Monday, February 27, 2006

To Know is to Taste

Los Angeles is a hundred cities spread out over a hundred miles. Travel south to north on the 110 - from industrial Long Beach to sleepy Altadena – and you’ll unconsciously bypass main streets and markets, high schools and fire stations. Likewise, when you go west to east - from Santa Monica to San Dimas – you’ll traverse more city signs than you can count.

I imagine sometime ago, the many cities of Los Angeles seemed fairly distinct – separated by unseen lines of school competition and social demographics. Planning commissions probably designed splendid layouts for Arcadia and city councils from Montebello to Torrence envisioned making their city better and brighter than all others. But the feeling you get today as you drive the streets of Los Angeles is that the city has grown beyond any sort of planning commission. Urbanization has swallowed all perceived boundaries. The county has lost the manufactured landscape you’ll see in Zionsville or Orange County and has become organic – a thing unto itself. It stretches and lurches and blends into the vast hills and valleys.

And, yet, as amorphous as LA has become, tiny fragments of particularity still exist. Certain cinemas or buildings stand out above the rest. But, after living here for more than three years, I can think of only one thing that truly distinguishes one city from another in Los Angeles: food.

Food is the great differentiator in a land of plurality and anonymity. It wouldn’t seem so at first glance since the food of Los Angles is as varied as the people who call it home. Besides, you’re bound to find a McDonalds or Starbucks whether you’re driving on Sunset Blvd or Rosemead Blvd. But, the important thing is that long after all these minor cities lost their original borders, certain eating establishments have managed to thrive. Thus, while no one in Los Angeles can clearly draw an outline for the city they live in, they can quite easily tell you which restaurant or burger joint puts their city on the map.

Pasadena is known for Marsten’s, Pie n’ Burger, El Taquito #2, and Saladang. And, of course, every Little Tokyo to Little Armenia has its own “gotta have” sushi or shwarma, just like you only go to Monterey Park for a good dumpling. Culver City has La Dijonaise; Hollywood has Pink’s. These are the trademarks that keep LA interesting and separate. They’re also why you’d drive thirty miles to eat dinner in Santa Monica when there’s over four hundred restaurants in Pasadena.

When I first moved out here, Matt Cecil – an old friend from high school – gave me a book called “Counter Intelligence,” which was one man’s exploration and expose on where LA’s best eateries are. It’s still one of my favorite reads, and just to prove how central and significant food is to LA culture (not to mention how great this guys writing is), I’m going to quote an excerpt from Jonathan Gold’s review of Zankou Chicken:

“Nothing on heaven or on Earth may be as severe as the Armenian garlic sauce served at Zankou Chicken, a fierce, blinding-white paste the texture of pureed horseradish that scents your car, sears the back of your throat, and whose powerful aroma can stay in your head – and your car – for days. A couple of drops is enough to flavor a hunk of bread; a modest schmear will do for an entire shwarma sandwich. Go ahead, Ultra Brite; go ahead, Lavoris; go ahead, CarFreshener: My money’s on the sauce. It’s also good with chicken … the spit-roasted chickens are superb: golden, crisp-skinned, and juicy, with developed chicken flavor, the kind of bird that makes you want to scour the carcass for stray bits of carbonized skin and delicious scraps of flesh, or hoard your favorite bites … that rich chunk of dark meat right where the leg joins the thigh, or that tender strip running along the top. Such chicken really needs no embellishment – but a little bit of garlic sauce couldn’t hurt.”

I could go on with other reviews, but you’re either (a) from Los Angeles and salivating by this point or (b) not from Los Angles and screaming, “Who cares!” I only bring this up to explain why Anna and I had to go to Diddy Riese’s in Westwood tonight.

Our main reason for going to Westwood – for snailing our way up and down the 405 – was to see Lon Chaney (the man of a 1,000 faces) in the original “Phantom of the Opera.” That silent film – by itself – is worth another blog another time.

But right now we’re talking food – specifically $1 ice-cream sandwiches. We’re talking Diddy Riese. Just like IU had the “hot dog” stand guy and DePauw had Marvin’s, UCLA has this cookie shop, which has somehow locked its prices into the 1960’s ($1.75 for three scopes of Dreyer’s ice cream). It is opportunistically located near the nightlife of the college, which makes it a great curtain call for the day.

All of this meant Anna and I had to take full advantage of our rare trip to the Westside. Chocolate cookie chocolate chip with mint chip ice cream for Anna, and chocolate chip with espresso chip ice cream for Wes … and a half dozen white chocolate macadamia nut cookies for the week. Ah, make that five cookies for the week as of a ten minutes ago.

Hey, when in Rome …

Because to truly understand Los Angeles, to get a grasp of the variety, you have to experience it – taste it. And after eating an ice-cream sandwich for a buck in Westwood, all I can say is that the America of Hollywood’s golden years still exists – if only in between the warm, crumbly, soft-chew of two chocolate chip cookies … prepared by Latinos and enjoyed by Asians and African-Americans, of course. This is Los Angeles.


Kaleidoscopic Vision

Quick. What do you see in this picture?

No. Besides the fact my eyebrows are dangerously encroaching upon "monobrow" land, smarty pants.

The correct answer is the remnants of a black eye. I got this beauty last week during a game of basketball. And like any guy, I've got to show off my war wounds.

That is all.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

My Fix

I've always prided myself on not having any chemical addictions. I've never had to kick a nicotine habit, let alone worry about cleansing my system of more potent drugs. But today I had to face the facts - straight up. I'm addicted. Years and years of consuming Nissin brand Top Ramen has taken it's toll, and I can no longer rationalize my behavior as average.

The awareness of my addiction began this afternoon when I opened the cupboard only to discover the glimmering plastic of packaged ecstasy. I was stunned at first since Anna - probably realizing the seriousness of my condition from day one - has sought to intervene and end my addiction. She's ignored my pro-Ramen platform, which is entirely based on affordability (10 packages for $1 at times!). But for some reason, she relented this week, which led to my discovery ... which led to my awakening.

First, though, I have to give you some more info. Ramen is more than a noodle; it's more than a culinary "value meal." Ramen is all that is wrong with pre-packeged food. The noodles are straight "enriched flour," aka the type of flour that doesn't even deserve to be qualified as a grain. It's 99% inorganic with an organic label.

But that's not even the worst. Nope, the THC of Ramen is the package of seasoning which comes with it, which contains (in order): salt, soy sauce powder, MSG, hydrolized soy, corn and wheat protein, garlic powder, caramel color, onion powder, rice oil, citric acid, disodium succinate, dehydrated leek, calcium silicate, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate. THAT'S AT LEAST 7 INGREDIENTS THAT INCLUDE SODIUM, which leaves no mystery as to why each package supplies 60-70% of your daily sodium intake.

Now, this is why it's scary. I use to eat two of these after school ... every day ... as a snack.

But if that's not bad enough; it gets even worse. Years of eating ramen has left me a lethal junkie. I've trained my taste to know what I like and what I don't. For the longest time it was nothing but pork flavored. Oh, that was the best. But then, and I'm still bitter about this, out of nowhere Nissin decided to alter its pork seasoning - forever leaving me to search for hidden "old" pork packages. Alas, I've found none. But by this time I was hooked, and I moved on to other flavors ... even going so far as to try the shrimp variety, which was putrid. Thankfully, like a true American, I decided beef was for me. And once I found my delight of choice, I had only to experiment with preparation.

Like a heroin addict, I've learned how to distill the drug down to its most potent form. There are, of course, many ways to prepare Ramen noodles with most of the varieties originating from what you do with the water in the saucepan. The recommended preparation is as follows:

1. Boil 2 cups water. Add noodles, breaking up if desired. Cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Remove from heat. Stir in seasonings from flavor packet**

**To lower sodium use less seasoning (honestly, it says this)

I've got to give it to Ramen; at least they knew they're selling a potent product and give you a way to curb some of the toxicity. But that's like Philip and Morris putting a label on their cigarretes that states you can protect yourself from nicotine by putting on ANOTHER filter. Come on.

This is all beside the point anyhow. Somewhere along the line, I read what Nissin suggested about limiting the amount of sodium, and I came up with my own brilliant idea: hey, who needs the water. So, now, my preparation includes these revised two steps:

1. Boil water, add noodles and cook until desired (3 1/2 minutes after filling pot with water, placing noodles in and turning on stove)
2. Remove from heat, drain pot of water - leaving about a tablespoon. Stir in seasoning to create a highly concentrated, intense bowl of slimy salt.

As I performed these simple steps today, I realized how neurotic I've become about my ramen. I should've seen the signs earlier. I've been known to eat spoonfulls of the chicken broth seasoning we keep in the fridge if I can't find any other snack! But, the straw that broke the camel's back came after I emptied the seasoning into the pan. Mechanically - by pure instinct - I opened the seasoning package all the way, revealing the last fine grains of MSG and six varieties of salt, placed my tongue on the metalic package and licked. I was forced to ask myself, "What would I do if I dropped this seasoning on the floor, in the dirt, in a trash can?" I'm ashamed to tell you my answer. I can only tell you ...

My name is Wes, and I'm addicted to ramen.


Friday, February 17, 2006

Calls about Callings

Right before I went to lunch today the thought struck me: "When a church calls me for a phone interview, is it proper etiquette for me to open or close with a prayer?" I had spent most of the morning mentally preparing for an expected call from a church in Virginia, but nothing had prepared me to answer this question. For the first time, my stomach began to curl and jump inside of me. I had no answers, worse I began to fear I’d fall completely mute and dumb.

Part of me thought, "hey, if you're thinking about being a pastor, you're going to have to start praying and probably a lot to open and close conversations or meetings." Then the more introverted side took over, and I calmly rationalized that a mere “God bless you” at the end of the conversation would suffice.

But just because I was able to overcome that small matter my mind had no problem jumping to other frightening questions and scenarios. What will they ask me? Will they like my ideas; will they like me? Do I tell them I think I would make a good pastor; is that cocky? I was awash in self-doubt – beginning to ignore the number one rule for any interview: be clear and definite.

Yes, I know; I’m a little paranoid about the whole interviewing thing, aren’t I? The problem is I just don’t know how to go about this whole thing. I’m learning on the fly. But thankfully Anna’s by my side, and her cheerfulness and complete trust is keeping us both going these days. She keeps reassuring me that if God wills it, than it will be.

“Be yourself,” she reminds me with a calm smile and confident eyes, and I look back at her with a sheepish gaze; “and just who might I be these days,” I ask from within. “I desire to speak the good news I know of God. I desire to walk and work with others – to bring glory to God.”

And as I’m searching and digging up these thoughts from within – right in the midst of this searching – that’s when the real prayers begin. I begin to see prayer as a means of opening myself up to God not as a tool to show off my pastoral skills. Likewise, I’m trying to remind myself this stage in our life is more about being open to how God is moving, not about what I need to do to get us to move?

That’s hard for me.

David Gray has a song called “Easy Way to Cry,” where he concludes there simply is no easy way to cry. I’d add that there’s no easy way to live by faith. Sometimes I manage to forget that – assuming faith is something that gets easier with time and age. I figure if I were able to impress God with a little bit of faith, He would eventually give me comfort and leisure so I wouldn’t need faith. Seems logical, right? God would certainly reward us a lot if we gave Him a little? Isn’t faith able to move mountains?

I know it is, but the problem is the faith I had two years ago doesn’t get automatically credited to my life today. Isn’t Simon Peter’s short venture on the water a good illustration that a little bit of faith a while ago doesn’t make up for a lack of faith right now?

But for some reason, I figured the first step would be the hardest, and after that, well, there would be nothing to worry about. Once I turned my back on worldly comforts and $60,000-a-year jobs, the rest would be Easy Street – a lovely stroll with God through life.

Maybe other people assume that’s how it is for ministers. There life is relatively clear and lack constant significant decisions that face the rest of humanity. Heck, maybe it really is that way for other ministers. I just know it’s not that way for me.

As I’ve stepped away from the white walls and lofty heights of seminary, I’ve realized even a Master of Divinity degree is unable to make faith easy. The same uncertainties persist; the same dangers await. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to state living by faith gets infinitely harder, not infinitely easier. That was the case Bunyan made in “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” was it not?

I’ll have to ask Anna – tomorrow, of course. The night has come. Anna rests, and I should too.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

The King has spoken

Just a quote I came across in a book I'm reading:

"I said to the man at the gate of the Year - 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' And he replied, 'Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way." - King George VI


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Cowboy's Prayer

Lord, I've never lived where churches grow.
I loved creation better as it stood
that day you finished it so long ago,
and looked upon your work and called it good.

I know that others find you in the light
that sifted down through tinted window panes,
and yet I seem to feel you near tonight -
in this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.

I thank you, Lord, that I'm placed so well
that you've made my freedom so complete
that I'm no slave to whistle, clock or bell,
nor weak eyed prisoner of Waller Street.

Just let me live my life as I've begun,
and give me work that's open to the sky.
Make me a partner of the wind and sun,
and I won't ask a life that's soft or high.

Let me be easy on the man that's down;
let me be square and generous with all.
I'm careless sometimes, Lord, when I'm in town.
But never let them say I'm mean or small.

Make me as big and open as the plains,
and honest as the horse between my knees -
clean as a wind that blows behind the rains,
free as the hawk that circles down the breeze.

Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget;
you know about the reasons that are hid.
You understand the things that gall or fret;
well, you knew me better than my mother did.

Just keep an eye on all that's done or said,
and right me sometimes when I turn aside.
And guide me on that long, dim trail ahead
that stretched upward toward the great divide

Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie.
These words came low and mournfully
from the pallid lips of a youth who lay
on his dying bed at the close of day.

Oh, bury me not and his voice failed there;
but we took no heed to his dying prayer.
In a shallow grave - just six by three -
we buried him there on the lone prairie.

-Johnny Cash

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Phoenix in California

Anna and I went to a tour of Arcadia Methodist Hospital last night - the place where we're going to have our baby. It's actually the hospital where I did my chaplaincy internship, which gives me an added boost of confidencee. The hospital recently opened their new labor and delivery area, which I was able to see when I was there. The coolest part about the new wing is that everything is set-up to keep the baby with us even after the delivery (one of our big wishes). But, last night we were treated to another great surprise. The labor and delivery area has an outside garden where you can walk around in the great SoCal air. But I had already seen this area. What I didn't realize is that the Phoenix family has provided a large sum of cash to fund the garden area, and they are naming it the River Phoenix garden. Ah, to think that Joaquin Phoenix's cash from Cash is touching our lives in some (very) indirect and loose manner.

And to top it all off, we also won a free stroller from Arcadia.


Sunday, February 05, 2006

Wait and Hope

My mother-in-law asked me this weekend if I felt “God was silent” in regards to our current situation. Her question got right to the heart of me and caused a brief cathartic moment. The backdrop to her question is our desire to find a place to call home, or, more specifically, my search for a job. To date, there isn’t much to report; I’ve yet to have a conversation with any church, which means the chances are slim we’ll know where we’re headed when our baby arrives come April.

Now, I’ve dealt with uncertainty before and usually it doesn’t bother me. Shoot, Anna and I drove out to Pasadena two weeks after getting married without any definite place to sleep – nor did we have an apartment set up. But the reality of a “baby on the way” automatically brings up all kinds of insecurities and a desperate need to have things settled. Which brings us back to the question of whether or not God is silent or unconcerned about us.

Well, I thought honestly about our situation. My first inclination was to answer, “yes,” because I couldn’t immediately call to mind God giving a clear sign – written in the sky above. But, the more I thought, the more I realized God hasn’t been silent; God’s been patient. The more I look at what’s going on around me, the more I see God has given daily bread – a small measure of grace here to lift us through a week or a transitory job to carry us through a month.

I was completely reassured of God’s patience this morning at a topical class at church. We were looking at Mark, chapter one, and specifically at instances of Jesus healing people of illness and casting out demons. We got to talking about Jesus commanding demons not to tell anyone of who He was, which begged the reasonable question, “Why would Jesus not want people to know about Him?” I’m not sure what the commentaries or biblical scholars say, but our inquisitive minds eventually settled up this answer: Jesus was patient; demons and Satan are not.

And the more I got to thinking about this trend, the more I realized that the Bible is saturated with God’s patience and, conversely, with demonic impatience. Almost everytime (perhaps everytime) the devil appears, the goal is to force God’s hand, to hurry up God’s timetable. Satan knows who Jesus is, but Satan’s error is trying to hurry up Jesus’ ministry. It’s not that the devil is proposing wrong solutions; the devil is just proposing the right solution at the wrong time.

That’s why the devil is so seductive (as Anna just said), and that’s why we, as humans, so frequently take the devil’s bait. I think it can be confidently said that many sins are committed because people get tired of waiting for God to act. The lives of the Israelites are plagued with the sin of “let’s act because God isn’t acting fast enough.” Idols were made to worship before Moses could tell the people how to truly worship, Israelites buy into the success of other peoples because they grow tired of waiting for God to give them success.

Or, just as dangerous as trying to act for God is a second grave danger: making God answer our demands and destroy our every fear. As an illustration of this wayward trend, Pastor Tony found himself watching a TBN program the other evening and was struck to hear pastors praying for God to “reveal” or “prove” Godself by answering needs … for money or healing or whatever. He pointed out the disturbing similarity between such “prayers” and the very words of Satan’s temptation in the desert when he beseeched Jesus to prove who He was. And as Tony pointed this out, I was forced back into my contemplation: is God silent or is God patient? Or, perhaps a more striking question, “Am I still concerned about serving God or have I begun to assume God will serve me. A slippery slope from discipleship to paganism this road is.

Faith is so often a cultivation of waiting and hoping. This is what I’m trying to remind myself as I continue to wait and hope for God to act. It’s not easy, and I’m not saying I do it well. Not even Jesus did it without great consternation while suffering tremendous stress. But, I’m thankful that Jesus did do it and that He was patient enough to wait on God. May my attitude be like that of Christ Jesus; may yours be as well.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

New Addition to the Family

All hail the sphere! Ah, we've made a new addition to our home, and not just any basic shape would do - not cube, nor triange ... not cone, nor trapezoid. Nope, only a spherical ball affectionally called "temporary seat/birthing ball/future rocking chair/modern piece of art/design" will do.

We picked the ball up tonight at our Bradley method class, which we have been taking for the last four weeks. [Backstory: Bradley method is a delivery theory which encourages natural childbirth and husband coaching throughout labor]. One of the big tips our Bradley instructor has given us is to use movement and adjusting positions throughout labor to ease the pain. She said the ball facilitates this, and to help us understand the benefits of the ball our instructor had all of the women sit on it tonight. That sold Anna. I was a push-over from there.

And when we got home we realized the other great use for the ball: a chair. [Backstory: over the last week yet another of our chairs has lost a leg - actually this one just started to lean a little too heavily to the right until yesterday it just collapsed.] So here I sit writing a little, listening to music and bouncing on the ball with gyriating motions. I can already feel my hips loosening up - returning to their pre-9-to-5-in-a-chair routine.

The ball also helps fill up space in our rather barren apartment. [Backstory: over the last month, we've done some serious cleaning and clearing as we get ready for the baby. I guess our first stage of nesting has been a complete rehaul of sorts - taking our apartment back down to its foundation so we can properly organize and set-up our home. Our apartment definitely feels less cluttered. But ... the cleaning definitely took a toll on us this past Saturday. About the time I had the mattress off to one side of our bedrood, our box springs leaning against another wall, boxes all over the floor and the vacuum going, I knew we had committed ourselves to way TOO MUCH for an easy Saturday. By the end of it all, we were both drained, crabby and, yet, also thankful to have cleared that hurdle. Best of all, we could breathe so much more easily since we got rid of all the dust in our bedroom. And I'm not talking about the normal "wipe your finger across the shelf and get a trace of dust on your finger." No, the dust build-up in SoCal is incredible, indescribable really. Let's just say the dust bunnies were akin to the rabbit in Monty Python's Holy Grail: "dynamite!"]

Anyhow, we're glad to have the ball in our home. Just a small addition to our family as we wait and prepare for the next big thing, err ... I mean the next small baby, which will be the big thing.