Friday, December 31, 2010

new year reflection

I asked my wife earlier today what her favorite event or situation from 2010 was and after she told me she asked me the same question and I realized I didn't have one. or not simply one. this has been a good year, not as good perhaps as some years, but better than others. like with everything else, moderation, even in moderation.

but her question got me thinking about what my favorite new year experience was and that I have an answer to. I've been thinking of it ever since. new year's eve of 1989-90 I spent at a dance retreat at a commune outside amherst, ma, with my friend mia and a couple dozen other people. I was deeply into contact improvisation back then, although I didn't do it much after that retreat, and the retreat wasn't especially for c-iers but there were a lot of us there. we'd spent the week between xmas and the new year dancing and being with one another. it was important to me then to have sex as often as possible, and while I slept with a couple people there, and that was fun, I was determined that this new year's eve would be the 1st since I'd turned 18 that I wouldn't.

instead, after dancing and a sauna and singing around a group of candles stuck in the snow I headed back into the half-finished house on whose floors a number of us were sleeping. I sat up with a candle and some tea and wrote in my journal for hours. I don't need to look up what I wrote since it wasn't very important, at least it isn't now, but I remember what that new year meant to me. it was the end of one decade which had started with me married unhappily and struggling to come to terms with my life and ended with me living in my car. in the preceeding decade I'd divorced, dropped 50 pounds, started to dance, quit my plans to be a teacher, started drinking and taking as many drugs as I could, slept with as many women and men as I could, graduated undergraduate school, spent days and weeks in the mountains, lost my home and lived on the streets and then into a car and traveled the country. in 89 I'd decamped to the midwest and started graduate school, moved out of my car, and began looking at my life as if it would continue beyond my 30th birthday.

there weren't any great insights that came from this reflection. as with most of the best meditations I simply found myself thinking about the twists my life had taken, some for the better, some for the worse, and where I was then. it was a good new year's eve, the sort I think everyone ought to experience each new decade. I suppose I am looking forward to doing so tonight as well, except with peppermint schnapps rather than tea. and a wife.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

thursday's reading

"as the rest of my colleagues emerge from their rapture and gather up their belongings, I'm thinking of the last patient I saw before I flew to anaheim. she was telling me that every time she contemplated breaking it off with her junkie husband, she became paralyzed with fear. she described what the dread felt like in her body, what thoughts and fantasies it brought to mind, and soon we were talking about he father, also an addict, whom her mother finally kicked out and who then turned up dead in a snowbank. 'I never put that together before. I'm afraid I'll kill him if I end it,' she said. she gave a little laugh. 'probably only because of how much I want to.'

"she gathered her jacket around her like a carapace. after a short silence, she said, 'how did you get us there?'

"'I didn't,' I replied. 'I didn't know where we would end up.' it's an answer I'm regretting now. not because it pushed away her admiration (which, of course, I crave) or because it was disingenuous (after a quarter century of delivering the talking cure, you have some idea about where these excursions will end up), but because I see now that she was asking me what made me believe it would be worthwhile to have the conversation that we had, rather than all the others we could have had. she was asking after my faith, and I had handed her only my doubt."
--from "the war on unhappiness: goodbye freud, hello positive thinking" by gary greenberg in the september 2010 issue of harper's magazine.
do we do people a favor by affirmatively answering their requests for faith, rather than expressing our doubt? greenberg's ultimate answer is perhaps not, but I would argue further: we do them a disservice by pretending to have an answer to something for which there isn't an answer, or at least not one we know now. when a junkie going through withdrawal asks us for a hit, is it going to be better for him to say "you don't really want a hit, you're better off without it" or to say "no"? it's similar to what a minister experiences (or should experience) when someone asks him if there's a heaven and hell; he must say, honestly, "I don't know. and neither does anyone else." it won't leave the asker any happier but should leave her more trusting of the answerer.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

today's reading

"the chief executive of a large company was greatly admired for his energy and drive. but he suffered from one embarrassing weakness: each time he entered the president's office to make his weekly report, he would wet his pants!

"the kindly president advised him to see a urologist, at company expense. but when he appeared before the president the following week, his pants were again wet! 'didn't you see the urologist?' asked the president.

"'no, he was out. I saw a psychiatrist instead, and I'm cured,' the executive replied. 'I no longer feel embarrassed!'"

Monday, December 27, 2010

liberation bibliography

"the problem with scholarly publishing is that the business model it has adopted generates so much income that it has to be protected against the danger posed by scholarship being shared freely. the only way the business model can survive is for information to be scarce, an expensive commodity available only to those who can afford it."

--from "liberating knowledge: a librarian's manifesto for change" by barbara fister in the number 26, fall 2010 issue of thought & action

I'm not entirely certain I buy fister's target for blame: researchers themselves who have "outsourced the evaluation of faculty value to publishers" and who "instead of learning how to contribute to knowledge for the greater good, [coach] graduate how to play the game and compete successfully"--as if academic publishers hadn't priced themselves out of the market generations ago and as if search and tenure review committees weren't openly hostile to publication in any form that isn't bookended by covers. (and now I suspect I have a better idea of where the hostility of so many of my colleagues to research from wikipedia comes from.)

but I can't take issue with her conclusion: "the library is conceptually the commons of the university. in recent years, it has been enclosed and exploited by corporations, and individual scholars have been schooled to be grateful to those corporations for claiming the copyright over their work in exchange for career advancement. but we don't have to do it this way."

finster's solution, modeled on liberation theology (!), is an inspired bit she calls liberation bibliography. it is as follows:

  • liberation bibliography arises out of outrage at the injustice of the current system. it's not about saving money, it's about the empowering nature of knowledge and the belief that it shouldn't be a luxury good for the few.

  • liberation bibliography must emerge out of a sense of solidarity with communities struggling for liberation. it's not just a matter of a few academics and librarians tinkering under the hood of the scholarly communication system to improve conditions for scholars; it's about action for the public good.

  • liberation bibliography recognizes that the world is not separated into the scholarly and the ordinary. if knowledge matters, it must matter beyond the boundaries of our campuses...

  • liberation bibliography recornizes that we are implicated in systems that personally benefit us, even when we recognize those systems to be unjust. whenever we publish in a journal that will resell our work for a profit and withhold it from those who can't pay, we have put our self-interest before social justice.

  • liberation bibliography takes seriously the slogan...that the truth shall set us free--and that means freedom should extend to all of us, not just to a select class of employed academics and currently enrolled tuition-paying students.

  • liberation bibliography recognizes that the liberal learning we promote must be beneficial to all people. as a consequence, our libraries should not serve our institutions' immediate needs but rather their higher ideals. toward that end, libraries and scholars need to remind our institutions of those ideals which still form the material for countless mission statements and taglines but are ignored in daily institutional practice. and...we must act on them.

take confidence in gratitude-4

the finale of my day-after-xmas video sermon. it was a good experiment but I learned there are non-technological elements that also need to be considered, such as against what is such a sermon being projected (a white wall that bright sunlight reflects against is not a good choice), as well as how enlarging a video clip can slow it down considerably so dancers look like they have st. vitus.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

take confidence in gratitude-3

part 3 of today's day-after-xmas multimedia presentation (that went over very well, thank you: attendance was always down, I was told, on the service after xmas, so there were "only" 50 or so people; but when I preach out on the rim I would kill for an attendance of 50, so I'm not complaining).

Friday, December 24, 2010

take confidence in gratitude-1

I'm in charge of the sunday-after-xmas service at one of the churches where I'm interning, and as I'm told it's a traditionally less-attended service, I decided to try some technological experimentation. in this instance, doing a 20 minute multimedia presentation rather than the traditional sermon. I've been working at it for several weeks and kept running into the same difficulty: too large to keep track of and something somewhere ended up unravelling. finally I've just sliced it into fourths and and publishing them here as 4 separate videos over the next 4 days.
(if I need to mention it: the photograph is not a spiritual comment, but I used it in the course of the work and I really, really like the blissful look on her face.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

conversations we have on the rim

people tell me things. the other night, coming home from picking up gas and beer, I was going over the back roads home and at a crossroad came across a fellow in complete snowmobile gear walking down the road. I pulled up and hailed him. "run out of gas?"

he pulled off his helmet to talk. "nope. just got stopped at the corner by a car and the snow's so soft my machine sank right down. I'm heading home to get a truck and some rope."

"y'want a ride?"

"I only live a quarter mile this way."

"get in. I'm just going home anyway."

so he folded himself up into my little car. snowmobile outfits aren't made for manueverability but for warmth which is why I'm not surprised no one ever thought of creating a superhero who wore one: all the action would be him grunting and trying to get his costume to flex enough for him to get through a door. when he was settled in--he wasn't that tall but the suit puffed him up so he sat about a head taller than me--we took off down the crossroad.

we nattered a little and in the course of the quarter mile drive I found out his name was doug and he was a retired farmer. "all this used to be my land, bob. I had cows and pigs and crops. and then, well, everyone left. my kids didn't want to farm and the money got too tight and I just plain got old. we put up this modular place where everything's on one level and I got a shed for my toys and that's about it."

he was in good health it seemed but his spirits were beat. "I just got old," he said when I asked him if he missed farming. "I just got too old."

he got out and took off a big glove to shake my hand wearing a little glove and then he tromped on into his house and I did a 180 and headed out the driveway. I'd got no more than back on my regular road when this song came on the radio. sometimes people tell me things and sometimes things get told me.

Monday, December 13, 2010

monday's reading

"it may seem perverse for [lionel] trilling to insist on a resemblance between...quasi-pantheism and the faith of the rabbis, which is aggressively uninterested in nature. in chapter three of pirke aboth, rabbi yaakov is quoted as saying: 'one who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, "how beautiful is this tree!" "how beautiful is this ploughed field!"--the torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life.' how to reconcile this with [wordsworth] who wrote, 'one impulse from a vernal wood / may teach you more of man, / of moral evil and of good, / than all the sages can'?

"what they have in the sensibility wordsworth captured in the phrase 'wise passiveness.' such passiveness is not resignation or apathy, but rather a faith that the world has been ordered to man's good, so that we do not have to conquer our place in it, but simply accept the place we have been given...

"what breathes in the aboth is the rabbi's absolute certainty that a life devoted to torah is the best life. 'exile yourself to a place of torah,' advises one of them, 'do not say that it will come after you.' the rabbis are aware that the life of study has its own pitfalls, and they warn against intellectual vanity, quarrelsomeness, and the temptation to elevate theory over practice. but they have no doubt that no worldly activity can rival the study of the law, and they warn against every kind of distraction: 'one who speaks excessively brings on sin'; 'one who excessively converses with a woman [a euphemism for sex] causes evil to himself, neglects the study of torah, and in the end inherits purgatory'; 'desire not the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs.' the whole ethos of pirke aboth is encapsulated in its very first line, which advises: 'be careful in judgement; raise up many disciples; and make a fence around the torah.'"

--from "trilling, babel, and the rabbis" by adam kirsch in the jewish review of books, fall 2010

[I had nearly forgotten that my habit of reading and walking came out of my appreciation of what torah students are expected to do.]

Sunday, December 12, 2010

snow like butterflies

a day such as this, when the weather gets to a high of 4 degrees and we have been snowed in for 2 days and something like this makes the news over and over, it is good to be reminded of summer and warmth and butterflies landing on you...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

potential MLK day service

the assignment for class today was to create and comment on a service for a secular holiday and I enjoyed the work so much I've decided to post it.

Order of Service
Sunday, January --, 2011

Processional: Recorded excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, 1963 March on Washington (1)
Welcome and Announcements
Lighting the Chalice: (in unison) Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
[James Vila Blake]
Opening Words: From Virtual Faith by Tom Beaudoin (2)
First Hymn: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” number 149 (3)
First Reading: From The Spirituals and the Blues by James Cone (4)
Time for All Ages: My Dream of Martin Luther King by Faith Ringgold (5)
Sing children to Religious Education with “Go Now in Peace,” number 413
Community Sharing: This is the time we give to voice those things that give us pause, events that make us smile or make us cry, situations that lift us up or drop us down. We sit in respectful silence of others. Please be brief.
Second Reading: From “Only Justice can Stop a Curse” by Alice Walker (6)
Offering: We give willingly of the bounty of our lives to help this congregation.
“From You I Receive,” number 402 (7)
Third Reading: “The Network of Mutuality” by Martin Luther King, Jr., number 584 (8)
Homily: “Everywhere We Look, There is Work to be Done” (9)
Congregational Dialogue
Final Hymn: “We Shall Overcome,” number 169 (10)
Benediction: From “For MLK” by Toni Vincent (11)
Extinguishing the Chalice: (in unison) “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith; be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
[1 Corinthians 16] (12)

My first memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., is of my parents’ response to his death. They weren’t a part of the Civil Rights movement but they had friends who were black and on what must have been April 5, 1968, I remember a conversation they had at breakfast centering on the reactions of some of those friends to “The News.” I didn’t quite get what had gone on but I understood that Someone Important had been killed and that a lot of people were as upset and angry about it as when John Kennedy had been killed five years before. Prior to that I think MLK had been pretty far under the radar for me, which wouldn’t have been unusual for a small white boy in industrial New York.

But my mother told me to watch his funeral as it was “history.” I remember little of it beyond the grainy films and somber mood and weeping and the many, many, many black faces congregated together. I don’t think I’d ever seen that many black people before or been more than peripherally aware there were that many in the country. It was something of a revelation that there was that much going on with that many people outside my experience.

I think my experience was, if not indicative, then similar to that of a lot of white folks in the late 60s. We were suddenly brought face to face with the grief and pain of a large number of our neighbors and friends that previous to that we could choose whether we recognized. Since his death MLK has become the patron saint of both What is Wrong with America—the repercussions and towering injustices of slavery and its aftermath—and What is Right with America—the willingness to stand up in opposition to that overwhelming injustice with nothing more than a voice—and it is in the spirit of the latter role that we celebrate his birthday.

1. I think it’s important that people be reminded of that voice and its power. There is nothing better for doing this than MLK’s words themselves.
2. Beaudoin relates a remarkable story from his undergraduate days when a professor breaks down in class after playing a short excerpt of MLK’s March on Washington (“I Have a Dream”) speech. The professor had been a marcher years before with King in Birmingham.
3. This familiar work both relates MLK to the previous generation’s Worker’s Rights movement (which was the focus of the March on Washington) and features the words of James Weldon Johnson whose 1922 collection The Book of American Negro Poetry introduced many early black poets to American literature.
4. Last year I was introduced to the theology of James Cone which was in some ways inspired by MLK. Much of his work is a bit heady for reading on a morning of celebration but his evocation of what it means to people to hear their own experiences reflected in song is inspiring.
5. Ringgold’s short children’s picture book is a good introduction to who MLK was, what he was fighting against, and what he means for many people who aren’t black but benefit from his work. The pictures ought to be projected onto a screen so everyone in the congregation can experience them.
6. Alice Walker’s essay is a meditation on the experiences of one teenage black girl in the Civil Rights movement of the Deep South. This selection focuses on the epiphany she received when a young white man whose presence she’d previously been cool to places his body and the protection it suggests literally on the line with her.
7. At the congregation I served in Menomonie I started a tradition of this being sung during the offering. I think it’s especially apt for a day celebrating MLK.
8. One can’t celebrate the man without taking note of some of the incredible words the man wrote. This selection, from the UU hymnal, is meant as a call-and-response in the manner of black church tradition and the congregation can use it in that way, but it’s also powerful given a single, clear voice.
9. I like homilies, opportunities to tie up the loose ends of a message, and I thought this title, from a sermon I wrote in 2009 after Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, was appropriate.
10. The tune everyone associates with MLK and his movement, it is no less necessary for current generations to experience its power and message, as it remains relevant in the contemporary world.
11. A brief reiteration of MLK and his impact on people and what his message means for those born after his death but whose lives were touched by him and his work nonetheless. Its invocation also charges us as we leave with the sense that we need to remember the lessons this celebration of his life may have given us.
12. This admonition from 1st Corinthians has always struck me as an accurate encapsulation of the lessons MLK tried to teach us.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

today's netiquette question

I'm teaching a class on research and one of our topics is technology and the book we're reading for that is steve johnson's everything bad is good for you. johnson has an excellent, if dated, take on the changes the internet and technology is pressing on us, not all of them bad, and it's a refreshingly positive view of my students' generation.

one of the things we're renegotiating as a culture is netiquette (if that term hasn't already fallen out of use), how we behave when we're no longer face-to-face or one-on-one but interacting with multiple others and sometimes not interacting but expounding into the ether. the question I'm wondering about at the moment is this: do we say something to a blogger whose posts we read and generally agree with; but then there's that one post that goes beyond the pale and whose something we simply can't abide. do we call him on it? does it matter that she won't know us except as one of dozens or hundreds or thousands of readers? what if everyone chooses not to call the blogger on this post and as a result he or she never knows that at least one person found its message callous?

I want to give the example in as vague a way as possible since I don't want to either direct traffic to the offending post or single that person out as if he or she is the worst example. this person relates his experience with a homeless person asking for a handout and turns the handout request back on the homeless guy in a glib, albeit clever, way that refuses to take into account the power dynamic of the response. at the end of the anecdote nothing is different: the blogger has learned nothing new, the homeless guy is still homeless. if anything the blogger's self-regard is greater than it was because he's managed to make a homeless guy feel guilty (at least so he imagines) for asking for a handout.

I've got a lot to say about that, having been on both sides of that equation. what I might say about it isn't in question. what is in question is, do I say anything about it? and if I did, would it make a difference beyond, maybe, leaving me feeling a little better about myself?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

today's words to live by

a conversation this morning in the car

me: I'd like you to look at a video I'm thinking of using as part of my day-after-xmas multimedia sermon.

my wife: why?

me: well, the service will be intergenerational and you're more in tune with kids and I wonder if it would be scary for them. there's no violence but there are frightening images.

my wife: [after an uncomfortable pause] you have a pretty high tolerance for violent videos. [another, longer, more uncomfortable pause] I'd say as a general rule, if you question it, the answer should be "no."


The worship experience that most resonated for me was one in which I wasn’t present, at first. Decades ago, while I was homeless, I was invited to take meals with a Hare Krishna group that met around Newburgh, New York, and because I was hungry I took them up on it. A part of the understanding, not uncommon among religious charities that provide food for people, was that I would take part in one of their services.

A Krishna service is a misnomer. It’s more like a short, extemporaneous lecture punctuated by ecstatic dancing and chanting, very similar to Sufi celebration. The way this particular group operated was that individuals were invited to the house its members communed in, sat in a large room listening to one essentially tell the story of his conversion to Krishna or his recognition of Krishna’s influence on his life, then be invited to eat of the prana or gift that Krishna had for us, have short conversation for digestion, and then dance and sing to celebrate our acceptance of Krishna’s prana.

All I wanted was to eat. Having spent the previous days subsisting primarily on peanut butter and crackers, I had been lured by the promise of mounds of hot rice and raisins, dates, oranges, and of course the eyes of the shave-headed girl who’d invited me. I certainly wasn’t interested in a lecture, although the nascent anthropologist in me was open to experiencing it. Still, when the time came for the lecture/personal tribute, I managed to excuse myself to the bathroom and remained there for about 15 minutes, which seemed like the right amount of time.

It was an old house, one of those hundred year and older grand family mansions of the Hudson Valley burghers that had been subdivided and made into apartment housing over the decades and eventually remade back into spaces for family-type living. It had a large bathroom on the first floor, which was where we visitors were relegated to, with plants and guest towels and white walls (the Krishnas fetishize the color white) but it was also drafty and unheated. It was set up with books and pamphlets and I knew I could pass time there painlessly.

I sat on the floor and started paging through a book. Several rooms over, the personal testament of some gawky middle class suburban kid began and occasionally sounds came in under the door that I identified as his voice getting louder and then softer and then people muttering appreciatively.

The illustrations in the book were captivating. Nearly 30 years on and I wish I’d noted the title of the book or even snuck it out with me. They were old Hindu woodcuts and paintings of pilgrims and ascetics, monkeys and housewives, merchants and jaguars. I was lost among those illustrations, lingering on page after page, trying to drink in every element of every picture as if it was the dinner I was waiting for.

Eventually the murmuring outside the room grew quieter with a few scattered single loud words. I grew more transfixed by the pictures and then by the silence I experienced in the room. And it dawned on me, this was the prana I was receiving. The food was nice, the food was what I needed, but equally necessary was this silence and meditation I was allowed in the hundred year old bathroom of a Hare Krishna commune. I had been invited to share time and food with them and all they’d asked for in return was a little of my time to listen to them. I had that time to give; it wasn’t as if my life was going anywhere fast anyway.

I jumped up and put the book back on the stack next to the toilet and hurried back out to rejoin the group as the Krishna convert finished his narrative. There were appreciative mutters from people gathered in the room. The eyes of the shave-headed girl were on me as I returned to my place on the floor next to her: she had seen people hide in the bathroom before, I knew, people for whom the only prana was food and someplace warm, and my epiphany was that I wasn’t there only for that. I was also there to be given space to develop into something or someone I needed to become and the immediate path was to take me through these people.

I tried to explain that to her during the conversation after we ate. It wasn’t nearly as well-articulated as it may seem now. She smiled and nodded as if she understood but I had no doubt she’d heard something like that before too. But it was real, I assured both her and me; I wouldn’t join them but I’d like to remain near them, learning what I could. (And, I admitted, seeing her and eating on a regular basis.)

When we stood to chant I chanted and then danced with abandon. That summer I returned to the commune for days at a time, staying in my car and studying with the ascetics there. The girl, whose name I’ve forgotten, eventually left to seed another commune in New Jersey. I was asked to join the group moving there but said no. I hadn’t found a home but I had found one of the landmarks I recognized on the way there.