down the hill.  We should by rights do the same, but either lack the resources or won’t look beyond our own increasingly worrisome situation.  So maybe our paralysis is forgiveable.  Or maybe it’s making things even worse.  A vicious circle, a mean cycle.  We need to break it somehow.  RM