Category Archives: introverts

office hours

A Modest Proposal

a modest proposalIn 1729, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame anonymously published a short work entitled A Modest Proposal, one of the great works of satire in the Western literary tradition. The complete title of Swift’s essay is A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick; in it, Swift in apparent seriousness proposes that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. He goes to great lengths to support his argument, including a list of possible preparation styles for the children, and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion, all in a matter-of-fact style that can easily convince the reader, for a while at least, that he is perfectly serious. It takes some time for the unsuspecting reader to realize that Swift’s essay is a clever and devastating satire and commentary on the abuse of Irish peasants by their English landlords.

I love satire and frequently use it in class to great effect, an effect heightened by the fact that the average college undergraduate can’t tell the difference between satire, irony, and a spreadsheet. I am currently team-teaching a colloquium called Markets and Morals—our text for lecture and seminar a couple of weeks ago was Michael Sandel’s recent book SandelWhat Money Can’t Buy, a fascinating investigation of how in our contemporary world market economies are inexorably turning into market societies. A market society is one in which values, ideas and practices that have traditionally been outside the realm of the dollar sign and commodification have begun to be treated as just another thing to be bought and sold. From marriage arrangements to human life, everything has become a commodity for sale.

Tucked among tons of real-life case studies, Sandel provides some useful tools for identifying “market creep.” Trust your intuitions, he says—if your gut tells you, for instance, that there is something wrong with employers like Walmart buying life insurance policies on their unsuspecting employees then cashing in big when the employees die, or if you think there’s something morally amiss with high-powered special interest groups such as congressional hearing queuebig oil hiring people to stand for hours in line to secure coveted seats in congressional or Supreme Court hearings (and thus doing an end run on the democratic, “first come, first served” process), chances are that there is either a problem of fairness or a problem of corruption in play. Either something that has traditionally been thought of in egalitarian terms has suddenly become for sale to the highest bidder (fairness problem), or a value that we cherish is being eroded and cheapened as it gets sucked into the market vortex (corruption problem).

Rather than use Sandel’s own examples (the majority of which you can watch him discuss with various audiences on YouTube—the guy’s a rock star phenomenon in the world of academia), I decided to develop my own case study situated directly within the context I share with my students twice per week: classroom and course dynamics. I introduced my “modest proposal” as follows:

It has been my practice for many years when assigning students a paper in a class to offer my time and expertise for reviewing up to two pages worth of double-spaced rough draft material up to five days before the paper is due. I will read and comment on the rough draft material and send it back within 24 hours of receiving it. My experience is that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft commenting services earn on the average a grade that is five points higher than those who do not.

Since in any given semester I have anywhere from 60 to 75 students for whom I am the sole grader and there are times (such as around midterm) when a written assignment is due in all of my classes, it is often difficult to keep up with the rough draft demands, particularly when many students send their rough draft material to me just before the deadline. I always read this material on a “first come, first served” basis; it is undoubtedly the case that I am not able to pay as much attention to each student’s rough draft material as I would like because of the pressure to return the material with comments in time for it to be helpful in writing the final draft. office hoursThose students who are unable or unwilling to start their papers early are at a disadvantage in terms of getting my full attention and expertise when I am swamped close to the deadline.

A similar problem arises during my scheduled office hours during the days leading up to the due date for a major assignment or exam. A line of a dozen or more students is a frequent occurrence outside my door. Often I am not able to see everyone because my office hours end and I have to go to class or a meeting; often students who have waited for a long time have to leave before seeing me because of a class or another appointment (or because they get sick of waiting). So I wish to make a modest proposal for your consideration:

QUEUE THE POWERPOINT PRESENTATION

At the beginning of each semester, my students will have the opportunity to purchase a Morgan Preferred-Access Pass for $250, a purchase that will provide a student with the following semester-long benefits:Preferred access

  • Your rough-draft material will be read, commented on, and returned within six hours of receipt (unless it was submitted between midnight and 6:00 AM), even when there are several rough draft submissions ahead of yours that have not yet been read. Your Preferred-Access Pass, in other words, entitles you to the privilege of jumping to the front of the e-line.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass also entitles you to jump to the head of the line outside my door during office hours for one-on-one conversation with me.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass is transferable. For instance, if you believe that you are in good shape on a particular assignment and do not need my help or expertise, you may rent your Preferred-Access Pass to a fellow student lacking such a pass to use for that assignment only.
  • Please Note: Your Pass gains you preferred access to me by jumping the queue—it does not guarantee any particular grade on any given assignment.

I have said on occasion over the years that teaching is often like acting—a convincing performance is everything. On this particular morning, I was good; the students were unaware that a good deal of the “data” I used in the setup for my proposal was made up on the fly. For instance, I have no evidence that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft-reading services earn five points higher in their final grade than those who don’t. That’s an educated guess, primarily based on my observation over the years that the students who do send me rough draft material are the A-/B+ students who probably are the only ones in class who don’t need my input and suggestions. office hoursFurthermore, I don’t know if I have ever had more than two students waiting outside my door during office hours, even when a paper is due. In my proposal I am channeling people like my colleague across the hall in the philosophy department who often has more than a dozen students sitting on the floor waiting to see him. I would say I’m envious, but I’m not—I’m an introvert.

But I sold my modest proposal to my students with sincerity and a straight face, then asked them to discuss my proposal in small groups for ten minutes, both constructing an argument in favor and imagining what a critic might say. When we got back together, the conversation soon revealed that they had taken me seriously, and they were not amused. My proposal didn’t strike them as being quite as problematic as selling one’s children to rich people as snack food, but close. Stay tuned next week for A Modest Proposal—Part Two; or why my time should not be for sale. Until then, what do you think of my modest proposal?

Strange and Beautiful

Forgive me for name dropping, but I went to dinner with a New York Times best-selling author earlier this month. Twice. Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota, The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and a number of other wonderful books is a visiting scholar at Providence College this academic year and occupies an office that is literally across the hall from mine.kathleen I have known Kathleen for a number of years, but she was responsible for changing my life before we ever met.

I am currently in my final semester of teaching before a year-long sabbatical—it is still unclear exactly how it will all shape up and shake down, but I’m pumped. It seems like only a few months ago, but eight years ago I was in exactly the same situation—a sabbatical semester (the second of my career) on the horizon. During my first sabbatical, all the way back in 2002, I didn’t go anywhere; instead, I holed up in my office and wrote the first draft of a book that was published two years later. As I began to think about my second sabbatical on the horizon, I wanted to go somewhere for at least part of the semester (that’s what normal academics on sabbatical do), but my career has been shaped to fit the campus where I have now taught for twenty-one years. I didn’t even know where to begin.

the cloister walkA few months earlier I had picked up a book called The Cloister Walk while wandering around Borders. I liked the picture on the cover, a cover that also announced that the book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and contained the following review excerpt from The Boston Globe:

This is a strange and beautiful book . . . If read with humility and attention, Kathleen Norris’s book becomes lectio divina, or holy reading.

The Cloister Walk became my bedtime reading—a book that defies description or summary. Following Norris’s quirky faith through the liturgical year was both strange and beautiful just as the NYT reviewer promised; as another reviewer wrote, “she writes about religion with the imagination of a poet.” I had no idea before I picked the book up that this was exactly what some unknown part of me had been looking for, nor did I know that on a practical level it would point me toward where I would spend my sabbatical semester a year later.Institute

Kathleen’s experiences that frame The Cloister Walk occurred during two separate residencies at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. While there, she immersed herself in the daily Liturgy of the Hours with the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey about a ten minute walk away; she writes that the Benedictines refer to their daily office as “the sanctification of time.” The Cloister Walk is the fruit of that liturgical immersion—a “strange and beautiful book” written by a woman who I would come to know as equally strange and beautiful. As I read, I unexpectedly resonated with the eclectic spiritual vision of a fellow traveler steeped in Protestant tradition as I am—rule of benedictexcept that she was strangely attracted to the Benedictines and their ancient Rule.

An important aspect of monastic life has been described as “attentive waiting.” A spark is struck; an event inscribed with a message—this is important, pay attention—and a poet scatters a few words like seeds in a notebook.

I was familiar with the notion of “attentive waiting” from Simone Weil, another strange and beautiful person whose work had been the focus of my own spiritual journey as well as academic research and writing for at least fifteen years (Simone would have loved the Benedictines), but embedding such activity in the pressures of the “real world” had pretty much escaped me.

Kathleen describes in The Cloister Walk the frustration that her fellow resident scholars at the Institute felt with the poetic and decidedly non-academic energies she brought to their collective work, a frustration that I must confess I as an academic also occasionally felt when wandering through the intuitively organized labyrinth of her book. buberBut then, those who seek God must learn that there are as many paths to the divine as there are persons following a path.

When it comes to faith . . . there is no one right way to do it. Flannery O’Connor once wisely remarked that “most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow,” and Martin Buber implies that discovering that means might constitute our life’s work. He states that “All [of us] have access to God, but each has a different access. [Our] great chance lies precisely in [our] unlikeness. God’s all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of the ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one [person].”

I had no idea at the time just how badly I needed to hear that. On a deep level I had ceased hoping to find my unique spiritual path over the years, weary of running head on into what a monk described to Kathleen as “the well-worn idol named ‘but we’ve never don’t it that way before!’ And people wonder how dogmas get started!”

At the time I did not trust my ability to hear a possible word from God—I entirely relied on my intuitively attuned wife to do that for me. 209 inaugurationBut as I worked my way through The Cloister Walk I realized that something more than my usual resonance with a fine writer’s craft was going on—I wanted what she was writing about. Literally. I contacted the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, applied to be a resident scholar for my sabbatical semester during the first five months of 2009, and on the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated as our 44th President, a crystal clear Minnesota day with a high of zero degrees, I found myself in a tiny apartment situated in the very same complex and on the shores of the very same lake I had read about eighteen months earlier. my apartmentWhat on earth was I doing here away from Jeanne and my dachshund Frieda, all alone surrounded by a bunch of people I didn’t know? The only good answer was that I wanted what I had read about. And the rest is (my recent) history.

Professionally what I carried from that sabbatical was a new way of writing (that a few years later turned into this blog) and a bunch of academic essays that as of yet have not been published (because I haven’t sent them out). But I was changed from the inside out. I immediately tested the waters of daily noon prayer with the monks up the hill at the Abbey, a commitment that within a few weeks became a three-times-a-day habit. The prayers were important, but inhabiting the Psalms as a collective body opened a “deepest me” space that I have come to recognize as the place where the divine in me hangs out. Every possible human emotion and every possible encounter with the divine is in those ancient poems.

God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology.

The value of this great songbook of the Bible lies not in the fact that singing praise can alleviate pain but that the painful images we find there are essential for praise, that without them, praise is meaningless.

[The Psalms’] true theme is a desire for the holy that, whatever form it takes, seems to be a part of the human condition, a desire easily forgotten in the pull and tug of daily life, where groans of despair can predominate.

One day at noon prayer one of my friends from the Institute nudged my attention toward the row behind us. “That’s Kathleen Norris!” my friend whispered in a slightly too-loud-for-noon-prayer voice.beatles I don’t know what I was expecting a famous author to look like, but it wasn’t this. That evening Kathleen—on campus for a university board meeting—visited the Institute for dinner. For many of us it was like a visit from the Beatles. Like any groupie I made sure Kathleen signed my copies of her books (I had them all in my apartment) and we spent three or four minutes in one-on-one conversation (which I was sure she would not remember). But just meeting the person whose book had brought me to this wonderful place in the middle of nowhere was enough. A year and a half later, while I was back in Collegeville for a writer’s workshop at the Institute, Kathleen and I were both staying at the Abbey Guesthouse (I forget why she was on campus). We had several breakfasts and lunches together, enjoyed some conversation on the guesthouse patio overlooking the lake, and a friendship was formed. I particularly enjoyed the envious looks on my workshop colleagues’ faces when they observed me lunching with a world-famous author in the cafeteria one day. randall lectureAnd now, several years later, she’s our current endowed scholar on campus and inhabits the office across the hall.

When my birthday came a couple of weeks ago, Jeanne and I took Kathleen out to dinner—she’s a great conversationalist and we had a wonderful time. Our plan had been to include our good friends Marsue and Robin (Marsue is also a Norris groupie), but our umpteenth snow storm of the season made that impossible. So the next week we did it again, and this time Marsue got to meet one of her literary heroes in person. It’s strange how things work out. Last August, just a few days before the beginning of the new academic year, I was sitting in the atrium of our student center minding my own business and I heard a voice from the stairs behind me—“I know you!” It was Kathleen. “And I know you too,” I thought. “You’re the person who changed my life.”

zebra

Being a Fanatic

After a disappointing end to the Friar basketball season last night (and early this morning), I could be the typical crestfallen fan and complain about referees, bad seeding, and Jupiter’s failing to align with Mars, but I won’t. I  could use tired sports cliches (“They didn’t take it to the next level.” “They didn’t come to play.”), but I won’t. Instead, I’ll remind myself why I’m a fanatic in the first place, something I wrote about exactly a year ago . . .

Sunday morning kneeling at the altar rail as the communion assembly line does its thing is not a great place to be having less-than-holy thoughts. Up past midnight the night before, up at six this morning, I could think of dozens of things I’d rather be doing than being in church. The communion procession approached from my right–“The body of Christ, the body of Christ, the body of Christ . . .” I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be, I thought. I am so unprepared for the discussion group I’m leading after church. I hope someone has something interesting to say, because I sure as hell don’t. My buddy Bruce, one of the morning’s chalice bearers along with his wife Cathi, approached from the right with cup in hand. “The blood of Christ, the blood of Christ, the blood of Christ . . .” go friarsI looked up as Bruce lowered the cup to me. “Go Friars!”

            Bruce gets it. Eucharist celebrations come and go—I could celebrate every day if I wanted to (I don’t). But the Providence Friars basketball team winning the Big East Tournament title? That happens once every twenty years. Literally. On a March Saturday in 1994, I received the call we had been hoping and praying I would receive—the offer of a tenure-track teaching position in the philosophy department at Providence College. CBUIt was the ticket for my family of misplaced Northerners out of Memphis, the South, and the little college that was my first teaching job out of graduate school. Since it was March, it was also March Madness—the best sports month of the year. The final game of the Big East tournament was on—underdog Providence College playing the evil and strongly favored Georgetown Hoyas. A few minutes later Jeanne returned from grocery shopping—“Come watch your new basketball team on TV!” I yelled out the door toward the driveway. The Friars pulled off the big upset—their only Big East tournament championship in the thirty-five year history of the Big East conference. Until last Saturday, that is. Up well past midnight watching their victory, up early to read as many articles about it on the Internet as I could find—no wonder I was bleary-eyed at the altar rail.

            I am a sports fan in the true sense of the word—a “fanatic.” This is not easily accounted for. I am not an athlete—the only sports I ever have been decent at are skiing and tennis. I grew up in northern New England, hundreds of miles from any sports beyond high school. But I was a fan of all sports from an early age, a fanaticism that has distilled, as an adult, to theBoston strong Boston Red Sox and the Providence Friars. My passion for college basketball in general, and the Friars in particular, surprised my students and colleagues when I first arrived on campus, although it should not have surprised my colleagues. During a lunch with the philosophy faculty that was part of my on-campus interview in February 1994, someone asked “why do you want to teach at Providence College?’ The honest answer was that I wanted a tenure track job somewhere other than Tennessee. I think the continuation of my marriage depended on it. The answer I actually gave included some making some noise about wanting to teach at a place that takes philosophy seriously, focuses on the history of philosophy, and so on. On a more personal level, I continued, my wife and I badly want to return to our native Northeast (she’s from Brooklyn, I’m from Vermont). I concluded my response by mentioning that Division One basketball was also a very attractive feature of working at Providence College. There were a few snickers and smiles—but I wasn’t kidding.

            I’m a different person entirely at a basketball game. It’s a great place for my inner beast to come out—even introverts have one of those—in ways that sometimes even I am surprised by. Once during our second year at Providence, when my season tickets were still in an upper deck nosebleed section, we were given two seats on the court by the Admissions Director Jeanne worked for. It was not a pretty game—we were being beaten by Iona. zebraProvidence should never be beaten by Iona, so obviously it was the referees’ fault. After a particularly horrendous call, one of the zebras went trotting by our seats, just a few feet away, causing me to scream in his direction, along with several thousand other fans, just what was on my mind. A few seconds later I asked Jeanne “Did I just call the ref a fucking asshole?” “Yes you did,” she replied. That’s why I love basketball games—they provide the opportunity for unfiltered expression of what I really am feeling and thinking. Later in the game I looked up toward our usual seats where my son Justin was sitting. As he screamed with a beet-red face and veins popping out of his neck, I wondered “Why is he getting so upset? It’s just a game. Where does he get that from?”

            I have had two season tickets in Section 104 for the past seventeen years. Section 104 is a family sectionS of A—if your family has a “Sons of Anarchy” disposition. Once several years ago a young man a couple of rows in front of me, the son of one of the season ticket holders, was telling a story to a friend during a timeout with all the energy, volume, and foul language that a half-inebriated twenty-something male can muster. “HE SAID BLAH BLAH BLAH SO I SAID GO F%&K YOURSELF! THEN HE SAID BLAH BLAH BLAH SO I SAID  GO F%&K YOURSELF!!” After a few more GFYs, a guy in the front row of the section turned around and yelled “Hey! Knock it off! I’ve got my wife with me!” The young guy apologized—“sorry, man”—but front row guy wouldn’t let it go and kept complaining. Before long, GFY guy goes “I SAID I WAS SORRY!! GO F%&K YOURSELF!!Me on the JumbotronI love Section 104.

            I knew something special was up two weeks ago, at the final home game of the season. Our opponent, as it turns out, was my alma mater Marquette Warriors who had defeated us nine straight times over the past few years. It was Senior Night, with a pre-game ceremony honoring the five seniors on what has
turned out to be my favorite Friars team of the nineteen I have followed since showing up in Providence. During the first timeout, my seat was chosen, out of 11,000 plus fans, as the “lucky seat” of the night. I was interviewed briefly, was on the Jumbotron for half a minute, and got a signed basketball. We then proceeded to win a double-overtime game that I pronounced to be the best basketball game I had ever seen. And it was. Until last Saturday night. We were, against all expectations and predictions, playing in the championship game of the Big East tournament for the first time in twenty years. We were playing Creighton University, the twelfth-ranked team in the country who had beaten the crap out of us by fifteen points just a week earlier. 1981970_950337533977_574254381_nBut it was one of those magical nights that happens every once in a while in college basketball. The Friars flawlessly executed a brilliant game plan concocted by the coaching staff, led the whole way, and won the championship. As they celebrated and cut down the Madison Square Garden nets in front of a national television audience, I had tears in my eyes.

            Why am I a fanatic? There are all sorts of reasons a basketball obsessed academic might come up with. College basketball at its best is teamwork, dedication, solidarity, hope, and dreams on display. I have a colleague who teaches a “Philosophy of Sport” course, although I’ve never seen him at a game. I could teach that course. But for me this is personal. I suspect that my youngest son’s top five memories of his childhood involve being at a basketball game with me. I organize my memories of the past two decades by reference to memorable games and teams. fanaticsThere’s something excitingly visceral and primal about being in a crowd of several thousand cheering so loudly that the building vibrates. But bottom line I love being a fan because it reminds me that I’m more than a brain, more than the sum total of the roles I play, even though I love every one of them. Being a fan reminds me that there is still a kid inside who can get inexplicably excited, to the point of hyperventilation and tears, over something that makes no sense other than that I love it. Forty years from now, when I’m in my late nineties in a nursing home, I will probably die of a heart attack as the Friars win their first national championship with a buzzer beating three-pointer. I’m good with that.

imagesCAERWR96

Celebrating St. Bridget’s Day

My brother and I seldom see each other. He is a medical doctor in rural Wyoming, and I am a real doctor in Rhode Island. But we frequently have brief Facebook conversations of the same high quality exhibited by most Facebook communication. In the midst of one of these, he made the pontifical pronouncement that “no one should ever wear corduroy clothing. Ever.”1377446_10201713065962154_1658107951_n “That shows how much you know,” I replied. “I have four pairs of corduroy pants and five corduroy jackets (navy blue, black, gray, tan, and some nondescript color Jeanne calls “taupe”). Two of the jackets have elbow patches, the sine qua non of academic sartorial splendor. Just because you dress like Doctor Grizzly Adams and haven’t worn anything other than jeans, a belt with a buckle the size of a dinner plate and a cowboy hat in twenty years doesn’t qualify you to diss corduroy.”

            How to dress as an academic is something I picked up early on in my teaching career. . I remember my first few classes as a Master’s student teaching a summer course at the UWUniversity of Wyoming. As an introverted fish out of water, one of my greatest fears was being laughed at, either overtly or covertly, of being the butt of everyone’s jokes outside of class—a continuation of grade school and high school, in other words. So you can imagine my horror when, in one of my very first classes, I discovered while sitting on the edge of the desk that I was wearing one black and one navy blue sock. Immediate panic set in. But on the spur of the moment, I made a decision that has served me well in the classroom for the subsequent twenty-five years of teaching. I took control of the situation by choosing to give them something to laugh at from the start.imagesCAR7RNX6

Perhaps you’ve noticed I’m wearing socks of two different colors. You think that’s a mistake?—that shows how much you know! There is actually an art to dressing like an academic—it takes a lot of work to look like we do. There is, in fact, a special store (AcademicsRUs) where you can go to purchase academic clothes. untitledYou know, unmatched socks, shirts with sleeves that are too short and with ink stains on the pocket, pants that go up to here on your leg when you sit down, ratty cardigan sweaters, ties that went out of style decades ago.

            Which brings me to today. On this Saint Patrick’s Day, I am not wearing anything green. I never do. This is always a bit awkward in the classroom on a campus where the majority of my students are of largely Irish, Italian, or Irish-Italian hybrid descent. There is a very good explanation for my failure to wear green—I’m somewhat colorblind (especially with the green family). Jeanne, who is the family color-meister and my fashion coordinator/critic, has frequently been on the road over the past decade or more, so rather than run the risk of wearing something brown or blue or teal thinking it was green, I generally choose to wear clothes foruntitled.1 St. Patrick’s Day so far outside the green family that I couldn’t possibly be confronted by the Irish clothing police.

            Several years ago, Saint Patrick’s Day fell on the same class day that a member of the Teaching Award Committee was observing—I was a finalist for the award and the committee members were showing up in my classrooms like stalkers. As I prepared to start class, filled with students with names like Sean Fonzarelli, Meghan Incantalupo, Angelica O’Brien and Antonio O’Rourke, I thought it necessary to explain my greenless state to my Irish/Italian students. Since the true story was somewhat boring (they already knew that I’m colorblind), I decided to make up a better story on the fly. So, I said something like this:

I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m not wearing green on this very special day. The reason goes back to my childhood. I’ve always been proud of my Swedish heritage through my mother’s side of the family; growing up, I always wanted to know why Irish people got their own holiday and Swedish people didn’t. In protest, I’ve always refused to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. imagesCAEGDOP2

This morning I was thinking about what the non-existent holiday for Swedes would be like. It would be on July 23rd; that’s St. Bridget’s Day. She’s the patron saint of Sweden. Instead of wearing green, everyone would have to wear brilliant blue and bright yellow, the colors of the Swedish flag. Instead of drinking green beer and eating Irish food, everyone would have to drink Absolut vodkauntitled.2 and St. Bridget’s Porter, eat rye bread, pickled herring and Swedish meatballs, and tell jokes that aren’t funny (What’s the shortest book in the world? 500 years of Swedish humor). As I constructed this hypothetical holiday, I realized clearly why there is no special Swedish holiday after all. Let’s get to work.

            I’m not particularly big on saints—undoubtedly a feature of my Protestant upbringing. But I am big on my Swedish heritage. On my father’s side, I am a mongrel with Welsh, English, Scottish, French, and (according to my father, at least) a tiny bit of Native American blood. On my mother’s side, though, I’m pure Swedish. imagesCAERWR96Can’t get much more Swedish than my mother’s maiden name—Thorsen (“son of Thor”). I have cousins who are 100% Swedish and was much closer to my mother’s family than my father’s growing up, so I’ve always pretended that being half Swedish is the same as being a thoroughbred. It has annoyed me greatly over many years of teaching in the Development of Western Civilization program that I now direct that Sweden is never mentioned. In response to one of my many queries as to why the native land of my ancestors never gets any face time, a historian I was teaching with once replied “because nothing ever happened there.” But remember the Vikings, the baddest and meanest of the barbarians who helped bring down the Roman Empire and throw civilization into the Dark Ages? Those are my ancestors. Don’t piss me off.image001

            So as you spend today celebrating your Irish heritage, or at least pretending that you have an Irish heritage, mark July 23 on your calendar for a blow-out St. Bridget’s Day celebration. Saint Bridget was not your typical Catholic saint. According to “Catholic Online” (a place where Protestants go for entertainment), Bridget was married at age thirteen and had eight children. In her early forties, after nursing her husband through an almost-fatal illness, Bridget and Ulf felt called to split and take holy orders. Bridget was a visionary in both senses of the word—she was very forward thinking and had a whole bunch of visions as well. Her visions instructed her in excruciating detail on everything from how to stop the war between France and England and get the Pope back from Avignon to Rome to the habits that the sisters in her new order would wear. She spent decades writing letters to rulers and important persons who ignored her, went to Rome in 1349 and waited for the Pope to return per her instructions (he never did during her lifetime), and never saw her new order founded. As the website says, “she never returned to Sweden but died, worn out old lady far from home in July 1373. She can be called the Patroness of Failures.” Nice. But for some reason, she was canonized in 1391. Probably because she made outstanding meatballs.untitled.3

Carson and Hughes

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

Season FourIn anticipation of Season Five of “Downton Abbey” making it across the pond to PBS next month, Jeanne and I just finished binge-watching Season Four over the last few evenings to remind us, first, of exactly what is going on in the lives of the two dozen or so characters in the middle of the 1920s and, second, just why this is probably our favorite show on television. That’s saying a lot. We love good television and have several series that we keep up with religiously, including “The Newsroom” which just finished its final season (bummer) and “Homeland” which is close to the end of its fourth season. We are anxiously awaiting the return of “The Americans” next month on FX for a new season. But “Downton Abbey” is a phenomenon in our house, just as it has been for millions of other viewers. No violence, no nudity or sex, no f-bombs—just great character development and brilliant acting from top to bottom. Who knew that people would like something like that?

I learned many months ago that if I was a character on “Downton Abbey,” I would be the stodgy and formal Mr. Carson.mister carson

http://www.buzzfeed.com/justinabarca/which-downton-abbey-character-are-you

And that’s fine with me. Mr. Carson runs the staff similarly to how I run the academic program I direct, with a firm hand and an occasional adjusting of the rules when appropriate. I’m a bit concerned about Mr. Carson’s attachment to tradition and fear of new things, but he’s loosening up a bit as the seasons progress. The main reason I resonate with Mr. Carson is his penchant for pithy and insightful one-liner comments on what is going on around him, a talent rivaled in Downton only by the Dowager Countess of Grantham Violet Crowley upstairs. Here are a few Carsonian observations from the early episodes of Season Four:

I always thought there is something foreign about high spirits at breakfast.

morning personHere’s a difference between Mr. Carson and me—he’s not a morning person and I am. I’m at the gym every morning at 6:00. I would much rather teach at 8:30 than at 1:30 (which is my nap time). But the kind of morning person I am is not the sort which is inclined to “high spirits.” I love the morning because it is quiet, because if there is any time during the day that I will be able to slip immediately into “centered” mode, it is when I first get up. As I read the appointed Psalm 90 this morning, I read

In the morning, fill us with your love;

We shall exult and rejoice all our days

Mercyand a reading from Lamentations at my friend and colleague’s memorial service a couple of weeks ago reminded me that the mercies of the Lord are renewed every morning. Morning is a good time to reset and, if necessary, commit to a “redo” of previous days that didn’t work out as planned, intended or wished. As Jeanne mentioned the other day, if the Lord renews mercy every morning, then there’s no reason we cannot be merciful to ourselves. High spirits are not required.

The business of life is the acquisition of memories.

One of my last classes with my Honors freshmen this semester was focused on Book Eleven of Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine on timea fascinating and complex analysis of time that no philosopher matched or surpassed for a millennium after Augustine. One of his interesting questions has to do with what it is that we are focusing our attention on when we consider past events in the present. The past event is gone, but everything that we experience leaves some sort of internal impression on us, bits and pieces that we file away, consciously or unconsciously, in our “memory banks.” Each person’s history, indeed each person, is a creative stitching together of these impressions. Because we know that these internal impressions are impermanent and fleeting, we take pictures, write memoirs, and tell stories, all in the attempt to make permanent what is fleeting. Earlier in Psalm 90 this morning, the psalmist describes what we are fighting against.

You sweep us away like a dream,

like grass which springs up in the morning.

In the morning it springs up and flowers;

by evening it withers and fades.

Which brings me to one more piece of wisdom from Mr. Carson.

We shout and scream and wail and cry but in the end we must all die

HughesAs Mrs. Hughes, the chief housekeeper who is the closest thing Mr. Carson has to a best friend replies, “Well, that’s cheered me up. Thank you.” Who knew that Mr. Carson is a philosopher? Mr. Carson is the epitome of English reserve, carrying the most British stiff upper lip imaginable; if he was a philosopher, he would be an early twentieth-century incarnation of the Stoicism of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. Stoic reserve is just one of many possible responses to a brutal and inescapable fact—we all are going to die.

Impermanence and loss is a continuing theme throughout the seasons of “Downton Abbey,” through the ravages of World War I in Season Two to the tragic death of the heir to the family fortune in a car crash at the end of Season Three, a loss that is the connecting thread throughout all of the Season Four episodes that Jeanne and I finished watching last evening. By the end of the season some people are moving on, good fortune has smiled on others, but an uncertain future faces them all. This isn’t BBC drama—this is real life. One of the interesting attractions of “Downton Abbey” is that happiness and despair, misfortune and luck, triumph and defeat, are features of everyone’s lives—upstairs and downstairs, privileged and struggling, the family and the help. Violet and EdithAn extended study of life as it happens does not require spies, blowing things up, gratuitous torture and dismemberment, or naked boobs and butts every week. All it requires is noticing how life actually happens to us. As Violet, the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham tells her struggling and star-crossed granddaughter Edith, “Life is a series of problems that we need to solve—first one, then another—until we die.” Ain’t it the truth.Carson and Hughes

mindfulness

Going on Retreat

I begin with a confession. As recently as a week ago in a Facebook posting I have been telling people all semester that in the middle of November I was going to be away for four days at a conference (I might have called it a “workshop” once or twice). out of officeI put up an “away” message on Outlook announcing my absence for four days from the administrative saddle because of travelling to a conference, let my “inner circle” blog circulation list know that they would have to do something other than wait expectantly for my usual 7:30 AM Friday blog post on a particular upcoming Friday, arranged for my teaching teammates to cover the Friday afternoon seminar on the Aeneid that I would be missing, and generally covered my academic ass. No biggie—everyone know that giving papers at a conference is part of the academic life that requires rearranging classes and office hours on occasion.

cyprianExcept that I was not giving a paper. I wasn’t even going to a conference. I was going to a retreat, which in most corners of academia is tantamount to going to a 60s love-in. The name of the retreat, located at the Episcopal House of Prayer on the campus occupied by my beloved Saint John’s Abbey run by the Benedictines in the middle of Minnesota, was “Prayer in the Cave of the Heart,” led by a Benedictine monk who is the prior of a hermitagehermitage in Big Sur that I spent a week at a year and a half ago. It’s a good thing that I have not needed tenure or promotion points for a while now, because participation in such an event would have carried negative academic weight. The value of going to such a retreat in the middle of the semester in the eyes of the Committee on Academic Rank and Tenure on our campus would be similar to what the Psalmist says about the ungodly: “Placed in the scales, they rise.” The fact that I perceived several months ago that this retreat at this point in the semester would be good for my soul would be irrelevant to CART—“But will this produce a peer-reviewed article? Probably not? No tenure or promotion for you!” Too bad, CART. I’ve been around long enough to have been on that committee myself for a couple of years, convincing myself every Friday afternoon that I was qualified to mess with other people’s lives. If I determine that a trip to the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota is what is needed to keep my spirit, soul and body centered and willing to inhabit the same room, you can’t do anything about it.

Human beings are funny creatures; human beings on retreat are even funnier. The average age of the twenty-four people gathered at this one was probably a bit over my fifty-eight years, with women outnumbering men two to one. The women all looked alike—tall, thin, wearing glasses, with approximately  the same short haircut (with the exception of one woman with a long braid who looked like a refugee from the Sixties and who was the only person of either gender attending with hair longer than mine).ND Turns out that four or five of them were ordained Episcopal clergy from the Diocese of North Dakota. The guys were a bit more variant in appearance, beardless and bearded, bald and haired, thin and not so thin, including one heavyset guy who fell asleep during meditation in the oratory and snored really loudly. Twice. Everyone on retreat walks the same way, with a slow and intentionally reverent gait that actually looks a bit like how zombies walk when they are staggering toward you in the movies. Everyone and everything slows down at a retreat, at least at the ones I go to, which is a good thing.

Just as the other two times I have attended retreats at this establishment, silence was observed from the conclusion of evening prayer around 9:00 until the end of lunch the next day, the only exceptions being when were in teaching sessions with whoever is running the retreat. In these sessions we were allowed to ask questions, but only if they were good ones. I love silence. Silence is good. But not when packed into a small dining room for breakfast silenceand lunch seated six to a circular table, for breakfast and lunch during what is quaintly called “the Great Silence.” The sounds of people chewing their food while uncomfortably looking anywhere but at each other may be an important part of some people’s spiritual practice, but it doesn’t do anything for me. There is no one more introverted than I am, but even I breathed a sigh of relief when lunch ended and we all were allowed to speak for the next nine hours or so.

WardOther than the leader of the retreat, who came from California, I was the person who travelled the farthest. My flights were such that I was the first arrival early on Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the retreat officially began at dinner. After touching base with Ward, the director of the retreat house who is a friend (largely because between us Jeanne and I have been to five retreats at this place over the past five years) and moving my stuff into my room, ehopI went into the beautiful large living room area with a glass wall overlooking the adjacent forest, made a cup of tea, and sat down to read Anne Lamott’s latest book. TEA?? Since when did I start drinking tea?? As I have discussed in the past, I have been a dedicated coffee drinker (more like a coffee swiller) since my teenage years.

Saint Keurig

Jeanne was a tea drinker when we met years ago and still drinks tea on occasion as well as coffee, but not me. Tea is for pussies. coffee or teaWho can be bothered with the precious seconds wasted with opening the tea bag envelope, waiting for the tea to steep in hot water for an interminable minute or so, then figuring out how to drink it with a tea bag floating in it? By the time all that happens I will have swilled a paper cup of coffee, black since I can’t spare the time to add cream and sugar, and be back to the important business of whatever I’m doing—since everything I do is obviously important business. I don’t drink tea.

Except on retreat. I said earlier that human beings on retreat are funny creatures—I am no exception. Making myself tea instead of coffee for my first of many hot drinks over the four-day retreat was not a conscious decision—I didn’t even notice I had done it until I sat down to read. But my body knew something my mind didn’t know. mindfulGoing from an 80-100 hour week of work to a four-day retreat is not as easy as flipping a switch. Slowing down, mindfulness, deliberation and attentiveness—all those good things that I’ve begun to incorporate into my life but that slip through my fingers easily when swamped by real life—need practice. And taking the time to make a cup of tea (which I actually really like the taste of) rather than throwing another several ounces of coffee down my pie hole was a good place to start. Take the time to pay attention to what you are doing, do each thing as it comes, and wait to see what comes next. mindfulnessDo what you are doing and be where you are. I know this. Sometimes I even do it. But a retreat is an opportunity to drop fully into that space that I’ve been skimming over or dodging around for weeks. And to notice that it’s always there waiting—my deepest (and best) me.

I was even thinking that I should start drinking tea at work. Until I remembered that thanks to Saint Keurig I can now make a cup of tea as quickly and mindlessly as a cup of coffee. I don’t even need a tea bag. Oh well.

not your friend

I Am Not Your Friend

If it’s Friday, it’s time to think once again about interactions between various constituencies in academia. Today I am not thinking about faculty-administration relations. I’m wondering instead about the dynamic between professors and students.

One of the challenges and joys of team teaching in an interdisciplinary program—something I have been doing for twenty years—is that you get to teach with all sorts of people. Young and not so young, introvert and extrovert, high maintenance and low maintenance, mount rushmorecollegial and not-so-much, colleagues who belong on the teaching version of Mount Rushmore and others who have a difficult time avoiding embarrassment in the classroom. And everything between these various extremes. The various three- and four-person teams I have been part of have ranged from forever memorable to eminently forgettable. My team last fall was one of the most memorable, largely because one of my teammates was someone who really didn’t want to be there.

I have been directing the interdisciplinary program I teach in for the past three and a half years. Scheduling twenty three-person teams out of the rotating faculty that staff the program from four large departments from semester to semester is one of, if not the most challenging part of the job. Negotiating the time constraints while attempting to honor various faculty “requests” (I want to teach with these people, I do not want to teach with this person, I cannot teach before 9:30 or after 2:30, Rubiks cubeI cannot teach more than three days per week and definitely not on Fridays) is like trying to solve a 36-sided Rubik’s cube. The only accompanying perk is that I get to choose who I will teach with each semester. Last fall, one of my teammates was a colleague from history in his last year of teaching before retirement. J had taught in the program I direct in the past, but not for a dozen years or more. I was sure J was not thrilled to be sent back for the first semester of his last year before retirement. Known for his curmudgeonly and crusty demeanor (as well as his expertise in military history), I thought it might be a good idea to put him with me—both because we have been friends for several years (we are frequently at the gym at the same time) and because I wanted to protect unsuspecting colleagues from what J might bring to the table on a bad day.

J is in his early seventies; teamed with T, old white guysa classicist from Art History who is in his late fifties as I am, our triumvirate was the “old fart”/”old white guys” team let loose on 100 or so unsuspecting freshmen. It was a blast. It turned out that each of my teammates shared my ironic and sarcastic sense of humor, so we spent the first several weeks laughing in class at each other’s cracks and side comments while the children wrote them down dutifully in their notebooks in the off chance that such information might be on the next quiz or exam, all the time wondering what planet they had landed on.

At one of our first weekly team meetings, the topic of office hours came up. T (a complete rookie in the program) wanted to know whether there was a required amount of office hours a faculty member teaching in the program had to hold per week (there isn’t), prompting J to mention what he had told the students in each of his seminars the first time they met.

These are my office hours. If you have questions or need help, this is when I’ll be in my office. But don’t just drop in to “shoot the shit” or hang out. I am not your friend. I’m in my early seventies and all of you are eighteen years old. If someone my age wants to be your friend, you should call the police.not your friend

I wouldn’t have put my office hours policy quite that directly to my students, but I know exactly what J was talking about. There are many faculty colleagues who have students lined up outside their door every day, often just to chat or get life advice (the person whose office is next to mine is one of these people). I am not one of those faculty—nor do I want to be one.

I have written frequently about the interesting challenges and opportunities presented to an extreme introvert by the teaching life. I learned to channel what few extroverted neurons I have directly into my teaching first by treating the classroom like a stage on which I am acting (some of the best thespians I have ever met are naturally introverted). Over the years I not only have internalized these energies so that I no longer feel like I am performing, but also have become far more personal and transparent in the classroom than I used to be. I share so much about myself and my life in the classroom that in some ways my students probably know more about me than anyone other than Jeanne and my sons. INFJA willingness to be transparent not only breaks down the formality that is inherent in the classroom but also gives me an endless supply of illustrations for difficult philosophical concepts. I think I have become a more naturally open person over the years because of my profession, which is a good thing for a 19-1 introvert on the Myers-Briggs scale.

But I am still a dedicated introvert, which causes a bit of confusion when my students encounter “Out-of-class Morgan” and find him to be quite different from “In-class Morgan.” I know that almost everyone’s first impression of me before they get to know me (if they ever do) is one of formality, aloofness and perhaps superiority (none of which are actually true—it’s just how introverts are often read by non-introverts). I can live with that and actually make good use of it on occasion. But my students’ first impression of me is in the classroom, where I am extroverted, loquacious, inviting and often funny. my caveThere’s a moment of cognitive dissonance when one of them shows up in my office and finds out that my natural state of being is quite different. I never have been able to make my office an extension of the classroom—my office is first my space, a space out of which I take great pains to create a “Morgan cave.” And in that natural habitat I am my default self. An introvert. That means that my face does not necessarily light up with joy when a student or colleague pokes their head in the door—SONY DSCit often feels like an interruption.

I’m working on it. Since my office is a cave reflecting my interests, it is full of items as eclectic as the things I love, including tons of books, pictures of the family, penguin paraphernalia and a small stuffed Big Bird, a shot glass that says “I heart Jesus,” and a large coffee cup that says BFD“I’m a BIG Fucking Deal.” Come to think of it, my Morgan cave is probably a den of cognitive dissonance for the unprepared or uninitiated. Students find out very quickly that I am excellent with and often more helpful in email communication rather than face to face, which is fine with me. Email is an introverts dream; phone calls are not, and unannounced visits definitely are not.

I love my students, but I am their professor, not their friend. Some develop into friends over time—my office is full of cards and pictures of former students with whom I have a continuing friendship long after they graduated. I’m looking forward this evening to seeing two of them for the first time in a year and a half. They were students in one of my freshman classes a number of years ago, each took several more classes with me (different ones) over their four years at the college, they started dating as seniors, were married a couple of years later—a happy couple and I take full responsibility for it. bday fairyThey will be attending a dinner tonight on campus that Jeanne and I will also be attending—they call Jeanne the BCF: “The Birthday Cake Fairy.” It’s a long story and probably the centerpiece of a new post soon.

I was reminded when reading Ian McEwan’s The Children Act last week that, even though I naturally keep a distance between myself and my students outside of class, I have invited them into something intimate in the classroom that I cannot ignore. McEwanA young man says to the central character in the novel that “I feel you’ve brought me close to something else, something really beautiful and deep, but I don’t really know what it is.” That’s what I love about teaching—I get to open the door to a wonderfully beautiful and profound world for my students on a regular basis. Often the person who opens the door becomes a placeholder for what lies beyond the door. I have to remember that the invitation does not end when I walk out of class—I need to keep the door of the Morgan cave open—at least a crack. Even J learned something during his semester teaching with me. At one of our last team meetings of the semester, J said “Vance, I’m really pissed!” “Why?” I wanted to know. “Because I’m really beginning to like my students.”

Spare Parts

Frieda in church 1Yesterday was Saint Francis Sunday, a celebration that rivals Easter and Christmas at the Episcopal church I attend. This is because our rector and my close friend, Marsue, is an animal fanatic and makes a big deal about the Blessing of the Animals liturgy that she does every first Sunday of October. Jeanne and I brought our three dogs for the fourth straight year; Frieda accompanied me to the lectern as I read the Old Testament reading from Judges about Balaam’s ass. But my mind wandered to another animal who I would have brought had she not died many years ago.

How can an overweight, close-to-obese cat who died almost thirty-five years ago occupy a central place in my history? Allowing for imperfect memory, by my unofficial count I have had at least a dozen cats and dogs as pets since she died, but Stokely is the center of gravity in the menagerie of four-leggers that has intersected with my life. Remembering Stokely connects me with the better parts of my youth—humor, laughter, my father at his2010_0524aprilmay20100006[1] best.  Remembering Stokely also makes me think differently about what God might be up to with us human beings. Not bad for a cat.

Stokely almost didn’t end up in my life at all. In the summer between my sixth and seventh grade years, my family was moving about 40 miles north, from a rural and isolated location to what serves in Vermont as suburbia. One of our two dogs had died during the previous year; our other dog, an elderly collie who was strongly attached to our next door neighbor, was deemed too old to make the move and stayed with the neighbor. Petless for the first time in my life, I asked for a cat. There had never been a cat in my world—I didn’t even know anyone with a cat. But I thought a cat would be cool. My father did not. He also had never had a cat, and my request struck him as another odd, peculiar request from his youngest son who would not hunt, tended to be overly emotional, and just didn’t fit the mold of a typical son. And now he wanted a cat instead of a dog, for God’s sake.

tumblr_m56qax7EIP1r8majk[1]I worked on Dad all summer, and knew I had him when he proposed one of his random, off-the-wall bargains. “We can get a cat if he’s black and if we name him Stokely after Stokely Carmichael.” This was 1967, and the civil rights movement was in full swing. In my father’s peculiar imagination, a black cat named after one of the infamous Black Panthers made sense—why he didn’t propose “H. Rap,” “Eldridge,” “Malcolm,” or even “Dr. King,” I don’t know. “Bruce!” my mother complained.Trudy and Bruce summer or fall of 1979 “Good grief,” my brother sighed. “Deal,” I said—we were going to get a cat.

A few weeks later my cousin reported that her co-worker at the local hamburger joint owned a cat that had just produced kittens. The litter had three calicos with various patterns of white, brown, and yellow and Stokely—all black except for a bit of white on his chest. Stokely’s eyes had just opened a few days earlier and he could barely walk. I deposited him in a box with a bag of dry food from my cousin’s friend, jumped in the car and my mother drove us home. Stokely was an attraction in my extended family,Cat_Scruff[1] none of whom had ever had a cat and none of whom could believe that my Dad, the unofficial patriarch of the extended family, had agreed to have one in his house. My aunt picked Stokely up by the scruff of the neck (we had heard that cats like that) and let him hang from her hand—“There’s a problem here!” she announced. “Notice anything missing?” I didn’t, but my brother did—“Stokely’s a girl!”

Not only did Stokely turn out to be a different gender than we had ordered, she turned out not even to be black. She was a calico just like her litter mates—what appeared to be solid black was predominantly dark brown, which became more and more flecked with white, cream, and yellow highlights as she grew up. Her toes were colored individually, 4jrVS5r[1]with a dark brown, light brown, yellow, and white one on each foot in no particular order. My ever observant father said that she looked like she was assembled out of spare parts. In her later years she became extraordinarily fat; in her early years she exhibited a personality that matched her appearance. Cats are supposed to be graceful—Stokely was clumsy. Cats are supposed to land on their feet when falling from heights great and small—my brother and I verified by experimentation over and over that Stokely was as likely to fall on her side or even her back as on her feet when dropped from various heights onto my bed. I saw Stokely fall down the stairs to our front door landing more than once when a too-vigorous post nap stretch unexpectedly dislodged her from her spot in the sun on the top stair. Cats are supposed to be introverts and avoid loud noises, but Stokely would run from anywhere in the house so she could ride on the Hoover while my mother vacuumed the floor.

In an email several months ago, as I considered whether to accept an invitation to take on a huge new position at the college, a trusted friend who I asked for advice wrote that t7Ycu[1]“I find it part of God’s playfulness to just put things out there for which we might be put to good use, stand back and watch how we handle what has come our way.” A playful God who might be entertained and amused by how we handle new situations is non-traditional, to say the least, but I understand the dynamic. My father, brother and I took endless delight—to my mother’s dismay—in slightly rearranging Stokely’s world to see what she would do. A piece of scotch tape on her back foot or ear, depositing her on top of the piano, putting a cat sized coat on her for the first time—imagesCAR12L79always produced gales of laughter as Stokely first gave us a “when are you bastards ever going to grow up?” look, then deliberately addressed the new problem at hand.

A good thirty-five years after her passing, my crystal clear memories of this obese, made-out-of-spare-parts animal are evidence that she had an impact on me. As I’ve thought about her this week, I’ve become more and more convinced that we are all Stokelys. Although I suspect that most of us would like to believe that we are integrated, focused and sharply defined, we really are little more than random collections of spare parts—most of which are not of our choosing. We do not choose our families, the place and time of our births, our race, our gender, and yet out of these assigned parts—along with those we do have some choice in—we are given the task of constructing a life. caution-grunge-wall1[1]And overseeing all of this is something greater than us whose idea of planning and design is apparently something like “How about if I throw a whole bunch of odds and ends together and see what happens?” Psalm 139 says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” If God takes delight in seeing what we make of the bits and pieces we have been given, perhaps we should as well.

lifes-a-bitch[1]

Suffering into Truth

Every fall I get to spend several weeks with a bunch of freshmen in the wonderful world of ancient Greek literature and philosophy; two weeks ago it was Herodotus, last week Aeschylus, this week Plato. These guys make you think! Here’s what I was thinking last fall–similar thoughts this year.

Jeanne got on the Amtrak early one Sunday morning not long ago, beginning two weeks of work-related travel. Bummed out, I decided to head south for church an hour and a half early in order to spend that extra time in a nice little coffee shop just down the road from Trinity Episcopal, reading and doing my introverted thing. herodotus[1]My text for the morning was Herodotus’s Histories, the primary text for the coming week’s Development of Western Civilization freshman seminars.

Herodotus is considered to be the first true historian, but historian or not, he’s a great story-teller. His “history” is often page after page of anecdotal tales about strange and distant lands, often based more on second-hand rumor than direct observation. Consider, for instance, his description of a certain Thracian tribe’s practices at the birth of a baby:

When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.

That’s a sixth-century BCE version of “life’s a bitch and then you die,”lifes-a-bitch[1] codified into the very fabric of a culture. The first stop on Jeanne’s two-week travels was to stop in New Jersey briefly to help celebrate the first birthday of her great-niece with her family. Something tells me that Emma’s first birthday was not marked with a recitation of “the whole catalogue of human sorrows.”

But if brutal honesty were the rule of the day, perhaps her Emma’s first birthday celebration should have been so marked. The ancient Greeks, Herodotus included, understood better than any group of people before and perhaps since the often tragic tension that lies just below the surface of human life. In Aeschylus’s Oresteiafull[1], the trilogy of plays that was the previous week’s focus with my DWC freshmen, we encountered the horribly messy history of the house of Atreus, undoubtedly the most dysfunctional and f–ked up family in all of literature. In this midst of this powerful and tragic work, Aeschylus occasionally reminds us that tragedy and pain is not just part of myth and legend—it is an integral part of the human condition. We must, Aeschylus writes, “suffer into truth.”

At the risk of “piling on,” here’s one more observation about the darkness that often envelops human existence. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tells the ancient tale of King Midas, who spends a great deal of energy and time midas_silenus[1]chasing down the satyr Silenus in order to ask him a simple question: “What is the very best and most preferable of all things for man?” Silenus’ response: “Why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is – to meet an early death.” To which I’m sure Silenus added: “Have a nice day!”

imagesCAP8LYMLAs the main character in the movie “Playing for Time,” played by Vanessa Redgrave, says in the aftermath of the horrors of Auschwitz, “we’ve found something out about ourselves, and it isn’t good news.” The texts and stories mentioned above are pre-Christian—apparently the ancient Greeks did not need a doctrine of original sin to notice that there’s something seriously wrong with human beings. In the words of John Henry Newman, we are afflicted by “some aboriginal calamity.” And we need help, the sort of help that the mere elimination of headline tragedies and sources of suffering would not provide. The human condition is not a generally pleasant state that is inexplicably and unpredictably invaded on occasion by events both tragic and destructive. It’s much worse than that because evil, tragedy and suffering are woven into the very fabric of human nature. Anne Lamott opens her just-released book Help, Thanks, Wow with these lines from Rumi:

You’re crying: you say you’ve burned yourself.rumiport[1]

But can you think of anyone who’s not

hazy with smoke?

No, I can’t.

So what to do? The upcoming Advent season is the season of expectation and hope, energized by the desire that we can be better, that “life’s a bitch and then you die” need not be the final word concerning the human story. The truth of human suffering, of course, is embedded in the Christian narrative, about which Simone Weil writes that “The genius of Christianity is that it does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but provides a supernatural use.”  The Incarnation that Advent anticipates is the beginning of this narrative; tIMG_0091[1]he promise of Advent is that there is a glimmer of light in the distance that is about to dawn—“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.” A rumor of legitimate hope is about to literally be fleshed out. As we turn our attention away from our obsession with the human condition toward distant promise, we choose to believe that when the divine takes on our human suffering and pain, we in turn take on divinity itself.  The choice to look outward in expectation is within our power, as this text from Baruch describes:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Help is on the way.

Entertaining Angels

Some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2)

angel and jacobI’ve never known what to make of angels. I was bombarded with stories involving them as a youngster, from the angel chasing Adam and Eve out of Eden, to the one who wrestles with Jacob, to the one who brings bizarre news to Mary and the one who sits having a morning coffee on top of the stone that’s been rolled away from the empty tomb on Easter morning. But surprisingly, my favorite portrayals of angels are from the movies. Consider, for instance, the 1946 Christmas movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This is a standard at my house (which probably makes my house the same in this regard as about a billion other households). G and C at nicksThere are many memorable characters and scenes; my favorite is when George Bailey and his guardian angel Clarence Oddbody have a drink at Nick’s, the watering hole in the alternative universe into which George Bailey was never born. George and Clarence get thrown out of the joint shortly after Clarence orders a “mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves.” Nick is not interested in customers who want to do anything other than drink hard and fast, and he certainly doesn’t want an old guy dressed in a 19th century nightshirt and claiming to be an angel taking up barstool space and adding “atmosphere” to the bar. As George comments, “you look like the sort of guardian angel I’d get.”dudley and julia

Then there’s Dudley from the 1947 classic “The Bishop’s Wife,” the suave angel who comes as an answer to the prayers of Bishop Henry Brougham, who is struggling to raise money for the building of a new cathedral. Dudley’s mission turns out to be spiritual guidance rather than money-raising, a mission complicated by his increasing attraction to the Bishop’s lovely but neglected wife Julia. In both movies one learns that if angels exist, they almost certainly are not at all like what traditional art and sacred texts suggest. No wings flapping around here (although Clarence apparently gets his at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” upon the successful completion of his first solo mission).

angel unawaresI don’t know if I believe in angels as supernatural beings or not, but I’ve always liked the “entertained angels unawares” idea, thinking of angels not as non-human messengers from heaven but rather as unexpected vehicles and facilitators of goodness. The saying reminds me, first, that I never know which seemingly random person who drops into my life might be an unexpected game-changer. Second, I never know when I might unwittingly be a game-changer in someone else’s life. I’ve had many angels in my life—I’ve been with a certain red-headed one for more than twenty-five years; David Riceone of the most important was a close-to-three-hundred pound angel with a patrician New England accent.

My first teaching job after graduate school was at a small Catholic university in Memphis that focused primarily on engineering and business. They needed a philosopher (I was one of two philosophers in the six person Religion and Philosophy department) to teach a lot of Business Ethics (I taught four or five sections per semester). It was a good “starter job” and was tenure-track, but Jeanne and I hated Memphis and I couldn’t see myself teaching Business Ethics for the rest of my career. I started applying for positions in places like the northern Midwest and the Northeast immediately, but the job market was tight (as it still is) and we were worried. Then a close-to-three-hundred pound angel dropped into our lives.

The aging President of the university, Brother T., was such an incompetent holy terror that the university’s board created the position of Provost specifically in order to take the day-to-day operations away from Brother T. and nudge him into a retirement sunset. After a national search, David was hired as the new Provost. CBUThe university was small enough that even a junior faculty member just starting his second year at the place met the new Provost within a few days of his arrival; David’s office was just one floor down from mine. He was a breath of fresh air for Jeanne and me. David was a native, patrician Bostonian, spoke with an accent that we understood, was cultured and refined in ways that we appreciated, and had the wonderful Northeastern forthrightness and honesty that we embraced as opposed to the Southern hospitality and “charm” with which we did not resonate well. David was a wine connoisseur, had read just about everything, had wide-ranging interests, and had a heart as expansive as his waistline. boston-red-sox-alternate-logo-pair-socks-blue-59063And he was a Red Sox fanatic. Jeanne and I welcomed him like a long-lost older brother.

I don’t recall how I mustered the nerve to ask David for help escaping from the very institution where he had just been hired as Provost and day-to-day operations manager. I was only in my second year of teaching, my position was tenure-track (something many newly-minted professors nationwide would have killed for), and comparatively speaking I had nothing to complain about. fear and tremblingI came to his office on the morning of our scheduled appointment with “fear and trembling” of Kierkegaardian proportions, expecting him to do what a good Provost should, deflect my concerns positively (“It isn’t really that bad here,” “We need people like you here to raise the bar”) or shoot them down (“Shut up and do your job. No one likes a whiner”). Instead after a few minutes of intent listening (something few administrators do as well as David did), he smiled and said “I’m not surprised. You are too good for this place.” For a relatively new and still insecure teacher such as I, this was like the manna from heaven that God will dump down on the complaining Israelites in next Sunday’s Old Testament reading. “Tell you what,” he continued. “Let me take a look at your dossier; we’ll meet again next week and I’ll make some suggestions.” And so my boss took on the task of helping me make my dossier more attractive to a prospective boss at a better place. Only when angels get involved does this sort of thing happen.

David was as good as his word and more. Over several meetings that fall, he helped me revise my curriculum vitae, learn how to sell myself in ways a severe introvert would never think of, and begin to grow into the confidence as an academic that he saw in me long before I saw it myself. And it worked—not that academic year, but the next one. dustI landed my dream job at Providence College, where I am now in my twenty-first year, we shook the Memphis dust off our sandals and never looked back.

David unfortunately was not in Memphis to celebrate with us; he also was too good to be there for long. In the spring semester of his first and only year in his new position, Brother T. attempted to force David into making executive decisions that David’s strong moral convictions and big heart of generosity could not live with. Rather than compromise, he chose to resign—to the great dismay of the faculty and students who had come to respect and love him in the few short months he had been on campus. I can still see the huge banner the students draped off the side of an overpass outside the front gate of the college on the morning the word broke that David was leaving: DR. R—–, PLEASE DON’T LEAVE US!

yaleJeanne and I stayed in touch with David over the subsequent years as we went to Providence and as he became a higher education administrative gypsy, taking positions at colleges in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and probably others I have forgotten. We learned over time that he was a frustrated professor; despite a PhD in classics from Yale, life’s contingencies eventually plopped him in administration rather than in the classroom where he belonged. David visited us occasionally, we had the opportunity to return his generosity and write him letters of reference for a new position he was seeking, and he even took a thousand-mile nonstop road trip with us back to Memphis to celebrate the retirement of the athletic director at the college we had been so anxious to leave.

Despite many attempts, David never did lose the weight and sadly succumbed to a fatal heart attack five or six years ago. I miss him, not only as a friend and mentor, but also because I could use another good classicist in the interdisciplinary program I direct. The students and my faculty colleagues would have loved him. I’m not sure David ever fully understood how important he had been in my life, probably because I’m only fully understanding it myself now, twenty or more years later. David didn’t have wings and neither do I, but I pray that if a chance to be an angel for someone else arises unexpectedly in my life, I won’t miss the opportunity. I’m eternally grateful that David didn’t miss his opportunity with me. whtthe big guyIf there is a heaven, David is undoubtedly drinking fine wine with other portly angels such as Thomas Aquinas and William Howard Taft, while cheering on the Red Sox with Babe Ruth.babe