Gilead

I picked up this book and couldn’t put it down, not because the plot is suspenseful (it’s not) or the pace exhilarating (it isn’t), but because when you find something clear and cool and lovely to drink, it’s hard to stop once you start.

Such is Gilead, the fictional autobiography of John Ames, an elderly pastor from the small remote town of Gilead, Iowa.  Facing his own mortality, Ames writes a series of letters to his only child, a young son, to be read when the child grows older and Ames is long gone.  In them, we get a peek into the pastor’s heart and mind—and what a heart and mind it is.  He does not offer his son easy answers to the hardest of life’s questions, but he is unafraid to ask them.  Even more than a reverence for God, his letters show a reverence for God’s creations:  nature, people, the world and our place in it.  His awe at the ordinary is what gives this book its flavor, and what gives me my favorite passages.  Like this one:

That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church.  There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me.  The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet.  On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t.  It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth.  I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.  I wish I had paid more attention to it.  My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really.  This is an interesting planet.  It deserves all the attention you can give it.

Those last two sentences.  Wow.

Here’s an even better one:

I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine.  It still amazes me every time I think of it.  I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.  You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind.  If only I had the words to tell you.

Um.  Yes.

If you read no other fiction this year, please pick up Gilead.  But only if you want an illuminating, expansive view of the the lives we live and the world in which we live them.  And an honest, unflinching look at faith’s limitations and potential.  And gorgeous prose that gives voice to the workings of your innermost sacred heart.  And truth and beauty and wisdom.  And…well, you get the point.  Five stars for this one.

 

 

 

 

Megan quits carbs.

Yesterday, my sixteen year-old daughter announced that she was giving up carbs.

“Why?” I asked.  

“Because,” she said, “I’m too dependant on tortilla strips.”  That’s strips, not chips–as in the five pound bag of Tortilla Strips from Costco that she plows through every day and a half.  

“Yes, you are.”

“I’m giving up all carbs–all bread, cereal, chips–for the next three weeks.  I’m doing it, Mom!”  

I was impressed, and surprised.  Three weeks doesn’t sound like much to some people, but this is my girl who was born with a bag of white flour in one hand and a bag of white sugar in the other.  And now she was giving up both?

“Instead of quitting carbs altogether, why don’t you just cut back?”

“Because, if I cut back I won’t do it.  Cutting back isn’t tangible.  I have to cut them out completely so I know that I’m not eating them.”

I could see her logic, but wasn’t sure she understood the full implications of a tortilla-strip-free existence.  It could get dire. I decided to help her out.

“Tell you what.  If you give up carbs for three weeks, I’ll give up sugar for three weeks.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, we’ll make it a challenge.”

“Okay!  And if it’s a challenge, we’ll need a prize.  Let’s see, what should it be…” I could have mouthed along with her what came next.

“I know!  The loser has to pay for the winner to get a her nails done!”  Getting Nails Done is a big thing with Meg. (Expensive + Unnecessary = Awesome.)

We agreed that we wouldn’t go crazy and read labels to avoid anything with a few carbs or grams of sugar in it, but rather that Meg would avoid basic carb items like bread and chips (strips) and I would avoid table sugar and desserts.  

“Perfect!”  I said. “But what if we both win?”

“If we both win…”–the pause was short–”then Dad has to pay for us both to get our nails done–pedicures too!”  I called Derrick and told him about our pact and all he said was, “It doesn’t sound like a very good deal for me.”  (He forgot that nobody asked for his opinion.) And just like that, it was Game On.

We sailed through the next eight hours–no carbs! no sugar!–then sat down to a healthy dinner of grilled chicken and veggies to end Day One of the New Healthy Us.  After we finished, Meg asked if there was any more chicken left.

“Shoot, there’s not.  Did you not get enough to eat?  We could make more.” With her newfound discipline, I needed to be sure the little health nut was eating enough.  She waved her fork and shook her head.

“Nah, it’s okay.  I’m gonna have some ice cream later.”  I stared at her.

“What?”  she asked.

“Ice cream?  What do you mean, you’re gonna have ice cream?”

“We have Mudslide in the freezer.”  She shrugged and looked at me quizzically.  What do you mean what do I mean?

“Meg, you can’t have ice cream.  You’re quitting carbs.”

“So?  Ice cream isn’t a carb.”

“Are you kidding me?  Ice cream is full of carbs!”

“No it’s not, it’s full of sugar.  I never said I was giving up sugar–that’s what you’re giving up.  So I can have ice cream…but you can’t.”  She said this last part gently, but it was pure malice.  She knew that Tillamook Mudslide was my favorite flavor, among all ice cream flavors, of all time anywhere in the history of ever.  She knew that Tillamook Mudslide was the ice cream I craved and dreamt about and fought for.  And she also knew that, after our first warm and sunny Saturday in ages, nothing sounded better at the end of it than a big fat bowl of Tillamook Mudslide. Eating it was practically why sunsets were invented.   

“Come on, Meg.  You know you can’t have ice cream if you’re quitting carbs—”

“Mom, I said I was giving up carbs like bread and chips–I didn’t say I was giving up everything that had any carbs in it.  We’re not reading labels, remember?  Just because ice cream might have some carbohydrates in it, doesn’t mean it’s a carb.  Everyone knows it’s a dairy.” I started to laugh but then realized she wasn’t.  She was dead serious. Which led me to two possible conclusions about my daughter: 

a)  My daughter isn’t as bright as I thought she was, or

b)  My daughter is much brighter than I thought she was, as evidenced by this cunning and crafty scheme to eat chocolate ice cream on her rigid “no carb” diet.

My gut told me to go with b.

And so we finished Day One of No Carbs/No Sugar/The New Healthy Us with Megan eating a large bowl of Tillamook Mudslide and me eating a whole wheat pita while I watched her.  To be fair, I’d toasted my pita and sprinkled it with Splenda and Cinnamon, hoping to feed my sugar craving with a tricked-out version of “cinnamon toast.” Megan looked down at my pita and sighed.

“You’re so lucky, you get to eat bread…(sigh)…I miss carbs.”  She looked longingly out into the night sky–as if a carb was there dancing among the stars–and then dipped her spoon deep into her bowl, pulling up a massive scoop of ice cream and turning it over to eat upside down, slowly and thoughtfully.

 

 I gnawed on my Splenda-soaked pita. It didn’t taste like cinnamon toast.  (In fact, it didn’t taste at all.) Megan finished her ice cream and gave me a hug before she went to bed. I did it Mom! A disciplined day with no carbs.  What a champ.

We woke up this morning and went to church.  About halfway through the meeting Megan leaned over and whispered, “I have a chocolate bar in my purse.”

“You do?’  This was pure malice.  Megan knows that at no time do I crave chocolate like I do during the three long hours of church.  My lips quivered a little and my voice came out small. “Are you gonna eat it?”

“Of course I’m gonna eat it.  It’s not a carb.” She looked at me and smiled.

No, Megan.  It’s not.

I can no longer taste the salt on my food.

I can no longer taste the salt on my food.  

I guess it was inevitable.  Because: Denny’s.

When I was twelve, my parents took us to Disneyland.  We spent a week in California and ate every meal–and I mean every meal–at Denny’s.  Why wouldn’t we? It sat on every corner, served breakfast all day, and had those wicked circular booths that seated all six of us.  Plus, thanks to the twenty-seven page spiral bound menu, everyone could find a full color photo of exactly what they wanted and then order exactly what they wanted because, curiously, everything was about the same price.  (How could an 8-ounce steak cost the same as french toast? I don’t know, but they were both $6.99.)  Ah, Denny’s.  It still looms large in our family lore.

But more than the booths or the breakfasts or the whiff of tobacco drifting over from the Smoking Section, what I remember most about Denny’s is the constant, conspicuous consumption of salt by the elderly.

See, on our Denny’s-masked-as-Disneyland Trip, we always ate dinner at four-thirty or five ‘o clock in the afternoon.  My parents swore this was because “you kids” were hungry by then, but “we kids” knew it was really because of the Early Bird Special.  When you’re paying for four kids to eat three times a day, Buy-One-Get-One-Half-Off warrants moving dinnertime up a few.

And so there we sat on another warm vacay day, sunburned and mopheaded with corduroy shorts pulled over our homesewn swimsuits, flipping through the glossy food catalogue when we heard something amiss.  We looked around for the source of the gentle rat-a-tat; we could hear it only if we stayed silent and strained our ears.  After several moments my sister elbowed me (hard!  geez!) and nodded toward the table beside us.  I subtly (immediately) turned and looked, but all I saw was an elderly man shaking salt on his hash browns.  I raised my eyebrows at her. (What?)  She then nodded toward the table on the other side of us.  I looked at saw an elderly woman shaking salt on her patty melt.  I then looked around at all of tables in the greater Non-Smoking Section and soon realized that behind us, in front of us, to the side of us–the rat-a-tat was no more than The Elderly shaking their salt.

Now I do not mean to disrespect The Elderly.  I love The Elderly. I happen to come from a long line of elderly people, and hats-off to them for sticking around long enough to give me some disarmingly good-looking genetics.  Some of my heroes are elderly–writers, church leaders, the Golden Girls–and they don’t seem so bad either.  My parents now qualify as elderly (although somebody needs to tell my mother this) and, despite my earlier projections, they still seem have occasional thoughts and feelings.  Nobody loves The Elderly like I do. But I cannot ignore their salt intake.

We all know that as we age our tastebuds dull, and the first thing to go is our tongue’s recognition of salt.  This is why the Elderly People at Denny’s were pouring so much salt on their food; they had a hard time tasting it.  I didn’t judge them then and I don’t judge them now; everybody’s salt biz is their own. But what does concern me is that, as of a month ago, I can no longer taste the salt on my food.  Like, for real.

I can no longer taste the salt on my food.

I dump it on my scrambled eggs, but all I taste is the pepper.  I dump it on my chili, but all I taste is the beans. I dump it on my turkey tacos, but all I taste is the turkey.  (And contrary to what you’ve heard, bland ground turkey isn’t all that good.) My tortilla chips taste like corn, not salt, and who opens a bag of tortilla chips because they’re craving something “corny?”  Salted almonds taste like raw almonds, salted popcorn tastes like plain popcorn, and salted caramel taste like, well, caramel. (Actually that last one’s not so bad. But you get my point.) I’m shaking it, I’m spilling it, heck–I’m shoveling it, but I can no longer taste the salt on my food.  Just like The Elderly.  (Who I love.)

Tried ’em all.  Can’t taste any of ’em.  And do you see the flecks of pepper in the salt shaker?  Somebody filled the salt shaker with pepper, so I had to empty it and refill it with salt because I obvs needed the lid with more holes on the salt.  (I guess I could have just switched the lids.  But that’s beside the point.)

I knew my salt resistance would come, I just didn’t think it would come this soon.  By this age I expected my metabolism to slow down, my roots to turn gray, and the crow’s feet to pitter-patter ruthlessly across my Delicate Eye Area.  But I thought I had a few more years to enjoy the flavors of my food. Instead, it’s like Trump built a wall between Me and Salt and is making my Mexican food pay for it.  (“More pepper on your lard and beans?” No gracias.)

But as my elderly Mom (who I love) used to say, “Time waits for no man.”  I always thought she was talking about death, but now I know she was talking about salt.  We can’t avoid eventual death any more than we can avoid eventual saltlessness. It’s a whole tide comes in…tide goes out kind of thing.  (But what I wouldn’t give for a lick of it’s saltwater!)

But here’s the thing:  if we’ve invented Botox to replace Time, then surely we can come up with something to replace salt.  Mrs. Dash? Ranch packets? Soy sauce?  Wait, that’s just liquid salt. Can I still taste liquid salt?  Because If so, there’s nothing keeping me from trekking on down to the Dead Sea. I’ve heard there’s a pocket of it called Don Juan’s Pond that is 44% saline and the “saltiest place on earth.”  I may just swing by with a pot and some pasta and boil up something my bland little tongue can finally savor.  If it zings to satisfaction–if I can, at long last, gratefully taste that salt–I’ll pour it by the poundfuls into sodium-tight barrels and bring it back to the states, throw in a few dehydrated peas and carrots, and market it as Cup ‘O Noodles for The Elderly.

(Who, of course, I love.)