Category Archives: movies

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

untitled[1]

Stuffed Soul Mates

I have a good friend and colleague in the philosophy department whose twin daughters have just begun their senior years in high school. DartmouthThis means that my friend and his family spent a significant portion of the summer just completed visiting college campuses—seventeen of them, to be precise. emoryThe young ladies in question, although twins, could not be more different in appearance or personality. Daughter #1, whose interests are predominantly focused on science, favors Dartmouth College but is also very interested in the University of Virginia and Emory University. Daughter #2, a quieter more bookish type, is strongly attracted to St. John’s College and its curriculum of the Great Books. This prompted my friend to email me, knowing that in the misty past—the middle seventies—I earned my Bachelor’s degree at St. John’s. “Do you have anything you would like to tell Daughter #2?” my friend asked.

St. John's booksIn reply I wrote:

I’m the world’s worst alum, but I’m quite sure that the program at St. John’s is virtually unchanged over the 35 years since I was there. I’ve recommended it very infrequently–it’s perfect for the right person, but there are very few “right persons” for what they do. If Daughter #2 loves books more than anything else, loves to talk, discuss and debate ideas 24/7, is ready to work really hard, is more concerned about learning than preparation for a job, and doesn’t care a lot about intercollegiate sports (there aren’t any at St. John’s), then she might be the “right person”!

“Sounds just like Daughter #2,” my friend said. I suspect the description might sound familiar to my “Johnnie” friends and Facebook acquaintances as well.

St. John'sExactly forty (!) years ago I began my freshman year at St. John’s College. The older I get, the more I realize what a life-shaping experience I was beginning. I have written frequently on this blog about how the Great Books program shaped me as a teacher, how it gave me ways to talk about the new directions in which I’ve been nudged the program I’ve been shepherding for the past three years, and how it stirred my soul in lasting ways. But one of the most memorable regular occurrences during my years in Santa Fe had nothing to do with tutors, books, labs or seminars.

The heart of the St. John’s curriculum is the seminar, which occurs every Monday and Thursday night from 8-10. Actually I don’t remember a seminar ever ending at 10:00. They always went at least until 10:30, then continued informally in the coffee shop until midnight. What was happening in the hour before seminar on Thursday nights? Students rushing to finish the reading? Checking notes and annotations one more time? Muppet showGrabbing a quick forty winks? None of the above, because at 7:00 PM every Thursday night in the lower dorms common room everyone—and I mean everyone, tutors included—gathered to watch “The Muppet Show.”

Strange to say, “The Muppet Show” was just irreverent and bizarre enough to be a perfect fit for the young misfits who had chosen to spend their first years of college immersed in the “Great Books,” the best texts the Western tradition had to offer organized into a curriculum so rigid and liturgical as to not allow students a single elective choice in class offerings until their Junior year (and even then only one class). I was too young to know then what I know now, forty years older and with twenty-five years of college teaching experience behind me: a college curriculum with no electives runs so against the normal grain of  pedagogy in this country that it sounds more suitable for youngsters from Mars than for earthlings.stallone

“The Muppet Show” was more for adults (or at least non-children) than for kids; definitely not your kid’s Sesame Street, although many of the characters were the same. Current events, the best human guest stars (none of whom visited more than once)—in many ways it played the role that current shows like “The Daily Show” now play. In the past couple of years I have occasionally taken the “Which Muppet Are You?” online quiz

Which Muppet Are You?

and regularly get the same result—Kermit the Frog. Nothing against Kermit or against the quiz—if you read this blog regularly, you know that taking online quizzes is my preferred form of therapy. But this one is wrong, because I have known for forty years which Muppet I am (actually two of them):untitled[1]

attitudeSince the first time I observed Statler and Waldorf criticizing and mocking everyone and everything on the stage from their perch in the box seats, I recognized them as stuffed soul mates. The natural foundations of my sense of humor are sarcasm, irreverence, bemusement, and irony—an extreme case of “don’t ever take anything too seriously.” Their removal from the action but self-authorization to critique the action from afar is very attractive to an introvert; it also provides an avenue for the introvert to be “involved” without really being involved.

Statler and Waldorf HighlightsOld school

It could be that Statler and Waldorf did nothing but sit up in the box seats and critique even when they were young puppets, but I choose to believe that, given their elderly status, they were “in the trenches” guys for decades and now have earned the right to step back and make fun as others make the same mistakes they made in their youth. Forty years ago I resonated with Statler and Waldorf because their senses of humor are just like mine and they struck a deep introverted chord in me. Both of these things are still true, but now I not only resonate with S and W—I am on the cusp of becoming them. I also have earned the right.

The academic year just beginning promises to be an odd one for me, a year of closure as well as a year of opening the door to new things. This is my final year (of four) running the large interdisciplinary program that is at the heart of our core curriculum. It is also (so help me God) the end of a decade of almost uninterrupted administrative duties (department chair followed by program director) that have occasionally threatened to take my life over and choke the life out of my teaching. sabbaticalThis will be followed by a sabbatical year in 2015-16 (YAY!!) during which I intend to write several scholarly tomes, a best-selling novel, steer my blog into the stratosphere, see the world and SLEEP. When I return from sabbatical, I intend to spend the rest of my vocational years finding out what is actually like to do nothing but teach—since that is what I went into the profession for in the first place. Of course as they say, if you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans. But there they are.

500074-R1-052-24A_025Whatever the future holds, I believe that as I approach sixty years of age I am entitled to channel Statler and Waldorf on whatever occasions I deem appropriate. The lovely coupleI even look a lot like them. They say that couples who have been together for a long time start looking like each other, just as dogs and their owners start resembling each other. I sure as hell hope that neither of those turns out to be true (at least for Jeanne and Frieda). But it is indeed true that over time each of us starts to resemble our stuffed soul mate. In my case, it could be a lot worse.

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Beethoven[1]

Married to Beethoven

untitledThis coming Sunday my on-and-off opportunities to play the organ at the Episcopal church Jeanne and I attend will come to what appears to be an end. A new music minister has been hired, and the organist/choirmaster emeritus and I, who have been sharing duties all summer, will get to sit in the back and critique the new guy like Statler and Waldorf in The Muppet Show. I am reminded of a post from about a year ago in which I found out which of the great composers I might have been.

imagesCAMNUF46My boyhood heroes were two men I have never seen grouped together for any reason. Carl Yastrzemski and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Carl Yastrzemski, the all-star left fielder of my beloved Boston Red Sox, was a shining example of a pearl in the midst of swine. The Red Sox of my youth were horrible, perpetually finishing ninth out of the ten American League teams, exceeded in ineptitude only by the lowly Washington Senators. But Yastrzemski was poetry in motion both at the plate and in the field, green-monster[1]swatting home runs at will and patrolling Fenway’s left field under the shadow of the Green Monster with the grace and precision of a ballet star. Baseball was the only team sport I was ever marginally good at, and I wanted to be Carl Yastrzemski (even though I played first base).

But I wanted to be Mozart even more. I was raised on classical music, beginning serious study of piano at age five, adding the violin at age eight. Louis_Carrogis_dit_Carmontelle_-_Portrait_de_Wolfgang_Amadeus_Mozart_(Salzbourg,_1756-Vienne,_1791)_jouant_à_Paris_avec_son_père_Jean..._-_Google_Art_Project[1]Wolfgang was a child prodigy of cosmic proportions, performing for European royalty at age five along with his older sister and under the watchful eye of his father Leopold, a guy who knew a cash cow when he saw one. Mozart was composing original pieces at age five and had a full symphony under his belt by age eleven. I was the best single-digits-in-years old pianist I knew, loved everything about it, planned to be a concert pianist all the way through high school—why not be the next Mozart? 170px-Wolfgang-amadeus-mozart_2[1]Hell, I figured, put a wig and a silk suit on me and I’d even look like Mozart. He was born in 1756 and I was born in 1956—the stars were obviously aligned. My older sibling, of course, was not interested in being a second-fiddle to my first chair virtuoso, and my father was too busy saving souls as a Baptist minister to take me on tour, but one can dream!

Mozart’s abilities both as a performer and composer are legendary. His productivity was astounding, writing every sort of music imaginable at the drop of a hat. His composing speed was accelerated because he apparently never wrote rough drafts—he wrote his compositions down as if taking dictation from on high—220px-Amadeusmov[1]“Amadeus” (loved of God) indeed. All of these Mozartean features were on spectacular display in the 1984 film “Amadeus,” directed by Milos Forman (predictably, one of my top five all time favorite movies). The film also fictionalized some of the darker features of Mozart: his workaholism, alcoholism, philandering, petulance, childishness, insecurities, inability to manage money, and overall immaturity. Not a great role model, but I still wanted to be Mozart until I passed age ten and had yet to go on tour or write a symphony.

My love of and preference for classical music over all other sorts has been the foundations of my aesthetic sensibilities as an adult. So my attention was grabbed when a colleague on campus, the chair of our music department, posted a personality test on Facebook that, in six easy questions, promised to identify which one of the giants in the vast pantheon of great classical composers the test-taker is most like.

Classical composer personality test: Which one are you??

I’ve always been a sucker for personality tests, starting with Myers-Briggs, so I couldn’t help myself. The questions were painless but thought-provoking—I had never really considered, for instance, whether my favorite Star Trek character is Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Bones or Chekhov (what about Scotty and Uhura??). bach-hausmann[1]After less than a minute, I received my personality test result. I am Johann Sebastian Bach.

Despite my juvenile desire to be Mozart, I am perfectly content with being Bach. I am listening to Bach on Spotify as I write. Although “Greatest Ever . . .” pronouncements are always iffy and radically subjective, my award for Greatest Classical Composer Ever would go to J. S. Bach, with Mozart and Beethoven tied for a close second; he occupies the same lofty status in classical music as Shakespeare in literature and Newton in science.imagesCAXAV1JM Bach was a staple of my piano training—working my way through “The Well-Tempered Clavier” during my early years laid the technical foundation for a hopefully broad and deep repertoire to come. There are many aspects of Bach’s life that I do not share—his twenty children, for instance—but how could someone not be pleased to be informed, even by a stupid internet personality test, that he shares something in common with a genius who wrote some of the most spectacular music ever? Consider, for instance, the “Sanctus” from Bach’s Mass in B minor, a piece that my great friend and colleague Rodney Delasanta once declared to be “the most glorious six minutes of music ever written.”

So I am thrilled to be Bach, although his other-worldly creative abilities transcend run-of-the-mill mortals. Of greater interest, however, was the description in the test results of why I am Johann Sebastian Bach included in my personality test results, of great interest because the description is eerily accurate:

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.

I know, of course, that I am not the smartest person I know—given what I do for a living, I am very seldom a candidate for smartest person in the room, unless I am at a Tea Party rally or the only person in the room. It’s the next two sentences that ring true. In the vernacular, I definitely do not suffer fools gladly, particularly when I am the fool in question. delegate_authority_king_621555[1]And from the time I first entered school, I have always been loath to study with others, to participate in group work, or to trust that anyone can do anything better than I can by myself. In my various stints as an administrator in charge of any number of people, I struggled mightily to  learn how to delegate and trust others. I became marginally able to delegate only after it become apparent that I cannot do everything required to run a program with 80+ faculty and 1700+ students by myself. At least in my working life I do indeed crave discipline, order and structure—although this does not always infiltrate my life away from work. bach-family[1]I fully understand why Bach had to be so focused, structured and anal in his professional life—at any given time he had at least a dozen kids waiting for him at home. I have two dachshunds and a Boston Terrier waiting for me, who are capable of disordering one’s reality as effectively as any number of children.

Although he was well-known as a choirmaster and organist during his lifetime, Bach’s brilliance as a composer did not become widely known until the 19th century, the century after his death, when great musicians and composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn began performing and promoting Bach’s work. George EliotHe lived a life such as that described by George Eliot at the conclusion of Middlemarch, “who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” As I reflected months ago in this blog, that’s not a bad way to live.

Unvisited Tombs

When I returned home on the day of finding out that I am Bach, I told Jeanne about the personality test, including the comments of a number of people on Facebook who had taken the test and were reporting the results. “I’m the only Bach so far, but there have been a number of Mozarts and Tchaikovskys, with a smattering of Brahms,” I said. “So far, no Beethovens. That’s a good thing, given that he was totally nuts.” Jeanne does not live and breathe classical music; accordingly she did not particularly care which classical music giant she is. It took some cajoling to get her to take the test; I even had to help her with the Star Trek question, as she is not a fan of that either (how is this possible?). But in short order we had the results. I am married to Beethoven.

Beethoven[1]

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.