I'm going to be out of town for a week or so, so I thought I'd run a number of really old essays, all of which were hand-written at first, before being typed into an electric typewriter. They don't exist as manuscripts anymore, so I'm scanning them out of a book published more than thirty years ago, when I was, I suppose, something of a different human being, as we all were over time. I certainly recognize a younger self here, someone more sure of himself and his place in God's world. [This one even includes a drawing by Norm Matheis.]
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I love lake perch, and so do my parents. When I was a boy my family would (very infrequently) venture out to a lakeshore tavern for deep-fried lake perch. Somehow, fresh lake perch tasted great in a tavern, even though the Calvinist culture in which I was reared hinted that something originally sinful breathed and grew in that dimly lit world.
But my parents would chance the moody darkness and the seductive icy tinkling just for a bite of lake perch, with an order of coleslaw in a stout paper cup. Together we'd sit there and pray while the girl in the black stockings waited with a dish full of tartar sauce. In the world, I suppose, but not of it.
And it seemed to me then, a ten-year-old covenant child, ill-at-ease in the foggy and dark city of man, that my bowed head made me even more conspicuous than I already was, even more of an outsider in an elbows-up world of friendly conversation. Just being in a bar was enough of a shock when I was a boy. Praying so noticeably seemed akin to lugging a cross through the swinging doors and hoisting it up on our table, a unneeded demonstration of something we didn't really have to bring up. Even without a bowed head I felt purple.
At twenty, everything my parents did was not only embarrassing, but also plain wrong. So I'd smile at the bar girl when she stood there waiting for my father's head to come up, a fancy Pabst tray full of drinks in hand and a bottle of ketchup for our fries m the other. I'd smile as if l knew exactly what she was thinking. Confident of the breadth of my learning, at twenty l was confident such public prayer rose, at most, to the haze of cigarette smoke at the ceiling-only that far.
Such silly piety, l would have said then, flows from either of two purposes, neither of which is sincere motivation. Maybe it's custom: my father has prayed through years of meals, and the habit is so thoroughly fixed within him that he cannot eat without satisfying the urge of ritual.
But custom alone is not motivation enough for prayer, l would have argued. Worse, maybe it's a desire to witness: the outside chance that one of the men bellied up to the bar will note my fathers bowed head and start mending his ways that very evening.
But talking to God so others can see you smacks of the hypocrites in Matthew 6: "They love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at street corners, that they may be seen by men.” Wrong, wrong, wrong, I would have said, at twenty. Wrong, wrong, l would have said at twenty.