The crooked-timber tradition of how to live and what to live for

June 18, 2015

Road to Character coverOn the first page of the Introduction, David Brooks establishes the framework for this book by distinguishing between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. The one kind you list on applications for work and the other kind is recited at your funeral. Eulogy virtues, Brooks writes, are generally a better sign of your character than those given in résumés. He then cites Joseph Soloveitchik’s 1965 book Lonely Man of Faith in which the writer refers to the two accounts of creation in Genesis and argues that they “represent the two opposing sides of our nature, which he calls Adam I and Adam II” (xi).

We could say, Brooks continues, “that Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature” who wants to build, create, produce, and discover things.” In contrast, Adam II is the internal Adam” who “wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good, but to be good” (xii).

We live in a culture, Brooks continues, that nurtures Adam I and neglects Adam II. In order to combat this tendency, we need to focus strongly on the inner values and resist the tendency toward shallowness. “A humiliating gap opens up between your actual self and your desired self.” At this point, some readers may be inclined to dismiss Brooks’ newest book as another example of over-generalization on the basis of a modest body of factual data. How can any writer speak as though there is one culture in a nation as large and complex as the United States? Even segments of the American people—such as a generation, or those living in a particular region, or an ethnic or sociologically defined group—are too complicated to be summarized in a few paragraphs or pages.

Despite this reservation, two reasons can be given for continuing with the book. The first is that Brooks’ main purpose is not to analyze American culture but to recommend a pattern of character development that he believes to have been widely inculcated in past generations but since World War II has waned significantly.

He advocates that people today reacquaint themselves with a previously prominent road to character by examining “an older moral ecology” and hearing the stories of people who have walked the road that strengthened their eulogy virtues. Reviewing movies, TV performances, and other evidences of popular culture after World War II, Brooks discerns “a strain of humility” that was deeply ingrained in people and marked the way that they thought of themselves. There was a strong sense of self-effacement. He uses the phrase “the little me” to describe this character trait that stretches back centuries. In more recent times, however, the social code emphasizes “the big me,” There has been an “apparent rise in self-esteem [and] a tremendous increase in the desire for fame” (7).

A second reason for staying with Brooks is that the main part of the book is interesting and fruitful even if readers are skeptical about his primary thesis. It consists of character studies of eight people each of whom “exemplifies one of the activities that lead to character.” The character traits listed in the chapter headings and the persons portrayed in these chapters indicate the breadth of Brooks’ exposition: The Summoned Self—Frances Perkins; Self-Conquest—Dwight D. Eisenhower; Struggle—Dorothy Day; Self-Mastery—George Catlett Marshall; Dignity—A. Phillip Randolph; Love—George Eliot; Ordered Love—Augustine; Self-Examination—Samuel Johnson.

The chapters vary in their detail, but all of them focus on the character-forming challenges the persons experienced rather than on the broad details of their lives and careers. Brooks also provides extended discussions from other literature that explore the character trait that a chapter exemplifies. Although each chapter focuses primarily upon one person, several of them also include interpretations of others who were part of the story. Two examples are Augustine’s mother, Monica, and essayist Montaigne whose way of life contrasted sharply with Samuel Johnson’s. Read moreThe Crooked-Timber Tradition


Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage: Core Strength for Cycling’s Winning Edge

June 15, 2015

Sore Legs Saga, Part Two

Core AdvantageProfessional cyclist Tom Danielson was in “a horrible bike crash during the Vuelta a Espana” and suffered injuries to his shoulder and back. He consulted trainer Allison Westfahl who used her extensive knowledge of physiology to “diagnose muscular weaknesses and imbalances” that were at the root of Danielson’s injuries and cycling problems that had developed over his many years as aggressive, competitive cyclist.
She led him through a series of exercises that made him pain free in a period of four weeks. As time went on and he continued working with Allison, Tom found this strength and prowess as professional cyclist increasing. Later they collaborated in writing a book in which Allison describes the complex interaction of the muscular systems involved in cycling and Tom offers his “take” on these matters.
The second half of the book consists of 5 dynamic stretching exercises and 45 core exercises divided into 3 levels of difficulty. Each level of difficulty has several workout patterns selected from the exercises in that portion of the book. For each exercise the authors explain the muscles and movements targeted, describe how it is done, and illustrate someone doing it. I’m still struggling with the dynamic stretches and level 1 workouts.
I came across their book in February as I as leaving for my week of cycling on PAC Tour’s Winter Training Camp in Arizona. For the first time, I understood why my legs hurt. More important, their book provided a regimen of muscle building stretches and exercises that I could do in my own living room rather than at the fitness center. I was relieved to read that Tom had had the same experience as I—that working with a traditional trainer with machinery had seemed to increase his distress rather than cause it to go away.
The gradual reduction of pain in my legs and my slow recovery of cycling capabilities began when I started reading Core Advantage. The fact that I’m still not recovered can be explained by two facts: my failure to develop an adequate workout pattern and my need of a coach from time to time who can help me develop better form and increased intensity during my workouts.
Allison explains that the core muscular system includes the four “abdominals plus all the other muscles that attach to the spine and pelvis” muscles that are anchored to the spine or pelvis. Usually this anchoring covers a large area whereas the attaching of the other end of the muscle—at the knees, for example—covers a small area. The purpose of these muscles is “to keep the middle part of the body stable,” generate power to the arms and legs, protect the spine and pelvis from injury, and help maintain good posture (4,5).
Allison tells cyclists to stop doing crunches, which often are recommended as the way to build core strength. They are harmful to cyclists because they stress muscles that are already overworked because of the crunch position that cyclists adopt while on the bike. Furthermore, many of them are done while people are lying on the floor, “thereby training your abdominal muscles to fire when the rest of your body is being stabilized by the floor” (11).
The exercises and workouts in this book focus on three functions that are crucial for cyclists: (1) deceleration, “which puts the brakes on whatever action is being performed”; (2) stabilization or isometric muscular contraction during which a muscle is held at a fixed length instead of actively lengthening or shortening”; and (3) acceleration, when muscles are used to make cyclists go faster (14–18). The exercises are designed to develop core strength in “all planes of motion” rather than concentrating on one set of muscles while all of the rest are largely inactive. They require the body “to provide its own stabilization (no benches or machines)” (20).
Recently, I renewed my resolve to adopt the system that Allison and Tom describe in this practical book. This morning I started with three stretches that I learned during my first year of high school cross country more than 60 years ago. Then I did two of the dynamic stretches and 4 of the 15 level 1 muscle building exercises. I am gradually increasing my weekly mileage and hope soon to do a long-postponed two-day ride to enjoy a section of the historic Columbia River Highway that was reopened east of Multnomah Falls more than a year ago.
Nothing—not even this fine book—can make an old person young again, but with the help of Allison and Tom sore legs can be made to feel good again so that this aging cyclist can return to the open road.
Note: Core Advantage was published by VeloPress Books (Boulder, CO) in 2013.

A cyclist’s sore legs saga

June 4, 2015
When your legs hurt, it's a long way to the top

When your legs hurt, it’s a long way to the top

This story began about five years ago when I was in my late 70s and a veteran of more than 40 years of aggressive cycling. When walking around, I sometimes felt pain in the muscles of my left thigh.

Because it didn’t register while I was on the bike, I resisted the possibility that cycling was the cause. After all, I kept telling myself, cycling is supposed to be easy on the knees, which is why many older cyclists take up this sport after running, tennis, and racket ball have ruined their knees.

The first time I asked my doctor about the pain, he flopped down on the floor to demonstrate an exercise that would ease the problem. He also recommended using a foam roller to do a self-massage on my living room floor. A year later, he gave me a name—IT band syndrome. By this time, I finally had admitted that it was brought on by cycling.

The next step was to schedule a professional fitting at a bike shop. The fitter videotaped me as I rode on my bike positioned on a trainer. She confirmed saddle height and reach to the bars. The only adjustments she made were to tilt the hoods up about three eights of an inch and move my cleats back about the same distance.

During a winter visit with my cycling son in Florida, there was no cycling but much more walking than I usually do, a sauntering visit to a civil war fort, and fifteen minutes of easy lobbing at their ping pong table. The result was pain in my right knee so intense that it was difficult to do the stairs up to my bedroom.

Internet searches provided a general explanation for the pain in both legs: insufficient muscle strength in my upper body was causing leg muscles to work in ways they are not designed to work, and therefore the pain.

My doctor suggested that he could prescribe steroid shots and a friend proposed acupuncture. I resisted both therapies because I wanted to overcome the cause of the pain rather than treat the symptoms.

A 24-hour fitness center across the street from my home seemed like the solution. My health insurance program provided free access to the center and use of its equipment. I signed up with a personal trainer to learn how to use the machinery in order to reestablish the muscular balance my body lacked. He also showed me some new stretching exercises and techniques for using a roller. With his advice I bought a real foam roller and an exercise stretch band to improve my activities at home and eased up on cycling, but the pain didn’t go away. Instead, it seemed to be getting worse.

Even so, I signed up for my annual week with PAC Tour in Arizona during the last week of February. I cycled five of the six days of the week, with lots of climbing, for distances ranging from 50 to 70 miles per day. Although I felt pain, especially in my right hamstrings and knee, I was stronger and the pain was easier at the end of the week than when I began.

At home again, I walked a block up the street to a studio offering “muscular therapy.” The therapist with whom I talked indicated that she specialized in the syndromes that I was describing. In my first session, she found hot spots all over both legs and into my hips, some of them I had not even been aware of until her hands led to spasms of sensitivity and pain.

During four hour-long sessions, we talked extensively about how the muscular systems are inter-connected. Although she didn’t offer suggestions for cycling, she confirmed the value of foam rolling and self massage when I was sitting or lying down, either in bed or on the floor.

On the first Saturday of May I rode 60 miles on the annual Ride Around Clark County event sponsored by the Vancouver Bicycle Club. Although plenty sore for a couple of days, I was encouraged by the fact that some of the pain was similar to the day-after distress I have always felt after long, hard rides.

The resolution to my distress, however, began with a book that I came across a couple of days prior to my Arizona trip: Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage: Core Strength for Cycling’s Winning Edge, by Tom Danielson and Allison Westfahl.

More about what I learned and what’s happening to my legs next time.


Why the focus on eucharistic worship?

June 2, 2015

Communion Table at First Christian Church, Portland

In a recent blog I described plans to update my understanding of eucharistic renewal in ecumenical Protestant churches. A friend responded with the suggestion that I broaden the search to include community churches that have developed as an alternative pattern in American religious life.

While these churches deserve careful study, there are several reasons for staying with the plan as announced, which is to focus on eucharistic worship in the denominations that have often been referred to as mainline, classic, or historic Protestant churches.

They are firmly rooted in the Reformation of the sixteenth century—the reforms initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and others. These churches represent parallel and sometimes competing variations of theological reform, cultural transformation, and humanistic learning that were flowering during that period. Thus many of the presuppositions, characteristics, and practices of these churches are very much alike.

My interest in the eucharist as practiced in these churches is prompted, in part, by the fact that this aspect of worship represents the most important unfinished business of the tradition spawned by the sixteenth century Reformation. Despite the intention of the founders that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper continue at the center of their church life, competing principles, especially the focus upon the Word as dominant metaphor, have kept these churches from completing the liturgical aspects that were part of their intention.

The resolution of these issues was central to the liturgical movement in the latter decades of the twentieth century. It was also one of the primary intentions of the Consultation on Church Union, which was the most important church union movement in the United States during the entire twentieth century. Regrettably, neither of these movements achieved its intention to restore eucharistic worship to its rightful place at the center of church life.

Although completing the eucharistic reform of their churches was one of the avowed goals of ecclesial activity, my impression is that only one of these Protestant churches in the United States—the Episcopal Church—has actually achieved the goal of making the eucharist the staple of weekly worship in its congregations. I want to confirm my understanding of what currently is happening in this regard and explore reasons why the reforms have once again fallen short.

The reasons stated above focus upon the past as it shapes present practice. Other reasons for this study focus upon the impact of the future as a modifying and impelling force. During the past two decades my own church-going activities have been in congregations that can be described by various adjectives, including liberal and progressive. These churches affirm intellectual and cultural values of mainstream society, resist traditional theological formulations, value stability in public worship, and affirm the importance of active involvement in the struggles for justice in the world.

These churches are unsure about celebrating the eucharist, even when the texts have been revised.  Many people find them to be theologically offensive and the ceremonies outmoded. One response is to downplay the importance of this central sacrament. Another is to make significant changes in both the texts and ceremonies of worship at the communion table. Still another is to hold doggedly to the official reforms that were published during the 1980s and 90s even though they have not taken hold in many congregations across the country. I want to explore this aspect of the continuing evolution of the ecumenical Protestant churches.

A prominent point of view these days is that major transformations of the church take place about every 500 years. This position holds that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was one of these periodic transformations, and that now we are in another such period. According to this pattern of analysis, much that has been fixed in church life is set aside during these 500-year reforms and new theologies and ecclesial forms emerge.

Thus the question that I am exploring: is classic eucharistic worship one of the features now being dismissed from effective church life? Or is this central meal ceremony being remade into a different mode of gathering a community that is in some way shaped by the movement that emanates from Jesus of Nazareth?