Birthday greetings

I’d like to wish my little sister, Elecia, a happy birthday. As I noted in this blog post 10 years ago, you have to use discretion in this sort of thing, and it would be rude of me to talk about a lady’s age. So I’ll move along to other topics.

By the way, I certainly hope you enjoyed Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, along with viewers in all 50 states and many foreign countries. I’ve been watching the game for years, of course, ever since Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” was a hit on the radio. It was a good close game, and each team had a 50/50 chance of winning. They literally had a 50/50 chance of winning the coin toss — even though that was a specially-made commemorative coin and not a simple 50-cent piece.

I’m glad GoDaddy didn’t have a Super Bowl ad this year. Their ads are so salacious, it’s almost like watching “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

I’m sure that some people weren’t into the game, of course. Maybe some of them were watching the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore romantic comedy “50 First Dates.”

Now, of course, there will be months without football. People will have to satisfy themselves with other programming — like the police drama “Hawaii Five-O.”

But, getting back to my sister, I want to say how much I love her. She’s always been there for me. She’s a hard-working 9-1-1 dispatcher. She’s a mother of three wonderful children, and those kids were always her priority through thick and thin. She’s caring and big-hearted and thinks of everyone else first. I hope she has a very, very happy birthday, however old she is — and I can’t think of the specific number at the moment, but I’m sure it will come to me eventually.

another jet flight

When I first blogged about the online shopping site Jet back in August, it was being touted as a membership-based shopping site, a cross between Amazon and Costco or Sam’s Club. Few if anyone had actually bought a membership at that time, because the site – which had some heavy-hitting investors and the money to launch with a bang — was offering free trial memberships of three or six months. The stated premise was that the company would sell its goods more or less at cost and would make its money solely on the annual membership fees.

Soon after my blog post, the company announced that it was changing its concept a bit and would not be membership-based after all.

I placed a couple of orders with the company early on, about the time of my blog post, but then in the last quarter of the year I was busy with Christmas shopping and my personal shopping was sort of on a day-to-day basis.

But since the first of the year, I’ve ordered from them a couple of times under the new model. I don’t think the discounts are quite as deep as they were under the old model – although it’s hard to compare, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment – but they’re still good, and if you have never used the site and have any interest in making routine household purchases online it’s worth checking out.

I did have one glitch with my most recent order – and I’ll explain that in a moment, too – and it’s a cautionary tale but not a deal-breaker.

The way Jet works is that they try to have low, competitive basic prices on household goods – some in bulk quantities, others in individual quantities – but on top of those competitive prices, there’s a discount formula that rewards you for putting more and more items in your shopping cart during a given order. The first item you decide to buy goes into your cart at its basic price, then the second item goes in at its regular price less a small discount, then the next item gets a slightly larger discount, and so on.

This rolling discount plan can save you money – but it also makes it harder for you as a shopper (or for Jet’s competitors) to comparison shop for one specific item.

Any purchase over $35 gets free shipping (and it’s fast shipping, except as explained below), and I believe that threshold is measured before the discounts are applied, which is good news for the buyer. (I know that was the case last fall, but I haven’t tested it recently.) You also get a discount for using a debit card (which I would do anyway) or by waiving the free-return policy for certain low-cost household items that you probably wouldn’t try to send back anyway.

But here’s the thing. Jet has a seamless ordering process, but (sort of like Amazon), some of its products are being sold directly by Jet, others are being sold by other partner sites. Some of the items from partner sites may have slower shipping and use different carriers. Your order may arrive in several different pieces – some directly from Jet, some from its partner merchants.

The glitch I wrote about earlier had to do with one of those partner sites. On my most recent order, I found what was clearly described as a new, original-manufacturer Canon ink cartridge for my printer, and the photo which accompanied the item was of the authentic Canon packaging. The price was good, so I ordered the cartridge. But when it arrived today, it turned out to be a remanufactured cartridge from a third party. I’ve bought remanufactured cartridges before – in fact, I have two in the printer right now – but that’s not what I ordered this time, and I could probably have gotten a remanufactured cartridge just as cheaply, or for even less, from any number of other sources.

Fortunately, Jet has good customer service. I had not waived my free-return rights on this item, and so within seconds I had printed out a pre-paid FedEx label for returning the cartridge. They will refund the money to my debit card once it arrives. That process was automated, but I also sent an e-mail to the company complaining about what I considered a deliberately-deceptive listing by one of Jet’s partner sites. I received a quick response promising that they would look into the matter, but that’s easy to say.

But that’s a glitch. All in all, I’ve been happy with my purchases from Jet and will continue to do business with them in the future. I suggest you check them out.

DISCLOSURE: For years, this site – like a lot of others on the web – has been part of the Amazon affiliates program. When I include an Amazon link for a product, and someone clicks on it and buys something from Amazon, I get a very small commission. I don’t make any significant amount from this – at times, it’s been years before I’ve gotten to the $10 threshold at which they deposit accumulated commissions into your checking account. My participation in this program does not affect the views I express or the topics I cover here, as evidenced by this post about one of Amazon’s competitors.

warmth in wrap-up

All of the moms of First United Methodist Church – Shelbyville teased me about whether or not I was ready to be a chaperone at Warmth In Winter, and carried on like I was making some great sacrifice by attending.

But I expected going in that I’d have a good time – and I did. It was a blessing, in a very real sense.

It’s a moving thing to see young people in the throes of some of their first religious experiences. Bishop Bill McAlilly, who preached this morning, recalled a church camp experience at which James Taylor’s “You’ve Got A Friend” was played, and I had to laugh – because one of the strongest memories of my own junior high church camp experiences has to do with Taylor’s “Shower The People.” “That’s not a church song,” I thought to my seventh grade self. “That’s a song from the radio. Are they allowed to do that?”

That camp experience is still potent in my memory, four decades later, and I always list it as a key part of my spiritual journey whenever I’m asked to lay out my spiritual timeline at some retreat or mission trip training event.

That’s where these kids were this weekend. How remarkable for them to get to go and be at a nice hotel with three thousand of their peers, and see a Christian band play with rock-concert-style staging — video screens, lighting and what have you.

The teens from Shelbyville First are a great group, and they really got out of this experience what you’d hope they would get out of it.

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We know that one peak experience doesn’t guarantee a life of faith. Nothing guarantees a life of faith; faith has to be renewed on an hourly basis. In fact, during a breakout session on Saturday I and the other adults from First UMC heard some disheartening statistics about how many children who actively participate in their church youth groups lose their connection to the church just as soon as they get to college.

Bellarive, which was the worship band for this weekend’s event, has a song lyric that goes “You will never fade away / Your love is here to stay,” and while God’s love is faithful we are not always faithful to God.

That’s a challenge and an admonition to all of us in the church, but it does nothing to diminish the value of, or the need for, events like Warmth In Winter, or the week-in, week-out youth activities in a local church. We do not know whose heart might have been turned this weekend. Decades from now, some great Christian leader – maybe a member of the clergy, maybe a layperson whose faith has been reflected in a life well-lived – may look back to that weekend in 2016 when she stood up in front of the stage in the mosh pit, bouncing up and down to the music of Bellarive and swapping warm fuzzies with strangers from other churches.

In case you’ve missed my previous posts, Warmth In Winter, which started in 1982, is an annual youth weekend held by the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Despite the name, the “Tennessee” conference is made up of Middle Tennessee.) It’s been held for the past several years at the Embassy Suites hotel and convention center in Murfreesboro, but it attracts thousands of teenagers and has outgrown even that facility. This year, for example, the Embassy Suites was sold out and there were church groups staying at several other hotels in the Medical Center Parkway area, plus some churches that just commuted. The Saturday morning programming had to be done in shifts – while the groups staying at the Embassy Suites were in breakout workshops, the groups staying off-site were in the main room for worship, and vice versa. Next year, Warmth In Winter will be held at Gaylord Opryland.

My nephew T.J. Carney was a member of one of the “design teams” that put on the event this year, and he appeared on stage a couple of times, in a skit and as a “stick figure dancer” (you had to be there). I could not be prouder. T.J.’s younger brother James also got to attend the event; they are both from Bell Buckle UMC.

So it was tremendously moving to see all the kids enjoying this experience and hope that it will have an impact on them down the road.

But I also enjoyed the programming directly. When you’re talking to teenagers, you don’t talk to them about nuances of theology, or socio-political implications, or textual criticism. Duffy Robbins, the keynote speaker for the event, had a three-point slogan upon which he based all three of his sermons: “God has a plan … Man has a problem … The choice is up to you.” Simple, clean and direct. Every now and then, even we adults need a message that cuts to the essentials and touches the heart.

Duffy Robbins, by the way, was terrific all around, with a sense of humor that appealed to everyone in the room. I found this on YouTube from 2014, but he did exactly the same routine this weekend:

He had a way of taking this simple story and making it come to life. A story about teaching his teenage daughter how to drive became a lesson on the Incarnation, and the need for God to be in the seat next to us. Just perfect.

The other major part of the program was illusionist Jared Hall:

I knew going in that I’d enjoy the program. I had seen enough slide shows from previous Warmth In Winter trips to have a basic sense of what the event was about. But as I posted Friday night, I wasn’t quite sure of my own role. I wasn’t rooming with the kids – that’s prohibited by United Methodist “safe sanctuaries” policies due to the risk. Our church’s director of children and youth, the wonderful Alden Procopio, does a great job with the kids, and so it’s not like I was needed to hand out stern looks. (The kids were great all weekend, really.) This was a suite hotel, and as the only adult male in the First UMC group I had a suite all to myself. I felt almost guilty for being there and enjoying the program.

After I wrote those words Friday night, a couple of things happened Saturday that made me feel better. We had a block of free time, and went to a nearby shopping area with a lot of food options. We gave the kids the freedom to go where they liked. Alden and the Three Moms – Vickie Hull, Tanya Lane and Rachel Cunningham – went with a few of the teens to a barbecue restaurant, but I tagged along with another group that went to Panda Express. Just being there, me and the teens hanging out, made me feel a little more like I was actually a chaperone and not just a tag-along. I sat with most of the same kids that night at the Murfreesboro District pizza party:

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I also found out that I had to be there. The event’s policy required that if there were male campers, there had to be a male adult from that church (and, I assume, vice versa). If I hadn’t been there, Grayson and Kenny and Sam might not have been able to be there.

I bought myself a T-shirt on Saturday, but I joked about not buying another souvenir I really wanted. At a layspeaking class I took last November, I was amused at the John Wesley bobblehead doll brought along by the teacher. They had those bobbleheads at the Cokesbury table at Warmth In Winter this weekend, but I decided they were too expensive.

Today, on our way home, we all stopped for lunch at Toot’s South. After we’d eaten, as we were trying to consolidate the plates a bit, all of a sudden the four grownups with whom I was sitting started looking at me and handed me a white paper bag and an envelope.

The bag, as you’ve no-doubt guessed, contained this:

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The envelope was even better – a card signed by the kids and the other adults thanking me for being there.

By the way, there’s a bad pollen problem inside Toot’s this time of year.

Warmth In Winter, Friday night

Terrific first night at Warmth In Winter.
As we were gathering for evening worship, there was a theatrical percussion group (along the lines of Stomp or Blue Man Group) called RePercussion, and they were terrific. Illusionist Jared Hall really only did one trick tonight, but I think we’ll see more of him tomorrow. Bellarive, the worship band, was great, and I really enjoyed the keynote speaker, Duffy Robbins, who was funny and relatable. Of course, none of this content is aimed at washed-up 53-year-olds; it’s aimed at youth, and there were 3,000 of them in the ballroom tonight, and I think they were really connecting to all of it. Communion was led by the Rev. Skip Armistead, whom I knew briefly in the early 90s when I was serving on the Tennessee Conference singles council (he probably doesn’t remember me), and the Rev. Amanda Diamond of Morton Memorial UMC, a great friend of the Mountain T.O.P. ministry whose pulpit I’ve filled before. After the service, I saw Amanda along with Kylene McDonald at the T-shirt booth, and I’m always happy to see Kylene.
I got to see my nephew T.J., who is on the design team which is running this show, very briefly; he’d been here all day and was already tired, and that was before evening worship. T.J.’s brother James is also here; I haven’t run into him yet.
I’m happy to be here, but I guess I don’t feel that much like a chaperone yet. There’s not much for me to do other than be here, and there are a few of the teens that I’m not sure even know who exactly I am, and vice versa. I am here in this big old suite, which I have all to myself as the only adult male in our group. The boys are next door. In the old days, teens and adults would have bunked together, but that’s prohibited, and understandably so, by the new Safe Sanctuaries policies. So that’s good in terms of me getting a good night’s sleep, but I feel almost guilty for being here.

Even A Stopped Clock Is Right Twice A Day

Although I love cooking, and there are some individual things I make that I’m proud of, there are certainly plenty of gaps in my kitchen abilities.

I have never been able to master fried chicken, for one thing. Both my mother and my paternal grandmother were great at it, but mine always winds up either burnt on the outside or so undercooked inside that it has to be sent to the microwave for emergency remedial cooking, while I worry about whether I’ve contracted anything from the first bite.

Tonight, though, it came out OK:

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It was golden brown on the outside and fully cooked inside.  I started it on medium heat and cooked it a while on either side with the lid on, then took the lid off and cranked up the heat to medium-high to get the nice crisp crust. I want to say that my mother did this the other way around, which is how I’ve usually tried to do it in the past, but I could never get mine to turn out like hers. This time, I decided to cook the chicken first, then finish by crisping the crust.

I didn’t do much to prepare the chicken. Had I thought about it in advance, and if I’d had buttermilk, I’d have done a buttermilk marinade. But this was a relatively last-minute meal. I’ve already blogged about the super-cheap leg quarters I bought Thursday at UGO and vacuum-sealed yesterday; this was me using up two thighs from the freezer from last time I bought chicken. I sprinkled the chicken generously on both sides with Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning before dredging it in plain flour. Alton Brown says that you should apply the seasoning, then the flour, rather than mixing the seasoning into the flour. This is for two reasons:

  • Some seasonings are subject to burning under high heat, and so hiding them under the crust protects them from the highest temperatures.
  • Spices are more expensive than flour, and if you season a whole batch of flour it means you’re needlessly throwing out seasonings with the excess flour at the end of the process. By sprinkling the seasoning directly onto the chicken, you use only the amount you need.

So that’s what I did. Who knows if it will turn out as well next time? Maybe I was just lucky.

A Paltry Sum For A PoultryGanza

Of all the good deals I’ve gotten at United Grocery Outlet – and I’ve gotten quite a few – yesterday may have taken the cake. They had 10 pound bags – 10 pounds! – of chicken leg quarters for $2.90 per bag. Naturally, I bought one. If only I had some way of individually vacuum-sealing each leg quarter so that I could freeze them for future use.

Oh, wait; I do.

A week or so previous, I had bought a roll of Ziploc-brand bag material, hoping it would work as well with the FoodSaver as the official FoodSaver bags do. (The Ziploc product is labeled as working in major brand-name vacuum sealers.) The Ziploc bags were a little cheaper.

I did not, however, look at the Ziploc package as closely as I should; what I bought was a full-width roll, but it was seamed and perforated lengthwise so that if you cut off a foot-long portion of 11-inch-wide roll, you then tear it apart into two separate bags, each one 5 1/2 inches wide.

It wasn’t what I thought I’d purchased, and I didn’t realize that until today. But, serendipitously, it worked perfectly for what I was doing today. The narrow-width bags were perfect for housing one leg quarter each. I had planned to package two quarters per full-width bag, but instead I just packaged one quarter per half-width bag.

They looked like this:

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I have 10 of those little pouches in the freezer now. That still left three leg quarters; I deboned those and am going to use the meat tonight for a box of Chicken Helper Ultimate Southwest Chipotle Chicken, which I also bought yesterday at UGO.

For 79 cents.

The bones from those last three leg quarters are in the pressure cooker right now being boiled down for broth. I was out of onions, so I just added some onion powder, poultry seasoning and red pepper flake.

All of this for $2.90, plus 79 cents. This is why I love going to UGO.

a blessing in song

I am one of three people with administrative access to our church’s Facebook page. A few weeks ago, while my pastor, the Rev. Lanita Monroe, was on a mission trip to Louisiana, I was checking that page and there was a message from a man named John Lemonis.

Crosby LaneJohn is a member of a vocal trio called Crosby Lane, named for famed hymn writer Fanny Crosby. Their specialty is new, Americana-style or country-style arrangements of classic hymns, and they also tell the stories behind those hymns as they perform them in concert. They also have some original songs, one of which – “Crucified” – is right at this moment being played by not only Christian radio stations but country stations, and is about to premiere on the cable channel GAC.

Crosby Lane had a radio interview scheduled in Scottsboro, Alabama, early in the day on January  20, and then after that they would be driving back to their home base in the Nashville area. They had decided to message some churches along their route home to see if any of them might be interested in a Wednesday night performance.

I messaged John back telling them that our pastor was in Louisiana. I gave him her e-mail address. I had no idea whether he’d end up e-mailing her (after all, one of the other Facebook contacts might come through first), or how often Lanita was checking her e-mail while on the mission trip.

After the return of the mission team, I was delighted to discover that John had, in fact, gotten in touch with Lanita, who had agreed to have the group perform tonight. I tried to help get the word out through social media and on the church news page of the Times-Gazette, so that we’d have a decent crowd.

Then, of course, weather happened. I worried that Lanita might have to call off the church’s normal Wednesday night activities, or that we might have a poor crowd. When I stopped by the church while on my daily walk today, it looked like our Wednesday activities were good to go, but the person I spoke to at the church wasn’t sure whether the band was still coming. If they came, they would be driving down from Nashville rather than up from Alabama, since their appearance in Scottsboro – the whole initial reason for their visit here – had been cancelled.

They came, and I’m so glad they did. It was a wonderful performance, melodic and inspiring. John and Michaela Lemonis and Tonja Rose blessed all of us with their music, with the stories behind the hymns, and with their joy in performing, even for a crowd of 35-40 people on a cold, wet Wednesday night. As it happened, I ended up sitting at the same table as the three of them during dinner, and they couldn’t have been nicer or more enthusiastic.

Everyone who was there for the performance loved it, and many of us bought CDs afterwards. “We want you to come back!” someone called out.

I hope they do too, on a night when we can give them a bigger crowd  — even though they may have bigger and better things ahead.

Let’s go to the races

I don’t know what made me think of “Let’s Go To The Races” this morning – I guess it was all this week’s Powerball talk, combined with the fact that I was headed to the grocery store at the time.

“Let’s Go To The Races” was a grocery store promotion from, if I remember correctly, the early 1970s. Our family moved to Bedford County in 1972, and I think I remember seeing LGTTR in one of our previous cities, connected to a different supermarket chain, and then seeing it again once we’d moved here. Or maybe I remembered seeing it in another city when we traveled to visit friends or family. Here in Middle Tennessee, the game was sponsored by Cooper & Martin grocery stores, which had a location in the Big Springs Shopping Center in Shelbyville.

The game worked like this: You would pick up a free card at the checkout when shopping at the sponsoring grocery store. The card would change color each week, to make it easy to identify that you had the right card for that week. Once you tore the card open, you would see five different horse races, with a different a different entry number horse listed for each race.

On Saturday afternoon or Saturday night, there was a half-hour TV show on one of the local stations. The show featured five different horse races. You would look to see if the horse listed on your card for a given race won that race; if your horse won, you were entitled to a cash prize. The prize money would increase with each race.

The horse races were real, but they were on film and were from months earlier, maybe years earlier, in any case long before the game tickets had been printed. The organizers of the game knew in advance which horse would win, and so they could announce that you had a 1 in 500 chance (or whatever) of winning, because they knew that exactly 1 in 500 game tickets had a winning horse.

The horse racing segments were the same nationwide, and the tickets looked pretty much the same except for the sponsor logo, but the host segments were locally produced so that they could be customized for each grocery store chain. The YouTube video I found and embedded below is for Hy-Vee stores, in the midwest:

If you happened to miss the TV show, you could always check the week’s winning numbers at the grocery store, where they would be on a little poster hung on the wall somewhere near the checkout.

It’s strange the things that stick in your mind after so many years.

a balm in gilead

Back in the 1980s, while my father was pastor of Bell Buckle, Blankenship and Ransom United Methodist churches, he looked out into his congregation one morning and saw the Murfreesboro District superintendent, William Morris, seated in the pews.

This was an unusual thing. My father was usually assigned to small, multi-point rural charges, and he’d never had a district superintendent drop in on a worship service like that, unannounced. He immediately wondered if something was wrong.

wmorrisNothing was wrong. Bill Morris was just the type of district superintendent who felt it was important to get out into the district and see what was going on in the churches. That really impressed my father. It was around that time, or not long after, that my father decided, on a whim, to invite Rev. Morris to preach at the annual Easter sunrise service at Blankenship. Dad sort of figured that a district superintendent would already be spoken for on Easter Sunday, but he was delighted to find out that Rev. Morris was available and willing to come.

I cannot count the number of times he’s preached Easter sunrise services for my father since that time, wherever Dad happened to be serving. The service would usually be outdoors, and Rev. Morris would usually conclude his sermon by singing something, a cappella, in his deep, rich voice. The song was often “There Is A Balm In Gilead,” a wonderful old hymn. His wife Mary was usually with him.

Rev. Morris went on to be appointed as a bishop – first in Alabama, but then back here in Tennessee. Even as a bishop, he came and preached several sunrise services for Dad.

Rev. Morris, long since retired from the episcopacy, had agreed to come and preach for Dad again this Easter. But he will be singing with a heavenly choir instead. Rev. Morris passed away this morning, at age 79.

For those of you who never had the privilege of meeting Bishop Morris – and I count it a privilege — I found this interview with him on YouTube:

He was a great man, and a credit to the United Methodist Church. I ask your prayers for his family.