Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin OlympicsThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown

If you'd told me I'd finish this book with tears in my eyes, I never would have believed you. I am not an athlete and I know little about rowing only brush with rowing was when I was a freshman at Pacific Lutheran University, and a member of the crew team approached me in the cafeteria and asked if I'd be interested in becoming a coxswain. (I am only 5' tall.) I wonder how my life would have been different now if I'd said yes. But I am no athlete, and I doubt I could've stuck it out, after reading about the hard training these rowers have to endure.

Daniel James Brown spins a great tale, starting with the heartbreaking childhood of Joe Rantz, the primary protagonist of this book. He delves into the interesting lives of most of the crew team, as well as head coach Al Ulbrickson and shell (boat) builder, George Pocock. The 1936 University of Washington team mostly came from blue collar workers, in contrast to the more educated teams from the East Coast and California.

The Boys in the Boat takes us from the Dust Bowl to the building of the Hoover Dam, from Eton College in England to eastern Washington, from Seattle and Poughkeepsie to the way Hitler pulled the wool over so many people's eyes, including Avery Brundage. president of the IOC, who refused to believe mounting evidence about the Nazi campaign against the Jews.

It's an inspiring story of a small group of nine men, trained by highly driven and skilled coaches, who beat all the odds and build a perfect team together. Like a skilled novelist, Brown uses the technique of building a perfect boat out of Northwest cedar as an analogy for building a finely tuned crew team out of young men like Joe Rantz, who was a man of true resiliency against the odds:
"The result was that the boat as a whole was under subtle but continual tension caused by the unreleased compression in the skin, something like a drawn bow waiting to be released. This gave it a kind of liveliness, a tendency to spring forward on the catch of the oars in a way that no other design or material could duplicate.
To Pocock, this unflagging resilience--this readiness to bounce back, to keep coming, to persist in the face of resistance--was the magic in cedar, the unseen force that imparted life to the shell. And as far as he was concerned, a shell that did not have life in it was a shell that was unworthy of the young men who gave their hearts to the effort of moving it through the water."
I found this book to be moving and fascinating. The Gold Medal-winning Husky Clipper still survives--in fact, my alma mater appears in the book as it was lent to PLU in Tacoma in the 1960s. Now it's in Washington's Conibear Shellhouse.

A few weeks ago when we attended a Seattle Mariners' game, I saw a street named after Royal Brougham, the legendary columnist in the Seattle Post Intelligencer who chronicled the rise of this team. What an exciting story this was!

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary, by Brian Doyle
I got the delicious opportunity to hear author Brian Doyle in Seattle earlier this year. He entertained the packed audience at Seattle University by sharing his colorful writing, telling jokes and laugh-out-loud anecdotes, choking back tears, and entreating us to sing and cry along with him with his sometimes gut-wrenching words. Many of these uncommon prayers drew me in, and I decided to purchase the book.

A few weeks later I decided to use the prayers as my focus for the April A to Z Blogging Challenge. I wrote to Brian and asked his permission to share his writing, and he consented. Each day in April I featured one of these prayers...from homages to doctors, nurses, the pope, the Girl Scouts, IT professionals, proofreaders, and angry prayers at Osama Bin Laden and texting drivers...he celebrates the miracle and muddle of ordinary life in a most beautiful way.

Click the link above to read the uncommon prayers I chose to feature. Or if you'd like to learn more about Brian Doyle, check out this video of his appearance at Boston University a few years ago (where he addresses 9/11), and you'll get a flavor of why I liked him so much. The Daily Beast calls him "a writer to be ignored at your own peril."

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Pope Francis

Pope Francis: Untying the KnotsPope Francis: Untying the Knots, by Paul Vallely

As I wrote recently on my main blog, I recently heard journalist Paul Vallely at the Search for Meaning Book Festival in Seattle; he gave the keynote address. Pope Francis: Untying the Knots is the first in-depth book on Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Vallely wrote it after traveling to Argentina to interview those who knew him well and investigate the claims that the Pope did nothing to prevent the kidnapping and torture of two priests during the Dirty War.
I'm fascinated with Pope Francis' transformation as a young man: he began as an arrogant, dictatorial leader who was also extremely conservative.

Vallely gives great background and insights into the politics of Argentina and the Vatican. In his younger days, he spurned liberation theology (the attempt to interpret Scripture through the plight of the poor) and did indeed prevent the eventually kidnapped priests (who were working in the ghetto) from delivering communion. His detractors say this opened the door for the military junta to kidnap the priests. Vallely discovered that Francis worked valiantly to get them freed after they were kidnapped, and it seems that Francis now has regrets about what he did or did not do. And now not only has he embraced and celebrated liberation theology, but he has also made a huge step toward transparency: he's asked the Vatican to open up its archives on the Dirty War.

The key reason that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to become Pope is that Jesuits are called to be servants, not leaders. The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyala, didn't even want them to be bishops. So that explains why Pope Francis is tackling the job in such an unusual, servant-like way. Being the Pope is like being royalty! He has spurned most of the trappings of Pope royalty, as we've heard since the Council of Cardinals elected him. From paying his own hotel, thinking that his Vatican apartments were way too big, and refusing to wear the fancy robes or read shoes, to washing the feet of the poor, female, and underprivileged, he prefers to be a servant rather than a Catholic king.

Francis views God in a clearly different way than previous popes and many priests...that God is grounded in mercy:
"Mercy, this word changes everything. It is the best word we can hear: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just... The Lord never gets tired of forgiving; it is we that get tired of asking forgiveness." 
Vallely explores why Bergoglio chose the papal name of Francis.
"Francis is more than a name--it's a plan," said Leonardo Boff, founding father of liberation theology. "It's a plan for a poor Church, one that is close to the people, gospel-centred, loving and protective towards nature which is being devastated today. Saint Francis is the archetype of that type of Church." 
In recent days, Pope Francis continues to promote justice, make waves, and anger conservatives by declaring the gender age gap "a scandal" and preparing to release an encyclical on climate change. Although today Frank Bruni wrote about the absurdity of the Pope's statement in the New York Times that the Vatican's "own kitchen is much too messy for them to call out the ketchup smudges in anybody else’s."
Bruni went on, "He left out the part about women in the Roman Catholic Church not even getting a shot at equal work. Pay isn’t the primary issue when you’re barred from certain positions and profoundly underrepresented in others...For all the remarkable service that the Catholic Church performs, it is one of the world’s dominant and most unshakable patriarchies, with tenets that don’t abet equality."
But still, it's progress given the glacial pace of the Catholic church, and it's angering conservatives who would vastly prefer the church to remain frozen to any kind of progression.

Human rights lawyer Alicia Oliveira, Pope Francis' close friend for 40 years (who died in 2014), said about the Pope:
"He tells me he's having a great time. Every time I speak to him I tell him, 'Be careful Jorge, because the Borgias are still there in the Vatican.' He laughs and says he knows. But he's very, very, very happy. He's having fun with all the people in the Vatican telling him he can't do things--and then doing them."