Coffee with Eight Bits

There’s nothing quite like getting back from the early Mass on a sunny Sunday morning, with the temperatures climbing into the seventies but still comfortable, brewing a carafe of coffee, and taking it and a goat out to the garden. I pulled up a chair, poured a cup of coffee, and watched him graze for about a half hour. He did a remarkable job mowing down the grassy strip around the garden perimeter, and loves chomping on the weeds growing in the garden plot itself. I positioned myself strategically, so he couldn’t get into the perennial fruit bushes. Other than that, it was just a matter of sitting back and relaxing.

We obviously won’t be able to bring goats in the garden once it’s planted, but for now this sure beats getting out the lawn mower. Or, especially, the hoe.

Bingo!

I spent Saturday evening working Bingo at our parish hall in Paxton. It’s our Knights of Columbus council’s biggest fundraiser, and is held nearly every Saturday. We start selling cards at 5:30, start calling numbers at 6:30, and usually wrap things up at about 9:15 or so.

Before we moved here, I used to chuckle at bumper stickers encouraging people to support Bingo to “keep grandma off the streets.” True, of the 55-60 or so people who show up regularly to play, 80-90% are female and the majority look to be at least 70 years old. And, yes, some do have names like “Mabel” and “Dorothy.”

But you know what? Bingo is great — and not just because of the money it raises for our charitable works in the parish. I’ve been on a Bingo team for a few years now, and the more times I work the more I come to realize the biggest value of these events: building the social capital of our community. In an age when people are increasingly isolated with their individual entertainments (see Robert Putnam’s classic “Bowling Alone“), Bingo brings people together.

The players start arriving well before 5pm, and many buy a light dinner from the kitchen staffed by ladies from our parish’s Council of Catholic Women. They eat, get caught up with each other, play cards, show off the latest pictures of their grandkids, etc, etc. Then we start selling Bingo cards, and they all line up. We joke around with the regulars, many of whom we know by name, and explain to the newcomers how our various games are played and which cards they’ll need. Sales slow down, and then at about 6pm we get a wave of players from the parish’s 5pm Mass. More talking and joking around, but this time it’s mostly parishioners. When sales slow again, the Knights take turns grabbing something to eat, and then the games begin at 6:30.

The social capital we’re building isn’t just for the Bingo players. What I like best about working Bingo is getting caught up with the other Knights on my team. Once the caller begins drawing and announcing numbers, and we’ve gotten the paperwork in order, there is a lot of downtime where we can talk quietly. These conversations get interrupted each time someone calls “Bingo!”, and we need to go check and pay off a winning card, but we still end up with a lot of time for just sitting around and talking. With each of us living in our own orbit, and so busy most of the time, I’ve grown to really look forward to these opportunities to hang out and get to know the other guys better.

It’s especially interesting when, on nights like last night, I was substituting on another team. I already knew the other three guys on that team, of course, but not as well as the guys on my own team. Talking with them, you discover an amazing range of life experiences. One example: the guy who grew up in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s, with chickens and goats and all other kinds of livestock — right there in the city (“Everybody had something back then. It was the only way you could eat, what with all the shortages and rationing.”) He’s retired now, and races homing pigeons. I found out all about how these races are done, how GPS systems are now used for tracking and timing, and much more. Fascinating conversation, and a window into a world I otherwise never would’ve gotten.

Also that night, I mentioned that we raise Icelandic sheep. One of the guys remarked that he spent a year on Iceland, in the military during the cold war, tracking Soviet planes. We talked about Iceland, and all the other exotic places he’d lived and visited. He also asked if we sell any of our goat meat, and I answered in the affirmative. “Good,” he said, “because it’s so hard to find anybody who sells goat. I tried buying a goat from somebody awhile back, but when he found out I was planning to butcher it, he refused to sell it to me.”

“He thought you wanted it as a pet?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Thought I was going to make it a member of my family or something. Doesn’t anybody eat goat meat anymore?”

“We do,” I said. “It’s delicious.”

And so it goes, all evening. When it’s over, and all the ladies have gone home, and the marked-up Bingo cards and food wrappers are thrown away, we Knights crack open a beer and turn on a baseball or basketball game, and catch a few minutes before heading home to our families.

Anyway, I don’t mean to get all philosophical about something as simple as Bingo — but I really do think it makes an enormous contribution to the social capital of our community and of our council. Awhile back, there was talk in the council of eliminating Bingo and replacing it with one big fundraising raffle each year, like some of the other community organizations do. I’m glad that proposal got voted down, and I think most everyone else is too.

Yes, it’s a bit of hassle to lose a Saturday evening every six weeks…or so I thought, when I first signed up. That’s the funny thing about volunteering time for a charitable organization. When you first agree to do it, it seems the primary motivation is a sense of duty. “I need to pull my weight. The other guys are doing it, so I should volunteer too.” But it doesn’t take long before you’re actually looking forward to your team’s turn to work, and spending time with the guys…and joking around with Mabel and Dorothy, as you keep them off the streets — and keep yourself from Bowling Alone.

The Farm Bill

We’ve lived here for nearly six years now, surrounded by folks who grow corn and soybeans thousands of acres at a time. Just this week, the mammoth tractors have again begun rumbling into the fields, pulling implements that can plant upwards of 24 rows of corn with each pass. But six years later, I have yet to understand the complex web of subsidies that act as incentives for this kind of behavior. I do know that at harvest time, the mammoth grain elevator fills to overflowing—with a mountain of surplus grain outside that resembles the Great Pyramid of Giza. (I’ll post some pictures this fall; it’s a truly remarkable sight.)

I’ve had a sense that something was out of whack with federal farm policy, but couldn’t grasp the extent of how its various disparate effects interacted and contributed to reinforcing each other. That’s in large part because the Farm Bill itself is so complex, it is nearly impossible for anyone to understand.

In a recent New York Times piece, Michael Pollan provides an excellent — and clearly written — overview and discussion of how the Farm Bill has perverted not only American agriculture, but also American nutrition and even life in foreign countries. One small excerpt:

Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. … Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

I don’t want federal support for what I do, and I don’t think most of us in sustainable agriculture do either. What we’d like to see is a playing field devoid of arbitrary subsidies, in which the marketplace can decide the value of what we produce — and what the commodity farmers produce.

Guns and Abortion

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about my frustration at having to wait 72 hours to pick up the handgun I’d just purchased…while any woman in the state can have an abortion immediately upon discovering she is pregnant. And yet which decision—to purchase a handgun or have an abortion—is more life-changing and worthy of taking time for reflection and “cooling off”?

Bruce Thornton makes another excellent contrast between gun regulations and abortion laws:

The worst of these prejudices, however, is the liberal bias against trusting individuals to make decisions about how to manage their own lives. Restrictive gun control laws assume that people are too untrustworthy or incapable or stupid to keep and carry a weapon. Thus laws are written by elite snobs who think they know how to run your life better than you do. Of course, this presumption of the average person’s incompetence is very selective. The same people who think a sane, law-abiding citizen can’t be trusted with carrying a gun will assume that a 15-year-old girl should be allowed to abort her baby. Think about it: the mature person can’t carry a gun because he might kill someone, but the teenaged girl can have an abortion that definitely will kill someone.

BTW, I did pick up my Springfield 😄 .45 ACP handgun last week, and it is a very sweet firearm. I just wish the State of Illinois trusted me enough to let me carry it in public for personal protection—and the protection of those around me.

Surprised by Beauty

Thinking more about yesterday’s post, on the Washington Post experiment in which Joshua Bell’s music was ignored by well over one thousand morning commuters.

My wife insists that if our family had been in the subway station that morning, we all would have stopped and listened to the violin concert. I told her I wasn’t so sure, and that — having once been a DC Metro commuter myself — I could understand that people are often on tight deadlines, especially in the morning. There simply isn’t always time to stop and listen, no matter how beautiful the music is. After all, I pointed out, what if our family was in that subway station — but we were on our way to Mass, which was about to begin? Would we have really blown off Mass to listen to a violinist?

She replied with an excellent point: we would have at least paused and listened for a moment, making some acknowledgement of what a masterful performance he was putting on. We wouldn’t have simply hustled by, oblivious to the beauty. I agreed, in part because stopping to listen to such a performance is another aspect of homeschooling: an opportunity to take something from the course of life and find the larger lesson in it. Art and music are an important component of our childrens‘ instruction, and we have been teaching them to appreciate good classical music.

And the older our kids get, the more thankful I am for my wife’s insistence that I not listen to popular or rock music around the kids; I’ve honored that request from when they were very young, and I can see the fruits it is bearing in their attention to (and appreciation of) things that are truly good and beautiful.

Also, in reflecting on the Joshua Bell incident, I’ve realized how fortunate we are to be living a less hectic lifestyle. Yes, there are still deadlines to meet — but there is generally more flexibility about meeting them. If we find ourselves “surprised by beauty” or art, there is usually time to pause and enjoy that experience. Just this morning, I was sitting in the pasture watching the sheep graze, and found myself lingering for a few extra minutes just appreciating the colors and grace of these wonderful animals. Other days, it might be a spectacular sunset over the prairie—or an electrical storm, observed with the kids from our glassed-in front porch.

Wherever art or beauty surprises you today, I hope you stop to take it in.

Context Matters

The Washington Post recently conducted a remarkable experiment. They had Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most celebrated violinists, play his Stradivarius at a Metro station during the morning rush hour. He performed the greatest classical masterpieces, using one of the finest instruments in the world, but was dressed in casual clothing and seemed to be just another street performer trying to earn some cash. The point was to determine if, lacking the context of a music hall, people would recognize the inherent beauty of Bell’s performance.

So, what happened? More than a thousand people passed by, but only a handful even seemed to notice him. Even fewer stopped to listen. Only one person recognized who he was.

The article is long, but well worth the read.

The thought I had: here on earth, the greatest of masterpieces is the Holy Eucharist. The Catholic Church teaches that it is truly the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ himself. And yet, many surveys show large percentages believing that the Eucharist is merely a “symbolic reminder” of Jesus. Although some have questioned the methodologies of these surveys, and other methodologies have yielded different results, even these researchers agree that the perceived importance of the Eucharist for Catholics has declined for this generation.

Why is this? Much of the blame can be attributed to atrocious religious education in the post-Vatican II years; I still have the textbook we used for First Holy Communion back in the mid-1970s, and offer it as Exhibit A. But I wonder if we should also think about the “context” in which most American Catholics encounter the Eucharist: warehouse-like structures that one author has described as “Ugly As Sin.” We were told that, stripped of architectural and artistic “distractions,” we would be able to focus more clearly on the true miracle of the Eucharist itself. Many of us have thought for some time that such views are mistaken; architectural and musical beauty in fact play a critical role in providing a setting which calls attention to the grandeur and transcendence of the Eucharist —much as a jeweler takes care to fashion an appropriate setting for a fine diamond.

The Washington Post experiment seems to give further confirmation of this view: stripped of its optimal setting, people have trouble recognizing transcendent beauty. Classical masterpieces aren’t meant to be showcased in subway stations. Neither is the Holy Eucharist. What’s encouraging is that this architectural trend may finally be reversing itself. In recent years, I’ve seen a number of churches which had been “wreck-o-vated” in the early 1970s restored to something approaching their former grandeur. And there is a movement afoot, led by architects such as Duncan Stroik and others, to build beautiful new churches.

We consider ourselves blessed to have so many beautiful small town and country churches within easy driving distance. Hopefully we’ll start seeing them emerge in the suburbs as well.