Desert Training Camp One More Time

February 21, 2015

Arizona Sunrise

Since 2009 my winter schedule of activities has included a week of bicycling in southern Arizona. These rides have been conducted by PAC Tour—Pacific Atlantic Cycling Tours. The company is operated by Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo, husband and wife, who have long been central figures in intense, long distance cycling.

I first met Lon in the 1970s at a McDonald’s restaurant on the western edge of Columbus, Ohio. My teenage son Mike and I had spent Mother’s Day weekend cycling the 210-mile Tour of the Scioto River Valley—TOSRV—and were driving back home. Lon was already a celebrated figure among cyclists because of his major role in developing the recently established Race Across America—RAAM—and he had been guest of honor at that year’s TOSRV.

Lon’s name had drawn my attention to PAC Tour’s Desert Training Camp several years before I started riding with them. If I ever decide to ride with a touring company, I thought, PAC Tour would be the one to try.

The time did come when it became clear that my family and friends, and I myself, would feel more at ease if I were to transition from long solo trips to multi-day rides that included other people.

If done right, I told myself, these rides would be fun. These weeks with PAC Tour would acquaint me with parts of Arizona with which I was unfamiliar. I would meet interesting people. I would learn things about cycling and traveling by bike that I would not learn in any other way.

JulianWash in Tucson

JulianWash in Tucson

This next week will be my 7th or 8th trip with PAC Tour, and my hopes have been realized. The rides have been physically and mentally challenging. Friendships have been established with crewmembers and cyclists alike, and each year’s ride is like a reunion. I have experienced this part of Arizona in a new way. My abilities as a cyclist have been extended. These are the reasons I keep coming back.

This is the third time that I have come to Desert Training Camp thinking that it might be my last time. The fact is that at 83 years of age, I’m having trouble doing these rides at the level that satisfies my personal criteria. Like it or not (and I don’t like it), I’m aging out of PAC Tour rides. The rigor that drew me to this company in the first place is now pointing out that aging has its challenges that cannot be avoided.

This year’s ride still seems within my range. The daily distances range from 40 to 60 miles, just over half of the daily distance expected on some of the other weeks and events that PAC Tour sponsors. We’ll spend two consecutive nights in the same hotel in mid-week, which means that cyclists can take a day off if it will help them enjoy the week.

So, once again, here I am at Desert Training Camp for the last time. One reason for coming is that I really want to stay a night or two at the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee. Another reason is that I’m working on a book—Body Dissolving, Spirit Strong as Always: Open Road Cycling for People Past Seventy—and I hope that conversations this week will help me along.

There’s one more reason for doing this ride again. For much of this past year I have been dealing with chronic leg pains. My doctor and friends have helped me understand that the probable cause is muscular imbalance, but so far the course of action recommended has been less effective than I would like. A few days ago I found a book that gives the detailed explanation that I need and proposes a regimen of progressively more challenging stretches that strengthen the muscular core of a person’s body.

I’m reading the book and practicing the exercises. My hope is that conversations with other mature cyclists this week will push me forward in my new daily stretching pattern so that when I get home in mid-March, after this ride and a period of research, writing, and riding near Claremont, California, I will be on the way to the pain-free cycling I remember from earlier years.

Yellow Trailer

Learning about Life from the Desert People

February 19, 2015

Comments prompted by reading The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country by Gary Paul Nabham (New York: North Point Press, 1982; fifth printing 1997)

Desert Smells Like RainThis year’s winter bike trip in Arizona began on Ash Wednesday with a four hour flight from Portland’s 55-degree sun to Tucson’s 80-degree counterpart. For reading on the plane I chose Gary Paul Nabham’s 1982 classic The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country. I first read the book late in the 1990s, when we lived in Arizona, as part of my attempt to understand the history of civilizations that have flourished in North America’s deserts.

Nabham comes from a family of Lebanese descent, grew up in Gary, Indiana, came to Arizona for his college and graduate training, and has lived there ever since. As an ethnobiologist, he has devoted much of his adult life to studying the natural history of desert plants and animals and learning the wisdom traditions of contemporary Papago Indians, the Tohono O’odham or “Desert People.”

When I first read this book, I developed a deep appreciation for the agricultural tradition and wisdom about life in a harsh environment that had emerged in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and northern Mexico. That appreciation continues to grow as I reflect upon the increasingly destructive alternatives to living in desert lands that characterize the modern American way.

Since I have just completed writing an extensive literature review of books that detail the emerging crisis over water and that outline alternatives now facing developed societies all over the world, the traditional wisdom of America’s desert peoples provides a moment of respite from the despair I feel.

Their ways of adapting life so that it would flourish in a land of little rain are examples for people who have given too little attention to these matters. They can help us understand the agrarian principles of desert people in ancient times who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures; and they can encourage the new agrarians of our time, like Wendell Berry, who advocate a more natural way of living with nature.

To my surprise, The Desert Smells Like Rain ties in with other topics on which I am reading and thinking these days. In this book, Nabham describes conversations with Tohono O’odham people in their homes and villages, as he has traveled with them on pilgrimages, and when he has been privileged to be present at religious ceremonies usually off limits to any but their own people.

These aspects of the book remind me of features in a longer and more technical book, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder by William P. Brown. In this book, the author compares Biblical stories of Creation like the one told in Genesis 1 with the discoveries and conclusions of scientists from our own time. There are important differences between biblical wisdom and scientific knowledge. What impresses me, however, is that the biblical writer who lived in close connection with the natural world, including the brilliant starry skies at night that few people in the cities ever see, came to insights that have remarkable resonances with technical theories by physicists.

Similarly, I see in desert folklore, as Nabham reports it, insights into the nature of things that in their own way can infuse more technical explanations with wisdom and wonder.

Another correspondence with current reading is quite surprising. A second book that I brought to read on this trip is Susanne K. Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Although the book was originally published in 1942 (when I was 11 years old), I bought my Mentor Paperback edition (for 75c) on May 10, 1967, in preparation for a nine-month sabbatical leave in Seattle.

This book, which Langer dedicated to “Alfred North Whitehead my great Teacher and Friend,” is second only to Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy, which was first published in 1945, in its influence upon my understanding of the nature and purpose of Christian worship. A new edition of Dix, by the way, is scheduled for publication this very month (February 2015).

Langer had studied myth and ritual extensively and understood them as important modes of symbolization. A blurb on the back over of my old Langer says of this book: “For the first time we have a theory which accounts satisfactorily for all forms of art and all art forms…” My previous reading of Langer was within the context of my knowledge of Christian forms of myth and ritual. By reading her theory within the context of Native American myth and ritual, I am helped to understand their wisdom and Langer’s theory.

As I have indicated in recent blogs, thinking about the journey is one of the best aspects of bicycle travel. During this year’s Desert Training Camp, the intellectual diet will be rich indeed. [Thanks to PAC Tour’s Susan Notorangelo who used her smart phone to create the image of Nabham’s book that appears above.]

Virtue, happiness, and riding a bike

February 14, 2015

Part 2 of a review of Neil Peart’s The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa.

Peart 2John Muir and Neil Peart were alike in two ways. When they took their long journeys—Muir on his walk from Indiana to Florida in 1867 and Peart on his bike ride in Cameroon 120 years later—each carried two books to read along the way, even though it was necessary to travel light.

Muir took the New Testament and poems of Robert Burns, and Peart Aristotle’s Ethics and Vincent van Gogh’s Dear Theo (letters to his brother).

The second similarity is that both men used their travels as the inspiration for thinking and writing books that interpreted the natural and cultural worlds they experienced.

In an earlier review of Peart’s book, The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, I gave a brief account of what he and four companions did from day to day as they spent a month traveling through remote sections of West Africa. The entire book is redolent with pungent observations of what Peart saw, heard, and thought.

Tucked away in this fascinating story are several sections, from a few paragraphs to a few pages in length, in which the author develops more extensive meditations as he comes to a fuller understanding of himself and the world around him. The two summarized below caught my attention.

Slow: a habit of mind and metaphor of life: Elsa was the one rider out of the group who seemed least able to develop a cycling rhythm that meshed with the others. David, the tour leader, felt obligated to linger behind with her as she slowly, awkwardly, stubbornly moved along, refusing to follow the examples set by the others who seemed better able to surmount the challenges of their trip.

Halfway through the book, Peart comments that because she was 60 years old Elsa “was fully entitled to be slower than the rest of us.” He then notes that being a slow rider “has nothing to do with strength or age; it can be a mental thing. . .At whatever speed, sensible riders choose their pace and stick with it, taking breaks at considered intervals, and if a hill is too steep they’ll walk up it. But they keep going.”

In contrast, he has noticed, slow riders “are often the last to be ready in the morning.” They dally at every stop and stop more often than necessary. The reason, he explains, is “a certain lack of focus, of sloppiness of mind [that] seems to carry over from their personalities to their cycling, and it slows them down” (122).

As an octogenarian cyclist, I understand that slowing down is an unavoidable adjustment caused by age-related bodily changes. With my doctor’s encouragement, I am learning how to let myself be slower than I used to be.

But as Peart makes clear, slowness as a habit of mind and metaphor for life—this kind of slowness, which I often see on my travels through life—is something to avoid, regardless of one’s age.

Happiness, virtue, and a mode for travel: In the busy, noisy, stifling streets of Bafoussam, Peart and his companions spent a night at a hotel where they “felt the benediction of hot water.” They showered, washed their clothes, and for the first time in two weeks were clean. They all looked happy.

“And with perfect synchronicity, I was reading about that very subject. ‘Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.’ Typical of Aristotle, it takes a book to expand on that terse maxim, but the main points eventually came clear to me” (171).

Peart acknowledges that virtue is a word now out of fashion and notes that some translators prefer excellence as the English equivalent to Aristotle’s Greek word. Whichever translation is used, he muses, “you wouldn’t call anyone happy because he experienced a momentary pleasure, or laughed once, or had one hot shower in two weeks. Happiness takes time, in a real sense. It’s not the prize you win, but the way you ride the bike.”

Putting Aristotle aside, Peart proposes that excellence is doing something well, whether it be “playing the piano, tuning an engine, planting a garden, making tortellini, or just plain living. And that would be perfectly in tune with my understanding of Aristotle’s meaning—“Happiness is excellent living” (172).

Peart acknowledges the fragile foundation of happiness-virtue, and recites a period early in his career as musician. The “small-change gigs were over, and there was no money and no more work.” He found himself willing to accept a little money from someone who befriended him even though Peart knew that the cash had been stolen from some “luckless petrol-station owner.” His conclusion, though unsettling, is closer to the truth than I like to admit.

“So, I have learned that my precious integrity is no less than a precious luxury. I have been fortunate (and stubborn) enough to be able to be honest, to be uncompromising, to pursue excellence. To ride a paved road.”

And to write a good book that rock musicians, classical music buffs like me, and cyclists of every kind can enjoy.

On the road with Jack Kerouac and Rosa Parks

February 12, 2015

A review of PostChristian: what’s left? can we fix it? do we care? by Christian Piatt (New York: Jericho Books, 2014)

PiattIn chapter two of this book, Christian Piatt describes his ambivalent response when as a young person he read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The first time through he was puzzled because “nothing actually ­happens in the story.”

More than a year later, Piatt realized that “the journey, and the adventures along the way, was the whole point. . .Once I surrendered to the idea that a story didn’t have to have good guys and bad guys, didn’t have to have a clear beginning, middle, and ending, didn’t have to conform to a predictable formula, I enjoyed On the Road” (11).

After proposing that “the journey itself is the point,” Piatt adopts a more conventional pattern to organize the next hundred pages. He sets up and discusses a series of contrasting vices and virtues that characterize power-bearing, theologically conservative, institution-bound churches. His exposition draws extensively upon the work of Bart D. Ehrman, John D. Caputo, and Peter Rollins. Following Rollins’ lead, Piatt is ready to let old systems and ideas burn away so that something new can come to life.

In chapters thirteen through seventeen, Piatt returns to his first metaphor and takes to the road once again. He describes growing up in a conservative denomination that emphasized the importance of memorizing Scripture and using it to keep sinners from going to Hell. “My daily decisions . . . were increasingly governed by fear and guilt rather than by love or a sense of what was right” (147).

The foundation of the Christianity in which he was reared was a God understood as “a terrible, jealous, ferocious creature [who] hungered for vengeance, called for the death of his innocent son, and condemned much of his own beloved creation to eternal suffering.” Piatt cites studies that show how this understanding of God is associated with “an increase in social anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsion. Conversely, belief in a benevolent God is associated with reductions in these four symptoms” (151).

He refers to other studies which indicate that nearly half of all Americans, irrespective of religious affiliation, “perceive God as fundamentally angry” (150). This theology also emphasizes suffering and death as the punishment we receive at the hands of an angry God. Consequently, Christians are “often poorly equipped to deal with people’s present fears, struggles, and suffering in effective ways,” and many people are afraid of death.

With Psalm 23 as his scriptural reference, Piatt continues his journey, writing that we would like “a way around the hard reality of dealing with our fears, a panacea that will make it all better. But in this Psalm, the darkness is still there, as is the evil all around. . .Rather than finding an easy way out, it’s about summoning the courage to make it through” (154).

He recounts other moments in his journey: a hiking trip in the Pecos Mountains when he was in junior high, experiences and insights drawn from a ministry with his wife in a new church designed to reach out to people like himself, and experiences in his family and others that show people struggling with the temptations and challenges of faith that are encountered in our society today.

During this part of the journey, Piatt gradually becomes aware of a cluster of theological ideas that are radically different from those that had been so damaging earlier in his journey. This new theological vision is brought into sharpest focus by Jesus who “was abandoned by all who claimed to love him. . . and taunted and tortured by figures of authority. All of this was because he refused to abandon his message of radical, empire-shaking love that stood firm in the face of any force, fear, or hate intent on destruction” (178).

Piatt points to the road ahead and encourages us to move forward boldly. In the process, he warns his readers that many things will change: ways of worship, patterns of association, understandings of the faith, and expectations of what happens when we die. Although we will never experience it fully, we will have glimpses here in this life of the kingdom of God breaking in upon us.

At this point in his story, Piatt tells his reader about the moment when he and his family discerned with new clarity that just up ahead of them there were other travelers, including Rosa Parks and a host of other ordinary Christians whom God had used “to change history, hopefully forever” (203). Piatt concludes his book by restating the theme of earlier chapters in the book, that Christians often get bogged down in the journey, teaching bad ideas, investing too much stock in institutions, and maintaining alliances with principalities and powers.

“Meanwhile, something calls us forward. Toward what, we’re not entirely sure. It’s a story only partially written and still in progress” (205). This sentence is a fine way to close a book that keeps looking at the road behind us and could be the organizing idea for another book, a book in which Piatt describes the landscape ahead and invites us to join him as we all take to the road again.

Christians and cruelty

February 5, 2015

I was attending a theological conference when news broke of the execution by burning that took place this week. Most of the others in the conference were pastors who would be leading worship on Sunday. Someone asked the question: “What should we do? How should we respond to this terrible event?”

My first response was that we need to remember that English-speaking Christians have done the same thing. For pastors, an important example is Thomas Cranmer, chief architect of the Book of Common Prayer, which probably has been second only to the King James Bible in shaping the language and rhythms of Christian faith, prayer, and practice in all of the English-speaking world.

According an online entry published by Encyclopedia Britannica, Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) was “the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury (1533–56), adviser to the English kings Henry VIII and Edward VI. As archbishop, he put the English Bible in parish churches, drew up the Book of Common Prayer, and composed a litany that remains in use today. Denounced by the Catholic queen Mary I for promoting Protestantism, he was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.”

American Christians can be especially grateful to Roger Williams who fled the England of that period, only to discover that a similar system ruled the Puritan regimes around Boston. He barely escaped with his life and founded a new colony based on radically new principles.

Two years ago I posted two columns on Williams and his role in creating the American system that protects religious conviction and practice from politically backed enforcement and persecution. I have converted them to a pdf document that begins with the following paragraphs.

Thanksgiving is unique in the American sequence of major holidays. It is rooted in one of the nation’s primary historical eras and expresses one of America’s foundational narratives. It combines religious, political, and cultural elements, but in a way that allows the holiday to be embraced not only by Christians but also by people of other religions or of no religion.

This holiday, perhaps more than any other, reveals the fact that the nation’s very existence is based upon the radical disregard for the people who already were here when Europeans arrived. Thus, no matter how joyfully we celebrate the day, it is right that Americans remember, with remorse, those whose way of life has been trampled upon in order to allow the rest of us enjoy the way of life experienced by the dominant members of the population.

Although we rightfully focus our attention upon the good things in life, as manifested in traditional Thanksgiving services and feasts, this holiday is also a time to revisit the central political themes that are enshrined in the historical tradition.

BarryFor me this year, this political aspect of remembrance focused upon Roger Williams who was one of the most astute architects of the American system of liberty and equality. During the days surrounding the holiday, I came across an extended review of John M. Barry’s new biography: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

“Anyone who reads this book,” reviewer John Fea writes, “will need to come to grips with the fact that it is Williams, not [John] Winthrop, who best represents the historical roots of the religious liberties that citizens of the United States enjoy today.” (This review, with the title “The original separationist,” appears in Christian Century, November 14, 2012, pp. 36-37.)

My second encounter with Williams over the Thanksgiving weekend was in a book entitled Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic Books, 2008).  Its author is Martha C. Nussbaum, a philosopher who “holds appointments in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School at the University of Chicago, is co-chair of the university’s Human Rights Program, and…is the author of thirteen previous books” (from the book jacket).

Nussbaum is a vigorous defender of the central pillars of the American tradition, which she describes as freedom and equality. It is clear to her that this way of setting up national life is unique in the world and that it is “a tradition under threat.” To read more, click Religion and Politics According to Roger Williams