Monday, February 15, 2016

Reading Every McSweeney's Book

I recently completed a reading project that has been my obsession for the past several years. I’ve read every book – all 232 of them – ever published by McSweeney’s press.

According to the reading journal I keep, I began 2007 by binge-reading everything by Dave Eggers I could get my hands on. In January I read his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, his Generation X memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and his short story collection, How We Are Hungry. Then, in February, I came across Egger’s newly published What Is the What. It was the first book published by McSweeney’s that I’d ever purchased. The book itself was a work of art with its burnt orange cover and stylish artwork. To just hold a McSweeney’s book is to experience holding a work of art, is to merge the act of reading with wonderful tactile sensations. The story, Eggers’ novelized autobiography of the life of Sudanese lost boy Valentino Achak Deng, might be the most powerful, devastating, and beautiful thing I have ever read.

(Here I am with McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers at a book signing in 2013.)

Later, in the spring of 2007, I stumbled across an issue of McSweeney’s quarterly, issue 22. It had a pleather cover and binding and three removable smaller books that attached to the binding with magnets! The three smaller books included: 1) a collection of short stories inspired by random notes found in a journal of ideas kept by F. Scott Fitzgerald; 2) a collection of poetry in which ten poets pick poems by their favorite poets who, in turn, pick poems by their favorite poets and so on; and 3) a collection of new writing form Oulipo, a French literary movement known for experimental writing and most famous for producing Georges Perec’s novel A Void, an entire novel written without the letter E. (If I never read anything else by McSweeney’s I’d be thankful for the poetry collection introducing me to the work of Jane Hirshfield who has since become my favorite poet.)

I was hooked. In the spring of 2007 I got my first subscription to McSweeney’s (and Wholphin) and began to read through as many issues of the quarterly as I could get my hands on. Later, during a trip to the Bay Area in 2012 in which I made a pilgrimage to the Pirate Supply Store that is a front for the 826 Valencia, a creative writing a tutoring center for urban children and youth founded by Dave Eggers, and also found an out-of-print early McSweeney’s publication at a hip bookstore in Berkeley, I decided to collect and read everything they’d ever published.

These books have brought me joy, laughter, amazement, tears, outrage, surprise, confusion, and awe. It’s hard to pick just a few of the books to talk about, because so many are so wonderful. A full list is available here. But, there are also a few I feel inspired to note:

Rising Up and Rising Down by William T. Vollmann. I read this work of obsession in 2013. Over seven volumes and more than 3,000 pages Vollmann attempts to provide a moral calculus for when violence is justified. I’ve never read anything like the later volumes, in which Vollmann travels the world attempting to track down and interview violent actors. He goes to Cambodia to try to find and interview Pol Pot who was in hiding with the last members of Khmer Rouge. He goes to Yemen in 2002 in hopes of finding Al Qaeda members to interview.

The Emily Dickinson Reader by Paul Legault. Emily Dickinson wrote 1,789 poems. In this volume Legault answers each poem with a “translation” in the form of a snarky, humorous, or absurd tweet. Legault renders “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers…” as “Hope is kind of like birds. In that I don’t have any.” In 2014 I read Legault alongside a collection of Dickinson’s complete poems.

Patriot Acts compiled and edited by Alia Malek. McSweeney’s Voices of Witness series has produced a dozen books illuminating human rights crises through oral histories. Half of them deal with human rights crises around the world in places like Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Colombia, and Palestine. Others deal with human rights crises in the United States, including survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the experiences of undocumented immigrants, and those incarcerated in the United States. Patriot Acts deals with human rights abuses in the United States following 9/11. In these oral histories we hear from those who experienced extraordinary rendition and extralegal imprisonment, victims of Islamophobic hate crimes, and a college student detained and interrogated for carrying Arabic language flash cards.

The Instructions by Adan Levin. This 1,000 page debut novel is the apocalyptic tale of what happens over three days at a Jewish middle school in Chicago involving a student who may be the Messiah.

Recipe by Angela and Michaelanne Petrella. Published by the McMullens division of McSweeney’s, I’ve enjoyed sharing numerous children’s books with my daughter. Her favorite is Recipe in which a young girl attempts an outrageous cooking project.

I could go on and on and on. Thanks, McSweeney’s, for years and years of great reading.

(My collection of every book McSweeney’s has ever published.)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Devotion (2/11/16)

The word for the second day of UU Lent is "Devotion."

When I think of devotion, the first thing I think of is the chapter that Ken Beldon contributed to my book The Growing Church.
"In Thoreau's age, as in our own, you were expected to choose sides. Refusing this cultural pressure to swear exclusive allegiance, Thoreau wrote in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 'I know some will have hard thoughts about me when they hear that their Christ is named beside my Buddha. Yet I am sure that I am willing they should love their Christ more than my Buddha, for love is the main thing.' For love is the main thing. Our capacity for devotion is more important religiously than the object of devotion."

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Mindfulness (2/10/16)

The word of the day for the first day of UU Lent 2016 is "Mindfulness."

When Christians observe Ash Wednesday, these words are frequently said during the imposition of ashes: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."

Today, I'm mindful of a similar observation made by Ken Sawyer who was my childhood minister. Here are words he spoke in his sermon "Leaf Mold,"
"More than just being aesthetically satisfying, leaf mold serves for me as a religiously profound symbol, as the ocean does too, as the crucifix does no doubt for others - as a symbol that embodies and expresses a central truth about the worshipper's understanding of how things are... Both the worshipper's crucifix and my leaf mold speak, among other things to each of us, about death and how it fits into some larger perspective."

Lent for Unitarian Universalists

I started the RevThom blog way back in 2005, more than ten years ago. For several years I posted regularly, everything from sermons to theology to politics to music and book reviews. Then the posts became less regular, mostly just the texts of sermons I'd given. Then I became a dad and my new church posted audio files of my sermons on YouTube. I'd update the blog a couple times each year - a music review here, a book review there, some blogging about Crossfit.

Last Sunday I preached a sermon called "Lent for Unitarian Universalists."

I began the sermon with a "show & tell" of Lenten manuals published by the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America between 1938-1960. The sermon itself contained a lot of different elements. I talked some about why Lent in particular and Christian holidays in general were de-emphasized within the Puritan and New England Congregationalist traditions. I talked about a conversation with a member of the church who has a deep and meaningful practice of Lent inspired by her Catholicism. I talked about the practice of giving something up for Lent. And, I introduced a variety of different spiritual practices that UUs have created for the Lenten season.

I've received a ton of positive and appreciative feedback. Parishioners told me about feeling connected to their spiritual pasts and open-minded and curious about spiritual practice in the present.

During the sermon I mentioned that I'd be posting something about a Lenten spiritual practice on-line. I've decided that what I will do is to participate in the UU Lent practice that has been developed by Mr. Barb Greve, Karen Bellavance-Grace, and Alex Kapitan.

Click here to find out about the UU Lent practice they've created.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Top 10 Albums of 2015

Each December I look forward to the AV Club’s list of the best albums of the year. In previous years, those lists have turned me on to some great bands like Japandroids, Dirty Projectors, and Cloud Nothings. This year, inspired by their recommendations, I’ve ordered the new records by Beach Slang and Julien Baker.

With a hat tip to the AV Club, here are my top 10 albums of 2015, and my vote for the best song on each album:

1) Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Lamar’s Butterfly has been billed as “a masterpiece of fiery outrage, deep jazz and ruthless self-critique.” In the course of its sprawling 80 minutes it offers a hip-hop exploration of the personal and political. President Barack Obama cited Butterfly’s “How Much a Dollar Cost” as his favorite song of the year. Lamar’s performance of “i” on Saturday Night Live left me in awe. The song’s defiant pride makes it the best song on the best album of 2015.

2) Chvrches – Every Open Eye
This fine sophomore record by the Scottish electronic-pop trio builds off the strength of 2013’s The Bones of What You Believe. Lauren Mayberry’s mesmerizing vocals and tight beats combine to make these eleven awesome pop songs one of the best albums of the year.

Best Song: Leave a Trace

3) Built to Spill – Untethered Moon
I saw my first Built to Spill show in my college Student Union sixteen years ago as they toured in support of their fifth album. Since then they’ve continued to build off their early success as alternative rock pioneers. Their latest album holds its own against their best and their show back in May at Cat’s Cradle showed them still in peak form.

Best Song:  Living Zoo

4) Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
Titus Andronicus is just about my favorite band making music right now with their big, soaring punk rock anthems and Patrick Stickle’s spitfire vocals.  TA’s fourth album is a concept album without a concept, and its 29 tracks are, frankly, excessive. But, within the filler there is more than an album’s worth of great punk songs, the best of which is “Dimed Out.” “No Future Part IV” and “Fatal Flaw” also deserve a listen.

5) Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Critics have lauded Barnett’s debut record as of the best of the year. I agree. Her humorous, personal lyrics and electric guitar makes this album a joy from beginning to end.

Best Song: Elevator Operator

6) Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Sleater-Kinney put out their first record in more than a decade in 2015 and it was worth the wait. No Cities to Love doesn’t transcend any of their previous efforts, but the album has finally given Sleater-Kinney the success and acclaim they’ve long deserved.

Best Song: A New Wave

7) Heems – Eat, Pray, Thug
As half of Das Racist, Himanshu Suri (Heems) collaborated with Victor Vazquez (Kool A.D.) to turn out rap songs that were part absurdist farce and part post-colonial deconstructionism. Heems’ solo debut finds him at his most political, exploring his racial identity in the context of America’s racism and violence against brown people.

8) The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
This album is a step down from The King is Dead, but it another great collection from this prolific band.

Best Song: Make You Better

9) The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ
Yes, this is a concept album about professional wrestling. But, let’s face it, John Darnielle could get up on stage with his guitar and sing the phone book and I wouldn’t mind. Heel Turn 2 is one of the better songs on the album and works as an exploration of being less good than you know you should be.

10) Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi
This is the second consecutive mediocre release by DCFC. There are some gems here, and “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” is first among them.

Best Song: The Ghosts of Beverly Drive

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Interlude: Getting Swole

Click this link to read the previous entry. Click this link to jump ahead to the next post in the series.

Before we move along to the next post in the series, here are a few shots of me working out at Crossfit Chapel Hill.

Lifting a 145# Atlas stone on 7/26/15.

265# deadlift on 5/14/15

205# back squat on 4/4/15

"My Butt Is Bigger" or, The Taboo of Embodiment

Click this link to read the previous entry. Click this link to jump ahead to the next post in the series.

A group of us were standing around at the “Crossfit Prom” – an inter-gym social event that meant dressing up, or not, and meeting up for drinks at a bar – when a member of another gym walked in. Wearing a little black dress she approached the group and announced, “I didn’t even know if this dress was going to fit me now.” Turning around, she continued, “My butt is bigger and my back is broader.” Completing the revolution, she added, “And my boobs are smaller!”

There are few places in my everyday life when someone in my social group invites me to gaze upon her bottom, back, and chest. As this was going on, I cast a sideways glance at Jamie, a linguistics professor and fellow member of Crossfit Chapel Hill. I observed, “That’s just not something I hear in my conversations anywhere else besides Crossfit.” Jamie nodded in agreement and added, “People sometimes ask me why I talk so much about bodies.”

There’s a lot going on in this conversation. There’s clearly a gender dynamic at play here. Women who do Crossfit may face judgment and criticism for the impact it has on their physique. A segment of society finds fault with women having muscle definition through their arms and shoulders or thick, muscular thighs. Slogans such as “Strong is the new skinny” challenge these cultural ideals about physical beauty. There’s obviously a lot more to say on this subject, but I want to talk instead about something else from this exchange.

“People sometimes ask me why I talk so much about bodies,” said Jamie, the linguistics professor. Her words have stuck with me. She’s naming academia as a place where discourse about the body is unconventional or unusual. The implication is that talking about the body is something that isn’t proper for academics, scholars, intellectuals, and those who are within this social constellation. My experience in liberal religious circles and also among activists working for social justice is that the body is not a topic that is apt to come up in conversation.

I remember something that Chad, a man serving on the board of the last church where I was minister, said to me when we were having a “temperature check” conversation about things the church might do differently in the future. Have you ever noticed, Chad asked me, that almost everything we do together as a community involves being sedentary? We worship sitting down. We have classes sitting around a table. We have discussions sitting in a circle. We have lots of meals together. Why is there so much sitting? What are we omitting from our life as a religious community?

Jamie’s comment at the “Crossfit Prom” and Chad’s observation about experiencing religious community sitting down reflect what I am going to call “disembodied culture.” Disembodied culture seems to me to be present throughout liberal social institutions including educational, religious, and community service organizations.

I want to suggest that there are several hallmarks of what I’ve termed “disembodied culture.” These may include:

·         There is limited opportunity for or lesser value placed upon physical expression. 
·         Discourse about the body is marginalized or regarded as improper. 
·         Discourse about matters of the mind or spirit are privileged over matters of the body.

So, why aren’t liberal social institutions more embodied? I think there are several possible factors at play.

·         The adolescent and pre-adolescent dichotomization between “jocks” and “nerds” continues to influence social arrangements. 
·         The dualisms of the Western world continue to make hierarchical distinctions between heaven / earth, spirit / matter, mind / body, etc. 
·         Liberal social institutions tend to be at the forefront of challenging oppression. Becoming “disembodied” is a conscious or unconscious strategy for combatting ableism and gendered bodily discrimination (fat shaming, sexualization, etc.)

In subsequent posts I’ll consider the impact of “disembodied culture” and consider possibilities for re-embodying our social institutions.

Click the link for a brief interlude before the next post in this series.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Cult(ure) of Crossfit

Click this link to read the previous entry. Click this link to jump ahead to the next post in this series.

There is a joke about Crossfitters that the only thing they talk about is Crossfit. One of the most common of the dozens of variations of this joke claims that Crossfit is Fight Club in reverse: The first rule of Crossfit is that you always talk about Crossfit. The fact that I’m blogging on this topic may be further evidence of the truthfulness underlying this joke.

Much has been said about the “cultish” aspects of Crossfit. It has its own insider language full of terms like WOD, AMRAP, EMOM, Rx, and so on. It seems to do a good job of changing people who do it regularly. People talk about it incessantly.

With beginning regular exercise a year ago at Crossfit Chapel Hill came not only new levels of physical activity, but also exposure to a community and culture that was new to me. In a previous post I talked about how I have spent my adult life mostly surrounded by “church people, minister colleagues, academics, social justice activists, and liberal do-gooder types.” Going to Crossfit meant immersing myself in a culture outside of what I was familiar with.

In some ways the culture of Crossfit Chapel Hill is not all that different from the culture of Chapel Hill, a predominantly liberal university town that prides itself on being North Carolina’s “pat of butter in a sea of grits.” Indeed, one of the coaches frequently wears an NPR T-shirt to the gym and several members workout in T-shirts showing their support for marriage equality in North Carolina.

When I say that the culture of Crossfit Chapel Hill was new to me I am not making a point about political differences, educational differences, or socioeconomic differences. Instead, what is different is a cultural understanding of how the physical self relates to the whole self as well as an understanding of the role of physical activity in life. That is what I am going to explore over the next several blog posts, but first let me say a little bit about the sport of Crossfit itself.

In his Crossfit memoir, Embrace the Suck, author Stephen Madden writes about taking up Crossfit during a kind of a fitness mid-life crisis in his mid-forties. He describes the philosophy of Crossfit this way,

What Crossfit was trying to achieve [was] to prepare us all for whatever life asked of us. I’m pretty sure [this was] meant… in the physical sense. That if we were walking down the street and saw flames leaping from the windows of the top floor of a building, we’d be able to sprint up the fire escape, kick down the door, drag the obese man who had been overcome by the smoke to the door, throw him over our shoulders, and carry him to safety on the sidewalk. Or cradle one twin baby in each arm while descending to the cellar laundry room. Or do one power snatch every minute on the minute for forty-five minutes.

Crossfit, writes Madden, is “based on principles of constantly varied functional movements done at high intensity.” What this looks like in practice is workouts that feature calisthenics (pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, burpees, squats, jumping rope, etc.), weightlifting (clean and jerk, snatch, overhead and bench press, deadlift, etc.), and gymnastics (handstands, exercises involving rings, etc.) in an endless variety of combinations and permutations.

At the heart of all of this is a critique of contemporary American culture and the ways a typical American lifestyle leads to diminished physical abilities. For example, the way we sit reduces our capacity to squat and weakens a chain of muscles that allows us to do important stuff. Or, too much typing on a computer leads to internal rotation of our shoulders and compromises our strength. Through doing these exercises, there’s an awareness of regaining strength and mobility that our dominant lifestyle compromises. The future benefits of this form of fitness is that our bodies may remain functional longer prolonging our ability to live independently as we age. In the present, at least for me, there is a greater awareness of my own body, how my muscles and groups of muscles fire, and the way in which my body occupies and moves through space. There is also a greater sense of agency over my own body. This is essentially what I mean when I talk about “embodied” living. That’s a topic I’ll continue to explore over the next several posts.

But first, a quick story. It was the evening of a Crossfit social at a popular bar on Franklin Street. As the evening grew later, someone decided that it would be fun to see if they could press another member of the gym. The next thing you know, people are taking turns lying stiffly across a pair of barstools while others take turn putting their hands underneath them and pressing them fully overhead. (For the record, I declined to participate in this as either the lifter or the lifted.) Yes, this is another example of the annoying stuff that Crossfitters do, besides talking about Crossfit incessantly. But, as one member of the gym push pressed another, I could not help but admit that this was a culture that was new to me.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Zero to Sixty

Click this link to read the previous entry. Click this link to jump ahead to the next post in this series.

People sometimes shudder and give me an uneasy look when I tell them that I went straight from a long period of no exercise to speak of to doing Crossfit three or four times a week. Crossfit has a reputation for being intense and brutal.

Consider a conversation I had with a Crossfitter in Portland, Oregon. He was telling me how strenuous and challenging Crossfit workouts were for him when he first started. I asked him what he had been doing before he started doing Crossfit. “Oh,” he said, “Mostly I was running marathons.” Yes, he did say marathons, plural.

I should probably explain how it is that I wound up joining Crossfit. Back when we lived in Kansas City, we had awesome neighbors, Jen and Erin, who were the two most in-shape people I had ever met. It seemed like every time I saw them they were leaving for a bike ride or coming back from a run. One day they told me that they had started doing Crossfit. I had never heard of it and had no idea what it was. But over the next several months, every time I saw them it was evident there was a physical transformation taking place. They went from generally in-shape to super-athletic and strong. I had an awareness that this thing they were doing was changing them.

Fast-forward to July, 2014. My family and I had just moved to North Carolina. We decided to take a break from the summer heat and go for a walk in the air-conditioned climes of University Mall. We were walking through the mall and we saw Crossfit Chapel Hall, located between an upscale food store and a hair salon. “Isn’t that what our neighbors did?” I asked my wife. “I guess they have Crossfit in North Carolina, too. I wonder what it’s like inside. Hold on a second, I’m going to check it out.”

I walked in and immediately was spotted by a guy with both arms sleeved in tattoos who was hoisting a barbell with an obscene amount of weight on it onto his shoulders. (I have to confess that when I walked in the door I wasn’t even sure that the object he was lifting was called a barbell. Were barbells the long ones or were those dumbbells?) He came over to me and as he introduced himself, the only thing I could think was, “Holy crap! His biceps are thicker than my thighs.”

I am pretty sure our conversation went like this:

“Can I help you?” said the guy with giant arms who turned out to be Jason, the owner of the gym.

Attempting not to stare at his arms, I answered, “I just moved to town and I once knew somebody who did Crossfit in Kansas City.”

“Um, okay… are you interested in doing Crossfit?”

At this point I realized that this was a possible outcome, which I didn’t think I had fully realized until then. “I’m not sure,” I stammered.

“Well, the first step is to come to class and try it out.”

“Can I come back tomorrow?”

“Or, you could come to a class this afternoon.”

Slightly panicked, I responded, “No, I’ll come tomorrow.”

When I left that day I was unsure if I was going to come back the next day.

The next day, July 21, 2014, I went to my first Crossfit workout and signed up to come back the following day for my first on-ramp orientation class where I would begin to learn the form for the various lifts and moves they’d have us do.

When I woke up on July 22, it seemed like every single muscle in my body ached. Quads, abs, glutes, biceps, and muscles I didn’t even know I had much less the names of. I limped into the gym that afternoon for my first orientation session.

And, here’s the thing, I kept going back. For the past year, the past 52 weeks, I’ve gone to Crossfit at least three or four times per week, every single week. Every. Single. Week. That means I’ve gotten far more exercise in the past year than I had in the previous eleven years combined.

I kept coming back. I came back when it was sticky and hot outside. I came back when a snowstorm had shut down the town. I came back sore and stiff. I came back after a workout had left me gasping for breath. I came back after workouts that left me overwhelmed with tears of frustration. I even kept coming back after literally walking out on workouts that seemed impossible. I kept coming back.

Click here to read the next post: The Cult(ure) of Crossfit