Friday, January 30, 2004

Books I'm Reading: American Jesus

Prothero, Stephen. American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

I've been skipping around like I sometimes do, reading in the middle, the back, whatever page opens. From what I've read so far, the book is great. For one thing, it helps me understand the Jesus People movement, which affected our family in several ways. My youngest sister got converted to Christ in a laundromat on Haight Street in San Francisco in 1970. I was led to return to my faith by a young woman who was in Campus Crusade for Christ in the late 70s, and in the early 80s I went to Jesus People Church in Minneapolis. All of these are included in the history Prothero tells.

This reminds me of another book with a similar theme that I read when I was in the Ph.D. program in American Studies. That author described very well (to my mind) the American version of Christianity, which teaches that followers of Jesus can claim and get health, wealth, and personal power if only they have enough faith. That belief of course is proof texted by selected passages that "prove" that Jesus came to bring us all these things and that if we don't have them it is our fault because we don't have enough faith. Their argument for the promise of health was a verse that says (in the King Jame's version which some evangelicals think is the only divinely inspired translation), "By his [Christ's ] stripes [scourging] we were healed."

When I was "a new Christian" I swallowed everything, but in retrospect it dawned on me that all of Jesus' apostles were martyred (except perhaps John). So much for health, wealth, and personal power. Jim Bakker and his wife were great proponents of that philosophy too.

I searched today at google and within some referenced sites for the above-mentioned book from the 80s, but it might be out of print. Tony Robbins came up in almost all the links.

His tapes promote those same ideals of health, wealth and personal power, which he claims are within the reach of those who follow his methods. Religion is absent from Robbin's sales pitch. To succeed you need to believe in Tony Robbins enough to pay him a lot of money for a set of tapes, and then you need to practice what he preaches. It worked for him, he tells us. He was out of work, overweight, depressed.

He didn't have a job, but he did have height and good looks, and good speaking ability. I have read some of his stuff (I read everything that comes my way). He is an example of one of my pet theories: that "logic" can be used to prove just about anything. When somebody writes a whole book supporting a set of theories with "facts" and "statistics" culled from God knows where, the average reader has no way to evaluate the accuracy of each of the cited "facts," which may be and often times are spurious. I have read maybe hundreds of books "proving" various and often contradictory theories. Hugh Hefner's Playboy Philosophy from 1962 comes to mind (because I believe it had a great influence on the thinking of my generation. And his "facts" were based on the equally erroneous "facts" promoted by sexologists Kinsey and Albert Ellis.

My husband loved Albert Ellis. When we visited New York City during one of our many road trips, we went to two places George just had to go: the Edgar Cayce institute and someplace on the upper East side to hear Albert Ellis talk.

I'm trying to think of ways to suggest how a person can safeguard against being swept away by that kind of writing. It seems to make sense while you read it. People internalize what they read and sometimes (often) go on to build their whole life's actions on ideas they have internalized from their reading, even if their emotions and their conscience tell them that what they are doing is wrong. I think of the example I've quoted elsewhere from John Updike's story about a man leaving his family, grieving over the violence he is causing to his wife, his children, his own memories, but determined to continue "because a man owes it to himself to pursue his sexual happiness."

I don't really know an answer. What has kept me out of a lot of harm in the last two decades of my life has been to follow Christianity as well as I knew how.

The current state of language as a means for communication is debased. As Orwell powerfully predicted in 1984, language has been corrupted, but not to suit the needs of the state.

The main thing that bothers me is that almost everyone's mind and heart has been captured by the rhetoric of the sexual revolution. Examples of how it hurts women and men and children and society are ignored. People recognize some of the evils it has spawned, but don't understand the root causes.

It inspires me to write a novel following the lives of a group of young people living out the ideals of the sexual revolution, working title Casualties of the Sexual Revolution. I may not be up to such an undertaking, but I pray that God will clear out the swamp of wrong thinking that makes up our society's values today.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Saturday, Saturday

Walk. Mass. Part of Office.

Breakfast at Rollo's. New menu item: tamales. At last something that doesn't have sugar, eggs, or cheese. And they only cost $1.50 each. Rollo's doughnuts are the best I have ever eaten, but I've got to stay away from those doughnuts. I visited at one of Rollo's tiny booths with three of the over 70 year old women that go to Holy Cross. I am amazed at how young 70+ can look. When I was a child, I got the impression that death comes in your 60s. Now I think it comes in your 60s mostly if you are overweight and drink and smoke.

These women are not overweight, do not drink or smoke. At Rollo's, they have coffee only. They eat at home to save money. The coffee is for companionship sake. One of the Roses, who has scoliosis, also has a nice big thick head of white hair and dresses fashionably. She keeps fit by walking about 18 blocks to church most days. She is acerbic, but friendly. She told a couple of stories. First she asked me if I noticed that in the yard of one house on Jackson and 16th, the owner has a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Rose told me that she always says, "Good morning, Mother. I love you" as she walks by. One day last week Rose said that same thing to the statue, and a voice replied, "Good morning" right at her elbow. She threw up her arms and thought, "Oh now it's talking back to me." But it was a neighborhood woman who was walking behind her and had just caught up to her.

She also said that her husband has been dead about 32 years now. A few weeks before he died, they went to a dance at the church, and (typically) she found fault with the whole affair. She told us that she kind of regrets saying to her husband as they were leaving, "That's the last dance you and I are ever going to."

They loaned me an umbrella because it had been drizzling when I first came out of church. By the time we left Rollo's though, it was clear, and I didn't neeed the umbrella after all. At home, I downloaded and filled out the Apple rebate form, cut out the UPC labels off the boxes, printed out the order from the website and put it all in an envelope to get $100 back.

And it hardly seemed like I got to anything else except a little laundry before it was time to prepare for tutoring.

When Carolyn and Christina came, Christina disappeared into the office to work on her online traffic school. Carolyn and I sat at the dining room table, as usual. She glued in her notes from last week from when she forgot her notebook. We read together from the text book and discussed the topics enough so she could fill in her worksheet for this week's homework. We did a little map work. We're learning about the battles at Concord and Lexington and the famous speech by Patrick Henry in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and parts of two poems, one by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about Paul Revere, and the other by Ralph Waldo Emerson about Patrick Henry's speech. I also taught her about the kid's poem: "You're a poet. You don't know it. Your feet show it. They're Longfellows."

When the hour was up, we moved to the kitchen table where we drew an outline of the state of Virginia so that Carolyn could cut it out, pad it with cotton balls, and create a stuffed state. Last week she thought she was creating a stuffed state of California, but she unwittingly created an outline that looked remarkably like the outline of Minnesota. This was an unplanned project that all started when she asked me what paste was, and I told her I'd show her how to make it out of flour and water. Cutting out shapes and stuffing them with cotton balls kind of just evolved.

Liberty came in to help because Christina was trying to play a video for me that she made when I was at their house after dinner last week. In the video Ryan was demonstrating martial arts and we were singing and goofing off. When Liberty came in I quoted, "Give me Liberty or give me death," but he was not amused. He couldn't get the DVD to play, either in the television or in either of our laptops.

I enjoy being part of that family's life. And it's fun to review American history.

I did some more work on preparing Morning Prayer at the Institute for Leadership in Ministry for a week from today. It is proving very difficult to get people to contribute or to cooperate. You have no idea. And it is very time consuming.

Called Annette. They sold the house and are moving about one and one half hours away to the south near Modesto where they are using the proceeds from Annette's house to put downpayments on two houses for her two married children side by side. Looks like the hard knock of almost losing the house may turn out to be a blessing. Annette seems to be recovering well from her heart surgery, but her foot still has a hole and infection in it. She has diabetes, so her feet get sores easily and they don't heal for years. She almost had a foot amputated a few years ago.

I had made an eggplant potatoe tomatoe stew Friday and so I had some of the leftovers for lunch. Around 5 , I made cole slaw (with lemon/oil dressing instead of mayonnaise), beets, boiled potatoes, and fried cod. Liberty joined me for dinner, and we watched Spellbound. I get a big kick out of documentaries like that one that are windows into other people's lives. The film started at the homes of some of the contestants in the National Spelling bee, in Texas, CA, Michigan, Washington D.C, and other places, before these children went to Washington to compete for the $10,000 prize. They and their families sat in their living rooms and their kitchens and bedrooms and showed the filmmakers how the students prepared. The most excessively thorough preparation was by a prosperous Indian family in San Clemente (I think) who tutored their son full time. During the day of the bee the grandfather back in India paid 1000 people to chant. If the boy won, the grandfather was prepared to feed 5,000 people in celebration. The boy didn't win . . . Liberty and I were routing for a darling little black girl from D.C., who didn't win either.

As usual, I fell asleep (this time while we were watching the special features on the DVD). Lib helped me up from the weird angle of the futon couch. After a stop in the bathroom, I went to bed.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Fri Day

Mass. Part of Office. Choir practice. No walk.

I deleted all the games on this computer a few months ago.I think I wrote that already.
So, I'll get right to the true confessions part. I played Addiction Solitaire from yahoo games for about two hours today.

Last night I mailed photos to Shirley and Theresa, and got a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) for the article I'm sending to the Atlantic Monthly. The article is the travel memoir I wrote after I came back from Theresa's wedding. I tweaked it a little. I sent them the poor quality photos, just in case they want to use them with the article, if they want the article.

Yesterday I posted the paper on my website about the sacrament of marriage for ILM.

Google finds my website, but the search function still isn't working correctly. It works fine here on my blog. Ah those computer mysteries.

I did succeed in ordering the Yoga video when the fulfillment house called me back.

What else did I do besides Mass, Choir practice, P.O., library, grocery shopping? Did a little filing and a little folding (of laundry), a little closet straightening, a little cleaning.

Time for bed.

Monday, January 12, 2004

T Day p.m.

After I wrote my first post today, Liberty wrote me and gave me his answer to my question in yesterday's blog about whether to submit the 14 page paper that tries to tell the whole history of sexual attitudes in our culture (and which may be seen as being off the point) or to return to my original outline and spend another day on that. He said of course I should send in the paper I already wrote and move on. So I did. Whew!

I added a Google search function to my website, but it does not find anything on my site because Google has not indexed my site. Since there are only two links to my site, one from this blog and another from, I don't have much hope of having Google find it (since they search sites that have lots of links from elsewhere). I'm going to wait and see if gets discovered by Google in the next few days. If not, I have to find another search option. Or not. It's not essential. Just seemed like a good thing to learn how to do. Next to do: Comments. My dilemna with Comment providers is that they want donations, and I would rather not. Since I'm out of work and should stop spending money like a drunken sailor (to add another cliche).

Time for another abrupt ending.

Or not. I made grilled salmon, honey-glazed carrots, and rice today for lunch. Saved some for Liberty for supper. Am starting aduki beans and brown rice. I remember loving the combination of little red beans, sesame seeds, and brown rice, but the last time I tried to make this dish, I didn't eat much of it. It didn't taste the same. Don't know if it's the same recipe.

Tried for the third time to order the Yoga for Scoliosis video for me, Lib, Lauren, and Angela Sullivan today. Elise's fulfillment house does not give you access to a person, and does not deal with complexities like your wanting to order videos to send to separate addresses. I wrote her for the second time and this time I asked her for an easier way. I don't think I'm the only one who would be turned off by the order method. She needs a shopping cart!

Moonglow and I are in touch after maybe five years. Today we planned to go next Monday to a matinee to see the movie Something's Got to Give, about an older woman Diane Keaton in her fifties having to choose between sweet and respectful Keanu Reeves and lecherous Jack Nicholson.

Moonglow and I are approximately the same age. She was studying at Radcliffe while I was at Brandeis, and we were both living in Cambridge after I dropped out and she didn't (not knowing each other) when Allen Ginsberg came to town. (I wrote up my experiences with him a few months ago. Need to post that story at my website soon. )

After I met George in Boston, we started to travel together, and we aimlessly travelled around the country and ended up in San Francisco in 1967 or so. After about 3 years, I headed east out of the city in the old orange VW van with husband, George, six-month old baby Liberty, a very frightened cat, on our way to start a new life in Fargo. The cat freaked out so badly while we drove across the Bay Bridge that we left it with Marv and Linda in Berkeley before we drove up Highway 5 -- into the biggest blizzard the West could remember in many a year. Fade into a white blur.

Then 19 or so years later, I returned to CA, this time to Silicon Valley, recruited and relocated by Sun for a tech writing position. I had "gone straight." After my divorce, I'd become a fundamentalist Christian, and then returned to the Catholic Church because of the Eucharist and because of the reliability of the Church's teaching authority. So when I came back here and started seeing that there were still thousands of Grateful Dead followers, I was surprised. I guess I thought leaving that scene was part of maturing.

Moonglow was a tech writer too at Sun, and she still followed the Dead. She moderated a Grateful Dead alias or news group, and like most Dead heads would go to five days of concerts in a row whenever the Dead set up a schedule. Each night would have a different set.

Some time ago, maybe five years, Moonglow got laid off. Next week will be the first time I see her since then. She is getting a degree someplace where her dissertation includes Alan Ginsberg and Timothy Leary.

I find it usually doesn't work out too well when I try to be friends with someone whose values are not like my own. Actually, whose values ARE like my own, except possibly the Pope? I cannot handle hearing people tell me about their sexual exploits. And since I don't have the same ribald, with it attitude that got me a certain amount of companionship in the 60s, I really don't have much to add. I just start thinking of how to tell them how there is a better way to live, that brings more-authentic happiness. And that puts a blanket (day's cliche total has now reached three) on things.

Now, I'll really stop.

T Day

Walk. Mass. Office. Morning Prayer. Rollo's doughnuts.

Bro. Charles announced that the poinsettas are free for the taking today since the Christmas season ended yesterday (on the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord). When I didn't go up because I was reading my prayers in the pew, watching sisters and ladies walking out with one or more pots, Bro. Charlie brought me the last straggler. When I walked into Rollo's Doughnuts with plans to offer the poinsetta to the nice Laotian owner, Rose told me it reminded her of the Christmas tree in Charlie Brown's Christmas.

The rest of my laid-off writing group and I have exchanged emails about this day. See for more about this topic.

I am pleased to have added a search function from google to my blog. I'm going to add one to my website too, now.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Tomorrow is T Day

Tomorrow is my termination day at Sun. I've been "on notification" since November 12. Tomorrow my email, Internet access (through VPN and and regular paychecks will end, and my badge will probably be disabled. I have been feeling grief about the impending end to it all for about a week now. Euphoria has kept me going for most of these past two months. Hope that this sadness and fear only hang around briefly.

Today: Walk. Mass. No Office. No Morning Prayer. Talked with Martha, Peggy, and Sunshine by phone. Liberty came in from the garage apt. for a few minutes. He came back later and changed two light bulbs for me, and I helped him bring the recyling and trash and yard waste out to the curb.

My energy is way down. After Mass, I played Solitaire at yahoo games until I went to bed for a nap. I had gone to great lengths to delete all the games on the PC, which kept me off the games for months, but last week I discovered Solitaire at the Games site, and now I'm a helpless zombie again who plays so long that my vision clouds, and my arm even got paralyzed one night.

Tomorrow brings lots to do to figure out about getting unemployment benefits, to mail the waiver that will entitle me to severance pay, sell stock, besides pay bills. The marriage paper has become an albatross around my neck (how's that for throwing in an old cliche in what is intended to be punchy writing?). I have spent at least 40 hours on it. I ended up turning it from a 3 page paper about how to deal pastorally with cohabiting couples who come to Church, and made it into a 15 page paper that could be a running start on a book that I have been only half humorously planning to write for years with the working title: Casualties of the Sexual Revolution. It pulls in Hugh Hefner, the Playboy Philosophy, Simone de Beauvoir, Freud, Cal Thomas, and I think at the end really doesn't address what we are supposed to write. Now that I've done that, should I spend another 6 to 8 hours writing the paper I outlined in the first place? Or should I submit the 14 page paper and move on with my life? Can't decide.

I don't like the fact the ILM treats St. Lawrence Church like a lecture hall. The newest guidelines (don't know if it is Canon Law) expressly forbid that. We were sitting facing the altar with two slide screens hanging down on either side, and behind the altar was the tabernacle -- with the presenter's back to it.

The first part of the day Saturday was a workshop on Sexual Misconduct. The leader is a Catholic, father of two kids. One of his examples was about a youth leader joking with a girl student's friends in her presence about how he couldn't stop fantasizing about the girl, and asking her for a date. The presenter talked about the inequalities of power, all the reasons why a secular teacher or anyone in authority should not try to date a student or subordinate. He didn't allude to the fact that sexual fantasies are immoral and that asking for a date with the goal to have sex with anyone is not something that any Catholic employee of the diocese should be doing. The bishop's guidelines do mention sins against the sixth commandment, thank goodness, among the list of forbidden activities for staff people.

Yesterday, I was late for the start of the ILM day at Lawrence Academy because I was bewildered by how to get closure on the paper. On top of everything the printer would only print two pages and then give me an Error:41. At which point, I would have to turn the printer off and on again. To print duplex I have to turn every odd numbered sheet around and feed it back into the printer by hand . Then there were the paper jams.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004


Light of the World, Composite Photo from  NASA

Light of the World, Composite Photo from NASA

Today is Epiphany. According to a post at a Yahoo liturgy group, the feast of Epiphany follows the 12th Day of Christmas. Until I saw that, I always thought Epiphany was the 12th Day of Christmas. One of the ways I observe Christmas is that I put my decorations up on Christmas Eve and take them down on January 7, the day after Epiphany. The end of the Church's celebration of Christmas is on January 11, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.

I inadvertently lied in my Christmas letter where I wrote that "new blatherings and the occasional profundity" were being added to my blog almost every day. But I'm back now after a hiatus to blather and attempt to be profound again in this new year.

In the weeks before Christmas, I had difficulty planning how to spend the day. I keep Advent pretty strictly to prepare for the coming of Christ. I know that celebrating His birth is the only thing that really matters. Advent consists of four weeks of waiting and lighting a new Advent candle every week and praying and looking forward to the coming of the Lord.

Keeping the four weeks before Christmas low-key makes Christmas more of a joyful day, rather than an anticlimax. In my experience, if you don't eat, drink, buy, cook, and decorate everything that the newspapers, magazines, and TV shows tell you that you need to eat, drink, buy, cook, and decorate in order to have a happy holiday, and if you don't go to every holiday party and sing every carol ahead of time, when the actual big day comes everything about it glows and warms and gratifies. So, on Christmas Day is when I try to start my Christmas celebration, not end it.

But making plans about how to celebrate Christmas Day itself after Mass are always emotionally charged, because on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and to a lesser extent on every Sunday I am driven by some leftover visions of family felicity that still dance in my head.

My past attempts at creating idealized family celebrations were doomed by the fact that nobody in my world but me wants to put on these tableaux vivantes I have always imagined. As a result, I am the only player, set designer, producer, carpenter, everything. Anyone else who might be present takes the role of "audience member." As a result, all the work falls on me, my feet and my back give out on me, And I get extemely resentful, with denied expectations raising their ugly little heads. No joy is had by anybody. When Mother is not happy, no one is happy.

These recollections discouraged me during Advent. And I just don't have the energy to do the things I used to do by myself or with the reluctant help of my children. For one thing, I didn't want to spend the day it would take me to buy and put up a tree and have to spend another a day or two to take the tree down and put all the decorations back into the basement after Epiphany. And, what made the tree hard to skip, was my remembering that I used to swear I would never have a Christmas without a tree, and it wouldn't be an artificial one either.

And presents, what would Christmas be without presents? Three weeks ahead of time I had sent email to Lib (at work at Cisco a few miles away) and Lauren (doing something that keeps her busy in Salem, Oregon) with suggestions about things I could use for Christmas present ideas. (Bigger steamer basket, travel clock from Fry's that is automatically in sync with the atomic clock, and my biggest wish, a new faucet from Orchard Supply that has a big curvy spout that you can stick any kind of big pot under, in brushed stainless steel, with a sprayer built in. I would really like to have a sprayer.)

Lauren wrote me back that she didn't want to do anything to celebrate Christmas, it stresses her too much. I agreed to that glumly. I just wish I could see her. The fact that I haven't seen her for about three years just kills me. This year, her girlfriend was planning to travel to Idaho to visit her family, and Lauren wanted to stay in their house alone stress free. Okay. fine. All I can say is "Ouch. Ouch. Ouch." My heart hurts. Not my physical heart. My mother's heart.

A few days in advance, Liberty asked me what I wanted, and then when I looked at him questioningly, he said he'd lost my email. We talked it over and decided not to exchange gifts. He said not having to get me a present was a present. He found the idea of shopping too stressfull too.

For me the only present I wasn't ready to do without was for him to accompany me to Christmas Mass.

I almost forgot to mention that we even decided that I wouldn't stuff stockings either. I always stuff stockings.

And we talked about what to do for Christmas dinner. I told him I didn't want to do all the cooking and be left with the clean up like I had been the last year. To my amazement, Liberty said, "Well what if we share the work?"

Liberty's friend Piers comes to holiday dinners pretty regularly the past couple of years. He used to come sporadically. One Easter, he came with a girlfriend, long since departed. His brother is living with him, so we invited both of them. They didn't have time with their work schedule to go their mother's in southern CA.

Liberty decided to ask his friend Piers and his brother Luke if they would want to cook something to contribute to the holiday meal. For our part, Liberty and I decided we would provide lamb. honey glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and salad. He bought a leg of lamb a few days ahead of time, and we went shopping Christmas Eve day for the vegetables. I threw a box of hazelnut centered chocolates into the cart, in place of the treats I usually put into the stockings, I told him. We planned to buy a pie from Baker's Square and bought some vanilla ice cream to top it. Buy a pie! Horrors, there goes another thing I said I'd never do.

He also bought all the items on a shopping list from Piers for the veggy dish Piers planned to cook. Liberty referred to it as "Orange Stuff," thought it would be a dip.

Piers and Luke really did make the "orange stuff," which they don't really call "orange stuff. " Incidentally, the dish is a delicious mix of steamed fresh green beans, carrots, pearl onions, brocolli, mushrooms, and zucchini, in a white sauce enriched by a big chunk of cream cheese melted in and topped with grated cheddar. Adding cream cheese puts the recipe a little over the top, but the rest of the recipe was similar to how The French Chef cookbook tells you how to cook vegetables, with the differences being that only one or two vegetables would be cooked together, and the white sauce would be called Veloute or Bechamel.

I marinated the lamb with garlic, rosemary from my garden, and red wine. And we all worked together on the rest of the dishes. It was a pleasure to be cooking with them instead of having to do it alone. Piers made a good stab at keeping the dishes washed up as we went along. And the more I thought about it, the more impressed I was that a guy in his mid thirties made a white sauce. Most American women I've met have cooked their whole lives without making a white sauce. In American cuisine, Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup is our white sauce.

Before the big day came, I was afraid that in spite of myself I would feel deprived at having no gifts. But then God provided in that area too.

My friend Marlene had early on sent gifts that I'd laid out on the coffee table still wrapped. Then to my surprise, on December 23, Anna Pham, who owns the Pho World Vietnamese soup restaurant in Milpitas, called me and asked if I would be home that night. She came with two bags of wrapped gifts (!) which I added to the gifts that Marlene had sent.

I started to feel like I was living an O'Henry short story. Anna said to me, "You probably don't remember this but about 10 years ago you gave us a gift of money when we weren't doing very well." "I do remember," I said. "I was afraid you might have been offended. I remember that you gave me that big glass plate stamped with Christmas scenes in return." I gestured towards the hutch where I'd displayed the plate, then I stopped because I remembered that I'd given the plate away a few years ago.

When I used to live nearby in the Mill Creek apartment complex, I ate fairly frequently at the Pho restaurant. I didn't used to talk with Anna hardly at all, because she was usually in the back room cooking and directing the staff, and she wasn't as outgoing as her husband Min. In his own inimitable way, Min played schmoozing restauranteur, greeting people, making jokes, trying to establish rapport.

To tell the truth, Min actually only makes one joke. You go to the register to pay on the way out, and he inflates your bill. "That will be 500 dollars," for a five dollar purchase.

"I used to be a technical writer too," he told me once. I heard him tell another customer he used to be an engineer like him too. And another time he told me he had the same birthday as I do, October 3, 1945, and I was very touched that we two were born on the same day so many miles apart, me in the United States, and him in Vietnam. I guess you could say I had been very touched (in the head) to have believed him.

Their daughter Mary and son Teddie also worked there. Mary was about 15 when I first went there, with long black hair past her waist, clear-skinned, and slender. Men's eyes would follow her, and she would toss her long hair as she walked by them. Then the kids went to college. Teddy to Renseller Technical Institute and Mary to San Jose State.

I was alone the year that I gave the Phams money. Liberty and Sunshine were living in Minnesota. The last time I had been to the restaurant, Min had told me they would be working their usual 12 hour day on Christmas, that they had no money.

During the early evening on that Christmas Day, I had dropped by with one of my Christmas cards and letters with 40 or 50 dollars in the envelope. Now Anna told me that they used the money to buy a mop they hadn't been able to afford. That mop was long since replaced by another one, she said, but she still thinks of me when they clean the floor.

I never gave them money on any other Christmas because of what happened one Saturday the next Spring, when I went to the restaurant. Mary was in college and still working there weekends. "Come look at the cheap car my father bought me." She brought me out through the back screen door to show me a Mercedes. After that I didn't know what to think. I guess I thought that their poverty had been another one of Min's little jokes.

Now I understand that at least for that one Christmas day, that family didn't have enough spare money to buy a mop, and that something prompted me to give them enough money to buy one.

I have gotten to be more friendly with Anna than Min over the years because she started showing up at daily Mass in St. John's in Milpitas. This gave me my first chance to talk to her away from the cash register.

Anna went on to tell me this too, "I wasn't Catholic until I married. And Min doesn't teach me anything, but you taught me. Thank you." She saw my giving them a gift as a lesson in how to be a Catholic!

Oh my this is humbling.

The truth is that I know I got more back from them than I gave. Most of the times I've visited the restaurant since then, Min either gives me the food free or gives me something new to try at no cost. In the nine or ten years since then, I have probably eaten way more than $50 worth of free chicken salad, tapioca and bean deserts, spring rolls, vietnamese coffee, and pho.

There's even more to this story of the multiplication of gifts.

The day after Anna came by after I was done shopping with Liberty, I dropped a Christmas card and letter off at Annette's house. Annette stood at the top of the stairs at her bedroom door. Because she is still recovering from a valve replacement and triply bypass on Thanksgiving, she didn't come down. Davide and Nia the two grandchildren who live there pranced in front of her and greeted me and then pranced away.

Annete's daughter Angela's mother-in-law Truda is staying there to help Annette while she recuperates. Truda came out in the upstairs hallway and said hello too, and then she called for Angela, because, Truda said, I had to stay until Angela gave me something. When she appeared, Angela handed me a wicker laundry basket she'd decorated with cloth poinsettas and a big red ribbon and filled with Avon products and other gifts and a tin of homemade cookies the kids had made. I got tears in my eyes. "I didn't get you anything this year." "But you usually do," Angela said.

At the end of my first officially giftless Christmas day, after we were done with dinner, I gave the three guys and myself airplane kits I'd picked up at half price at Baker's Square when I bought the pie. We sat in the living room and assembled them, consulted among ourselves about how to best wind the rubber bands that power the propellers, and went off to Baquesto Park. It gets dark early this time of year, and the park was muddy. But no matter.

We'd wind up the planes and launch them, and then we'd lose track of them unless they passed through the dim orange glow of one of the energy efficient streetlights. I'd put my tail assembly on backwards, so I had to create some fake flaps, but even so my plane flew tolerably well. Piers's plane was such a good flyer that it landed high in one of the park's sycamores. While Luke and Liberty and I kept flying and trying to avoid mud and puddles, Piers was occupied for 20 minutes throwing sticks until his plane finally came free. I think that Scrooge might have envied us, three young men and an old gal, in our silly pursuit, if he had been watching with the Ghost of Christmas Present.

It was so much fun that I forgot to open my gifts until the following day.

I want to try giftless Christmas again next year.