Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Are you writing?

I may or may not be writing.
But I am drinking coffee.
Since I am retired, I spend a lot of time in coffee shops in order to get out of the house and be exposed to people and noise. I often run into former colleagues or students, and invariably the first thing they ask me is:

“Are you writing?”

I’ve lost count of how often I have been asked this question, and how many different people have asked it. I assume they are referring to a book, not a blog post. I guess I have carved out an identity as a writer! Not that I mind! I wish my answer to this query would be an unequivocal “Yes!” However, it is much more complicated.

It would be natural for people to assume that I would be writing. After all, I have three published books, and numerous writings in various journals and a chapter in another book. I am indeed working on a book; a memoir of my two-plus years as a conscientious objector in Honduras during the war in Vietnam and have several other projects in mind. I’ve completed seven chapters of my current book, but I’m stuck on what I consider to be my most important chapter; trying to discuss how the experience in Honduras deeply affected and transformed my faith and political understandings.  

The question that always follows the first one is, “So, what are you doing (if you’re not writing)?” This is where it gets complicated. Why does our culture continually demand that we be doing something? Why do I have to defend myself for sitting in a coffee shop observing human behavior and getting to know new people while sipping on a cup of Joe?

Nevertheless, there have been many things that keep occupying my time, but not so much as to turn me into a human doing rather than a human being (for more information on this subject, you could refer to something I did when I WAS writing: The Spacious Heart). This past fall (2018) I took a memorable trip to Germany to do further research on my ancestors (Clymer/Klemmer and Horst/Horsch). I met some incredible people during that trip and made some life-long German friends. After coming home, I spent a lot of time in EMU’s historical library and researching online to continue my pursuit of my past. I am more interested in the European side of my ancestry, and that has proven to be quite challenging. Yet, I continue researching other branches of my family and their origins in Europe.

Beginning in December and continuing into January, I did translation work for the German Mennonite Voluntary Service Agency located in Bammental, Germany, where I stayed for several days. This agency sends youth all over the world, and many want to go to an English-speaking country to improve their English skills. So, I translated their application forms, references, and first-person interviews from German into English. Challenging, but fun!

During this same time period I worked on a presentation for a weekend retreat that I gave in February to a Sunday school class. It was based on our book The Spacious Heart and was titled “Are you Driven by Culture or Drawn by God?” Though I did the sessions for free, they awarded me a generous gift certificate to one of my favorite coffee shops to help me with my habit. I obviously didn’t refuse. Did they know me, or what?

When my German-to-English translation work was over, I was contacted by Western District Conference of the Mennonite Church USA to translate a number of their documents from English to Spanish for upcoming meetings and a training session. I confess, it is much more difficult translating into a language that isn’t your native tongue than the other way around. Again, challenging, but fun! And all of which can be done in a coffee shop!

Now I am looking forward to teaching a class for OLLI at UVA called “Intercultural Communications,” a six-session course designed for adult learners, most of whom are more advanced in age than I. No grading, no papers to read, only holding forth on my accumulated wisdom from globe-trotting over the years. It will, however, take a good deal of time putting my presentations together.

In between these activities I’ve done a presentation for a cross-cultural group from EMU and will be doing another in the summer.

Am I writing? Well, yes, but not in the way you probably meant when you asked me the question. What am I doing? I hope I have adequately answered that question. Enough to keep me from getting bored, but not too much to stress me out. And always enough time for coffee and friends at local coffee shops.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Peanut Butter

Several days ago, I posted this meme on Facebook about peanut butter. Along with the photo, I said this: “The most US American part of me -- peanut butter! How many years have I been deprived of peanut butter by living abroad? I'd estimate 7!!! But now it is available in all those places.”

The post received so much response, that I thought I should write further about my journey with peanut butter. Needless to say, it is one of my favorite foods.

I grew up in a working-class family with 11 children. Because of the number of children, we had few luxuries, but there was always a plentiful supply of peanut butter. Our dessert usually consisted of one slice of bread folded over with peanut butter on one side and jam on the other. My siblings would tease me that I developed a system of holding the folded slice of bread in my palm to hide the number of slices I had consumed. I developed my love of peanut butter early on.

My first experience with no peanut butter came when I spent two-and-a-quarter years in Honduras as a volunteer. From time-to-time, family would visit other volunteers and bring along peanut butter, but it was usually guarded better than Fort Knox. The Bay Islands where I worked had many residents who had relatives in the USA, and sometimes they would bring peanut butter along on their visits, and knowing me, they kindly shared some. These opportunities were few and far between, so the craving for peanut butter only increased with these short-lived temptations. Of course, I never found peanut butter to be a good spread for the ubiquitous tortilla. I’m sure some US Americans would disagree with me.

My next experience without my favorite food was the year I spent in Switzerland and Germany learning the language and getting married. At the time, there was no peanut butter available in stores, so I just did without, although I remember a trip to Holland where peanut butter was served with breakfast. I was in heaven for the two mornings I was there. I almost thought I had married someone from the wrong country, especially since Menno Simons was Dutch. I wonder if peanut butter helped him write the first theological treatises for Mennonites?

Next, I was off to Mexico with my family for a three-year stint with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). They had peanut butter available in the large supermarket stores in Guadalajara, although in very small almost unamerican jars. However, that was a two-hour drive from where we lived, and we got there only about every two months. I had heard that some other innovative MCCers in other countries, starved for peanut butter, had made their own. Since there were plenty of wonderful peanuts available where we lived, we decided that was what we should do. It was a steep learning curve, and we burned out at least two blenders in the process. It took a lot of effort to be able to have my prized food available. Oh, the sacrifices for kingdom work.

After returning to the USA, we decided to spend summers with my wife’s family in Switzerland so that our children could get to know their Swiss relatives. We took peanut butter along. It was now available in stores in bigger cities, but they were far removed from where we lived and were not only expensive, but the jars were only big enough to load up a few slices of bread.

I tried to interest my relatives in this favorite staple of most US Americans. My mother-in-law was quite interested in this food that so beguiled her US American son-in-law, so rather than spreading it on a piece of bread she decided to taste a spoonful straight from the jar. By the expression on her face, it was clear that she found it less than tasty, but she smiled and lied how good it was. Wearing dentures didn’t help, the stickiness of the delightful cream stuck to the top of her denture and nearly caused them to fall out of her mouth. Needless to say, she didn’t try any more. Secretly I was glad; there would be more for my consumption during the months we were there, so long as I could keep it away from my children. Wasn’t hard since they were more interested in the Nutella which at the time we didn’t have at home.

My final international experience with this delightful nourishment of the gods was in Mexico. I was leading a group of 25 students on a study abroad program. We were hosted by a church in Mexico City and needed to pack a lunch for a day trip. Our hosts wanted to make “tortas” for our group, a Mexican specialty somewhat like submarines, but better, in my opinion. I had traveled with this group for nearly a month, and I knew that one student couldn’t eat this, and another one couldn’t eat that, along with a whole host of picky eaters. I told our hosts to simply make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; that it would be something everyone would eat, and little would be thrown away. Our hosts were disappointed but understanding.

We set up an assembly line and made some forty sandwiches with the main ingredient being the heavenly spread. True to form, four students requested sandwiches without jam, but NO ONE, requested a sandwich without peanut butter. There is probably no other food that defines US Americans better than peanut butter.

Most people think that George Washington Carver was the inventor of peanut butter. According to the linked website, he was not the inventor, but is known as the father of peanuts. It is appropriate to recognize this for the recent Black History Month.

Why is it that so few other peoples in the world eat peanut butter? Why do US Americans love peanut butter so much? Practically every other US American specialty; hamburgers, hot dogs, coca cola, etc., are found in every corner of the globe. Why not peanut butter?