Scalper

We were walking down by the Comerica Theatre in Phoenix when we saw two middle-aged men, both white, riding bikes in circles on the sidewalk. One of them was riding a Dahon folding bike with 20 inch wheels. Carol has been looking at Dahons on Craigslist, so she asked the man how he liked the bike. The other man rode towards some people walking towards the theatre and asked if they wanted tickets, and then I noticed the man we were talking to had tickets in his hand. He knew a lot about bikes, and, like Carol, he regularly checks Craigslist for used bikes. The two of them compared notes on bikes they had seen for sale recently. He advised Carol not to get a Dahon, because they’re poorly made.

We got to talking about Phoenix, and the man on the bike said there just wasn’t much going on in downtown Phoenix. Restaurants, for example — he grew up in Portland, Oregon, where within a few blocks he had an unbelievable number of choices of restaurants, but in Phoenix there aren’t so many choices, and many of them are chain stores. I asked if there was any kind of bike culture, and he said there was not. not only that, but he said cars had no respect for bicyclists, and he had had more than a few close calls. What about jobs? we asked. His friend rode up at that point, and said most of the jobs in Phoenix were service jobs, paying seven-fifty or eleven dollars an hour.

Someone walked up looking for tickets, and the other man turned away to talk with them. The first man said he had come to Phoenix in the late 1990s, and he gave the impression that he wished he had never left Portland. One thing about Phoenix, he said, was that even though wages are low it was cheap to live here. But that meant it was hard to move anywhere else, hard to save up enough money to move away. You could feel stuck here, he said.

But he did like monsoon season. We asked what that was like. He said that it came in July and August, and you’d look up at the sky and see dark clouds moving in, and soon they’d cover the sky, and then there would be thunder and lightning everywhere, heavy rain, water running a half inch deep on the streets, then in thirty minutes it would all be over. He said it was worth seeing, and it was something he’d never seen in Portland.

Then some more people walked up looking for tickets, so we said good bye, nice talking to you, and went on our way.

Downtown Phoenix

Once it got cool enough to go out for a walk, Carol and I strolled over to find Lawn Gnome bookstore on 3rd St. between Roosevelt and Garfield. Along the way, we stopped at Bodega 420, a neighborhood store that carries a little bit of everything: locally produced food, canned food, ice cream, loose tobacco, condoms, playing cards, etc. We chatted with the owner, Adrian Fontes, a lawyer who runs the store in his spare time.

Adrian on the front porch of Bodega 420.

Adrian told us about the art fair that takes place on first Fridays next to his shop: artists, music, food trucks. He took us to the front porch of Bodega 420 and pointed out JoBot Coffee, some art galleries near by, the new apartment complex going up down the street, and Lawn Gnome Books. Adrian, whose family dates back over three hundred years in Arizona, said he lived for many years in Denver, and told us it was hard to leave there to return to Arizona. But now he’s excited to be in Phoenix: everyone’s from somewhere else, the city isn’t set in its ways, there’s room to innovate.

We wandered down the block to Lawn Gnome Books. I found a used copy of short stories by Joanna Russ, and Carol found The Hobo Diet, a book by someone who lived as a homeless man for five weeks in Las Vegas. Carol started talking with Billie Speece, one of the people who worked at the bookstore.

Billie in Lawn Gnome Books.

Among many other projects, Billie runs letter writing workshops at the bookstore. Years ago, Carol had been part of the Letter Exchange, and she and Billie talked about rubber stamps and mail art. Billie showed us some of the envelopes she makes from recycled paper, stitching the seams with embroidery thread. She said she is part of the Letter Writers Alliance; she added that recently AARP contacted her about her workshops.

I bought one of the handmade journals Billie sews together, using paper taken from damaged books, paper that has one side blank. One of the pages in the handmade journal I bought reads in part: “I wish Gertrude were here…. I wish she could see the man God is building on her foundation.” Another page reads: “Foods high in vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.” Carol just said, “What are you going to do with your journal?” I said I didn’t know; maybe I’ll just keep it.

Photo credits: Carol Steinfeld

“Ministry Days,” day one

This was advertised as a “Justice General Assembly,” and it is clear from what’s been going on at the “Ministry Days” which precede General Assembly that many people feel the center of our religious community is social justice work.

But I’m not convinced that religious organizations are particularly effective at doing social justice work. Religious communities can supply moral and ethical frameworks to motivate and support social justice work. And as the Social Gospel movement pointed out over a century ago, religious communities cannot be solely focused on individual and personal salvation; we also have to be focused on social salvation. Thus it is clear that religious communities should be concerned with social justice issues. The question is how religious communities can be most effective at pursuing social justice. Continue reading ““Ministry Days,” day one”

Sonoran Desert

We drove into Arizona towards Phoenix along Interstate 10. We knew we had entered the Sonoran Desert when we saw giant saguaro cacti along the side of the highway. A roadrunner ran quickly across the highway in front of us, moving so fast I didn’t have time to touch the brakes before it was lost in the brush on the other side. The Sonoran Desert is a beautiful place.

Halfway Phoenix from the California border, the sprawl began to replace the desert: tract houses, malls, light industrial buildings, the occasional agricultural field, a golf course here and there.

In large part because of its beauty and lushness, more Arizonans live in the Sonoran Desert than in any other geographic region of the state: more than three-fourths of our total of four million people. This crush of bodies, with the pressures they impose on the desert’s modest resources, is the state’s most ominous problem. — Lawrence Cheek, Arizona (Compass Travel Guides, 1995), pp. 34-35.

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, the theologian who was central in developing Mujerista — which can be translated as womanist — theology, died May 13 in New York City. Her obituary in the New York Times notes that Isasi-Diaz preferred the term “Mujerism” to the term “feminist” because, she said, many women in the Hispanic community considered feminism to be “a preoccupation of white Anglo women.”

Many of us are Unitarian Universalists are about to head off to General Assembly in Phoenix, where we will be concentrating a good deal of our attention on the immigration issues facing the Hispanic community. Feminism and feminist theology has been at the center of our identity as a religious community. As we continue to look into issues facing the Hispanic community, it seems to me worth out while to look more closely at Mujerism as it applies to North America. So I’m putting Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz on my reading list for the coming year.

Ray Bradbury: a brief appreciation

When I was a child, maybe eleven or twelve years old, I discovered my parents’ old science fiction books on some metal shelves in the basement. The only one of these books I really remember was a paperback edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. In my mind’s eye I can still see the cover design, and the cracked binding. One of the stories in particular stuck with me, still sticks with me:

In “The Man,” a spaceship travels to a planet that hasn’t been visited by any spaceships for a long time. The crew of the space ship expects to be greeted with astonishment and wonder, but upon landing they discover that another visitor, a solitary man, has preceded them by just a few days. Everyone who met this man is filled with a kind of peace and inner contentment. This amazing man has gone on to a new planet. Some of the crew decide they must meet this man themselves, and they head off in the space ship to follow him. But a few of the crew remain on the planet; they know that the rest of the crew who are pursuing this man will never quite catch up with him, they will miss him by a day, then by a few hours, then by minutes, but they will always miss meeting him in person; they decide they don’t need to meet the man in person, that living on this now-peaceful planet with these now-peaceful people is enough.

Even at eleven or twelve years old, I figured out that this story was about religion, about a Jesus-like figure. Later, I figured out that this story was criticizing literalism in religion; it is futile to try to find the “real” Jesus, the “real” prophet, because you will never catch up with him (or her). Later still, I discovered that Ray Bradbury was a Unitarian Universalist, and this was exactly the kind of story a religious liberal would write.

Some of Bradbury’s work can be overly sentimental, with stereotyped characters and pat endings. One such a story comes to mind: In “Kaleidoscope,” a spaceship explodes, the crew in spacesuits are propelled off in all directions, knowing they will live only as long as the oxygen lasts in their space suits; they talk with each other via their suit radios, talking, crying, saying vicious things, telling what direction they’re headed in, coming to peace with one another. Slowly each one passes out of radio range of the others. One of them is captured by the gravitational well of Earth, and is seen from the surface of Earth as a meteorite, a shooting star. It’s a story about how we all have to die alone, but Bradbury can’t resist the pat ending of having one of the dying crew men end life as a shooting star upon whom a boy makes a wish. But in spite of that, I can’t help liking “The Kaleidoscope”: I know we die alone, and that most of human death amounts to little more than a lone spaceman flying off into the endless void; but I want to believe that once in a while, the end of a human life can be a force for good in the world, even if it’s little more than a brief flash of light in the night.

Transit of Venus

I’m taking a break from work here at the Palo Alto church, and watching the transit of Venus. I’m projecting an image of the sun using a pair of 7×25 binoculars mounted to a tripod. I have a white card set up about six feet from the binoculars, resulting in an image that’s approximately five and three quarters of an inch in diameter. The optics in the binoculars are not particularly good, and there’s enough chromatic aberration that I don’t get a particularly crisp image. Nevertheless, I can clearly see the shadow Venus is casting as it crosses the sun; on this projection, it’s approximately three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, and at this time about one and three sixteenths inches from the nearest edge of the sun. The card I’m projecting the image on is eight and a half by eleven inches oriented horizontally; the earth moves such that I have to readjust the binoculars every sixty or seventy seconds in order to keep a complete image on the card.

Venus does not appear to be moving in relation to the sun. I suppose if I sat out here long enough, I’d be able to see some relative motion; but the transit is going to take four hours, and I don’t suppose I can take that much time away from work.

And yes, the transit is a pretty amazing phenomenon to watch, even with my crude projection device.

Corrected per Erp’s comment.