In an earlier post, I revealed that I spent four-and-a-half years as Maine’s primary restaurant critic, filing an anonymous review weekly in the Sunday edition of Maine’s principle newspaper. I reviewed about 360 restaurants and ate about 750 professional meals in order to do it.
It’s fun to be paid to eat!
In that earlier post, I wrote about wine price mark-ups and about how to get the most bang for your wine-
buying buck in terms of quality.
See that post -- May 25, 2017, under this same post heading of LIFE. Just scroll down from where you are now.
Readers wrote asking me to follow up with other restaurant tips.
I’ll do these posts on the last Friday of each month…until I run out of things to say on the subject.
Read the menu. It’s like a book—fewer words, but each word, and the design, was picked by the restaurant’s owner, manager, and chef—for a purpose.
If you want to feel like a critic, it’s incumbent on you to read the restaurant’s book carefully and to notice as many clues as you can.
If you were a detective, and this was a murder story, you’d be doing the same thing.
With its menu, a restaurant announces its design style, its market niche, its concept of food preparation, its fiscal expectations, its marketing techniques and goals, where it wants to challenge itself and where it does not, and—most indicatively—its sense of its own importance.
So I go in. Almost always, I’m with someone else—the person who will be spoken of in the review as my companion (usually my wife Channa). I notice the general décor and the vibration, and I certainly notice how we are greeted and seated. Then I’m eager to encounter the culinary creativity behind this establishment—I read its menu.
My review will be based on the interaction of two judgments.
One, given the way the restaurant presented itself to me, what standard do I understand that it sets for itself?
Two, how well does it meet that standard?
(FYI, I’ve awarded more stars to a fried fish place on the beach that perfectly performed its fried fish menu than I have to a saute bistro in the mall whose Hollandaise sauce was stabilized with cornstarch and was certainly made by the gallon in mid-afternoon before the dinner rush began.
(And mine was not a prostitution column; I dealt sternly with some of our heaviest advertisers when I needed to, much to their objection! On two occasions heavy advertisers tried to have me fired; didn’t work.)
Concerning its menu—what is this restaurant saying to me?
For example, these two items, from different menus, are exactly the same food.
Grilled sirloin with Bearnaise, $18.95.
USDA Prime New York Strip Sirloin, Grilled to Perfection, Seared in its own Juices, and Finished with a Bearnaise Sauce Created by Our Own Chef, Featuring Clarified Butter from Free Range Cows, Local Farm-Grown Organic Shallots, Fresh Virginia Organic Tarragon, and Aged Italian Balsamic Vinegar, $26.95.
What’s being said?
When studying a menu, here are signals I take in, in the order they impact me.
Note: in this post, I am not considering restaurants that provide a menu with photographs of their food. If that’s where you are, in some plastic eatery, I suggest instead that you go get a pizza and drink some beer.
A la carte. The most frequent type. This restaurant has developed a number of entrees it prepares every day, which sell steadily, which return an acceptable profit, and for which the suppliers can almost always deliver ingredients in a timely way. The menu may change on a seasonal basis and is probably supported by evening specials.
The diner should be able to expect the same preparation quality whichever chef is working that night.
Table d’hote. This restaurant is in control of your menu, though you may be able to choose between two or three items for an appetizer or a dessert. The restaurant controls its food cost narrowly, and generally offers the public two seatings per night. It is showing you specific skills, and it often bases its menu on themes – the wine night, the bison night, the Valentine night, etc.
I’ve had excellent meals in these restaurants, but they are not necessarily adequate trials of the kitchen from a critical standpoint. I wonder how successful this chef would be preparing 200 “covers” (meals, in restaurant jargon) off a twenty item saute menu changed daily.
On the other hand, this chef, like a caterer, has a different problem than the busy saute chef. This kitchen must solve the problem of serving fifty people that same dish, hot, all at the same time.
If you’re a critic, observe how they do it.
Menu de jour. This is the most challenging kind of menu and therefore shows the most ambitious kitchen, which does entirely new preparations each day. In practice, of course, certain dishes re-appear on a regular rotation, but this kitchen stretches its prep cooks, its sous-chefs, its line chefs, and its chef—as well as its suppliers—all the time.
Servers have a challenge also. They must accurately describe all items on a constantly changing menu sometimes without the chance to taste the newest dishes first. And--obviously--it’s important for the diner to know who’s cooking that night.
There can be big rewards for the critic in this restaurant, but the level of risk the kitchen is willing to undertake is high as well.
The next thing I focus on is the preparations—before I notice much about the foods themselves. What kind of a kitchen is this? Focus your eye on the ways this kitchen cooks food. You’ll see some combination of baked, roasted, sauteed, grilled, braised, and fried items.
Each item suggests a certain style for the kitchen.
Baked, roasted, braised. These dishes allow the kitchen to do a good deal of its work before the rush and to perform less hand finishing. Individual servings may be put up before the kitchen opens for the evening, then sit in the walk-in refrigerator until ordered, at which time they are zapped or slid under the broiler.
Sauces will usually be added afterwards—such as a caper sauce for salmon—or they will be made in the dish itself—such as a lasagna—or they are reductions of the original braining liquid which has been kept warm at the back of the stove until needed. Or they’ll have a prime rib under heat lamps. Dishes of this type can be tasty and hearty. You’re unlikely to leave hungry, but the dishes are usually not very subtle.
Sauteed, grilled. These are more up-scale techniques because they force the sous-chef or the chef to interact with the food at the last minute before you eat it. Sauteing offers lots of creative opportunity (when I cooked professionally, I was primarily a saute chef), and there is a dance-like balance and delight when you are working fast in a synchronized kitchen on what is turning out to be a very good night.
Many of the classic saute sauces can only be produced while actually cooking the dish, usually at the finish, and grill sauces are often added at the end to enhance the original margination. The strength of these two preparations is their spontaneity; their weakness is just that…when the chef’s replacement is on hand.
Fried. Almost anyone can deep fry a piece of haddock, but few do it well. It’s harder than one might expect. There are lots of variables—the protein count (or lack of it) of the batter, the temperature of the oil, the fry cook’s ability quickly and effectively to regulate the oil’s temperature, the size of the fry basket in relation to the number of items being fried, the temperature of the food before breading, etc.
In a kitchen with lots of cooking techniques at work at the same time, the fry station is usually given to the least experienced of the cooks. This can be unfortunate.
Even when the critic ordered the Scallopini alla Perugina done on the range and found that it married its veal wonderfully with its prosciutto, capers, chicken liver, anchovy, and garlic, the fried scallops ordered by “my companion” may have arrived from the fry station watery, too heavy, and dense.
Then what does this critic do?
Often this critic had to go back a second time, with perhaps four companions. Start over. Give the fry cook another chance—one companion would be instructed to order the scallops again. Another would need to order something else fried.
Having suffered before, Channa would be invited to have the very-likely-to-be-excellent brined veal chop stuffed with sun-dried tomato, chevre, slivers of bacon, and rosemary…which was the special of the evening.
Because they did the Scallopini so well.
See if they can do veal again, grilled this time.
Figure out what this kitchen means by a special.
How did they set that special’s price-point, and what does that say?
And, reader, you can come back again at the end of August—to hear about
And other things of culinary importance.
It’s good to have you around! Write me and tell me if you like this sort of post. I do; it’s fun.
May you be blessed!
I’m saying this to myself. Maybe to you, too—depends on your situation.
A big thing is happening in Channa’s and my household. Our youngest daughter, her husband, and their four small children are moving in with us for an extended stay. There is a logical reason for this, and we are all positive about it.
It bodes well for all of us, and we have all prayed to the Lord for wisdom, for patience, for forbearance, and for joy.
To be close to and helpful with the raising of our grandchildren, with godly assertion, has been one of our pleasures.
However, that said, the daily nature of all our lives is changing.
Channa and I have been stimulated during the 40 years of our marriage by changes when they occurred—and we have always said “yes” about addressing life head on. (Mostly always!)
We were “life-ians” even before we were Christians.
How this event affects you--
This post is already a day late. I want you to have this news, so you can be aware of why the lateness occurred and also tipped off in advance if lateness occurs again. Things will calm down into a more predictable pattern as a few weeks go by.
I posted the photograph above because it made me laugh, and because it’s on-point for the event that is dominating our house and time right now.
Our youngest granddaughter (who will be happy to tell you, if you ask, that she is two—because she just became two one week ago)—she and I were having a stroll. She was concentrating on picking up pebbles and giving them to me. I was concentrating on time because shortly we needed to pick up her older sister and brother at Vacation Bible School.
We came across this sign at the ball field behind the library.
Good advice. (Too bad it needs to be stated.)
Good advice for all of us.
Calm down; it’s just life.
This piece is really just for fun, so don’t expect any lofty theological or biblical insight.
It’s also about parental pride.
It’s about our son Sam and about how proud Channa and I are of his effort last weekend. She and I were talking about his effort afterwards, and she made a point that got me thinking both about Sam and also—oddly enough—about the apostles and about the prophets.
I’ll tell you Channa’s point in a minute, but, first, here’s why I was thinking about prophets and apostles.
The apostles were a team, and they played a team game.
Their Coach brought them together, showed them The Way, kept their spirits up when they were doubtful or downhearted, chided them when He was tired of their unremembering what He had told them before, applauded them when they got it right, and kept letting them know that a time would come, soon, when He would not be beside them and they would need to play the game by themselves.
Which, of course, later, they did.
On the other hand, the prophet (any prophet) was a loner.
He was out there on his own. No one helped him; he wasn’t honored in his own country—to be biblical about it.
Nor did he know whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them—to be Shakespearian.
What was he to do?
All he could do was to tell the truth—devil take the hindmost.
Each of them told the truth, the apostles and the prophet. Each competed against the enemy. Each sought to win in battle. And—what we are assured—each does win.
All things work together for good—this is what we are assured. “All things work together for good, to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” This assurance appears in no less a place than in Romans 8:28.
So…two different types of soldiers are breasting their way into battle.
There are soldiers who work as a team, and there are soldiers who do battle alone. It’s possible that those whom we have come to call apostles and those whom we have come to call prophets would not have chosen that particular role, if they had been given a choice. Yet each one faithfully did that which was thrust upon him to do.
So that’s how far my thought went about the Apostles and the Prophets before my thought turned back to Sam.
Sam is not a soldier, but he is a dedicated Special Olympian. Over the years, he has competed in basketball, softball, track-and-field (long jump and 100-meter dash), alpine skiing (modified giant slalom), bowling, 50-yard snowshoe racing, bocce, and swimming (freestyle and back stroke).
Here’s Channa’s idea. Some of these are team sports—basketball, softball, bocce. The first two of these are won by making instant tactical decisions based on the ever-changing circumstances on the court or in the field. Bocce does not require instant decisions, but tactics and team play are needed to prevail.
The other sports are based on individual effort (unless it’s a relay).
Sam likes team sports because he likes to be part of the team, but instant decision-making about where it is tactically best to throw the ball right then is not one of his skills.
On the other hand, he knows how to go fast. Get in the water—and GO!
The majority of Sam’s gold medals have been earned in swimming or in alpine skiing.
The important event last weekend for our family was the Virginia Special Olympics Swimming Tournament, held at an enclosed aquatic center near Richmond. Seven swimmers from the Roanoke club were chosen to compete, Sam being one. Channa and I attended also, so we could watch the competition and have a weekend away.
Sam was selected to swim in three races, 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle and also 50-meter backstroke. All three occurred on Saturday, with about an hour-and-a-half between the two freestyle races but only about fifteen minutes between the longer freestyle race and the backstroke race.
Competing that weekend were hundreds of swimmers, in hundreds of heats, and assisting them were many coaches, volunteers, service providers, and parents. The aquatic center ran the event smoothly. It takes a day-and-a-half to run all the heats. It’s a noisy, echoing, crowded, humid, hot and wonderful time of upholding the spirit of Special Olympics.
Sam’s first race was the 50 free—eight swimmers, paired up as best as possible on the basis of their results last year and on any time trials available. Sam took a silver. The winner was in a class by himself, so Sam was the best of the other seven swimmers by about a length. Good fellow!
After a rest, Sam’s next race was the 100 free. Again, a field of eight. Again, one very competent swimmer dominated throughout.
So the placements I was interested in were second, third, and fourth. These three were evenly matched swimmers. Sam was an easy second until the first turn, when he lost a length just turning. By his second turn he had faded to a likely fourth. He was fourth during the third leg. Starting the fourth leg, second and third were neck-and-neck, and Sam was a length-and-half behind. He was flailing a bit.
Then two things happened. One of the neck-and-neck swimmers just seemed to give out. He dropped rapidly from contention, so Sam had third wrapped up. Then—with about fifteen yards to go—Sam earned his second silver medal of the day.
He was a length-and-a-half behind. He put his head down and churned and churned, gaining with every stroke. A half-length behind. Even. A foot ahead, two feet, a half-length. Go, Sam, go!
Sam won his second silver medal, with a flat out effort, by a length and a half.
Proud parents! Last year, Sam took a gold in the 100 free. I was ecstatic. But his competition was less last year than this year. This year was a different event all together. We saw Sam determine himself to win his battle…and win it he did.
The biblical prophets did the same. Sam is not a prophet—except about what he suspects his mother might say he may have for lunch.
Why the Special Olympian and the prophet came together in my head, triggered by Channa’s idea about the difference between the genius of the team player and the genius of the solo-sport player, is that I saw Sam make his determined effort to tell the truth about what he knew was to be the way of the world during the fourth leg of his 100 free.
Some prophets deal with the entire functioning of God’s sovereignty and of the universe He created. Sam’s scope is smaller. But what Sam made happen was truth.
And he held onto a glimmer of that truth when, about fifteen minutes later, he swam a 50 back. “Oh, he’s so tired,” Channa commiserated, watching. All I could think was, “Hold that place, hold that place, hold that place.”
He did, and he took the bronze.
Cover me over, clover;
Cover me over, grass.
The mellow day is over
And there is night to pass.
Green arms about my head,
Green fingers on my hands.
Earth has no quieter bed
In all her quiet lands.
That’s the poem that I recited. I recited the poem slowly.
Among the attendees--you can see some of us in the distance, in the picture--among the attendees, there was silence while I recited. Wind blew through the pinion pines, and when I finished reciting, a shaft of sun came out from behind a cloud and colored us bright.
The poem was carved into the gravestone. The grave was that of my uncle who had bought the ranch in the 1930s.
When he died in 1969, his wife and family determined that this poem should be carved in his gravestone because it was written by my father, my aunt’s brother, and because it had been used as a blessing at almost all family funerals since it had been written, inspired as a memorial to my father’s and my aunt’s own mother almost one hundred years ago, in the early 1920s.
We were gathered at the top of a slope at about 7,000 feet of elevation in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of northern New Mexico. Hermit’s Peak, at 10,267 feet, was just a mile or two higher up the canyon’s crooked way.
We had gathered at this New Mexico family’s burial plot to memorialize another death.
My uncle’s stone is the largest stone of the plot, at its back. In front of it, there is another stone memorializing his wife, my aunt, who rests with him.
As I recited, we were all of us aware of the lovely wooden box that sat on two planks across a newly dug hole. The box contained the cremated remains of my uncle and aunt’s middle child and one of their daughters, my cousin.
The ranch is in the Gallinas Canyon, and it is where, when all of us cousins were children and either from New England, from Chicago, or from this ranch, we were immortal. Being immortal, we loved to pelt out of the ranch house to ride, ride, ride.
This cousin, the one who we were burying that day, rode bareback. I didn’t; I was scared to.
The ranch has no horses now, but there’s wildlife to be seen across its distances—elk, bear, turkeys, even a mountain lion has been caught snarling in a motion light.
Another cousin lives at the ranch. He is the youngest of my uncle and my aunt’s three children. He was the State of New Mexico’s Electrical Inspector, keeping people powered up and the grid safe, and, now retired, he and his wife spend the winter in Belize.
When we were boys, this cousin taught me to trout-fish in the stream that runs through the canyon—when we caught them, the trout were so fresh they curled instantly into circles when they hit the fry pan.
The eldest of my New Mexico cousins lives in Albuquerque. She is a poet and the author of a mystery novel that takes place in a place very much like this canyon, the plot of which turns on a theft from a church very much like the church that is below the graveyard where we stood. This cousin is a teacher and has a great heart for Native American individuals, culture and art.
The woman we were burying had followed her husband to his farm in Alabama but her career was intake specialist working with the homeless and the mentally ill, at social service agencies.
All of them helpers, these—my New Mexico cousins—and that doesn’t count another cousin who is a minister and whose husband is also a minister, nor does it count yet another cousin who married a minister and was deeply active in his ministry.
Back at the graveside, after Cover Me Over, I read a fine poem that my Albuquerque cousin wrote as a farewell to her sister. It was a blessing that she had been able to read this poem to her sister before she passed. Then the grandchildren chimed in, either with poems of their own, or with prose—but all with heartfelt emotion.
Without any priestly attendance, we recited the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer—no other liturgical apparatus than that.
Perhaps thirty graves were there in that spot among the pinion pines. It is a public grave site, but there was no officialdom present. Several of the men in our group had dug the hole and had placed the box across the planks just so.
The scattering of graves had carved wooden or stone markers and most graves were casually separated from other graves by boundaries of round stones. Some grave sites were more elaborate, for instance with a fence around. Here and there clusters of wild flowers had sprung up. But it had been a dry spring and undergrowth was sparse. Many plots had artificial flowers to brighten them.
Pinion pine cones were everywhere, to be trodden on and made to crackle.
When the prayers were finished and the silence was over, the husband and two other men carefully lowered the wooden box which he had built into the earth. Then we all passed by the spot and crumbled some earth in our fingers and tossed it onto the box. When done, the husband and the others shoveled the rest of the earth over the top, and then the grave stone with its carved identification was placed on the earth and patted down.
A filigreed iron cross was already set in the ground at one end of the family’s burial plot. At its other end was the stone that marked the resting place of the father. Now, in between, buried with him, were his wife and one of their daughters.
The husband of the cousin we had just buried stood next to me. He had seemed bowed during the previous two days while many of us flew in from far places to attend this event. He brushed off his hands from the dirt. “Finally,” he said to me. “It’s at last a relief.”
On the other side of me was my minister cousin. “You read so well,” she said to me. “Thank you.”
I was pleased she thought so, having wanted to.
But I was most aware of two things. I was aware of the relief in the husband’s voice. My cousin’s death had been a long struggle while her lungs ceased to bring her air. I was grateful for him, for his relief.
Physically, I am almost exactly the spit and image of my father. I was aware that I had recited his funeral words with his own cadence and with his own intonation and with his own rotundity of voice, just as I heard his voice in my head while I recited them.
It was a relief to invoke him for the attendees, who loved him and love his words. Sometimes, though, I must struggle to keep track of which one of us is which. I am not him; except when seeming.
Cover me over, indeed, dear cousin.
Cover me over, indeed, dear Dad.
Cover me over, all of us, when our times finally come and when our struggles are finally done.
May the Lord receive us, if He will.
During the mid-1990s, I was the anonymous restaurant critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram, Maine’s largest newspaper. I filed a review each week during four-and-a-half years.
The newspaper liked it that my career as a salesman in the legal market caused me to travel everywhere in Maine (everywhere there was a lawyer), so I was able to test all types of restaurants, of whatever promise, throughout Maine, from the bottom of the state’s south to the top of its north, ocean to mountains.
I reviewed about 360 restaurants. I ate about 750 professional meals in order to do it, often accompanied by my wife Channa and some or all of our children, or else by friends who would do what I told them to do.
I had three rules.
It’s fun to be paid to eat.
It’s fun to write what was the paper’s most frequently read column each Sunday…of course, after the obits!
Not only did I gain weight during my four-and-a-half years, also I gained a weighty knowledge about wine.
My food/drink budget was to be squared quarterly, otherwise it floated.
For example, when I planned to review a restaurant with an excellent wine list, I’d review places that were more modest for a few weeks first. Then, when my wife and I arrived at the wine-list restaurant, I would have a big balance of float money available.
In these posts, I might discuss wines themselves another time, but for readers who order wine at restaurants, here’s an insider’s tip about wine prices.
The bar is a profit center. Restaurateurs develop an instinct for the price-points at which to sell bottles of various vintages and qualities. The tip I will provide is based on a principle that is active today although the mark-up percentages may differ between today and when I was reviewing.
A restaurant’s wine list has prices that are in the low range for restaurants, in the middle range, and in the high range.
Here’s the tip--
If wine is important to you for its ability to enhance your meal—not only to enhance your experience of the food itself but also of the atmosphere—don’t automatically reject the high-priced bottles.
The retail prices of the low-to-medium-priced bottles are at least double, and sometimes triple, what the restaurant paid for those bottles. As the quality of the wine improves its wholesale price gets higher.
So, let’s pretend that you and your wife go out to dinner on her birthday. (Don’t worry: this works just the same way if you and your husband go out to dinner on his birthday.)
You buy a $30 bottle of wine at the restaurant--it’s a birthday! Depending on how you pour, you’ll get about six glasses out of your bottle. So each glass costs you $5.
The restaurant doubled its cost for that bottle when it sold it to you. It makes $15.
Note, however, that the value of the wine you are drinking, based on the wholesale price, which is established by the vintner, is $2.50/glass, not $5.00/glass.
But suppose, instead, you see a bottle on the wine list you know by reputation is far superior in quality than that $30 bottle. It’s a birthday, after all, and it’s only once a year.
That superior wine is priced at $59.
This is not the low-to-medium price range any longer; you’re at, or nearing, the high end of the list.
Now…I admit I’m like you.
The first thing you might think (and I would, too) is that it is ridiculous even to contemplate spending $59 for a bottle of wine, birthday or no. How much better can this $59 wine be than the $30 wine? And it costs a lot more.
But don’t think that way.
Go ahead and think that way, but then at least think about thinking another way!
What you’re not taking into account is that, at the high end, the markup percentage the restaurant places on the bottle is almost certainly less than 100% to 200%. Sometimes a lot less.
Here’s what the restaurant is thinking.
‘I can sell $15 bottles of wine for $30 all day long. But how shall I price those bottles I bought for $40? I don’t think I can sell them for $80. Instead, I’ll price them at $60…well, no, $59.’
If you buy the $59 bottle, what happens?
You’ll still pour the same six glasses, but the cost of each is $9.83. While your cost is nearly 100% higher than your cost for the $30 wine (which was $5/glass), the value of the wine you are drinking is considerably higher.
Based on the wholesale prices, which more closely relate to the true values of the two wines, the value of a glass of the $30 wine is $2.50 per glass, and the value of the $59 wine is $6.66 per glass.
Your per-glass cost has increased 97%. Your per-glass value has increased 167%.
So you have made a good financial decision.
Perhaps your spouse’s eyes are now sparkling at you.
The restaurant has made $29.00 instead of $15.00.
Even Jesus, who was once a wine supplier, back in His day, and who approves of eye-sparkle between spouses.
Please tell me if you enjoyed this post.
It would be fun to do others like this one now and then, under LIFE.
So you know, I had a fine time as Maine’s principal restaurant critic for almost five years.
When Channa and I were younger, I was one of the two chefs at a mid-coast Maine restaurant, doing a parallel country French and Chinese menu (two menus; two sides of the kitchen—not a fusion-y thing).
Great fun, until it ended.
One February, without any notice, the owner got bored and closed it.
February in Maine is NOT a good time to lose a job, especially when you have one small daughter and a very pregnant wife.
The only good news was this--
The owner let the other chef and me clear out whatever was in the walk-in refrigerator and the freezers and take everything home for our own personal use.
Yeah, we were broke.
But Channa and I—and lots of our friends--ate like kings!
Jesus said many things. Every single one of them is vital for us to hear. A particular statement of Jesus was especially appropriate for me today.
Mark 4:9 (ESV) records Jesus’ statement, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Jesus was concluding His Parable of the Sower. This Parable illustrates for those who understand it that His teaching will be rejected by some listeners; be accepted by some other listeners, before they then discard it; be heard by a third group of listeners, who are so distracted by the things of the world that they do not allow themselves to be persuaded by the teaching; but will be welcomed and adopted by a fourth group, who will then bring Jesus’ message to others—and to many others, too.
Jesus, being the Son of God, knew things as God’s own Son would know them. He reflected in His parable the inevitability that resonates in His words. That inevitability must be awareness in Jesus of how it is from His Father.
Jesus does not rail against the listeners who reject his message. Simply, he says they exist. Also, he does not chastise those who are enthusiastic at first but later become indifferent. They exist, too. Likewise, those who are too distracted by the world and its pleasures even to pay attention exist.
Jesus’ approbation is reserved for those who welcome and adopt His message, yielding thereby—as He says it—“thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (4:8).
Jesus is frank later, when He and His disciples are alone, away from the crowd that heard the parable. Explaining why He speaks in parables to those who are not provided with the “secret of the kingdom of God” (4:11), as his disciples are provided with the secret, He states that the parables are designed to provide the crowd with knowledge but not with understanding.
That the crowd might “see but not perceive…hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (4:12).
This same idea appears in Jesus’ words in the other synoptic gospels, in Matthew 13:13 and in Luke 8:10. Each alludes to Isaiah 6:9, which records what the Lord commissioned of Isaiah after that prophet stated his famous line to the Lord: “Here I am! Send me.”
The Lord hides the truth from unreceptive people.
It might be said that Jesus’ profession was to help people to hear, up to a point, a point as spotted by God.
Jesus helped his disciples to hear, totally, but Bible readers know that even the disciples did not get it about much of what Jesus said, despite their possession of the Secret of the Kingdom of God and their ability to hear.
I personally know that it is not easy to hear.
I mean no factiousness when I shift this biblical reflection to physical hearing. I am deaf.
Today, I spent the late morning and early afternoon with a woman who is an audiologist. Her profession is to help people to hear.
During approximately the past twelve years, I used a pair of hearing aids that were the state of the art at the time I bought them. I am told that hearing aids have a presumptive life of about five or six years. Mine are not the state of the art any longer.
I was with this audiologist today because I have been sufficiently troubled about communication using my old hearing aids that I have bought a new set that really are the state of the art, and we were engaged in fitting and programming.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Now I hear.
But there’s a nice human knot to tie around this package of parable, of those who hear but in various ways and for various reasons do not retain what they heard, of the Lord’s sovereign intent to withhold knowledge from those who are unreceptive in hearing, but also of Jesus’ approbation of those who do hear and who do use what they heard to spread more widely the truth of the Lord.
During our first meeting, my audiologist showed me a graphic of the inner ear, and while describing it, she said “You know, Mr. Eberhart, my God has three parts, and I think of that when I look at this picture because it shows that the inner ear has three parts, also.”
Well, you can imagine then that our forty-five minute meeting last an hour-and-a-half while we two—a sister and a brother in the Lord—delighted one another with our stories…of hearing.
And our stories continued today, while I said, “Too much reverberation,” or “There's an echo,” or “God bless you for what you do for me, that I may now hear.”
I am seventy years old.
In the Bible, the Psalmist is usually King David. However, Psalm 90 is attributed differently than usual. It is identified as “A Prayer of Moses – the man of God.”
Moses tells us in Psalm 90:10 that seventy years is our human allotment. The King James Version of the Bible elegantly renders seventy years into English as--three score years and ten.
Moses goes on to suggest that, by reason of strength, we humans might reach eighty years. But, he reminds us, that extra decade should be understood realistically for what it is, for, as he states, human life is “a span of toil and trouble: they [the years] are soon gone, and we fly away.”
The baby in the picture is Devar Collins Stanley. He’s eleven days old. He’s still got a long way to go.
Devar is Channa’s and my new grandson. He’s the fourth child of one of our daughters and her husband.
Devar was a big baby at birth, and he’s already regained his birth weight and added two ounces.
Good lookin’, ain’t he?
‘Nuff of the proud grandpa stuff.
Here’s what else I want to say.
I was born seventy years ago, in the year 1946. Because of my behavior with each of our grandchildren—including Devar—I suspect that many grandparents muse as I do upon the births of their grandchildren, wondering what the world will be like when this brand new, yelling baby reaches the age that the grandparents themselves have attained.
My maternal grandparents were Charles and Magdalena Butcher, and I know they mused this way about me because my mother told me that they did. My paternal grandparents would have mused this way, too, I suspect, except they both died before I was born. (Sadly, my sole relationship with them is through my dad’s poetry.)
So today I’m focused on the year 2087, for Devar.
What will the year 2087 have become for seventy-year-old Devar Collins Stanley, if he is blessed to attain his allocated three score years and ten?
I haven’t the faintest notion. (No, I do. But I’ll get to that below.)
When I was young and sitting on my grandmother’s lap, she used to enchant me with recitations of the technical increases she had lived through during her time. Can you believe it? When she was a girl there weren’t any airplanes or radios, and even cars were just toys for rich people.
Also, though, she bemoaned the decreases she observed during her years.
Particularly she noted the decrease of fundamental knowledge of American and western culture, that was evident to her as her years ran on. Can you believe it? When she was in school, she and everyone else memorized entire sections of books and whole poems and famous speeches and founding documents and knew by heart the big events of western history…and also, she would admire, using the basis of their thorough knowledge, they knew how to discuss these things, too.
When my grandparents mused about me, their new grandson, in 1946 and looked forward to 2017, what did they imagine the year 2017 would have become for me?
I haven’t the faintest notion.
Of course, I have my own notion of what the year 2017 has become for me, now that I am here.
There have been great advances during my seventy years—for example, technical, medical, explorational—some of which my grandparents might not even have understood in concept. Just the same, there have been further decreases in knowledge of—and even respect for the idea of—western culture, which has led to inability, because of lack of knowledge, to discuss it even rationally.
Here my point. For Devar, during his possible three score years and ten, there will be great events, some of which will be determined by commentators to be advancements, some others of which will be determined by commentators to be disasters. That’s just how it is. The total of the up compared with the total of the down?
I haven’t the faintest notion.
I do have one notion about Devar, however, of which I am certain on the basis not only of belief but of evidence.
During his three score years and ten, if he devotes himself to his life on the basis that the God of the universe, its creator and redeemer, is in active and personal search for him in order to bring him into a loving relationship, then he will be blessed, irrespective of the what ups and downs his time in history experiences.
Along with Moses, Devar might become a seventy-year-old man who says, as Moses does, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Psalm 10:14, ESV.
…and that’s the very same Moses who already acknowledged, just four verses earlier, that life is tough.
Now, here’s one more notion I have about Devar, and about all our other grandchildren, extant and as they may appear. When you’re a child, three score years and ten looks endless! When you’re there, not so much.
Moses suggests you may get four score years, if you have strength not only of body but of character (that latter part is editorializing by me, your grandfather). But you have good genes, and that may help you as well.
That grandmother of mine from whom you descend? She mused about things in the world until two weeks short of her one hundred second birthday. That father of mine, the poet? He mused about things in the world until three months after his one hundred first birthday.
And may you be blessed.
“I left the light on for you. Thanks for coming. There’s new coffee, still hot. Welcome to our home.”
I brought him in and closed the door behind him, against the night. I poked up the fire. I poured him coffee. I sat him down.
“So,” I said, “I got your message. Thank you for asking about it. Thank you for coming to get my answer. You must be a pilgrim, too. Let me tell you how it was.”
It was hard to focus on his face. Maybe the light was too low. He seemed to smile.
“Once upon a time….”
Once upon a time when I was young and the world was green, I dreamed that I—and my family if I ever had one—we would live by the ocean on the coast of Maine. That would be our home.
But I didn’t stay young, and the world didn’t stay green.
I did get a family though. I loved my wife, and she and I loved our four children, and when we were grown-ups, we bought that nineteenth century salt water farmhouse and barn, with its acres on the coast of Maine—and with its meadow, and with its apple trees, and with its forest, and with its bold rocks instead of a beach, and with its muddy slough where I moored my boat.
In winter, when blizzards stopped the world, and the snow piled itself halfway up the windows, and we slept under twice the blankets, and the air was finally still, we could hear fog horns on the sea. The fog horns were calling us safely home.
Not just us, the everyday us—the fog horns were calling our souls safely home as well.
We had our home. I was a salesman, and the sort of salesman who is a dreamer—not about sales but about freedom. We had our home; I thought we had found Innisfree. You know, as in the William Butler Yeats poem--
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, and a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
You know the rest.
Decades passed. Not just years, but decades.
We made a life, sometimes in quiet desperation, sometimes with a warrior’s mighty shout. Our children grew and went their ways, except for one of them who stayed at home.
The world’s convention was that the one who stayed at home was less able—this son who was a stayer at our home. Yet his soul was able, at providing unquestioning love.
We were in command of our life! We.
Where was our home?
Was home our old, salt water farmhouse and barn?
Or was our home within that church across the road? Was home somehow or other to be found in that churchly atmosphere, breathed upon by God, whom we did not command?
I met the living Christ in that church, while standing as a stranger stands beside the rear-most pew, being loved upon by congregants who didn’t need to notice me, but who noticed me anyhow. That meeting shook the foundations of my actual home across the road.
It changed the atmosphere inside that home across the road. Christian faith was a fruitful, not a dreamy, Innisfree.
Our children—most of them—were going away. Our farmhouse was emptier. The last two cats and the dog were dead. Even our pastor was leaving our church-home to minister in a new way and from a new location.
Where was our home?
My formerly urgent daily work—once a “home” for my time—was done; I retired. My wife’s formerly urgent daily work was not yet done, but she was scaling back to a slower pace, her “home” becoming easier to maintain.
Where was our home?
Unbidden, I found I had a new variety of work to do. I had pilgrimage work to do. It was work of a different kind from selling. It was a work of being with. It satisfied my soul. I discovered I was reaching out to everyone—to everyone, Christian or not—to everyone who sought a deep home.
I wrote a book about my life and about how I got this way.
Pilgrims read my book. Others read my book just for its light-hearted account of my life. But many of the pilgrims wrote me to say, “Hi, pilgrim” back to me.
This idea came into my head. We together can seek our deep homes together.
But first, I realized, I needed to live in my own home, first of all.
“Re-heat this coffee? I see you’ve not drunk any.”
It was hard to focus on him. And he said so little. Nothing really. Just his eyes, which were hard to see but which seemed to watch.
"You know, I lived in this book for ten years before it was done. It was my home. It’s world was my home, my deep home, where I sought to be at peace.” I held the book up.
I reached and poked the fire. “I’m thinking of home,” I mused aloud. “Say, you want to know how that book began?” I chuckled, making a joke. “How that home began?”
“Well,” I laughed, “not began began. But began after I finished writing it through for the first time, which caused me to discover what the book had been about all along, while I wrote it through for that first time.”
“The book is about how neither my wife nor I was in command of our lives, although we thought we were. That’s what the book is about. We were pilgrims, led toward home by…well, by Someone who demanded allegiance from us in exchange for salvation. You know how that is?”
He seemed to nod.
I lifted a paper from the table beside my chair. “Here’s how the book began. Before my editor and I scrapped this beginning and built the beginning that’s in the book right now. That scrapping and building was like hammering up a house and then stepping back and saying, ‘Nope. Wrong. Guess I wanted a ranch and not a colonial.’
“Here’s how it began. I’ll read it to you. Ready?
Before our conversion, my wife’s and my souls survived well enough. But they survived as makeshift rafts, cast adrift on a troublesome sea.
We experienced relief from our plight—and we came at last into harbor—when we opened our souls to Christian faith. We were rescued…and we were home.
Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Robert Frost said that. Heaven is where, when they invite you to come there, only your faith will get you in. Jesus Christ said that…or words to that effect.
How is your soul, reader?
Is your soul homesick? Do you long after relief?
If so, then please read on.
I put the paper back down on the table. I smiled.
“That’s the whole of the first chapter. No Prologue—as there is now—no nothing. I just plunged right on in. I addressed it directly to the reader, in that quaint, slightly twee way, as they used to have in the 19th century: establishing a distance between the now and the then, making me the story-teller, letting you know that I am playing with language, letting you know that I hope you will enjoy the ride.
He seemed to get it.
“Our home is in the hands of the Lord. Neither my wife nor I is in command of our lives, though we used to think we are. Our home is where the Lord sits us down. He puts us there for his purpose, not for ours.”
I smiled, and he seemed to smile, too.
“Even here, of all places the least expected. Here, in Virginia—and not the ocean end, the mountains.”
He was still hard to focus on. Maybe a trick of the angles—he seemed taller than I remembered from when he came in. He raised his hand for a moment in a gesture almost, it seemed, of blessing.
Then he was gone. He didn’t use the door.
Recipe by Dikkon Eberhart
1 13’ Whitehall Pulling Boat, with anchor
1 match – just 1
coupla potatoes and a chunk of butter; salt
Mise en scene:
Don’t burn your fingers when you grub the potatoes from the ash, open them, and, while they drip with butter, you eat them in the dark.
Pour water on the coals until they are really out. Toss everything into the boat. Drag the boat down the beach to the sea. Wade out beside her and pull her farther until she’s afloat. Stare off for a time at the black horizon.
Await revelation. What if I ask her? Maybe I’ll dare.
By Dikkon Eberhart
The title of this post is a line from Flux, a poem of my father’s.
Flux has stuck by me during my adult years, not because of any verbal magnificence it possesses—deliberately it possesses none—but because of its insinuation and acknowledgement of enigma.
The next two following lines are--
There is a somber, imponderable fate.
Enigma rules and the heart has no certainty.
Dad continues in this poem, using brief snippets of a few lines, to cite one imponderable event after another. As an example--
The boy, in his first hour on his motorbike,
Met death in a head on collision,
His dog stood silent beside the young corpse.
So, Dad offers no release for the reader. His poem informs us that the imponderable dominates in life, and, therefore, that life is stranger than any of us expected.
My life has been stranger than I expected. Not imponderable. But improbable.
I ponder this matter because I have written a memoir. The memoir is jauntily titled, using imponderables--The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told.
As is the nature of memoir, my book is an attempt to understand myself and my life's experience. It is an attempt to make order from what Dad terms the imponderable—indeed to provide certainty for the heart, which Dad’s poem denies is available.
I wrote my memoir to acknowledge that the circumstances of my life are stranger than I expected, and yet I seek to order the strangeness.
There is a point, I believe, in the strangeness. Not only is there a point, I believe, but I go farther than that. I believe the strangeness is deliberate. I believe my life has been infused with strangeness for a purpose. I was sixty years old when I learned what that purpose is. Then I wrote my memoir.
I'm seventy now. If anything, I have become more certain of the existence of the purpose although the purpose is stranger than ever I expected.
My publisher has the professional responsibility to determine the demographics and the psychographics of the primary reader of a memoir such as mine. All very well. However, beyond mere statistics, I believe the person who reads my memoir may read it with that same sense of the imponderable about life as my dad expressed in his poem.
Like me, that reader may find that life is stranger than any of us expected. But what I hope that person may ask next is the more important question. “Yes, but what is the purpose of that strangeness?”
Now, I am a Christian. The Lord's purpose that we should ponder the strangeness of our lives is that we might engage with Him in His working out of our lives, for His glory.
At my age of sixteen, I pondered questions such as that.
Back then, on any afternoon on the coast of Maine when nothing else pressed Dad and me—and when the sun was strong and the wind was light and the tide was low—he and I might offer to take Grandmother and her house guests, the German Readers, out onto Penobscot Bay.
Grandmother and her German Readers enjoyed it when we took them aboard Dad’s cabin cruiser to the outer ledges of the bay so they could view the seals. Grandmother’s half dozen or so German Readers came to Maine during two weeks every summer for relief from Boston’s heat and to keep up in their former language. Generally, they used 19th century family sagas and romances, which they read to one another as they sat and knitted in the evenings. Aboard the boat, however, they would exclaim and be cheerful at the playfulness of the seals, while I passed around little cups of sherry and a tray of Ritz crackers which had experienced more humidity than was good for them.
At my age of sixteen, I was impressed by the German Readers.
For example, it was not easy to bring them aboard. Dad and I would power the cruiser over to Grandmother’s—her house was nestled just back from a wide rock with her beach down below. She had no dock. Dad would lie-to in the boat about fifty yards off as I ran the launch back and forth to the beach and brought these ancient ladies off shore two or three at a time.
They would need to wade into the surf before clambering into the launch, and then, when I pulled up alongside the cruiser and each boat rocked on the sea, they would need to climb aboard over the gunwale. The boarding ladder had three steps. A lot of leg swinging was needed, up and over the side, and balancing on the after deck, before each lady was safe to totter to a bench and to sit down. Usually, all this was accomplished while wearing a loose skirt.
I had known these ladies my entire life. They were all in their seventies by then—widows, gemutlich. Most of them represented families that had been in American for several generations at least. But two, as I recall it, had immigrated to our country with husband and children in the 1930s.
Deeply cultured Germany—imponderably—in the 1930s was becoming a place where it was not a good place to be.
At my age of sixteen, I ran barefoot over any boat in any sea. For me, there was no place near, in, on, or under the sea that was not a good place to be.
But I remember an imponderable regarding these ladies which emerged for me at my age of sixteen. As I became stronger and more flexible, these companions of my Grandmother became weaker and stiffer…and yet they waded, and they climbed, and they tottered bravely upon the deck just the same.
I didn’t know anything about this business of being in one’s seventies. I couldn’t conceive of it. Now and then, though, I felt their eyes bearing upon me thoughtfully, I, who was my Grandmother’s first grandchild. I, who was so much the spit and image of my father. I, who ran barefoot over any boat in any sea.
The ladies seemed to me to be weighty with how strange their lives had been, stranger than any of them expected. I could not articulate this weightiness which showed in their eyes. I sensed it but could not fathom it.
What point had they found? Was it similar to what I have found now?
The German readers did not caution me about my life to come—how could they? My life was imponderable, its strangeness yet to be revealed.
But I do not think that any one of them—were she alive today to discover that I have written my life down in order to make literary and theological order out of my own personal flux—I do not think that any one of them would find that fact improbable.