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Monday, July 16, 2012

Sunday Morning Questions

Why do people still go to church? After all, Sunday mornings are a lot easier if you just get out the waffle iron to feed the kids, peruse the thick Sunday paper (if your neighbors don't steal if before you get up), and think languidly about an afternoon in the park.

A lot of people think this way, apparently, according to Ross Douthat's piece in Sunday's New York Times. He writes that, especially in liberal denominations, attendance is plummeting -- 23 percent in the Episcopal Church over the last 10 years, for example. However, the conservative wing of the faith is not doing so well either.

On the conservative side of the church, we have the Southern Baptists, who have taken the bizarre step of adding a homemaking curriculum to their seminaries, so that women will learn how to cook and sew for their husbands. Too many churches have substituted praise bands for choirs and replaced pulpits with tall stools, to make things more homey (not necessarily a bad thing), but they have also substituted messages about personal growth and prosperity for teaching about the parts of the New Testament that are a little hairier than the Easter and Christmas messages. (The Old Testament? We don't need that.)

On the liberal side of the church, over the past 50 years, the Episcopalians and their adherents have welcomed just about every type of theology and every trend that modern culture has brought along with it.

As a result, the distinctive message of Christianity is slowly vanishing. All you really need to understand the truth that is coming out of many churches -- emergent or not -- is a Nativity scene and a cross. The problem, of course, is that when these items become reduced to symbols, they are peers with every other symbol out there. Instead of piers that give us stability, they become trinkets.

Liberal theologian Gary Dorrien summarizes the crisis this way: "liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God's holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good? When the social gospelers spoke of the authority of Christian experience, they took for granted their own deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer, and worship."

But back to my earlier question. Why should we go to church? I can meet my friends in other places, at more convenient times. I can do volunteer work whenever I want. There has to be a pressing reason for me to roust the family, throw them into the car, and head to that building with a steeple on it.

We can make the Church emergent if we want. We can turn it into a network of coffee houses, or a giant megabuilding with huge parking lots, or a series of homes. But the venue won't matter if what happens inside isn't about the truth.

It can be relevant to our lives. It can make us feel better. It might even challenge us for 15 minutes, until the pastor gives us the answer. It might even warm our hearts.

Guess what? We can find all of that on television. We don't need the Church to do that.

Instead, we need the Church to teach us the way of Christ. We need the Church to show us the gospel. As we grow in the faith, we need to start teaching others these things.

This doesn't involve judgment, or dusty questions of arcane doctrine. Jesus didn't have much to say about postmillennial or premillenial tribulationism, or soteriology, as you might have noticed. He called people to live according to the truth -- and when people were around Him, they didn't have a hard time figuring out what that meant.

It does involve a set of distinctive ways of living, and of believing. When we lose that distinctiveness, we are no longer the Church. When we try to be like everyone else, we end up being like the Southern Baptists, who managed to hold decades of worship services without ever confronting the wrongs of slavery or Jim Crow. We end up being like the giant megachurches, who fill their seats regularly for the weekly motivational speech, without transforming many lives. We end up being like the Episcopalians, who have lost none of the pageantry of worship, but who seem to have lost all of the rationale.

If we want the Church to do these things for us, though, we have to be willing to do them for the Church, and in the Church. Because, in the final analysis, the Church isn't another movie theater or cable channel. It is what we make it, in our clumsy attempts to worship God.

And that is why we go.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Road Trip!

Pocket KingsPocket Kings by Ted Heller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With the passing of Ray Bradbury went one of the most prescient minds in all of literature. Two of his creations from "Fahrenheit 451" have taken a pit bull's grip on the way we interact with one another: the Seashell, with which Guy's wife withdraws from him at night to listen to her own music, and the parlor walls that show television programs. The ultimate media purchase, of course, was the four-wall parlor that would show holographic television shows in the middle of the room -- making it as though the owners had a new set of friends over for the evening.

Fast forward to the Walkman, and now the iPod in all of its forms. Fast forward to the online avatar, behind which any person can take on a new identity and actually BE that identity, at least as far as the rest of the chat room knows.

Enter Frank W. Dixon. No, he's not the pseudonymous group of men who wrote all of those "Hardy Boys" books, although people mistake him for that conglomerate when he goes into bookstores looking for his own published work. Instead, he is a novelist who has written one decent novel, one bad novel, and then a third that is so dark and depraved that it disgusts the editorial assistants to whom he sends it. Indeed, his own agent has stopped contacting him -- even enough to release Frank's book back to him.

Caught in writer's limbo, Dixon has a full-time job (the nature of which we never really learn) and a beautiful wife, but neither are enough to assuage the growing hole in his self-esteem. And so he turns to the world of online poker, becoming the avatar Chip Zero. Even as he gains weight and starts to look insane in real life, he takes on a grandiose form in the poker room, attracting the attentions of the Artsy Painter Gal and the watchful eye of the Second Gunman. Over the course of the story, Chip Zero builds up over half a million in winnings. Unfortunately, he forgets what it is like to be engaged in the real world. He goes to working half-days and then quits altogether; he sets up an all too real week of adultery in London with the Gal, only for his wife to find out (and for the week to have an even weirder conclusion).

The story is all too predictable, though, careening towards an ending that you can, if you want, guess about halfway into the book. The first-person narrator starts to sound like Richard Lewis in any of his appearances on "Crub Your Enthusiasm" after about 8 1/2 pages. Which is good if you like that sort of thing. The plot moves quickly, and there are some nice comedic touches, such as the banter on the cross-country cab ride that Chip Zero, Second Gunman and the Toll House Cookie (yes, THC) take in real life from New York City to Vegas, only to find that real-life poker is much too scary for them; they end up spending the week gambling via laptop.

However, I don't like watching traffic accidents unfold over the course of several hours or days, and while I was reading, I would keep waiting for Frank to slap himself in the face, to wake up and realize the depths to which he has sunk, the life that he is missing. The only question, of course, is whether he will realize that he still has hands.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Want to See the Future? Are you Sure?

Blackbirds (Miriam Black, #1)Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've always been a sucker for stories that bend the space-time continuum a little bit (or a lot). Whether it's the Old Testament story of the sun staying up in the middle of the sky for 24 hours in a row while Joshua defeated the Amorites, the incessant wandering of the soul of Sam Beckett in "Quantum Leap," the daily stresses of Gary Hobson, who woke up every morning on "Early Edition" to a newspaper that would tell him that day's coming tragedy, so that he could stop it in time, or even Bill Murray's confinement within Groundhog Day, it always interests me to see what authors do -- and how characters end up responding -- when the rules of time change.

And so when I saw Chuck Wendig's paperback "Blackbirds" on a "Recommended" stack at the local library, I had to pick it up. Miriam Black, his main character, can tell when someone is going to die just by touching them. She envisions their death and knows the day and the hour. Mind you, she cannot intervene; somehow the system knows that she's coming, and so her interference in the fate of that person ends up being the cause of their death.

Not a happy way to live. She's taken off to the roads, wandering as a modern-day hobo. A con artist named Ashley notices her odd behavior -- meeting up with strange people just before they die. She tries to save them, but she can't. But she can't stop trying. And so she takes up -- briefly -- with Ashley, but at the same time, she sees the death of a kind trucker named Louis. The twist: she is present at his death scene, as he calls out her name.

Ashley, unfortunately, has irritated some meth dealers. Not just your average East Texas-gas station kind of dealers, but the ones who are psychotically involved in the maintenance of product and profit. Ingersoll practices the sort of cruelty that makes Jigsaw seem a bit like Fred Rogers, and he has gathered two lackeys, Harriet and Frankie. Harriet is on board with Ingersoll's clinically cruel hatred of the world, but Frankie still has one foot planted in reality. At the end, though, it is the way that Miriam deals with Ingersoll -- and with the reason that she gained the ability to see death in the first place -- that gives the story its interest and intrigue.

The plot glides along like a police car on the oil slick that James Bond used to be able to send out behind his racer with the push of a button. The punches come so quickly that, when redemption comes, you almost miss it. Funny how life is like that.

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Stand Your Ground

As the media try to convict George Zimmerman for such offenses as telling his wife to wear a bulletproof vest while she goes around town, thanks to the frenzy that the media continues to look for wood to pour on the fire it started, using the tragedy of Trayvon Martin as its kindling, two other cases have also popped into the public eye: the trial of Jerry Sandusky, and the death of Jesus Mora Flores.

No matter whether George Zimmerman ends up in prison, thanks to a jury that would have decided to get the stench of Casey Anthony out of Florida jurisprudence and just convict SOMEBODY in a famous case, or whether the judge realizes that it's not a sign of depraved indifference toward human life (a key element in second-degree murder by Florida law) and throws the whole thing out, sending Zimmerman home, or something in between, his life is over.

No, he's not dead, but he will have the same shadowy existence of Casey Anthony, hiding in a house and (maybe) blogging about how he can't do anything or go anywhere.

Maybe he deserves it. Or maybe justice is more elusive, more slippery, than anything we can mete out in a news cycle. But when Trayvon Martin's mother abruptly backed off from her eerily accurate portrayal of the situation as a "tragic accident," this matter officially became a cause for the Powers that Be to use, rather than a horrific confluence of bad decisions.

But the trial of Jerry Sandusky and the death of Jesus Mora Flores also bring the question of justice back to the table. Who is Flores, you ask? Well, he allegedly grabbed the 4-year-old daughter of a rancher in Lavaca County, Texas (a bit east of San Antonio) and headed for a "secluded area" on the property. When the rancher found out, he went and called for his daughter. When she screamed, he ran to her. A few minutes later, Flores was dead. The sheriff's department investigated it as a homicide, but the county prosecutor decided not to press charges.

The question has flown across the blogosphere...should this rancher "get away" with killing the man that he saw abusing his daughter?

So, you see your daughter being molested...are you supposed to ask the guy to stop? Or just yell at him? Or call the police and wait for them to get there?

Which, of course, brings us to the Jerry Sandusky trial. As Rick Reilly poignantly asks, why is this trial even happening? Why are these abuse victims being forced to testify -- and be cross-examined -- about the horrors of their childhood? Is hearing all of this, and then waiting for a jury to say what everyone already knows, justice for anyone? Will a life sentence in protective custody be justice? Or would it be a power outage in the general population one night, with Sandusky in the middle of the rec room when the lights go out?

The law is one of the mechanisms that we use to keep order. It's a hamhanded mess at times, but only because we are flawed as individuals. We lie, we make excuses, and we want to simplify what happens to other people into five-word sentences or, when possible, pictures and YouTube videos. We also want revenge, in as grisly a fashion as possible.

But then we second-guess each other. We wonder if what we did was really right, or whether or not people in horrifying moments could just have done something different. After all, if Mike McQueary had picked up a folding chair in the locker room and brained Sandusky when he saw him in the showers with his victim, Victims 1 through 10 would not be going back through hell now.

But what if Sandusky had been with his victim in the shadows between two buildings? And wearing a hoodie? And a different ethnicity? And the victim had run away before the police could show up? Where would McQueary be today? Would Joe Paterno still be coaching? Would he still be alive?

That's the problem with living the way we do. We want things to be simple, to be easy. We want what we want, when we want it. Unfortunately, we forget that the people we use are also individuals, not tools for our bidding. We also forget that when tragedy strikes others, and the Today Show or Bill O'Reilly package that tragedy for our consumption, that there is often far more at work than we will ever take the time to consider.

Three cases....three sets of unanswerable questions.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Two Empty Suits and the Oval Office

Taft 2012Taft 2012 by Jason Heller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you follow my reviews, you know that I am setting mysteries down for a while. I'm not liking any of them, which might not be fair to the people who read this, because they might be good.

So my new rule has been that a book must contain a very cool concept, or at least have been well received by an author who is very impressive to me. Yes, very subjective, but that's why anyone with a keyboard and an imagination can set up one of these blog things.

The concept behind "Taft 2012" mirrors a concept that I have had in mind for a book of my own for a long time. Luckily, the concept isn't so close that mine will look like plagiarism, if it ever finds its way to a publisher, but here it is: William Howard Taft, instead of slinking away after his four years in the White House to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a few years later (by the way, he was the only President to do that), simply disappears on the morning of President Wilson's inauguration in March of 2013. He appears again, in the same place where he was napping on the White House grounds in 2011, having napped in some sort of wormhole for 98 years.

He is clearly not an impostor: he knows the Presidential ID code that all Chief Executives, at least in this fictive world, have had since Andrew Johnson was in the White House, and his DNA matches samples that were preserved in the detritus of information that was taken from him way back in the days of the Titanic.

Of course, he clearly represents a conundrum to the world of 2012. Yes, he gets a pension just like all of the other ex-Presidents (thankfully, not retroactive to 1913). He gets Secret Service protection.

Meanwhile, all around him is swirling the Presidential campaign of 2012. President Obama, although unnamed specifically, hovers in the background, running against an equally (in the view of the book) unimpressive unnamed Republican opponent. Taft, still finding his way around this new world, has a great-granddaughter serving in the Congress -- from his own home district in Cincinnati. He becomes an object of curiosity and (somewhat) odd attention when he happens out into his environs in D.C.

Then, an interesting thing happens. A talk show host, and a host of bloggers, decide that this mild Republican Progressive is just what the American public needs, in the giant vacuum between the Secular Moral Majority, which is what the Republican Party has become (at least in this writer's opinion) and the Former Liberals Occupying the Middle by Default. Neither party has great ideas; neither party has workable solutions to the nation's problems; neither nominee has the courage to voice an opinion stronger than a weather report.

And so why not Taft? In 1912, he was belittled by the great TR for having let down his vision of the Chief Executive as holder of the "Big Stick." In 2012, though, his notions that people should think freely, act decently, and take care of one another when needed strike a chord with the American public.

Until we find out who is bankrolling this grassroots movement. But that would spoil things. I will say that processed foods are also a source of the author's (and Taft's) venom in this story.

And so Mr. Heller's book is whimsical, somewhat silly at times, but at other times it is spot on. The characters are a bit flat, although Taft's New Year's Eve romp with a punk rocker made me laugh out loud. After all, this was a man that had to be pried out of the White House bathtub, because he was just that large. In the era BEFORE high fructose corn syrup and the Happy Meal.

The narrative structure hops around, from straight story to quotes from his assistant, to surveys taken in the news, to "rants and raves" posted on Craig's List. This gives the book more of a documentary feel, like this is more of a look at a political movement than a novel. The end result is a fake political movement, along with its own real website. It definitely blurs the lines between reality and fiction, but not any more so than, say, The Audacity of Hope did.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of the most "important" political issue of our time consisting of gay marriage, while Syrian children die by the truckload under the thumb of Assad. I'm tired of our leadership waiting for their underlings to tiptoe out to important positions to see if they will be victims of public outcry before the leadership itself will take those positions. I'm tired of leaders settling for easy answers, or even no answers at all, because they don't think we're paying attention.

So in between reading these outstanding reviews, and checking Facebook for status updates, do something to change the world. One outrage at a time.

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My Last Mystery...for a While

Or the Bull Kills YouOr the Bull Kills You by Jason Webster

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First of all, I'm willing to concede that I've read too many mysteries lately. The newest C.J. Box offering, for example, Cold Wind, answered all of my questions about Joe Pickett's mother-in-law, in a way that was much too easy, with some preaching about wind turbine energy that I found just as annoying as I find all of that dreck that Nathaniel Hawthorne lined The Scarlet Letter with, in order to transform it from a 50-page story into a novel.

Of course, I may also just need to change genres for a while. Stephen King, for example. I'm a huge fan of his, but the last two I've read from him barely cracked three stars. Again, it may be that familiarity breeds contempt.

So, with "Or the Bull Kills You," I changed authors (this is Jason Webster's debut novel, after a nonfiction career) and countries (I've not read a novel set in Spain since "Don Quixote" in high school). At least I don't think I have.

This is a novel about bullfighting and about love. The main character, Max Camara, is a homicide detective in the town of Valencia, assigned to solve the murder of the flamboyant and successful bullfighter Jorge Blanco. Not only was Blanco murdered, but the attacker tried to hack off some very private parts of the torero before running away.

Yes, Camara has been dogged by allegations of police brutality in prior cases. His superior is ready to can him, or at least demote him to a very menial position in the civil service. He fights against the political establishment in the whole city. A hot girl hits on him, but then she ends up moving away (oh yeah, spoiler alert, if you couldn't see that coming). He leads a tortured existence, so he starts drinking when he wakes up, and fortunately his grandfather grows pot for the two of them.

By the time these cliches have stopped landing on your head, you'll also find that the bullfighter was engaged to an older woman clinging to notions of her beauty (think of someone between Madonna and Carmen Electra on the age/sensuality scale), but also secretly gay. No, the gay lover didn't kill him. But I won't tell you who did.

So, I've come to two conclusions after reading this book. I think there was a lot of cool description of the "Fallas" festival that happens in Valencia each year, but I was distracted by all of the meaningless maudlin meandering that took up too much of this book.

But I might also be worn out on mysteries. So, I'm not reading any more until the library notifies me that my hold on James Lee Burke's newest, Creole Belle, is ready for me to pick up. This should be sometime in July or August.

If you like pensive detectives with a dark side, then by all means go for it. If you pay attention early on, you'll solve the mystery in the first 80 pages. But if you don't, and if you do enjoy reading a man's thoughts after he has been dumped, for page after page, then this might be the summer read for you. Just don't expect things to turn out well.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

Love Lifted Me...but not Jack Black

If you go north out of Dallas on U.S. 75, or east on Interstate 20 or 30, or even south on Interstate 45, it does not take much for you to notice the scenery changing. In Dallas, only the established wealthy and the poor have large trees in their yards; everywhere else, the subdivisions were put in by leveling the trees first. As you travel from the city, though, you'll notice the world turning greener, with an increasing number of pine trees. If you roll down the windows, you'll pick up that scent that trees and grass give off after a warm rain, unless it's the wintertime. Your allergies might start bothering you, but somewhere down in your bones you will realize, even if only subconsciously, that you are not far from barbecue, from corn on the cob, from a steamy pie with a side of hand-cranked ice cream. You'll be tempted to stop for a while.

If you do pull off the road and spend some time in an East Texas town, you'll see that this is not like any other part of the state. Some call this the place in Texas where the Old South begins, and while Louisianans are quite different from East Texans in many ways, with the magic of Cajun and creole, the similarities do pick up again in Tennessee and Arkansas. West of I-45 and U.S. 75, things are different. There are the granola culture in Austin, the desert moonscape of the Rio Grande Valley and southwest Texas, and the culture of Dallas, a place so artificial in so many ways that nature has even responded, giving us the humidity that befits a harbor, even though the sea is 300 miles away.

But in East Texas, you'll see a region that has coalesced into small towns that are fiercely loyal to their own, that mistrust the outsider and despise the snob. Everyone in your town will know your business, which can be a good thing when you need help, but can be a bad thing when your life turns upside down, because everywhere you go, people know about it. This is not an area in which homeowner's associations and zoning laws do well, because of the individualism that runs like a high-voltage power line through the area -- at least as far as personal rights go.

The church is the hub of the community in East Texas, in ways that larger cities have lost. In other parts of the world, there are synagogues and mosques and churches that have services in multiple languages -- but not in East Texas. In larger cities, more and more people are staying away from church, and megachurches and emergent churches and coffeehouse churches are trying to find them and bring them back in, but that movement has not made into the Piney Woods yet. Yes, the church is a place of worship, but it's also a place to maintain your friends, to hear the latest news, to see and be seen.

When I was a child, my great-uncle was a Baptist pastor who served several of these small churches in Grayson and Fannin Counties. My own family went to one of the largest churches in Dallas, and so when I went to visit my great-aunt and great-uncle, things were definitely different. The people in the churches that Uncle Harold served were happy to see me and remembered my name, even if it had been months since I had been there. There were no columns or arches in those churches, and the stained glass was probably plastic, and the organ had no pipes, but the feeling in those churches was warmer in those places, and it seemed like there was no place for anyone who was not genuine.

Of course, if you were different from those around you, you had to work harder to fit in. And that's where the story of Bernie Tiede comes in.

Bernie was a mortician's assistant in the town of Carthage, Texas. He was a single man in his late 30's with what his boss described as an amazing sense of how to design the inside of a funeral home, and how to serve the needs of the bereaved families, especially the elderly widows. He would dote on the elderly women in town after they had lost their husbands, and his singing voice and flair for the preparation of corpses for open-casket funerals made him one of the most beloved people in town. Even if he was seen as "effeminate," which might mean that people thought he was a closeted homosexual. In a town like that, there is no diversity that will ever be officially recognized; instead, you carry out your affairs privately.

Marjorie Nugent was a prickly widow who was known to be mean before her husband's death, and she became even more so afterward. Bernie reached out to her, and his warmth caused her to soften and make him her constant companion. However, she became so possessive and emotionally abusive that, in 1996, he shot her in the back and stuffed her body into a freezer in the garage. For nine months, he was able to cover for her absence, because she had alienated her family and her town from her.

The most unusual part of this story, though, is that when the rest of Carthage found out what had happened, no one wanted Bernie to go to jail (that link goes to a well-written article in Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth). Everyone in town loved him -- and everyone hated the mean old woman who had made his life so miserable. In fact, the trial had to be moved to the tiny town of San Augustine, because the prosecution didn't think it would get a fair shake from the jury. I dare you to find another example of that.

Fifteen years later, this story has become a major motion picture. Here's the trailer:

Yes, that's Jack Black. Many of you may be fans of his body of work, but I was not one. He's all well and good as the voice of that panda, but Gulliver's Travels just made me mad. Turning an ignorant curmudgeon into a slacker trying to impress a girl? There are movies that will do that without making Jonathan Swift's most important work even less understandable. By the way, if Hugh Laurie is looking to change his brand after the end of "House, M.D.," the role of Lemuel Gulliver in a well-written script would be very interesting. After all, he only has Jack Black and Ted Danson preceding him in the role.

Back to Bernie, though. This movie also stars Matthew McConaughey as the district attorney who must sit in his church pew and hear his pastor call for prayers for Bernie -- even though Bernie confessed to shooting a woman who had given him over $3 million in the back. True, Bernie gave most of the money away, or bought things with it and gave those things to people who needed them, but it was hard to argue that a woman who had taken him to Egypt and New York City and Russia -- all first class -- could have goaded him to murder. So now he's in prison.

But Jack Black is simply amazing in this film. Instead of being that loud annoying moron that he seems to have played in about 136 other movies, here he has become that portly, effeminate mortician's assistant. His singing voice and his demeanor just nail, with precision, every oily minister of music who has stepped into a pulpit between Dallas and Shreveport. He oozes sincerity, whether it is comforting the bereaved at a funeral or struggling to handle the increasing meanness with which Marjorie treats him. Her habit of staring right at him, demanding eye contact without saying a word, while she chews each bite of food 25 times (even if it's refried beans), drives him crazy. And she keeps doing it because she knows it drives him crazy, and she knows she can manipulate him into taking her to lunch every time she wants him to. Her character is a bit too flat to merit attention from the Academy, but there are not many women that you would hate more, after seeing this movie. McConaughey's flustered, cornbread management of the role of the district attorney is true, from his imitation of the hand motions of the evangelists he'd seen in three-piece suits as a child during his closing arguments to the jury.

No matter what you think of people who live in towns without symphonies or even minor league baseball teams, without Trader Joe's or the Whole Foods Market, though, the spirit of this East Texas town comes out, ultimately, warm and comforting. People who don't quite fit in with the mainstream, in terms of lifestyle, are left alone -- but not excluded, if they want to be friends with everyone else. It is a real shame that this doesn't mean that diversity has gained acceptance in this part of the world, but the good intentions are such that it's hard to believe that won't change over the coming years. It will just take a little more time, just like it takes more time to crank a case full of peach ice cream than it does to run down to Kroger and buy a half-gallon. You can't force that ice cream to be ready any faster, but when it is ready, your mouth will remember it when you're sitting on your front porch, fighting off the trip to the nursing home, wondering why dessert just isn't good anymore.