Category Archives: movies

gentle drizzle

Gentle Drizzle

IOresteian the interdisciplinary program I teach in and direct, the first semester faculty have to make many tough choices. Iliad or Odyssey? What texts from the Hebrew Scriptures? The New Testament? What to use from Plato and Aristotle–or, God forbid, Plato or Aristotle? And no less challenging—which of the triumvirate of great Greek tragedians? Usually it is a toss-up between the profundity of Sophocles and the brilliance of Euripides, but this fall my teammate and I have opted for the first of the trio, Aeschylus. In a couple of months, we will be spending a week with sixty-five freshmen in The Oresteia, a trilogy with enough violence and dysfunctional family intrigue to hopefully satisfy the most scandal-hungry eighteen year old. Perhaps some of the playwright’s profound insights into the human condition will seep in as well.

RFKOn April 4 a little over twenty-four years ago, early lines from Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ trilogy, were quoted by Robert F. Kennedy in Indianapolis toward the end of a brief, impromptu eulogy of Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been assassinated in Memphis earlier in the day. Kennedy, who would himself be killed by an assassin’s bullet just two short months later, included these lines from the Chorus’ first speech in the play as a sobering piece of one of the great speeches in American history:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I was reminded of both Bobby Kennedy and these lines from Aeschylus as I was listening to “The Moth Radio Hour” on NPR the other day.

Sala Udin on “The Moth”

Sala UdinOne of the story-tellers at the Moth event was Sala Udin who told of how as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi fifty years ago he came within an inch of losing his life after being stopped and then viciously beaten by the Mississippi State Police. In his jail cell, as he looked at his battered and disfigured face in the mirror, he thought “I don’t know why they didn’t kill me, but they should have. Now I’m committed. I’m clear. I will never stop fighting racism and injustice.Kasisi-Sala-Udin-copy I’m going to be a Freedom Rider for the rest of my life.” Udin and thousands like him were some of those drops upon the heart that Aeschylus wrote of over two millennia ago. Because of persons like Udin, change in the direction of wisdom incrementally but inexorably comes “against our will,” a change that although real is nowhere near complete.

I was born in 1956 and was too young to be directly involved in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, but have often wondered whether I would have wanted to be a Freedom Rider if I had been old enough and had been given the opportunity. I have no reason to believe that I would have, but take a small amount of comfort in the belief that once the habit is developed, courage tends to be available in the amounts needed by present circumstances. I have never been faced directly with the question of what I would be willing to stake my life on and possibly die for, amazing gracebut can at least hope that faced with the decision to act on what things are worth risking or even losing my life for, I would not immediately run away.

Jeanne and I recently watched one of our favorite movies—”Amazing Grace”—with a good friend who had not seen it before. The 2007 movie includes fine acting performances from various rising young actors who now are the hottest performers going—Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell, Romola Garai—the wonderful Ciaran Hinds (who knew that Julius Caesar was in the House of Commons?), and two of my favorite older actors, Michael Gambon and Albert Finney. images3FS0ITV3“Amazing Grace” is the story of William Wilberforce’s twenty year campaign to end the slave trade in England, finally accomplished in 1807 (the movie is a celebration of the bicentennial of that legislation). I have no idea how historically accurate the movie is, but as my good friend and colleague Rodney used to say, if it isn’t true it should be. It’s a great story.

Although there are certainly “good guys” and “bad guys” in the movie, no one is close to saintly or perfect. Wilberforce’s (played by Gruffudd) dogged attempts to end slavery meet with resistance for reasons that sound unfortunately familiar. Ending the slave trade will be devastating economically, there is “evidence” that the slaves in the colonies live better than the poor in Engwilberforce and newtonland, non-whites in the colonies are “the white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling will write decades later, and so on. As he encounters multiple defeats and disappointments, Wilberforce is on the brink of despair when he has a conversation with his childhood minister, John Newton (played by Finney). Before becoming a member of the clergy years earlier, Newton had been a successful captain of a slave ship; through various powerful and transformative experiences, he recognized the evil underlying his profession, and famously wrote a poem that he set to a familiar and popular tune. The result was “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most beloved song in the hymnal, in which the now-blind Newton wrote “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

In the middle of their conversation, Newton mentions he has heard that Wilberforce is returning to the faith of his youth; Wilberforce confirms the rumor, but says that while he badly needs divine inspiration and help, there have been no inspirational lightning bolts thus far. newton“Ah,” replies Newton, “but God sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms.” It is many more years before Wilberforce and his supporting cohorts from all walks of life land on a strategy that finally works, confirming Newton’s insight. The frontal attacks of previous years, energized by righteous anger, eloquent statesmanship, and the best of moral intentions have failed again and again. It is not until an obscure lawyer in Wilberforce’s entourage of like-minded persons suggests a new strategy—essentially “we cheat”—that success is finally won. Through behind the scenes manipulation and the use of a long neglected, virtually unknown set of maritime regulations, Wilberforce does a brilliant end run on his political opponents and slavery in Great Britain soon crumbles under its own weight. It will take more than another half century and a brutal Civil War for the same to happen in the United States.

gentle drizzleGod sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms. Ain’t it the truth? That certainly has been my experience, both in my own life and as I have observed the world around me for close to six decades. In its Latin roots, to “convert” means to “turn around,” but this turning is more often like a sunflowersunflower following the sun in its slow course across the sky than a dynamic and once-for-all event. I am an optimist at heart, something that is often difficult to sustain when I think about how much there is to be accomplished in my own life and in the world around me. But a steady rain, even a gentle drizzle, is better for my plants and grass than an inch-in-a-half-hour downpour. Beneath the layers of violence, hatred, ignorance and despair, something holy is lurking. Let the gentle drizzle and drops upon the heart release it.

If I Were a Beer, or What I have learned about myself from Facebook

images[8]My sons learned early on that although I was generally a laid back and flexible parent, I do have some rules that are not to be violated. Rule number one is no Budweiser, Miller or Coors product is allowed in the house. We start with Samuel Adams’ Boston Lager as our bottom line libation below which we will not descend. My sons learned the rules and carried them with them to college. My youngest son Justin reports that he would bring a six-pack (or two) of Sam Adams with him to his fraternity’s keg parties, six-packs that undoubtedly cost significantly more than a whole keg of the Natty Lite that everyone else was drinking. If you are going to get wasted at a keg party, at least do it in style by drinking something that tastes and smells better than donkey piss. 83guinness-original-cans[1]Rule number two is that beer is always purchased in bottles, not cans. Rule number three: beer is always poured into a glass or (in a pinch) a plastic cup; it is never to be consumed directly from the bottle. Justin once reported that he had observed his older brother Caleb and Caleb’s homies drink Guinness straight from a can. This passes rule one, but is a direct violation of both rules two and three. I had to be talked out of disowning Caleb on the spot.

I have long believed that you can tell a lot about a person just by observing what beer that person drinks. A number of years ago, my good friend Bud-Light-6-Pack-Can[1]Michael showed up for a get-together at my house with a six-pack of Bud Light. Michael and I had not been friends for that long; had I observed his serious lack of taste and taste buds earlier, we probably would not have become friends in the first place. Stopping him at the door, I said “Oh no, you’re not bringing that crap into my house.” Michael’s confused expression let me know that his beer choice was a result of extreme ignorance rather than misguided taste, so I made it my project from that moment on to be his personal beer tutor and guru.

For the weeks and months following his failed attempt to bring a Budweiser product into my house, Michael and I would meet regularly at the  images[11]Abbey, a local watering hole five blocks from campus in one direction and five blocks from my house in another. The Abbey has a reasonably good selection of brews on tap for a small establishment, supported by over one hundred more varieties of beer in bottles. During each visit I would introduce Michael to two more acceptable members of the beer community; his training was facilitated by the Abbey’s beer club. The Abbey’s beer menu numbered its beers; as each beer was consumed you got to cross the number off your membership card.

I never got to find out what prize we would receive when all numbers were crossed off, nor did I have to figure out what to do when the only numbers left corresponded to Budweiser, Miller or Coors products, because Michael took a teaching job at a university in Florida and moved away. Jeanne and I visit Michael and his family at least once every year. Upon arrival at their house I always check the extra refrigerator in the garage where the beer is kept, just to make sure that Michael is not regressing.Tampa microbrewery It is gratifying to see nothing but Sam Adams products and better in there, as it is also gratifying to be taken by Michael to yet another microbrewery in the Tampa area that he has discovered since the last time I visited. It is truly a success story.

So it was with some trepidation that I ventured to take the “What Beer Are You?” quiz that popped up on my Facebook news feed a couple of days ago.

What Beer Are You?

What if I turned out to be Coors Lite? What if my beer snobbery and pretensions are really a compensation for my inner Miller Genuine Draft that’s been trying to get out for my whole life? Imagine my relief when I read the following after taking the quiz:

Perfect-Pour-e1320504657684[1]You are a Guinness. You are brooding, bitter, and often in a dark, pensive mood. You are an intellectual and a dreamer, but your passion and emotions can sometimes get the better of you.

That’s actually not that accurate—I’m neither brooding, bitter, nor darkly pensive (although I might strike people that way), but I’m a Guinness. That’s all that matters.

I have actually learned (or at least confirmed) a great deal about myself over the past year or so from personality tests that pop up on Facebook. Just recently, for instance, I learned from the “Which Downton Abbey character are you?” quiz

Which Downton Abbey Character Are You?

that I am Tom-Branson-tom-branson-30640762-627-755[1]Branson, the former chauffeur now widower trying to be estate manager and single parent Irish radical son-in-law of Lord and Lady Grantham. I more or less expected Mr. Carson or Mr. Bates, but probably choosing a U2 song among the available choices and Guinness (before I even knew that I am a Guinness) as my beverage of choice sent me in the Irish direction.

I have written previous posts about my favorite online personality quiz results. “Which Peanuts character are you?”, for instance,

Which Peanuts Character Are You?

told me that how-to-draw-schroeder-from-the-peanuts-gang_1_000000001922_5[1]You are Schroeder. You are brilliant, ambitious, and brooding; you tackle tasks with extreme focus. People don’t always interest you as much as other pursuits, though; you can come off as aloof.

There’s that “brooding” thing again—I guess I’ll have to accept that (sort of goes with the philosopher territory, I suppose). But who doesn’t enjoy having their brilliance recognized (even if it’s only by a stupid Facebook quiz)? And people don’t really interest me as much as they should, I suppose—except if they want to affirm my brilliance.

My favorite (and first) of these quizzes was “Which classical composer are you?”

Which Classical Composer Are You?

Johann_Sebastian_Bach[1]Fully expecting to be Mozart, who was my childhood hero, I was a bit surprised to read that You are Johann Sebastian Bach. The smartest person you know, you don’t suffer incompetence easily and are more than willing to tackle difficult projects yourself rather than trust them to others. Highly intellectual, you crave order, discipline and structure – let’s be honest, you probably have your picture next to “perfectionist” in the dictionary. Unfortunately, your brilliance is likely to go largely unappreciated by those around you, and you’re going to have to wait for future generations to recognize your genius.

Upon reading this description, my wife Beethoven commented “Yup—that sounds about right.” Thank goodness I am not similar enough to Bach to have fathered twenty or so children.

Other quizzes produced predictable results, such as that I am Sherlock Holmes and Odysseus,

cornell_holmes_glass[1]

FWROWhich Literary Character Are You?

Which Ancient Greek Hero Are You?

while others produced results that are either laughably inaccurate or that I just don’t want to consider, such as my soul mate animal being a hedgehogimagesBN8X7IS2

What Is Your Spirit Animal?

and my secretly wanting to live in MontanaimagesVWNFBOMZ

What State Should You Live In?

The hedgehog thing puts me on the wrong side of an important personality divide about which I have written in the past,fhproto[1]

Hedgehogs and Foxes: A Primer

and the wanting to live in Montana thing is just weird. 1507840_10152059705572716_1570086382_n[1]They must have me mixed up with my mountain man cowboy doctor older brother who loves his life in Wyoming. So I’m a brooding, aloof, driven perfectionist who thinks he’s really smart and doesn’t like people very much. Doesn’t sound like someone I would want to spend a lot of time with, but I don’t have any choice—as Montaigne once wrote, “even on the loftiest throne in the world, you are still sitting only on your own ass.” My ass goes with me, as does everything else. I was encouraged yesterday, however, to learn that if I were a dog, imagesA34GXUP1I would be a Scottish terrier.

What Dog Breed Are You?

Scotties aren’t brooding and aloof, are they? But they are smart. I’m married to a Golden Retriever, by the way. Good thing we decided early on that we never wanted to find out what a Golden Terrier or a Scottish Retriever would be like.imagesY1DXX447

Mr Ed

Master of the Horse

Unlike many academics, I greatly enjoy commencement exercises. After experiencing three of my own (BA, MA, and PhD) spread over thirteen years, I have participated in twenty-one such ceremonies at various ranks of professorship, every year since 1992 with the exception of two missed during sabbatical semesters. Generally at least two-and-a-half hours in length, adding extra half hours depending on how many honorary degrees are conferred and the length of the keynote address, facultymost academics place commencement on the same level of enjoyment and interest as sticking a fork in one’s eye. I look at it differently.

First of all, very few people get to participate in them regularly, so my access marks me as somewhat special. Second, I enjoy seeing if I can pick out the two or three dozen of my students from as long as three years past from the hundreds of diploma receivers as they maneuver in assembly line fashion across the stage. But most of all, I like the liturgical elements—funny clothes, unusual conferral sentences said “just so,” processing, recessing, music only heard at commencements, rituals performed only once per year—it’s just like being in church, but it isn’t. I make no secret of my attraction to liturgy, the primary reason I felt at home when first attending Episcopal services thirty years ago, and it doesn’t matter much to me whether the liturgy is secular or sacred. Liturgy is liturgy—it’s an opportunity for grown up human beings to behave strangely and ritualistically on a regular basis. For the most part commencement ceremonies blend into each other very quickly; untitledtemple grandinonly those with the rare interesting keynote addresses stand out. In the past decade or so at my college these include Tim Russert, Richard Daley Jr., and (this year) Temple Grandin. But last Friday I attended a commencement ceremony that I will never forget, one that will perhaps be more memorable going forward than even those at which I received my own degrees. Last Friday was the day that Pooker received his Master’s degree.

Justin baby“POOKER???” you ask—yes. Pooker. My youngest son Justin is one of those unfortunate persons whose childhood nickname has stuck into adulthood, at least with his immediate family. As a baby, Justin’s face was as round as Charlie Brown’s, but his nickname comes from another cartoon character with a round head—Garfield’s teddy bear “Pooky.” This quickly morphed into “Pooker,” and there it is. He’s very good-natured about it—to a point. He’ll probably slap me upside the head when he finds out that I have outed his nickname on my blog.pooky 2

Justin was the cutest kid in any crowd when young, every teacher’s pet and every adult’s favorite. I treated him and talked to him as if he was a very short adult, as I did his older brother (I called them “the midgets”), so Justin was always more comfortable with adults than with his peers. He was the sort of kid that one could imagine living a charmed life with all sorts of waters parting before him and unicorns farting rainbows in his wake.unicorn farting rainbow But I remember clearly the day that this perception ended for me. During his yearly physical when in eighth grade his pediatrician called me into the examination room and asked Justin to bend over and touch his toes. “See that?” the doctor asked as he pointed at my son’s back. Rather than a straight line, his spine was tracing an odd backwards “S”—the clear signs of rapidly developing scoliosis. After several months of unsuccessful exercises and therapies, two titanium rods were inserted in his back during a twelve-hour surgery, guaranteeing that he would set off security alarms at every airport after 9/11 several years later. Justin’s natural patience, resilience, stubbornness, humor and good will were sorely tested and sharply honed during these months, preparing him for Pooker's graduation 004challenges and obstacles even more daunting to come.

As Justin moved through adolescence and into early adulthood, he evolved into a unique human being (don’t we all?). We have always been very close (he has accused me of being his soul mate). He has my sarcastic and irreverent sense of humor and left political leanings, but an empathy and sensitivity for the needs of others that I largely lack. Pooker's graduation 014He has a quirky but deep spirituality, hardly a surprise after more than two decades of hanging around a stepmother and father whose spiritual journeys have been just as quirky and meaningful. School was more challenging as he progressed into high school, yet he can quote lengthy dialogs verbatim from movies, television shows and conversations without breaking a sweat. After graduating high school he went to college in northwestern Ohio at a school with a well-regarded pre-veterinary program; Justin had been aiming for a career in veterinary medicine for years. But as he proceeded to veterinary studies after earning his Bachelor of Science, the wheels began to slowly fall off in various sorts of ways. In no particular order, a series of girlfriends ranging from “nice enough girl, but not right for Justin” to “total lunatic, not right for anyone.” A succession of professors who refused to round a grade up the half point necessary to keep Justin academically viable. Taking a crucial early semester off from veterinary school in the Caribbean to be with and take care of his girlfriend in Ohio who had been diagnosed with cancer (she is now cancer free), then never being able to catch up and failing out. Being diagnosed as ADHD in his middle twenties (something it would have been great to know many years earlier—it would have helped explain a lot). Many series of tests and many sessions of therapy. murphys-law-2aBeing diagnosed with cancer himself a couple of years later and enduring surgery then many months of radiation and treatment (he is now cancer free). More academic attempts and failures, all the time living back with his parents at a time in life when most young men are developing lives of independence and working in slightly more than minimum wage jobs. Nothing came easy anymore; Murphy’s Law seemed to have found a home in Justin.

There were times when I wondered whether Justin was not meant to be in higher education, thinking he might do better or be happier simply settling into a job somewhere, dropping his professional hopes and dreams, and climbing the career ladder, even though I am Mr. Higher Education personified. But here I turned out to be my own worst enemy. Justin was six years old when I entered my PhD program and grew up watching me grow into a teaching career that has been so fulfilling and such a perfect fit that I call it a vocation or calling rather than a job. Pooker's graduation 012That became his own life goal—to find his passion, his calling just as I had found mine. His stubbornness and tenacity guaranteed that he would endure multiple roadblocks, hurdles and failures in his pursuit of his passion, even if he didn’t know what it was, and would refuse to settle for anything less.

His passion was slowly revealed through several exploratory online courses, eventually focused on a Master’s in Psychology. I confess that I had my private doubts, given my old-school educator’s suspicions about online classes and a few unsuccessful similar attempts in Justin’s past. But as he passed course after course, negotiating the sorts of hurdles that would have derailed him in previous years, the light at the end of the tunnel became brighter. His innate sensitivity to the needs of others, along with his longstanding love of horses, directed him toward an ultimate goal of Equine Assisted Therapy in which horses are used as facilitators of change and healing. Mr ed 2He didn’t get his equine attraction from me, by the way—they scare the shit out of me. But although one can lie to a therapist, one apparently cannot lie to a horse. Who knew that Wilbur’s regular conversations with Mister Ed were actually therapy? And what person in need of equine therapy will be able to resist the spectacular tattoo of Secretariat on the back of Justin’s left calf, courtesy of his tattoo artist brother Caleb?7691_10202631908378365_1261596618_n[1] When the Dean of Students conferred collective degrees on several hundred MA and PhD graduates last Sunday, I finally believed it—a leg of Justin’s journey that many times had seemed impossible and impractical had been completed. With flying colors.

It is difficult to step back from the day-to-day struggles that Jeanne and I have lived over the last several years with Justin to truly put his accomplishments in perspective, mark antonybut I know that I have never encountered a student in twenty-five plus years of teaching who deserves their degree more than Justin does. Tenacity, faith, commitment, stubbornness, humor and love in equal parts—these form the foundation of Pooker the man. In Ancient Rome, the dictator’s right-hand man was called the Master of the Horse. Mark Antony was Julius Caesar’s Master of the Horse—his confidant, critic, conscience, problem solver, hit man and most dependable friend. These are all qualities that the newest Horse Master possesses in excess. Any smart dictator would be as proud to bring him into the inner circle as I am proud that he is my son. But he would look awful in a toga.Pooker's graduation 015

Is Democracy Overrated?

 

house of cardsJeanne and I just finished binge-watching the second season of Netflix’s House of Cards, an undoubtedly appropriate activity to complete just before our nation’s birthday on the Fourth of July. In one of the early second-season episodes, Vice President Frank Underwood (played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey), fresh off another policy victory energized by skillful manipulation and lying, turns toward the camera for one of his patented asides to the insider audience. “I’m the second most powerful man in the country without a single vote being cast in my favor. Democracy is so overrated!”

senateFrank knows, of course, that technically the United States is not a democracy—it is far too big for that. It is a representative republic, in which eligible voting citizens elect representatives who then cast votes on behalf of those who elected them in legislative bodies from the local to national level. But this doesn’t dilute Frank’s intended point, which is that what matters in politics is power, manipulation, who you know, and money. This is true in any sort of government, since all forms of government are run by human beings, creatures motivated by self-interest and greed more than anything else.

lit.aristotlepolitics.coverRepublicFrank’s point puts him in good company. Plato’s and Aristotle’s Republic and Politics are respectively two of the greatest works of political philosophy in the Western tradition, and even though both Plato and Aristotle were thoroughly familiar with the Athenian experiments in democracy that we look back on favorably, each were highly critical of this form of government. When Plato lists various forms of government from worst to best in the Republic, he ranks democracy as next to worst, only slightly better than tyranny.

Socrates-on-trialThere are many reasons for these great philosophers’ rejection of our favorite form of government, some of which were undoubtedly personal. Plato’s mentor Socrates, remember, was convicted and condemned to death by a jury of 501 of his Athenian peers in a straightforwardly democratic fashion—and Plato never forgave either Athens or its ludicrously misguided form of government. A generation later, when Aristotle found himself on the wrong side of the political landscape in Athens, he left town immediately, reportedly commenting “I do not intend to let Athens sin against philosophy twice.” alexander-aristotle-grangerAristotle ended up going north to Macedonia where he was hired as tutor to a young man who would soon become one of the greatest tyrants the world has even seen—Alexander the Great.

Although their philosophical problems with democracy were many, Plato and Aristotle agreed that democracy’s deepest flaw is that it is built on a serious misreading of human nature. Democracy’s unique calling card is its openness to treating all eligible citizens as if they are all equally qualified to participate in making political decisions, an openness that is rooted in the bizarre assumption that these citizens are fundamentally the same in some important and relevant way that qualifies them for participation. This notion of fundamental human equality is so misguided that it would be laughable, say Plato and Aristotle, were it not that the effects of taking this notion seriously are so problematic.

bbcsmDoes it really make sense to invite the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to choose political leaders along with those far better suited by education, class, and abilities to do so? No more than it would make sense to invite a senator into the bakery or butcher shop to bake pastries or cut up a side of beef. There is an obvious hierarchy of skills and abilities, both physical and mental, among human beings and it makes obvious sense that a working society should identify these strengths and weaknesses efficiently so that each person can do what she or he is best suited for. This is why Plato ranks aristocracy—the rule of the aristos or the “best”—as the best form of government. Democracy is built on the idea that since all human beings are fundamentally the same, each of us can legitimately consider ourselves equally qualified for everything, including choosing our leaders. To which Plato and Aristotle say “BullCarter Fordshit.”

I remember facing these issues clearly in November 1976 as I walked into a polling booth in Santa Fe, New Mexico to cast my vote in my first Presidential election—Carter vs. Ford. As many first-time voters, I was dedicated to being the most informed voter in the country that election cycle. And it was a tough choice, much more difficult than any of the nine Presidential elections in which I have voted since. I had decided, after much thought, to vote for Carter a few days before the election and did so with pride on the first Tuesday of November. elephants and donkeysThe polling place was the elementary school just a couple of blocks down the street from the house we were renting; as I walked home after voting, I started having disturbing thoughts. What if some fool who had not spent one second thinking about or studying up on the issues followed me into the voting booth and voted for Ford rather than Carter because he liked elephants more than donkeys? What if my uncle, jesusvotesrepublican1who always votes straight Republican because he thinks Jesus was a Republican has already cancelled my vote out? This sucks! Why should some uninformed boob’s vote count as much as my vote wrapped in intelligence and insight counts? Whose stupid idea was this “one person, one vote” thing? Exactly what Plato and Aristotle want to know.

Over the succeeding years I have had many opportunities to tell this story to a classroom of students and to share my proposed solution. Voting should be considered as an earned privilege for eligible persons, not as a right. Citizens of an eligible age, if they choose to vote, should be required to pass an eligibility quiz at the polling place—say a 70% on questions based on current issues and events as well as testing for basic knowledge of how government works—before entering the booth. I often tell my students that a liberally educated person has to earn the right to have an opinion. This would simply be a real application of that truth. I’m not saying that the quiz should be as demanding as what immigrants are required to pass for citizenship—how many natural-born citizens could pass that—but something between that much knowledge and total ignorance is not too much to ask for.

Do You Have What It Takes to Pass the U.S. Citizenship Test?

My students, by the way, almost always think by a slight margin that this is a good idea. Those who don’t often raise questions like “who is going to construct the quiz?’ to which I reply “I will.”

The only reason to favor democracy in its various forms over other forms of government is the equality thing. If, notwithstanding Aristotle, Plato and the vast majority of political minds historically over the centuries, we truly believe that all persons share a fundamental equality so deep and definitive that it trumps the whole host of differences staring us straight in the face, then democracy is an experiment that deserves our continuing, energetic commitment and support. JeffersonBut simply saying that everyone gets to vote regardless of race, gender, social status, wealth, or other difference-making qualities is not a sufficient expression of our belief in fundamental equality. Not even close.

If we truly believe, in Thomas Jefferson’s memorable words, that “all persons are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” we dishonor that belief by thinking that everyone getting to vote covers the bases. If we truly believe that all persons possess equal dignity as human beings, we cannot be satisfied with social and political arrangements that deny equal access for vast numbers of our fellow citizens to the various structures intended to facilitate the flourishing of that dignity throughout a human life. It is fine once per year on Independence Day to celebrate our continuing American experiment in democracy with flag waving and parades, but real patriotism requires spending the other 355 days of the year on the hard work of actually trying to make this experiment work.

Behind the Curtain

Earlier this week I led a seminar with a number of colleagues from the Honors Program as part of a two-day end-of-the-semester workshop. Our text was several essays from Michel de Montaigne, a sixteenth-century diplomat, philosopher, and introvert who has become one of my favorite authors over the past few years. My general tendency, both as a philosopher and as a normal human being, is toward the details rather than grand, sweeping schemes, and toward skepticism rather than certainty. French wars of religionMontaigne speaks directly to both of these tendencies. He lived in 1500s France in the midst of the bloody French wars of religion that broke out between Catholics and Protestants in the wake of the Reformation, and frequently comments on the absurdity of human beings claiming to know with certainty anything about the nature or will of God. He observes that “there is nothing in the whole world madder than bringing matters down to the measure of our own capacities and potentialities,” arguing that “It is hard to bring matters divine down to human scales without their being trivialized.” He was a person of faith and considered himself to be a good Catholic, but sought to live the sort of life that he most admired: “The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measureOz, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture.” Words of wisdom, I think.

But there is in many of us a seemingly incurable desire to peek into the mind of God. As Dorothy and her entourage in The Wizard of Oz, we want to know what’s behind the curtain. On the way to the early show at church last Sunday, Jeanne and I caught the last few minutes of Krista Tippett’s radio program On Being. She was interviewing Jewish theologian and prolific author KushnerRabbi Lawrence Kushner, who ended the interview with a charming story from one day when he was giving a bunch of preschoolers a tour of the synagogue.

I was leading a tour of the sanctuary, of the prayer hall with the children in the congregation’s preschool. And then I figured as a piece de resistance I’d have them come onto the bima, or the little prayer stage up in front of the room, where there was an ark where we kept the scroll of the Torah. It was accessible via a big floor-to-ceiling curtain. And I got them up on the stage, and I was about to call them—’Open the ark,’ but I saw the teacher at the back tapping her wristwatch, which as you may know, is an old Talmudic gesture, which means your time is about up, bucko. So, I said, ‘I tell you what, boys and girls. We’ll come back when we get together again in a couple of weeks, we’ll come back here and I’m going to open that curtain there and show you what’s behind it.’ It’s very special. You know, and so they all say, “Shalom, Rabbi,” and like little ducklings, follow the teacher back to the class.
Well, the next day, the teacher shows up at my office with the following story. Apparently the preceding day’s hastily-concluded lesson has occasioned the fierce debate among the little people as to what is behind the curtain. They didn’t know. And, the following four answers are given, which is I think pretty interesting.

FNAnswer One: The first kid guessed that there is absolutely nothing behind the curtain. As Kushner notes, this kid “is obviously destined to become a professor of nihilistic philosophy at a great university.” I read recently in the NY Times that 68% of academic philosophers in this country describe themselves as atheists, with 13% more leaning in that direction. I had no idea that I am in such a minority amongst my peers—what do they know that I don’t know? Food for thought and another post, perhaps. I am reminded of a story Nietzsche tells—in a dream he once took the mask off a Greek sculpture and found himself “staring into the empty eye sockets of nothingness.”

jewish holy thingsAnswer Two: Another preschooler, playing a safe hand, thought that behind the curtain one would find a Jewish holy thing. This kid will probably turn out to be a nominal follower of Judaism, recognizing the existence of “holy things” and perhaps people like the rabbi who are strangely obsessed by “holy things,” but unlikely to be bothered by what they might represent and what Holy Thing might be lurking behind such “holy things.” Pretty much like the vast majority of children cranked out of Protestant Sunday Schools and CCD classes every year.

Monty HallPat SajakAnswer Three: A third kid, channeling his inner Monty Hall or Pat Sajak, hoped that a brand new car was behind the curtain. There are any number of televangelists who scream something similar from various media outlets on a daily basis. There’s something attractive about The Gospel of Prosperity, the notion that God wants the most faithful followers of the Divine Plan to be rich and prosperous. Too bad that there is not a shred of evidence to support the idea anywhere that I’m aware of.

Answer Four: The most fascinating answer came from child number four. As Kushner tells it, “the fourth kid said no, you’re all wrong. mirrorNext week when that rabbi man comes and opens that curtain, behind it, there will be a giant mirror.” Not only is this creative and interesting, I’m more and more coming to believe that this little boy or girl is right. What one expects or hopes for when engaged in faith-related activities may say little or nothing about God, but it says a lot about the person doing the expecting and hoping. Whatever God is—if God is—our thinking and believing about God always begins with what we want and need God to be. Somehow the four-year-old knew that whatever is hidden behind the curtain is us. The story of Incarnation, of God becoming human so that we might become God as Irenaeus put it, begins with this mirror.

images

Pleasure and Joy in the Work

PerlmanLast Saturday, virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman was the featured guest on ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” my favorite NPR show. He was a fascinating interview, full of stories about the world of being a recognized genius in the midst of mere mortals and the world of classical music. Guest host Michael Pesca asked Perlman “which would be better—the second-best violinist playing the best violin in the world, or the second-best violin being played by the best violinist in the world?” “The second one,” Perlman answered immediately, illustrating with a story from the life of another violin virtuoso: A woman once approached MenuhinYehudi Menuhin after one of his concerts and said “your violin was beautiful tonight.” Menuhin held his Stradivarius to his ear and said “That’s funny . . . I don’t hear anything!”

I remember something one of my teaching models and mentors in my early years as an assistant professor once revealed that he told his advisees when they sought his input about which courses to take the next semester. “Go for the jockey, not the horse.imagesCAXUPZEMA mediocre horse ridden by a great jockey will do better in a race than Secretariat ridden by a mediocre jockey. Something taught by the best professor on campus will always be better than the greatest syllabus in the universe taught by a less stellar professor. Arrogant? Probably. But absolutely true. Over the years I have often said that students will choose “challenging but interesting” over “boring but easy” every time. I have seen enough counterexamples over the years to know that this is not a self-evident truth, but it is better than that—a time-tested hypothesis.

I have cultivated my teaching craft for more than two decades now, all the time making it known to anyone who would listen that I have the greatest job in the world, that I actually consider teaching to be a vocation rather than a job, and that I consider myself to be inordinately privileged to be able to make a decent living doing what I was born to do, something that, happy-april-fool39s-day-image1if I were independently wealthy, I would do for free. I pulled off my most effective April Fool’s Day stunt ever this week when I posted on Facebook that “Despite my frequent claims to the contrary, I have decided that my job really sucks.” People who don’t know me very well immediately commiserated with “I know, it’s that kind of day, isn’t it?” and “I know it’s a thankless job, but if it helps you’re doing great!” A colleague from my department came up to me at lunch the next day and said, with appropriate EeyoreEeyore-like visage, “Vance, I’m really sorry.” I think he was disappointed when he found out that it was a joke. Those in my closer circle of friends and colleagues knew, however, after a few seconds of confusion, that it was a prank. “You had me going for a second—Happy April Fool’s Day!” was their typical response. Because they knew that if I ever came to the point that I said “my job really sucks!” and meant it, I would no longer be me. Simple as that.

This sort of narrative breeds and exudes confidence, so much so that I’ve learned over the years that I often need to tone my enthusiasm for teaching down, lest I be misinterpreted as someone who has a superiority complex and never experiences the insecurities, mistakes, and failures that are necessary parts of a teacher’s life. Trust me, I’ve had more of these than I could possibly remember—the “it isn’t working” moment of alarm happens as frequently now as it ever has. But now it exhilarates rather than frightens me—I have fun with the moments that, in earlier years, might have paralyzed me in front of a class.

A couple of days ago, I introduced a bunch of freshmen to the Scientific Revolution in the interdisciplinary humanities program I direct and teach in. The class immediately brought to mind a class with the same material roughly a year ago with a different pair of colleagues, a class which almost became the sort of nightmare that all teachers fear. I came to class expecting to rely on what I modestly considered to be a fabulous PowerPoint show. And the computer wouldn’t work. What in earlier years would have caused the sweating of bullets instead spawned a few jokes, then a living illustration of the heavenly bodies moving in circles, epicycles, and eccentrics created by my assigning different students the roles of the various planets circling and interweaving with each other, all with the purpose of showing how a beautiful theory can become so complicated over time under the pressure of new and continuing data as to collapse under its own weight. EpicyclesMy guess is that the students will remember what we did far longer than if they had seen it on a screen. One of my colleagues asked “How did you come up with that idea?” My answer, as always, was “I don’t know—it just seemed that it might work.”

The process of transformation from scared-to-death graduate student to comfortable-in-my-skin professor has been a long one with many landmarks along the way. One of the first was my favorite movie, “Dead Poets Society,” which was released in 1989, the very year that I was thrown, as a completely inexperienced and totally frightened graduate student into my own classroom for the first time. It has become trendy recently to trash this movie in various ways,

Dead Poets Society is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities,

but I don’t read such critiques. This movie was seminal for me, showed up at the right place at the right time in my life and continues to inspire my teaching energies. imagesDozens of scenes could illustrate; one will suffice. As the dynamic young teacher Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, gradually inspires his students to think for themselves, his young charges start taking their new-found freedom and running with it in unpredictable ways, as teenage young men are apt to do. One of these young men suggests at a school assembly that God wants girls to attend their all-boys school; the sheer outrageousness of the idea as well as the impromptu and disrespectful manner of his expressing it almost gets the student expelled.

The young man expects that Mr. Keating will admire his daring and creativity, but he soon finds out otherwise. “You being expelled from school is not daring, it’s stupid. You’ll miss some golden opportunities,” says Mr. Keating. “Like what?” “Like, if nothing else, the opportunity to attend my classes.” I want my classes to be like that, I thought. I want to teach classes that will make students glad they came to my school. It’s one thing to see it in a movie, though; WFGit’s another thing to find the path that might lead, over a career, in that direction.

Three years later, at a silent retreat, I stumbled across the work of Simone Weil, who in Waiting for God expressed the energy and passion at the heart of the learning process so well, it became and remains my “teaching philosophy.”

Contrary to the usual belief, [will power] has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

Early in my life I had been infected by the love of books and of ideas; at this early point in my career it was becoming clear that all my teaching really amounts to is the desire to pass this infection on to others. All I want to do is to help others find the joy in learning that has sustained me through times in my life when there seemed to be nothing else worthwhile except a book. IsaiahSimone gave me the words to express what I’d intuited all along, that for me, teaching is a vocation, a sacrament, a holy thing.

Last year I was assigned to be lector on Palm Sunday at our church, something I had forgotten until I walked into the service. Completely unprepared, I read from Isaiah that “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher . . . Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” My best days are the ones when I don’t forget this.

Barack Obama is an Elf, or More Things I Have Learned About Myself from Facebook

You beautiful, aloof creature. You’re one of the most revered and honored creatures . . . but you’re also very hard to pin down. You’re an interesting mix of empathetic politician and pragmatic dreamer. You believe in the power of justice, but you also believe in the power of protecting yourself. You’re always willing to lend a hand, but not to the point where it will negatively affect you.elrond

The message in a birthday card from my wife or one of my best friends? A text I sent to myself on a day when I needed cheering up and no one was cooperating? No—this is what followed “You are an Elf,” the result of the latest Buzzfeed quiz Which Mythical Creature Are You? You can’t beat these quizzes for putting a positive and uplifting spin on every possible result. I have a Facebook acquaintance who was fine with finding out from the Which One Of Jesus’s Disciples Are You? quiz that she is Judas Iscariot (I’m Thomas, of course), because the description affirmed that she is comfortable with being an outsider and dancing to the beat of her own drum. Each of these quizzes affirms something about me that others might not be happy to find out about themselves—being aloof and self-interested, for instance. GaladrielBig deal—I embrace it and my elfhood. And Elf-Queen Galadriel (known to mere mortals as Cate Blanchett) won this year’s Best Actress Academy Award. Elves are on a roll.

It has been a Buzzfeed quiz pretty much every other day for a while now. For instance, in the Which U.S. President Are You? quiz, I learned that You are Barack Obama! GWWell that’s not a surprise (although my cousin told me that my high school senior picture looked like George Washington on the dollar bill).

You are pure class and shy away from drama. You are very charismatic and eloquent, and you find it natural and easy to communicate your ideas and opinions to people. You’re a pioneer, a glass ceiling breaker in effect. Here’s to you.

Here’s to me indeed, especially since my son Justin got Ronald Reagan. I avoided that by not clicking on jellybeans as my favorite candy (although they are). I really don’t know where I went wrong with that kid. But the above description of my Barack Obama-ness was clearly written by a progressive liberal. If it had been written someone who attended the i4j0fdhR9C6IConservative Political Action Conference this week, the description would have read something like this:

You are evil incarnate and are on a temporary, eight-year leave from one of the lower circles of hell. You are a socialist, hate people who have made successes of themselves without government help, and are a socialist. You are responsible for everything bad that happens, from Benghazi to snow storms. You secretly wish you were the King of Kenya. You are both a tyrant and a wimp. And you are a socialist. Benghazi. Obamacare. Socialist.

Sometimes I get contrary information, such as when I find out from the Which Character From Shakespeare Are You? quiz thatindex

You are Hamlet! You are a tremendously complex character: thoughtful, complex, indecisive, impulsive, careless, melancholy, and more, all at once. So let’s hope you don’t die after being stabbed by a poisoned sword, while learning from the What Period of History Do You Really Belong In? quiz that

You got Revolutionary France: You don’t want to eat any cake, thank you very much, because that is too mainstream. You’re edgy, passionate, and outspoken. When you want something, you go out and get it. Now off with some heads! Hamlet during the French Revolution—I can’t see that working.

To guillotine, or not to guillotine–that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageously overprivileged aristocrats

Or to take arms against a sea of peasants

And by opposing them let them eat cake.

Les MizI suspect that the creator of the historical period quiz needs to take my Development of Western Civilization course, since the background picture to “Revolutionary France” was a still shot from the recent Les Miserables movie. That was set during the 1832 revolution, while the one where they cut heads off began in 1789. Oh well—I’m sure the French were obnoxious in both of them.

Against all odds, the Who Were You In Your Past Life? test revealed that

You were an ancient philosopher! You are a quiet soul who enjoys reading and writing above all else. Yplatoandariou spend a lot of your time thinking about religion, philosophy and how to make the world a better place. Just like your past-self, you are likely to influence others around you.

Wow, who knew that I like to think about all of that stuff? Who knew that I like to read and write? I should start a blog! So when the Which Philosopher Are You? quiz came along the next week, I waited breathlessly for the result. Socrates? Thales? Plato? Anaxagoras? Aristotle? Epicurus? Lucretius? Heraclitus? Parmenides? Protagoras? Marcus Aurelius? Not exactly.

KantYou are Immanuel Kant! When making moral decisions, you try not to have double standards and always ask yourself whether you’d be happy for others to act in the same way as you do. You always try not to be selfish.

These quizzes need to coordinate their results. Not only is Immanuel Kant not an ancient philosopher, he’s not even in my top ten favorite philosophers—for the very reasons revealed in the description—although I’ve taught him many times. First of all, Kant’s philosophy is a monument to consistency and certainty at the expense of reality, but I have often suggested—even in this blog—that both certainty and consistency are vastly overrated. Kant_und_seine_Tischgenossen._Kolorierter_Holzstich_von_Klose_&_WollmerstaedtFurthermore, Kantian concerns for others conflict with my elvish concerns for my own self-interest. Finally, rumor has it that Kant was a wonderful host and threw great parties, hardly something that my elvish aloofness or my Hamlet-esque melancholy could tolerate.

I probably got Immanuel because he was Prussian, and according to the What European Country Do You Actually Belong In? quiz,

mgermanyYou got Germany! You’re incredibly hardworking, efficient, and disciplined. If you promise to get something done, you absolutely will. You can come across as a bit too serious, but deep down you’re great fun.

These people are truly plugging into my psyche. I’m currently team-teach1379556_10202284079242854_547898063_ning a colloquium that is spending a full semester in the middle of Nazi Germany, my daughter-in-law Alisha is from Germany, I have referred to Kevin, my personal trainer at the gym, as the “red-headed Nazi” on recent Saturdays after Friday morning torture sessions, and I was told by a previous quiz that I am Johann Sebastian Bach. Deutschland Über Alles.

Keep the quizzes coming—they are better than therapy (and a lot cheaper)! In a comment thread following a colleague’s report that the “mythical creature” quiz revealed he is a Phoenix, some humorless person wrote “You do know that these things are fraught with phishing scams, malware, and other hacking attempts, right?” Shut up—no one likes a Buzzfeed kill.

When It’s Over

Although I regularly find myself immersed in things medieval with a bunch of freshmen around this time every year, I am not a medievalist. I must confess that I often find medieval literature, philosophy, theology, and just about everything else medieval largely boring, inscrutable, or both. hellStill, it’s hard to go wrong in the classroom studying Dante’s Inferno with eighteen-year-olds. Sin, violence, torture—what could be better? Is suicide worse than lying? Is adultery less problematic than treason? How do gluttony and simony compare? Does sloth trump cowardice? Great discussion material.

Every time I descend into Hell with the Pilgrim and Virgil, my attention is drawn to something different. This time I took special notice of the first bunch of folks Dante encounters. Squeezed into Canto III, Dante - La Divina Comedia - Canto VI - Doré - Descontexto-2between a trio of threatening beasts and the virtuous pagans, we find “those sad souls who lived a life but lived it with no blame and with no praise,” lives so non-descript that neither Paradise nor Hell wants them. These are “wretches who had never truly lived” whose sins or faults don’t even rise to the level of getting a name. Call them the hello-my-name-is-whatever“Whatevers” who never committed themselves to anything. Their actions were neither good enough to earn praise nor bad enough to require mercy or justice. These are “wretches who never truly lived; the world will not record their having been there.” The Whatevers remind me of the Laodicean church in the Book of Revelation, about which God says “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will spit you out of my mouth.”thoreau1a

It was the fear of spending eternity in the land of the Whatevers that motivated Henry David Thoreau to shake things up in his life. He begins Walden with “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreaus_Walden_BandB_Lincoln_Massachusetts_1120A couple of summers ago Jeanne and I stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast—furnished with a wonderful hostess, hundreds of feeding birds and at least a half-dozen Chihuahuas—literally across the road from Walden Pond. On the other side of the lake, about a half-mile from where we were staying, Jeanne and I got to see the foundation and stone chimney of the tiny hovel Thoreau built for himself when he went to the woods. But Thoreau had the luxury to go to the woods in the first place, hardly a wilderness, since Walden Pond is only three or four miles from Concord, where Henry David could get a free meal at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house any time he chose. 400000000000000220639_s4These are luxuries that most of us do not have. Is it possible to learn to live deliberately without removing oneself from real life?

In his very interesting novel Putting Away Childish Things, theologian Marcus Borg frequently drops favorite book titles, excerpts and poems into the lives of his various characters. One of the poems is Mary Gordon’spsu11_gord_9780307377425_aup-528f73a7869d8ffa19e2691985af84ff573f6a23-s6-c30 “When Death Comes,” portions of which resonate with me more strongly than Thoreau’s more famous lines on the same theme.

When death comes

Like the hungry bear in autumn;

When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

To buy me, and snaps the purse shut . . .

 

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness . . .

 

When it’s over, I want to say; all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

Or full of argument.

 

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

            I have yet another birthday coming this week, a good reason to wonder how I’m doing with this business of “making my life extraordinary,” as deadpoetsaltMr. Keating challenges his young students to do in my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society. On the first page of Walden, Thoreau writes that he wants to “suck the marrow out of life,” something that never sounded particularly attractive to me. “Suck the marrow out of life” sounds a lot like “Be all that you can be,” or “Go for the gusto”—a call to fill my life with as many various and diverse experiences as possible, never stopping for a breath until I don’t have any breaths left. I guess I’m not the “marrow-sucking” kind of person. An extraordinary life need not be busting at the seams with things purchased, places visited, or frequent flyer miles—although there is nothing wrong with any of these. be where you areMy mantras for an extraordinary life have become “Be where you are” and “Do what you are doing.” Pay attention. Be aware. In the busyness of the day don’t forget that each moment in class might be the moment that transforms someone’s life. Take notice that every “like” clicked on my blog means that someone, somewhere, read what I wrote and liked something in it. Be thankful every day for the gift of spending so many years of my life married to an extraordinary human being. Don’t ignore the multiple signs that my sons have become wonderful men.

Those who profess the Christian faith, of course, have all sorts of stories concerning what happens “when its over.” But as I’ve noted on a number of occasions on this blog, I have never found the promise of eternal life to be particularly compelling when compared to the question of how to live this life. The older I get the more I find myself drawn, when thinking about my mortality, to Psalm 90. I first consciously encountered this Psalm five years ago during noon prayer with a bunch of Benedictine monks; the time must have been right, because it has wormed its way deeper into me ever since. grass_dark_wallpaper-hdAfter spending the first several verses reminding us that humans are “like the grass; in the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered,” the Psalmist drops the hammer. “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.” imagesThanks for bumming me out with the truth. But the suggested response in verse twelve makes all the difference. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” I’ve come to realize that numbering my days is not about trying to guess how many I have left. Rather, it is about treating each day as the unique gift that it is—that opens the door toward wisdom. Be where you are. Do what you are doing.

When it’s over, I will have been more than a visitor to this world if I have taken attentive ownership of the small piece of it given me during my lifetime. I only ask what the Psalmist asks at the end of Psalm 90: “May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.” And please deliver me from the land of the “Whatevers.”

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 the other 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 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.

As Good As We Make Them

It is a scene so familiar in our imaginations that it has become iconic. In films, on television, the subject of countless artistic renditions, we are transported back two thousand years. It is a beautiful, cloudless day. 453a34c850f8_sf_3Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have gathered in the countryside from miles around; some have walked for hours. On the top of a hill in the middle of the impromptu gathering is the man everybody has been talking about and has gathered to check out. He doesn’t look any different from any number of other guys in the crowd. In spite of the stories that seem to pop up everywhere this guy goes, you would not have been able to pick him out of a crowd. Then he opens his mouth, and the world is forever changed.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.

We don’t know the details of the setting, of course—the traditional images are evocations of centuries of imagination. Maybe it was a cloudy and windy day. Maybe these words were spoken inside someone’s home or a synagogue. Maybe they were shared in private only with a few intimate friends and confidants. Maybe the man never spoke these words at all and they are intended as a brief summary, written decades after the fact, of how he lived and called others to live. beatitudesBut the Beatitudes, the opening lines of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel account, are so beautifully poetic, so rich yet sparse, so gentle yet powerful, so all-encompassing and embracing that over the centuries they have seeped into the Christian ethos as the summary expression, as the “mission statement” if you will, of a religion and all it professes to stand for. In many ways the Beatitudes are as familiar as the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm—and this is unfortunate. For the beauty and familiarity of the language can easily disguise what is most remarkable about the Beatitudes—they are a crystal clear call to radically uproot everything we think we know about value, about what is important, about prestige, about power, and even about God. Rome-4They are a challenge to fundamentally change the world.

The Roman-dominated world into which these words came like a lightning-bolt was not that different from our own. One’s status or rank in the social hierarchy depended on power, birth, economic status, education, gender, race—usually some combination of the above. Those who lacked these qualities, whether through their own fault or because of matters entirely outside their control, had little opportunity to rise above their lowly state. And this, it was assumed then as it often is now, is simply the way of the world, the way things work. In a matter of a few brief, poetic lines Jesus turns it all upside down. In God’s economy, none of our assumptions can be relied upon and none of our common sense arrangements work. God’s values are apparently the very opposite of those produced by our natural human wiring. 240px-TissotBeatitudesThroughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, and consistently throughout virtually everything we have that is attributed to Jesus in the gospels, the point is driven home. God is most directly found in the poor, the widows, the orphans, those for whom pretensions of being something or having influence are unavailable. The gospels are clear that the one thing guaranteed to make God angry is to ignore such persons. Because in truth we all are impoverished, we all are abandoned, we all are incapable of taking care of ourselves, let alone anyone else. The poor, widows and orphans simply no longer have the luxury of pretending otherwise.

Every once in a while we hear on the news or read online about a community, usually somewhere in the South, in which a debate has arisen over whether it is permissible to put a plaque or a statue containing the TenCommandmentsAustinStateCapitolTen Commandments in a law court, a state house, or a public school. Because of the commitment to separation of church and state established in the United States Constitution, such attempts are invariably rejected as unconstitutional. And this is a good thing—I’m intensely grateful for the sharp separation of church and state. But imagine a community or a society with governing practices and policies infused with the energy, not of the Ten Commandments, but of the Beatitudes. Imagine a legislative body whose guiding north star was the mercy and compassion of the Beatitudes rather than the cold and clinical justice of the Ten Commandments. How would such a community’s or society’s attitudes and policies concerning the poor, the disenfranchised, those who are struggling, those who have fallen through the cracks, change as it learned to see such “unfortunates” not as a problem, but rather as the very face of God?

An intriguing thought experiment, but ultimately the Beatitudes are not about transformed social institutions. They are about a transformational way of being in the world. The Beatitudes are far more than a beautifully poetic literary statement. They are the roadmap for how to carry our faith into the real world. The world we live in is no more naturally attuned to the challenge of the Beatitudes than was the world in which they were first spoken. Chittister Impersonating Catholic copyIndividuals infected with the energy of the Beatitudes are those whose responsibility it is to help transform reality. As Joan Chittister writes,

Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, indexthe charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.

Or as Annie Dillard tersely puts it, God’s works are as good as we make them. The Beatitudes are a call to get to work.