november 2014 books.

Hey, we're almost caught up here!

The Double
Jose Saramago
A depressed history teacher watches a movie and sees one of the actors is an exact duplicate of him. He becomes obsessed, tracking down the actor by watching other movies (it's a bit part, so the role is not credited directly) from the same company. By cross-referencing movies, he's able to figure out the actor's name, though he finds it's only a screen name and then he has to track down the real name. Finally, he contacts the actor directly to tell him that he, a stranger, is apparently his exact double.

It's such a thin premise on first glance. The whole time he is seeking out the actor, I'm yelling at him in my head. Dude, just let it go and mind your own business. What difference does it make that this guy exists? But I can see how it would bug someone, particularly someone who didn't have much else going on in his life at the moment. Even he doesn't really know where he's going or what he will do once he finds the actor, he just feels the compulsion to follow the trail.

It's a strange sort of thriller, and the ending has a great twist. I enjoyed it, though it did not strike me nearly as much as another work of Saramago's, Blindness.

The News From Paraguay
Lily Tuck
This was historical fiction, based on the lives of President Francisco Lopez and his long-term mistress. This guy apparently ruined Paraguay by starting a war he couldn't win or pay for. Spoiler alert, he dies in the mud. After getting 60% of the population killed and devasting the economy, of course.

You know, this book won a National Book Award, but the Amazon reviews are pretty mixed. I'd have to agree. It didn't really stick to me, one way or the other. It's clearly about the mistress, and I think I was supposed to feel...something about her involvement with the politics of killing a lot of people for the sake of vanity. But it wasn't really clear what her involvement was. She has children and affairs and sometimes she sit there while the President rants about politics to her. She did not seem to have any actual power. I would've preferred an alternate history where she kills the guy before he breaks Paraguay.

The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity
Mark Vonnegut
I read this on the way back from San Francisco. It's all about hippies, so it was entirely appropriate. These hippies do not live on the street, but instead take to the woods to build a commune. They buy some land in British Columbia, work all day at building a house and growing/catching food and try to make a real go of the simpler life.

The only problem is that the author comes down with a bad case of schizophrenia. His friends try to contain and help him for a while, but at some point they have to put him in an institution for his safety and their sanity. I fortunately have had very little experience with schizophrenia, but it sounds pretty terrible. He talks about receiving information, but it comes in so fast (and from where, exactly?) that his brain cannot process it. At least some of it is outright untrue, though much of it feels like revelation. It sounds sorta poetic and magical, except for the not eating or sleeping and the suicide attempts. Maybe he is having revelations, but a body cannot function that way.

What struck me was the stigma about mental illness within his group. When I think about a mental illness stigma, I think about people saying that the mentally ill just need to get over it, that we all go through crap and those people just want attention or are too weak to suck it up and get on with living. That's essentially saying that mental illness itself does not exist. These hippies also believed mental illness did not exist, but for different reasons. They thought that the mentally ill were just super oppressed. A quote he uses frequently is that "schizophrenia is an appropriate reaction to an insane world." Basically, this person is not sick, the world is.

Vonnegut himself has this view, and has a really hard time resolving it with his own experience. In fact, he is terribly disappointed to find out that it's about brain chemistry, not oppression and society. It makes him feel like a bad hippie. He wants this poetic condition to have a poetic cure. But in the end, he has to admit that treating it as a brain chemistry problem seems to work.

I think we can all agree that the world is quite sick, but I'm pretty sure some people have something in their brains that does not let them function. The more I read or listen to accounts of mental illness, the more I realize that I don't know anything, and the best course is to just be compassionate and also thankful that I haven't had to deal with it.

The author is the son of American author Kurt Vonnegut. That's the first thing that is mentioned in the author bio in the book, and I felt kinda bad for the guy about it. That being said, I think it's the very reason I picked up the book in the first place.

Saints and Strangers: Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers and Their Families, with Their Friends and Foes, and an Account of the Posthumous ... and the Strange Pilgrimages of Plymouth Rock
George F. Willison
I picked this up right before Thanksgiving - how appropriate! I don't guess I had any strong ideas about the Pilgrims, other than a vague notion they wore buckles on their hats and that colonizing a new world sucks. As it turns out, the whole black clothes with buckles thing was the Puritans, who were farther north. The Pilgrims were also not hardcore believers in religious freedom. They were in disagreement with the Anglican church about a lot of things, and they resented the way that the state was able to enforce religious belief. So they went off, first to the Netherlands, and then to the New World, to practice their religion the way they wanted to. Anyone else who lived with them was also forced to practice religion that way. So their disagreement was not in the intermingling of church and state, but that it was the wrong church.

If you are interested in a actual pioneer of religious freedom, check out the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Willams.

Not all of the Pilgrims were even religious types. Many of them had just signed onto the voyage to make their fortunes. In fact, the only Pilgrim most people could name, Myles Standish, was among these. And once they all got to the New World, there was a lot of politics and backstabbing and a bit of unnecessary killing of natives. You know, regular human stuff.

What was interesting to me was how much the reality differs from the myth. Our popular notion of the Pilgrims comes from a poem that a lady in England wrote after reading an article about some journals that had been rediscovered. She did not read the journals, nor did the article she read have very much information about the settlement and its inhabitants. I don't know if you know any poets, but it really does not take much for their minds to just take off, filling in the holes with imaginative details. In fact, they don't even need holes to make stuff up. Sometimes they just make something sound better. That's not this lady's fault. If you'd asked her, she would've told you that she was a poet, not a historian, you silly goose. And that's how legends and myths are born, with a bit of fact and a smattering of poetry.

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
I read The Handmaid's Tale not too long ago, and we talked about speculative fiction. It's sorta like sci-fi in that the world described does not exist, but while science fiction is often talking about other worlds entirely, speculative fiction deals with what could happen, if certain human tendencies were taken to their extremes. The Handmaid's Tale was about a society of extreme oppression of women. This one deals with genetic modifications.

We follow the thoughts and actions of Snowman, who appears to be the last man on earth. There are other "people," called the Children of Crake, but they are clearly not like people we would recognize, in either their physical form or their society. In the course of Snowman's narrative about his days, where he is barely surviving, he relives his past and just how the human race came to this. Hint: it was our own dang fault.

While the world that Snowman describes is completely unrecognizable from ours (bizarre weather, no civilization, weird critters), his flashbacks sound sorta familiar. It's like our world, except certain things are amplified. Enormous resources are put into science and technology, while the arts founder. The rich and educated are kept in sterile compounds associated with their science-based jobs or institutions of learning, where there is abundant food and recreation. The rest of humanity lives in dirty, crime-ridden cities. Porn is everywhere. Food is largely synthetic; even chicken nuggets are grown on weird nugget trees. Everything sounds just a little bit familiar.

And then it all goes bad. There's a plague, the genetically modified creatures get out, all those neatly sealed barriers between the rich and the poor break down.

While this was interesting, I did not enjoy it as much as The Handmaid's Tale. I was not particularly attached to the characters. However, I did like the ending, when the Children of Crake, which were genetically designed to not be the screw-ups that we regular humans are, start making art. Their creator, Crake, implied that if that happened, they were doomed. And maybe they are, but after all, they were designed by a screw-up.



I've been cleaning out the house. They call this "nesting," which makes it sound sweet and romantic, like a mama cat dragging dish towels to the hidey hole under the stairs. I guess I'm doing all the behaviors that one would call nesting, but it doesn't feel like motherly hormones. It feels like panic, like holy crap, we are not ready for this life upheaval mentally, emotionally, or financially, but at least I can get rid of some of this junk we have lying around. It's sorta like when you have a big paper due, and suddenly cleaning your room is the most important thing.

Pregnancy symptoms in general have not been what I'd hoped. While I would've preferred to have what I imagined were serene nesting instincts, at least stuff is getting done. We built a gate for our fence, the siding is being patched, and someone came to prune our trees. Our Goodwill pile is huge.

The room that we are turning into a nursery was previously our junk room. We always seem to have a junk room, or as a visiting friend once called it, Grandma's Room. We are not full-blown hoarders, but we are definitely accumulators.

A lot of what we have is aspirational or conservation clutter. So much stuff devoted to Someday. This clock is so cool, I will fix it. This fabric is really nice, I will make something out of it. This stationery is lovely, I will write poignant letters on it. This book is important, I will read it and be wise.

My to-read pile is in the nursery. By pile, I mean three bookshelves. I have made huge strides, as the last one used to be two deep. But even so, it makes me sad to look at them all and think that there are some that I will never ever get to. I've been reading hard, even to the detriment to my comprehension sometimes. I post my summaries, you can vouch for me - I read a lot! But it's just not enough.

As we age, our possibilities vanish. At age 7, there still existed a possible future for me as an astronaut. But at some point, that future disappeared because I chose a different one. We take a path to the exclusion of others we might have gone down. This is unavoidable. Some paths disappear just by our aging, and not picking a path is still picking one.

My husband and I have chosen the path of parenting. As paths go, it's highly recommended. People who are farther down this path look back at those at the crossroads and wonder what they're waiting for. Maybe by this time next year, so will we.

Right now, it just seems really uncertain and abstract. I feel like I'm giving up so many of my possible futures for the future of someone I've never met. So when I'm going through another pile of junk and having to decide what to let go, I resent the baby for forcing me to make the choice. And then when I hold something up to my husband to ask if he really needs it, he resents me. This nesting stuff sucks.

I know that this is total selfishness. It's not like I'm sad because the baby is taking away from my time feeding the homeless. The things I am clinging to are just things, and those unfulfilled futures are way less abstract than the being head-butting me in the gut right now. I have had an amazing amount of freedom in my life, a freedom that would be unheard of the vast majority of humans in history. I didn't even use it all that well. I know all that.

I'm just trying to transition from a life where I only had to decide for myself to one where I have to think about someone else first, all the time. I felt ambivalent about having children before I got pregnant. I guess I expected to feel more excited by now. One more pregnancy symptom that's not all it's cracked up to be.


st. genevieve.

Genevieve told the people of Paris to stay home and pray, that God would not abandon them. Then later, Atilla and his huns passed the city by and continued south. Too bad for the city of Orleans that they had no Genevieve (though later they would have a Joan).

The king of the Franks, Clovis, founded an abbey for Genevieve, where she was later buried. Miracles happened at her tomb, and Genevieve became a saint, the patron saint of Paris. Over a thousand years later, with the abbey falling apart, an ailing King Louis XV promised to build a new church for her if he recovered. He did, and construction began in 1757. Other things besides church construction were going on in France, and so the building was not completed until 1790.

The Catholic church was in pretty good with the monarchy. The church didn't pay taxes, but they enforced tithing, which sounds a lot like taxes. Those tithes were not redistributed to the poor. When the people rose up and said enough of these silly kings and their silly nobles, the church went down too. Money and property and held by the church was taken by the state to fund the war. The clergy was forced to say an oath to the Civil Constitution. Some of them were forced to marry. Genevieve's remains were publicly burned. Priests were slaughtered, houses of worship were destroyed or turned into Temples of Reason. The Cult of Reason was established, followed by the Cult of the Supreme Being, and secular festivals replaced religious ones.

And in the meantime, the new and beautiful church built for Genevieve sat empty and waiting. In 1791, the National Constituent Assembly declared that the church should be a mausoleum for those who contributed to the great nation of France. They called it the Panthéon, like the temple in Rome that was built to honor all the gods. The first to be honored was a statesmen. And then they went and dug up Voltaire and put him in there, then later Rousseau. Five other heroes of the revolution were interred in the crypt, and then quickly removed as revolution gave way to counter-revolution. But everyone still agreed about Voltaire and Rousseau.

It turned out that state-enforced secularism worked no better than state-enforced religion. Christianity went underground, humbled and battered, but not dead. Those killed were recognized as martyrs.

Napoleon figured out a third way, where the Catholic church, plus the Jews and the Protestants, was subsidized by the state. The upper chamber of the Panthéon was made a church, leaving the crypt for the great men of France. After the emperor was exiled, the kings came back and the Panthéon became a church again. The tombs of Voltaire and Rousseau were hidden. Another king gave the building back to the people and then another after that made it a church again. Finally, when Victor Hugo died, everyone decided that they'd like to bury him there, and so it was back to being the Panthéon.

The end result of all this switching is that there are secular heroes of France buried downstairs. Upstairs, the walls are covered with paintings of the life of St Genevieve, plus allegorical images and statues of the republic (Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!). It is honestly a little confused. They've got their church and their state all mixed up. And yet, it worked. I was reminded of the atmosphere of reverence you can find in the monuments to our own secular saints in Washington, D.C. Humans apparently need to worship.

All those French books I read did not really help my appreciation of the city of Paris, with the notable exception of the Panthéon. For one thing, I only knew to go there because Jack Kerouac told me about it. And then once we got to the crypt, I was able to greet all those men of letters like old friends. Voltaire! Zola! Dumas! Malraux! Hey, guys, good job with all those books! Not to mention the Curies and Louis Braille, plus a bunch of other dudes that French schoolchildren probably study, but I know nothing about. I bet all those guys have really interesting conversations when the tourists have all gone home.

The Panthéon is one of those places that does not get a lot of press. There was no line to get in. The downside of this is that most of the signs were only in French, though I think there was an English audioguide available. The building itself is amazing. I could stand open-mouthed and look at big domes and huge columns all day long. I don't know anything about architecture, but I learned something at the special exhibit they had about the guy who designed the building, Jacques-Germain Soufflot (signs in English!). It's too bad it's not more well-known, because I think a lot of Americans would be down with a patriotic church.


october 2014 books.

Aside from not posting the book write-ups, I've done a bad job lately of writing them as I go. I do a lot better if I write about a book pretty soon after I've read it, rather than after I've read three other books besides. That did not happen much this month.

William Kennedy
Is it just me, or are a lot of the Great Books really depressing? I'm happy to take others word for it that a book is great, and this particular one had a Pulitzer committee touting it. And there are many incredibly sad books that I have loved. This one just bummed me out.

Set during the Depression, this is the story of a vagrant named Francis returning to his home town. He left to become a drifter years and years ago after dropping and killing his baby. While he is going about, finding odd jobs, drinking his little pay, hanging out with other miserable souls, and finding somewhere warmish to sleep, he relives events from his past that are brought back by seeing his old stomping grounds.

There is some hope and redemption at the end when he visits his wife and children. They show him amazing kindness, considering he was an alcoholic father at best and an absent one for the most part. There seems to be a chance for reconciliation, but the author leaves it open-ended as to whether Francis will be able to accept their forgiveness.

The Known World
Edward P. Jones
Alright, vagrancy isn't your bag, how about some slavery?

The book focuses mainly on one farm, owned by a black man and his wife. The man himself is a former slave whose father bought his freedom as a child. Now that he is an adult, he has his own farm and his own slaves. The story weaves in and out of time and place, concerning people who move in and out of the main story. The structure of it was really well-done, showing how things connect without being confusing. The characters were well-written, in that each acted as you would expect them to based on their previous actions and development.

The story itself is full of nuance, told in a straight-forward manner without casting judgment.

I've been very influenced by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for the Atlantic who writes a lot about race in America and slavery's legacy. He told a story once about kids learning about slavery, and the kids being flabbergasted that anyone would put up with that level of cruelty. The kids were confident that they would revolt or just refuse to work. And some people did that, but mostly people did what they were expected, and probably you and I would do the same. We like to think of ourselves as special and outside of history, but if millions of people acted that way before, we would probably be one of them. Coates' goal is to understand the slave-owner, knowing that he, too, would be the same. That's a much harder pill to swallow. This book seemed to be exploring that as well, with characters in all kinds of slightly varied roles in the slave society - slave and slave-owner, but also former slave, black servant, local law, foreman.

Certain Women
Madeleine L'Engle
I'd never read any of L'Engle's adult fiction. In fact, I read A Wrinkle in Time only once, long ago, and didn't really get it, despite the fact that allegorical fantasy novels are totally my thing. I think I will give it another try.

But not based on this. It was fine. It takes us through the last few days of a dying Broadway actor. His wife and daughter are tending to him as they reminisce about the old theatre days. We spend the most time with the daughter, who takes us back through the actor's nine (!) marriages. The actor has always wanted to play King David, who also had a whole slew of wives. The tales of the marriages and the children that came of them are woven and related to the stories of King David. While some of the wives are distant, for the most part, they all form a giant extended family, centered around this one patriarch. My experience with families built on multiple marriages has been very complicated and frequently tense. Some of that is shown here, but mostly it is just messy in the way that real life and real families are, but still full of love.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Speaking of Ta-Nahisi Coates, I read this as part of his book club. We read a couple chapters a week, and then had an online discussion about what we read. I did the reading and followed the discussion, but did not participate.

The idea of this book is that our current legal system has created an undercaste that happens to be mostly minorities. I can't say whether this is intentional, whether those who designed the system were really wanting to do this to keep black people down. But I can't argue with the results. I don't think it matters whether it's intentional.

The thing is, I think most people are racist to some extent. Our society is pretty segregated, and we all hold some bias, which affects our behavior. So if I'm in my car at night at a stoplight, and I see some people on the sidewalk, I'm more likely to feel scared and lock my doors if they are black. So take my small, individual racism and multiply it by every person involved in the criminal justice system, from the scared lady in her car to the officer called to the scene to the attorneys and judges. That guy, by being black, just looks more like a criminal and is treated accordingly on every single level (Alexander goes into great detail about the difference of how people are treated at every step in the process).

Now, he may very well be breaking the law, because he's got some weed in his pocket. But so may a white dude. The rate of drug use across the races is pretty even. About the same percentage of white people do drugs as do blacks and hispanics. But the rate at which people are arrested for possession is wildly skewed. Black and brown people are more likely to be stopped and searched for looking suspicious, and then they can be arrested because it turns out they have a joint. So they look criminal because we have defined more of them as criminals. It never occurred to me before that the status of criminal is defined solely by the law.

Once a person is a felon, that's where the idea of the undercaste comes in. I know a guy who was selling weed to his friends, and he got busted. He had a support system that was able to get him representation (not true of many, many people), so he did not go to prison, but he was a felon. It's really hard to find a job and housing when you are a felon. It's right there on the applications, a little box that you have to check that says sometime in the past, you were found guilty of a felony. And a lot of places will just throw out your application right then. When you can't find a job or a place to live, crime becomes a lot more likely. In many places, you cannot vote or serve on a jury. You're not even a citizen anymore.

Now, I can relate to people not wanting felons in their apartment buildings or at their jobs. There is a lot of room for debate about the status of being a felon (although it seems like letting them vote is a no-brainer). But the Drug War turns a lot of people into felons, people who haven't hurt anyone (except arguably themselves). And it does so very, very unevenly.

What I found most frustrating is that there have been court cases that show that something is rotten here by using the data to compare how blacks fare in the system versus whites. But the cases get thrown out, because rarely is someone ever caught saying something openly racist. Our racism is no longer overt. Everyone knows it's wrong to be racist, and so they assume no one is. These court decisions were infuriating. They basically acknowledged there was a problem, then said that if they did anything about this one case, it would mean the whole system was broken.

But...but...IT IS.

A coworker and I were talking about that guy in Nevada who held the feds off their own land and then made some comments about how black people were better off as slaves. My coworker said he didn't think the guy was actually a racist, because he probably didn't hate black people. Guess what: You don't have to hate anyone to be a racist. You just have to think they, as a group, are all the same as each other and are all different from you.

I barely scratched the surface here. There's a lot more about the dilution of our fourth amendment rights (prohiting unwarranted search and seizure), the militarization of the police, poverty and segregation, and what can be done.

The Natural
Bernard Malamud
This is my second Malamud book, the first being The Fixer, which was one of those incredibly depressing Great Books, one that I loved. Since reading that, I've been on the lookout for Malamud. That one was about anti-semitism in Russia. This one is about baseball. It is still sad.

A young baseballer named Roy Hobbs is on his way to Chicago to try out for the Cubbies. His career is stopped before it begins by a crazed woman with a gun. Fifteen years later, he finally gets on a losing team. Seeing as he is still a natural at the game (get it?), he soon turns the team around and they have a shot at the pennant. Hobbs becomes a local hero, fame gets to him, there's a dame or two and some baseball politics, and it all comes down to a final game.

I knew there was a Robert Redford movie based on this book, but I haven't seen it. However, I just read in the wikipedia article that the ending is basically the opposite of how the book goes. Not to spoil a sixty-year-old book and a thirty-year-old movie, but the movie has a happy ending where no one fails anyone or dies in obscurity. I try to be a sophisticated reader, but I honestly would've liked a happy ending. Not that I expected it, having read Malamud before, but I would've liked it. No one likes baseball to be sad.

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith
Kathleen Norris
I think that my sister-in-law gave me this book a decade or so ago. According to the bookmark, I got two-thirds of the way through. I remember enjoying it at the time, so I'm not sure why I abandoned it.

The author, having grown up in the church, wandered away as an adult and then come back, wants to reclaim many of the scary or loaded words of faith. Each chapter is a rumination on a specific word or concept in Christianity, dismantling it and re-examining it from new angles. I sympathize with her intentions here - so much language in the church has been corrupted by overuse or abuse.

Norris is a poet, and her understanding of faith shows this. I have come to the conclusion in the past couple of years that a poetic lens is about the only one I can use for faith to make any sense at all. The tricky thing is that I am not a poet. While I can read her interpretation and understand that it makes sense in a wibbly-wobbly fuzzy-wuzzy kind of way, and I can even appreciate and see the beauty and truth in that, sometimes I really get hung up on the fact that words do mean actual things. And yet, that wibbly-wobbly, fuzzy-wuzzy kind of way is the only path to faith that I have found I can walk.

For example, she does a chapter on the creeds. We say the Nicene Creed every week as part of our service, and I do it, but I feel conflicted about it. The creed seems so confident about things that I am not sure about at all. She would say that I shouldn't be so literal about it, that anything that contains the lines "Light from light, true God from true God" is obviously using a lot of hand-waving in the first place. Her chapter on the Virgin Mary talks about alternate definitions of virgin that have nothing to do with sex. You could certainly do that with every single word in the creed or even in scripture - stretch it out with mystery until it's so vague and clouded that it could mean anything. While I believe very firmly that words are fickle, tricky things, part of me really clings fast to saying no, words mean things.

See, this is why I like numbers. It's also why I struggle with poetry. It means different things to different people, and it may not mean anything at all. That is maddening. And yet I married a poet and may be possibly carrying a tiny new poet, so clearly something in me is attracted to that. I just don't get it.

Anyway, she's very reassuring that she struggled with a lot of things in her faith, it's a lifelong journey, blah blah blah. She says that she in all her struggles, the only thing that was really clear was that she was drawn to church, and that is enough. Hallelujah.

I appreciate that if I come back to this book at different times in my life, I will probably be struck by different chapters. It makes me wonder what struck me all those years ago.

In the Lake of the Woods
Tim O'Brien
O'Brien is another of those writers that I will always read. He writes a lot about the Vietnam War. This book started out talking about a politician who has just lost an important race and likely ended his career. He and his wife take to the woods to get away from the media and reassess their lives. And then the wife disappears.

The book goes back and forth between the present, where everyone is searching for the wife, and the past, dealing with the politician's alcoholic father, his childhood interest in magic, his time in Vietnam (there it is), and his adult life, including his political career and marriage. There are periodic chapters labeled "Hypothesis," which offers varying possible explanations on what happened to the wife. Maybe she wandered off and got lost, maybe the husband killed her, maybe she left him. Guess what, the answer is never revealed.

The time in Vietnam ends up being what brought the guy's political career down. He was involved in the My Lai massacre, which is pretty rough reading even in terms of Vietnam literature. He was there by accident, and he didn't actively participate in it, but afterwards, when he was assigned a clerk, he shuffled some paperwork so it looked like he was never there. And that's really what got him in trouble, though if his involvement had been known from the beginning, perhaps he never would have had a political career. I felt pretty sympathetic to the guy. Anyone could end up being there.

The Chosen
Chaim Potok
This was excellent. It's a story about a pair of Orthodox Jewish friends growing up in Brooklyn during and after World War II. One of the boys is Hasidic, while the other is just plain old Orthodox. He seems downright worldly compared to his friend. Their friendship is strained by what's going on in the world, mainly by the creation of Israel. It was news to me that some Jews were violently anti-Zionist. Their view was that only God could give them Israel, and for man to do it through politics was a betrayal. The other guys were thinking that God works through politics, too.

I learned a lot about Judaism and Hasidic Judaism in particular. What struck me was their devotion to studying the Talmud. Hours and hours of study followed by hours and hours of debate. The author finds the Hasidic rigidity frustrating, but he says that they have been crucial in keeping the faith alive through persecution and relocation.

You know, if I'd written this right after I finished the book, I'd have a lot more to say. Grr.


church tourism.

Something Josh and I like to do is go to church while on vacation. I feel like a Crazy Church Lady mentioning that. When I was a kid, we kept attendance in Sunday School on a chart with smiley stickers. If you were absent one week, no sticker. However, if you had attended church elsewhere, that did count for a sticker. Our family didn't go off very much, and when we did, being away from our home church was excuse enough to skip services. I mean, you really have to be sticker-crazy to do something like go to church on vacation.

And here we are.

Josh in general is much more faithful than I am, and I think he feels different when he misses church, as if he missed his weekly soul-bath. For me, I've become interested in seeing how the experience of worship varies from church to church. We tend to stick to Episcopal churches, which I suppose limits the anthropological aspects of our visits. I dunno, it's nice to have a team.

It's funny, when we started going to the Episcopal church, I was pretty thrown by the liturgy. There is so much of it, and while you can follow in the bulletin, it seems like everyone else already knows the little things that are not printed. There's extra kneeling and bowing and crossing yourself. Now that I've been there a while, I'm pretty good at the words and the flow. I do not know all the times I'm supposed to be crossing myself, because I don't really do it at all. It doesn't seem to matter. Plus, since Episcopalians all use the same book, when I go to another church, there is a sense of familiarity in using the same words in a different setting. And so I feel the comfort of home while being far away. I notice that I do more crossing and bowing when I'm visiting another congregation, as if I am trying to signal that I'm in the know.

A couple of months back, while visiting Josh's dad in the mountains, we went to one of the churches of the frescoes. These are three tiny churches in the mountains that are local tourist spots for their murals. Two of the churches share one congregation, and they switch off month to month where they meet. This church was familiar to me in a couple of different ways - the small, rural congregation and the music (those things are possibly related). Whenever we got to the next song in the bulletin, I would whisper to Josh, "I know this one!" Our home church has some very talented people in charge of the music, and so the selections often seem chosen to broaden our horizons. I've gotten used to it, but it's still really exciting when I don't have to watch the notes to figure out where the next one is (and I don't technically read music - I'm seriously just going with up or down here). Obviously, familiarity is an important aspect to my church life.

The priest in that congregation also made a remark when asking for prayer requests. His daughter was up in New York, marching for climate change awareness. He prefaced it by saying that he didn't know how we all felt about the climate change issue, but he'd like us to pray for his daughter's safe travels, either way. Meanwhile, our church sent a delegation to that same march.

Everyone was very nice. They were excited to see young people (most people seemed retired), and had they been able to tell that I was pregnant, they might have offered us homes to move into. After the service, there was a coffee hour with such a spread that it required proper plates and silverware.

Then, in San Francisco, we visited the church of Saint John the Evangelist. There were two Episcopal churches that were close to where we were staying, and I actually used the online reviews to pick one. One review in particular sold me on this one. A guy remarked that he wanted to find a place to have his daughter baptized, just to make his mom happy. Twelve years later, he was still going. That's how they getcha.

Guys, everything you think about San Francisco is true, and it's even true at church. We were using my phone to navigate our walk, and then I saw a big sign that said "MORE LOVE," and I knew we'd found it. I had never seen such diversity at church. There were people of all ages and classes. One of the acolytes was a crossdresser. The congregation was small, but it was truly a family. For communion, there wasn't really an altar to kneel at, so we all stood in a big circle together.

Climate change did not come up, but I feel confident I know how they feel about it. They offered praise for the anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down and a recent law that had passed, re-classifying certain non-violent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, causing the release of thousands of prisoners. They had been keeping a weekly anti-war vigil downtown since 2003. I didn't know any of the songs, though they were from the same hymnal we use. Again, everyone was so nice and so glad to see us. They had shrimp(!) at their coffee hour.

Maybe I just like church people. They come in all flavors and have varying views on politics, music selection, and food. But the thing they have in common is what they have in common with us: they showed up this morning. Here we all are. They don't know who we are, but they're awful glad we came.


dim sum.

It was lunchtime in Chinatown, which was in my plan. Actually, that was pretty much the entirety of my plan: Chinatown (lunch).

We walked into an unassuming place on a sidestreet. It was small and crowded with an atmosphere like a cafeteria. There were large tables, mostly filled up with Asian people (a good sign). There was no sign telling us to wait or seat ourselves, so we stood there awkwardly and looked confused. After a short delay, a man held up 2 fingers and directed us to a long table, where an old lady and an old man were already seated, though not together. Quickly, we were given small plates, chopsticks, a pot of tea, and two mugs. The only thing we could figure to do was pour the tea, and then we sat and waited. No menu, but I doubted we'd be able to read one if we had it.

A lady came by, pushing a cart of food. I'd love to tell you what kind of food, but I don't know what it was. There were a bunch of little metal pots, each with some kind of meat-looking substance. Our table-mates, clearly old pros, said something to the lady. She gave them each a little pot, and they both started mixing up the meat stuff with the rice hidden underneath. The old lady's meat stuff had small bones in it. She also poured some brown goop from a jar on the table into it.

These words I'm using make it sound unappetizing. It was not, but nor was it necessarily appealing, because I just had no idea what I was even looking at. It smelled pretty good.

The cart lady continued on her way to the other tables. Another lady came up to us and spoke to Josh, but all I heard was "potstickers." He said yes, which is a reasonable reply to any sentence containing the word "potstickers." She went away to her cart and came back with a plate of 3 potstickers. She used a scissors to cut one in half. She whipped a blank bill from her back pocket and drew a line on it, seemingly at random, then left it on the table.

Well, I know what to do with a potsticker. Man, it was delicious.

In the list of things before us, you'll notice that none of them was a fork. Once, a few years ago, I went to a Korean place in Raleigh where I also was not given cutlery. Rather than ask, I determined that day was just going to have to be the day I learned to use chopsticks. I didn't leave hungry, so I did okay. Since then, when forks are offered, I take and use them, but I feel confident enough in my chopsticking that I can manage without embarrassment. I probably look like Bambi learning to walk, but I imagine everyone else giving me credit for trying.

Our potstickers vanquished, we sat to wait again. I'd been very alert the whole time, trying to figure out what we were supposed to do. The only thing I really noticed was that the other non-Asian folk there all looked as bewildered as we were, while the locals looked as if this were their regular Tuesday lunch.

Soon, another cart lady came by. Josh pointed at one thing, and I pointed at another. Out came the scissors to cut the third one in half, two more random marks on the ticket. The item that Josh picked out, I would have left on the cart, because it looked suspiciously like mushrooms. But we think it was actually eggplant, combined with yet more meat substance, probably seafood. The one I picked looked like a biscuit, and it turned out to be some kind of fried shrimp pastry. Again, all delicious.

A middle-aged Chinese couple sat at the remaining two empty chairs at our table. They said something to one of the cart ladies, who brought them something that had either tentacles or noodles or both.

Like everything else, the tea was excellent. Technically, I am off caffeine while pregnant, but I was not going to attempt to bring that up. I just enjoyed it and everything else without having much of any idea of what I was consuming.

After our three plates, Josh decided we'd better be done, since we had no idea how much each of those marks on the ticket was costing us. I was sated anyway. We took our mysterious ticket to the counter, where we were told we owed $9.35. Well then. We could've had a couple of those meat/rice pots and still come in under budget.

After we left, I learned that what we had just experienced, the tea, the carts with the little pots, was dim sum. It's sorta like Chinese tea time. And now that I've experienced it once, I could do it again.