I Love Mouse Books

My Mouse Books shipment last week had three books in it and a cool little Mouse Book-sized storage box. The selections were “Moses” (64 tiny pages of excerpts from the King James Version of Exodus), “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases” by Ida B Wells, and parts of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Yesterday I got to talk with the founder of Mouse Books for over an hour about the story of Exodus, the character of Moses, and the contribution that spiritual texts make in a scientific and technical age. So. Much. Fun.

I’ve been a Mouse Books booster ever since Cal Newport wrote about them on his blog, before they had even shipped their first collection. When I learned the people behind them were here in Chicago, I signed up immediately. To my delight, the founder (David), sent me  a preview with a handwritten note: a slim, pocket-sized yellow paperback of James Joyce’s The Dead. I chewed through it in a couple of bus and train rides.

I have become irrationally committed to Mouse Books. I’m a sucker for the whole curated-box-of-goodies genre, so I tear open each new shipment, the contents of which the company keeps secret before sending them out. Since getting them, I have re-experienced beloved literature like the Melville short story “Bartleby The Scrivener” and experienced stuff I’ve never read, like Philip K. Dick’s The Skull. As engrossing as the literature is, the choosing and combining of titles by David and his partner is just as much part of the fun.

I think this post is as close to a product pitch as this blog will ever get. But I believe in the mission of Mouse Books and I want it to succeed. I’ll share the audio of David’s and my conversation when he posts it, but until then you can preview some of the other audio he’s created around this project, or even sign up yourself. I’ve also found that the individual series make great gifts (my personal favorite is the “Struggle” series).

 

 

 

 

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It Makes A What Out of You And Me?

Yesterday my colleague and I led an adult Sunday school class about the Bible that paired Biblical storytelling with an introduction to the historical critical method. I told the Genesis 1 creation story, then he explained the documentary hypothesis. Then we took questions. It was fun.

We wanted the class to be a fresh experience with Scripture, to feed congregants with the information about the Bible they seem to love but also to sprinkle on a different kind of encounter with scripture than maybe they’re used to in the same bite. Throughout the conception of the class and all the preparation, I assumed that the historical critical morsels would be the easy ones for people to digest.

I should have learned about assuming by now, because a portion of the class required defending the premise of the whole project against the assertion that treating Biblical texts as stories or as specimens for academic investigation is faithless and betrays a belief in Jesus. I’ll have that conversation any day. It’s just that’s not the conversation I thought we were having today.

Yeah, I ought’ve learned about assuming by now.

Sick

My former Head of Staff and I used to sardonically observe that deaths in the congregation came in bunches. Whenever someone would pass, my boss and I would spend the next couple of days looking sideways at one another, waiting for news of another, silently eyeing our calendars with dread. It was eerie how often that news came.

It isn’t limited to death. I am noticing deaths accompanied by diagnoses and hospitalizations on all sides these days, going back to the end of August. I share this not to be grim but to point out that our work happens in the midst of all this and most of the time cannot account for it in advance. My “September Calendar” Bullet Journal page did not contain any funerals or midnight emergency room phone calls, and yet those things were prominent features both of the work the month required and of the climate in which I did all the other September stuff.

I think that made my work better.

Our preaching and planning, teaching and organizing are only sometimes addressed directly to contexts of human frailty, accompanying people in and speaking to encounters with mortality. Yet the rest of the time the specter of illness and death lurks behind projects that are otherwise future facing and hopeful–Confirmation retreats and session meetings.

I wonder if that doesn’t make those projects stronger. I wonder if seasons of heavy contact with all manner of human deficiency don’t lend perspective and humanity to our attempts to project strength and health.

 

 

 

Preparation

My spouse used to ask me on the Saturdays that came before preaching Sundays, “Is your sermon done?” I developed a standard answer: “It’s never done. It only exists at varying stages of preparation.”

She doesn’t ask me that anymore.

It’s a serious answer, and not just for sermons. One of the features of church work is that Sunday presents an immovable deadline for much of what we have to do. Sunday is coming, and that doesn’t always sound like good news to those of us who fret about our preparation. There is the sermon to prepare. Or there is the class, the youth group, the meeting–Sunday is coming and with it things we are expected to lead, ready or not.

So what is ready? If time zipped ahead to Sunday morning right now and you had to go with only the preparation you’ve already done, could you?

You could.

Your preparation extends further back than this week. And you’re not the only one preparing; God is too. God is preparing you, and God is preparing the community in ways nobody sees.

Let’s do our work to prepare, then. But not as if the whole thing depends on us.

Flicker

The lights are flickering in an adjacent room. In the morning, during the staff meeting on the third floor, I can see them through the window dimming and rallying in my peripheral vision. 90 minutes of this, off to the side of discussion and debrief, debate even. Light disappears, light’s on again. Every time I fall for it. Every time I look, my brain tricked, attracted to what feels like motion.

Later, I don’t have to turn my head to see the fluttering lights during our Service for Healing happening in the second floor chapel, where wooden chairs are angled in rows that, for one side, direct worshipers’ gaze to an ominous corner of floor-to-ceiling windows and out onto Chestnut Street, but not before the mail room on the second floor of the adjoining building, where the fluorescent overhead light is dancing spasmodically.

I’m watching the lights. I don’t really want to watch the people in this service because it’s a service in response to sexual violence and it doesn’t feel right to pay close attention to people who came for such a service. I expect if I look up to see women, and women at this service probably aren’t here to have a man watch them.

So I watch the lights. Against a backdrop of dusk when the service starts their staccato routine is faint, but by the time worshipers begin milling about the space lighting candles and receiving oil to their heads and hands the lights are performing prominently. The movements and the music–the lighting!–of worship are all grace and delicacy. The electric stutter stealing my attention is neither.

 

 

Monday

I’m there to meet her when the bell rings and all the fifth graders are released to the October afternoon sun. Her classmate’s mother and I are talking about the email we both received from the math teacher explaining how poorly students performed on last Friday’s math quiz and requiring corrected and signed quizzes the following day. I’m not that stressed about it, only curious to see if the kid is going to own it or if I’ll have to broach the subject.

She’s on it before we’re even off school grounds. “Dad I have to tell you something, and when you first hear it you’re going to hate me but by the time I finish will be fine.” I’m a little startled. Hate?

“Okay,” I answer calmly, “But first: I won’t hate you. I’ll never hate you.” She sighs and, though I can’t see given that we’re walking side by side, rolls her eyes, and says, “It’s a metaphor.”

***

I’m there in the kitchen with her after dinner, loading the dishwasher and wiping down countertops, while she’s mixing together ingredients to make herself a cake, the kind you bake in the microwave in a coffee mug. I’m playing “A Long December” by Counting Crows on Spotify for a very specific reason. One of the spelling words we just practiced is “attach,” and I’ve got that lyric in my head, “The way that light attaches to a girl.” So I look it up and play it.

When it ends Spotify keeps playing. It stays in the 90’s folk-rock lane. The Indigo Girls’ “Closer To Fine” is filling the kitchen when I’m closing the dishwasher and she’s adding the milk to her second cake (the first one was a dud). She’s sarcastically interrogating the lyrics:

I went to the doctor (Oh did you now?)

I went to the mountains (What for?)

I looked to the children (Wait. What?)

She’s actually stuck on the children part. She looks up from her mug and stops her stirring. She’s heard herself addressed, but she doesn’t know for what. With all the seriousness the day has left she puts it to me. “Why would anyone need to go to children?” I have just the answer, and it comes with an eye roll:

“It’s a metaphor.”

I Unfollowed Over 700 People on Twitter

I unfollowed everyone I know personally on Twitter. Friends, relatives, coworkers, colleagues whose work and opinions I respect, celebrities, and people I met once at a conference. If we would know each other on the street, I’m not following you on Twitter anymore. That’s fine. Twitter was the least useful means we had of staying connected anyway.

It’s an experiment not in distancing myself from people but in news consumption. You see the only people left in my Twitter feed are journalists. I culled my following list down from over 1100 to 353, and every single one of those follows writes or edits for either a newspaper or a magazine or a website, or they report for a television station.

They’re kind of all over the place actually: the New York Times, NPR (and NPR Stations–WBUR, KCUR, WBEZ), The Weekly Standard, The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Block Club, NBC News, The National Review, CNN, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Slate, Texas Monthly, Reuters, and a bunch of others.

I’ve gone through phases when I add every byline read to Twitter.

I’m 10 days into this experiment, and here is what I’ve noticed so far. My Twitter feed is mostly filled with links to a small number of news stories shared over and over again. Like the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Journalist. That story must have been tweeted by 50 different reporters, and many of them congratulated the reporters on the work. As I type, the story about Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test results is oozing out all over my timeline: Jake Tapper, Manu Raju, and Jonathan LeMire, among several others, are posting it.

I’ve also read some fascinating threads tweeted by reporters to explain complicated subjects, like Jared Kushner’s taxes. I’ve watched Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine and David French of the National Review have a heated but fact-based argument about French’s piece equating Democratic protesters with the President’s calls for violence at his rallies.

I may not keep this up; Twitter is still Twitter, even when hotwired for purposes of explicit news consumption. But it has most definitely moved my experience of the platform away from the takes of people like me and toward the work of practicing journalists.

Phone

She thought about her new phone all day at school, the time she would get to spend on it when she got home, before she went to cheer practice. That the case and the pop socket she’d ordered for it arrived earlier in the day only made the anticipated afternoon reunion sweeter.

Only homework needed done first.

That the afternoon went off the rails so quickly should not have surprised me. What fifth grader possesses the force of will to complete homework and to study for a test while the most enticing consumer technology the world has ever seen waits in the next room? Certainly not mine. Shouts. Tears. Slammed doors. Promises to take the phone away for days.

After dropping her off at cheer practice, alone in the car, it occurred to me that this is what an iPhone is designed to do, to embed itself in a person’s consciousness as an ever-beckoning portal to all manner of happiness. It’s too much for a 10 year-old to handle without assertive parental regulation. And even then . . .

 

Itsy Bitsy

Note: after publishing this post I read this news article about this year’s above average spider population in Chicago, experienced prominently at train stations.

This is the season for spider webs and spiders at train stations in the city. Strung up on lamp posts and in the corners of overhangs, the webs and their many occupants are beautiful and menacing. I’m drawn to look at them, though not up close and not for long; people on train platforms don’t look long at anything without a screen–it makes you look uncomfortable (taking a picture would be even worse).

I was terrified of spiders well into adulthood. The mere sight of one would have made my muscles shudder and my skin twitch. That’s not uncommon, I know. Maybe every arachnophobe has an origin story, and maybe some are plain born. Maybe innocuous experiences in childhood harden into rigid fear on their own. I must have been seven or eight when I went to see my aunt, who was in high school, in a production of “Once Upon A Clothesline,” a children’s play. I remember nothing of the performance. I have a vivid memory, though, of seeing the girl who played the spider character in her full-size costume backstage after the performance and shuddering with fear.

My dad really turned that childhood shudder into a scream. He used to lure me into the garage with the promise of observing a spider in some dark corner. I’d follow, and peering intently at the thing, would receive a sudden jolt and “Agh!” exclamation to startle the bejeesus out of me. Any childish curiosity about the eight legged things gave way shortly to jumpy terror at even their mention. Especially in that garage. Well into high school I would avoid even going in there. Whenever I absolutely had to I kept carefully close to the middle, away from those dark corners.

I’m 42 now, and I still don’t want spiders near me. But watching them overhead at L is becoming one of my favorite seasonal pasttimes.

The Gym

I sat in the parents’ lounge of the gym and listened to the coach count off choreography over the blaring of my daughter’s cheer team routine music. The lounge is just a narrow room with old office chairs and an empty vending machine, but there’s free wifi, so I was watching the Yankees/Red Sox playoff game.

I got curious, though. I wanted to see what all this counting and shouting was for, so I packed up my laptop, exited the lounge and perched myself behind the barrier at the end of the gym to watch the last 10 minutes of practice.

Everybody is about half a second behind the counting, which is not exactly keeping time with the soundtrack. Their movements are not sharp. The two stunts they’re working on aren’t working, and most of the team clearly don’t remember the choreography. Their faces are red and they’re all breathing really hard. I’ve never seen my kid work like this.

Practice ends and the coach sits them all down in the middle of the floor for a dressing down over their not knowing the choreography and their poor tumbling. The prescription is for more individual practice, not at home but at the gym. “You guys need to be in the gym more!” he says. They’re all looking at the floor.

I’m in coach mode myself as a spectator. This is the first I’ve seen of the actual routine my daughter has been working on, and it’s a little alarming. I want it to be good, and that is clearly going to requires a lot of practice.

But she’s already here nearly five hours each week. She’s 10.

I’m watching two things here: does she actually want to spend more time in the gym? She has loved this since she started and there’s no sign yet of dissatisfaction with it, but she’s also never been challenged so directly to work harder and put in more time. That may take a mental and emotional toll.

The other thing I’m watching is school work. Extra gym time will come at the expense of homework, for sure. Even if she loves the gym and wants to put in extra time, the priority has to be school, right? If that starts to slip, the gym has to be curtailed.

I’m playing this all out in my head during the coach’s lecture when I’m suddenly caught by a vision of how good she’s going to be at this after a few years.