Sunday, August 28, 2011

Men's Underwear: A Tale of Public Transportation

The bus was full for so late on a Tuesday, Cassie thought as she slowly made her way to the open seats at the back. Glancing at the seats to the left and the right, she made an odd discovery.

A pair of old gray men's briefs was resting on one of the spots.

Shoes and socks, she'd heard of. Hats and sunglasses, she understood. But...underwear? That was both unusual and, well, disgusting. Settling on the seat opposite, Cassie giggled silently at the thought of where the underwear might have come from, how it might have wound up on a bus seat, very much without an owner. Teenagers having a muffled assignation on a quiet part of the ride, perhaps. Scandalous.

Or maybe-- Cassie had heard about people in New York City who took off all their clothes on the subway, as a way of getting comfortable and beating the heat. It had been another boiler of a July day-- someone could be trying to reenact that classic Seinfeld episode. The image was uncomfortable and hilarious as she imagined sitting across from a naked guy on the bus, calmly reading the paper as those around him squirmed.

The bus lurched to a stop, and saved her from descending into uncontrollable laughter at the thoughts in her mind. The front door opened and a petite Hispanic woman got on and walked to the back, carrying a large bag and looking exhausted. Setting the bag on her lap, the woman leaned her head against the bus window and closed her eyes. She smelled vaguely of Lysol-- possibly a cleaning lady.

As the bus swerved up the busy rush hour streets, its frequent ungraceful stops and starts caused the woman's bag to tip over onto the floor of the bus. Some of the contents toppled out-- a t-shirt, a few different colors of socks, a fancy bra.

As the woman quietly regathered the contents of her bag, Cassie watched from the back of the bus and stopped giggling. Women like that one rode the bus every day. Normally Cassie didn't give them a second thought, but as she watched the woman settle back into her seat, she began to spin a story in her head. Though she had no way of knowing for sure, it appeared likely that the workday was far from over for that hard-working woman. The work she took home was surely the laundry of the family she worked for-- perhaps belonging to the children she had chased around all day, or the mother and father whose breakfast dishes she had watched. Or, alternatively, it may have belonged to her own family-- that she had to take her family's laundry to her job in order to get it done spoke volumes about the hours she worked.

The bus lurched to a stop again. The wealthy-looking passengers at the front shifted uncomfortably as a man dressed in ragged clothes and an army cap stepped on, clutching a couple of trash bags as he paid his fare in coins. The other passengers continued to display signs of disgust as he walked by-- some subtly holding their hands to cover their noses, some outright moving over so that the man wouldn't sit down next to them. Pretending not to notice his rejection by fellow passengers, the man slunk to the back of the bus, assaulting the senses of all that he passed.

As the man settled into the seat at the very back corner of the bus, he held his bags tightly in his arms, resting them on his lap. A dirty white t-shirt poked out of the top of one bag as he did so.

As Cassie sat at the back of the bus, she found these fellow passengers raising troubling ideas. Accidentally or not, the people most often seated at the back of the bus seemed to be minorities and poor people-- a fact that shouldn't be the case, but nonetheless was there. That article of clothing could easily have belonged to someone like the housekeeper or the homeless man. It needn't come from something as ridiculous as a careless tryst or a public transportation strip-down. It could belong to someone for whom that clothing was a livelihood, or even all that they owned...

These thoughts would have to wait-- she had a dinner party to get to. *Ding!* “STOP REQUESTED.”

Thursday, August 25, 2011

10 Sermons That Rocked My World

I have grown up in and around churches, and have heard dozens upon dozens of sermons. Good, mediocre, boring– on all theological topics under the sun. Two pastors in particular, however, stand out in my recollection, and of each of those pastors I have found a handful of sermons that irrevocably have stuck out in my memory– ones which helped to define my faith and rocked my world in doing so. Here are the links and brief summaries.

  1. The Living Christ” by Rev. Anne Robertson. Growing up, Sunday School for kids occurred during the first worship service, so usually one of the only sermons I ever heard happened at Easter when Sunday School was cancelled. This one is probably the best stuck in my memory, because it tied Easter to, of all things, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol…and helped to form my belief that God cannot be contained to our human imagination. God is bigger.

  2. Transformation in Whoville” by Rev. Anne Robertson. I also inevitably always heard the sermon preached at church on Christmas Eve. This is my favorite Christmas sermon of all time because it was framed around Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” A reminder that Christmas is bigger than our busy-ness and greed and materialism– Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. It’s up to us to choose whether we are the Whos or the Grinch each year.

  3. Tower of Love” by Rev. Anne Robertson. Preached the Sunday after Tuesday September 11, 2001. Where was God in the midst of those terrorist attacks? Everywhere you looked, if you looked with the right eyes. “As the World Trade towers fell, the tower of love grew strong.”

  4. What’s It All About” by Rev. Anne Robertson. This sermon won preaching awards and it’s not hard to see why. God is love. “Square one in the Christian faith and in all of life is love. If you’ve missed it, you’ve got to go back.”

  5. Everything You Need to Know” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. The first sermon I heard preached by my college campus minister. It has wound up being effectively a preview of my faith career for the next four years of my life and spiritual development. Can’t find a word in it that’s not true.

  6. Why the Atheists Are Right (And Wrong)” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. The second sermon of my college career– quite a powerhouse combo, those first two Sundays. After four years of evangelical Christian school, it rocked my world to hear a Christian minister admit that people who were skeptical of faith might possibly have a point.

  7. Faith Questions” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. This is actually an annual occurrence at my campus church, where students anonymously submit questions online and the pastor answers them during the service, sight unseen. I cannot really recollect any one question that had an answer that rocked my world– rather, it was the whole existence of this kind of sermon. To put it in Mark’s words, “As I am fond of saying every year, “Faith Questions” is not simply a description of what it is we are answering. “Faith questions” is itself a sentence, a statement. Faith questions. A lively meaningful faith is not afraid to ask difficult questions and to wrestle with complex issues as they relate to our understandings of God and what we believe.” That realization alone– that asking questions was an acceptable part of faith– completely changed my faith life.

  8. Jesus Added You As A Friend” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. Facebook is indeed a technological and communications marvel. It’s a wonderful tool. But how has it diminished our sense of real relationship? “Christ reminds us that our friends are not means, they are ends in and of themselves. Our friendships are not social networking tools. They are real relationships. And in that reality, they are meant to reflect the relationship we have with our greatest Friend of all.”

  9. Update Your Status: What Are You Doing Right Now?” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. A reminder that God doesn’t base his love for us on our accomplishments. He loves us because he loves us. Isn’t being a child of God enough of a status for us? “In reality, what could you or I do that would impress God?”

  10. Wiping Away Every Tear” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. A thorough rebuke of Rapture theology, showing why it is a tempting but all things told rather harmful idea. I keep coming back to this one, all the time, as I think about my faith. “God does not abandon the creation. We are not rescued from it and taken to some other plane of existence. We are raised to new life in the creation. God redeems and restores the world.”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Lust Ain't Just for Nancy Pearl

Some people have disposable income. These people can afford to be defined, not necessarily by their money, but by what they do with it.

Some people spend their disposable income on alcohol, on bars and clubs and always-flowing libations. These people are called partiers, socialites, or (alternately) 'alcoholics.'

Some people spend their disposable income on clothes and shoes-- more than any one individual could possibly need. These people are called 'shopaholics.'

Some people spend their money on fine food and fine wine. These people are called 'gourmets.'

Some people spend their money on toys, slides, water guns, stuffed animals, and amusement parks. These people are called 'parents.'

I'm mostly kidding about the latter, but it's true that there are as many ways to spend money on your interests as there are interests. Which brings me to an admission:

I am a book-aholic. A bibliophile. A bookworm. A first-degree book lover. I'm a girl who reads.

This condition has been exacerbated by a lifelong proximity to books-- a tantalizingly close one. I grew up inhabiting libraries and bookstores; at any given point my own house vaguely resembled both of the above.

Bibliophilia is a genetic condition in my family, but my mom and I both got a particularly severe and fast-moving strain. We're the two who have to be dragged out of bookstores. We have both found our excuses for buying books at different points.

She is a school librarian for a Pre-K through 12 academy. She built the high school library from scratch. Bringing in appropriate and useful new books is her job.

I, on the other hand, found my excuse in the school holidays that I spent working at Barnes & Noble. While I worked there, I could tell myself that by spending part of my paycheck on books, I was both learning how to do my job better and keeping myself employed. I helped other customers to find books that were right for them, and was also one of my own best customers.

Now I find myself an underemployed college graduate with plentiful free time. I've worked my way through more than twenty books in the three months since graduation. And I am painfully aware of the fact that I live ten minutes down the street from one of the best bookstores in DC, Politics & Prose.

That information haunts my book-loving soul. Every day that I wake up with minimal commitments (which is most days), that literary devil on my left shoulder suggests that it's a nice day for a walk. Why don't we just stroll up Connecticut Avenue and see where we wind up?... And, right on cue, up pops the angel on my right shoulder to remind me that there's a bookstore up there, and we're trying to save money. Avoid temptation, Carolyn, avoid temptation...

It's a daily struggle. Most days, I succeed. Most days I can prevent myself from strolling up the street and perusing the bookstore. Inertia is a powerful ally in that battle. But it doesn't stop the visions of much-desired books dancing in my head...evidence of things hoped for.

Some days, when I don't succeed in staying out of the store, I can still refrain from buying books by just enjoying the ambiance of being around them. When this happens, my friends and boyfriend find considerable amusement in watching me persuade myself not to buy books, and (when I give in) when I decide which books to pick up. They enjoy my anguish, the fiends.

My boyfriend and I once looked in the window of a bookstore after it had closed for the night. He laughed as he watched my face. Said it looked like a little kid's on Christmas morning. I said that was appropriate, since my usual Christmas morning also involves rejoicing over newly acquired books. He understands-- he is a fellow book-lover, but he has better self-control in bookstores than I do. I usually make him hold my wallet if I don't want to splurge on new books.

The fact is that no matter how much I value the ideal of simple living-- and I do-- my books are my greatest obstacle. The best I can do is to give some of them away when I am done with them, and not be too obsessed with getting them back. I remind myself that they are best enjoyed by all. Literacy is not supposed to be an elite activity. Everyone should be able to read. I know this, I believe this.

...But I love my books. Can I have more, please?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Bibliophilia, Books #11-20

Ah, the overly sophisticated way of saying that I'm addicted to books. I enjoy it, too-- I love being able to sit down and read for pleasure so much that I've hardly been writing. Will return to that soon, I'm sure... Anyway, for your enjoyment, here's the list of books #11-20 that I've finished this summer. This list marks the completion of my summer reading goal, but I'm sure I will continue on and possibly hit 25 by the time Labor Day rolls around.

11. The Language of God - Francis Collins
  • A decent book all things told, written by the head of the Human Genome Project. Found the science excellent, the theology subpar, and the fusion of the two agreeable. Too much C.S. Lewis. Called the Gospels 'eyewitness accounts' of Jesus's life. Worth reading, but disappointing for someone who was hoping for a little more solid theology. For a more in-depth review, see my Divine Science review.

12. Murder at the Watergate - Margaret Truman
  • I love Margaret Truman mysteries because, well, they're murder mysteries set in DC. I've read three so far, all with the same basic central characters and a revolving plot of supporting characters, and all have been excellent. This one, centered around Mexican corruption and murders that result from it, turn domestic politics into foreign affairs seamlessly. An excellent, and very fast, read.

13. The Bible: A Biography - Karen Armstrong
  • A biography of the world's most printed book, from ancient Israel's Torah to modernity. I love the way Armstrong writes about religion, with a historically-minded accuracy and fairness, and a believer's reverence. Though this book moves quickly and doesn't dwell on events that you might expect, this is actually a strength. It makes its point very effectively: if you thought you knew how to read the Bible, you are probably both wrong and right; but either way, half of the significance of the Bible is how it is read and interpreted.

14. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The tales of the greatest detective in the world never fail to entertain. I'm deeply ashamed that I never made it all the way through all of Doyle's famous Sherlock Holmes tales until now, but my favorite remains “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

15. The Magicians - Lev Grossman
  • Billed accurately as Harry Potter and Narnia for grown-ups, this darker fantasy novel follows the discontented young Quentin Coldwater as he makes his way into the world of magic through his admission to Brakebills College (think Hogwarts, if it were a college instead of a boarding school) and his search for the magical kingdom of Fillory (think Narnia, but more violent). A phenomenal read, especially for people mourning the loss of their childhood via the end of the Harry Potter movies.

16. Peace Like a River - Leif Enger
  • This book, recommended and loaned to me by my boyfriend's mother, took me a while to get into. Maybe partly because of my time constraints for reading, maybe because I found The Magicians shortly after starting it and got hopelessly distracted by my longtime love of fantasy, maybe because it didn't get really interesting until about halfway through. But I wound up reading the first half of the book over two weeks, and the second half in a day. It wound up being a good story. I suspect it will mean more to Midwesterners (like my boyfriend and his family), but I enjoyed the intertwining of faith, adventure, family, and a touch of romance that made up this story.

17. Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Power, and Print - James McGrath Morris
  • Continuing my apparently ongoing recent fascination with the great figures of the early twentieth century, this biography of publisher Joseph Pulitzer draws on recently uncovered sources, the likes of which most historians can only dream. Morris paints a picture of Joseph Pulitzer as an immigrant with brilliant political and journalistic instincts whose rise to power was only eclipsed by the onset of blindness. He did not hesitate to show Pulitzer in all of his many, many flaws, making this a fair portrait of a character who is not easily liked, but not unsympathetic either. An excellent biography.

18. Measure for Measure - William Shakespeare
  • One of Shakespeare's best plays, in my opinion-- Measure is entertaining but thought-provoking, raising timeless issues of justice, sexuality, and morality. It helps that I've seen this play performed, so I was able to picture things in my head as I read the play, but even without that, I think I would have loved reading it. It's a comedy, to be sure, but definitely one of Shakespeare's darker comedies.

19. Gods and Generals - Jeff Shaara
  • Written after The Killer Angels but set in the years preceding it, this sequel by the son of Michael Shaara carries the story forward well, but does not quite live up to the storytelling ability of the father. That being said, it was still a lot of fun to read, and the comparatively few inadequacies can be chalked up to the fact that where The Killer Angels takes place over three or four days, Gods and Generals tells the story of five or six years-- a few years before the war began, and then the first two and a half years of the war, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. An excellent work of historical fiction.

20. The Luxury of Daydreams - Amy McVay Abbott
  • It's hard to know exactly how to review a book written by someone you know without letting your bias creep in, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Luxury of Daydreams. Amy's writing style is humorous and sincere, beautifully phrased and entertaining. It will certainly be most enjoyed by people more familiar with the Midwest and mid-life situations than I, but all the same, Amy tells many wonderful stories that can be appreciated by people in most any location or stage of life. As someone who is not too far away from that age, I especially appreciated her “Letter to My Seventeen-Year-Old Self.”