Notes From A Small Town Part II

Since today is a holiday, and I am still sitting in my parents’ kitchen drinking coffee, I have the chance to write another blog post. And because this weekend has been one marked by various thoughts and reflections, I hope the reader will forgive me for doing a post similar to that of yesterday, i.e. a few short ideas for your consideration. Though they will be tied together at the end, if you will bear with me.

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If you are no longer living under your parents’ roof, you will no doubt recall that there came that heady occasion, that right of capitalist passage, when you got to make your own decisions about things large and small in your own place.  Take your food and household product selection for example.  When you are in charge of taking care of yourself and no one else is expected to help, then you get to decide what brand of laundry detergent, or coffee, etc. you want to have in your own place.

And yet when you go home, it is curious how the same, familiar brands, which you grew up with and may not choose for yourself now, are the ones that seem comforting. Of course your mother uses Brand A detergent to wash the clothes, and Brand B detergent to wash the dishes, even though you buy whatever is on sale.  Naturally your father reaches for Brand Y coffee and prefers Brand Z butter, because he always has – why change now?  Not having these things in the pantry, under the sink, and so on, would create a sense that you had somehow wandered into the wrong house.

Is there a lesson, here, rather than just an observation? Perhaps we could say, choose what you like for your own place, but if you don’t really have a strong preference, then go with what Dad and Mom preferred.  We could also observe, Dad and Mom have established a routine with these things, because they realize that the freedom of having so many things to choose from is really more of a distraction, after awhile, from more important things we have to do.

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The desire to create some order from chaos struck me as I was watching an episode of Father Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” series last night on television with Mom – or rather, with Mom asleep next to me, as she was tired and a gentle-voiced priest from Chicago talking about Jesus and Thomas Aquinas was probably going to send her off to sleep, regardless of how interesting the talk was. I still have not seen all of the episodes of Father Barron’s series, just portions here and there, as I always seem to come in at the wrong time or miss it when it has been on.  It was good to sit down and get through one, complete episode for a change, particularly because it is such a beautifully shot and composed series overall, and Father Barron has such a clear, unfussy way of presenting things.

Several things he said during the episode I watched were ideas I wanted to be able to reflect on and read more about later; this is not an infrequent occurrence for me.  I may watch a television show like Father Barron’s, listen to a podcast, or hear a sermon at mass where there has been a particularly good piece of insight, perhaps once a week or more. And I then think to myself that I should write that insight down, so I can refer to it later.

If I am lucky I quickly type something into my phone or my computer, or jot something down on a notepad or a scrap of paper.  Yet I never seem to be good at systematically following up with these things, and transcribing them into some cohesive whole for future use.  Is it better to try to internalize the lesson learned at the time it is communicated, and then move on and get about your business?

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The preceding two ramblings are the sort of thoughts you (or at least I) tend to have when on vacation.  This is particularly the case when one is on holiday in a small, country town like this one, where there is very little to do, and frankly no real reason to do much of anything for the several days that one is visiting.  Like Thanksgiving, Easter, and other holidays, if you come from a small town and go home to visit for a few days, you will probably spend much of it loafing about, eating too much, falling asleep unexpectedly in a chair, and so on.

As pleasant as that may sound to continue indefinitely, being on a permanent holiday is not what we are meant to do with our lives. Going back to something Father Barron said in the aforementioned episode, if your primary goal in life is to accumulate pleasure and avoid pain, then you are not really living.  And Dad and Mom get about the business of life, rather than spending a great deal of time debating the minutiae of laundry detergent like some self-obsessed hipster taking his or her cues from whatever Madison Avenue wants him to believe.

All of us have things which we need to do, for ourselves and for others, which may be difficult at times, but definitely cannot be accomplished through a life of inaction brought about by indolence or by fear.  Whether we do nothing because we are lazy and want nothing but pleasure no matter how fleeting, or do nothing because we are afraid of our own mortality and bury our talents in the ground, either way the end result will be the same: disappointment.  We cannot live lives in a permanent vacation mode, revolving solely around avoiding reality.

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, and at mass we were reminded of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Looking at this list, I know which gifts I need to pray for especially, as I am going through some changes in my own life. And perhaps you, gentle reader, recognize some that you need for yourself, in your life.  Do you need to make more of an effort to understand your children or your co-workers? Are you making a bare minimal effort to pray? Are you willfully embracing ignorance in some aspect of your life rather than educating yourself?

This evening as I and many other Americans hit the road to go back to our regular lives at the conclusion of the Memorial Day weekend, we will probably be doing so with some sense of regret that the relaxation and time with family or friends cannot continue indefinitely. Americans will not have another three-day weekend like this again until Labor Day, at the end of summer. So now that summer is unofficially here, perhaps setting ourselves a goal to be able to return to those family and friends by summer’s end and say, “Look how things have improved since Memorial Day!” is not such a bad plan, is it?  Now there will be something to get the village talking.

“Village Green” by Thomas Rowlandson (c. 1800)
Private Collection


Notes From A Small Town

Rather than write one, cohesive blog post this Sunday morning, I thought it might be a good idea just to share a few ideas, which you might find interesting or helpful. For my American readers we still have this Sunday and all day tomorrow left in this holiday weekend.   Remember that the reason we have this holiday is to recall those who have given their lives in service to this country, to preserve our freedoms and way of life – and who in many cases gave their lives to help people spread all over the globe.  We are truly blessed to have benefited from their sacrifice, and the sacrifices their families made for all of us.

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My birthday was a couple of weeks ago, but as this is a holiday weekend in the United States it was the first time most of us could all get home to my parents’ to celebrate it together. Among the many thoughtful, useful, and fun gifts I received, one of my brothers got me a rather thick, heavy, scholarly book about the development of the film industry in all its aspects – everything from technical methods employed in lighting to concepts in editing such as continuity. Of course by scholarly, I mean it is a volume with lots of text and footnotes, in a smallish font so as to squeeze in as much information as possible, and there is not a huge amount of accompanying pictures or illustrations.

The giver expressed some concern that he was not entirely sure if it might prove too specialist a read, but as I explained this is exactly the sort of thing I like.  It is easy to lose yourself in this sort of book, even if it takes longer to make your way through than would a more accessible text. Not only do you learn a great deal, but it is absorbing and requiring of your concentration, so that you need to pay attention to it if you are going to get through it.  Thus, it provides the proverbial “hours of entertainment”.

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As my parents recently had high-speed WiFi installed at the house, this was the first weekend I have been home to visit where I did not have to reduce my computer time to when the one in my Dad’s office was free.  At first I mourned the idea that I would now be able to keep up with all of my normal internet activities here in the small town where I grew up, but instead it has actually turned out to be great in several, unexpected ways.  I have been able to write blog posts uninterrupted, for example, and do some other, work-related writing that I need to do.   I also managed to appear on SQPN’s “Catholic Weekend” show from here, using my youngest brother’s bedroom on the top floor as the recording studio least likely to have any interruptions.

And while I am not a baseball fan, I managed to spend last evening with my family all watching baseball on television while I sat on the couch with them and did my usual writing, research, and so on, and yet still being able to interact with them.  I was able to be a part of what was going on, without having to put work aside, or not appear on the show, or go to another room because I could be on the computer at last if everyone else was watching baseball.  Perhaps the lesson to take away from this is that technology is wonderful, but you have to make an effort sometimes to figure out how it might bring you together, rather than isolate you.

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Although I live in Washington, and I only manage to come home to visit every 6-8 weeks, give or take, over the past couple of years I have befriended one of the local parish priests here.  I usually check to see what mass he is going to be saying while I am in town and attend that one if I can.  He has been marvelous for confession in the past, we email back and forth periodically, and he strikes me as a very gentle, thoughtful pastor of his flock.  This weekend I wanted to go to confession and also have some time for spiritual direction if he was willing to just listen to me talk about some ideas and issues I am wrestling with, and he agreed to block off additional time for me before the scheduled Saturday afternoon confessions were to begin.

So yesterday afternoon we got to sit and talk for about an hour on where I have been, and where I am going.  A number of interesting commonalities came to light which I had not been aware of, such as the fact that he is a fellow alumnus of Notre Dame.  He was also a lawyer and practiced law for a few years before entering seminary.

For those of you who know the wonderful feeling you get from making a good confession, and particularly when you are able to do so after a really solid discussion with a good-hearted priest, there really is nothing else like it.  Yet what came out of this as well was that Father had the chance to tell me of examples in his own life as a parish priest that have parallels in how I live as a lay professional.  He explained how he looks at these situations and tries to handle them.

It was great hearing Father’s perspective, and how he could relate it to my own experiences, because he clearly had listened to what I had told him.  He talked about what fit for me, based on who I am and where I am now, as the individual sitting in the chair across from him.  And we spoke an equal amount of the time, going back and forth and taking turns to speak, rather than it all being lop-sided, and that was terrific as well.

So if you are Catholic, and it has been awhile since you have been to confession, or even if you go reasonably regularly, consider making an appointment to spend some time face to face talking about things in a way that is unhurried. Find a priest whose personality fits with yours, and let him know you just want to talk for an hour or half an hour, and see how it goes.  It may do you a world of good.

Memorial Day Cooking: Pea and Tomato Salad

Memorial Day weekend is now upon us here in the U.S., which is traditionally viewed as the unofficial start of summer, since technically summer is still several weeks away.  Many of my readers will be no doubt attending picnics and barbecues this weekend to remember our military and to kick off the warm weather season. [NOTE: I am still trying to find a Memorial Day to attend with this fellow and his new bride, who are in town and have never been to an American-style cookout.]

In addition, if you are not hosting an event yourself, many of you are going to be asked to bring something to whatever party you are attending. This often takes the form of a salad or side dish to accompany the grilled meats on offer.  Usually leads to the same old boring mayonnaise with potatoes, or alternatively some tossed, green, leafy things with bits of this and that thrown in.

A new alternative for you to consider making is a salad or side dish that I invented for a dinner party held here at the manse this past weekend for one of my friar friends from the Dominican Priory and several of my neighbors. Making use of spring peas and hydroponic tomatoes, but perfectly good for anytime in the summer, it requires a bit more work than simply tossing everything in a salad spinner and pulling a cord. However it is inexpensive, can be made and stored in advance, and the results are well worth the comparatively marginal effort.

This pea and tomato salad is loosely based on one of the foundational elements of Spanish cooking, the “sofrito”.  However instead of using this flavor reduction as a base in which to cook, say, a paella or fish dish, we will be using it to make good use of seasonal products. It is also one of those dishes where allowing it to sit overnight in the refrigerator dramatically enhances the flavor.

Pea & Tomato Salad
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 an onion, diced
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 pound whole tomatoes, quartered
2 cups new peas
1/4 pound of diced fatty parma ham, pancetta, or bacon
olive oil
salt and pepper
rosemary (optional)

1. Coat the bottom of a large, non-stick skillet with olive oil, and heat on medium heat until it just begins to smoke. Add the minced garlic and sautee for about a minute or two, being careful not to let the garlic burn.
2. Add the diced onion and sautee for a couple of minutes until the onion becomes translucent.
3. Add the ham or bacon, and sautee for another 5 minutes, give or take, being careful to not allow the meat to burn. (You want to allow some of the fat to melt into the oil.)
4. Make a well in the center of the pan, and add two tablespoons of tomato paste. Allow the paste to warm and loosen for a minute or two, but not blacken, then stir to combine with the garlic, onion, and ham. Continue cooking for another couple of minutes to allow the flavors to combine.
5. Add the pound of quartered tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste, and allow them to cook for several minutes until they just start to fall apart.
6. Once the tomatoes start to disintegrate, take the pan OFF the heat and add the new peas and rosemary (if desired). Stir gently to combine, so that there are still plenty of chunks of tomato.
7. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature, then place in a bowl and chill (preferably overnight).

I can attest to the results, since my guests took second and third helpings of this dish, and I had practically nothing left over. Enjoy!

Detail of “Still Life of Artichokes and Peas” by Luis Meléndez (c. 1771-1774)
Private Collection, Madrid