Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Joy To The World

Another repost, and possibly my last before the season hits full-force. So be it. This year, I doubt I could have written this, but I still believe it, so I will say it again. I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and every blessing in the New Year - Cricket

Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing. So goes the refrain. Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation. Gloria in excelsis Deo. The songs are familiar, perhaps too familiar. We sing them without thinking. We hear angelic choirs and forget that this is only half of the story. Certainly the Holy Family were unique, but we will miss the meaning of Christmas if we forget that, in so many ways, they were so ordinary.

I think of Mary and picture my mother. I was born two months early, while my parents were traveling. That was more than forty years ago, yet I can still hear anxiety in my mother's voice when she speaks of it. My wife and I awaited our own children with hope and joy, but also with nervousness, even a little fear. How could it be otherwise? Imagine Mary, perhaps sixteen years old, feeling the first pains of labor, far from home.

I think of Joseph, knowing that he needs to find a place for his young wife, and picture my father. He is lost in a strange city, looking for the hospital. He doesn't know that, in that place, North Main Street runs parallel to Main Street. My mother waits in the car while he stops at an all-night laundromat for directions. Perhaps he trusted in the Lord to help us. I doubt he found much relief in the moment, though.

So often we picture baby Jesus as a symbol from a medieval painting: a miniature adult, hands raised in benediction, but it was not like that. Put that image aside and picture instead a real newborn. His eyes are closed. His hands are tiny. He grasps your finger and squeezes. He is warm and soft. He is completely helpless.

See Mary bring him close to her face. She glows, not with the gilded halo of an artist's brush, but with the soft radiance of a new mother. Her brow shines with sweat. She is tired. Joseph sits nearby. He is not caught up in some mystic vision. He is fascinated by the miracle of new life in Mary's arms. They are at peace. A child is born and all is well. They do not know how the story ends.


Most of us know what it is like to prepare for a newborn. We shop, we paint, we set up a crib. Perhaps we are showered with gifts. Each passing generation seems to need more things for its children. Certainly, the marketers would have it so. They would love us to forget that things really matter very little. After all, babies have been born for thousands of years under all sorts of circumstances. Most of them did just fine, with or without things. A baby born in the African bush a thousand years ago was no different from one born in City Hospital yesterday.

It is actually rather easy to prepare the things a baby needs. Keeping a baby warm, dry and fed covers quite a bit, no matter what the retailers say. It is far harder to prepare room in your heart. That is what truly matters: to receive a child into the world with as much love as you can find. Not the child you imagined, but the real one. This is difficult. Real babies are demanding. They disrupt our lives. They call us when we do not expect. We are not even sure what they want of us sometimes. Yet we are called to love them, to serve them, to find more love than we ever thought we had and give it to them. Real love is not something out of a storybook. Real love is hard, but it is the only path to joy.


St. John tells us that God is love. Of course, God could only be real love, for God is also truth. Real love is hard. It is not some vague, warm feeling of good-will. It makes demands on us. It calls us to go beyond ourselves. Real love requires us to show love, to act in a loving way, regardless of how we feel. Mother Teresa said the fruit of love is service. This is how we may know our love is real, by its fruits.

It is a mistake to picture the Holy Family in supernatural serenity. It takes nothing away from them to give them their full humanity. We know how the story ends. The Christ who was not spared the Agony almost certainly cried in the manger. All babies cry. Yet, for most of us, this cry calls us to love them more.

Picture the Christ-child once more. The squeezed-shut eyes, the wispy hair, that peculiar baby-sweet scent. The tiny hands and tinier fingers. Feel the bird-light ribs and too-fast heartbeat. This is what it was. This is how he chose to appear. Truly, the baby in the manger is a far greater wonder than angels in the sky. Of course there was no room at the inn. He who was sent to be joy to the world was rejected by the world from the beginning. There could never be room at the inn for him. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing. Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Respectfully Yours,


Friday, December 17, 2010

Thy Vast Domain

1845 - 1918

Infinite, Thy vast domain; Everlasting is Thy reign.
Holy God, We Praise Thy Name

To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.
William Blake

I see it, but I don't believe it.
Georg Cantor


Faith is where you find it. Let me show you where I find some of mine. It won't take long. Come with me to the place where mathematics, philosophy, and religion meet. But first, a question or two....

Consider the set of natural numbers: {1,2,3,4,5...}
Now consider the same set, less the number 1: {2,3,4,5...}
Is this new set smaller?

The set of all numbers between 0 and 1 is an infinite set.
The set of all numbers between 0 and 2 is also an infinite set.
Is this set twice as large?

Does infinity exist?

How big is it?

Does infinity come in different "sizes?"

Think about these for a bit before you read on.


Answers: no, no, yes, BIG, yes.


Georg Cantor, the father of set theory, was a fascinating man. He made a life's work out of exploring the infinite, with many surprising results. His proofs are remarkably simple to follow, considering. The mark of his genius was in seeing the way to demonstrate his assertions. Rather than reproduce his work here, let me tell you what I learned from it.

Say I had a bunch of balloons and a group of children. How could I know if I had one balloon for each child? Well, I could count the balloons and the children. That would work. Or, I could just give one balloon to each child. If, at the end, I had no balloons or children left over, then I had exactly enough. The two sets were equal. That is a one-to-one correspondence.

To compare infinite sets, we attempt to set up a one-to-one correspondence between them. If this can be shown to exist, we say the sets have the same cardinality. If it does not exist, they do not. With me? Here are some interesting conclusions:

Any line segment contains the same number of points. In fact, any line segment, of any size, contains the same number of points as the entire number line!

The infinite plane has the same cardinality as the number line. Adding a second dimension does not make the set larger.

In fact, adding any number of dimensions does not make the set larger!

The natural numbers {1,2,3,4,5...} are a countable set. There are an infinite number of them, of course, yet they can be, in Cantor's term, denumerated. Rational numbers: quotients of two integers of the form p/q, where p and q share no common factors, are also a countable set.

Cantor showed that there are as many rational numbers as natural numbers. The sets have the same cardinality. Doesn't this seem strange?

In fact, there are many correspondences which seem counterintuitive, for example:

There are as many even numbers as natural numbers.

There are as many perfect squares as natural numbers.

Isn't this odd? We can exclude half the set of natural numbers and still have a subset the same size? We can exclude almost all of the set and still have a subset the same size? Interesting, no? It gets better, though.

Bear with me for a minute and trust me on this: For a finite set n, we will define its power set, P(n), as the set of all its possible subsets. A set containing n elements will have 2n elements in its power set. For example: let n = {a,b,c}; then P(n) = { {}{a} {b} {c} {a,b} {a,c} {b,c} {a,b,c,}}. 23 = 8 elements. See?

Cantor proved that this holds true in all cases: the power set P(n) is strictly greater than the original set, even if the original set is infinite! What can this mean?

What it means is there are an infinite number of infinities, each infinitely greater than the last. Let's call the set of natural numbers N. Then P(N) is infinitely greater, P(P(N) greater still, P(P(P(N) even greater than that. And so on into the night.

Wow. Whoa. And ouch. Does your brain hurt yet?

One last thing: The set of natural numbers is a countable set. Cantor showed, in his diagonalization proof, that the set of real numbers is an uncountable set, infinitely greater than the set of natural numbers. The cardinality of the continuum is the same over any interval, however small. If you choose any number, there is no next number. No matter what second number I choose, there is always another one closer: infinitely, and always. And this is just the beginning.

Isn't that beautiful?


I think all of this is incredibly beautiful and comforting. The infinite most certainly exists, yet it exists in very special ways. Cantor himself was a devout Lutheran, who saw his work as a message to the world from God. I don't think he was far off. If an apostle is a messenger, then he was an apostle of sorts. He held infinity in the palm of his hand and could not believe what he saw there. Was it God? No, I don't believe so; but I believe he saw God's fingerprints.

Faith is where you find it and Scriptures abound.

Respectfully Yours,


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Porcupine's Picks

I love Thanksgiving without reservation. Christmas is more of a mixed bag for me. Not that I don't like it, I do. I just wish there were a whole lot less of it. I mean, I don't know anyone who has a Thanksgiving dinner the week before, or the day after. Maybe that happens but not in my world.

But right about this time every year, I start feeling like Christmas will never end. And it hasn't even started yet. And there it is.

So, if you're feeling as I am, or if you just need a laugh, here are some of my Christmas favorites: five songs and a video that, if they don't exactly put me in the proper Christmas spirit, at least help put a grin back on my face so I can fake it for one more gathering.


I'm Gettin' Nuttin' For Christmas: The first song I was aware of written specifically for us naughty children.

Run, Rudolph, Run: The definitive version, by Mr. Keith Richards. Nothing says Christmas like Keith: that rough-but-right voice and Telecaster turned up to brain damage? Can I get an Amen? I said can I get an Amen?

Father Christmas: A favorite of city kids everywhere. Save all your toys for the little rich boys.

Fairytale of New York: It was Christmas Eve in the drunk tank - and it just gets better. Happy Christmas yer arse!

It has come to my attention that some of you have never heard Mr Mojo's Christmas, by The Wise Men. This is completely unacceptable. If you've never heard this, you must click now. In fact, if you click only one link from this post, it must be THIS ONE. Really. If you don't laugh there's something wrong with you. Seek professional help.

I will admit, privately, that I have a soft spot for Rudolph and the Misfit Toys. I will even admit (whisper it quietly) that I own a stuffed Spotted Elephant. I will even go so far as to admit that I once watched the entire show just to attempt to settle with a friend of mine the question of what was misfit about the doll. So there's that.

Even so, here is what I consider to be a true Christmas masterpiece: Raging Rudolph, from MAD-TV. If you've never seen this... well, I won't spoil it. Just remember, kids, the moral of the story is "Keep your freakin' mouth shut!"


And there you have it: some of my personal Christmas favorites for when the mood fails me. I hope you enjoy them and, if not, at least we've increased our level of intimacy. There's always that. So until next time, I remain

Very Truly Yours,



Thursday, December 9, 2010

Not Feeling It

One of my favorites, from the late, great, Charles Addams, who was about so much more than Halloween. If ever there was an image that deserved its own Christmas card, this is it.


"The little dears! They still believe in Santa Claus!"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Two Coats

As the Christmas whirlwind begins to swallow me up, and as writing is left aside for the moment, I offer you this repost which, by his example, my swell pal Suldog assures me is all right. After all, we do tell our best stories more than once. - Cricket

We were just rich enough that we were not poor. By strict economy, my parents managed to keep us all clothed, sheltered and fed. The clothes may not have always been the exact ones we wanted. My mother often concocted meals based on whatever was left in the pantry. We sometimes wished the roof over our heads was a bit bigger. We did not live a life free from want. Still, we were mostly free from need.

Our neighborhood was safe, at least compared to the next one over. I learned to watch my back but I never slept in the tub. That counts. My mother seems to remember the whole experience as being worse than it was. I'm not sure why. To me, it was just ordinary. All my friends lived similar lives. There was rarely extra but there was usually enough. I look back on it without nostalgia or resentment. It was what it was. Ordinary.

Sometimes it is strange what we remember. I liked Christmas as most children do. Still, much of my memory is a pine-scented blur of trees and lights, punctuated by random moments of clarity. You might think I would remember going to see Santa, setting out milk and cookies, waking up to find that one longed-for present under the tree, but I don't. This all happened, I'm sure of that. I remember that it happened, I just don't remember doing it.

There were presents, of course. I had toys. I just don't remember specifically asking for and receiving any. There is one toy I remember Santa bringing. It was a glorious red, pedal-powered fire engine with wooden ladders on the sides, a pull-string bell, and a working light. Even though I had just turned three, I remember waking to find that. I didn't ask for it, though. Santa had chosen it for me all by himself, with wisdom and love.

No, the gifts I remember make an odd assortment. A puzzle given to me by my great-aunt that came in a can, not a box. A football helmet that was far less protective than I had hoped for the incredibly violent version of the game played in my neighborhood. Neatly wrapped packages of clothing from my aunt, who always hid candies and other treats in the folds.

I always felt a little guilty about the clothes. They were obviously chosen with care. The adults made such a fuss over them. I should have been more grateful, yet I was not. Christmas was about toys and sweets. It was a divinely revealed rule of childhood. Children do not want clothes for Christmas.


My mother is a sensitive soul. Whatever charity is in my heart comes largely from her. She has always given herself to those who need her most: the poor, the troubled, the dying. She is not well-suited for this work. She cares far too deeply. She makes their grief her own. As a boy, I could always tell by her eyes when one of her patients had died. If it were my choice, I would have her teaching kindergarten, surrounded by light, joy, and laughing children. It is not my choice, though. She is called to something else.

One morning, my mother called my sisters and me to the kitchen table. She had a proposal for us. I know Who inspired it, though I'm not sure how. She asked us if we would try something different that Christmas: if we would give our presents to a more needy child. She left us to think it over. Now, even at that age, we knew there would still be presents for us that year, just perhaps one less. After a short debate, we decided that would be all right.

My mother contacted a friend from nursing school to arrange it. Sister Julie said she would find three children like us and send their Christmas wishes. One day, three cards arrived. I remember mine quite clearly. On the front was a picture of the Nativity. Inside, Sister Julie wrote that she had found a boy my age who needed a present this year. His name was Julian.

He wanted a coat.

There were no further instructions. He didn't want a New England Patriots coat. He didn't want a bomber jacket or a pea coat. Just a coat. A winter coat. Size 8.

My own coat was gray-green wool with wooden toggles. I loved the toggles. My grandmother had known I would love the toggles when she bought it for me. She said so. The coat was not new, but it had been chosen for me with love, and it was warm. Winter in New England is cold. It didn't take long for me to realize that any child who wanted a winter coat for Christmas didn't really want it, he needed it. Children do not want clothes for Christmas.


I don't remember much else about that Christmas. My mother bought a suitable coat and let me give it my approval. The coat was wrapped and delivered. Christmas came and went in a blur of trees and lights. I'm sure there were presents, though I don't remember what they were. Perhaps I appreciated the clothes a little more that year, though I couldn't swear to that. Children do not want clothes for Christmas.

My coat seemed a bit warmer that winter, though. Each time I put it on, I thought of Julian, and hoped he liked his coat as much as I liked mine. I hoped he was warm. I hoped he would not want clothes next Christmas. I hoped that his life could be ordinary too.

I don't remember what presents I got that year, but I know the gift I received. Whatever charity is in my heart came to me from my mother, right then. That was the gift that mattered. That gift I remember. I still think of Julian whenever I pull my coat around me on a cold winter day. I hope he is warm. And I pray for a day when no children ever want clothes for Christmas.

Respectfully Yours,


Monday, November 22, 2010

The Divine Slaw

I'm not much of a recipe person. I learned to cook from my Nana, who measured things in pinches, dashes, and splashes. A dollop of this, a knob of that: it was very much a watch-and-learn experience. Still, before we leave the subject, I thought I might share my philosophy of slaw, along with a few recipes.

I was probably eight or nine before I found out it wasn't "cold slaw." Well, it was served cold, you see? So that's important - cole slaw should be cold slaw. That's for starters. Also, if you want to avoid the Slaw of Averages, you would do well to heed Murphy's Slaw, which states:

Don't put so much dressing on, for Lord's sake!

So there's that, as well.

We should always keep in mind that the slaw is there to complement the main course. If the ribs are James Brown, the slaw is Maceo Parker. See? The best slaws are simple, and allow the main course to shine. Cole slaw is a team player, which stands out by contrast. Less is more.

If you feel the slaw needs some dressing up, you might consider cosmetic adjustments, before you get too creative with it: a mix of red and green cabbage, or a red onion in place of a white. Even a sprinkle of fresh parsley might do the job, and show that you put your heart into it without altering the basic flavor. Think pearls with the black dress, or matching tie and handkerchief.

Or, fine... go ahead and load it up with jalapeƱo peppers, or walnuts, or pineapples, but don't say you weren't warned.


Basic Slaw Mix

1/2 green cabbage, cored and shredded
1/4 red cabbage, cored and shredded
1 chopped onion
1 large carrot, coarse-grated, shredded, julienned or what-have-you

It is my firm belief that cabbages should be shredded, with a knife. You shave the cabbage. My personal preference is to have the shreds no more than 2mm thick. I use a long, flexible "T.V. Knife," which I inherited, for this. Use your own judgement here. The mix of cabbage is also up to you: all green, all red, or a blend of the two will work. I choose based on appearance, and also, what I happen to have lying around. That's a factor too.


Slaw Dressing #1

1/2 cup horseradish sauce
1/2 cup mayonnaise
A splash of oil
Tablespoon Sugar

When using this dressing, put about half on the slaw mix, toss, and chill for two hours. Then check and see if it needs more. Add dressing to taste: remember Murphy's Slaw. You can vary the proportion of horseradish depending on how much you like it. I have made it with almost all horseradish for use on corned beef sandwiches or hot dogs. A bit of prepared wasabi can give it a little extra "nose" as well. Your mileage may vary.


Slaw Dressing #2

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vinegar
Splash of oil
Pinch of salt
Celery seeds, to taste


Slaw Dressing #3

2/3 cup ketchup
1/3 cup cider or wine vinegar
Splash of oil
Pinch of salt
Tablespoon sugar
Celery seeds, to taste

When using these dressings, toss with slaw mix, chill for two hours, then toss again, pour off the excess, and chill. The excess can be saved and reused, should you care to.

There is nothing fancy here, which is as it should be. Slaw should be simple: fresh veggies, tossed with a simple dressing: tossed with, not swimming in. I have made all three of these many times and guarantee one thing: people eat them. That's something.


The following slaw is a meal in itself.
It breaks all the above rules, which just goes to show you.

Asian Slaw

To the basic slaw mix, add any or all of the following:

sliced grilled pork
sliced grilled chicken
sliced surimi
cooked shrimp
fried tofu
sliced red or green bell peppers
cilantro or fresh basil or fresh mint
crushed peanuts

Toss the lot with Pad Thai sauce. I just buy a couple of containers from the local Thai place. They usually charge me a dollar for two or three, which is plenty. Chill. Top with chopped scallions before serving. Serve with Sriracha if you like. I like.

And there you have it. Just in time for Thanksgiving leftovers. Need I remind you that cole slaw goes really well with a turkey club sandwich? I think not. Now we are all equal before the slaw. You can thank me later. Enjoy.

And go easy on the dressing, for Lord's sake.

Very Truly Yours,