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The Asshole Saint

One of my favorite courses is one that I am scheduled to team-teach for the third time with a colleague from the history department next spring. “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era,” taught as a capstone colloquium for second-semester sophomores in Providence College’s signature Development of Western Civilization (“Civ”) program, has been wildly popular—the students refer to it as “Nazi Civ.” I would like to think that it’s popularity is due to my colleague’s and my spectacular teaching abilities, but I suspect it is more because everyone is fascinated by the Nazis. Put “Nazi” in front of any academic course—“Nazi Accounting 101, “Nazi Intro to Biology,” “Nazi Marketing”—and the course would sell out. magdaMy colleague and I simply have the good sense to catch this lightening in a bottle every year or so.

Topics covered range far and wide; one of the most interesting, strangely enough, is the notion of sainthood. We study heroes and villains, persons who both exceed and fail to meet moral norms and standards (often the same person). And every once in a while, someone is described as a saint—usually a description immediately rejected by the possible saint. Magda Trocme, for instance, regularly dismissed claims that her actions, along those of her tiny French town of Le Chambon, which saved thousands of Jewish refugees from the Nazis were “saintly.” She insisted rather that helping people in need and danger is simply what normal people do—nothing remarkable about it. Others had different attitudes about sainthood. Maximillian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who sacrificed his life for another man about to die at Auschwitz, let it be known from his youth that his goal in life was to be a saint. Yet when the main character in camusAlbert Camus’ The Plague is described as a “saint” by another character, he responds that “sanctity doesn’t really appeal to me . . . What interests me is being a man.” Our mostly parochial school educated students have heard about saints their whole lives, but now have the opportunity to think about what makes a person a saint, or even if there is any such thing. Is there a difference between sainthood and moral excellence? Is sainthood a proper goal for a human life, or is it something one stumbles into?

A recurring character in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series of mysteries that Jeanne and I are currently binge-reading raises the saint issue in an interesting way. Dr. Vincent Gilbert abandoned a lucrative medical career to live in and care for a community of people with Down syndrome. Based on that experience he wrote a book called Being, by all accounts a memoir of staggering honesty and humility. Staggering particularly because Dr. Gilbert abandoned his family to enter this community, walking back into their lives years later to find that his alienated son and wife want nothing to do with him. He’s temperamental, a contrarian by nature, very full of and in love with himself, and is generally disliked by everyone in town. bury your deadThese contradictions have earned him the title “The Asshole Saint” among his family and acquaintances who know and don’t love him.

In Bury Your Dead, the sixth installment in Penny’s series, Vincent is living in a cabin deep in the Québec woods because his family refuses to let him live with them at their hotel and spa in town. Inspector Beauvoir, another recurring character in the series who is recovering from serious gunshot wounds received a few weeks earlier, finds himself in the cabin when Vincent rescues him from a snowmobile mishap. As Vincent tenderly cares for the feverish Beauvoir, the Inspector compares his current situation to his previous medical care over the past weeks.

He’d been touched by any number of medical men and women. All skilled personnel, all well intentioned, some kind, some rough. All made it clear they wanted him to live, but none had made him feel that his life was precious, was worth saving, was worth something . . . [Vincent’s] healing went beyond the flesh, beyond the blood. Beyond the bones.

I wrote a year ago on this blog about the difference between “fixers” and “healers,” a difference that Inspector Beauvoir is taking notice of.

Fixing and Healing

The ability to recognize the value and dignity in another person, regardless of their status or situation, is one of the hallmarks of a healer—and perhaps a saint.

Less than a page after Inspector Beauvoir’s observations about Vincent’s healing abilities, the men enjoy a meal together while listening to a hockey game on the radio. asshole book clubBefore long Vincent says something judgmental and nasty about Beauvoir’s culinary preferences, as much in character as Vincent’s tender care a page earlier. “The asshole was back,” Beauvoir notes. “Or, more likely, had been there all along in deceptively easy company with the saint.” I have not yet finished Bury Your Dead, but a bit over half way through I have a sneaking suspicion that Vincent might have committed the unsolved murder that the Inspector and everyone else in town is seeking to solve. I won’t reveal down the line if my suspicions are correct—if I did, Louise Penny would have to kill me. But a killer saint might be a stretch—it’s challenging enough to come to grips with a saint being an asshole.

Or is it? When Camus’ character in The Plague says that he is more interested in being a man than being a saint, I suspect he is drawing a false distinction. Saintliness need not require rising above one’s humanity or leaving it behind. Instead, I prefer to think of saintliness as entirely compatible with being human—warts and all. The Protestant in me has always bristled a bit at Catholic veneration of the saints, primarily because raising them to veneration status removes them from the daily human grind and places them beyond the reach of reasonable human aspiration. AquinasI enjoy finding out that Thomas Aquinas had an eating disorder and that Sister Teresa could be a bitch and was hard to get along with. Why? Because it tells me the excellence that sainthood represents is a matter of being fully human. Each of us can learn to see another person as more than a problem to be avoided or solved, to be attentive to the other in the manner that their humanity deserves. Each of us can learn to be healers, in other words—even if we still occasionally are assholes. That’s what incarnation is all about.

Lost in the Amazon

imagesG5211NOUBookstores! For bibliophilic folks such as I, there is no more fascinating or attractive idea. The very notion of a place where I can spend the day surrounded by books, wandering here and there with no particular goal other than the hope that I might stumble across the book I’ve never seen by an author I’ve never heard of that will provide hours of entertainment, provoke new thoughts, and that might even, as Richard Rorty suggests, be the basis for “an encounter which rearranges my priorities and purposes” is exhilarating and stimulating. Such discoveries happen regularly enough to raise hopes to expectations, but even if no magical connections are made, there are few ways to spend a few hours more attractive than in an establishment specifically dedicated to the sale of my favorite thing: books. I have been told that everything I have just described is also available in a library, but I strangely have never been a big fan of libraries. The whole idea of borrowing a book and having to give it back is foreign to me. A book is something that imagesX2TI9OA9I want to own, to devour, to add to my collection of specimens—definitely not something to give back. Furthermore, libraries don’t usually have coffee shops.

So I should be in the front lines of those publicly bemoaning the demise of the bookstore. Borders is gone—I’m still pissed every time I pass the corner of Providence Place Mall where my favorite Borders used to be located, now occupied by a mega-shoe store, for God’s sake. Barnes and Noble is still around (although I always liked Borders more), but the two in our area are at least ten miles away, which in Rhode Island is an overnight trip. There are a number of independent booksellers and used book stores in our area; I suspect they are struggling to keep their noses above water. These should be my new hangouts, places where you might find me with Jeanne in tow on any given weekend afternoon. But no. IimagesEM6PUZGKnstead of doing what any true bibliophile should be doing as bookstores close down—finding another one—I’ve gone to the dark side. I’ve entered the Amazon.

In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, Jeff Bezos said that he wants Amazon to become the place where anyone in the world can buy absolutely anything. Its goal is “to sell everything to everyone.” I don’t know about that, although I have indeed purchased an advent wreath, a Betty Boop Christmas ornament and a plastic bag dispenser to hold the bags needed to pick up dog shit from the back yard from Amazon in the past few months. Amazon’s primary purpose in my life, though, is to be my several-million-titles-and-growing bookstore. And mean real books. high_resolution[1]I do not own a Kindle and don’t intend to. I have explained in previous posts that only when they make an e-reader that feels and smells like a real book will I consider taking that plunge.

My Best Friends

But with my Amazon Prime membership which includes two-day free shipping, I can order books on Monday and have them reliably sitting at my back door when I return from campus on Wednesday. Until recently, that is.

My Christmas shopping for the past several holiday seasons has been primarily an Amazon extravaganza. Books always are a significant portion of gifts for Jeanne, and I of course always add a title or two for me. Orders were made during the first week of December.

imagesSECKJ37CTuesday, December 3: Ordered two books for Jeanne, one for me, and all six seasons of “Breaking Bad” in DVD (my son’s Christmas present).

Wednesday, December 4: Ordered two more books for Jeanne that I forgot about on Tuesday (God bless free delivery) plus one more for me.

Thursday, December 5: Was crushed to return home after work to no Amazon box at my back door. Blamed it (grudgingly) on the Christmas rush.

Friday, December 6: The Amazon box at my back door contained Wednesday’s order delivered within the two-day free shipping parameters. Fine, but where the hell is my Tuesday order? As I have done many times over the past few years, I went online, signed in to my Amazon account, and clicked on “Track Package” for the appropriate order. Inside-Amazon-Warehouse-08[1]I was accordingly informed that the package was “in transit,” having left the seller facility (Amazon warehouse) in New Castle, Delaware on its way to the carrier (UPS) at 17:56 on Wednesday 12/4 with an estimated delivery of Thursday 12/5 by 8:00 PM. The package in question had not reported in since leaving the warehouse and it was now twenty-four hours late in arriving.  I sprang into action.

Clicking on “Contact us,” I sent an email to Amazon customer service. Impressively, within two hours I received an email from either a woman or a very smart computer named Natalie expressing abject regret at the inconvenience, asking for my patience during the holiday season, and requesting that I wait one more day before further steps were taken. Natalie contacted me around noon the next day (Saturday), wondering whether the package had shown up. In response to my one word reply—“no”—Natalie sent the following:153687910_640[1] “Since there is no further tracking information, we will treat this order as a lost package. A new order will be placed for these items and sent to you by overnight delivery at no charge to you. Because of the obvious inconvenience, I have extended your Amazon Prime membership [which was due to expire in January] for three months.” In other words, let’s pretend the first order never happened. We’ll just do a “do over” and throw you a three-month membership extension bone for the obvious, nerve-wracking and blood-pressure raising inconvenience of a package being two days late. The replacement package arrived on Monday. Customer satisfied, end of story.

But I got to thinking (always a dangerous thing) about that “lost package.” Where is it? What happened to it? Is it laying in the weeds by the side of the road? Is the person to whose house it was incorrectly delivered now enjoying season three of “Breaking Bad”?  There are deep existential issues here. Really—bear with me. If an Amazon order is made online, but the package never arrives, does the package really exist? Natalie essentially said “let’s pretend this never happened. Let’s pretend that the order was actually made on Saturday, not the previous Tuesday.” And really, the only evidence I have that the Tuesday-ordered package ever existed is a cryptic report that it left the Amazon facility in Delaware on Wednesday. Is that really sufficient evidence to support something’s existence?georgeberkeley[1] As the Irish philosopher and Anglican clergyman George Berkeley once wrote, “to exist is to be perceived.” Lacking the perception of holding the package in my hands, opening it up and examining its contents, for all intents and purposes said package never existed.

I know, I know. Leave it to a philosopher to turn a story about a lost Christmas package into a contemporary version of the lame old philosophical puzzle images22PKHBFQ“If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there, is there a sound?” But think about it. How do we, really, establish the existence of something? By sensory experience. To illustrate, I sometimes ask my students “How many of you believe that Japan exists?” Everyone does. Then I want to know “How many of you have ever been there?” Usually no one has. So the obvious question is “Then how do you know that Japan exists?” Answers range from “my uncle visited there and told me about it” to having seen pictures of it in a book or a movie about it. In other words, we are more than willing to accept indirect sensory evidence to establish the existence of things. But when there is no sensory evidence, direct or indirect, of something’s existence—such as in the case of my package—there is no relevant difference between saying that something is “lost” and saying that it does not exist.

This is worth considering when issues concerning God’s existence arise. How is a person to prove God’s existence? If Berkeley is right that “to exist is to be perceived,” then the existence of God is not something ultimately dependent upon logical arguments, no matter how sound and valid they might be. Belief in the existence of God is entirely rooted in experience, in a certainty that can only arise from direct contact. For those who have fallen into the hands of a living God, logical arguments add nothing but “of course.” For those who have not had such an encounter, logical arguments are never enough. This is why God chooses to enter the world in tangible, human form rather than theological and philosophical arguments. Rumors of a package on the way, divine or otherwise, are never enough—we need to hold the thing in our hands.images7EXCIDWY

Sabbatical Report–The Early Returns

I have been on sabbatical officially for a bit over a month—in many ways, it doesn’t feel any different from the middle of any summer for an academic. I’ve been reading and writing a lot, something that all academics do during the summer. I’ve been spending a lot of time working in the yard, something I always enjoy doing in the summer. WIN_20150701_150659The greatest evidence that this summer is unusual is that since July 1 I have been riding my new bicycle 15-25 miles every day. And this reminds me that this isn’t just the summer—it’s the beginning of sabbatical. I received sufficient funds to purchase a beautiful new bicycle from my very generous colleagues who teach in the academic program I directed for the past four years, money presented to me as a thank you gift (along with a very expensive and very lovely bottle of Laphroaig) at a surprise reception after the program’s annual end-of-the-academic-year workshop in May. laphroigI have only been to the gym twice since July 1 (my habit has been four times per week for the past twenty or more years) because I have ridden my bicycle every day but two since July 1. I highly recommend it.

August tends to be the month when professors remember that they actually will be teaching classes within a few weeks and put the final touches on each of their fall syllabi (or begin their syllabi if they are less anal about class preparation than I tend to be). And now I’m beginning to feel weird, because I have no syllabi to prepare. With a full academic year sabbatical, I will not be in the classroom again until the day after Labor Day 2016. I know that my colleagues who are getting ready for the students who will arrive on campus in a month are probably jealous of those colleagues who are on sabbatical—but I don’t feel guilty about that. I felt the same way each of the last six Augusts about my colleagues who were beginning sabbatical. Unfortunately sabbatical only shows up once every seven years—that means that six out of every seven Augusts a professor is going to be overwhelmed by envy.

sabbaticalExplaining sabbatical to non-academics is very difficult, and in my experience most academics do a lousy job at such explanations. Most non-academics do not know exactly what sabbatical is. But they do know that for a semester or year the person on sabbatical is not going to be in the classroom, which means (obviously) that sabbatical is vacation. When a teacher is not in the classroom, she is not working—right? No amount of explaining that sabbatical is the time when professors research, write and publish, all of which are requirements for promotion and tenure (another academic thing non-academics don’t get), or of describing the hoops that must be jumped through (proposals, committees, etc.) in order to be approved for tenure matters a whit. What makes you so special to warrant getting several months off every seventh year? Paid, no less? Do you think you work harder than normal people do? Do you live in a rarified atmosphere than normal mortals can only aspire to? This, of course, is likely to produce an ill-conceived and defensive response from the academic, who then comes off sounding as if she really does think she is special, that he does work harder than anyone else, that the academic does deserve a perk that virtually no one else has access to. But I think we can do better than this, fellow professors. Step one—stop apologizing for having access to something that, netflix family leavein a better world of work and employment, would be the norm rather than the exception.

The other day on one of the NPR shows I listen to when in the car (I forget which one—they all start melding together after a certain time), Netflix’s newly announced policy of a full year’s paid leave to new parent employees was the topic of discussion. “Wow, those wild and crazy companies like Netflix, Google and Microsoft! Unlimited vacation time, no required number of working hours per week, and now this! What will they think of next?” A bit of perspective was provided by a caller about twenty minutes in. The caller was from Scotland but married an American and lives in the U.S. He reported that when each of his children was born, his wife was allowed a mere six weeks of paid maternity leave, then she had to return to work.scotland parental leave By comparison, when his sister gave birth recently in Scotland, by statute her employer was required to provide her with six months of paid maternity leave, to be followed by six more months at half salary if she chose to avail herself of it. “What’s driving me crazy about the conversation so far,” the caller said, “is that everyone is saying what a great and spectacular thing policies like Netflix’s family leave program are. But this is how things should be. Every employer beyond a specified size should have to provide a year’s paid leave. This isn’t a luxury—it’s how people should be treated.”

Rather than getting defensive when conversing with non-academics about sabbaticals, professors should make a similar argument to the one offered by the guy from Scotland. The idea of Sabbath and sabbatical is ancient—most people who know anything about it know that several chapters in the Pentateuch from the Jewish scriptures describe in detail how a scheduled change in the daily, monthly, yearly routine is to be a fundamental part of the fabric of Israelite life. ot sabbaticalNot just for people, but also for the land, for non-human animals, and even for God itself if the divine seventh day rest in the first chapter of Genesis is to be taken seriously. Why are the Sabbath and sabbatical years commanded in the Jewish law? Not because the children of Israel worked harder than anyone else or because they deserve it more than other human beings, but because the rhythms of work and rest, of activity and contemplation, of expending energy and recharging batteries, are built into the very fabric of the world we find ourselves part of. Stepping back and taking a look at things from a different angle in the middle of a culture fully dedicated to manic production and 24-7 work sounds like a quaint luxury, but really it is a psychological necessity.

Joan Chittister, one of the most powerful voices for peace and justice in our world who happens also to be a Benedictine nun, puts it nicely when reflecting on the genius of Benedict’s Rule:chittister

Benedictine leisure is a life lived with a continuing commitment to the development of a culture with a Sabbath mind . . . The purpose of Sabbath is to reflect on life, to determine whether what we’re doing and who we are is what we should be doing and who we want to be. Sabbath is meant to bring wisdom and action together. It provides the space we need to begin again.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Jeanne pointed out that employers could set up programs where employees wanting sabbaticals could have a seventh or a tenth of their salary set aside from each paycheck to accumulate until the seventh or tenth year came—and sabbatical money would be waiting for them. Good start, I say, but I’d go even further—savvy employers will fund these sabbaticals because it will empower their employees in a way that a raise or a couple of extra vacation days could never do. The immediate pushback, of course, is that such a proposal strikes directly at the heart of capitalist efficiency and productivity. To which I respondpoint

I myself am a testimonial to the power of sabbatical. As Joan Chittister writes in the above passage, one of the purposes of sabbatical is to determine whether who we are is who we want to be. During my last sabbatical, before I even was consciously aware of it, I started asking that question—and I found that at least in some important parts of my life the answer was “no.” I was not the person I wanted to be. In reflecting, then acting, on that emerging awareness, internal changes occurred that would have never happened without the time and space provided by sabbatical. It offered me the opportunity to begin again and changed my life—I highly recommend it.highly-recommend

Facts, Words, and the Word

TheHobbit_Sdtk_Cover_1425px_300dpi1[1]The day after Christmas a few years ago I went with my son to see Peter Jackson’s movie version of “The Hobbit,” Part One. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I knew I would. I have been a Tolkienphile since my early teens, when The Hobbit was assigned by Mrs. Lord (a great name for a teacher) in my high school honors freshman English class. I loved it, and innocently said to Mrs. Lord “I like this—has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact he has,” she replied, and turned me on to the wonders of The Lord of the Rings. It set off a love affair with J. R. R. Tolkien that has lasted for over forty years. Although I have strayed in the past few years, my first encounter with hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, orcs, and humans in Middle Earth caused me, going forward, to religiously read all four books once every three years. And I suspect that had Mrs. Lord not assigned The Hobbit, I might not have discovered Tolkien for many years after, if ever. It was one of my first examples of the joys of unexpected literary discoveries. It probably also explains why I have never read a word of the “Harry Potter” series”–the next generations Tolkien, I suppose.

muriel_barbery_personnalite_une[1]I still enjoy the unforeseen pleasures of a new literary find. I recently reread one of my favorite novels, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and asked myself, upon finishing, a Mrs. Lord question: “I wonder if she’s written anything else?” Thanks to the wonders of Amazon, I found out in less than a minute that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is gourmet-rhapsody3[1]Barbery’s second novel, that she studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and worked for a number of years in France as a philosophy teacher. I immediately ordered her first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, to read during the break between semesters.

It’s a short novel—a novella, really—that can easily be read in one day, especially if you have a cold and are resisting the siren call of work-related emails that you want to ignore until after New Year’s Day. In the midst of the story about a world-famous food critic who has been told that he has no more than two days to live, I read a sentence that has stuck with me over the past several months, even as the details of Barbery’s story drift away. “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis between words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial dress.”

As I get older and become more able to put years of teaching experience and continuing personal transition and process into some semblance of context and perspective, I find myself placed often at the intersection of words and facts. Facts, the one damn thing after another that provide the stuff of reality, are naked and uninteresting until shaped by a context, energized by a story, or illuminated by narrative light. Yet we live in a world which often insists on just the facts. As the insurance investigators tell Pi Patel in Life of Pi, after listening to his story of survival involving a hyena, an orangutan, a tiger, and a carnivorous island, “for the purposes of our investigation we want to know what really happened.The-Life-of-Pi[1] We want a simpler story for our report, one the company can understand and that we can all believe.” But the notion that the truth is nothing more than facts properly assembled in appropriate order is itself the result of a particular narrative structure, a structure guaranteed to produce stagnation and mediocrity. “I know what you want,” Pi responds. “You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

If I have become convinced of anything in the twenty-five years that I have been teaching, it is that true learning only happens in the company of the desire to see higher, further, or differently. Accordingly, in the narrative of teaching and learning the atomic facts of reality are dressed up in various styles. Sometimes the dress is formal, sometimes casual, sometimes liturgical, and sometimes humorous. Occasionally learning happens best when facts are dressed as for a masquerade, deliberately seeking to conceal what is underneath. Almost never are facts served up naked, except to illustrate how dull and lifeless facts in the raw are, compared with what we might find in the word wardrobe to dress them in.

story_iStock_000015344866Small[1]Alasdair MacIntyre tells us that humans are story-telling animals, and as such we package the facts of our lives for ourselves and for each other in word-woven stories. But just as facts are, of themselves, incapable of conveying truth, so also it is often impossible for even the most skilled storyteller and communicator to encompass the highest truths with words. Human beings know this intuitively. Anyone who has ever tried to express the depths of real love finds that the reality always exceeds what can be expressed in words. As Reverend Ames says in Gilead, “you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.“ “Actions speak louder than words” is more than a truism or sound bite—it is an acknowledgement that the truth often must be shown rather than spoken or written about.

The inadequacy of both naked facts and the words we dress them in is shockingly apparent when entering the realm of religious conviction. This is especially the case when the religion in question involves sacred texts, words that supposedly carry divine weight in some fashion or another. inerrancy_Gerstner[1]I am a product of a version of Christianity that treats the Bible as literal fact—this leads to shallowness, agnosticism, atheism, or at worst, rigid self-righteousness. When the “facts” are dressed up in ornamental dress, the product is stories, metaphors, doctrine, or dogma, depending on the style and the word-fashion designer. But embedded at the heart of the Christian narrative is a challenge both attractive and provocative. As with all of the greatest truths, the most dynamic aspects of the relationship between the human and the divine cannot be reduced to words.

ChristmasB-in-the-beg[1]There is a reason why the writer of the Gospel of John begins by considering divine wordplay. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What sort of ceremonial dress is this? Alfred Korn puts it this way: “God is spirit, but at some point in history God became Word. This process of finding words for what cannot be expressed is incarnation.” As the Gospel writer tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The depths of divine love cannot be exhausted by words, by speech, by texts, by facts dressed up in even the fanciest garb. www-St-Takla-org--Coptic-Saints-Saint-Athanasius-03-01[1]These depths must be lived in and inhabited. And so the story goes—we are the continuing incarnation. As Saint Athanasius provocatively said, “God became human so that we might become God.” The Word continues to become flesh and live with us, because the Word is us. The life of faith is the life spent exploring what that amounts to and living it out.

Love Will Win

Picture the favorite vehicle that you have ever owned. Did it look like this?imagesCAZSZF9L

Or this?imagesCATWFKR9

Or this?Corvette_Stingray_454_For_Sale[1]

Mine looked something like this.img_4135[1] (Not exactly, but close. Amazingly enough, I have no actual full pictures of the vehicle in question). On a very sad morning five years ago, the morning that my favorite vehicle ever was towed out of my driveway, I wrote the following reminiscence of how this candidate for the world’s ugliest station wagon played an important role in helping me learn to embrace my inner self.

I watched a piece of history disappear out of sight this morning, as it turned the corner at the end of my block—a piece of my history. It was perched on the back of a flatbed tow truck. As my car rounded the bend, donated to charity for a tax write-off and undoubtedly destined to be dismantled for parts, I began to wax nostalgic. Although I came of age during the turbulent sixties and early seventies, I was not your classic anti-establishment rebel. I grew up in rural northern New England, was raised in a conservative Protestant religious tradition—these are hardly contributing factors to being a masters-of-rock-issue-7-psychedelic-60s[1]60s counter-culture flower child. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to make up for lost time during my 40s and 50s. As I get older, I continue to attribute a number of my defining features—my liberalism, the delight I take in enabling young people to think for themselves, my ponytail—to the atmosphere of the Sixties that seeped into my bones unbeknownst to me as I was growing up. The vehicle in question was a significant addition to this development.

The Chairmobile was a 1991 Honda Accord station wagon—it had about 190,000 miles on it when it dropped in my lap in the summer of 2004; as it left the homestead this morning, it had 250,000. It should have looked like this:blue[1] It didn’t. The Chairmobile’s registration said it was blue, but no one who ever saw it called it blue. It looked red to me, but I’m partially color blind. It had a serious rust problem on both fenders; it was apparently in an accident before it came to me and has a gash on the driver side front door that is also rusting around the edges. It was also covered with graffiti-style yellow spray paint, making the question of its true color moot. The hood said, in large yellow letters, “Cuba Caravan 2004,” in honor of the (illegal) caravan of humanitarian aid to Cuba in which Jeanne participated in the summer of 2004. Along the two driver side doors the words “Love Will Win” are sprayed. The two doors on the other side read “Pastors For Peace,” although the fading letters are hard to read in places. The back window had some more propaganda painted on it.062904-p4pcar-rear-2-250px[1]

Around all four sides of the roof were sprayed the names of various heartland cities, from Minneapolis, MN to Wichita Falls, TX, towns it visited as it was loaded with aid to be driven to the US/Mexican border. The car was intended to go on a barge with the rest of the aid from Mexico to Cuba, but the Cubans could only take diesel fueled vehicles that summer. Jeanne had just accepted a job at a university on Long Island that started in late summer and would be taking our sole vehicle with her. The beat up, graffiti-wearing, Cuba-rejected Honda was there for the taking, so I figured I’d drive it for a few months until it croaked.

That was five years ago. I christened it “The Chairmobile” because I had just started four years as chair of the philosophy department a month earlier. It came with a bumper sticker that said “Be a real revolutionary: Practice your faith.” EB789263[1]I added a few more, such as “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bartlet,” “Dissent is Patriotic,” S460_DissentIsPatriotic[1]and the symbol for the ACLU, just in case there was any doubt about the political leanings of the Chairmobile’s owner. Every time I drove out of the driveway I was screaming to the world “I’m a fucking liberal! You want to make something of it?? What are you staring at?? You want a piece of me??” Not the best vehicle for an introvert who would just as soon be anonymous at times, but driving an extroverted car boosted my confidence level.

I have enough stories about reactions to the Chairmobile to fill dozens of essays. A local cop pulled me over in the grocery store parking lot within a week of the Chairmobile’s arrival for no reason other than that he simply could not believe such a horrible looking car could be current and legal in its insurance, registration, and inspection. More recently, as I was minding my own business loading groceries in the same parking lot, a twenty-something yelled “Hey buddy, Osama kills liberals too!” as he drove by in a BMW convertible. Another time somebody hollered imagesCASHU94X“Love sucks!” at me as I turned the corner from a stop light—obviously his girlfriend had just dumped him. My friend Montana Bob, a veteran of the Cuba caravans, reports that a few years earlier, he was driving a similarly graffitied vehicle through Colorado Springs, gathering humanitarian aid on the way to the Mexican border. Someone at a stop light asked “If you love Cuba so much, why don’t you go live there, you Communist?”, to which my friend, in the true spirit of Christian charity, asked in return “why don’t you pull over into that parking lot so I can kick your ass?” Montana Bob is a committed advocate of muscular Christianity.

But in the years I drove the Chairmobile, I received far more smiles from strangers than frowns. A woman in the neighborhood told me (in the grocery store parking lot once again) “I love it when I see your car—it always makes me feel good, especially these days.” How different would the world be if everyone wore their inner selves on the outside, in the same way as exoskeletal lobsters and crabs do?rusty_crayfish[1] For the few years that I drove the Chairmobile, I announced to the world in no uncertain terms some things about me that were both true and could no longer be hidden. Such as that what my car looks like is about 1037th on my list of priorities. That at least in theory I care more about people in need than people’s opinions. That I believe being a person of faith has little to do with church attendance. That I’m a person of faith in the first place. And that I’m living out some repressed rebellious tendencies that had no outlet in my youth while rebellion was erupting all around me.

The money required to keep the Chairmobile inspected and running finally became prohibitive; its replacement is also used (1996), has high mileage (update: 145,000 then—225,000 now, four years later. Jeanne and I like cars with more mileage on them than we have), but has no rust, no dents, and no graffiti. That worries me—I’ve become used to my car making a statement, sort of like a sandwich board advertisement for the driver. So I’ll be headed for the hardware store to get some spray paint soon.100_0876 I need some new messages, though, to reflect the new and revived me that emerged from my sabbatical months. “St. Benedict is the man.” “Monks rock.” “Big Bird is watching you.” “My dachshunds can beat up your honors student.” Stuff like that. And perhaps the opening lines from daily noon prayer: “God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.” It never hurts to ask—all the time.