Category Archives: friends

lamentation giotto

That Hopey Changey Thing

CyprianCyprian Consiglio, the Benedictine monk, theologian, hermitage prior and musician who ran the retreat I attended in Minnesota a few weeks ago, defines “liturgy” as “ideology in action.” Annie Dillard defines it as a collection of words and phrases that human beings over the centuries have been able to address to God without getting killed (she also suggests that we should wear crash helmets to church).Annie Dilard I like both of these definitions. I have a deep resonance with liturgy, especially liturgy expressed in music, something surprising given that there was none in my Baptist world growing up. Although “ideology” is usually something I accuse people I disagree with of embracing, Cyprian’s definition reminds me that at its core, ideology is simply the collection of beliefs, stories, ideas and commitments, some conscious and some unconscious, that guides a person’s actions and frames a person’s life. We are all ideologues. Liturgical frameworks provide a container that shapes this collection with reference to what is greater than us. Annie’s definition is a reminder that the very attempt to say or do anything with content and meaning referring to what is greater than us is at best misguided, at worst ridiculous.

004Of the many varieties of liturgical celebration I have encountered over the past few years, including a number of them at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota (the Benedictines know how to do liturgy better than anyone), the most striking is the Good Friday morning prayer service I have experienced twice with the monks at the Abbey. On Good Friday afternoon there is the large, austere three-hour service permeated primarily with silence and capped by kissing the cross that certain sorts of Christians are fond of (I’m not one of them). But at 7:00 in the morning, the Good Friday morning prayer service sets the tone for the day as a solitary monk chants the entire book of Lamentations from the Jewish scriptures. lamentationsNot familiar with that book? That’s probably because it’s the most depressing book in the Bible—perhaps anywhere. Lamentations is a litany of five poetic dirges over the destruction of Jerusalem. Traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the tone of the poems is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal. In Psalm 129 the Psalmist writes “Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long”—Lamentations is page after page of that sentiment. “And have a nice day”—except that Good Friday isn’t supposed to be a nice day, so the twenty-minute dirge is appropriate.

In last Friday’s post I was anticipating the service that would take place that afternoon in our campus’ main chapel in memory of our beloved colleague and friend Siobhan who died far too soon in an automobile accident the day before Thanksgiving.

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As I settled into my seat with the several hundred persons who closed offices and cancelled classes in the middle of the day to honor ross-siobhan-headshotSiobhan and celebrate her life, I noticed in the program that the Old Testament reading was from Lamentations. “That’s appropriate,” I thought. “At least there’s nothing in Lamentations that will give us the unwelcome advice that we should not feel the devastating loss and sadness that we feel.” But I had forgotten that just about half way through the poems, Jeremiah comes up briefly for air.

I will call this to mind, as my reason to hope:

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent;

They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.

My portion is the Lord, therefore will I hope in him.

Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him;

It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.

A few years ago a dynamic, fresh new face burst onto the American political scene promising “Hope and Change”; not long afterwards Hopey ChangeySarah Palin, not particularly enamored of this new guy, snarkily asked “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?” Politics aside, it’s a good question. The Apostle Paul famously wrote “Now abide faith, hope and love—but the greatest of these is love.” The editor of First Corinthians took out something else Paul wrote: “But sometimes the toughest of these is hope.”

Advent is the liturgical season of hope—my favorite of all the liturgical seasons because it means that the semester is almost over, I like purple, enjoy the Advent carols that only come around once a year, appreciate the opportunity to do something other than slog through the interminable Ordinary Time that has been going on since May, and because I am by nature a very hopeful person. But it has been a bit of a tough sell for me lately, with seemingly daily evidence that the world is a mess, no one has the capacity or wants to do anything about it, then a tragic reminder that human life is fleeting and even the best can be taken away in a moment. “NPRThe world really sucks,” my lovely wife commented as we listened to NPR the other morning on the way downtown to the bus station so she could catch a ride to NYC for a weekend with her sister whose husband just died. And it does suck. But if we are willing to poke our heads even momentarily up from the shit, Lamentations tells us that hope is always appropriate—and is a choice.

I spent a beautiful ninety minutes last Saturday evening at Providence College’s annual Advent Lessons and Carols Service, which always opens with a beautiful Advent hymn:lessons and carols

O come, divine Messiah!

The world in silence waits the day

When hope shall sing its triumph,

And sadness flee away.

Dear Savior haste;

Come, come to earth,

Dispel the night and show your face,

And bid us hail the dawn of grace. 

Who doesn’t want sadness to flee away? Who doesn’t want to see the dawn of grace that will drive away the night? But when the sadness is palpable, when the night is especially dark, what hope can a song offer? More importantly, in the midst of Advent, do we have any reason to believe that what we hope for—a divine presence in the midst of human sadness and darkness—is anything more than a fairy tale we repeat regularly in order to convince ourselves that there is a glimmer of meaning in a horribly dark world?

According to Lamentations, we have reason to hope if we choose to have it. And the reason to hope will not be found in external events, which will be as they will be. Hope finds its home in waiting, in silence, in emptiness, and in the conviction that there is more going on than meets the eye. There are as many ways to nurture the space of quietness and silence within as there are people containing that space. Our task is to be ready, to prepare a space for hope and promise to be nurtured, even when every external indicator is that there is no reason to hope. As Lao Tzu wrote,lao tzu

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space that makes it livable.

I was taught as a child that I should find a place for the Christ child in my heart. I don’t exactly use that language any more, but I know what it means.

You come in peace and meekness,

And lowly will your cradle be;

All clothed in human weakness

Shall we your Godhead see.

Siobhan

Too Soon

Thanksgiving Break last week was a bit less relaxing than usual for Jeanne and me because, even though we are the old people in our immediate family, we did the travelling this year. We met on the day before Thanksgiving twenty-seven years ago; because of court ordered travel to their mother’s house for Christmas (the wonders of blended families) Thanksgiving was the one holiday we knew we would have my sons in house, so Thanksgiving has always been “our holiday.” It still is—people come from far and wide to make sure we are in one place at the end of November—but usually our house is the place we all gather. 002Last Thanksgiving we agreed to travel to my son and daughter-in-law’s in Florida the next time, last week was the next time, so for only the second time in recent or not-so-recent memory we were not home for Thanksgiving. We had a great time as always, although Jeanne and I agreed that for the foreseeable future we are playing the age card and having everyone revisit the tradition of coming to us. It’s a long trip for just a few days, and finding canine-care for our three four-legged daughters over a holiday was not easy.

I was committed to not checking my Facebook or email accounts while away, but of course utterly failed to honor my commitment. At around 11:00 PM on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my phone gave its “you have a new thing to look at on Facebook” beep and I took a look. I found, to my dismay, a Providence Journal news update posted by a colleague from work reporting that Siobhán, a much-loved and respected member of our college community, had been killed in a car accident on slippery Rhode Island roads a few hours earlier that afternoon. The thread of comments from my campus colleagues—“Oh no!” “Oh my God!” ross-siobhan-headshot“This is terrible!” “I’m shocked and numb”—reflected my own immediate response. I felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me with a punch in the solar plexus. I had just had a brief email exchange with Siobhán a couple of days earlier setting up a meeting time the week after Thanksgiving when she could provide me with some tech advice—and now she was gone.

If someone asked me to provide a list (which would be a very short list) of people, from among the thousands of students, faculty and staff on campus, who everyone liked, Siobhán would have been at the top of the list. She would most likely have been the only person on the list. Siobhán was the college’s Instructional Technology Development Program Coordinator, a position that put her in charge, among other things, of bringing the faculty into the twenty-first century technologically (after guiding them first through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). Over the past few years I had dozens of interactions with Siobhán both in person and via email, sometimes asking for help with something that a two-year old probably would know how to do, other times asking for advice concerning what new technology might be useful and user-friendly for the faculty in the program I direct. She always had the answer, delivered both in language that I could easily understand and without a hint of condescension or impatience (even though I undoubtedly deserved both). Often Siobhán provided solutions for the next eight problems to follow that I didn’t even know about yet. Siobhan 2She was gracious, creative, generous, funny, and had a smile that lit up every space she entered. I pride myself in responding to emails quickly, but Siobhán was the fastest I have ever encountered. I once complimented her on her immediate helpfulness; she responded “That’s because I like you!” I asked “What do you do to people you don’t like?” “I make them wait a week.”

I wish I had known Siobhán outside of work; my guess is that she was a wonderful friend. I found upon returning to campus last Monday that everyone continues to be stunned, struggling with her passing. The following comments copied randomly from one of the many Facebook reminiscences that have popped up over the past few days are a testament to what a hole has been torn in the fabric of our academic community by the untimely loss of this beautiful colleague and friend:

I’m in shock at the news – what a profound loss for the PC family. We’ll always love that smile…

She was such a beautiful presence on campus. Unbelievable.

Siobhan on bikeSiobhan was someone who always knew how to help, and she really got what it meant to be a student at PC. I will miss her a lot.

I am shocked by the news–she was perhaps the most patient and generous person I knew. I’m still having trouble processing the news.

I’m just hearing this news now —just devastating- she was a wonderful woman

This is so devastating. Siobhan had such positive energy, always with a smile and always willing to think creatively about helping students learn… She will be missed immensely.

Oh no–this is heartbreaking news! Siobhan was one of the most generous people I knew. Her positive energy always lit up the room and lifted the spirits of those around her.

This really hurts. I served on many committees with her. We shared a passion for alternative approaches to learning. Even when I had no “business” with her, I often stopped into her office to talk. What a loss.

I didn’t know her well, but from the short time I knew her, I could tell how much love and energy she carried with her and shared with the world. I had really hoped to get to know her better and become friends.

There will be a memorial service today on campus for Siobhán; I know that my teaching teammate and I are not the only professors who have cancelled class in order to attend. The chapel will be full. There will be a number of beautiful things said about Siobhan’s impact and influence on everyone privileged enough to have known and worked with her—all of them true. SiobhanThere will also be many things said about life after death, about God’s plan, about comfort in knowing that we will see Siobhán again, about Jesus having said “I am the resurrection and the life.” Somebody said that the angels must have really wanted Siobhan badly to take her so soon. I do not know what Siobhán believed, whether or not she was religious, or whether she believed in God at all. But such words are more for those who remain than for those who have died—and I must confess that they really don’t help very much. I profess to believe all of those things but haven’t a clue at the moment about what they ultimately mean other than serving as comforting platitudes. The fact is Siobhán is gone, taken decades before her time, and I’m not sure that I am—that we are—ready to “feel better.”

But I do know what helped a bit. Last Tuesday afternoon a colleague on campus organized an impromptu gathering for Siobhán’s friends and colleagues since—as the VP for Mission and Ministry said—we didn’t want to wait until Friday. At least seventy-five people gathered in a space designed for half that many; after an opening prayer there were several moments of silence. In twenty-one years at the college, I have never seen a gathering such as this one. Faculty, administrators and staff from all over campus, people who might go a whole semester without seeing each other or speaking, all in one space to express their sadness and gratitude. One by one various people began to tell brief stories and vignettes. Many were funny, all were touching—there were few dry eyes in the room. One woman told of a time when Siobhan was helping her with a tech problem and said that what she loved about Siobhán was her ability to not make you feel like an idiot—even when you knew that you were an idiot. “The nugget that Siobhán left me with is to always meet people where they are at, then raise them up from there.” Thanks for the take away, Siobhán. Rest in peace.

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Bagpipes and Cats

Today is Saint Andrew’s Sunday (which happens to fall this year on the actual Saint Andrew’s Day). This essay is in honor of the patron saint of Scotland, as well as my friend Marsue, who today will celebrate her last day of five years as priest at Trinity Episcopal Church before beginning a well-deserved retirement.

Although I am a philosophy professor by trade, I believe William Shakespeare’s body of work is more insightful about my favorite philosophical topic—human nature—than anything the Western tradition in philosophy has to offer. imagesThe Merchant of Venice is a case in point. Greed, money, love, friendship, ambition, honor, racism, forgiveness—all are on display in this masterpiece. In the dramatic Act Four court scene, Shylock insists that he be allowed to take a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio, as the contract that Antonio freely agreed to guarantees if Antonio is unable to repay the loan he has taken from Shylock. Antonio’s friends have gathered sufficient money to pay Shylock three, four, even ten times the amount that Antonio borrowed, but Shylock insists on the pound of flesh. When the defense demands to know why Shylock (who everyone knows is a money-grubbing Jew, after all) insists on the peculiar letter of the contract rather than more money than he could have expected, Sbagpipe-1hylock’s response is both cryptic and illuminating.

Some men there are love not a gaping pig; some that are mad if they behold a cat; and others, when the bagpipe sings…cannot contain their urine.

People have strange preferences and dislikes. In other words, Shylock says, I don’t need to explain why I want the pound of flesh rather than the money. I just want it, and the law says I can have it. People are like that—we like some things, dislike others, and no further explanation is necessary. End of story. Not really—a loophole discovered at the last moment leaves Antonio with his skin and Shylock in disgrace,

But Shylock’s point stands. Our personal likes and dislikes frequently are indefensible—yet they define who we are. I’ve written in a previous post about my obsession with penguins

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and my inability to explain this obsession other than to say “I like penguins.”Penguins in love Jeanne has a similarly intense obsession with Holstein cows. Shakespeare’s choice of example in Shylock’s observation is inspired—he chooses a couple of things about which no one is neutral. It’s possible that someone might not care one way or the other about penguins or cows, but no one is neutral about bagpipes or cats. You either love them or hate them.

Bagpipes: Over the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to scrape two decades worth of rust off my organ skills and play at services, weddings and funerals on occasion. noackorgan8-2013One afternoon while practicing for an upcoming service that included “Amazing Grace,” I experimented with various settings on the pipe organ until I achieved a sound somewhat similar to bagpipes, without the grinding, scary elements–call it “Bagpipes Lite.” I used it at the service and received so  many positive comments that I’ve found a reason to use that setting just about every time I’ve played since.

Hitchcock,_Alfred_02I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equaled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig. Alfred Hitchcock

 

In the calendar of saints, November 30 is St. Andrew’s Day. Marsue, the rector of my Episcopal church chooses to celebrate St. Andrew’s Dayimages 2 every year on the First Sunday of Advent (the first Sunday after Thanksgiving), even if November 30 doesn’t fall on a Sunday. This is her prerogative, but St. Andrew is not a top drawer saint and Marsue doesn’t similarly celebrate St. Peter or St. John or St. Anybody Else yearly on Sunday. Marsue does this because St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and she is a lover of bagpipes. St. Andrew’s Day gives Marsue the opportunity every year to import bagpipe_pda bagpipe player to start the service by scaring the shit out of everybody as she winds the best up in the back of the church and then processes. I heard once that when a new, very loud trumpet stop on the organ at St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral in Manhattan was used at a Sunday service for the first time many years ago, a woman in the congregation was so shocked by the unexpected noise that she had a heart attack and died. I hope this does not happen on some future St. Andrew’s Sunday at Trinity Episcopal in Pawtuxet.

Some are inspired by the otherworldly sound of the bagpipe—others think something else is going on, as 2013735-59654_bugs_bunnyBugs Bunny does when he ends up unexpectedly in Scotland.

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“How many of you like bagpipes?” I asked my after-church Adult Christian Education seminar after the St. Andrew’s Day service? Half enthusiastically raised their hands.” How many hate bagpipes?” The other half expressed their opinion just as vigorously; one of them commented “I always vow that I will never again come to church on St. Andrew’s Sunday, but I always forget!”

Bagpipes—you love them or you hate them. images.3A regiment of Scottish soldiers became known as the “Ladies from Hell” or the “Devils in Skirts” during World War I, not just because of their enormous bravery and fighting spirit, nor just because they wore kilts into battle. They were led into battle by soldiers playing an instrument that both looked and sounded as if it had been dreamed up and constructed in some deep, dark circle of Hell that Dante forgot to tell us about. I’m sure that many soldiers on the enemy side were unable to “contain their urine.”

The Irish gave bagpipes to the Scots as a joke. The Scots still haven’t gotten the joke.

Cats: I learned something very interesting the other day on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”04brenn_CA0 (a Saturday noon tradition and the source of much of my current events information). Recent research indicates that domestic cats believe that their owners (people, fellow inhabitants of the house) are large, mostly hairless cats who are useful primarily because they have somehow figured out how to use a can opener. For those who have or have had cats in their lives, this is not a surprise.

In any group of more than five people, ask “How many of you like cats?” Half will raise their hands. “How many of you hate cats?” The other half will raise their hands. And cats know the difference instinctively. cat rubbing legA cat will pick the most dedicated cat-hater out of any room, go directly to her, and immediately start rubbing against her legs. To the cat hater the cat says “You don’t like me? Fuck you—I don’t give a shit. Let me leave a bunch of cat hairs on your pant leg to remember me by.” To the cat fans the cat says “Whatever. Do you think I’m here for your amusement?” Cat haters want to know why the hell cats think that 4:00 AM is a great time to run back and forth in the house as loudly as possible for no apparent reason. Cat lovers find it amusing and cute when cats decide that 4:00 AM is a great time to run back and forth in the house as loudly as possible for no apparent reason

Cats are low maintenance. Whenever Jeanne and I leave for a day or two, extensive coverage for our three dogs has to be arranged. The safe window for leaving the dogs alone and unsupervised is about five hours. AtmpphpfkKNbwfter five hours, all three of them think “I guess nobody’s ever returning” and all hell breaks loose, beginning with tipping over wastebaskets and relieving themselves in inappropriate locations. Cats are different. With sufficient cat litter, food and water, a cat can be left for a month with no problem. Upon return, the cat will look at its people and say “Oh, were you gone?”

There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. Their habits are random and individual. tumblr_m7mfonbU481qz582yo1_500My last cat, Spooky, was an introvert extraordinaire but would at least once per evening make a royal appearance in whatever room people were gathered to make a slow, always counter-clockwise stroll through the room, then leave without comment. Dogs are obsequious—cats are not. Dogs need human affection and approval to assuage their natural canine insecurity—cats have no such insecurities. Whether a person loves or hates cats reveals a great deal about the person. I was pleased to find out on yet another Facebook personality quiz the other day that liberals prefer cats and conservatives prefer dogs.

I am a cat loving hater of bagpipes. So sue me.

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Celebrating Life

I recently submitted two grant proposals related to my sabbatical that will begin next July. The stakes are high–especially since I don’t handle rejection well. But I am a bit better at it than I used to be, thanks to something that happened toward the end of my last sabbatical . . .

There’s nothing more pitiful than a grown man feeling sorry for himself. But that’s where I found myself a few years ago while on sabbatical. My first conscious thought upon awakening was of the email I received the night before informing me that Icollegeville-inst1[1] had not been accepted into a summer writing workshop at the Ecumenical Institute where I was spending my sabbatical, a workshop that I really really really wanted to be part of. My career in academia has mercifully been almost rejection free, and it’s a good thing because I don’t handle rejection well. Despite learning from the email that there had been 141 applications for 12 slots, I took the “no” as a negative judgment about the whole me, from my ponytail to my shoes. This, in addition to my second conscious thought–“I only have nine days left here on sabbatical and then I’m leaving this place I’ve come to love”–and my third thought– “I have an exit interview this morning with the Institute program director”– made for a less-than-fabulous morning.

Slouching in my usual seat in the choir stalls for noon prayer, I was definitely not in the mood. For the first time in the dozens and dozens of liturgies in which I had participated from that seat over the previous four months,100_0331 I didn’t feel like being there. The hymn was lame, followed as usual by a section from Psalm 119 extolling the wonders of God’s law and how fabulous it is to obey God’s word. Whatever.  One minute of silence. The second psalm was entirely forgettable, until the end when the solo monk for the day sucked some phlegm down his windpipe the wrong way. After several seconds of coughing and throat clearing, he finished the last three lines sounding like he’d been sucking on helium. No biggie, dude—happens to me all the time. One minute of silence. The third psalm, number forty-something, included the line “it is good that I was afflicted.” Oh really? Well if you were as afflicted as poor rejected me you wouldn’t have written that. Stand up and bow your head as you recite “Give praise to the Father Almighty . . .”.  Disobediently, I didn’t bow my head—what do they think I am, a sheep?

Sit back down, another minute of silence. Solo monk says “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia,” and we respond in kind, “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia.” Stand up for the final prayer, which sounds like the grownups in the old Charlie Brown cartoons on television.charlie%20brown%20teacher[1]

“Wah, Wahwah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wawah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wahwahwahwah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

In the name of Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ,

Who lives and reigns and celebrates life

With You and the Holy Spirit,

One God, forever and ever, Amen.”

“Lives and reigns and celebrates life”??? That one I’d never heard before—I think solo monk added it impromptu for my benefit. In any event, it worked like the face slap in the old Aqua Velva commercials and got my attention—“Thanks, I needed that!” I guess I’d never thought of the Father, J.C., and the Holy Spirit celebrating life together as one God forever and ever. What would that look like? My first image is of a Gary Larson-like cartoon. Imagine a round table. Seated on the left is an old, somewhat overweight guy with shoulder-length white hair and big white beard, wearing a white robe and drinking 18-year-old Balvenie neat (he saves the 21-year-old for Sundays). In the middle facing you is a sandaled younger guy with dark hair, skin and beard, hoisting a pint of Guinness and saying “Brilliant!!” imagesCAR35IOXOn the right, facing the white-haired old guy, is a dove standing on the table and dipping her beak into a martini with two olives. I guess it says something about me that my first image of celebrating life involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but it’s definitely a way of celebrating life.

Well if they can celebrate life forever and ever, amen, I guess I can try it too. And the evening before the day in question, for five hours before reading the email that shall no longer be mentioned, I had been doing just that with friends. Two of my good buddies (a married resident scholar couple), 100_0369a guitar-picking monk who is a native of Montana and tends the monastery orchard, and me. Our conversation ranged from still-new President Obama’s controversial commencement speech at Notre Dame to abortion to politics at the Abbey, while eating salmon, potatoes, salad, and drinking lots of wine. We ended up sitting on the back patio overlooking the lake as it got dark.  100_0366In the dusk the lake became still and as calm as glass, reflecting the trees along the shore in upside-down perfection. Brother John serenaded us with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez tunes, and talked about our colleague Conrad who had unexpectedly died (while pouring himself a martini) just a few days earlier. Conrad had loved this place, and thought it was a little bit of heaven. “I think this a bit of heaven too,” my friend said. If I believed in heaven, I would have agreed—but wait, that’s a different essay.

1852724[1]Then Brother John  started playing “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” and I knew my friend was right—this was heaven. “Summertime” is a song that Jeanne sings beautifully; she had sung “Suzanne” with Brother John after a group dinner when she had visited me for a few days over Easter and he fell in love with her (he told me so in an email). I can understand that because over twenty years ago, two days after we met, Jeanne, my dad, and I were having drinks in a Wyoming lounge attached to the restaurant where we’d just had dinner (my boys went back to my folks’ condo with Grandmaw).Jeanne singing Jeanne went to the front and, accompanied by the resident lounge lizard on the piano, sang another Gershwin tune, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine.” I decided she was singing it to me and I fell off the edge of the cliff I’d been balancing on for the previous two days. I was in love. I didn’t tell her for another month, but hey, that’s pretty quick for me.

When I got back to my apartment that evening, I checked my email, got rejected, and stopped celebrating life. How stupid. I am an introverted celebrator—IMG_9677I’ll never suck the marrow out of every minute and second like my dachshund Frieda and some other people I know. My kind of celebration expresses itself in what Anne Lamott says is one of the two best prayers ever: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” (The other one is “Help! Help! Help!’) I have a lot to celebrate, as do we all, if I just remember to find it. I can’t promise that I can stick to it forever and ever, amen, but I can at least finish out the day.

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Death Is Nothing Terrible

We are all going to die! That’s just so awful. I didn’t agree to this. How do we live in the face of this? Anne Lamott

Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to engage with various groups of people in the classroom on occasional weekends. I’ve had a couple of these opportunities over the past three weekends. The topic is always the same–How to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world largely outside of our control?

As the centerpiece of my college’s extensive required core curriculum, the Development of Western Civilization Program that I direct is of great interest to many more people than just the faculty and students who are in the trenches of the course every day. Parents of prospective students, alums and donors, parents of freshmen students in their first semester—004all of these and more are interested in exactly what takes place in the program’s classrooms, experiences that are the signature shared experiences of all students at Providence College. This is a program so daunting as to generate horror stories of mythic proportions, yet whose importance is revealed by its being the center of pedagogical energy in our new humanities building.

In order to give these various constituencies a taste of the DWC experience, I often am asked on a Saturday afternoon to give a “mock DWC lecture” for fifty minutes to visiting grownups. These lectures are a lot of fun, because the room is full of adults rather than eighteen and nineteen year old adult wannabes. The people at these lectures love to participate, they get my jokes, and cause me to think that maybe I am a good teacher after all. This semester I have given mock lectures four times—twice on the afternoon of the dedication of the new humanities building, once for an Open House for prospective students and their parents, and one for images[1]Freshman Family Weekend. My “go to” lecture in such situations over the past few semesters has been an introduction to Stoicism, one of the Roman world’s unique contributions to Western philosophy, a lecture that I call “Death Is Nothing Terrible.” Why the esoteric topic and depressing title? Because Stoicism is a philosophy for grownups, for human beings who have been run over a few times by life, are a bit frayed around the edges, and are ready to converse briefly about strategies concerning how to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that apparently lacks both. What better to talk about on a Saturday afternoon?

The most noted Stoics over a couple of centuries were not professional philosophers—their day jobs were remarkably diverse. imagesCALBM2ZLCicero was a lawyer and politician, Epictetus was a slave, and Marcus Aurelius was an emperor. What do a politician, slave and emperor share in common that might explain their attraction to the same philosophical framework? Each of them is a person who, at least in theory, lives a life that is primarily answerable to others, a person who is largely not in control of her or his own life. And this, the Stoics say, is actually the situation that we all find ourselves in.

Epicurus_bust2[1]Epictetus, the Stoic I usually focus the room’s attention on, was a well-educated Greek slave owned by a wealthy Roman landowner. Epictetus’s role in the household was to tutor and educate the children of his owner, a task he carried out so effectively that his master freed him in the later years of his life. Epictetus begins the Enchiridion, a short text that—according to legend—Roman soldiers on campaign carried with them while away from their homes and farms for years at a time, by asking us to do a brief thought experiment along with him. Make two columns on a piece of paper (or on a chalkboard). At the top of the left column, write “Within my control.” On top of the right column, write “Not within my control.” Start with the right column and begin listing all of the things that you encounter or interact with on a daily basis that are not in your control. At a lecture, people immediately start calling out

The Weather! No kidding!

When and how you die! The only thing we know for sure is that within 100 years, everyone in this lecture hall will be dead! But how and when—we don’t know.

Other people! “How much time do you spend in a day or week trying to influence what other people think or do?” I ask. “A lot!” “How’s that going for you?” “It doesn’t work!”

Your family! You may have participated in activities likely to produce a child, but you didn’t ask for this child! How often when younger did you think or say “I didn’t ask to be born into this family”? You were right!

Your health! You may spend a great deal of time exercising and eating right, then get run over by a bus this afternoon!

My gender! My race!

After a few minutes of information gathering and general hilarity, it is clear that many, indeed the vast majority, of the things that define and shape our lives are in the right-hand “Not in my control” column. Enchiridion-Epictetus[1]What’s left to go in the left-hand column? Someone will immediately call out something like “My attitude about everything in the right-hand column!” This person not only is correct, but has also identified the core insight than energizes Stoicism. “Some things are up to us, and some things are not,” writes Epictetus in the first sentence of the Enchiridion. We spend the vast majority of our time and energy messing around in the right-hand column, trying to change and control things that are not up to us. Better idea—transfer all of that energy to the left-hand column. I cannot control what hand I have been dealt in terms of gender, race, family, place and time of birth. Nor can I control or manipulate what other people do or the vast forces of fate. But I can (and must) take control of how I process these matters, how I will consider and shape my response to what jumps out of the right-hand column. My inner life is within my control. 002[1]The Stoic slogan is “from inner tranquility comes outer effectiveness.” By taking control of my mind, my emotions, my desires, my thoughts and my attitude I can respond to an out-of-control world from a place of serenity and peace. And that might just make a difference in the right-hand column.

Of course the proof is in the application and the details, which I spend the second half of the session with my “students” exploring. Epictetus ranges over family relationships, friendships, dynamics at work—just about everything normal human beings encounter from the right-hand column on a daily basis. But one of the greatest Stoic obsessions is with something that we generally don’t want to think or talk about. Death. This is not because the Stoics were depressing or morbid (although they often are caricatured as such). Rather, this is because the Stoics knew that despite all evidence to the contrary, the garden variety human being lives her or his life as if all the time in the world is available. We live our lives as if we are immortal. But we know, deep down, that human beings have a shockingly short shelf life. work on paper by Laurie LiptonSo why do we try to avoid this inexorable truth from the right-hand column?

Epictetus suggests that what we are afraid of is not death, but rather our thoughts and attitudes about death. “Death is nothing terrible . . . but having the opinion that death is terrible, this is what is terrible.” And my thoughts and attitudes are in the left-hand column—shaping these is within my power. Rather than obsessing about how I will die and what might happen (if anything) after I die, imagesCA3Y08VLI might want to pay attention to the classic Stoic mantra: Carpe diem. Epictetus expands in a memorable thespian analogy:

Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind as the playwright chooses: short, if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, play even this part well; and so also for the parts of a disabled person, an administrator, or a private individual. For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

Don’t waste timeimagesCA2WWW18. Be the best that you can be. Seize the day. These are, in many ways, annoying caricatures of a very rich and complex Stoic world view. But I think Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius would be fine with bumper sticker expressions of Stoicism, just so long as they are reflective of inner work that is more than a molecule deep. Don’t wait another moment to get serious.

For how long will you put off demanding of yourself the best, and never to transgress the dictates of reason? . . . From this moment commit yourself to living as an adult . . . Remember that the contest is now, that the Olympic Games are now.

Postscript: After one of my mock lectures last fall, my lovely Jeanne came up to me and said “From inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. That sounds like prayer.” Hmm. I think there might be an essay in that.imagesCAKB0ODG

evilclown7bc8

Send in the Plowns

Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.

I get most of my news piecemeal from NPR while riding in the car. Since Jeanne has the car most of the time, this is not a daily event. Even when I am “listening” to “Morning Edition,” I generally am only paying slight attention. It takes a lot for me to listen carefully. Civil war in Syria? Whatever. c2072985-e6f7-5e3e-994a-74990d3f595b.preview-300The Ukraine is falling apart? Yawn. Ted Nugent calls President Obama a bad name? What else is new? But when Renee Montagne reported this one morning, I was all ears.

Circus folk fear a national clown shortage is on the horizon. Membership at the country’s largest trade organizations for the jokesters has plunged over the past decade as declining interest, old age and higher standards among employers align against Krusty, Bozo and their crimson-nosed colleagues.

A clown shortage?? Really?? Apparently Renee wasn’t privy to the email exchanges flying around campus during the most recent controversy and brouhaha last week. Who knew there were so many clowns with PhDs?  I dismissed the clown report as the sort of filler that even NPR has to come up with on occasion. indexBut then the music for a South Korean skater’s short program the next evening was “Send in the Clowns,” and last Saturday the panelists on “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me,” my favorite radio program, started the show with a couple of minutes of hilarity concerning the impending clown drought. The panel suggested, for instance, that the art history majors dissed by President Obama the other day might want to look into enrolling in clown school as a backup plan for their current careers as Starbucks baristas. Clowns are in the air.

Isn’t it bliss?
Don’t you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can’t move.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.

652223575f794d7cad2bd5347a0f10This is very strange. There seemed to be plenty of clowns around in my childhood, from Howdy Doody’s Clarabell to Bozo, with whom I spent many afternoons after school. I actually thought the Bozo part of the Bozo-the-Clown-300x206“Bozo the Clown Show” was insufferably stupid and boring, but was willing to put up with it for the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. The next generation has its own clowns, most memorably Krusty from “The Simpsons.” There are a number of possible explanations for the looming clown shortage:

KrustytheClown

  • Young people who in the past were interested in clownhood are now going into politics.
  • The procreation rate of clowns is very low. The oversized baggy clothing makes clown sex very challenging.
  • Clown traffic mortality rates are extraordinarily high. Clowns are poor drivers to begin with, and piling twenty-five to thirty clowns into every clown-driven vehicle drives the death rate up exponentially when accidents occur.

Just when I’d stopped opening doors,
Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again with my usual flair,
Sure of my lines,
No one is there.
 

I know one person who will be very happy to hear about the clown shortage. My son Caleb has suffered from a close-to-terminal case of coulrophobia (fear of clowns) since birth. A little over 30 years ago, five years after my BA, I found myself living in a tiny town in an isolated Star Valleywestern Wyoming valley, working in a grocery store, with four- and one-and-a-half year old sons in a marriage that was sure would not survive. Don’t ask.

We had almost no money, but that was okay since in Star Valley virtually nothing worth spending money on ever happened. So when a pitying friend gave me two tickets to the upcoming county fair, I was pleased to have something to do with my older son other than read Dr. Seuss books or watch television. I knew that Caleb was not amused by clowns, but this was a county fair, not a circus. Horses, pigs, cows, a petting zoo—what could go wrong? As we got out of the car and started crossing the parking lot to the entrance gate, I noticed that the ticket taker was . . . a clown. A stereotypical clown with a bald white pate, a bright orange fringe of hair, checked shirt, polka-dotted pants, oversized grin, exaggerated  eyebrows, size forty-two shoes. pennywiseMaybe Caleb wouldn’t notice. But he did. As we approached the entrance, Caleb protested repeatedly in an increasingly loud and panicked voice “DON’T LIKE IT! DON’T LIKE IT!! THERE’S PLOWNS!!!” In order to short-circuit the dragging-a-screaming-kid-with-his-heels-dug-in scenario that is the bane of all parents’ existence, I sighed, we turned around, got back in the car, and drove away.

evilclown7bc8A few weeks ago I told this thirty-year-old story to Caleb’s younger brother. After several moments of uproarious and uncontrolled laughter, Justin realized that he just been given the greatest gift a younger brother can receive—a completely and devastatingly embarrassing story about his older brother. The next time the three of us were together, Justin sprang into action. “Caleb, are you still afraid of clowns?” Justin asked, mimicking in a high voice Caleb’s plaintive “Don’t like it! There’s plowns!” To Justin’s surprise, Caleb not only did not consider this story to be a threat to his carefully protected manhood, but instead doubled down on his lifelong judgment concerning clowns. “Clowns are evil. I hate clowns. Clowns are fucked up.”

Don’t you love farce?
My fault I fear.
I thought that you’d want what I want.
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

What will a clown-less world be like? Probably the same as the one we’ve got—I have to admit that other than the above-mentioned adventure with my son, clowns have not been on my radar screen very often. But generations yet unborn will eventually wonder what the hell Judy Collins is singing about.

Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t it queer,
Losing my timing this late
In my career?
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

The World’s Most Interesting Man

In one of my interdisciplinary classes we are in the transition between Ancient Greece and Rome. Which means we’re in the world of Alexander the Great. As I listened to my history colleague’s excellent introductory lecture to the Hellenistic world the other day, my thoughts drifted to someone else who, as Alexander was in his day, is simply the best at everything . . .

His words carry weight that would break a less interesting man’s jaw

Every once in a while, Madison Avenue gets it right and an advertising campaign takes on a life of its own. When I was in my late twenties and early thirties, miller-lite-ad[1]Miller Lite’s “Tastes Great . . . Less Filling” campaign went viral. This simple disagreement about what was more remarkable about Miller Lite—that it tasted more like real beer than expected or that its reduced calories made it possible to drink more of it without feeling bloated—started showing up in the strangest places. During the campaign’s heyday, I was studying for my Master’s degree at the University of Wyoming and never missed a UW Cowboys’ basketball game.Pic C - Cat Fight[1] During time-outs, the student section behind the basket at one end of the arena would stand as if on cue, point threateningly at the student section behind the other basket, and scream TASTES GREAT!!! at the top of its lungs. In response the opposite section would rise as one, point back and scream LESS FILLING!!! Back and forth the challenge would go, louder and louder, soon involving every one of the several thousand fans in a competition that for the moment was more intense than the game on the court.

When opportunity knocks and he’s not home, opportunity waits.

super-bowl-etrade-baby-[1]Jeanne’s favorite current ad campaign is the talking baby on E-trade ads—“I guess that riding the dog like a small horse is frowned upon in this establishment!”—who never fails to cause her to laugh uproariously. I find these ads occasionally amusing, but personally find talking babies somewhat creepy. images[8]My own favorite campaign, one that unfortunately seems to have almost run its course, is Dos Equis’ “The World’s Most Interesting Man.”

In a past life, he was himself.

The picture of suaveness and refinement, perfectly dressed for every occasion, sporting the perfectly groomed salt-and-pepper beard I wish I could grow, surrounded by gorgeous women, various ads show The World’s Most Interesting Man saving babies from fires, playing polo or cricket, and generally excelling at everything he does, as the voice over reveals various remarkable facts about him.

His mother has a tattoo that says “son.”

Some ads include life advice from The World’s Most Interesting Man.

The World’s Most Interesting Man on Skateboarding: “No”

Or

The World’s Most Interesting Man on Boxers or Briefs: “What comes between a man and his pants is his own business”

the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world-meme-generator-i-don-t-always-drink-beer-but-when-i-do-i-make-chuck-norris-serve-it-to-me-in-a-dress-f73cff[1]Each ad concludes with The World’s Most Interesting Man at table in a mahogany-paneled room, flanked by beautiful people, lifting a glass of beer toward the viewer. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis. Stay thirsty, my friend.”

The World’s Most Interesting Man is every man’s best imagined self, the man who he would like to bring into the world every day but who is never available. Napoleonzyexvm[1] is a central character in War and Peace; he is one of the few human beings ever—along, perhaps, with Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and a few others—who actually was able to for a number of years to not only believe that he was The World’s Most Interesting Man but also to have millions of people agree with him and to see events bear their collective opinion out. One of my favorite chapters in Tolstoy’s novel is at the Battle of Borodinoaleksandr-averyanov-battle-for-the-shevardinsky-redoubt-undated[1] , where Tolstoy gives the reader access to Napoleon’s inner dialogue as he slowly realizes that, on this day at least, he is not The World’s Most Interesting Man. There is a Napoleon in each of us convinced that we are the center of the universe and undoubtedly the world’s most interesting and important human being. It’s just that for most of us this inner World’s Most Interesting Person never seems to show up except when we are alone.

He once had an awkward moment, just to see what it felt like.

My position directing a large academic program often requires me to act as if I have more confidence than I actually do, as if I am The World’s Most Effective and Intimidating Director. Sometimes props help. My favorite coffee cup at work, a cup that I paid forty dollars for because a monk made it, was shattered a few weeks ago when I dropped it on a particularly stressful day. So I’m considering which coffee cup to bring from home in the fall as my replacement Director’s coffee cup to break in the new Ruane Center for the Humanities, the beautiful new digs that we will be moving into over the summer. The top candidate for new Director’s coffee cup at the moment is one that my son gave me last year for Father’s Day, a cup large enough to take a bath in.

005

Maybe it will do double duty as the Development of Western Civilization version of a speaking staff, and I’ll allow each faculty member at meetings to hold it as they speak. It seems that I come closest to letting my internal “Most Interesting Man” out at work. On the door of my philosophy department office is a take-off on “The World’s Most Interesting Man” that I found on-line. There he is, perfectly coiffed, manicured and dressed, holding a glass of beer and sayingMost interesting man

I don’t always hear from God, but when I do, He sounds like me

            What I suspect makes this ad campaign so amusing to me and many others is that it actually hits very close to home. We really do frequently believe and act as if we are the world’s most interesting human, usually to discover in short order that not only are we not that interesting, we’re not even that important in the larger scheme of things. The Psalms are particularly effective at pricking balloons of self-importance. As I have developed the habit of reading the assigned Liturgy of the Hours psalms every weekday morning, I have been treated to regular reminders that I’m not so great. This morning at Vigils, the assigned psalm-reading monk read Psalm 62:

scale-balance[1]Common folk are only a breath,

The great are an illusion.

Placed in the scales they rise;

They weigh less than a breath.

“Placed in the scales they rise”—as my friend Ivan once commented, that’s the ultimate description of a lightweight. Coupled with such deflating put downs from the Psalmist, of course, are lines similar to those that close Psalm 62:

Psalms-62-Verse-11[1]For God has said only one thing;

Only two do I know:

That to God alone belongs power,

And to you Lord, love;

And that you repay us all

According to our deeds.

God’s coffee cup, which I’m sure is as vast as the Pacific Ocean outside my retreat room, undoubtedly says055

I AM a BIG fucking deal . . . and you’re not

Good to keep in mind. And yet . . . this is the same God who invites me to intimacy and friendship. It is probably best to keep my inner “World’s Most Interesting Man” to myself—except on those rare occasions when I just have to let him briefly see the light of day.

He wouldn’t be afraid to show his feminine side—if he had one.

The Crucifix Train

A bit over a year after moving into our beautiful new humanities building, there is still a great deal of debate and disagreement for what belongs on the walls. With one notable exception. As I wrote about a year ago, there is one item so omnipresent on the walls in the new building that it is impossible to miss.

Moving day on a Catholic campus is a bit different than on other campuses. The large interdisciplinary program that I direct was moved a couple of  months ago into our new fabulous humanities building, an academic Shangri-La that is the envy of  my academic friends who teach at other colleges and universities. Since my program’s lectures and seminars will constitute the lion’s share of classes taught in this building, I have been referring to it as “my building” since ground breaking a bit over a year ago. The day after we moved, as I wandered the halls of the Ruane Center for the Humanities and thanked the gods of interdisciplinarity for this long-awaited gift, I came across an unusual sight. 15267-4259672-6[1]In the middle of the main floor hall, piled on top of a pushcart such as food services uses to deliver items to meetings, were at least a dozen identical two-foot crucifixes, in living and gory color. “Must be crucifix day—we certainly are keeping some crucifix factory in business,” I thought. More than twenty-five years as a non-Catholic in Catholic higher education has prepped me for sights never seen on other campuses.

089But this was a first, and I mentioned it to the next few colleagues I came across as the morning progressed. One faculty colleague told me, as she was setting up her new office, that she had come across a room on the lower level where dozens of crucifixes were laid out across the floor. “It looked like some sort of weird medieval torture chamber.” Another colleague said  “Oh yeah. You don’t want to get in front of that train. I did that once, and it wasn’t pretty.” 088Apparently this colleague found out a couple of years ago during a discussion about the placement of a crucifix in a new classroom that the crucifix always gets priority because “God is more important than white boards.” Good information to have. A couple of days later, as I was giving my son a guided tour through my new building, we came across yet another very large crucifix. “His halo looks like a dinner plate,” my son observed. “It’s a little known fact that when the Romans crucified someone they didn’t just nail the person to the cross. 100_1976They also made him balance a gold plate on his head,” I replied. You can’t get this information just anywhere.

All this reminded me of a favorite story from a friend and colleague  with whom I spent sabbatical at an ecumenical institute a few years ago. He told me about the large Catholic parish church he and his wife attend when home in Washington D.C., a church filled with expensive and gory religious art. Once at a vestry meeting my friend commented that “during mass we say ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ Anyone visiting this church would have no trouble figuring out that Christ has died; we might want to consider having at least one thing on display that indicates that Christ has risen.”

I must admit that I don’t “get” the attraction of crucifixes; I am quite sure I had made it into my late teens or early twenties before I saw my first cross bearing a corpus. In the world in which I was raised, crosses were empty—that was the point, right? 100_1977But before my Protestant bemusement at Catholic practices gets out of control, let me assure you that Protestants are just as capable as Catholics of getting out of control with religious artifacts. In the early years of the Protestant Reformation, mobs of Protestants occasionally stormed through churches destroying all symbols of “popery,” including crucifixes, statues, and often priceless works of art. Several centuries later, there is continuing evidence throughout Protestantism not only of this iconoclastic spirit, green-cross-neon-sign-6867771[1]but also of a remaining, undiluted attachment to religious symbols. Crosses are everywhere, often combining fetishism and bad taste. Neon crosses were particularly popular in the churches I visited with my preacher father as a child, most often an imagesCAP5AG7Dethereal blue, but also coming in Kermit the frog green, red, or laser bright white. And don’t get me started on artist’s renditions of Jesus. Let’s just say that whatever the connection is between religious belief and mass-produced items of religious art, it runs far deeper than the divide between Catholics and Protestants.

I have occasionally written in this blog about the difference between idols and icons, the difference between focusing one’s attention on an artifact, object, or work of art and letting that artifact, object, or work of art serve as a doorway or window to something elseFedorovskaya[1]. The difference between treating something as an idol or as an icon is the difference between “looking at” and “looking through.” To my irreverent Protestant eye, a crucifix is a prime candidate for idolatry, because it is available and oddly attractive. But if I step outside of my admittedly skewed perspective and wonder how a crucifix might be an icon, what lies on the other side of such a sacred window?

Looking through a crucifix brings suffering and pain into focus, which makes a crucifix a complex symbol of a very complex set of beliefs. At the heart of Christianity is the suffering and dying God, a God who, using Simone Weil’s words, offers a supernatural use for suffering rather than a supernatural cure for it. God’s response to the pain, suffering and devastation of our world and the human experience is to enter it with us, to share the burden. In the most horrific of circumstances God is intimately available. Although a crucifix hanging on a wall is just a mass-manufactured religious artifact,Pastrix-cover[1] it can be an iconic reminder that there is absolutely nothing that can occur in this frequently messed up world that does not include God’s presence.

In her recent memoir Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber, a heavily tattooed and pierced former stand-up comic who is the Lutheran pastor and founder of the Church of All Saints and Sinners in Denver, CO, tells the story of the ten weeks she spent as a hospital chaplain, satisfying a clinical pastoral education requirement during her years in seminary. What is an apparent representative of God supposed to do when regularly placed in the company of people experiencing the worst pain and sorrow imaginable? Bolz-Weber knew instinctively that words were almost certainly the last thing needed.

You hear a lot of nonsense in hospitals and funeral homes. God had a plan, we just don’t know what it is. Maybe God took your daughter because He needs another angel in heaven. But when I’ve experienced loss and felt so much pain that it feels like nothing else ever existed, when_god_closes_a_door_he_opens_a_window[1]the last thing I need is a well-meaning but vapid person saying that when God closes a door he opens a window. It makes me want to ask where exactly that window is so I push him the fuck out of it.

As she would often sit silently with persons in the midst of great loss in a chapel with a crucifix overhead, Bolz-Weber trusted that the God who was there could communicate far better than words. A crucifix as an icon reminds us that God did not look down on the cross—God was hanging from the cross. This truth transcends doctrine, intellect, and even our best tortured questions. From Pastrix once again:

Emmanuel_God_With_Us[1]There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering. But there is meaning. And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus—Emmanuel—which means “God with us.” We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.

100_1981

hello october

October Musings

Autumn in NEAutumn is my favorite season of the year, and October is my favorite month. This is not surprising for a native New Englander, since turning leaves together with crisp, sunny and cool days are an attractive combination. Even on this particular middle-of-October day as I write, when it is unseasonably warm and humid with a threat of heavy rain later, a few typically beautiful fall days in the past week and the promise of more to come keeps me weather-happy. I know that autumn bums many people who live where the seasons change out because it means that winter is coming. But I like winter as well, or at least the idea of it. The older I get the less I enjoy the actual fact of shoveling snow on occasion and having to warm the car up every morning, but I’ll take it over the Florida summer humidity and heat that my son and daughter-in-law profess to love for some unknown reason.halloween birthday

October not only means my favorite kind of weather, but also puts me in a reminiscent mood. October was an important month during my growing up years because both my mother and my brother were born in October (my mother on Halloween, which meant that we usually ignored her birthday in exchange for more interesting activities). It is actually my brother’s birthday today as I write; he has now lived two years longer than my mother did, and I’m within two years of the age at which she died. She died of cancer in October, just three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday, followed a couple of weeks later unexpectedly by the death of my father-in-law of only a few months. That was twenty-six years ago; last week Jeanne was in Brooklyn for a week to be with and help her sister after the October death of her sister’s husband of more than forty years.

October is a centrally important month every year for both students and faculty on college campuses—the first big papers and often the first significant exam of the semester (or perhaps the midterm exam)midterm are usually October events. For students this means even more stress than usual; for faculty it means that the first few weeks of the semester that have pleasantly been free of tons of grading are now at an end. Faculty love to bitch and moan about grading—I used to be great at such complaining until Jeanne asked me once many years ago at the end of my latest grading whine-fest “Isn’t that part of your job?” Well yes, I guess it is. It’s the one part of my job that I hope I don’t have to do in my next life (because I still intend to be a college professor—there’s nothing better). Now I tend to think of October grading as a great opportunity to learn new things from my students.

For instance, my colleague on an interdisciplinary faculty team informed me by email a few days ago that she just read the following in one of her freshman papers: “As Mr. Morgan talked about in lecture, during this time and culture, obeying god was the priority of every man, even if that means sacrificing your own son, which happened a lot in olden times.” Google UMy colleague wrote “I guess I must have missed that lecture.” I responded that “Mr. Morgan is my evil twin who gives lectures on off days for students who don’t come to the regularly scheduled lectures. I take no responsibility for anything Mr. Morgan says.” In one of my own papers (the same assignment that produced my colleague’s paper) one of my freshman began as follows: “According to Google, happiness is defined as . . .” I’m glad that I’m old enough that I won’t have to fully adjust to the brave new educational world that is just around the bend.Kathleen

October also often brings important speakers to campus. At the beginning of Q and A at her on campus talk the other day, best-selling author (and resident scholar for this year at my college) Kathleen Norris mentioned how much she used to enjoy Q and A sessions with second-graders to whom she was bringing poetry in North and South Dakota classrooms many years ago. “How old are you?” “How much do you weigh?” “Do you have a cat?” “How much money do you make?” “Do you have a bicycle?” The next time I am in attendance at a scholarly paper event, those are the questions I’m going to ask. Because those are the things I really want to know.

Even though the liturgical year is still slogging through endless weeks of “Ordinary Time,” October always brings welcome entertainment. Two Sundays ago we celebrated Saint Francis Sunday with “Blessing of the animals.”

Three years ago

Three years ago

This year

This year

Twenty-one dogs, a hamster and a turtle were in attendance (twice as many dogs as were present the previous year), but no cats. That confirms my long-standing suspicions that cats are agnostics or atheists. I was lector for the fourth straight Saint Francis Sunday and read the story of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers. My friend Marsue, who is rector of our little Episcopal church, makes sure I am scheduled as lector for this event every year because I always bring my dachshund Frieda to the lectern so she can stare people down while I’m reading.

Last Sunday we returned to the regular cycle of readings, which during this liturgical year in ordinary time has been walking us through the familiar and fascinating stories of the patriarchs in Genesis and the dramatic escape of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage in Exodus. On Sunday in Exodus 32 Moses is up on Mount Sinai hanging out while God writes the Ten Commandments and everyone else figures he’s never coming back. So they make the Golden Calf, start a minor orgy, and you know how that worked out. golden calfMoses is pissed; God is even more pissed. “Jesus Christ!” God yells (he forgot what part of the Bible he was in for a moment). “Moses, can you believe this shit?? I’ve had enough of these clowns! Stand back, Moses, while I wipe them all out. Then I’ll start over again with a new bunch of people starting with you, sort of like I did with Abraham in the previous book.” Moses points out that this would make God look bad, given that he put so much effort and creative thought—from plagues to parting a sea—into getting these people out of slavery, only to kill them in the desert. God’s response to Moses’ point is my favorite verse in the Jewish Scriptures, perhaps in the entire Bible: And the Lord changed His mind. The implications are unlimited.

October also provides me with a yearly opportunity to introduce a bunch of innocent freshmen to my choice for the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition: Aristotle. McEwanHis vision of the moral life, of the life of human flourishing, is second to none. I came across a beautiful description of such a life in Ian McEwan’s latest novel (an October release just a few days ago), The Children Act:

Welfare, happiness, well-being must embrace the philosophical concept of the good life. She listed some relevant ingredients, goals toward which a child might grow. Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love.

Autumn is a time when I feel, at least a little bit, that such a life might be possible. Thanks, October.love october

pickett

Academics in No-Man’s Land

This is the second in a projected series of occasional Friday reflections on what I have learned as a faculty member who has frequently had to play administrator over the past three-plus years. Mars and VenusMen are from Mars, women are from Venus, but maybe faculty and administration are from the same planet after all.

I have had the opportunity over the past three-plus years to spend time occasionally in the no-man’s land between faculty and administration—simply writing about it from a faculty perspective with a few positive things to say about the other side a couple of weeks ago drew several pointed and critical comments from fellow faculty members.

Faculty/Administration War Games, or How I learned to appreciate (or at least tolerate) assessment.

Spending too much time in academic no-man’s land is similar to Pickett’s charge across no-man’s land on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863—a spectacular failure that arguably turned the tide inevitably against the Confederacy in the Civil War. 350px-Pickett's-ChargeAfter two days of bloody stalemate, Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered an intense bombardment of Union forces, under the command of General George G. Meade, aligned on Cemetery Ridge from Confederate artillery positions on Seminary Ridge. This bombardment was intended to soften up Union positions sufficiently to ensure a successful infantry charge across the “no man’s land” plain between the ridges by Confederate troops led by General George Pickett and two other generals.

Bad idea. The bombardment was ineffective and the charging Confederate soldiers were sitting ducks, mowed down long before reaching Cemetery Ridge as they charged unprotected across the field. the chargeThe Confederate troops suffered casualties of more than 50%, marking the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, the northernmost thrust of the Confederate Army into Union territory, and arguably the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. When asked years later why his charge had failed, General Pickett replied “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Warfare is a favored metaphor when discussing the interactions between faculty and administration on a college campus. Both sides consider everything to be a “zero sum” game—whatever is gained on one side is automatically assumed to have been taken from the other. Each assumes the worst both in motive and will on the other side. Yet the two sides are required, at least on occasion, to interact with each other. When the need arises, the tactics and procedures are reminiscent of the Battle of Gettysburg. One side tries to soften up the other side with distractions, deflections, apparent “peace offerings,” or simply preliminary committee work—all in the hope of setting the stage for a successful frontal attack when the time is right.

Administration Ridge

Administration Ridge

Case in point: a seemingly innocuous foray by the administration into perceived faculty territory that I was in the middle of over the past few weeks.

I direct a large interdisciplinary program required of all freshmen and sophomores on my campus, a program so central to what we do that the classroom portion of the beautiful, brand new humanities building we moved into just over a year ago was designed, then built with the classroom specifications and needs of this program as the driving force. meThe program is in its fourth decade of existence, but in only the second year of a re-energized and reconceived version that was the first ever serious revision of the program’s aims and pedagogy. I was approached early in the summer by some important administrators with a proposal for a “Wall of Honor” to be placed in a large, prominent location on the main floor of the building. The purpose of the Wall of Honor would be to celebrate in portrait and plaque the contributions of retired faculty (some deceased) whose contributions to the program over the years were especially noteworthy. The proposal contained a detailed description of nomination and selection processes; I was asked to first gather input from my advisory group, a small hand-picked committee of persons from the academic departments that largely staff the program, wall of honorthen to run the proposal past the faculty in attendance at the first full faculty meeting of the fall semester.

The proposal seemed both benign and well-intentioned—who could possibly be opposed to honoring both excellence in teaching and former colleagues? Doesn’t the faculty often complain that the administration does not sufficiently recognize faculty achievement? The six members of my advisory group agreed that in general it was a good idea and helpfully identified some easily fixable problems in the proposal, adjustments made by the proposers as soon as I identified them in an email following the advisory group meeting. As is my custom, I sent the program faculty at large the amended proposal by email attachment a week before the first scheduled full faculty meeting of the semester,asking them to be prepared to talk quickly about the proposal before we moved on to the more important business of the day. What could go wrong?

Faculty Ridge

Faculty Ridge

You would think that after several years of being first a department chair, then a program director that I would realize how stupid the question What could go wrong? is when anticipating a faculty meeting. In military terms, the preliminary bombardment of the faculty through contact with me, then indirectly through the advisory group, meant nothing to those present and lined up on Faculty Ridge at the department meeting. As if organized by an invisible hand, several faculty members spoke clearly and directly in quick succession about how much they hated the proposal; furthermore, they backed up their opposition with good arguments.

  • The idea of singling out individuals for recognition is contrary to the spirit of interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching that we are seeking to establish and strengthen in this program.
  • old white guysThe first dozen or so retired faculty, perhaps more, to be honored on the wall will be old white guys, hardly a helpful image on an already too-white campus seeking to diversify both its student body and faculty. In such a highly visible place, we need to show that we are moving forward, away from an older, more patriarchal version of ourselves and towards a more inclusive, and a more welcoming, college.
  • The excellence that will be honored is primarily teaching excellence, while many good but less-than-excellent faculty whose contributions behind the scenes have been immense will never be nominated or honored.
  • This proposal does not facilitate the new program’s goal of reaching out to faculty across campus and incorporating them into what has, until now, been largely the domain of four large departments in the humanities.

And so on. Some of the arguments were so clearly presented that they convinced me and a couple of members of the advisory group who had entered the meeting as supporters of the proposal.pickett If the analogy of Pickett’s charge is appropriate, the Wall of Honor proposal never made it out of no-man’s land before it was ripped to shreds by the artillery on Faculty Ridge.

With faculty and administrators continually suspicious of and at war with each other, it’s amazing anything ever gets done on campus. The administration proposes that we all agree that the Pope is Catholic (even the current one); the faculty wonders what the real motive behind this proposal is. blue skyThe faculty senate resolves that the sky is blue; the administration wonders what they really want. In a world in which the faculty and administration by definition have radically different agendas but also arguably share many important goals, concerns and dreams in common, can we do better?

In the aftermath of his proposal’s evisceration by the faculty, one of the administrator proposers and I had an interesting conversation in my office a week after the faculty meeting. We have gotten to know each other well over my three years of being program director—from our shared work on an important committee I have learned that he (as well as the other administrators on the committee) are remarkably human, while I believe that he (and they) have learned something similar about me. In the same room we can get many things done, even though they still roll their eyes at the faculty’s resistance to what appears to the administration to be “no brainer” common sense, while I continue to explain that the world viewed through faculty eyes is a very different world than the one perceived in the offices of Harkins Hall.

conf and unionMy administration colleague and I agreed that a different strategy is called for, starting with a beginning faculty discussion and vote on whether any sort of process to honor faculty is desired. If not, then we’ll move on to other more important things. If so, then I’ll try what I did last year—putting some faculty and administrators in the same room to create a joint proposal. A handful of folks from Faculty Ridge will meet halfway across no-man’s land with a handful of folks from Administration Ridge, and we’ll see what happens. Collaboration instead of suspicion? Conversation instead of bombardment? Cooperation instead of cold (or hot) war? Impossible. Ludicrous. Or is it?