The Hawk That Swoops…

Should be “On High”:

Instead, I got a hawk that swoops low over the airport fence by the bike path:

© 2008 Tony Coomer

Courtesy Prince William Conservation Alliance:

I couldn’t swear to it, but I’m pretty sure one of these guys nearly divebombed me this morning.  I was too busy trying to avoid wiping out from overcorrecting to really get a good look beyond, “looks hawk-shaped.”  Must be migration season.


Finally Fall

The temperature has caught up to the calendar at last, and finally feels like fall.  We had a good couple of weeks of Indian Summer, but all of a sudden fall crept in.  You could sort of tell on Thursday, when felt warmer in the morning than in the afternoon, then Friday got cooler, and this weekend was just glorious.  Good thing, too, since Yakum and Ikinji had track meets, so we got to revel in the crisp air and honey-like sunlight.

One of the challengs of the time of year the angle of the sun.  My morning commute takes me on a route with a small section where the sun is directly in your eyes at this time of year.  Nothing to do but keep on powering up the hill and hope no one is coming down.   Also, with our church being built so that we face compass east, not just liturgical ad orientem, the sunlight can be a bit brutal coming in through the stained glass windows above the altar.  Nothing to do in that case but close your eyes and let the liturgy carry you along.

Another challenge is the potential resurgence of fleas.  Benson has been scratching a little suspiciously recently, so I bought some Hartz anti-flea medication.  I tried to dose both cats last night, but Benson scooted away before I could get the full dose on him.  Lavash, on the other hand, got her full dose, but it seems to have made lots of her fur come out where I put the medication.  Now, she was shedding a lot before, but this is clumps of fur, so I suspect a connection.  It hasn’t all come out, so no bald patch yet, but I think one might develop.

But, in spite of those challenges, and the steadily-decreasing amount of daylight, fall is glorious.  Cooler weather, rustling leaves, and languid sunlight the color and thickness of honey getting us ready for a long, dark winter before the frenzied growth of spring and long, lucid days of summer which lead back into the glories of fall.

The Amateur Catechist–Year Two

In spite of an inscrutable schedule change (from Sunday between two of the masses to Wednesday evening (well, given that they added a mass, and there were concerns about parking and traffic, maybe not so inscrutable)), I’m back for a second year of teaching catechism to children who are preparing to be received into the Catholic church this Easter.  In most things the parish has good sense; why they keep me around as a teacher remains beyond my ken (well…maybe the fact that they’re in desperate need of teachers (ref. schedule change mentioned above) explains part of it), but I’m making the most of it and will do my utmost to get them ready.

This year’s class is mainly fifth graders, but a few other grades thrown in as well.  We’ve only had two sessions, so the class size hasn’t really stabilized yet.  I won’t be surprised to pick up at least one or two more before mid-October.  They come from several different schools, and, of course, have different levels of comprehension, literacy, and motivation.  Actually, this year’s class seems a little more motivated than last years, or at least they’re doing a better job of pretending.  They might be slightly more mature, too, which will help.

The first week, of course, was laying out the goals of the class, as well as expectations, their key assignments (chosing a patron saint and writing a report), and the like.  I also got to touch, very briefly, on the Trinity.  We’ll be hitting that topic repeatedly, I think, since their ideas on the Trinity were a little fuzzy.

Last week I started working on my (very rough) course outline by introducing the Apostle’s Creed.  Last year we waited until half way through the course to broach the Apostles Creed, even though it’s a prayer that they are supposed to know.  My thought this year is to go through it line by line and unpack the theological and doctrinal themes contained therein in an effort to build an understanding of the prayer, not just knowing the words.  It should, in theory, help them remember it if they know the meaning of what they say.  Also, since October is the month of the rosary, we’ll have a natural opportunity to use the Apostle’s Creed each class for the month (it being the very first prayer in the rosary), which should aid in memorization.

We’re about half way through, having spent a while on the meaning of “God, the Father almighty” [omnipotent, always-being, all good, all perfect…, to include my rant about not having a proper verb tense in English to describe the extratemporal nature of God] and “creator of heaven and earth” [and everything else out of absolutely nothing].  We got to the mystery of the incarnation (I love seeing the lights go on when you explain that the Annunciation happens nine months before Christmas), and ran out of time.  Next week is the death and resurrection, along with judgement, then the Holy Spirit [one line is all He gets in this Creed, which will be interesting to unpack] and all the rest.

My two biggest challenges are going over their heads and going down rabbit holes.  I have warned them, repeatedly, that I’ll do my best to explain as clearly as I can, but that I do tend to aim pretty high with the explanations.  They are perfectly welcome, and encouraged, to ask questions to make sure they followed the explanations (Hmmm…I’ll have to reiterate that this week, and underscore that I’m there for them, not to hear myself speak), but I need to remind myself to watch their faces to see where they get lost.  Still, I want to convey the idea that understanding of the basic tenents of the faith is well within their grasp, even when the themes or ideas are complex and deep.

Also, I just need to watch out for rabbit holes and diversions that get me off track, no matter how personally fascinating they are.

So, if you have it in you, say a quick prayer for me (that I not mislead or confuse anyone), but most especially for the students as they prepare for their sacraments at Easter.

The Cats, They are Crazy

This will not come as a surprise to anyone who lives with cats, but my cats are officially crazy.  It might be the turn towards fall, interrupted by Indian Summer the past two days, or the recent CMEs from the sun, or something else, but Benson and Lavash are acting even crazier than usual.  Cases in point:

For the past couple of weeks, Lavash has been crouched by the stove, waiting as if there were a mouse under there.  Usually I’d believe her because 1) we’ve had mice before, 2) she’s a really good hunter, and 3) I’ve seen a mouse outside among the pumpkin leaves that took over the back yard.  In this case, though, either she’s imagining things or the mouse is really sneaky.  I’ve removed drawer from under the stove a couple of times, leaving it out over night, but no mouse has shown up–alive or dead.

Today, I was snapping the ends off green beans and both Benson and Lavash were staring at the beans much the way Lavash does when she thinks there’s a mouse to catch.  I took a split-second glance away from the beans and, sure enough, Benson snatched one out of the bowl.  He triumphantly carried it off to snack on it under the table.

We also had corn on the cob with dinner.  Ikinji recently lost both his front teeth, and the adult teeth haven’t come in yet, so I had to cut the kernels off for him.  I thought I could leave the cob in the sink to take care of after dinner, but Lavash decided she wanted to try and carry it out of the sink and chew on it instead.  I managed to get it before she hauled it off to make a mess somewhere.  Then, when a second cob was finished and wound up in the sink, both cats were right there fighting over it.  That was really rather amusing to see.

So yep, the cats, they are crazy.  Hopefully it’s a passing thing and they’ll settle back into their lazy, napping selves after the season finishes changing over.  I’m not sure I can take too much more of this highly erratic feline behavior.

September Birthday: Dump Truck Cake

Ikinji wanted a dump truck for his birthday this year.  It’s sort of a repeat, since I did one for his third birthday.  This was much smaller (fewer anticipated guests), and came together very quickly.

I doubled Smitten Kitchen’s Everyday Chocolate Cake recipe, and made one full-sized loaf, 12 cupcakes, and about one quarter of another loaf.  Turned out I only needed one loaf pan worth of cake to make the truck.  Some of the cupcakes got eaten at the celebration, but weren’t actually needed.

The wheels were cut out from one of the thin scraps left from squaring up the loaf.  Supports under the truck body, also cut from scraps, do double duty as a place for the wheels to lean as well as getting the body of the truck off the round. 

The icing is a slight variation on the Fast and Easy Cream Cheese Icing from Serious Eats.  I doubled the recipe, and used half cream cheese and half mascarpone to make it more like the icing on a Whole Foods chantilly cake (which I tried for the first time while we were on vacation in Colorado and celebrated a few birthdays there).  This turned out somewhat softer than the target recipe, probably because I used granulated, rather than powdered sugar.  I likely could have thickened it up with some corn starch, but it came together pretty well, and held its shape even when room temperature, so no complaints there. 

The icing job is a little imprecise since it was so soft, but I’m pretty OK with how it came out.  Ikinji was happy, too, so I think this was a success in both looks and taste.

A Homily Summary from the East

We made our annual visit to the Middle Eastern food festival put on by Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church in McLean.  This year, for a change, we attended Divine Liturgy, rather than just showing up for the festivities.  The church is beautiful, and we’ve enjoyed the tour in prior years; now it was time to experience the liturgy.

I am not really able to do a point-by-point comparison between the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; I’d do Divine Liturgy grave injustice because of all the things I just don’t know.  I was struck by a few things:  The Melkite chant tones are very easy to pick up.  If you know some of the psalms and have a general knowledge of how theologically sound prayers are structured, you can actually chant along for a good portion of it even without a book (with the words in front of you, it would have been very easy).  I was surprised that “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us” (a prayer used in the Divine Mercy chaplet) figures so prominently in the liturgy; it is apparently quite an ancient prayer.  Although I had a sense of the progression through the Liturgy, it is very difficult to say where one section ends and the next begins.  Sure, the Deacon (maybe Protodeacon?  Sorry, my knowledge of the Eastern hierarchy and roles in the liturgy is very slim) exits the sanctuary to intone prayers at several points, but it isn’t completely clear that those points correspond to a new segment.  It was impressive to see the congregation crowd around the lectern for the Gospel reading–almost a sense of “let me be as close as possible to the Word of God.”  Even though I had done a little research prior to attending, I’m sure we stuck out like sore thumbs, but it didn’t matter–it was Divine Liturgy, a slice of Paradise, and we were welcome to participate to the best of our ability (even if I did make the Sign of the Cross the Latin way more often than not).

The Pastor spoke very eloquently on the Gospel, which was the parable of the tenants from Matthew 21:33-46.  In essence, he said that we all know the surface meaning of the parable (the people of Israel had all they needed for salvation, but rejected it, including putting Jesus to death, so salvation came to all throughout the world), but that there is a deeper meaning to this, and all parables.  In this case, it hinges on the idea that Jesus’ followers answer at the end of the parable that the wicked tenants would meet a wretched end.  Jesus replies with the stone that the builders rejected line, which yes, refers to the obvious (Jesus), but also points to a new way of living, that of forgiveness.  In fact, Jesus put this on display when he, during his crucifixion, forgave those who killed him.  We are likewise called to live as shining examples of Christianity and forgive all, be welcoming, and entice others to Christ by our actions.  Now, this isn’t to downplay the fact that at the end of time the Father will mete out His justice; it’s that it isn’t our job to do that.  Instead, we need to bring people to Christ, now, so that they can experience His mercy.

A great homily to go along with a spectacular liturgy done right.  That, and a fantastic food festival to follow it all up.  Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.

The Joys of Duty

I’ve always been struck by the sheer joy that radiates from certain religious who are firm in their commitment to their vocation.  This joy comes from their complete surrender to God’s will, and the security that arises from knowing that He is in charge.  The Missionary Sisters of Charity in Liberia spring immediately to mind, as do the Dominicans I’ve run into here in the DC area–some of the happiest people you will ever meet.  Actually, this joy isn’t limited to those with an overtly religious calling; any person who is living out his or her vocation in its entirety experiences a similar joy.  This joy comes from doing one’s duty as a part of her or his calling.  Personally, I’ve rarely experienced it in my vocation as a father, but that’s because I try to be in control of too much, and do not trust God nearly enough.  I guess I have a hard time relinquishing control to anyone, even when the One who I should let be in control knows far better than I do what I need.

In recent meditation on the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary, I was struck by how you could rename this set of mysteries the “Dutiful Mysteries,” because each mystery can be examined through the lens of doing one’s proper duty to God and to others:

The Annunciation:  Mary responds positively to the Father’s call to be the mother of Jesus.  She agrees to do her duty in the history of salvation.  Remember, she could have rejected the message of the angel, but instead she gave her consent, surrendering her will to that of the Father.  This total abandonment is a model for us to follow.

The Visitation:  Mary, upon hearing that her older cousin was also pregnant, immediately goes to assist Elizabeth.  Mary could have stayed at home, but rather does her duty as a close relative to assist the older woman with the last few months of her pregnancy.  Mary goes to share the miraculous news, and shows us that doing one’s duty joyfully multiplies the joy and satisfaction.

The Nativity:  Lots of different layers on this one:  Jesus, true God, becomes true man to fulfill His duty as Redeemer, bring joy into the world by ending mankind’s exile.  Mary and Joseph dutifully go to Bethlehem because of the dual imperatives of the census and prophecy.  There, they experience the joy of the birth of our Lord, a joy shared by the angels with the shepherds and others.  Even though the journey must have been difficult, the end result is transcendently joyful.

The Presentation:  In this mystery, Mary and Joseph fulfill the duties of the Mosaic law by making sacrifice in the Temple for Jesus’ birth.  They go, as I must imagine all new parents did, with joy and thanksgiving.  Even so, they receive the prophecy that Jesus death will likewise pierce Mary’s heart, and also bring Simeon’s long wait for the Messiah to fulfillment.  We never know who we will impact when we do our duty, and what joy it will bring them.

The Finding in the Temple:  Again, the Holy Family is on pilgrimage, fulfilling a religious duty.  Only this time, Jesus stays behind in the temple, teaching and explaining scripture.  When he is found, His response is that He is in His Father’s house, doing the work He was sent to do.  He took the opportunity to perform his duty, bringing astonishment (and probably a great deal of joy) to the learned elders.  Mary and Joseph seem to have accepted this statement of Jesus’ duty with some wonder, augmented by the joy they felt at finding Him again (thereby fulfilling their parental duty).  Additionally, Jesus performed His filial duty to his Earthly parents by going back home with them and growing up in obscurity–the next we hear is the start of His public ministry.  For us, we will never know what opportunities will arise to fulfill the duties of our vocation, but should be ready to seize the moments when they arise.


Battle for the Garden

In the war between the rose and the mint, the unidentified gourd is winning.DSC05591

This pumpkin-type vine slang up volunteer in late spring.  We enjoyed fried squash blossoms a couple of times, and then it set fruit.  It’s definitely more pumpkin than crookneck, and the fruit are reminiscent of pie pumpkins, only a little bigger.

We haven’t harvested yet, although this one looks pretty close (yep, taking a calculated risk with the squirrels).  It will be interesting to see if it is even edible, since the squash family hybridizes freely, usually with less than palatable results.  If nothing else, we’ll get some nice jack-o’-lanterns out of it.

Gargoyle Cats

Benson and Lavash, doing their gargoyle impression on the table:


Cats:  on the lookout for dangerous (that is, any and all) foods.  It’s a tough job, but they’ll happily do it.

A Non-Rushed Birthday Cake

The rains a couple of weekends ago gave me the perfect opportunity to bake Yakum’s birthday cake without rushing.  

Yep, she just turned 10.  Wow, I feel old.

Initially, she thought she would want an angel food cake, but after my birthday, she decided she wanted a repeat of that flavor combination.  OK, we’ll call it mint-limeade, no problem.

Again, the cakes baked up beautifully:  two nine inch layers, and two six inch.  I used tapioca starch for the icing this time (instead of corn starch) which was…interesting.  Tapioca makes for a base that is more extensible and mucilaginous than the corn starch.  Yep, it was basically lime-flavored slime that tried to climb the beaters until enough butter had gotten worked in to counteract some of its stickier tendencies.  Also, since I was able to go slowly and put things in the refrigerator from time to time to keep them cool, it came together far more smoothly than I was expecting.

I could have done a slightly more even base coat, but I didn’t want to overdo the icing.  I tried to do a yellow line around the top edge of the larger layers (to go with the thick yellow rope at the bottom), but by that point the icing had almost completely melted and separated, but I had so little left I couldn’t re-beat it into shape, so the line had to come off…well, most of it (remember about the sticky tapioca starch base?  Yep, still sticky after the butter melts out).  The lettering is also off kilter a little (her name around the side of the six inch layers turned out great, though), but everyone was quite happy with the outcome.  Especially Yakum, which is what really matters.