Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ten Books Read in May

Nonfiction

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals, by Gillian Gill.

The practice (in some cases, the law) was, if you were part of a royal family, you couldn’t marry someone from your own country – at least, not if you wanted the children of that marriage to be able to inherit your title. You had to marry someone royal - someone from another of Europe’s royal families. And more often than not, that meant a German. Germany was made up of many little kingdoms, each with its own royalty: a veritable prince-and-princess factory!

Albert was the younger son in one such family. His father, though quite promiscuous, divorced and sent away Albert’s mother when she had an affair, and saw that his handsome young son was protected, educated, and kept pure for such a day as he would might make a match with his cousin, Victoria, who would be allowed to choose her mate and had been trained to like just the sort he would become. Indeed, the young queen, only recently emerged from under her mother’s thumb, was enchanted. She proposed to Albert on the third day they were together.

Yet this marriage was going to take a tremendous amount of work. Each was determined to rule, but forced to compromise; Victoria, by her constant pregnancies, Albert, by his German-ness and lack of true position (also, while he was brilliant, he was rather lacking in charm). How would they make things work? Gill’s biography explores the times and character of Victoria, Albert, and their surrounding cast; what caused them to make the decisions they did; and what happened as a result. Fascinating stuff.

20 Most Asked Questions about the Amish and Mennonites, by Merle and Phyllis Good.

So, how did these orders come about? What do they have in common, and how are they different from each other, and the rest of us? What is life like for them? What holds them together, and what would threaten to tear them apart?

I was fascinated, during our recent visit to Pennsylvania, to learn about the diversity of groups that took up William Penn’s offer and fled German-speaking Europe to settle in the wooded land the Quaker had purchased and declared to be a place of religious freedom. Many were various flavors of Anabaptists – those who believed Christianity could and should be a choice deliberately made, and a way of life - not merely an identity decided by one’s current government or inherited from one’s parents. As a sign of this, they went and got themselves baptized - a second time, if necessary; hence the name.

Many Anabaptist groups, like the Amish and many Mennonites, focused on protected themselves from the distractions and fashions of the world in order to focus on God and family. Isn't that what it was about?

What puzzles me though, is this question to which I never heard an answer, in this book or elsewhere: What does Amish spirituality look like? Do any, many, or most experience the inner fruitfulness that their way of life is designed to protect, or is it, for many, merely a humanistic or legalistic thing, a matter of family and culture and tradition? Do they find it worth it?

This book asserts that many of the Brethren/Mennonite/Amish groups are growing, especially the more conservative ones.

The Summer of the Great Grandmother, by Madeleine L’Engle.

In this, the second in a series of memoirs, the author reflects on the life of her mother and other relatives, describing her mother’s descent into senility and the family’s efforts to care for her at home during the last few months of her life. Many of the stories reveal as much about Madeleine as anyone else, and provide sources for some of the people, places, and situations that appear in her novels. A good read. Madeleine’s prejudices against other options do not ring so true in this day of more humane care for the elderly, though it’s still challenging: what does it look like for us to love, really love, our parents, when they are no longer all there, or turn on us in anger or fear?

Also read: Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, by Henri Nouwen.

Fiction

Digging to America, by Anne Tyler.

The Donaldsons and Yazdans, two very different American families, meet at the Baltimore airport where both families have come for baby girls they are adopting from Korea. On a whim, Bitsy Donaldson (‘with her burlap-sack dresses and more-organic-than-thou manners’) reaches out to looks up the Ziba Yazdan (born in Iran, but insecurely "American" in her tight jeans and dark lip liner) and her family and invites them to get together socially. Much of this story focuses on Ziba’s elegant mother, Maryam, who has always felt like an outsider in life and not sure whether this is the worst or best thing about her life. Interesting, well written.

All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, by Tod Wodicka.

This story features a medieval re-enactor with a taste for home-brewed mead and some fairly serious family problems. The book suffers from over-creativity, sentences one is not sure whether to admire or roll one’s eyes over, like these: “June collected stamps of disapproval,” and “I was left with the room’s mirror, which hung there like a scream.”

The Moon in the Mango Tree, by Pamela Binnings Ewen.

This novel of the 1920s and 30s tells the story of the marriage and experiences of a Philadelphia couple trying to find meaning in purpose in very different ways. Shortly after finishing his medical studies, Harvey hears of the opportunity to practice medicine in Thailand, and with practically no preparation he and Barbara end up as part of a (rather twisted and rigidly fundamentalist) mission team in an isolated region of Thailand.

Barbara, a socialite and feminist with no religion to speak of and nothing particular to live for except her husband, since she has had to lay down her craft as an opera singer, is not going to do well.

I found this a rather painful, but interesting and honest exploration of the lives of American women, and the missions movement and lives of expatriate women of that era.

The Tale of Hill Top Farm, The Tale of Hawthorn House, and The Tale of Briar Bank, by Susan Wittig Albert.

These are part of a series of British-flavored “cosies” featuring Miss Beatrix Potter and the inhabitants of the Lake District village where she has purchased land following the sudden death of her fiancĂ©. The blend of human and animal characters was a bit confusing at first, though the two are characterized in similar ways! I'll leave you with a line from "Hawthorn House."
“In Rascal’s mind, Jeremy would always be a happy boy browned by the summer sun, sharing his bread and cheese with a small brown terrier beside a tumbling beck high on a rocky fell, the wide world spread invitingly at their feet, the future endless and bright and always exactly the same as the present.”
>> In my stack for June:

The Lost History of Christianity, by Philip Jenkins
The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy

>> See also:

January Reading
February Reading
March Reading
April Reading

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Happy to Be Part of Club Honda

After meeting my book club this morning I drove a mile or two further to our local Honda dealer. A sensor on the dash had been reminding me all week that one of my brake lights was burned out.

I thought it might be simpler to go to the dealer than to muddle my way through the diagram in my owner's manual and the part numbers at the auto parts store.

Sure enough. Five minutes and five dollars later, my problem was solved. "Just drive into this bay and we'll put it in for you," they said.

I even got a free cup of coffee as part of the deal. Go Honda!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Better than Justice

This passage leaped off the page when I was flipping through the OT recently... How about it? Want to settle up and be made clean and have plenty to eat? Or keep having your own way, deal with your own sins, turn away, refuse to listen, and be devoured by your enemies (within and without)?
18 “Come now, let’s settle this,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
I will make them as white as snow.
Though they are red like crimson,
I will make them as white as wool.
19 If you will only obey me,
you will have plenty to eat.
20 But if you turn away and refuse to listen,
you will be devoured by the sword of your enemies.
I, the Lord, have spoken!”

Isaiah 1:18-20
>> Read the whole chapter.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Stuff Management

Houses, clothes, paperwork, appliances, yards, gardens, cars, computers...

What would we do if we didn't have all this stuff to take care of?

I have less than some - not having a family - and more than others. I had less when I was younger, and when I lived in an apartment. Now I'm in a house, though I don't own it.

I may live more simply than some of my neighbors, but I have more money and probably more stuff than most others in our world. (Use this interesting website to see where you stand in the global economy.)

I suspect that those with less money, though they have less stuff, might spend as much of their time taking care of it.

Similarly, people in "the old days." Maybe for example they only had a few sets of clothes but it would be much more work to wash, dry, and iron those that they had... and there's the more time-intensive shopping, cooking, preserving - a lot of work I don't have to do.

What would life be like without stuff to take care of? Or what if you had somebody else taking care of all your stuff? What would you do differently if you could?

I'll admit I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself today; I wish there was someone else besides me who could do the yard work or fix the number of little things that seem to have wrong with the car (brake light just went out, so add that to the list). No doubt the presence of such a person in my life (unless we're talking about hired help) would increase my responsibilities in many other respects. So I should not complain, eh?

The housework I kind of like. It's one of the easiest parts of life in which to take chaos and make order. So housework is gratifying. Though I'm sure the shine rubs off for the moms who feel like they just have to keep doing the same chores over and over.

I like cooking too. It's a nice combination of pleasure-seeking and practicality. I mean, you (and any family you happen to have) have to eat, right? Why not make something a little special, especially if it's healthy and economical?

I'm a bit sorry there's nobody to share to share the fruit of my hands with, today. Just finished making a big batch of pasta-e-fagioli. I'm about to make a pot of chai and a pumpkin pie (never out of season, to my palate!)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

...Sing Out Loud, Sing Out STRONG!...

You know much fun it is to sing, when you're a kid?

I remember belting out "Up, Up and Away, in My Beautiful Balloon" with about as much glee as we sang regular kid songs like "John, Jacob Jingle Heimer Schmidt! His name, is my name too!" (Only we sang "Smith" instead of "Schmidt.") That was second grade.

By third, we'd become a little more sophisticated, with "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree" and - well, dozens of others. My third grade teacher (the incomparable Mrs. Eggleston), saw to it that we got together with Mrs. Ferris's class almost every day, just to sing. The two teachers took turns playing the piano. It was show tunes, contemporary stuff (for 1978!) and songs dating back to the 30s or 40s. We learned dances or hand motions, and every kid had their special song. We even went on the road (i.e., down the hall or even nearby schools) to perform our brilliant musical review.

I loved it.

Why is group singing not something people keep doing, in our country, after they leave childhood? Did it used to be? The people in some of the books I loved, growing up, sang: Pa Ingalls would get out his fiddle, or Betsy, Tacy, and Tib would gathering around the piano with their crowd and the latest sheet music - most every Sunday night, as I recall!

Why don't WE do that?

From my mid-20s until relatively recently, group singing was part of my life again, at least as much as it was when I was in grade school. Singing was a key part of worship, and it so lifted my spirits. We sang at the office, most days - it was part of morning prayer. Extended worship sets were standard with the young adult ministry I was part of, clear up until, at 35, I could no longer pass as a young adult. We sang in church (still do), and when there was a choir, I sang with the choir.

That may have been my favorite: choir. Not just letting the songs roll by but chewing on them, getting them into my head, learning my parts, thinking about them, trying again, to wring (ring?) out every nuance from the piece. I know, some people don't like repetition. But I loved choir practice.

Now it's all changed. No more singing at the office, or, not very often. No choir at church. No young adult ministry, not for me.

We do still have "worship leaders" at church, and the pastor is fond of saying how grateful he is for all the talented people we have. He is too tactful to emphasize that we need them now more than ever, since we can't really justify hiring a staff member for that purpose.

But that's just for talented people. There's no room (on the stage, at least) for the untalented. And just singing along - well, I know we're all part of it, on Sunday mornings, but it's over all too fast.

Wonder where I could go for the chance to sing? Do you suppose the elementary school around the corner would mind an extra second soprano belting out "Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon?"

Ah, well, the roommate left town this morning. She'll be gone for two weeks. So the kitty, Lucy, and I may have some musical evenings at home.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Psychology of Work / What Kind of [Thing that You’re Not] Are YOU?

Intimidating Projects

In the last week I’ve been working on curriculum for our online ethnography class. It’s been a hard project for me. Although I agreed in theory that it could and probably should be done, =I= didn’t want to do it. This was a matter of timing more than anything else. It came on top of a winter/spring schedule I’d filled up months before. I knew, if the project intimidated me for one reason or another, I’d end up working hours much longer than I’d like (and that those hours might be spent not so much working on the project as avoiding it).

That has proved to be the case. That is a pity, because – please hear me on this, before you get indignant on my behalf – it’s ethnography, and training, and writing, I love all of those things. Also, they are things that by and large other people do not want to or know how to do, and I really value doing the things that others can’t or won’t do, if I can.

I’m disturbed by how often I see this pattern; that the things that are most important and significant – not just to others, but to me, too – are the things I sabotage and/or fail in most brilliantly.

What do you suppose is behind that? I’m rather afraid to ask. If I’m willing to peer between my fingers and face up to what I might see in the darkness of my mind and heart, I may just discover something that would change my life and set me free. Am I willing?

Defining Ethnography

“If research is aggressive, intentional learning, then ethnography is aggressive, intentional SOCIAL learning,” I wrote in one of our early lessons for the online class. “We’re learning about people, from people. We’re inviting them to teach us. Our goal is to see their world from their perspective.”

“That allows us to find out what is important to the people and what affects how they live. What we’re doing when we do ethnography is making friends and asking them to teach us to see the world on their terms, in their categories, from their point of view.”

Don’t I make it sound fascinating? Well, it is. But getting people from understanding it to habitually doing it is quite a process. How will I know they really “get” it?

Which One Are You?

I was thinking about using the following as an example of the opposite of ethnographic inquiry - of putting trying to understand people by putting them into an outsider’s categories.

Are you aware of the epidemic of “quizzes” floating around the Internet these days? They seem to have really proliferated with the growth of Facebook, although you’ll find them in lots of places it seems.

Which [character] in [fictional world] are you?
What color are you?
What movie represents your life?
If you could be any fish in the sea, what kind of fish would you be? (I haven’t seen that one on Facebook, actually, but I haven’t looked.)

They all work the same: You answer a handful of proscribed questions and are put into one of a handful of boxes, complete with an elegant description of what you’re “really” like.

Ethnography is not like that.

It's more along the lines of, “Help me understand... Tell me about yourself…”

I suppose that can be more difficult for people to answer. But the answers that unfold over time are infinitely more likely to be helpful.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Consciousness to Be Downloaded to New Hardware

I have a good post I was hoping to publish today but cannot access - it's on the hard drive of my laptop, where all good things that come from these fingers abide. Yes, there was an accident; a crash. Only minimal injuries, I'm led to believe. The patient (a two-year-old Sony Vaio) underwent reconstructive surgery later that evening and should be released Monday morning.

I believe all files are still intact and await transfer to the new hard drive. It's a good machine, the surgeon (a generous and knowledgable coworker) reports from the operating table; well worth the efforts to revive. Though this is the second time. (A pernicious virus drove us to a system reinstall not long ago.)

I type to you from a spare computer in our office, having dropped into the office on a Sunday evening to reconnect with my electronic world and see what is happening. It's quiet and peaceful here... I may stay until dark, get a few things done. I don't know how much of my Monday may be spent loading software, copying files, trying to track down drivers.

It is remarkable how accustomed we have become to having fairly constant Internet access. Some people can set it aside more easily than others. Me - well, here's a hint - "moderation in all things" is not my forte. (It's one reason I don't drink.)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Seven Topics to Avoid if You Don't Want to Be A Bore"

This piece was picked up by Yahoo on Wednesday, as a human interest story I reckon. (Let me disclaim, the source blog is not one I've frequented. But the title of this piece caught my eye and I think the author makes a good point.)

Here's her list of topics you should avoid discussing, at a party, if you don't want to bore people:

1. A dream.
2. The recent changes in your child’s nap schedule.
3. The route you took to get here.
4. An excellent meal you once had at a restaurant.
5. The latest additions to your wine cellar.
6. An account of your last tennis game.
7. The plot of a movie, play or book—in particular, the funny parts.

While the list may seem random and incomplete, it does have a common thread:

"What do these subjects have in common? The listener has nothing to add. He or she must just hear you describe your experience."

I wonder if we could apply the same principle to blogging, Facebooking, Twitter, and the like? And do you think the opposite holds as well, that the topics which generate the most interest and feedback are the ones about which the recipient knows he or she has something to contribute?

Filed under Listening.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Brief History of Time Keeping

Know much about horology? I didn't, not until visiting the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, PA.

We clocked in at 1:59 last Tuesday afternoon, and stayed precisely one hour and a half - which I might have noticed, even without the souvenir time card, if I had glanced at the sturdy Timex I wear on my left wrist. Today's young people don't wear watches; have you noticed? Many just rely on their mobile phones to tell them the time.

Not many of our ancestors had access to either.

Five thousand years ago - as we would measure it - if the sun and stars were not enough, you could get extra help from a sundial.

Egyptians and Greeks used water clocks - some of which worked like your mother's egg timer. I saw several that were ceramic, with precisely placed rows of holes that allowed the water to flow out at an even rate, or allowed one vessel to sink within another. Creative. There were also several versions of fire clocks; some involved incense, or candles, burning at predictable rates.

Religious folks were some of those most dedicated to the measurement of time, as a means to mark off prayers and keep the devout on schedule.

The Chinese built all kinds of mechanical devices to measure time. The Japanese had a system all their own, built to mark off the parts of a day that lengthened and shortened with the seasons - so a summer hour had to be longer than a winter one. Later, the Italians also marched to their own beat, measuring off time according to the church's notions of the day long after the rest of the world had chosen a different system.

As more modern time keeping devices came along, they measured hours by dividing them into small increments, and people began to see time as ticking rather than flowing.

The notion of time zones began in America, as railway administrators grew weary of tracking a multitude of schedules, each company usually operating according to the time in its home city. That's why the old railroad stations had so many clocks.

One November day in 1883 was called the day with two noons as clocks and schedules were synchronized according to a consistent plan - it was to keep trains from colliding, or, worse, passengers from missing their connections any more than absolutely necessary!

Europe followed, reluctantly, but for many of the same reasons. Less than thrilled at the thought of measuring all things by Greenwich, the French only reluctantly declared the time in Paris according to GMT, but legally stating that this was some minutes and an additional 11 seconds off of ['real'] Paris Time.

A great deal of energy went into how to track time at sea, as well - crucial for determining one's location on the earth in those days long before GPS. You had to know more or less where you were in order to minimize dangers and manage resources wisely (you know, not run out of food and water!)

Wristwatches - originally just a passing fashion for women - didn't come into widespread use until soldiers in the nineteenth century discovered just how handy they could be in the field. They no longer seemed effeminate, and demand grew throughout the twentieth century.

Picture - I didn't get a good image of the grandfather clocks (known, before the 1876 song, as 'tall case' or 'eight-day' clocks) at the National Clock and Watch Museum. But another blogger did, so here's his image. I love the phases - faces - of the moon! Some of the moons on the NCWM clock faces were very engaging.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Wonderful World of Chocolate



The Aztecs made it part of their religion.

The Mayans used it as a currency (so in this case, money could be said to "grow on trees").

Columbus didn't see the potential in it, but when the Spanish explorer Cortez arrived in the "New World" he was treated as a god and honored with chocolate.

Intrigued, Cortez brought chocolate back to the Spanish. They promoted cocoa's growth throughout their colonies - at least those conveniently located within 20 degrees of the equator, the only place it grows. (So, sadly, most of my readers could not grow it in their gardens instead of tomatoes this year.)

It would be even better with sugar, Cortez thought. The world would come to agree. But the Spanish kept the secret of the delightful concoction for 100 years, even as the Chinese guarded the secrets of silk. The beans were spilled (so to speak) by a loose-lipped Spanish princess who married one of the French royals and couldn't leave her stash behind.

The Swiss added dairy to the chocolate drink, making the first milk chocolate; another popular move. Later technologies made it possible to create chocolate confections as solids, instead of liquid, and mold it into every shape imaginable.

Today, in spite of pernicious myths (that chocolate makes kids hyper, or causes tooth decay, or increases headaches), we know that "chocolate has a place in any active, healthy lifestyle."

All these interesting tidbits are courtesy of an informational film at the Wilbur Chocolate factory's Candy Americana Museum, one stop on our Pennsylvania trip. It's in Lititz, PA, which was a shorter drive for us than Hershey.

So you see, my vacation was quite educational!

These days people talk about chocolate having antioxidants; never mind that you can get these from all kinds of sources, such as broccoli (less popular, for some reason). In days gone by, other health benefits were touted, as in this ad or this one: (image source here)

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Ponder This...

Jon Swanson, who is sort of a social media chaplain, writes:

"Lots of people are wondering what God is calling them to do. And that is a good question. But on the way to the answer, we fill in many answers. So let me suggest some of the things that God did not call you to.... (keep reading.)

See also: Permission for This Weekend.

Vacation - 2

It's been good to have this week of vacation. My first time off in a year. I get back to Denver late Monday; am not planning to go into the office until Wednesday.

Yes, I have done some work-ish stuff while I've been gone. (For example, it was easier to get the ezine out myself than to document the process and equip someone else to do it, though I really ought to train a backup who can do my bit.) There's a lot of other stuff I could have worked on, but I've tried not to think about it. "Not working" seems a more effective route to getting things done, at this point, than to just keep working. I really needed a break.

Since I've had internet access every place we've been, I haven't stayed away from my usual puttering-around activities there, at least not entirely. But I've tried not to hide out in it. I've only pulled away to do something on the computer, or study the maps and brochures - I found myself pretty much in charge, reluctantly - or read a bit before bed, or go for a short run, or take a few pictures - so it may have still seemed like I was being antisocial. Don't know. At any rate, I've gotten good rest, and gotten to know Mom and Aunt Ginny a little better, and learned some things about the places we've been and the history and people of our country.

Real, extended, reflective alone time - something I am also in need of - might have been hard to manage. The three of us have been together most all the time and sharing a hotel room.

I'm not an introvert, you know; just a mildly broken extrovert. So, I have weathered the family togetherness reasonably well, even if I'm no longer accustomed to it.

I think I'm a little healthier, a bit more fit to go back to my regular life. And maybe it will be easier to pull away again.

This afternoon I'm going to visit my old college roommate and her family. They recently moved to the DC area. I'll spend the night and go to church with them, then rejoin my mom and godmother for a mother's day gathering Sunday afternoon. Fly home Monday. Not direct; I go to Pittsburgh, then back to Denver via Charlotte. A long travel day considering it's only 1500 miles or so. But maybe I'll do some more thinking and writing. Or maybe not.

Trying not to take myself too seriously!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Vacation


Maryland dogwoods, quilt museum, Pennsylvania farmland. More photos here.