Monthly Archives: January 2014

“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins

I read this for a discussion group. Not the whole book, just chapter five, entitled “The Roots of Religion”. The framework here is evolution, both biological and cultural. I’m comfortable discussing biological evolution, since my life is full of biologists and the natural world is a major source of entertainment and enjoyment for all of us. I think evolutionary theory is sound. Cultural “evolution” is another story.

First of all, Dawkins tells us that all human cultures have religion. I’ve been under the impression that Confucianism and Taoism are better described as philosophies, since they don’t rely on the supernatural and don’t “guarantee” life after death. I’m sure Dawkins deals with this someplace.

Dawkins attitude towards religion is negative and condescending to an extreme. He thinks “believers” are totally irrational. Most of my friends in the discussion found this annoying and felt Dawkins damaged his case by being so unpleasant. One person found him “bracing”. Maybe we need some relief from having to treat ALL religious viewpoints with careful respect. Some ARE “better” than others.

Dawkins takes a big leap when he treats cultural “memes” as self replicating and therefore just like genes. I’ve barely grasped the concept of memes. There’s no way I can grant the idea of “cultural evolution” the same status as the contemporary, very well developed and useful theory of biological evolution.

A few days ago, I watched and participated in a “religious” event, a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. Can something so complex, enduring and moving be categorized as a “meme”? Not by me. No, I don’t believe every word of it. I don’t expect to be “raised incorruptible”. But there’s room in my life for mystery and for aesthetic appreciation, and in ways I can’t explain, for belief.


“Bringing Nature Home – How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens” by Douglas Tallamy

This is a review not just of this book but also of a lecture by the author presented on January 27, 2014. It wasn’t the first time I had the pleasure of hearing Douglas Tallamy speak.

To those frightened by what’s happening to our planet and discouraged about the limited impact an individual can have, Tallamy offers practical advice and hope in an important arena, the preservation of wildlife through careful landscaping decisions. Many of us own a yard , and even a small patch of ground can provide host plants that attract butterflies and moths. These lay eggs which hatch into caterpillars that are a vital food supply for breeding songbirds.

Interesting questions came up after Tallamy had showed his gorgeous slides of butterflies and birds.

How far will insects travel to get to a desirable host plant? Pretty far! Tallamy cited an enclosed (urban?) courtyard only 15 by 15 feet that developed healthy insect populations a few years after native plants were established. He has found a few surprises in his own back yard in Delaware, which is one of his primary sites for scientific study.

Is it helpful to feed birds? Yes, but feeding should be restricted to winter unless you can keep everything very clean. Summer feeding can, unfortunately, spread disease.

Tallamy issued some stern warnings. Sadly, the monarch butterfly population “is crashing”. People need to know “how close to the edge we are” in terms of species extinctions of insects and birds.

BUT landscaping with native species can make a BIG difference! Bring on the Virginia creeper and plant oak trees and wild cherries. Reduce your lawn and plant flowers, shrubs and trees. It will look beautiful and be less work.

I’ve moved towards the encouragement of native species in my yard. I carefully protect holly trees and whack out autumn olive. I planted birch trees last year.

One more thing – Bringing Nature Home contains beautiful photographs. They make lovely browsing for any idle moment.

“Father Joe – The Man Who Saved My Soul” by Tony Hendra

An autobiography, without compulsive detail. We never learn, for example, when and how Hendra’s mother died. No filial sentiment is expressed – she is described as “slapping kids around”. What she wants in life is a refrigerator. Considering the austerity of life in post WWII Britain, it is an understandable goal.

To me, the surprising meat on this plate was Hendra’s discussions of humor. A young man whose passions were total and extreme, he switched (in one cataclysmic night!) from determination to save himself through Benedictine contemplation to trying to “save the world through humor”. His description of one night at the theatre watching Oxford University’s best and brightest satirize every British habit and foible is priceless.

The book is balanced between documentation of his relationship with Father Joe, who loved him unreservedly, his relationship to work (the creative world of film, theater, writing, etc.) and his disasterous failures at love and parenthood. One can’t help being concerned that the “happy family” ending may be sentimentalized, but the man is entitled to privacy.

Hendra’s description of celebrating Easter with the Benedictines is the best modern description of religious ecstasy that I have read. It expresses boundless belief and joy. “God was alive and so was I!”

A wonderful book! It wouldn’t have worked as fiction, but is precious as personal history. 

A Trip to the Library – Part 2 – choosing books

My last post was a tangent… I meant to write about choosing books during my last trip to the Library. I finally went to the Library because, after a long stint of waiting for plumber in a building where (no kidding) the copper plumbing had been stolen, I really needed a bathroom. The Library seemed like a better bet than the local coffee shop. When I realized my schedule would actually permit me to loiter in the Library for 20 minutes, I was happy!

I started at the “New Fiction” shelf, and realized I have a problem choosing fiction! All kinds of things put me off. If something is part of a series, will I lose out because I’m starting in the middle? Is it “too violent”? (I’m a sensitive soul…) Too gritty? Stupid cover artwork? Yada, yada…

So what did I grab?

  • Courting Greta by Ramsey Hootman. (I shouldn’t limit myself to female authors.)
  • Moonrise – a novel by Cassandra King. But I wish the author didn’t feel a need to tell me it’s “a novel”. New York Times bestselling author?!
  • The Tudor Conspiracy – a novel by C W Gortner. (Groan!) I’m a sucker for this period of history. I’ve read tons of Philippa Gregory’s books. And basically, I know how it will end.
  • American Mirror – The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. I practically grew up with Rockwell. Oh, the comfort of those Saturday Evening Post covers!

Biography has often been my reading salvation. When my brain isn’t up to “serious” nonfiction and I’m saturated with fiction or have been reading junk, biography will clear my head. I can put it down and pick it later if distracted. One thread I pursued was biographies of ballet dancers, like Gelsey Kirkland and Suzanne Farrell. (I wonder where they – the women, not the books – are now.) 

If YOU read one of the books I borrowed, what did you think? I’ll post about these books if I finish them.

Meanwhile, I’ve decided I need to get organized and start a list of recommended fiction. If you have a favorite book or author of fiction, please let me know!




A Trip to the Library

Okay, I admit it. I have gone to the Library less frequently since getting my Kindle. There isn’t actually any library on my daily orbit. The two public libraries (branches of our County Library System) are located 2 miles west and 5 miles east of home. Each has its charms, and my workplace (a public college) also has a Library.

The Library to the east of me is a big, busy place with an odd history. It started as a Township library full of donated books in the municipal building, but that burned down around 1982. Whatever was salvaged was moved to the basement of the Catholic school nearby. That space had no windows and lots of overhead pipes. It was very easy bang my head. The stairs were treacherous, but this was before ADA. Some time around then, the Township joined the County Library System, which promised an upgrade. The first upgrade was a rented “office” type space. It was so small, if I saw more than six cars in the parking lot, I just drove on. I knew the Library would be uncomfortably crowded. There was just one table to use for story hours, discussion groups, etc. My prime memory of this site is that I discovered the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. It was in the adult fiction section, but I read it to my kids. Very funny! A few years later, the County delivered on it’s promise of a new building. It’s beautiful, with a BIG children’s section and plenty of space for high schoolers to do homework. Literacy volunteers confer with their clients. A small auditorium is used for public events, like flu shots. Looking at the new Library, I felt that maybe our Township was finally a “real place”.

The Library located west of me is smaller. It’s been open for about 10 years, but the building might be 80 years old. It was built as a bank. I don’t know how many years it was closed. I love it! Reflecting the community, many titles are in Spanish. The “new arrivals” shelves are so crowded that there’s just one chair on each side, for the browsers of new fiction and new non-fiction. The computers are located in the old bank vault. I see kids working on homework. It’s a cheerful place, though a tight fit.

The third library, at the college where I work, is centrally located and reasonably convenient for everyone except the employees in security and facilities, where I labor. Driving over is a bad bet (parking issues) and sometimes I’m not in the mood for the 20 minute walk. But it’s worth it when I get there! I haunt the New Arrivals shelves and the Recreational Reading section. The Library has been expanded three times since I arrived in 1975, and it has been colonized by various offices and academic centers. But it’s got the stacks and tables and quiet atmosphere I enjoy. Like most colleges and many libraries, the place is having an identity crisis. What does it mean to be a library in the internet age? Whatever happened to “shhhh…”? Can millenials be separated from their coffee? What do students read? DO they read? Should the Library be transformed into a “learning commons”, like some universities have done? My friends on the staff tell me that Library use is down, and if people don’t start using the Recreational Reading section, it will disappear. I obligingly take at least six books every time I stop in, even if I know I won’t read them all.

So those are my libraries. Each is important to me! The Kindle is great, can’t beat it for travel, but it’s not going to take over my reading life.

“Fair Game – How a Top CIA Agent Was Betrayed by Her Own Government” by Valerie Plame Wilson

I read this book because Valerie Plame Wilson’s “outing” was one of the case histories dissected in “Tangled Webs” by James Stewart, which I reviewed a few days ago, on January 8, 2014.

The CIA does it’s work using a very wide range of employees, from clerks to analysts to “operatives”, whom most of us would call spies. Valerie Wilson was one of their very few undercover spies. This is a spy whose existence may be denied if things go wrong. She was provided with complex “cover”, including employment that made her presence in her target country plausible. When her identity and CIA employment were revealed, it put her and others into danger.

This book is an amalgam. Wilson wrote her story, which was then subject to CIA review. It is heavily redacted (censored). This is not the first redacted book I have read. In this case, the punctuation “… ” showed up wherever text was removed. Sometimes chapter titles were redacted. I prefer the blackout technique. Then you can tell whether you are missing just a few words or whole paragraphs.

In addition to Wilson’s battered text, the book includes transcripts from hearings and an extensive article by journalist Laura Rozen which fills in much of the redacted material. The CIA and courts decided that material already in the public domain (in news articles) could not be discussed by Wilson. Wilson was not, for example, permitted to say how long she worked for the CIA. But the CIA couldn’t stop the editor from including relevant news articles.

Censorship aside, what about the book? Both V P Wilson and her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson are interesting people. They played in the big leagues. Valerie Wilson had a high tolerance for risk.

The book is inherently political. So is the CIA, and that’s scary. OK, so why do we need such a branch of government? Well, other governments are spying on us. We have enemies. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were fewer obvious enemies, but international terrorism began to heat up. Nuclear proliferation remained a threat. So did “rogue states”.

How does this get to be SO political? George Bush wanted to go to war with Iraq, and he needed justification. If Saddam Hussein was rapidly increasing his ability to wage nuclear or biological warfare, that would do it. Bush went “around” the CIA and cited British reports that Hussein had tried to buy uranium ore from Niger. Colin Powell got on the bandwagon, and America went to war. The weapons of mass destruction were not found. THEY WEREN’T THERE. Hussein, who had very little going for him, managed to convince his own people and the world that he had them. Aside from the earlier “yellow rain” use in Kurdistan (not to be minimized), it was all bluster. What a colossal tragedy!

This is a “piece of the puzzle” type book. You wouldn’t want it as your only source of information (on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq), but it is well worth reading. And all of us need to know how our tax dollars are being spent, at the CIA and other federal agencies.

I plan to read Joseph Wilson’s memoir.

“Tangled Webs – How false statements are undermining America: from Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff” by James B Stewart

This is a very “journalistic” book. I read it with a touch of schadenfreude re Martha Stewart.

In addition to the two public figures named in the title, Steward discusses “Scooter” Libby and Barry Bonds. By way of review (public scandals fade fast!)…

  • Martha Stewart is a “business magnate, writer and television personality” (thanks, Wikipedia) who was convicted of perjury in a stock trading case. She was jailed for five months.
  • “Scooter” Libby was an advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney who leaked the identity of CIA operative (spy) Valerie Plame. (Or did he protect the person who leaked the information?) He was convicted of perjury and disbarred from the practice of law.
  • Barry Bonds was a top baseball player who testified that he never knowingly took steroids. He was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.
  • Bernie Madoff ran a colossal Ponzi scheme and was convicted of several kinds of fraud plus perjury, money laundering, and theft. He will be in jail for the rest of his life.

This book deals specifically with PERJURY, the crime of lying UNDER OATH. It examines not just what these people did wrong, but the lies they told in their attempts to cover up.

One lesson – if you are in the wrong, it is better to be silent than to lie. (Witness the recent Casey Anthony trial. She never testified. She was exonerated, mostly because of lack of evidcence. The circumstances of her child’s death have not been clarified.)

The book discusses the question of “truth vs loyalty”. Does loyalty to your employers mean you must lie to protect them? IF you make that choice, what if anything does the employer owe you in return? This is discussed in the chapters about Martha Stewart Inc. (We really aren’t talking about an individual here.)

The “Scooter” Libby case involved responsibility for a “leak” which destroyed a career. Interestingly, President Bush (Senior) said he wanted to know the truth about the leak, but eventually he declined to act on it.

You could read any one segment of this book and the author’s conclusion, and gain important insight into the question of WHY TRUTH MATTERS.

Celebrating the Season

I set a personal record over the Christmas holiday – I participated in “religious” events at six different locations during a two week period! (I didn’t plan this.)

The Saturday before Christmas was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. A friend organized an event based on the labyrinth, a tool for walking prayer/meditation from the Christian traditions of Europe. Our labyrinth was outlined with CANDLES. This was a first time, seat of the pants, open-to-the-public event. I helped with the set up, in a field next to the local volunteer fire hall. The organizer picked a spot and started to lay out the labyrinth pattern with cord. We helpers opened white paper bags, put in sand and tea lights (votive candles). The afternoon was breezy, and we worried that a strong gust of wind could disrupt the whole project. By 5 pm we had done what we could (assembled over 500 luminaria!) and scattered for dinner. When we returned, the wind had dropped, it was still warm for December, and the candles were being lighted. I was the first to step into the labyrinth, and I wondered what would happen if I made a mistake and led the whole line astray… But the candlelight was bright enough for me to see the cord on the ground. When I reached the center and started back out, I relaxed. Friends and neighbors were walking quietly, happily… We had been encouraged to concentrate on renewal and transformation. Celtic music added to the atmosphere. Emerging, I stood and absorbed the sheer beauty of what had been created. The candles flickered warmly. The labyrinth was a circle of light in a dark, quiet night. I was reminded of campfires I have enjoyed, but the candles cast a much gentler light. I could look up and enjoy the stars. For an event that only been very casually advertised, a good number of people came, maybe 75. And many more said they wished they had known about it, or that it had fit their schedules.

The next day, the Sunday before Christmas, I was in my usual place, at the small Quaker meeting I have attended for many years. Our worship is unprogrammed and based on silence. Nobody has to create an Order of Service or write a sermon. I always enter feeling expectant, because I don’t know who may speak or what subject may arise. We have our “customs”…

  • allow silence before and after each spoken message,
  • speak only once (unless you really MUST),
  • listen carefully (because you may hear the word of God).

Yes, people did speak. No, I’m not going to tell you what they said. After worship, we shared a potluck brunch. That’s as close as we came to a Christmas party this year. Simplicity.

Then I hit the road, fetching up in Boston in the company of family. On Christmas Eve, I wanted music, and the rest of my family was ready for food and TV or games. They walked me to Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church near Boston’s Public Garden, then left on the T (subway). The Church wasn’t open yet, so I strolled the upscale neighborhood, encountering the homeless as well as well as the wealthy.

Half an hour later, I settled into a box pew at the Arlington Street church, holding an unlighted candle. I grew up a Unitarian Universalist. Arlington Street, like the church of my childhood, is a relatively formal place. The service I attended was listed as a “family” event, and the families were there. So was a live lamb! The children were delighted. The service consisted of familiar readings and familiar music. The candles were lighted starting from the front of the church, and the lights were dimmed as the candlelight spread. We sang Silent Night in the darkened sanctuary. It was as magical as the evening services I remember from my childhood. As I left, the grandmother who had sat behind me apologized for her grandchildren’s “noisiness”, but I assured her I enjoyed their presence. They were much too cute to be a nuisance.

Next I went to an even bigger, cathedral sized church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, two blocks away. Again I was pleasantly greeted and provided with an Order of Service, which looked really long and included Communion, open to all. We sang and read our way through the Christmas story. There were a few unfamiliar hymns – which surprised me, since I sang in choirs for years and know the Protestant hymnology well! We stood for every single hymn. The program said “stand as you are able” and I thought about staying seated as my knees accelerated their protests. The officiants sometimes chanted, and there was a “gospeller” who sang and chanted from the Bible. Then came the special event that caused me to pick this church over other options – Bach! This church has a resident instrumental ensemble and a professional choir. The music, performed in setting not significantly different from the churches Bach wrote for, was ethereal, glorious, sweet beyond words. I closed my eyes and thought about angels.

When I left the Episcopal church, I considered returning to Arlington Street, which offered TWO more services featuring the Boston Gay Men’s Choir, a group with an excellent musical reputation. However, my family was keeping dinner warm for me, so I jumped on the T and headed for Allston. I had enough music in my head to satisfy my Christmas cravings.

Another Sunday came around… I was in Connecticut with my sister and her husband. They have two church affiliations, and we settled on “his”, a small Lutheran church in Hartford. Attendance seemed light, but the Pastor smiled and assured us that the turnout was excellent, as the preceding year’s Sunday-after-Christmas service had been attended by only eleven people! I looked around. There were at least 22 of us there, maybe even 33. I felt welcome and important. Our singing sounded strong for our numbers. The lay readers were teenagers. Usually coffee follows the service, but someone forgot. No coffee. As a member of a tiny congregation, I feel sympathy with this kind of screw up. Besides, Grace Lutheran has an astonishing record for feeding people. They serve dinner every Friday night to ANYONE WHO WALKS IN THE DOOR. The neighborhood is mixed. Some people are hungry. Some are lonely. Church members join in. When I visited a year ago, 25 or 30 people turned up. Many were “regulars”. The food was great.

And my sixth experience? This morning (as on most Saturdays) I went to yoga class at my local Hindu Temple. Because of the severe cold, we practiced, not upstairs in the usual drafty space, but downstairs in the sanctuary. This room, which might be 10% of the Temple, houses the gods. There are about 15 of them, of varying sizes, dressed in glorious colorful fabrics. Since my last visit to the sanctuary, the names of the gods have been posted. I practiced in front of Mma Sarasvatri. I used to think of the gods as “images”, but I’ve gradually learned they mean something more to the worshippers. Each god is a channel. When you look at a god, he or she LOOKS AT YOU. It’s a relationship. The sanctuary (in addition to being well heated) is a lovely place to practice yoga. A mantra runs on a continuous tape. Listening carefully, I think I was hearing 10 syllables, but I don’t know what it means. The room smells faintly of incense. Temple members come and go, performing their devotions. I relax, and leave feeling as if I have been on a vacation. I go to a distant country without buying an airline ticket. Thank you, Vaikunth Hindu Jain Temple, for making us welcome!

So,,, tomorrow I will be back at Quaker meeting, with music and ceremonies in my head. I will think about the people I visited, and wish them well.