Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lean and Mean

I never liked the expression, "lean and mean." I don't know its origin, but it has been around a long time. As a child, I used to wonder what good it did to be lean if you were going to be mean to go along with it. It didn't help that one of the few mean teachers I had was also lean. Could this have anything to do with my resistance to weight-loss programs?

I did an internet search on "lean and mean," hoping to find out the origin of this expression; but with no success. The commercial world uses "lean and mean" to describe a highly efficient business model. The website, usingEnglish.com, says that "an organization that is lean and mean has no excess or unnecessary element and is very competitive."

Here on Bywater Farm, this month has been dedicated to disposing of clutter. I've been thinking that our object was to get "lean and mean." But I can't imagine a home that has absolutely no unnecessary elements - and my object is certainly not to compete with any other homes.

I love language - words - old sayings - and when I get one on my mind, I'm like a dog chewing a bone. I've been chewing on "lean and mean" for a few days now. I vaguely remember studying about the Golden Mean - that perfect balance between excess and deficiency. I'm not sure the idea originated with Aristotle, but he talked about it a lot. It occurs to me that "lean and mean" can take on a whole new meaning depending on your definition of the individual words, "lean" and "mean."

Did you know that "mean" can be an adjective, adverb, verb, or noun? A very versatile word! The first listing in Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary is the definition that we're all familiar with - the one that gives "mean" a bad name. Here are some synonyms: common, shabby, contemptible, inferior, stingy, low-minded. I'm surprised that "hateful" isn't listed as a synonym. If somebody told you his Aunt Matilda was a mean person, wouldn't you think she was hateful? If you really put some thought into this, you have to reach the conclusion that even the most impersonal corporation wouldn't want to be "lean and mean," using this definition of "mean."

Since I have a tenacious streak, I waded through all the definitions of "mean." I finally arrived at the seventh listing which reads, "occupying a middle position; occurring between the limits or extremes." Aristotle would approve.

"Lean" is as versatile as "mean," and not all its definitions are attractive either - for example: meager, poor, scanty, deficient, skinny, scrawny. Of course, "lean" also has some highly attractive synonyms like "thin" and "slender." But here is my favorite definition of "lean" - "an artistically effective economy of style or expression."

In the not too distant past I thought of "lean and mean" as "scrawny and hateful" and wondered why anybody would aspire to this condition. But from now on I'll think of "lean and mean" as "an artistic balance between extremes." Now don't you think that's an improvement?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Christmastide Gives Way to Epiphany

I've been listening to Christmas CDs all day. It's the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and I guess I'm having trouble letting go. But Christmas gives way to the season of Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the Magi, those mysterious Wise Men - more about them later. Epiphany lasts until Lent so we have plenty of time to ponder the Magi.

The Twelfth Day is supposed to remind us of the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed. I admit that I had to google "the twelve points of belief." I memorized the Apostles' Creed when I was a child, but nobody ever separated it into twelve parts for me. Here it is, compliments of an ecumenical website:

1. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,

2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord,

3. Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,

4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell.

5. The third day he rose again from the dead;

6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

7. From there he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,

9. I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,

10. The forgiveness of sins,

11. The resurrection of the body,

12. And the life everlasting. Amen.

I think this division into twelve parts is a good idea. It seems like it would make the creed easier to memorize. Just keep in mind that part four is not the same in all churches. Some churches omit the "He descended into hell" part.

I'll begin packing away the Christmas decorations this week. Maybe I'll let the Magi figurines and their camels hang out on the mantle a little bit longer while I think about them and their mission. To be continued . . .

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Horse's New Year's Night

At about 8:30 last night I thought the Israeli-Hamas war had moved into our neighborhood, but it was just the kids next door setting off the loudest firecrackers I've ever heard. I stepped out on the side porch to see how the horses were handling the excitement. I was glad that the pasture had dried up some since the last rain. If the horses start running when the pasture is muddy, I worry about one of them sliding in the mud and crashing into the fence. It has never happened, but that doesn't keep me from worrying about the possibility.

A new round of firecrackers was being lit in the neighbor's driveway just as I arrived on the porch. There was no moon last night, but I could see Tesoro, Rocky, and Fay silhouetted against the lights from the neighbor's carport. The three of them raced to the corner of the pasture that was farthest away from the loud, flashing firecrackers. They stayed in that corner, but turned around to watch what was going on next door.

When that string of firecrackers was spent, there was a few minutes of quiet. At this point curiosity outweighed fear. The horses walked over to the side of the pasture nearest the neighbor and looked over the fence as if to say, "What's the matter? Aren't y'all gonna do some more?" Then the kids lit another round, and the herd of three took off for the far corner again where they watched until there was another interval of quiet. Then they ambled back over to the neighbor's side of the pasture and repeated the whole sequence. I decided the horses were having fun, so I went back in the house to finish watching an episode of Monk I had started earlier.

I thought about Monk today when I went shopping at the Whole Foods Market. There's a container at the entrance that dispenses anti-bacterial wipes so you can clean your hands and the handle on the shopping cart. Monk would approve.

Nine ladies dance on the ninth day of Christmas to remind us of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. No doubt, these are the ingredients of a happy life and it pays to cultivate them all.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

We had a ham casserole, fried cabbage, and field peas for our New Year’s Day meal. I know you’re supposed to have black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, but I hate black-eyed peas. And in case you haven’t noticed, field peas have cute little black eyes. They just don’t show up on their little brown skins as well as the black eyes show up on black-eyed peas with their white skins. So I think field peas fit the occasion just fine. Besides, I forced myself to eat black-eyed peas with my cabbage last year and look what happened to the stock market! ------- But wait - isn’t it green cabbage that’s supposed to keep the financial world on track? Refresh my memory - what role do peas play? I’m not very well versed in New Year’s symbolism, but I enjoyed my lunch anyway.

This is the eighth day of Christmas. Eight maids are a-milking which is supposed to remind us of the beatitudes. Here they are - all eight of them - from Matthew 5:3-10 (RSV) -

1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
2. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
3. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
5. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
6. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
7. Blessed are the peace makers for they shall be called the sons of God.
8. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I don’t see a thing in this list that our current society puts a high premium on. In fact, if our materialistic, secular society came up with some beatitudes, they might look something like this:

1. Blessed are those who are puffed up with pride and push everybody else around, for theirs are the earthly kingdoms.
2. Blessed are those who party hard, for they will inherit a good time.
3. Blessed are the aggressive, for they can take what they want.
4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after pop culture, for they will be popular.
5. Blessed are those who get even, for they won’t be taken advantage of.
6. Blessed are those with devious hearts, for nobody will be able to figure them out.
7. Blessed are those who stir up trouble, for peace is so boring.
8. Blessed are those who are persecuted for political correctness’ sake, for they will have fame - and probably fortune, too, since they will be able to sue somebody and win.

But you know what? Society’s skewed values are nothing new. They have been around since the beginning of time. The beatitudes make it clear that heaven and earth are polar opposites - which is why Paul said, "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2) It’s a tall order, but we can do it - with God’s help, of course. Yes, we can!