Act Now

Welcome to Cyber-Monday. You can buy my book “What Size Are God’s Shoes: Kids, Chaos, and the Spiritual Life” for practically nothing on Amazon today. Click here and it’s yours for $10.20. It makes a GREAT Christmas gift for every parent on your list. Grandparents too. And godparents. And anyone who’s ever had a parent. Or been a child.

The illustration on the cover even has me wearing a Santa hat (for reasons I’ve never understood). So it even looks like the perfect Christmas gift. People will think you scoured the millions of books on Amazon until you came up with the singularly ideal present. Just for them.

Act now and I understand Amazon will throw in a set of Ginsu knives when you purchase my book. Just enter the following coupon code: “clevercleaver.”

Help make all my Christmas dreams come true. Buy my book and help me realize the 3 cent profit I make on each one that is sold. Then one day I will be able to buy that cup of coffee I’ve always dreamed about. I will lift it high and toast each one of you while trying not to spill hot coffee on my laptop.


School’s Out

Alice-Cooper-Schools-Out-Below is a column I wrote on summer church that appears in the current issue of The Living Church. I’m not positive but I would wager that Alice C0oper has never before been quoted in the publication’s 131 years. Enjoy (or not). But here it is:


JUNE 14, 2009 • The Living Church 23

Summer Lovin’

In 1972, punk-rocker Alice Cooper released his single, “School’s Out,” with the chorus “School’s out for the summer; school’s out for ever.” And for a generation, it was the last-day anthem of school kids everywhere. I certainly remember singing it with my middle-school friends as we raced triumphantly out of our final class with pencils and notebooks flying everywhere.

And then we all looked forward to a lazy summer with, as Alice puts it in his inimitable style, “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks, out for summer, out ’til fall, we might not go back at all.” That was back when the “lazy, hazy days of summer” still meant something. Before we started over-programming our children down to the precise moment each morning when we lather them up with sunscreen.

Unfortunately, some of us keep this “school’s out” mentality toward church. The “last day” often coincides with the parish picnic or Pentecost or some other year-end event. And we live into the old adage that says “Episcopalians are the only ones God trusts enough to take the summer off.” Which is, of course, absurd; a caricature of another era. A time when everyone who was anyone was an Episcopalian. And the moneyed classes left to summer (yes, it’s a verb in this case) on the Cape or the Vineyard or Bar Harbor.

Clergy often unwittingly feed into this mindset. And it’s because we could use a break! But canceling all programs during the summer, offering flat and uninspiring liturgies, and recycled sermons sends the wrong message. It puts the church on auto pilot, which is hardly an engaging way to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ. And it merely affirms people’s decision not to attend church during the summer.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The summer months offer a wonderful opportunity to try out new things: Introduce some supplemental liturgical texts; hold a “Mass on the Grass” in the courtyard; let licensed lay preachers have a turn in the pulpit. And at the heart of this is the unstated declaration that the incarnational presence of the divine never ceases; that Jesus is with us everywhere and at all times. The summer is a wonderful chance to model this to the world.

That’s not to say there isn’t something nice about slipping into amore relaxed way of doing church once the vaunted “program year” ends. The ceiling fans are cranked up, leading to that low-level hum that pervades the silences; perhaps only two lessons instead of three are read; there’s lemonade available at coffee hour in a big, crystal punch bowl that someone’s grandmother donated decades ago; choir members confuse us by sitting in the pews rather than in the choir loft; when the rector genuflects, you occasionally catch a glimpse of bare leg which shocks you until you realize he’s wearing shorts under all those vestments. There’s a nice, gentle rhythm to summer worship. It’s just that gentle need not translate into uninspired.

The last few summers I’ve put up a bulletin board in the parish hall and encouraged parishioners to post church bulletins from far-flung locales. The purpose is twofold: to encourage folks to go to church when they’re away and to see literally how we spent our respective summer vacations. It’s proved pretty popular as we try to outdo one another with exotic destinations. The only requirement is that you actually attend the service. Sneaking into an empty church and snagging a bulletin from the previous Sunday decidedly does not count.

Enjoy church this summer at home and wherever your travels may take you. And remember that even though school may be “out for the summer,” church is not.

Our guest columnist is the Rev. Tim Schenck, rector of All Saints’ Church, Briarcliff Manor, N. Y., and the author of What Size are God’s Shoes: Kids, Chaos & the Spiritual Life.

Chasing Cheever

John Cheever

John Cheever

Churches make great claims about famous people who sat in their pews. Scour East Coast Episcopal churches and you’ll find all sorts of plaques: “John Hancock Worshipped Here” or “Washington Irving’s Pew” or “Oprah Appeared on the Secretary’s Television.” We’re proud of our history and the era when anybody who was anybody or anybody who wanted to be anybody was an Episcopalian. Plus we have a great affinity for bronze plaques.

Everyone knows that George Washington slept in nearly every house from the Mid-Atlantic to New England. No word if he slept in any pews of our churches during particularly uninspiring sermons.

At my own parish, All Saints’, Briarcliff Manor, we’ve had a few brushes with royalty. Brooke Astor lived across the street for many years in her Holly Hill estate and worshipped at All Saints’ for a number of years. At some point she got mad at one of my predecessors and left to attend another nearby Episcopal church. Or at least that’s one theory. It may have had to do with the incorporation of the modern language rite or her dislike for female priests. I’m not sure — but by the time I came to All Saints’ that ship had sailed.

The other famous parishioner was the writer John Cheever. He’s been in the news recently because of a new comprehensive biography by Blake Bailey titled Cheever: A Life. One of our parishioners, Bob Minzesheimer, who also happens to be the book reviewer for USA Today, forwarded me some quotes from Bailey’s book.

Cheever was confirmed at All Saints’ in 1955 and the church “met his basic requirements: it used the Cranmer prayer book and was less than ten minutes away, and (as Susan Cheever pointed out) its altar was ‘sufficiently simple so that it [didn’t] remind him of a gift shop.’ Also the eight 0’clock service was sermon-free so he could have twenty-three minutes of relative peace each week.'”

Cheever apparently didn’t have much love for the church’s long-time rector, Bill Arnold. According to the book, Cheever “once told his son Ben that it didn’t matter if the minister was a jackass — though there were times, plainly, when it did. ‘I will not go to church,’ Cheever recorded one Good Friday, ‘because Bill will insist upon giving a sermon and I will not have the latitude or intelligence to overlook its repetitiousness, grammatical errors and stupidity.'” Ouch!

Finally, Bailey says of Cheever’s faith, “Not one to proselytize, her rarely mentioned his faith except at odd moments when visited by the same happiness that had moved him to become a communicant in the first place: ‘There has to be someone you thank for the party.'”

Not a bad sentiment. Though I may have to consider screening any writers and/or essayists out of my parish. Myself excluded of course.

Unabashedly Unpublished

paper1I now have three unpublished children’s books to my name. I never intended to write one — I don’t fancy myself the new Eric Carle. All three just sort of rose up organically as the kids went through various developmental stages. But I sure did have a lot of fun working on them and, like any writer, I think they’re better than an awful lot of the stuff out there.

I should be clear about one thing, however: I am decidedly notan author/illustrator like Maurice Sendak or Dr. Seuss. If I were to illustrate the three books, they would be the first abstract picture books. “Mommy, why does this page look like the inside of your lava lamp?”

Having a few unpublished manuscripts makes me feel even more like a “real” writer. Maybe in my next life I’ll come back as a failed novelist living in the Rive Gauche in Paris. Of course I’d be posthumously “discovered” and become a best seller — making all the rejecting publishers look like fools. 

In the meantime, I’m secure in the knowledge that my three unpublished children’s books are pretty good. Or at least good enough to give to my kids one day. The three titles are: “I Can Do It Myself,” “The Kingdom of Serious,” and the children’s version of “What Size Are God’s Shoes?” — told from our dog Delilah’s perspective.

Perhaps I’ll meet a children’s literary agent at a fancy cocktail party in Greenwich Village. That’s my publishing strategy anyway. But seeing as I haven’t been to a cocktail party since I was an eight-year-old lugging the coats of  my parent’s friends up to the guestroom bed, I may take these manuscripts with me to the grave.

Treated Like Royalty

moneyI received my first royalty check yesterday. At least I thought I did. The statement indicated royalties of $77.31 . And I had grandiose plans for my earnings. I considered blowing the whole wad and fleeing to Peru to live like, well, royalty. More realistically, I could have splurged and taken the family out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Say Applebees.

That was until I realized the $77.31 was in parentheses, the universal sign for deficit. On closer inspection, I realized that by the end of 2008 I hadn’t yet earned out my (paltry) advance. I still “owed” the $77 to Morehouse until more copies sell. Oh well. I guess you could say my royalty check became a reality check.

It was interesting to note how many copies had sold since “What Size Are God’s Shoes” came out six months ago: 1,040. This included 18 sold in Canada and 15 in Mexico. I may have to translate the book into Spanish to feed my growing South of the Border market. And and a few “ehs” into the text to attract more Canadian readers.

With these numbers I finally understand why I haven’t made the New York Timesbestseller list. Though I still check every week just to make sure I haven’t leap frogged over “Eat, Pray, Love” or John Grisham’s latest.

Obviously I didn’t write the book to make money — I’ve surely lost money on this deal. And I’ve donated a portion of the sales back to my church’s memorial garden fund. But I’ll keep at it because I believe strongly in the message. And perhaps next year I’ll be able to buy myself a family-sized package of beef jerky or something.

FaithStreams Book Club (again)

faithstreams_logo2Just realized I never posted the second of the FaithStreams Book Club videos that I taped a few months ago. I know you’ve been losing sleep over this. So to minimize your insomnia I’ve posted it here (actually they’re both on this link since I couldn’t figure out how to only post the second one).

As I mentioned previously, this was my first attempt at wearing makeup and you can judge for yourself whether or not it made any difference. I’m considering hiring a makeup artist to follow me around for the occasional touch-up. This would be in addition to, rather than in lieu of, the body guard I’m going to employ to keep me safe when I go out late night clubbing. I’ve learned my lesson from the Plaxico Burress incident.

The Mystery of the Amazon Sales Rank

amazon-sales-rankOne thing authors like to check on, but never admit to, is their Amazon ranking. Amazon ranks every book they offer based on sales. Of course it’s not perfect because it only lists books actually purchased on Amazon. So it doesn’t count sales at independent bookstores, books sold via the publisher, books sold by walking around town with a sandwich board, etc. At least that’s what we authors who rank in the hundreds of thousands remind ourselves regularly.

The good news is that the Amazon sales rank gives me another way to judge my self worth. Along with the number of friends I have on Facebook (114 but who’s counting?).

In my limited experience, the ranking seems to fluctuate wildly. As I write this “What Size Are God’s Shoes” is listed at 47,759. Which is pretty good. I’ve seen it as low as 18,000 and as high as 800,000. The market is so crowded with books that even a sale or two can make the number go down by 50,000. Of course the lower it goes, the harder it is to jump places. Here’s what Amazon says about the ranking system.

One nice thing that Amazon does (to make us feel better I think) is offering a more targeted sales rank. In other words, they show my book coming up in the category “Books-entertainment-humor-religion.” There I’m ranked number eight. Eight! So “The Year of Living Biblically” is ranked number one, “Jewtopia: The chosen book for the chosen people” is up there. But unfortunately the 2009 “Nuns Having Fun” calendar also ranks ahead of me. That’s embarrassing.

By the time this gets posted, I’m sure my rank will have dipped again. Along with my self-esteem. You can check it here to confirm. It’s tough being a shallow author.