Sentimental value

I seem to be deficient in the sentimental value department. I tried to think of a few longtime possessions that I would miss if they suddenly disappeared, but came up short. There are a few old things that I value—two just-right-for-me coffee mugs I bought in the Navigators gift shop twenty years ago, our 1998 Honda Odyssey minivan which we bought new and now has 360,000 miles on it, our Perfex pepper mill which my mother-in-law gave us as a wedding gift after taking my broad hint that I would like one—but I wouldn’t miss them if they were gone, the memories would still be there and most likely I’d find something that served the function just as well.

I think that’s why I was so delighted when I first read this anecdote about Ajahn Chah:

“Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

When Tara Brach quoted it, she prefaced it by saying “The Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah teaches us about cherishing, but not holding on.” Exactly right.


I mentioned yesterday that when novice take up a bluegrass instrument, their dream is to make music with others in a small group—a jam session. Old time music players and jazz players call them that too. Folk musicians call them hootenannies, though the focus there is on singing along or perhaps an open mic.

Bluegrass wannabes often get that way by being in close proximity to a jam. The more skillful the jam, the more likely the spectators will get the bug. Here’s an example chosen nearly at random, a hallway jam at the annual IBMA conference featuring my boss Pete Wernick, ace fiddler Michael Cleveland, and a pretty good guitar player. Pete wrote the song, but the others have never heard it—at the start you can hear him running through the chord changes for the others, who jump in with no other preparation.

I bring it up because even though I’ve hardly listened to music at all the past couple of years, much less bluegrass music, when I came across this video and clicked on it I felt the same old thrill.

Here’s an example of a mid-level jam—the players are fairly skilled, and they know that as fun as it is to pick, the singing is the heart of the music. (The guy at center is not holding his ears to block out sound, but to hear better how his harmony is blending with the rest.)

Strangely, below is the only video I could find of a beginner group jamming at one of Pete’s camps (there are lots of camp-finale performance videos, but those don’t really feel like jams). I mainly wanted to show that even rank beginners can get together and make music for their own pleasure.

My day job

Since 2010 my day job has been managing a network of bluegrass music teachers under the direction of banjo player Pete Wernick. These teachers already give individual lessons, but Pete has developed a method for teaching novice players how to play in a small group, the ultimate goal for most who pick up a bluegrass instrument. I can testify that the method works—attending one of Pete’s camps in 2003 was what launched my son Chris and me on our eleven-year journey as bluegrass performers.

I call myself the Wernick Method Office Manager, and I mainly take care of administrative tasks—scheduling classes, broadcasting class announcements to folks on our mailing list, taking student registrations and deposits, collecting teacher fees, sending out student surveys. We are a shoestring operation, deliberately, and so I find myself playing a broad range of roles as the occasion requires–IT guy, webmaster, software developer, database wrangler, desktop publisher, marketing consultant, and so on.

I enjoy the computer work not only because it gives me an excuse to stay current with the software world—during my forty years as a programmer a lot has changed!–but also the opportunity to put various ideas I have to the test on how to build out the technical (and procedural) infrastructure for a small business. Right now I am in the early stages of rebuilding Pete’s entire website, moving it about 10 years forward in technical underpinnings, design, and marketing approach. Scary, but fun as well.

The Wernick Method works! But don’t take it from me. Here’s a nice article about a class currently underway in Buffalo, Wyoming which has attracted 25 pickers in a sparsely populated area, some driving as much as 2 hours to get there. And here’s a nice video made by a student who attended a class in Dayton, Ohio.

Look and See

If you have Netflix streaming, I can recommend the documentary Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry. It isn’t the documentary portrait I dream of, but that one would run over a hundred hours, probably directed by Ken Burns. Until my dream comes true this one will serve just fine. The photography is gorgeous, the pace is soothing, and it draws out the elegiac quality in Berry that I enjoy so much, the celebration of a different way of life that is now mostly gone and probably not coming back.

How to Think, by Alan Jacobs

img_0184_med_hrLast night I finished How to Think by Alan Jacobs. Not being very long it didn’t take long to read, but I was only reading it in small chunks at bedtime. It’s very good and I’ll surely re-read it at least once. If I had read it forty years ago I’d probably be shouting its praises from the hilltops and pressing it on friends. But as with his earlier book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I find myself in the odd position of not being in his intended audience, but rather the product of the process/attitude he argues for.

image001_1-768x1012It’s a great book for someone who isn’t a certain kind of person and through reading it discovers that, yes, this is how a person should be. But since I consider myself to be the sort of thinking person that Jacobs celebrates, it’s a little awkward: Am I just flattering myself? Should I put my self under the microscope one more time and look for signs of self-deception? Does it sound too haughty to say that I endorse Jacobs’s conclusions about thinking and have found over the years that they’ve served me well?

Maybe I’ll just say: it’s short, it’s good, if it doesn’t describe you then you should read it and if it does describe you then you’d enjoy reading it but won’t suffer from giving it a pass. And beyond that, just a couple of comments.

First, I much prefer the cover of the British edition (above left) over the American edition (above right), precisely because the latter caters to Americans in a way the book itself doesn’t. A survival guide? Not really, if that means to you a collection of skills for approaching a fraught situation. Jacobs would agree that you need certain skills, but the more important message of his book is that you need to be a certain kind of person to successfully negotiate “a world at odds”, and he spends less time on the skills and more on what it means to be such a person, and to commit to becoming more and better of one.

No surprise that he says it much better:

I want to emphasize, here at the end, that you won’t profit from this book if you treat it as offering only a set of techniques. You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you; the kind of person who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position.

Anyone who has endured my endless nattering about the importance of character can see why I give the book a hearty endorsement.

Second, I’ve poked around and not seen this pointed out anywhere else, so here is my gift to the internet:

Separated at birth? (Alan Jacobs at left, Brian Eno at right)


Visions of community

When I contemplate the recent mini-resurgence of interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I sometimes wonder: does anyone actually read the guy? I haven’t read him thoroughly, mostly snippets I find quoted by other writers. Except for one short book, Life Together—and really just the first chapter of that book, which I’ve read many times. His claims in that chapter about the nature of community are so far from the Christian norm, even the norm of the people who cite him approvingly, that I wonder if they really understand what he is saying. (Or, sometimes, if I understand).

In that first chapter Bonhoeffer says flat out: God hates visionary thinking. I never see that bit quoted directly. And if I’m reading him correctly, he is saying that dreaming about what a Christian community might be will insure the death of actual community, because it distracts from and even undermines the process of building a real one.

Here is the latest citation, from a writer I respect and enjoy and often learn from, Richard Beck. The piece points out that church never lives up to our expectations, then asks “But might disillusionment actually be a great grace? Might our disappointment with the church be a gift? That’s the argument Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes in Life Together:”

Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

Beck doesn’t elaborate, but if he means that our disappointment is a grace because it wakes us up to the fact that reality falls short of our ideals, consequently making us more understanding and forbearing of our fellow Christians—well, I think that tones down Bonhoeffer too far. Dreaming is “a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished …”? The dreamer becomes a “destroyer” of Christian community? Sounds to me more like Bonhoeffer sees dreaming as a poison which community can tolerate no trace of. We should be actively and promptly disabusing dreamers of their dreams, not waiting for disappointment to do the work eventually and only in part. And we especially need to make the point that it’s not the dream that is the problem, but the dreaming—that we shouldn’t respond to disappointment by going in search of another, better dream but that we need to give up dreaming altogether.

The thirst for knowledge

A nice quote for the day, from a 2005 New York Times Magazine essay by Mark Lilla about his stint with evangelicalism.

But the thirst for knowledge isn’t limited to those who attend the right schools. (Nor, I was to learn, is it universal among them.)

Pro tip: this, like so many interesting things I read online, comes via Alan Jacobs, who saves links to items using a bookmark service called Pinboard. Users there can mark the saved links as either public or private, and one’s public links are available through an RSS feed. So I subscribe to Jacobs’s account and am treated to a steady stream of excerpts from writing he finds online, usually without comment. I assume this is part of his research process, but I don’t know for sure.

The essay itself is a nice addition to my collection of thought-provoking writings about thinking (no surprise, since Jacobs literally wrote the book, or at least one of them). The above quote is immediately followed by this:

The caricature of American evangelicals as incurious and indifferent to learning is false. Visit any Christian bookstore and you will see that they are gluttons for learning – of a certain kind. They belong to Bible-study groups; they buy works of scriptural interpretation; they sit through tedious courses on cassette, CD or DVD; they take notes during sermons and highlight passages in their Bibles. If anything, it is their thirst for knowledge that undoes them. Like so many Americans, they know little about history, science, secular literature or, unless they are immigrants, foreign cultures. Yet their thirst for answers to the most urgent moral and existential questions is overwhelming. So they grab for the only glass in the room: God’s revealed Word.

Undoes them? Yes, I guess I’d agree with that, and it’s a shame. If only a fraction the energy evangelicals spend diving deep into their favored topics were spent thinking, by which I mean carefully examining the assumptions that underpin the knowledge they gorge themselves on and assessing it fairly against competing claims, I think we’d have a calmer and more respectable community.

The thirst for knowledge was always there, but there also used to be guardrails:

A half-century ago, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the popularizing works of serious religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and even Martin Buber and Will Herberg. Those writers were steeped in philosophy and the theological traditions of their faiths, which they brought to bear on the vital spiritual concerns of ordinary believers – ethics, death, prayer, doubt and despair. But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books or are politically motivated. If an evangelical wants to satisfy his taste for truth today, it’s strictly self-service.

I heartily agree with this. But I also understand the inclination to be served unthinkingly by pastors, teachers, and writers—not just out of laziness, but to avoid risking one’s membership in the group.