First it was Downton Abbey, then the Brexit saga, and now behind These Stone Walls the Brits hold us captive by the gripping drama of The Great British Baking Show.
A lot has been going on in the world both beyond and behind These Stone Walls. I learned only a few weeks ago that the Catholic League reprinted Ryan MacDonald’s recent article, “A Grievous Error in Judge Joseph LaPlante’s Court.” I’m grateful for this. The Catholic League gave that story weight and exposure that I could only hope for on These Stone Walls. PewSitter, and Tito Edwards’ “Big Pulpit,” also linked to it. Both sites have linked to a number of my TSW posts lately, and I soon plan to write about these important Catholic venues.
When I learned of the Catholic League reprint, I was already, midway through typing my post, “Bill Donohue at The Catholic League Hot Air Rises.” I’m sure Dr. Donohue took my title in stride. At least, I hope so.
Also recently, our Missionary of Mercy friend, Father George David Byers wrote a moving post at Arise! Let us be going! entitled, “Father Gordon J. MacRae my best friend – The 54 day Rosary begins Today.” In the current climate of the Catholic public square, there are not many priests out there claiming me as their best friend. I thank Father George for this summons to prayer on my behalf, and I thank those who are taking part in it as well. I am simply lost for words. I am deeply grateful to those engaged in this powerful effort.
TSW reader, Liz Feuerborn suggested in a comment that you might include Pornchai Moontri in these prayers as well. I hope you will. There is more of his remarkable story coming soon. For now, all I can say is that the Lord Himself will smile upon any prayer for Pornchai Moontri. Stay tuned, for that story is a staggering display of the Tapestry of God.
Another TSW reader wrote to ask if I feel hopeful, or in some way lifted up by the many people praying for us behind These Stone Walls. I plan to have a two-part response to that question about the power of prayer commencing in two weeks on These Stone Walls, so please bear with me.
WISE GUYS FROM THE EAST
Something else of importance also happened behind These Stone Walls in recent weeks: summer food packages. I first wrote of this semiannual event in “Looking for Lunch in All the Wrong Places.” It was followed by another post about culinary creations in captivity entitled, “Return to Downton Abbey: A Feast for Ordinary Time.”
Twice a year here in the summer and near Christmas, prisoners are allowed to order a 20-pound food package purchased from a vendor that markets its products to prisons. Organizing and implementing the amazing feat of receiving and distributing the ordered packages is a function of the prison Recreation Department where our friend, Pornchai “Max” Moontri works. He and his crew of prisoner coworkers perform this semi-annual task like a well-oiled machine. In one day’s time, they sorted and inventoried a shipment of over twelve tons of packaged food items. Then in the prison gym on June 29, they delivered the packages to 1,250 prisoners in under three hours.
Pornchai and I, and our friend Chen Kewei – of whom I wrote in “Time in a Bottle with Jim Croce and the Twang Brothers” – started saving for our packages months in advance. We also had some help from a couple of TSW readers for whom we are much appreciative. The aid and understanding of friends in the free world makes an immense difference for any prisoner. It is for good reason that “visiting the imprisoned” is a Corporal Work of Mercy for which we have much gratitude. Food is a deprivation and a driving force in every U.S. prison.
We placed our food orders in early May and then waited about eight weeks for their arrival. As happens every year, we run out of the items we order in the winter package about two months before the summer package arrives. I use the food packages to stock up on coffee. I ordered six twenty-ounce jars of Folgers Instant which is far superior to what we call “gunpowder,” the generic instant coffee sold in the prison commissary, and the only coffee I have had for the last two months.
Living with Pornchai, and with Chen always close behind, means a steady supply of Asian cuisine when it’s available. So Pornchai, Chen, and I pool our resources to also stock up twice per year on two kinds of Thai noodles packed in Bangkok and sold through the vendor that provides our food packages The Thai noodles are called “Moo Nam Tok” (noodles with pork) and “Pho Bo Àn Liên” (rice noodles). Between the three of us, we managed to purchase about a two-month supply of each Packaged in Bangkok, they are a sort of link to Pornchai’s future home, and preparing them is one of the few joys of his life here – that and being stuck with me in an 8′ x 12′ cell, of course!
The Thai noodles are wonderful, but sometimes I’m not quite up to all that comes with them. The Twang Brothers also stocked up on two kinds of hot chili sauce, “Tùong òt Sriacha” and a Vietnamese garlic and chili sauce called “Tùong òt Tòi” which ought to mean “heartburn-in-a-jar.” Then they add “Lap Xuong Thuong Hang,” a spicy Chinese pork sausage. The combination is way too much excitement for my Celtic system to handle, so I usually just stick with the noodles. Sometimes we add rice sold in the prison commissary. One week there was a sign that the commissary was out of rice. There was a gloomy pall over this cell for a week!
THE GREAT BRITISH BAKING SHOW
Adding to all the culinary excitement, PBS has commenced its third season of the amazingly addictive, “The Great British Baking Show.” I stumbled upon it last year because it followed the wonderful PBS Masterpiece Classic, Downton Abbey, which many TSW readers followed along with me.
No one but the Brits could turn something as mundane as baking into a riveting must-see weekly drama. British cookbook author Mary Berry, and artist-baker, Paul Hollywood are television’s most incisive judges. In the blink of an eye they can utterly deflate a contestant with a simple turn of phrase – “I’m not tasting the rosemary here” – while buffering it in disarming British civility. Along with moderators, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, they search for the U.K.’s best amateur baker.
My description of this competition leaves far too much unsaid. I can’t really pinpoint exactly why, but the chemistry of The Great British Baking Show is both mesmerizing and wildly entertaining. Some of the baking assignments given to the twelve contestants seem nearly impossible. A recent “Star Baker” assignment was the creation of thirty-six identical biscuits of the baker’s choice presented in an edible box baked from an entirely other dough recipe. They had an hour to design their presentation box and its contents. The camera followed the progress of each contestant as the tension for artistic achievement built into a final crescendo of British pride and sportsmanship.
In that one episode, a grown man was reduced to tears because his gingerbread presentation box just didn’t come together in time, while Paul and Mary consoled him with the fact that his rosemary biscuits were “simply outstanding.” So is The Great British Baking Show.
As I type this, Pornchai-Max and Chen are four feet away in the midst of their own culinary drama. It’s some Thai rice and pork dish with shiitake mushrooms and sweet/hot Thai chili sauce. We have very little space here to both cook and type at the same time, and the ingredients are slowly spreading out in this direction.
Before I admit defeat and get my typewriter out of harm’s way, I read the Paragraphs above about The Great British Baking Show to Pornchai and Chen. They were not convinced, and are now wondering why on earth I would be hyping a British TV show about baking pastry when I can’t even have any of it. I see, now, that this is very difficult to explain. Catch an episode of The Great British Baking Show and you will either agree that it’s gripping drama or you’ll tell me that my biscuits are in the oven, but the heat’s not on.
WRITING FOR THE DARK SIDE OF THE FORCE
Now that I’ve either given you indigestion or raised your blood glucose, I have a final note to mention. I have been doing a little writing on the side for an online news and opinion site called OpEd News. It presents itself as a “progressive, liberal” source for news and opinion. It is not by any means my usual haunt, but I wrote a short piece about prisons and OpEd News was the first to snap it up. Then they asked for more. I see this as a chance for a little, perhaps slightly veiled, evangelization, but it’s also an opportunity to raise awareness about the dim reality of prison.
So my first original post for OpEd news is a short, but potent account of a young man’s path to freedom through literacy. I just read an article about a problem with empty prisons in The Netherlands. Here in America, they are a lot more like “The Hotel California,” that old song by The Eagles. No one ever leaves. Our prisons just keep getting ever bigger, and meaner, and more like warehouses than places of restorative justice.
Some of my OpEd News article will be very familiar to long time readers of TSW. It was subsequently reprinted at multiple news sites, but the OpEd News version is the one we link to here. I’ll cut this one short so you can read it, and please do share it along with this post. The article is brief, but the story spans a lifetime of fallen hopes and hopeful dreams. Please read and share, “Left Behind: In Prison for the Apocalypse.”
Now, just three feet away, there’s a bowl of Thai food calling my name, and Chen is already coveting his neighbor’s noodles. See ya!
“Some time after, the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their king, and Pharoah put the butler and the baker in the prison where Joseph was confined. The captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he waited on them; and they continued for some time in custody. And one night they both dreamed – the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison – each his own dream, and each dream with its own meaning. When Joseph came to them in the morning and saw them, they were troubled. So he asked them… ‘Why are your faces downcast today?’ They said to him, ‘We have had dreams and there is no one to interpret them.’ And Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me, I pray you.’” (Genesis 40:1-8)