29 December 2006

Favorites of 2006: Survey Results

My First Annual Favorites Survey of 2006.

16 people completed the survey (12 US, 4 international).

Here are the results. Only unique responses are listed; if more than one person referenced the same work, the number at the end indicates frequency for that specific answer. More than one response was given to some questions.

1. Favorite fiction book of 2006

Straight Man, Richard Russo

by Philip Roth

The Birth House
by Ami McKay

The Thirteenth Tale
- Diane Setterfield (3)

Breakable You
, Brian Morton

The Historian
, Elizabeth Kostova

Winter's Bone
, Daniel Woodrell

Arthur and George
, Julian Barnes

Lisey's Story
, Stephen King

, Jorge Luis Borges

Also Mentioned: Uses of Enchantment, no author cited. Uses of Enchantment, by Bruno Bettelheim, is the only book I found and it is non-fiction. Perhaps there is a fiction work with the same title?

2. Favorite non-fiction book of 2006

Me Talk Pretty Some Day, David Sedaris

Curse of the Narrows
, Laura MacDonald

Devil's Teeth
, Susan Casey

Sweet and Low: A Family Story
, Rich Cohen

Marley and Me
, John Grogan

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Blithe Tomato
, Mike Madison,

Enrique's Journey
, Sonia Nazario.

Assassination Vacation
, Sarah Vowell

City of Falling Angels
, John Berendt

The Mighty and the Almighty
, Madeleine Albright

On Beauty and Being Just
, Elaine Scarry

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
, Michael Pollan

How Reading Changed My Life
, Anna Quindlen

3. Favorite book-related controversy

Critics vs. Book Bloggers (3)

Oprah no longer leading a book discussion.

Judith Reagan (3)

Frey-Gate (4)

The one about bibliographies in novels because it was so irrational.

One participant cited the Judith Reagan/OJ Simpson controversy as a dis-honorable mention!

4. Favorite Blog Post

Lima Stew and Blender Tuna Mousse: Unrescued Recipes, Lily at Bloglily.

BlogLily's Saying Farewell to Illness, Lily at Bloglily

The pitfalls of receiving free books, or how not to risk your book blogging credibility, Kimbofo at Reading Matters.

Pay it forward...and Win a Venator Survival Kit!, Colleen Gleason, For All the World To See.

Simply Wait, Patry Francis

interview with Patry Francis, Susan Henderson's LitPark

Race report; or, isn't it great when we all help each other out?, Dorothy, Of Books and Bicycles

"On Richard Russo's Straight Man", Litlove, Tales from the Reading Room

“Deliver Us From Thinking” Tim Sterne, Sarsaparilla

5. Favorite Daily Read

A Work in Progress (4)

P-S Shelf Life

Pesky Apostrophe (2)

SciFi Chick

One Whipped Mother

DoveGreyReader Scribbles, DovegreyReader


The Hobgoblin of Little Minds, BikeProf

Bloglily, Lily (2)

Tales from the Reading Room, Litlove (3)

Box of Books, Ella

Of Books and Bicycles, Dorothy W.

Cam's Commentary, Cam

Telecommuter Talk, Emily


6. Favorite Group Blog or Blogging Community

A Curious Singularity


Pop Goes the Library

Metaxucafe (4)

The Slaves of Golconda (2)

The Valve

Two comments which didn't specifically list a group blog, but defintely refer to a community:
"Not sure I visit alot of group blogs. I use A Work in Progress as the hub and ...I consider all her blog links part of the book blogging community which is far and away my favorite."

"All of those bookbloggers listed above."

7. Favorite Blog Controversy

Critics vs Book Bloggers, summarized here (4)

Free Books at Reading Matters (3)

Anything to do with the romance blogs.

8. Favorite Commenter -- the one who makes the comments almost as great as the post (on your blog or others)

Kate S, Kate’s Book Blog

Litlove, Tales from the Reading Room (4)

Booklogged, A Reader’s Journal

Carl V., Stainless Steel Droppings

Dorothy, Of Books And Bicycles (cited as 'most dedicated commenter')

Danielle, A Work in Progress

Jay, Kill the Goat

9. Favorite Litblog-related Meme or Challenge

Cam’s Poetry Meme (3)

The Halloween Meme Em didn’t start it, but she loves a good meme. Here is her post.

The Summer Reading Challenge by the bookjunkie. (her new blog home).

Carl's RIP Challenge (3)

Litlove's Reading meme There was also this one, "The Aspirational Meme”

Five things you don't know about me. Cited because "it gives insights into my fellow bloggers". This one was everywhere.

Kate's Early Reading Memories meme, This originated with Kate.

One response to this question really made me laugh. It was this: "Yuck!"

The Participants:

Thanks to all who participated. It was fun reading and compiling the results. Only those who indicated in the comments that they had completed the survey are listed here. I lost some comments during blogger conversion recently, so if I missed your comment, please accept my apology for not listing you here. If you participated and are not listed, add your name in the comments section.

Imani at The Books of My Numberless Dreams
Carl V at Stainless Steel Droppings
Dorothy W at Of Books and Bicycles
Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room
Maggie, at Maggie Reads

26 December 2006

Favorites of 2006 Survey, new blogger, and other things....

Recently, I invited readers to complete a survey on their favorite books and blogs of 2006. There is still time if you would like to participate. I am extending the survey deadline until 6 pm Pacific time tomorrow 12/27. I will post the results on Thursday or Friday. Click here to take the survey.

You will not be asked to leave your name when you complete the survey. If you would like to be listed as a participant in the survey, please leave your name & blog url in the comment section.

If you have already completed the survey and left your name in the comments, please verify that your name was not changed to 'Anonymous' when I converted to the new Blogger platform. New comments are working, but I may have lost the link to your blog in the older comments. This happened to several comments on recent posts.

A bit of a rant. Skip this section if you don't want to read my whine.

I'm sure my voice is will hardly raise the din in the criticism of Blogger, but I am extremely disappointed in this upgrade. Blogger offers no assistance, poor help screens, and comments from blogger employees so sarcastic, belittling, and defensive in tone that any Customer Service/Technical Support personnel in any place I have ever worked (and they would be technical support people too) if not fired, at least put on probation. I really don't care to hear that they are overworked. I don't want to be admonished for starting a new thread, cross-posting, or posting in the wrong one without any other comment. I don't want to have to rely on other users in the forums to solve what is a Blogger problem. And I don't want to be told 'it's free', as if that means I should be happy that my blog is messed up, corrupted, or lacks promised functionality. I don't want to be told to 'be patient' when I read of others who have been waiting over a week for Blogger to fix their blog and that I haven't waited long enough. During the upgrade process, Blogger displayed a message indicating that it will be a few minutes, maybe a little longer. My blog disappeared for 9 hours. I don't think that 'a little longer' nor that one shouldn't question whether you've experienced the same thing as others.

But my biggest complaint is that I haven't been told any of these things. These are from the comments in the Blogger Forum. I have yet to receive a reply to any of my requests -- either the initial one after 3 hours of conversion wondering if I would ever get my blog back, or my inquiries regarding the anonymous comments, which, btw, did not apply to only certain users. In fact, I had at least one commenter who posted on the same day on two posts -- one is now anonymous, the other accredited. The Blogger forum suggests (as if this is an answer!) that it is because the user switched from old blogger to new blogger.

OK, rant over.

I have been experimenting with new customizations for my blog. A bit frustrating if you don't use Blogger's pre-defined layouts, but I'm dealing with it. Still trying to figure out a means to include tag links in the sidebar. It appears that this has to be hand-coded if you aren't using Blogger layout widget. I'd like it if they gave the code for doing this without the widget, but I'll wait until they fix some of the other larger problems.

Would be interested to get feedback on the changes I've made. Also, if anyone knows how to turn off the active link in the header on an archive page, I'd appreciate it. I don't like how Blogger is underlining the subtitle on the archive pages and I can't find the place in the html where I can comment this out, or (a possibility) where I am missing/have extra curly brace that is causing blogger ignoring my comment marks around the necessary code.

Wine not whine: Recent books

I received a few books for Christmas and of course I had to jump right in yesterday as time allowed. A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine by Jay McInerney is a collection of columns McInerney has published previously on one of my favorite topics. In the introduction, he writes the following:

I was more comfortable comparing wines to actresses, rock bands, pop stars, painters or automobiles than I was with literal parsing of scents and tastes a la "bouquet of American beauty roses".
I like that approach to wine. While I understand what a connoisseur means when he states that a good Sauvignon Blanc tastes like freshly cut hay or a big Cab is like old leather and spice, I wonder why the novice drinker would willingly want to drink something described as such. Of course, that means more for those of us who have ignored the unapproachable descriptions and discovered how wonderful wine is.

More later on other books I'm currently reading. What books did you give or receive for the holidays?

25 December 2006

Merry Christmas

4th post for Carl's G.I.F.T Challenge

Two poems for Christmas:

Christiana Rossetti wrote Love Came Down at Christmas in the 1850's. Often song as a carol to a traditional Irish folk tune.

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote Christ Climbed Down in the 1950's. Since this is still under copyright, I'm only quoting the first and last stanzas of the poem. Here is a link where it is published with permission. You can hear Ferlinghetti reading a portion of this poem here.

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary's womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody's anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings.

Two very different poets. From two different continents, two different centuries. Two different perspectives on Christ's incarnation.

Whether your perspective tends towards Rosetti's view or towards Ferlinghetti's, may you have a joyous Christmas.

May God, who in the Word-made-flesh joined heaven to earth and earth to heaven, give us all God's peace and favor. -- Anglican Christmas Blessing

22 December 2006

Star People and Angel People

3rd Post for Carl's G.I.F.T Challenge

For some, it may seem a bit late to be putting up the Christmas tree today, but traditionally, I rarely put up the tree until a few days before Christmas. When I was a child, we never put the tree up until after December 17th, my father's birthday.

Each year, I buy a set of ornaments, usually following a certain theme or design. I mark each with our initials and the year. I have done this every year since my son was born. Although as I sorted through the ornaments today I realized that I hadn't put the year on each one. But, he does have one ornament for each of his 18 Christmases, even if we didn't record the year. This year I bought three birds. They'll roost on the tree with several others I've collected over the years. Birds on a tree just seem right to me.

The Santa Forest
Another ornament tradition that we have is to buy Santa ornaments. I buy at least one or two each year. We have so many now, that they don't fit on the tree. So, we have what is known in our house as the 'Santa Forest'. Santa Forest used to be on the piano. Other years it has been located on the mantel. This year, it's the bookcase, which doesn't have much room, so the Santas look rather cozy.

The Angelic Choir
The other type of ornaments that adorn our tree are angels. There are two types of people who decorate Christmas trees: Star people and Angel people. If you're a Star person, Angels just look wrong atop the tree. The same is true for Angel people: Stars don't belong crowning a Yule tree. What started out as a compromise many years ago -- I got my Star where it belong and there was at least one angel on the tree -- has turned into a collection of Angel ornaments, a representation of the Heavenly Host on the tree. I usually hum "Angels, We Have Heard on High" when I decorate the tree. At the last Annual Holiday Angel Count, I had 105 Angel Ornaments.

Speaking of Annual Counts, The Audubon Society's Annual Christmas Bird Count, continues through January 5. Follow the link to find out how you can participate and to see a photo album of birds -- the real ones that are so much more beautiful than any ornament on a tree!

16 December 2006

Christmas Gift(s): A Memory

2nd post for Carl's G.I.F.T. Challenge....

One year when my son was about six years old, Christmas looked bleak, at least from a gift-giving perspective due to the thinness of my wallet. Say anything you want regarding the 'true meaning of Christmas', but few or no packages under the tree means nothing but disappointment for a child.

I had been ambivalent about the idea of Santa Claus, but my son's father was adamant about not misleading children about some jolly old man bringing 'good' kids presents. So, there were never presents labeled from Santa under my tree, although there were plenty without any tags at all. A bit of a compromise, but one that I stood by, even when my son's dad was no longer a member of our household. Over time, although I never said anything about Santa, B. began to believe in Santa. I realized how pervasive this idea of Christmas is in our culture. Wondering how non-Christian children in America must feel -- that Santa is not only for "good" kids, but only for "good Christian" kids -- really annoyed me and so I continued with the no Santa rule in my house.

One day B. approached me tearfully. He told me that he really wanted Santa to come and bring him gifts and he had even written a letter, but his dad had told him that Santa was "just some old guy working at the mall in a cheap costume and ski hat". B. was crushed! I realized how important the idea of Santa was to him. I was in a pickle. I told my mother about the conversation. I soon realized that was not my wisest move.

Quicker than you could say "Rudolph, the red-nosed", she had sprung into action. She contacted a neighbor who had played Santa at a "Breakfast with Santa" event at her church the previous week -- an event which I had declined to attend. "He's such a good Santa", she said. "And, it isn't a cheap costume! Come over here tomorrow for dinner and he'll stop by."

I knew there would be little peace if I didn't go along with her idea, and I was saddened by my little inconsolable boy with his heart crushed by discovering that the Santa I had never said existed, in fact, didn't. So to the other side of town we went the following evening.

Around 8pm, there was a heavy knock on the back door. Before we could answer it, in strolled the best costumed Santa I'd ever seen. My mother's friend, J., was unrecognizable. White hair, realistic beard, ruddy checks, heavy black boots, black workmen's gloves -- the kind you'd need to hold reindeer reins.

"I heard that B. was here. Where is he?" Santa laughed in a friendly way. But my son was no where in sight. Frightened, he had jumped behind the sofa. I don't know what he thought at first. That some itinerant mall worker had broken into G-Ma's house? That his father was so wrong? That Santa really existed and missed him at the Breakfast the previous week?

It took a few minutes, but B. finally emerged from behind the cushions, trembling, walked up to Santa and pinched him, confirming that he was, in fact, quite pinchable and real. Santa asked B. what he wanted for Christmas.

"Roller blades" he said. "For me and for my mommy. And books."

"Well," Santa said, "if your Grandmother and your teacher Mrs. H. report to me that you've been good, those gifts will be under your tree on Christmas morning."

"Rollerblades. For me and my mommy."

"My reindeer are ready to leave. I have to go. They spook real easy, so you can't go outside until you count to 100." With that, he left out the back door. After the quickest counting to 100 he had done to date, B. rushed to the back door, trying to push past his grandfather to get to the outside door. Somehow, J. had managed to get around the corner of the house, through the neighbors' yards and to his house before B. saw him. B. of course wasn't thinking about looking at the lawn; he was focused on the roofline and the sky beyond.

"Look" he said, "a piece of the reindeer's harness", pointing to a roof clamp that had been left by the roofing crew earlier in the day. "I hope the sleigh is safe."

"I can't wait to get my rollerblades!"

One problem solved, but another had taken it's place. This was the first mention of rollerblades and I am not the most athletic adult you'll ever encounter. Christmas was looking a little bleaker now that I had to buy myself a present too. But, Santa had promised.

I served the most inexpensive meals I could find for the next few weeks, and frequently showed up to shop for groceries at my mother's refrigerator. I had a little money saved, and somehow managed to save enough to buy two pair of new skates, helmets and pads. They even matched in color.

Christmas morning, B's eyes lit up when he saw the presents under the tree. Books and Rollerblades for him and for his mommy -- exactly what he had asked Santa for. He had so much fun putting on his new skates. He wanted to show me how to skate but it was very cold that day, too cold to skate outside. After I made B. swear that he wouldn't tell G'ma, we moved all of the furniture out of the family and dining rooms and created an inside rollerblade rink. We skated around the rooms for a couple of hours, leaving fingerprints on the walls as we bumped along, and leaving tracks that eventually came out of the carpet with a steamer. It was a too big of a promise -- and too much fun -- for a six year old to not tell his grandmother, and as predicted she was appalled that I would allow such 'horseplay' in the house. But, it didn't matter. It was the most memorable Christmas morning we ever shared.

13 December 2006

You Might Already Be A Winner: 2006 Favorites of the Year

It is the time of the year when lists are published with "Best of..." themes. Whether it is Newstory of the Year, Best Book, Best Movie, or Best Whatever, I always find that the more interesting lists are those considered that don't win. If it is based on some sort of non-quantitative criteria, how can you really select "the best"? The best-selling (e.g., top grossing) book is quantifiable; a best read of the year is not. I can't narrow a list of great reads to one best; the exercise seems pointless.

But a list of favorites? That's something altogether different.

So, I decided to host a listing of Favorites of books and book blogs this year. But not just my favorites -- I want to know your favorites of the year too.

How do you submit your favorites? Follow the link at the bottom to complete the survey. Since we're not limiting this to a list of winners, the rules allow you to recommend as many entrees as you'd like. Multiple nominees can be recorded in the survey. No need to repeat the survey to nominate additional 'favorites'.

Survey closes 12/26 at 11:59pm Pacific Standard Time. I will compile the lists and post before 12/31. Here are the categories:

1. Favorite fiction book of 2006
2. Favorite non-fiction book of 2006
3. Favorite book-related controversy

Blogs: (Book or Writing-related Blog)
4. Favorite Blog Post
5. Favorite Daily Read
6. Favorite Blog Controversy
7. Favorite Group Blog
8. Favorite Blog Commenter (the one who makes the comments almost as great as the post (on your blog or others)

9. Favorite meme or challenge
10. What didn't I include? Create your own categories and list your recommendations.

Go take the survey. Click here to take survey

You will not be asked any identifying information on the survey. Please leave a comment here to let me know that you've completed the survey. I will compile a list of contributors as well. Your individual responses, however, will be anonymous. So, you can nominate yourself if you'd like. No one else will ever know!

Thanks for participating.

11 December 2006

Christmas in Harmony

Philip Gulley's Christmas in Harmony isn't the type of book that I usually read. I was convinced that I would hate it, but steeled myself to slog through this short book for a bookclub read. So, I was surprised that I found myself laughing aloud throughout the 80+ pages of this book.

This was my first venture in reading of the fictional town of Harmony and its lovable but flaky inhabitants that are gently ministered to by Pastor Sam Gardner. It's almost Christmas when the story opens and the members of the Harmony Friends Meeting want to do something different for Christmas Eve services. Irascible and unpredictable, Dale Hinshaw is determined to have a progressive Nativity pageant -- sort of like a progressive dinner, but without the cocktails, horsd'oerves, entree and dessert. In addition to the chaos of the crass rendition of a Nativity scene, Pastor Sam Gardner deals with children skeptical about Santa Claus, finding the perfect tree, arguing with his wife over the sending of greeting cards, an exploding truck, the loneliness and fears of his congregation, and with attempting to build an inclusive congregation in a church where the parishioners are wary of strangers. What ensues is funny, heartwarming, and charmingly descriptive of how people deal with changing traditions without losing the 'true' meaning of the Season.

The fictional town of Harmony is a nostalgic place, a sort of mid-western American Brigadoon. It is a nostalgia for a time and place that has never existed, but that we all at some time wished had. Harmony is a town that is befitting of its placename; despite the flaws and quarrels of its inhabitants, is a harmonious place of grace and forgiveness, where the reader ends up loving the characters in spite of their foibles.

This is a quick read that is perfect for someone looking for a short holiday-related book. It is a delightfully sentimental book that will put a smile on your face and make you want to hang some mistletoe and colored lights, although you might re-think the plastic creche set on the front lawn!

This is my first post for Carl's holiday fun challenge.

09 December 2006

When I look at the stars, or mountains, or a wildflower, or the sea

Litlove wrote a few days ago about Religion and Spirituality and whether the two can be separated. Can one be spiritual, while being an atheist? was the question raised by a work she was reading. There are some interesting comments to that post; you should check them out. I started to post this as a comment on her blog, but I quickly realized I had more to say than a blog comment would allow. As I read her post, I started thinking about a book I read a few months ago, Simple Christian by N.T. Wright, that I have yet to write about here. One of the things I've been gnawing on since I read this book was Wright's outlining of different categorizations or concepts about God and I think it is relevant to the discussion at Litlove's. This post is not meant to be a commentary on Wright's apologetics as expressed in this book, but I do think that the classification is useful for my discussion of the question Litlove posed.

Here's my distillation of classifications Wright cites in his book:

  1. The pantheist looks at God as being everywhere, and everywhere, therefore, is God. This is a belief that everything contains at least a spark of divinity.

  2. The panentheistic view is one that everything may not be divine as such, but exists within God.

  3. The belief that God (or gods) and humankind occupy two distinct and firmly separated spaces.

  4. The belief, found Wright says in classic Judaism and early Christianity, that Heaven and Earth are NOT coterminous and that God makes his presence known on earth.

Wright actually considers pantheism and panentheism to be variations on the same theme, but I see them as decidedly distinct. I think many adherents of Christianity, while not labeling themselves as panentheists, often misconstrue that all things are within God, rather than being created by God. I think that this is produced by the faulty logic that says "God is good, therefore all things created by God are good". As Wright points out, this falls apart when you consider evil. I cannot believe that evil doesn't exit, but I've yet to get my head around how to explain its existence, even in terms of my belief in the existence of God. Maybe the existence of evil is part of the mystery of God, but I cannot see it as a part of that which is divine.

Wright discusses the belief that the godly and the human are separated by a wide gulf in both the ancient Greeks as well as the 18th century Deists. This belief, Wright writes, is quite cozy and comfortable for the well-off, but not so much if, like most of the world's population throughout history, one lives in despicable, deplorable conditions. This view, Wright points out, is prevalent both among those who call themselves Christian and those who identify as being agnostics. It is, he suggests, a view of a God who just "shrugs his shoulders" at the plight of the world. This view, I think, can leave one wondering, when one marvels at the beauty in the world, what the point is. Although often throughout my life I've believed in the distant god-figure, it does seem to be a position that is bound to leave one bewildered at one extreme, angst-ridden at the other, if one follows through to the logical end of the philosophical argument that a god would create a beautiful world and then pretty much just ignore it.

It is the last categorization around which Wright frames Simply Christian, detailing this concept in terms of the ancient Israelites, who saw this overlapping of the Godly and the Earthly manifested in the Temple. This idea of God's presence in the world provides a framework that I hadn't considered previously, not that I haven't recognized before what I would call God's presence. I can best describe it as a Venn diagram, where Heaven is the space where the sphere of God or the Godhead overlaps with humankind's sphere of existence. Obviously, in terms of Christian theology, one can talk about how the "Temple" of the ancient Israelites has been replaced with the temple of Christ. But, I've most often heard Christians talk of Jesus Christ as the temple as being the bridge between heaven and earth, not as the intersection. I like this idea of intersecting, overlapping spheres. It makes more sense to me in many ways and brings a different perspective to the idea of communion and relationship with God and others, to the metaphor of God's kingdom on earth, and to the concept of eternity, with God being outside of time. It is this intersection where ethics makes sense in the Christian tradition; by doing what is right (following the rule to love God and love your neighbor has yourself) we are brought into relationship with each other and with the Divine.

So, how does this relate to Litlove's question? (Go read it now, if you haven't yet & want the rest of this to make sense.) I would say that spirituality within atheism cannot exist. What is it that one would be trying to attain through the atheistic meditation on nature of which Litlove's French philosopher wrote? I understand the mystical feeling that many get when they commune with nature. When I behold beauty in the natural world, I experience a spiritual connection with nature -- and with God. But it is just one way. It is not the only place I find that Godly/Earthly intersection. It is more difficult -- after all, when was the last time you were betrayed by a flower, had an argument with a tree -- but we should be able to find that same kind of communion with people as well. When we just look for the mystical in nature, we don't find God in all of the Divine's dimensions, and we overlook how we have gaps, divisions, wide gulfs that seem impossible to bridge, with our fellow humans.

Spirituality is different than religion; one is the continuing path to understanding the godly, the other the organized corporate practice of worship and the codification of beliefs, including how one individually should seek and follow a righteous, ethical and spiritual path. Meditation, for some, may be a part of that journey, but I can't conceive of it as being separate from spirituality. When one meditates upon beauty as found in the natural world and finds it a spiritual experience, one need to consider whether they are communing with the Divine as nature, with the Divine within nature, or nature as a manifestation of the Divine.

Litlove wrote: "So what I think this French author is doing is taming and domesticating the mystical experience, trying to make it into something pocket-sized and practical....[B]ut if there is a God, then I can‚’t help but feel he‚’s bound up in what we might refer to as Glory, as a form of beauty and awe that exceeds the quotidian imaginings of humanity, and that nourishes our sense of excess and the extraordinary." I couldn't agree more. But I don't think that the point of such a mystical experience, as the French atheist posited, is to understand our place in the whole of the cosmos and to accept life as is. As BikeProf commented on Litlove's post, such a position simply finds different words to express the same experience.

As another commenter on Litlove's blog, Mark, wrote: ....some merit to spirituality in a purely aesthetic sense, but I’m not sure if it‚’s not missing an essential quality of religion - duty". In the context of ethics, I think this is also true. Apart perhaps from ethical questions regarding the right use of natural resources, I don't think that meditation on the aesthetics of nature will inspire ethical thinking. Is the sense of awe and of being part of a universe bigger than one's ego something that will evoke the mystical in the midst of nature when nature is destructive -- wild animals seeking and killing prey, the tornado or hurricane or blinding snowstorm relentlessly unleashing its unyielding destructive and random power? How many of us in Western society, living far from Indian Ocean fishing villages and not having considered the potential reality of a tsunami, were not bewildered by the death and destruction of the 2004 Asian Tsunami? I can't believe that awe at nature's power at any level spurred the humanitarian outpouring following that event. Although such destruction can make one question the presence of a benevolent and loving deity, one would not find the answer to why such things happen -- or the right thing to do -- in nature. One doesn't need to appreciate the aesthetics of the natural world to know that the ethical thing is to help one's fellow human. While humanitarian help does not necessarily need to be an act brought about by religion or spiritual awareness (and often it is not), I am doubtful that aid to someone in need is done because of an ethic found by meditating on the beauty of nature.

Putting aside all of the arguments about how evil has been perpetrated in the guise of religion throughout the centuries -- the examples are not limited to just one religion -- I think that there is something fundamentally wrong with looking at religion as something that humans have outgrown because we have laws to support a common ethical standard. If that were the case, wouldn't we have moved beyond the horrors that are constant throughout history: poverty, war, tyranny? How many humans are really in communion with others? Such an arguments suggests that we are not only more knowledgeable about ourselves and the physical world than our ancestors, but also that we are wiser. To believe so is not wisdom, but foolishness.

07 December 2006

Intersecting Communities

Two weeks ago, I posted a meme and tagged four people. I had no idea if they would post answers to the meme on their blogs. I wasn't even sure if they would realize that I had tagged them. Not being a meme-creator, I wasn't sure the protocol for tagging someone. It didn't matter though; I had fun writing the meme and posting my own answers. In some ways, it was no different than simply writing on my blog, although, in style and content, it wasn't typical of most of my blog posts.

But, within a day, Hobgoblin, Litlove and Dorothy had answered the meme -- and tagged other people. And then an interesting thing referrer log showed a blog that I had never seen before. Imani had answered the meme and linked to me. I enjoyed reading the responses and couldn't wait to see what others had to say. The next day I began to check Technorati (disappointingly slow in indicating new links) and Google, searching on key phrases from the meme.

I read more posts. I started to track them to see how the meme spread. A few days later I read of someone writing a paper for MLA on how quickly a meme spread, but he didn't do a meme, just simply asked people to link to him & post on their own blogs to help his 'research'. There was a bit of a tiff on his site about the methodology of his research. I'm not an academic, so I can't comment on the validity of his research, although it did seem to me that he wasn't really tracking how people picked up on an idea and posted similarly on blogs. Rather, he was testing how many times people could link to him. It seems like a MySpace "Won't you be my friend?" sort of a thing. Which is a little different than ideas spreading among interconnecting communities.

Intersecting communities -- that is what the blog world, at least the little corner of it that I inhabit, is about. A community where one can express one's self and exchange ideas with like minded bloggers. It's true that most memes tend towards the banal. It's an easy target to claim that they all are about "3 things about me...." But, what if they were? Does that matter? Does it matter if the growth of a meme is organic? And what does that really mean anyway? Is there a way in which the spread of an idea is not organic? Is it only organic if it is the little guys writing? Does an idea, or a meme, or a common writing prompt, loose its genuine quality if it gets too big? Can it get too big?

I don't think so. But, I do think it can grow beyond the point where it is easy to track. That is, unless you have limitless time in front of a computer to do keyword searches. From what I could find, 56 people have answered the meme. About another 6 - 8 have been tagged but haven't yet responded. You will find links to these posts here where I have a collection. But, as of today, I will not be posting additional links.

Here is why I'm stopping: 1) I don't have the time to spend, 2) while I'm interested in the spread of this meme because of the 'oh look where it is now!' factor, I don't know that I need to watch it any longer. Lastly: 3) Poetry Thursday used this meme (with my permission) as the weekly writing prompt. By early tomorrow morning, I suspect that I would find about 75-85 links on the PoetryThursday site. At twice what I've tracked down in the last two weeks, this is too great a number to keep up with it.

I have been surprised — and delighted — by how many people answered this meme before Poetry Thursday selected it for this week's writing idea. The best part though isn't that more than one or two people completed it, but the wide variety of replies that people across the blog world have given. The responses to the one prompt I recording in my follow up post have been amazing. I wish I could say that I had the foresight to realize I was setting up a metaphor and the resulting responses would be, of course, poetic, but it was much more serendipitous than that. The other answers will give up several wonderful poems and poets if you'd care to mine for those nuggets.

If following the links to this meme has shown me one thing, it is that there are many people who care deeply, are moved deeply, by poetry. That there exists such a vibrant, enthusiastic community of poets and poetry readers in the blog world is a beautiful thing. That they represent several smaller communities -- intersecting communities of people with similar interests -- is exciting.

I look forward to reading the Poetry Thursday responses and hope that the PT participants will enjoy sharing and discovering what others think about poetry.

Below is a chart that I did to track how the meme spread (yes, I'm a real geek!). It isn't very readable in this post, but it gives a graphical representation, even if you cannot read the data. The different colors represent different dates. If you're interested in a copy, email me at address in the side bar and I'll send you the pdf.

02 December 2006

Breathing Space

My office is located in one of the most beautiful office parks (an oxymoron if ever there was one) that I've ever seen. Lots of green grass and trees. Two lakes at the edge; just beyond, a river. Not much traffic: the lay of the land is such that it hides the nearby expressway. Only now that the last leaves have fallen can I look out and see other buildings and an apartment complex. Nothing hints that this is located in a busy city of over a million people. It is a good thing to have beauty so readily at hand during the day. It makes it a tranquil place to pass the time, if one needs to be at work in an office building that is.

Sometimes, though, in the course of business, I need to be at my employer's other offices. Unlike my regular work location, there aren't any nearby trees or greenspaces to camouflage the city. Like my office, there is water nearby: the building sits adjacent to the bank of a river. And, though in a much different way, one can look out the window and see a breathtaking landscape, it isn't the same. When I sit in the 'guest' office, I look at a marvel of an urban cityscape. I have always looked in awe at the skylines of the great American cities -- Chicago, San Francisco, and the daddy of the them all: New York. But, I can't look out that window, gazing across the river at what is there without seeing what isn't there. You see, the river is the Hudson, and the office is directly across from lower Manhattan.

I've been to New York a few times since 9/11 and have stood in silence at the WTC site, trying to re-imagine the space as it had been. I last saw the towers about a month before the attacks, while staring out the window at Newark International, waiting to catch a plane. On 9/10, I saw a photo taken of my son a few months earlier, sitting in the same airport, the towers in the distance rising above the planes on the tarmac and the river and the other buildings. He is looking the other way, the photo's background one that should have remained inconsequential, just a part of the steel and glass skyline, not something that was a symbol of anything, not something that would, beginning the next day, forever dominate that snapshot. They were just buildings, impersonal concrete, no thought given to the commerce that occurred there, the people who worked and would die there. It wasn't until this fall, five years later, that I had looked at the Manhattan skyline from the New Jersey shore. My mind's eye kept trying to fill in where the towers had stood.

Shortly after that last trip to NJ, I was browsing at the library at church. Perhaps I unconsciously thought about the scenery that I had looked at for the preceding week as I looked for something to read. Maybe that is why I picked up Rowan Williams slim volume Writing in the Dust: After 9/11.

Rowan Williams, now the Archbishop of Cantebury, was two blocks away from WTC attending a meeting when the planes hit. This book, written in the weeks immediately after the attacks, is his reflection on the meaning of that day and what he suggests should have been the appropriate response to the events of 9/11. The title, as Williams writes in the epilogue, refers not only to the dense dust he was surrounded by after the buildings collapsed, but also to the temporary nature of his reflections. "This isn't a theology or a programme for action", Williams writes, "but one person's attempt to find words for the grief and shock and loss of one moment. ...[I] hope only that they may help to take forward someone else's mourning. ".

What strikes me though, having read the book twice through in one sitting, is that these words should not be temporary; or at least, they are not ready for dissolution yet. They are as relevant today, while we are embroiled in the war in Iraq with no easy or clear-cut way out of the mess we have made, as it was in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks on WTC and the Pentagon.

Williams first writes of the nightmare of being in the area of the attacks, of escaping only to feel the rumble of the second tower collapsing, and breathing in the thick debris-filled air. He writes of a void, "the emptiness and anaesthesia", in the midst of terror and death, but how we shouldn't be eager to fill that void too quickly, with easy answers. He writes of the perversion that would make someone do such an incomprehensible act, how it couldn't be in the name of religion despite the terrorists' claims. He warns of what he calls the "great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda". He contrasts the truly heroic actions of the responders, working for the secular goal of community health and safety, with the wrongly self-proclaimed heroism of the religious zealots who hijacked the planes. And, in his first chapter, Williams calls for a 'breathing space' to consider what happened and how we should respond.

It is this idea of a breathing space that Williams returns to throughout his reflection, encouraging a breathing space to understand what happened and to know an appropriate response to and punishment for such unspeakable violence. We need breathing space to know how to move forward and prevent such angry violence from happening again. We need breathing space to speak of, and maybe to redefine, our belief in God. That is what he wrote at the end of 2001; I don't know if he was right, but I do believe that if our country had done what Williams suggested, we might not be in the current situation in Iraq.

At the time Williams was writing this, America had just begun the campaign in Afghanistan. Williams writes of the decision to go to war, questioning whether it was an act of 'just war':
A good deal of the moral capital accumulated during the first days and weeks has been squandered. From a situation where Muslim nations, even Iran, expressed shock and sympathy, we have come to a point where the shapelessness of the campaign leads Muslims to ask whether there is any agenda other than the humiliation of an Islamic population. We may think this an outrageously wrong perception, but it becomes -- or should become -- a rather urgent factor in calculating how to restore a sense of lawfulness that would sustain some coherent action to punish and to secure a future that will be more settled and just for everyone.

But terrorism is not a place, not even a person or a group of persons; it is a form of behaviour. 'War' against terrorism is as much a metaphor as war against drug abuse. It can only mean a sustained policy of making such behaviour less attractive or tolerable. As we've been reminded often, this is a long job; but there is a difference between saying this, which is unquestionably true, and suggesting that there is a case for an open-ended military campaign. (p. 37).
He continues:
We could ask whether the further destabilising of a massively resentful Muslim world and the intensifying of the problems of homelessness and hunger in an already devastated country were really unavoidable. We could refuse to be victims, striking back without imagination.
The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment. (p46-47).
By attacking a country that was not the attacker, Williams reasons, we have only deepened the gulf of misunderstanding between the West and the Arab world:
Every transaction in the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game. However much we protest that this is a caricature, this is how it is experienced. And we have to begin to understand how such a perception is part of the price we pay for the benefits of globalisation. (p. 55)

So, there is a particularly difficult challenge here, to do with making terms with our vulnerability and learning how to live with it in a way that isn't simple denial, panic, the reinforcement of defenses.( p 57).
The most important point, though, in Williams brief book (at approx 70 pages, it's really a long essay), is that it is important to understand the misuse of symbols. Symbols, Williams writes, can be manipulated, and abused to the point where it is the symbol one supports, rather than the reality behind it. Just as the twin towers became, for al-Qaida, a twisted symbol of Western greed and gluttony, the towers or the terrorists can be a symbol of our fear, and hatred of others we do not understand, veiled behind the symbol of an outrageous act.
'Using other people to think with'; that is, using them as symbols for points on your map, values in your scheme of things. When you get used to imposing meanings in this way, you silence the stranger's account of who they are; and that can mean both metaphorical and literal death. Death as the undermining of a culture, language, or faith, and, at the extreme, the death of tyranny and genocide. ...The collective imagination needs the outsider to give itself definition -- which commonly means that it needs somewhere to project its own fears and tensions.

Living realities are turned in to symbols, and the symbolic values are used to impression the reality. At its extreme pitch, people simple relate to the symbols. It is too hard to look past them, to look into the complex humanity of a real other. (p. 64-65).
It's tough to think of the WTC towers as a bad symbol, but that isn't what Williams was suggesting, and I don't mean it either. Rather, Williams means that anything, when reduced to a symbol can be negative, representing only the distillation of our own misinformed interpretation. It's like the flag: it can be a symbol of patriotism, of loyalty to one's country. But, it can also represent the bullheaded idea of 'my country as I see it, my country right or wrong, my country as my agenda'. Here is where we get caught in symbols and they begin to define us, rather than the other way around.

So, is a bad thing that I look at the skyline of Lower Manhattan and re-image the outline of the towers? long as I hold that symbol as something to make me think about what happened, and not just how I might have reacted to it initially. It is the moral and spiritual thing to do; the right thing. To quote Williams again:
What use is faith to us if it is only a transcription into mythological jargon of the mechanisms of that inhuman grief that grasps its own suffering to itself as a ground of justification and encloses the suffering of others in interpretations that hold it at a safe distance?

And Christian faith? Can we think about our focal symbol, the cross of Jesus, and try to rescue it from its frequent fate as the banner of our own wounded righteousness? (p 72-73).
We are beyond taking a 'breathing space' now with the war. If we had in the initial days, or even sooner, the conditions in Iraq may not have deteriorated to the state they are in now. A louder voice would have been crying out sooner regarding the steps taken to put ourselves in the middle of a war in the Middle East. But are we not all to blame for not listening to those who were the loud voices, not to blame for not hearing them, for not being reflective instead of reflexive?

We need to evaluate all symbols and sloganeering that we encounter. What is really meant by a War on Terror? What is meant by an 'axis of evil'? How can we move beyond stereotypes, to foster true understanding with others elsewhere in the world? While that might not answer the question of how we pull our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, it might help us post-deployment with finding the path forward.

Book Review: Hell and High Water

Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and Politics -- And What we Can Do Joseph Romm. William Morrow, 2007.

I so wanted to give this book a hearty recommendation. Its topic is one that I am very interested in --I think we all should be concerned about the global warming and need to take individual grassroots-level action to help find remedies. I was curious by the subtitle. Besides being one of the longest subtitles I've come across recently, I was concerned that the book might do a little over-reaching in it's purpose. And that was confirmed as I read through it.

Romm's book presents a worse-case scenario for the implications of society not doing anything to curb the effects of global warming. This book presents lots of well-footnoted facts -- facts I've read elsewhere, ones I find convincing, although I do not have the technical background to refute any scientific flaws that may exist. In addition, Romm's book is a analysis of what hasn't been done by our government to implement means of reducing activities that are leading to global warming. It is this part -- the attack on politics -- where the book disappoints. While Romm is good with presentation of the data supporting the global warming trends, he relies more on unsupported (although not untrue) and suggestive attacks on the current administration, than on persuasive argument to convince the reader that the government is not doing enough to enact needed legislation. (Note: I'm not a supporter of the Bush administration, and can't disagree with Romm's premise, so bear with me here....)

Most of the facts on global warming have been presented elsewhere (Gore's recent movie, An Inconvenient Truth comes to mind although it is not the only example), so Romm isn't adding anything new to the body of knowledge for the lay reader who is aware of the situation and the overwhelming support in the scientific community for the need to address causes of global warming trends. But, Romm's writing slants so much to attack -- at points even seeming to contradict the point he is making. (e.g., at one point Romm writes of how a government representative made a statement which contradicts his (Romm's) point in the previous chapter, but then states that they only agreed as a delaying tactic, not because they sincerely want to believe there is a problem.) I think that it is here that Romm could have been most effective if he hadn't relied on attack-ad style tactics and hyperbole. He isn't going to convince anyone who doesn't already believe the facts about global warming that the US government is burying our collective head in the sand. But shouldn't that be the point? If not, he is no better in advancing arguments for correcting the situation than the vocal and attention-grabbing mouthpieces of some oil companies who manipulate the data to disprove Romm's scientific allies. The data about global warming is convincing enough that he should have changed the tone here. Instead, a reasoned voice is one that is more likely to be heard and to encourage action.

Another way in which the book disappoints is that it is very slim on the 'what to do about it' portion suggested by the title. A few paragraphs in the closing chapters is all that is presented. As someone interested in the topic who has read enough to convince me that something needs to be done, I was looking for something that would give reasoned, valid options for moving forward, rather than finger pointing.

I'm tired of divisive politics. I don't think the issue is so one-sided that we can only blame one political party -- I don't see the other political party stepping to the forefront on this either.

The chapter, "Missing the Story of the Century", did grab my attention though. Romm makes the point that as news media seek to 'balance' stories, they often give equal footing to both sides of the debate despite the preponderance of evidence. This is a different twist on the lament about so-called 'media bias', and I think that Romm has a valid point here. If the overwhelming number of scientists agree with the data on global warming and are in concurrence as to the root causes, why does the media give equal footing to those who oppose such data, including those that may be funded by the same industries that have the most to lose if we impose stricter governmental regulations? Romm uses the example of a recent (2005) segment on Meet the Press where there were four experts discussing avian flu. Romm's point was that all were in agreement regarding the potential for a catastrophic bird flu outbreak, yet there are some who might disagree with the likelihood of such an occurrence. His point, specifically, is that the press wouldn't think to have an opposing view since the majority concur; yet with global warming, they always give air to those who disagree. This may explain why studies show that few Americans think there is concurrence among scientists on global warming, while there are also studies that show that the majority of scientists do concur. I don't know what the solution is -- what percentage constitutes a majority opinion that dictates that we should listen to flat-earthers, regardless of the topic? Romm doesn't offer a solution either, and I'm not sure that Romm's reasoning behind the equal opportunity media time is because the media doesn't want to be blasted for bias. This chapter could easily be a book; I'm sure that this isn't the only topic where this is occurs.

While the above paragraphs might make you think that I wouldn't recommend this book, that isn't completely accurate. I think that Romm adequately lays out the facts regarding global warming trends, environmental impact of melting polar ice, and the reasons why we should reduce CO2 emissions (and sign the Kyoto treaty). He does make an argument about the dissembling actions of our government, although he seems more interested in painting the Republicans with a broad brush as 'bad guys' than in honest debate about how we should go about changing the situations and what types of economic plans we should have for doing so. He just seems to have taken on too much in one small book to make a strong case for how to change the problems -- both politically and technologically/environmentally.

TWO NOTES: 1) If you are interested in a concise Q&A regarding environmental issues and how to defend against contrarians, check out this link. Courtesy of Rev Sam at Elizaphanian.

2) Some in the blog universe have posited recently that it's important to disclose if a copy is a review copy. Here is my disclaimer in case you didn't notice the 2007 pub date indicated above. I received this book as part of HarperCollins' FirstLook program. Disproving, at least in this one case, the opinion that only positive reviews are done by bloggers when the book is free.