Going Down to the River to Pray

Madi came home from college today.

Jack’s fidgeting gets more frenetic, pacing back and forth between his big sister in the living room, and me in the kitchen.  In my face he whispers desperately, “Is this really how I have to spend my last day of summer?”

I keep my voice low, but I won’t whisper back.  “Yes.  We are doing this for Madi.  You can’t get out of it.  None of us can.  Go enjoy the next few hours.”

Despite an upbringing shunning such things, Madi fell in with a Baptist church earlier in the summer.  They recruited her from table twelve at the Buffalo Wing restaurant where she waited tables the last three summers; invited her out to coffee, then lunch, then church on Sunday mornings and something they call small group on Thursday nights.

Small group is held in member’s homes and is made up of eighteen to twenty five year olds.  Most of them are already married, something that surprised Madi, but not me.  Sexual development and hormones don’t actually follow any indoctrination regarding premarital sex, and I remember vividly the pressure to give holy meaning to the weakness of the flesh.  The most devout will marry young so as not to have sex out of wedlock, while the most human will have sex anyway, but assign some permanence or significance to the relationship for no other reason than to feel right, or righter, with God.  I waited until she asked me to share my insights.

I admit I was leery when Madi made plans to meet the pastor and several of his assistants at a local bistro.  She said they had to meet on Tuesday, because the pastor was going to Mississippi on Wednesday.  My tongue struck quicker than my filter.  “Why?  Does he have to pick up more snakes?”

“How did you know?” she asked with eyes wide, like I was a palm reader telling her some deep, dark secret about herself.

I told her about the small sects of Baptist believers that routinely handle snakes to prove that God is protecting them.  Most of the deaths by snakebite in this country come not from people who accidentally wander into a pit of vipers, but people who are intentionally handling snakes; religious zealots account for a large number of those.

Online, Madi found many pictures of the pastor holding snakes, and she showed me.  Some were long and thick, some were short and striped.  Others were bright green and small as pencils.  Most were constrictors, but all were non venomous.  Begrudgingly, I told her it appeared that he was not a snake handler, but a snake enthusiast.  He does it for hobby, not for sacrament.  Not unlike the difference, I learned when I got married, between an Elvis impersonator and an Elvis tribute artist.

One Sunday afternoon, Madi met us at the local brewery when church let out.  We ate our carried-in burgers and drank our beer.  She mentioned that she was surprised not to run into any church members doing the same; it’s a small town.  Mike and I informed her that Baptists don’t condone drinking.  Or dancing.  Or cards.  I recounted one lovely and lavish wedding I attended at my mother’s church when I was a teen.  The reception was held in the church basement, with a long table of pot luck crocks and fold up chairs lining the walls for people to sit with their Styrofoam plates and eat off their own laps.  No first dance, no toast, no cake cutting ceremony.  Or maybe I’d already gone outside to hang out with the other bored teens by then, because I can’t think of any scriptural reason not to have a cake cutting ceremony – not even if you take or mistake everything quite literally.  A few days later, Madi reported that she’d asked small group about drinking and everyone claimed that they personally would never drink, but didn’t see a problem if someone else wanted to on special occasions.

My biggest concern came one evening while I painted my son’s bedroom.  Across the hall, I heard Madi listening to a podcast of the same hell fire and brimstone indoctrination my mother used to listen to on the radio and satellite television.  As if channeling her dead grandmother, I found her sitting at her desk, sewing something.  I listened quietly from the doorway, and only spoke up when I heard this man rail against ho-mo-sex-shuls and other despicable deviants.  I could not be silent any more.

“Is this okay with you?  This man is preaching hate and intolerance, and is precisely why I didn’t raise you in the church.  This is not Christianity, and it’s not alright.”

She told me she didn’t agree with him, but she was listening because she wanted to know what the church she was attending really believed in.  I took some comfort that if she was still listening and learning, it wouldn’t be long before she couldn’t stomach the lot, either.

Then about a month ago, Madi asked me if anything was on my schedule for August twentydunk eighth.  It was the day before school started for Jack and Cate, but we had no specific festivities for Back-to-School Eve.  And then she invited me to the river, where she planned to be baptized with about seventy other people on that evening.  Their summer recruitment plan had been quite fruitful and I could not help but wonder if there was an award to the top proselytizer; a trip to Mississippi and two free snakes, perhaps?

I felt nothing but worriment last week when I realized that the day was quickly approaching.  But man cannot live by dread alone, so I started planning ways I could take my sense of failure to instill my beliefs and anti-beliefs into my firstborn and turn them into something to look forward to.  Also, I wanted to take some of the gravity and significance out of the day.  I suggested that we tailgate the baptism; show up early with a bucket of chicken and some good tunes.  Apparently my eleven herbs and spices are not that original.  The event starts three hours before the actual dunking.  There is live music and the church is ordering Papa Johns for the masses.   I just hope that the pastor actually ordered pizza and, in the spirit of things, did not get carried away and order anchovies and crust in commemoration of the fishes and loaves.

I understood when she retook a philosophy class that she’d passed, but wanted to replace her grade to improve her GPA.  I voiced my strong desire that she retake driver’s ed before getting her learner’s permit.  It’s okay in my book to re-do things until you get them right, or right enough – but being born again?  She did it perfectly the first time; forty-five minute labor with no complications.  She was such a beautiful, easy child.  I don’t understand why she wants to be born again.  It’s like scoring a 1600 on the SAT and still wanting to take it over.

Jack is right to not want to spend his last day of summer freedom watching his sister sell herself into this church.  But that’s what we’re doing, because she is family.  And because I still hope that the steady, constant voice telling her that God is love, not judgement, not hatred, not damnation will come in louder and clearer than pulpit shouts of indictment and sentencing.  And because if she decides one day to get married, there’s no way I’m letting her have a dry reception in a damp old basement.

Browns, Vaginas, And a Recipe!

Seventeen years ago today was a Monday.  The Cleveland Browns returned to the field for the first time in four years and they beat the Dallas Cowboys by 3 points.  My boyfriend, being from Pittsburgh, was a natural enemy of Cleveland anything.  He was, by law, a Steelers fan, but I’ve always suspected that if he’d been born with free will, he’d have chosen them, anyway.

Being of somewhat average intelligence with a strong sense of right and wrong, I naturally detested the Cowboys.  I grew up in a virtual football desert; The Carolina Panthers didn’t exist until I was an adult, which is probably why I don’t count them as a real team, even as they turn 21 this year.  Wipe that look off your face, neighbor; it’s the same as when you couldn’t embrace green ketchup even though it tastes the same.

Carolina Panthers.  Green Ketchup.  There’s a choking metaphor in there somewhere.

Speaking of choking, Miami Dolphins.  That was my team, I thought.  Most of my school buddies chose to pull for the closest teams to our north or to our south – Redskins or Falcons.  I chose my team by far more scientific methods; I thought Dan Marino was gorgeous.  Years and years later I’d realize I was really only his fan.  The rest of the team just didn’t interest me that much.

“I’m going to marry him.  What’s his name?” I declared just moments before he lost the last Super Bowl he ever played.  It’s possible, I bet, that I’m the jinx he could never shake.

But seventeen years ago today, he wasn’t playing, and neither were the Steelers.  We were simply celebrating the return of Monday Night Football.  We cooked several pots of chili and invited some friends over.  The Browns emerged victorious and the bowls were all loaded into the dishwasher when we lay down to unwind on the couch before bed.  I was not expecting what happened next.  At least, not that moment.

See, I totally ignored that whole don’t get your meat from the same place you get your bread rule and started dating a co-worker.  He had a goofy sense of humor and perfectly straight teeth; apparently the only standards I possessed at the time.  One day he overheard as I was espousing to another co-worker the superiority of Dan Marino over every other human, living or dead.  He stuck out his hand to shake and said, “Hi.  I went to high school with Dan Marino.”

And that’s when I was sold.

I may as well have ordered a side of Brooklyn Bridge or beach front property in Arizona because as it turned out, he only went to the same high school as Dan Marino.  Thirteen years later.  But that’s another story.

A year and a half after his little white lie, I was laying on the couch with him in my apartment when I said, “Hey, you know what I really want?”

He said he thought he did, and told me to close my eyes.  I complied and after a few seconds he told me I could open them.

He was still lying there, beside me.

“Where’s my chocolate?”

He looked confused.

“You said you had chocolate.”

“What?  No I didn’t!”

I looked confused.

“Look down.”

There, sitting on top of the afghan I’d thrown over us was a square box.  It contained the thing I’d been anxiously avoiding for a couple of weeks.

On one occasion he’d asked if I ever looked through the jar of sand I kept on my kitchen counter.  I saw the tip of the diamond and a couple of gold prongs poking out and said, “Why?  It’s just sand,” before quickly leaving the room.

On another occasion he asked me to bring him something from the dresser drawer I’d designated as his.  The box was right on top, but I moved it to the side and took him the item he requested.

If my memory serves me, there was another near miss, but I’ve forgotten the details.  I definitely didn’t expect or want what he was trying to give me.  Before him, I’d dated a guy who casually said he thought I’d look good in a dress he saw in a magazine.  It was white.  So I read between the lines and did the only proper thing; I waited a few days and told him I moved to Alaska.

But there I was, trapped between him and the sofa cushions with an afghan and two ton diamond ring on my chest.  It was almost a karat, but the weight.  Oh my God, the weight.

He asked the obvious question and I said yes.  It would have been rude not to.

That sounds like bullshit, but it would have.  I did not want marriage, but he did.  And since it meant something to him, but not to me, it seemed a small price to pay for someone I had come to love.

Plus, I’d grown up a little bit since that time I didn’t actually move to Alaska.

Ten years later, I suspect to the day, Mr. I Didn’t Really, Actually, Truly Go to High School with Dan Marino went on a business trip and fell into the vagina of the co-worker he’d been making fun of on the way to the airport a few days earlier.  At that time, Dan Marino had been retired nine years, and was hiding the illegitimate love child he’d created when he fell into a co-worker’s vagina.  Be careful, guys.   It is a va-jungle out there.  Apparently.

I’ve gotten rid of both the Dolphins and the Dan Marino paraphernalia that’s been foisted on me, usually by in-laws, over the years.  Except for a few pictures in each of the kid’s rooms (and the kids themselves), I’ve also rid the house of any ex-husband memorabilia.

I wouldn’t even bring this up, and anniversaries like this one would go completely unremembered if not for the Facebook Memories feature.  But lest you think this is all depressing commentary, let me assure you this is actually very, very good news.

I don’t actually follow football anymore.  My team was probably never really my team, my player let me down, and I have remarried a man who’s far more into soccer and is content to let me ignore that sport, too.  But the laws of space and time dictate that if this is the seventeenth anniversary of a preseason football game, this – here, now – must also be football preseason, too!

Unless the laws of physics have completely broken, autumn is on the way, ya’ll!  Here’s a recipe so you can celebrate, too.  Leave out the karats.



Takes 3 1/2 – 4 1/2 hours. Serves lots and lots of people and one soon-to-be hurting dog if you leave it out on the counter.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 onions chopped
4 cloves garlic minced
3 pound brisket
1 pound spicy Italian sausage, no casing
2 pound butternut squash, diced.
3 (14.5 ounce) cans peeled and diced tomatoes with juice
3 bottles of Shiner Bock (pour the other three on your garden to kill slugs)
3 cups strong brewed coffee
4 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
3 (14 ounce) can beef broth
3/4 cup chili powder
1/2 cup cocoa power
3 tablespoons ground cumin
3/4 cup brown sugar
3 teaspoon dried oregano
3 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 teaspoon ground coriander
3 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoon wasabi paste  (or to taste)
5 (15 ounce) cans kidney beans
5 Anaheim chili peppers, chopped
3 serrano pepper, chopped
Place brisket in large roasting pan.  Brown Italian sausage and add to brisket pan.
Sautee onions and garlic in the grease from the sausage, add to brisket and sausage.  Pour in the tomatoes, coffee, tomato paste, beans, and broth. Add all dry seasonings.  Roast at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat oil. Cook Anaheim and serrano peppers, 5 to 10 minutes. Add to roasting pan, along with one Shiner Bock and return to oven.  In one more hour, add another Shiner Bock.  In another hour, add the last Shiner Bock and the diced butternut squash.  Continue cooking until the brisket is easily pulled apart with a fork.
Remove from oven and do that, then stir all together.  If you prefer more heat, you can add habanero to the skillet with Anaheim and serrano peppers.  They make my teeth hurt, so I don’t use them.
Serve with your favorite toppings; we like sour cream, cheese, and fresh green onions.

Oh, and bread.  Preferably homemade, but if you don’t live with Martha Stewart, use whatever you like.