Friday, March 29, 2013

Sundays in America

Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith
© 2008 Suzanne Strempek Shea
311 pages

The outpouring of devotion that followed Pope John Paul II's death stirred Suzanne Shea: why hadn't she felt like that in a long, long time? And how -- where -- could she experience such an intensity of religious feeling again?  And so, armed with a seeker's desire to find That Something Out There, as well as impressive traveling budget, she spent a year visiting American churches,  one each Sunday (and some few on Saturdays, the 'traditional' Sabbath),  touring communities both close to home in New York, and as far as Hawaii.  The churches ranged from the huge to the  humble, and spanned every denomination you've heard of and some you couldn't have possibly imagined, Taking notes, Sundays in America is her chronicle of that year of church-shopping,  one which allows readers to play voyeur, experiencing the services and beliefs of churches they're curious about, but would never go into -- and one which might provoke thoughts to what they're looking for at church.

I've read a work like this before, in Hemant Mehta's I Sold my Soul on eBay. A Jain-turned-atheist, Mehta wanted to explore Christianity, but figured...why do it for free? He offered his church attendance for sale on eBay, and the winner -- interested in reaching out to nonbelievers -- asked him to visit fifty Christian churches of all kinds and critique them so that Christians could learn what they might do better.  Mehta liked energetic services with easily understood messages, exemplified in Joel Osteen's megachurch, and panned both high-church liturgical services and low-church bible-thumping.  Shea approaches churches from a different angle, however, as someone who believes the faith, yearns to feel it more fully, but has never ventured to do so before because the nuns who raised her threatened her with hellfire for even visiting another church.  Here, she visits an astonishing variety of churches, from the standard American faiths (Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian,  Baptist) to quirky up-and-comers (Mormons) to the bizarre (a church which worshiped God and John Coltrane). *A handful of niche churches, like the chapel at West Point, are included as well.  The author took care on some Sundays to choose an appropriate church: she visits the West Point chapel on Memorial Day, for instance, and a kooky Christian Spiritualist community on All Saints' Day.

Shea's account quickly revealed her personal tastes to be simple, but refined: she recoils from huge productions like Joel Osteen's megachurch,  stares glumly at the unadorned walls and unfrocked preachers in Protestant churches, and finds the focus of some congregations on spiritual warfare (fighting actual...demons?) and hate-campaigning to be flabbergastingly strange and distasteful. More to her style are the meditative services of the Quakers, or those of Catholic-like denominations, with formal liturgies and generous decor. But she appreciates some of the novelties, as well: the intense emotional energy  of places like New Mount Zion Baptist church and their enthusiastic inclusion of the congregants in the service as doing more than repeating lines appeals to her. For Shea, a this-world spiritual approach is paramount: she delights in churches with social programs like food pantries, and scorns those that only focus on helping their attendees avoid God's Imminent Wrath.

I found Sundays in America quite engaging, as the author and I seem to look for many of the same things in a faith community, in regards to the emphasis on helping others and the abscence of hate politics. Her story allowed me to find out a bit more about a few denominations, amused me with some of its bizaare visits,  made me appreciate having escaped my childhood Pentecostal background by forcing me to revisit it, and stirred me with her accounts of visiting the Quakers and a few other groups  whose emphasis on simplicity and mindfulness I greatly appreciate.

For those curious about the varieties of Christian religious experiences, this could prove very much worth your while.

* I used to say I went to the First Church of Frank (Sinatra), joking that we sang the Voice's standards and read devotions from The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Living. Finding out that a church existed that actually did that, with another artist, was startling to say the least...

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hey Mom, Can I Ride My Bike Across America?

Hey Mom, Can I Ride My Bike Across America? Five Kids Meet their Country
© 1990 John Siegel Boettner
with excerpts from the journals of Heather Deutsch, Joy Fulton, Jimmy West, Carl Fagerlin, and Ethan Turpin.
439 pages

The United States isn't a nation that makes touring it by bike easy: those who wish to do it must tackle mountain ranges,  broad deserts, a cornucopia of potential natural disasters -- and that's not even including American drivers. Imagine trying to do it while simultaneously watching over five teenagers --  five kids, really, a group of three boys and two girls, all eleven between eleven and thirteen years old. That's what John Siegel Boettner, a middle-school teacher in California, did in the year of 1986. Beginning at the start of summer break, he and his wife toured with the kids from Washington, D.C. across the continent to Oregon, then down California to their home, a journey of nearly five thousand miles -- braving tornadoes, heat waves, snowstorms, and a string of mechanical problems, all in an effort to teach the kids about their country.

John Siegel Boettner isn't your usual teacher: the fact that's he willing to take care of five of his kids for four months across the nation and through a variety of disasters might already indicate that.  An avid cyclist, as soon as he began teaching he organized a bicycle club and began taking his kids on extended trips called "Educational Safaris": in one, he and his wards biked through the northeast,  exploring the sites of the American Revolution. Not only did the bike trips give the kids an opportunity to learn about themselves, of what they could achieve through their effort alone, but it made their history, their culture, come more alive...and such was their teacher's intention here, as after Mississippi they follow the Oregon Trail to the west coast.  By day, John is their leader, captain, mechanic, and coach, helping them to organize and keep moving, and calling the shots when things get they did, often.  Unlike David Lamb's Over the Hills,  Hey Mom is peppered with near-disasters, usually near the mountains. By night, he's a teacher, reading to them from the journals of an Oregon Trail pioneer whose path they follow and whose experiences are an eerie mirror of their own.  The trip extends a month past summer vacation, but John feels no guilt about keeping the kids about of school. In his view, the experiences they are gaining on the road are worth far more than a month of memorization and regurgitation. This is the trip of a lifetime, the intimate details of which John accounts in the book, and when it was finished I felt sad, as though I'd been part of the experience and it was now over.

Before leaving on the trip, John read to his kids from Peter Jenkins' A Walk Across America;  Jenkins, too, transversed the nation in an effort to learn about it, to spend time with its people. Like Jenkins before them, John, his wife, and the kids gain much from the kindness of strangers...and strangers across the continent are very kind indeed to a band of kids doing what most think impossible even for adults, crossing a land of three thousand miles by bicycle.   Although this is the story of a journey, it's more about the people -- both the kids involved, like young Ethan who could barely ride a bike when the tale began, and the people who they meet, like the Amish folk in Tennessee.  I find accounts of people walking or cycling the entire country to be fascinating by themselves, but Hey Mom is extraordinary for featuring kids, whose energy, idealism, and joy and make a work to revel in reading.

Very much recommended. 

  • The author giving a TEDx talk called "The Joy of Looking", in which he shares how one of his cycling students taught him the lesson of The Dead Poets' Society: gather rosebuds while ye may.. It's beautiful.
  • A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Teaser Tuesday (26 March)

One man from Nebraska even wrote us a couple of times, filling his envelopes with books and brochures. He apologized for always filling my mailbox and ended one of his letters with, "I'm just so excited that you'll be coming through our state!" It seemed that not too many people were interested in pedaling across Nebraska.

p. 26, Hey Mom, Can I Ride My Bike Across America? Five Kids Meet their Country, John Boettner
In 2010, the highly conservative International Energy Agency announced that output of conventional oil would peak within ten years if demand continued to grow on a business-as-usual basis.
"Even if oil demand were to remain flat," Fatih Birol, the agency's chief economist, conceded in 2011, "the world would need to find more than forty million barrels per day of gross new capacity -- equal to four new Saudi Arabias -- just to offset this decline."

p. 10-11, Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, Taras Grescoe

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Pedaling Revolution

Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities
© 2009 Jeff Mapes
288 pages

That's some serious wind resistance there, buddy.

Governments across the world today are beset by problems common to all: rising fuel prices and obesity rates, the ever-present spectre of climate change, and the transportation needs of increasingly urbanized (or re-urbanizing) populations. Enter the humble bicycle: accessible to virtually everyone, regardless of age, sex, or income level; clean, quiet, and an excellent source of exercise. For too long in the United States, bicycling has been the province of a few intense racers and tourers who pride themselves on how miserable a trek they can endure. The end of the cheap oil era, however, has prompted cities to reexamine the bicycle as a means of transportation for the many, despite the car-centric nature of the American city.

Curbing car domination is not a futile hope: in the 1970s,  stirred by soaring oil prices, the Netherlands moved to discourage car use and promote cycling. The city of Amsterdam became a pioneer in modern cycling infrastructure; only Copenhagan can rival it. Both cities boast that nearly half of all trips within their cores happen via a cycle. Fittingly, then, Mapes begins with Amsterdam's story -- but the United States has its own homegrown success in Davis, California, a university town whose early growth was managed by a cycling advocate.  But Davis had it easy:  New York City and Portland, Oregon's success in creating room for cyclists in an already established urban area filled with cars is arguably more impressive.

Mapes' chapters on these cities not only demonstrate their success, but explore how they did it.  There's no authoritative source for how best to integrate bike traffic into transportation infrastructure. Approaches range from the simple (simply painting bike lanes onto existing roads) to the more involved (separate bike paths and even 'bike boulevards') -- and there are some who deny the need for bicycle infrastructure at all, harrumphing that cyclists should just learn to ride safely with auto traffic.  But more than just the built environment have to change to encourage cycling: traffic laws, like right-turn-on-red permits that allow motorists to take over pedestrian and cyclist right-of-ways, must be addressed. The book ends with a section on cycling safety, health benefits, and the important role bikes can play in raising children, and thus in creating a broader, sustainable bike culture.

Pedaling Revolution has great appeal to both cyclists and citizens concerned about the state of American cities, for whom it should prove most encouraging. The argue for cycling more is better made in The Green Metropolis, the cover of which is of a city in bodily form on a bike, but Mapes' account gives the already-converted great reason for hope, and could easily intrigue the curious to becoming part of a bicycling renaissance.

Taken from an April edition of The Selma Morning Times, 1900.


  • Copenhaganize, a blog covering cities around the world as they move toward being more bike friendly, like Amsterdam Copenhagen.
  • The Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability, David Owen
  • Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Jeff Speck
  • The Sprocket and Critical Transit, two podcasts hosted by urban cyclists....based in Portland, naturally. The Sprocket's tagline is 'Simplifying the Good Life'; I especially enjoy their interviews with carfree parents.

Friday, March 22, 2013


© 2008 Jennifer Bradbury
245 pages

Chris and his best friend Win decided to cycle across the United States in the summer between high school and their freshman year of college -- but only Chris came back, and now his first month at university is being made difficult by an intrusive FBI agent and the threats of Win's powerful father. In Shift, Chris tells the story of his adventure across America...the story that changed his and Win's lives, and one which is a face-paced mystery for readers.

Jennifer Bradbury seamlessly weaves together the present-day story in which Chris adjusts to freshman life coming off his cycling journey with the story of said journey, with the questions of the agent setting the stage for Chris's recollections. When I first picked the book up,  I was wary that this might be a murder mystery of some kind, but happily that's not the case.  After the first third of the book, the reader will probably have realized what happened to Win, and will thus be a few steps ahead of the FBI agent, who is operating on his own, and without official sanction from the Bureau. Such is the power that Win's father holds over people. What matters is how what happened came to happen: Shift is less a journey across the United States, and more the journey of two young men to find way of getting lost.

Although I checked the book out because it was the only novel in the library concerning bicycles, the humor and character development quickly captivated me. It's targeted toward high schoolers.

Reviving Ophelia: A Reading

"Most preadolescent girls are marvelous company because they are interested in everything -- sports, nature, people, music, and books. Almost all the heroines of girls' literature come from this age group -- Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Pippi Longstocking and Caddie Woodlawn. Girls this age bake pies, solve mysteries, and go on quests. They can take care of themselves and are not yet burdened with caring for others. [...] 
Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so to do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn in a social and developmental Bermuda Triangle. In early adolescence, studies show that girls' IQ scores drop and their math and science scores plummet. They lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks. They lose their assertive, energetic, and "tomboyish" personalities and become more deferential, self-critical, and depressed. [...]  
Psychology documents but does not explain the crashes. Girls who rushed to drink in experiences in enormous gulps sit quietly in the corner. Writers such as Slyvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, and Olive Schreiner have described the wreckage. Diderot, in writing to his young friend SOphie Volland, described his observations harshly: 'You all die at 15.' [...]  Simon de Beauvoir believed that adolescence is when girls realize that men have the power and that their only power comes from consenting to become submissive adored objects. They do not suffer from the penis envy Freud postulated, but from power envy.

She described the Bermuda Triangle this way: Girls who were the subjects of their own lives become the objects of others' lives. 'Young girls slowly bury their childhood, put away their independent and imperious selves and submissively enter adult existence.' [...]
Girls know they are losing themselves. One girl said, 'Everything good in me died in junior high.' [...] Parents know only too well that something is happening to their daughters. Calm, considerate daughters grow moody, demanding and distant. Girls who loved to talk are sullen and secretive. Girls who liked to hug now bristle when touched. Mothers complain that they can do nothing right in the eyes of their daughters. Involved fathers bemoan their banishment from their daughters' lives. But few parents realize how universal their experiences are.

pp. 19-21, 23, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Pipher.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

This week at the library: sheikhs, airplanes, and VW vans

This past Thursday, some friends drove me three hours into the woods, dropped me off in the midst of some 70 strangers, and left me there. They called it "Cursillo", and it was a spiritual retreat which I liked enormously more than I would have ever predicted.  It helped that no electronic devices of any kind were allowed, so I enjoyed four days of conversations uninterrupted by phones ringing or people gazing at their gadgets.  But that's where I've been -- physically, all last weekend, and mentally, most of this week.

Before I left, I read On Saudi Arabia by Karen Elliot House, an exploration of Saudi Arabia's culture, history, and political atmosphere. The nation is one worth learning about: home to the world's largest petroleum and natural gas reserves, and a hotbed of religious violence which is simultaneously cozy with the United States despite being abusively backward in most respects. The Saudi Arabia that House unveils is one rife with contradictions and tensions, many of which are sourced in the Saudi royal family's machinations to maintain control. They constantly strengthen and attack the warring factions inside the realm for their own advantage:  supporting and promoting Wahhabism across the world, for instance, but then swiftly attacking its adherents if their actions hurt the king or his standing in the world.  Although the Saudi family would like to  be more traditionalist, not only to pacify the swelling ranks of sectarian crazies, but to increase its own power, it is forced by reality to make changes -- to allow more opportunities for women, for instance, and be more open to criticism. The Internet is a djinn in a bottle, that undermines the complete authority the Saudi  family and religious leaders once had.  Saudi Arabia is bound to change, but it's in for a troublesome future.  There's a great line in The Dark Knight Rises -- "Victory has defeated you!" --  Saudi Arabia exemplifies the idea. It is a nation utterly ruined by its prosperity:  the rulers are corrupt, the people are spoiled (not working, not wanting to do anything useful, but eager to rage against the kingdom for not giving them more), and the economy is based entirely on oil, the production of which in Saudi Arabia may have already peaked. On Saudi Arabia is definitely worth looking at if you have an interest in global affairs and politics.

I also read Alain de Botton's A Week at the Airport, inspired by his living in a hotel attached to Heathrow Airport, where he spent his days and evenings watching people as they set forth on globetrotting adventures, or returned home from the same. Although my interest in transportation might have piqued my interest in this book, its authorship made reading it inevitable. de Botton enthralls me, finding philosophical meaning in seemingly everything. I would not be surprised to learn he had once stood in the midst of a downpour, contemplating his umbrella. He makes the mundane sublime. Witness his shopping approach in an airport bookstore:

"I explained -- with the excessive exposition of a man spending a lonely week at the airport -- that I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange.
Manishankar wondered if I might like a magazine instead."

In A Week at the Airport's scant 100-odd pages,  de Botton muses on travel, the meaning of airport food, the inevitable expectation of arriving passengers that someone will be there waiting for them, the poetry of airline food menus, our faith in technology, other miscellany. de Botton fascinates, and the photography is stirring.

Earlier this past week, I also read Through Painted Deserts, the story of of two men's journey together from Texas to Oregon in a VW bus, in which they descend into the Grand Canyon and ruminate on the Meaning of It All under the stars. I've read Miller before; he penned  Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, which left me feeling conflicted. As much as I liked Miller's conversational tone and mellow thoughtfulness, I cringed there as he continued to hit himself over the head with dogma. One of the more intriguing episodes mentioned there, his living in the woods for a few weeks,  is explored in Through Painted Deserts in more detail.  The trip takes place earlier in his life, when Miller was still a young man trying to find himself -- and he finds, on the road, that possessions and social status and all that are like, lame, man.  Through Painted Deserts alternates between low-key ramblings on life and intense summations of belief as Miller gets into simple living, mystic musings centered on the natural world, and confessions of love when he and his road-buddy aren't fixing the van and enjoying the kindness of strangers.  I found it all rather endearing. A related work would be Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Reading

"I began to wonder what personal ideas I believed that weren't true. I believed I was not athletic enough; too stupid; I believed I had to go to college; I believed the Astros were a more important team than the Mets; I believed that jeans that cost $50 were better than jeans that cost $30; I believed that living in a certain part of town made you more important than living in another. I looked up at the cosmos and it had no scientific proof that any of this was true. The cosmos wasn't telling me that I was stupid; it wasn't telling me that one pair of jeans was better than another. The cosmos was just spinning around up there, as if trying to creature beauty for beauty' sake, paying no attention to the frivolity of mankind  And I liked the cosmos. I liked the cosmos very much. It seemed that it understood something, perhaps, humanity did not understand."

p. 11, Through Painted Deserts. Donald Miller.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Spring Reading

This week, the Broke and the Bookish asks...what books will you be reading this spring?

1. Cycle Journey
I'm itching to read someone's account of cycling across the United States, but there are so many out there I haven't decided on one yet!

2. The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People, Neil Shubin
I've been meaning to read Shubin's Your Inner Fish for a while now, but this one channels Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

3. Confessions of a Straphanger: Saving Our Cities  and Ourselves from the Automobile, Taras Grescoe

4. Religion for Atheists: A Nonbeliever's Guide to the Uses of Religion, Alain de Botton

5. Earth: An Intimate History, Richard Fortey

6. Antifragile: How Things Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

7. Buddhism without Beliefs, Stephen Prothero, or similar.

8. Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power, James Mahaffey

9.  Fighting Traffic: the American City and the Dawn of the Automobile Age, Peter Norton

10. St. George's Day is 24 April, and my reading around that time will celebrate England. I've not yet sorted out which books I'll be reading, but Bernard Cornwell will certainly make a showing. Christian Wolmar's Fire and Steam, a history of railways in Britain, is likely.  Other possibilities: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and P.G. Wodehouse.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

This week at the library: bikes, Arab sheikhs, Christian urbanism, and marriage

What kind of car would Jesus drive? And he certainly would have to drive, were he to initiate a ministry in 21st century America, for it is an place impossible to navigate otherwise.  The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment explores the spiritual, religious aspects of ...urban planning.  A book that quotes liberally from both the Judeo-Christian bible and authors like Jane Jacobs makes for a decidedly odd and manifestly intriguing combination, at least for someone like myself, for whom the built environment is a dear subject.  Although authors like urbanist authors like Jim Kunstler often address the way the built environment affects the human spirit -- speaking of a building as honoring and comforting people , or distressing and demeaning us --  this is a distinctly religious spirituality explored here.  A key concept is that of shalom: while a common meaning of it is simply 'peace', author Eric Jacobsen writes that it has a fuller meaning, one that refers to a state of being where all is right with the world, essentially, where relations between people and relations between people and the divine are as they should be.  This idea allows him to explore 'secular' concepts like walkability and mixed-used  environments for their religious value.

Relatedly, I just finished Kate Braestrup's Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, a memoir about love and marriage. The love in question is agape love, and Braestrup -- a Unitarian Universalist minister -- muses on marriage as a spiritual experience.  I read it for the author: her Here if You Need Me  lives on in my memory, despite having only read it once some three years ago. She writes with such naked, intense honesty, and her reflections stir one to both bliss and sorrow. Marriage is similar in that regard, allowing her to build off her background as a widow who became a minister (and chaplain to game wardens) after her first husband died in a car accident. Throughout the book Braestrup explores the theme of agape, through relationships between lovers,  families, and perfect strangers, mingling the sacred with the profane. As with Here if You Need Me, her second memoir is both profoundly moving  and sometimes hilarious.

More extensive comments are pending for Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities and On Saudi Arabia: Its Past, People, Fault Lines, and Future.

Upcoming reads...oh, who knows? I recently received a book called Alabama Railroads, and have People with Dirty Hands, a tribute to gardeners, checked out as well.