Prayers Plainly Spoken, by Stanley Hauerwas

Prayer has always puzzled me, and I’m finally to the point where I can admit it openly. Perhaps I’ll write more about that some day, but all I care to mention at this point is that it isn’t for lack of study or effort. Over the years I’ve looked into many different approaches to prayer, tried them all at least tentatively, and read many different writers on the subject. They’ve taught me many different things—though not to pray, at least comfortably—and I’m always open to yet another possibility. So I was glad to learn that Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian and writer I much admire, had written a book about prayer, and I quickly ordered a copy.

Prayers Plainly Spoken isn’t the book I hoped it would be—which is fine, since no book on prayer I’ve read so far has been the book I hoped it would be, a strong indication that my hopes are misplaced. It turns out to be a set of prayers Hauerwas wrote and then prayed to open his classes on Christian ethics. I’m looking forward to studying them because they deliberately address God in plain, unpious language, and I’m hoping to more easily see the core of prayer without having to adjust for floweriness and pretense.

In his preface Hauerwas makes a penetrating observation about conventional approaches to prayer.

Notice, for example, how in spite of our best intentions our attention wanders when someone “drops” into the pious tones and set formulas we associate with saying a prayer. That we find it hard to listen, I suspect, is because the “holiness” associated with prayer makes the attitude of prayer more important than the words we way. All that matters is someone is praying. As a result, prayer becomes an emotive exercise that only confirms our anthropocentric needs.

Yup. I tend to tune out of spontaneous corporate prayer exactly because I expect it to be anything but the one thing it is meant to be, speaking to God. I’ve been preached to in prayers, heard sermons recapped, listened to recitations of poor health or difficult circumstances being endured by fellow parishioners, endured political opinions, been reminded of upcoming social events—but rarely overheard someone speaking to God in a natural manner, either individually or on behalf of the group. But I like to think it’s possible. Hauerwas offers the prayers in this book as examples of his own efforts to do exactly that, and so I’m looking forward to seeing exactly how he does that.

Good Prose, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

I really like this book! I have a weakness for jumping on recommendations from readers I trust, and so when I saw that Cindy Rollins had mentioned it favorably at Goodreads, and that one of the writers was Tracy Kidder, whose books I’ve read and enjoyed (and admired) in the past, I found a used copy on AbeBooks and ordered it.

Above I deliberately wrote “like” rather than “liked” because I’m nowhere near done with it yet, even though I finished it this morning. The book is delightfully short, only 180 pages of generously sized and spaced print, and the graceful writing carries the reader along at a steady clip. But it is also a marvelous thing, a concrete example of what it describes—sustained non-fiction writing that is carefully written and judiciously edited. And as such you can learn the lessons it teaches not just by hearing things the writers (one a journalist, the other his long-time editor) have to say, but also by studying the way they choose to present those things. I’ve said before that Neil Postman’s writing frequently astonishes me when it is especially lucid, conveying a profund thought directly and without writerly interference. The content of this book is not of that order, but the writing sure is.

One of my own rules for writing is: if you can’t provide at least one concrete example, your claim is suspect. So here is an excerpt worth looking at closely from the chapter on Style. A section called “The New Vernacular” begins this way:

Writing in the vernacular has produced some of the glories of American prose. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” said Hemingway, celebrating that distinctive strain in our writing that makes the diction and rhythm of common speech into art. From Huck to Holden Caufield and beyond, the vernacular has been the expression of youthfulness, both literally and in the broader sense of freshness and impatience with convention.

Of course the unconventional can become conventional, and quickly too, and that seems to have happened in the new vernacular. An aggressive informality infects contemporary prose. The internet has helped to spread it; informality is the natural voice of the blogger.

They next quote a breezy bit of writing from a well-known blog (you can easily conjure up your own, so I won’t reproduce it here), and go on to say:

This is fun and highly readable. Like its antecedents, the new vernacular represents a democratic impulse, an antidote to vanity and literary airs. It’s friendly, it’s familiar. But familiar in both senses. The new vernacular imitates spontaneity but sounds rehearsed. It has a franchised feel, like the chain restaurant that tells its patrons “You’re family.”

The thought that ends that passage justifies the book for me, a clear statement of a problem I was aware of but only intuitively, clear enough not only to enable identification in the wild but also to avoid the problem in one’s own writing. And that’s not all! The writers reach that height in only one page. How did they do it? It’s instructive to look at the passage in extreme detail to find out how—sentence length, word choice, thoughts per paragraph, thought sequence, and so on.

What I’ve quoted is enough to make my point, but I can’t resist quoting the final paragraph of this two page (!) section.

Breeziness has become for many the literary mode of first resort, a ready-to-wear means to seeming fresh and authentic. The style is catchy, and catching, like any other fashion. Writers should be cautious with this or any orther stylized jauntiness—especially young writers, to whom the tone tends to come easily. The colloquial writer seeks intimacy, but the discerning reader, resisting that friendly hand on the shoulder, that winning grin, is apt to back away.

This is a good example of the depths Good Prose manages to plumb, and how. They appreciate and demonstrate the power and attraction of this technique, but they also know full well that it has gone very wrong in contemporary writing, and how, and what the hidden motivations behind it are, and that discerning readers will easily detect the wrongness of it and be put off by it. And the lesson is embedded in prose that is just the opposite—clear, genuine, packed with content, carefully constructed for the reader’s benefit.

Good Prose is not really a manual. The subtitle is “Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing”, and that approach is what makes the book especially valuable. Rather than trying to be comprehensive, the writers focus on important aspects of writing nonfiction where they actually have something to say, and then say those things at whatever length is appropriate, sometimes as observations, sometimes as analysis of excerpts from other writes, sometimes as illustrative anecdotes taken from their own experiences with writing and editing, sometimes as pronouncements, sometimes as hard-won advice. It’s all good.

One disappointment was the chapter on essay writing, the space most of my writing occupies—not because it isn’t good, but because it is so short! However, the reason is contained in the chapter itself, where they indicate that essays are weird because they are built on a nonfiction frame with some of the normal constraints relaxed, leading to uncategorizable results. I won’t elaborate on this because I’m still trying to put their own observations with my own experience. But the good news is that the rules of other sorts of non-fiction writing are still to be honored—if only in the breech.

One other mild disappointment is the short chapter called “Art and Commerce”, where they say a few things about the realities of writing for money. Kidder and Todd have been at this since the early 70s, so they are long steeped in a New York-centered publisher/agent/writer model of book production, a model that may not be obsolete but seems to have disappeared for technological and economic reasons (some of the stories they tell about their collaboration sound like legends from a distant past). The stretch from 2010-2014 saw the old model upset by a new one in which self-publishing and ebooks play a central role, and they have nothing to say about this (the book was published in 2013). Still, the chapter is harmless if you ignore the hints that you, young writer, need to get an agent and an editor at an established publishing house.

I’ll end with the final words of Cindy’s review, which I agree with:

My own writing seems to be more of the off the cuff blog type but I would love to see what would happen if I began to tediously rewrite.

This book also made me want to read more works that have been tediously rewritten.

Good Prose is one of those tediously rewritten books, and I’ll be re-reading it closely.

Adjustments

I’m just back from a three-week visit to my dad in El Paso. The current pattern is three weeks every three months, and that seems comfortable. His overall health is excellent right now, and so my visits are mostly for company—but that may be the most important reason, in sickness or in health.

I got the idea to try out a standing desk just before I left for El Paso, and ordered the IKEA supplies to be delivered both here and there, so boxes awaited me on my return and I’ve spend the first day back reconfiguring my office. Well, reconfiguring in a purely functional way—the new setup is organizationally a mess. But I have a computer desk to stand at, and a separate computer desk/work area to sit at—the laptop I travel with is the computer there, and I finally have file synchronization working to the point where I can easily move between the two computers, even in the middle of a task. And I have a reading chair as well, an ancient but still serviceable Danish recliner.

Somewhere I read of a large corporation (Microsoft?) which, whenever it built a large multi-building campus, put off installing sidewalks connecting the buildings for a year or more. At that point, they would look to see where folks had worn paths in the grass, then pave those over. Smart! I look at this current arrangement in the same way. Now that all these ways of doing things are available, I will spend a few months using them, then look at my actual usage patterns while I think about an arrangement suitable for the space, which will be walled in this fall.

Also waiting for me on my return were the books I ordered while away—I’m always stumbling across references to interesting reading, and if it’s unavailable or too expensive on the Kindle, I turn to AbeBooks and can usually find what I want for a few dollars.

One of the books in the stack was a brand-new copy of Esther Gokhale’s 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. It is a bit pricey by my miserly standards, but not overpriced–the photos are an important part of the content, and so it is good to have them in a nicely produced format. So far I’ve only had time to read through it casually, but it inspired a few thoughts I think are worth writing down.

First, I like her approach to the topic, which very much reminded me of Weston Price’s book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Wondering about some troubling consequence of modern living? Why not take a look at folks who still live a pre-modern life—while you still can!—in search of differences that might explain the consequence? Weston Price wondered why people’s teeth were suddenly rotting in their heads, suspected it had something to do with changes in diet, and traveled the world in search of people still eating in a pre-modern way.

Similarly, Gokhale wondered at the dramatic increase in reports of back pain during the 20th century, but rather than looking at moderns and trying to guess what might be the culprit, she went in search of pre-moderns and looked for difference in how they sat, stood, and walked. Price’s book is especially charming because of the photos which compare the teeth of moderns and pre-moderns—so, lots of photos of people smiling! And Gokhale’s book is full of photos of pre-moderns sitting, standing, and walking—in places where folks still live that way, and from years gone by when all of us used to do the same (she places the transition in the early 20th century, when it suddenly became fashionable to pose in a new, slumped manner). There is something mysteriously good and satisfying in looking at the photos of people doing it right.

Perhaps what I like best about Gokhale’s approach is that it is very sensible and modest. Even in this time of buzz about “sitting is the new smoking,” she points out that, hey, moderns didn’t invent sitting. In fact, there are common tasks in traditional cultures that require extended sitting—and yet folks in those cultures are able to endure extended sitting comfortably and without pain. And so she suggests that, rather than avoiding and even stigmatizing certain behaviors, we focus instead on how to better do the things we do. Sit better. Stand better. Walk better.

Another bit of wisdom built into her approach is finding ways to experience benefits by making adjustments in everyday activities. For example, she is big on the importance of lengthening the spine so as to decompress it, giving discs the opportunity to rest, realign, rehydrate, etc. She’s not the only one, of course, and there are contraptions you can buy (such as inversion tables) which will do this for you. But Gokhale’s thinking says, Why buy an ugly and expensive piece of furniture which only benefits you during the short period you set aside for using it, when you can find a way to sit which will give you the same benefit for the whole time you’re sitting? And so she suggests a technique for sitting in a chair which extends your spine, something you can do as you sit down to do your work (and re-do in just a few seconds if you notice you’ve drifted out of that posture).

I like this, because it fits with my own main reason for wanting to switch over to a standing desk–if there is an adjustment I can make to my primary daily activity which will increase the rate at which I burn calories, then making the adjustment will be way more profitable than trying to add a new activity to do the same thing. An hour of cardio exercise might also do it, but I need to find additional time for it, I won’t enjoy it for its own sake, and I will likely find excuses to drop it after a stretch. But making an acceptable adjustment to something I already do, and do a lot, is not only more likely to stick, it will provide its benefits continuously and for extended periods.

This isn’t to say that adjustments are easy. In fact, I think they are harder than adding a new activity to experience the same benefit, because with the latter approach you have the additional tool of “toughing it out”—perhaps an hour of cardio or hot yoga is less acceptable, but you can convince yourself to push through since it will be over and done with at some point. But changing the way you sit, or switching over to a standing desk, presents you with the challenges differently—this is how things are going to be from now on if I make this adjustment, so I either need to figure out how to deal with the change or admit that it won’t be happening.

This sort of thinking has also been helpful to me during my recent efforts to lose weight, which I view not as a diet, e.g. something that needs to be toughed out until done, but as an adjustment in how I eat. It’s been eight months now, and I don’t feel like I’m enduring anything, or long for the day when I reach my target weight. I am anticipating the day I reach my target weight, because at that point I will need to add somewhere around 1000 calories to my daily menu, and that will be interesting (and pleasurable!). But I also feel that, if somehow it turned out to be necessary, I could continue eating as I currently do for the rest of my life. I’ve successfully adjusted my way of eating.

Tolstoy for the win!

For the past few weeks I’ve been reading Anna Karenina (again, but for the first time in forty years), and will probably have a few things to say about it when I finish. But I need to give immediate kudos to a passage I just read in Part Eight, Chapter Eight, where Levin reflects on his religious awakening:

From that moment when, at the sight of his beloved brother dying, Levin had looked at the questions of life and death for the first time trhough those new convictions, as he called then, which imperceptibly, during the period from twenty to thirty-four years of age, had come to replace his childhood and adolescent beliefs, he had been horrified, not so much at death as at life without the slightest knowledge of whence it came, wherefore, why, and what it was.

The organism, its decay, the indestructibility of matter, the law of the conservation of energy, development, were the words that had replaced his former faith. These words and the concepts connected with them were very well suited to intellectual purposes, but they gave nothing for life, and Levin suddenly felt himself in the position of a person who has traded his warm fur coat for muslin clothing and, caught in the cold for the first time, is convinced beyond question, not by reasoning but by his whole being, that he is as good as naked and must inevitably die a painful death.

From that moment on, though not accounting for it to himself and continuing to live as before, Levin never ceased to feel that fear at his ignorance.

Moreover, he felt vaguely that what he called his convictions were not only ignorance but were a way of thinking that made the knowledge he needed impossible.

Levin is fortunate enough to recognize that his modern, sophisticated view of the world is not only inadequate but in fact prevents him from seeing the world as it actually is. How to escape such a philosophical dead end? Only by the grace of God, of course. And in Levin’s case that grace took the form of humility, at least enough to recognize that his convictions had failed him.

It’s hard enough to accurately discern God’s economy without the added obstacle of confidence in our convictions! But I know from direct, repeated experience that Tolstoy is exactly right.

Tomorrowland

I am always excited to know that Brad Bird is doing another movie. I loved The Incredibles and Ratatouille, thoroughly enjoyed The Iron Giant and Ghost Protocol. And especially after reading this Q&A with director-writer Bird and co-writer Damon Lindhof (the guy responsible for Lost), I really want to see Tomorrowland.

If you don’t have the time or interest to read the Q&A, the important point is that Bird and Lindhof saw that since Planet of the Apes all storytelling about the future has been dystopian. So why not make a movie that is optimistic about the future? The prospect of an optimistic future doesn’t excite me—but the prospect of a different kind of story does!

And these two trailers just fuel my enthusiasm.

Trolling, BS, and detection of such

Jeff Atwood offers a nice explanation of trolling on the internet, and offers some diagnostics:

in any discussion that has a purpose other than gladiatorial opinion bloodsport, the most telling question you can ask of anyone is this: Why are you here?

Did you join this discussion to learn? To listen? To understand other perspectives? Or are you here to berate us and recite your talking points over and over? Are you more interested in fighting over who is right than actually communicating? […]

In other words, are you here in good faith?

Atwood points out that the origin of the term troll is not fairy tales or Tolkien, but fishing. And so it surprised me when he phrases his advice as “Don’t feed the trolls”, rather than extending the metaphor by saying “Don’t take the bait”. I like the second version better because it reminds us that the purpose of an internet troll is to bait his readers.

I also like the diagnostic question “Are you here in good faith?” I just read Harry Frankfurt’s short booklet “On Bulls—“—twice!—and was struck by the writer’s observation that what distinguishes BS from lying or other forms of deception is its flagrant disregard for the truth, i.e. it is less common but just as easy to heap up a pile of BS from truth statements as from false, what matters is that the BSer has a different motive than conveying meaning to the hearer. Trolling is different than BSing, but it seems to share the property of employing communication for purposes other than communicating.

Millennials are also often described as having finely tuned BS detectors, usually by those who worry professionally about how to get them inside the doors of a church, and in their case I think the description is correct—they quickly turn away from heaps of wordy hoohah motivated by goals other than straightforward communication of meaning. I think this is a skill worth cultivating.

Standing desk, core exercises

Be forewarned, here comes another where-I’m-at-right-now post. I’m inclined to avoid this sort of writing. But then again, I’ve learned many helpful things from others who took the time and trouble to write down the details of their own experiences. So in case you are dealing with posture issues, or back pain, or low metabolism, read on!

Ever since my bout with rheumatoid arthritis (started in 1988, ended in 1999 or so) I’ve dealt with chronic low-level aches and pains—the arthritis is gone now, but it caused lasting joint damage during its stay. And so it’s often hard for me to tell whether particular pains are beyond remedy, or perhaps warning signs of other bad behaviors that could be corrected. But lately I’ve been paying more attention to my overall health, looking for places to make obvious small improvements, thinking about how to slow or stop various age-related downward slides, maybe even turn some around.

For a few months I’ve worried that sitting for long periods was becoming more uncomfortable for me. Which had me paying more notice to the latest fad claiming that “sitting is the new smoking”. And reading more closely whenever another item about standing desks showed up in my feed. One of those mentioned that standing desks were one way to increase one’s NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis—basically, one’s default rate of burning calories—and since I was already wondering why (and annoyed that) my sedentary-lifestyle NEAT was so low, I decided to give the standing desk a try.

I’ll leave aside the geekier details of standing desk options, since those are easy to find online. I opted for the $22 IKEA hack, perfect for an experiment—inexpensive, easy to assemble, easy to add to your current desk arrangement. And the good news, for those without a nearby IKEA store, is that the items can be ordered online for only $10 shipping. One thing not clear from the article, though, is that the legs of the side table are hollow, meaning there isn’t much wood for the screws to grab when you mount the shelf brackets. Someone else suggested bolts long enough to go entirely through the leg, secured with a nut and washer on the far side. This is what I did; it works well, and the hardware cost about $2 at Lowe’s.

Notes on setup:

  • I set the keyboard shelf so that when my forearms rest on it my elbows are at a 90 degree angle. My forearms are always touching the shelf, but the shelf edge does not cut into them at all.

  • I raised my monitor by stacking books underneath, about 2 inches worth. The top of my monitor is about even with my eyes. I try not to incline my head while looking at the monitor.

  • I use an anti-fatigue mat, which is essential for me. I was standing on it either barefoot or in sock feet, but my feet were getting cold! I picked up a cheap pair of sandals with thick soles, and now alternate between those and bare/sock feet.

  • In El Paso I use my laptop as my primary computer, with an external monitor. The laptop is sitting to my left side, on the desktop, with the screen tilted so I can see it while standing and use it as a second screen. There is a chair in front of it, so that I can sit down for a rest and still continue working. At home I will use two side tables for the two monitors connected to my desktop computer, and will probably have a separate desk where I can sit at the laptop to do work.

  • I bought a folding child’s stepstool, 9 inches tall, which lives in front of the anti-fatigue mat. I occasionally rest one or the other foot on it, as a way of shifting my position while standing.

You can imagine multiple physical issues will arise when making the transition from sitting to standing while doing deskwork. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience over the past ten years standing for long stretches, sometimes for three hours straight, while performing music with Chris. So I’m already able to spend significant time standing, and am confident that I will be able to make the adjustment.

The more interesting challenge is to “get into the zone” while standing. After 40 years or so I have a strong association between deep thinking and extended sitting, which needs to be broken. But being absorbed by the task while standing is not as difficult as I expected, and so I expect that practice will make up the difference. And luckily I’m at a point in my work where there are no large tasks requiring extended attention, just a laundry list of smaller ones that I can attend to as time and energy permit, with rests in between as needed. This entire post is being written at one go while standing, and this is the fifth day of the experiment. It took about an hour.

It’s no surprise that extended periods of standing made my lower back pain worse. So I started thinking about that. And when a friend mentioned that faithful engagement in “core exercises” had helped his own lower back pain quite a bit, I looked into that. These are definitely my kind of exercises, more a matter of stretching than working up a sweat. I began doing some of these in the morning: partial crunches, hamstring stretches, press-up back extensions, bird dog, knee to chest, pelvic tilts. The difference is remarkable. Where I used to spend 30-60 minutes in the morning babying myself to simply stand upright, the 20 minutes I spend on these leaves me feeling almost normal. The knee to chest exercise is particularly good for my pain, and when my back begins to ache during the day I spend a few minutes engaged in it and am refreshed.

All this together has me thinking about posture, something I’ve always neglected because it hasn’t much mattered—sitting is sitting. But now I’m looking into better ways to stand, and to walk. More on that if and when I find them.