Tag Archives: family

A Reluctant Rose

In spite of my love of and occasional success with flowers and plants, I have a checkered history with roses. They are temperamental, picky, and have a general attitude that I don’t appreciate. Previous owners of our house apparently had little interest in landscaping; there was nothing other than grass in the back yard and a meager collection of scrubby evergreen bushes in the front—the sort of bushes that people who don’t want to give a second thought to watering or taking care of plants place in their yard. The only exception to this general ignoring of plants was two rose bushes—one on each side of the front steps.002001 (2)

Red on the south side which gets tons of sun; pink on the north side which gets very little.  Both bushes did well for several years after we moved in, but during the past decade there have been fewer and fewer flowers, more and more spotted leaves, and this spring something new—little green worms who ate the insides out of the first few flower buds on the red rose bush. “Aaphidsphids!” the guy at Lowe’s said; “very common on rose bushes.” He directed me toward seventeen different products designed to kick aphid ass and strongly advised me to get the most expensive one (I didn’t).

The product I did purchase worked and the early returns are positive—the red rose bush is cranking out better flowers than it has for years. The pink bush was so pathetic last year that in the fall I cut it back to the ground, fully expecting it not to survive the winter. Whoever originally planted this bush knew less about plants than I do, since it is clearly in the wrong spot—roses do like at least a few minutes of sun per day. I have restrained myself from just digging the thing up year after year, since it and its red companion might be as old as the house which was built in the 1940s. Against all odds, the pink bush did survive our relatively mild winter—barely—and is now growing a few new shoots from the mulch up, currently with one meagre bud. We’ll see if it survives Morgan natural selection for another year.

Anna 1Several weeks ago I received an email from my friend Marsue, announcing that she had a birthday present for Jeanne (whose birthday was not for another month) that she needed to transfer to us as soon as possible. Marsue is an Episcopal diocesan priest and had an all-day in-service close by that day, so we rendezvoused at lunchtime to make the exchange. Her gift for Jeanne was a Rose-in-a-box named “Anna’s Promise”—after the lovely and wonderful Anna from Downton Abbey. anna and batesThis was an appropriate selection, since the love of Anna and Mr. Bates was one of our favorite story lines in the show. Furthermore, a Buzzfeed quiz once told me that if I were a Downton Abbey character, I would be Bates. Other than both being quite attractive, Jeanne and Anna are not very similar; the same Buzzfeed quiz told Jeanne that she would be Lord Grantham.

The Anna’s Rose propaganda on the box promised that the bush would produce “Large, novel tan flowers with a copper reverse, exhibiting a sweet & spicy, fruity fragrance that will freshen up your garden”—Annas promisea description probably written by the same people who write descriptions for the labels on wine bottles. Upon opening the box, I found a plant as bare and naked as Ezekiel’s dry bones. Three or four sticks upward and an equal number of them down; it took me a few moments to figure out which sticks were the branches and which were the roots. I had tried a plant-in-a-box a few times before, with consistently poor results, so I was not optimistic about Anna’s prospects. She came with extensive planting instructions, which I largely ignored. I followed my usual new plant regimen—dig a hole twice as large as the roots, throw in some manure, put the dirt back in, cover with mulch, and water. We agreed that the best location for Anna’s home would be next to the red rose bush; I planted her and we waited.

And nothing happened. Days turned into weeks, and Anna still looked like a pile of dry bones. After a couple of weeks, around the time that new plants generally reveal if they plan to survive, Marsue started emailing. “How’s the rose bush doing?’ “It’s doing nothing,” I said each time, eventually confiding that I was pretty sure that Anna was dead. Her box might actually have been a coffin. This, of course, was a disappointment to all parties involved—to me because it was an indictment of my plant skills, to Marsue because she gave a dead plant to her friend for her birthday, and to Jeanne because she received a dead plant from her friend for her birthday. More than a month after the planting and a day or so before she left for a three-week conference, Jeanne confessed that she prayed for Anna. rose boxMy complicated history with prayer did not cause me to leap to the conclusion that signs of life were immanent. A week after Jeanne left, now about six weeks since the planting, Anna was still dormant, comatose, or dead. Then a miracle occurred.

I was weeding the plant beds in front of the house and noticed Anna looking pathetic and dead; I considered pulling her up then and there, but decided to wait until Jeanne got home in a week. Two days later I was mowing the lawn and noticed that not only was Anna showing signs of life for the first time, but she had a lot of leaves on every branch I had assumed was dead. I took a picture and emailed Jeanne and Marsue: LOOK AT THISSHE’S ALIVE!!reluctant rose Jeanne took full credit for having raised Anna from the dead with her prayers; whatever happened, she’s sporting more leaves every day and I can now tell where her first flower-bearing stalk is going to be.m m and l Anna’s probably sick of my checking her out three times a day, but I’ll bet that’s what Mary and Martha did when Lazarus rose from the dead as well.

In a subsequent email, Marsue noted that there was something Biblical in the saga of Anna and she expected a blog post about it. I thought similarly and had already started typing in a few thoughts. Here’s what I think—Anna’s a good example of how things that are apparently dead are often simply taking their time gathering inner strength for a reawakening. As I have frequently written about in this blog, I am a case in point. Life is always a possibility for even those things and people who are, to all appearances, corpses. I gave a sermon once a few years ago about how this happened for me on a Sunday when the gospel reading was the raising of Lazarus.

Loose Him, and Let Him Go

Death and resurrection is part of the world we live in. It is part of each of us. There is no guarantee that Anna will produce spectacular roses—she may not produce any at all. But she’s a reminder of how things work in the larger scheme of things. Death is never the final word and there’s always the possibility of new life. The tag that was attached to the apparently dead Anna when I took her from her box/coffin read

“Anna’s Promise” praises the true heart and steadfast love that transcends the trials and tribulations endured by Downton Abbey’s character Anna Bates.

At the heart of my faith is the belief that such a transcendent, steadfast love is the backdrop for this often disappointing and difficult world that we find ourselves in. May it be so.

Ali Liston II

Simply “The Greatest”

Upon hearing a week ago that Muhammad Ali had passed away, I posted something very simple on Facebook and Twitter: “Muhammad Ali’s sports nickname says it all. He was simply The Greatest.”the greatest Jeanne and I left shortly afterwards for a weekend trip to Pennsylvania, so I did not get to see or hear the dozens of tributes from across the globe both mourning the champ’s passing and celebrating his remarkable life until returning home. Ali won the heavyweight boxing championship for the first (of three) times when I was a young kid; my growing up years were regularly marked by the latest explosion of this very public man’s life into the news from the boxing ring and the court room. What possible impact could the life of a Muslim, African-American boxing champ have on a white boy as he inched toward adulthood in northern Vermont? A significant one, as it turns out.Ali liston 1

I was eight years old when Cassius Clay won the heavyweight boxing championship at the age of twenty-three, defeating the fearsome Sonny Liston in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. He was loud, brash, an entertainer, extremely confident and full of himself—and was poetry in motion. I was used to watching the Friday night fights with my father on television when he was not on the road, but I’d never seen anything like this guy—a heavyweight who moved like a middleweight. As a white boy growing up in northern Vermont, I was mildly aware of what was going on in the early Sixties—the civil rights movement, early resistance to the Viet Nam war, the counter culture—but the champ was the first public figure who embodied all of it for me. When, shortly after winning the title, the new champ announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, that he was rejecting his “slave name” Cassius Clay for a new name—Muhammad Ali—then that he was refusing to be drafted, confusion and cognitive dissonance reigned at my house. My father was a big boxing fan and had declared Clay (he wasn’t inclined yet to accept the champ’s new name) the best boxer he had ever seen (and Dad remembered Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis). But my father found it hard to believe the Nation of Islam business and declared the champ to be a traitor and coward for refusing to serve his country (even though my father had escaped the draft during the Korean War, due to a deferment available to seminarians). Ali draftI knew no black people and knew nothing about Islam, but was intrigued by Ali’s principled stand and refusal to compromise his beliefs—even if I didn’t know or understand exactly what they were.

Because he refused to be inducted into the Army, in 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title, forced to surrender his passport, and could not get a license to fight for three-and-a-half years. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971, attitudes concerning his resistance to the war had changed, both across the country and in my family. My father, who had originally called Ali a coward and traitor, came to understand along with many others that Ali’s resistance to the war was absolutely right, just four or five years ahead of its time. My Dad testified in front of our local draft board in support of my older brother’s case for conscientious objector status in the early seventies—rumble in the jungleI have no doubt that Muhammad Ali’s stand had something to do with my father’s change of heart.

Ali’s greatest fights happened during my high school and early college years. I watched in disbelief when Ken Norton broke Ali’s jaw and handed him only his second career defeat. I skipped class my freshman year in college to listen to the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire on the radio. In what was perhaps the greatest sporting spectacle of the twentieth century, very few gave Ali a chance against the devastatingly powerful and much younger champion George Foreman—but he knocked George out in the eighth round. I skipped class once again a year later and listened to the “Thrilla in Manila,” the rubber match in Ali’s epic three fight rivalry with Joe Frazier. thrilla in manilaAli won what was perhaps the greatest boxing match in history with a fifteen-round unanimous decision. But for me, Ali’s larger-than-life persona was even more riveting than his boxing. Looking underneath Howard Cosell’s toupee during an interview; getting into a scuffle on air with Joe Frazier during another Cosell interview prior to their second fight; breaking into impromptu rhyme at the drop of a hat; cleverly insulting his opponent speechless prior to each fight—I loved everything about him. When ESPN awarded it’s “Athlete of the Century” to Michael Jordan instead of Muhammad Ali at the close of the twentieth century, I dismissed their decision as a laughable mistake. Ali not only transcended his sport—he changed the world.

The most lasting memory of Muhammad Ali for many people is probably his lighting of the Olympic torch to officially start the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. OlympicsAfflicted with Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade, the image of an obviously frail and shaking Ali completing his task successfully was truly compelling. Many of the tributes in the days following his passing focused on that image, as well as his philanthropic work; they were remembering a kind and generous ailing elder statesman. That’s a worthy tribute, but that is not the man I remember, the man who regularly burst into my early years in various ways. Muhammad Ali was an original, edgy, flamboyant, and always a bit scary. My people became comfortable with Dr. King’s role in the civil rights movement over time,Ali and X but Ali was in the mold of Malcolm X. Angry, abrasive, eloquent, successful—and not the least bit concerned with playing any of the roles or saying any of the things that white folks expected black athletes and public figures to do or say. He refused to accept the world he was born into, and throughout his life he explored his power to change it.

My son Justin, was born just a couple of weeks before Ali retired for the last time in late 1981 after making one too many comebacks, as many aging athletes do. We talked on the phone a few days after the champ died; Justin told me that for many years, first in his dorm room, then in the bedroom of various apartments, he hung the iconic picture of Ali yelling for Sonny Liston to get up after knocking Liston out with one devastating punch less than a minute into the first round of their second bout. “He was one of my heroes,” Justin said. That makes sense, because he was one of mine as well. He was simply The Greatest.Ali Liston II

red

The Little Red-Haired Girl

It’s Jeanne’s birthday today–she’s away at a conference and I’m missing her. It is my blog custom on her birthday to post a reflection on how we met and how lucky I am. Some of you have read this one–if so, enjoy it again! If not, meet my beautiful partner! Please join me in celebrating my favorite person’s natal day!

A staple of my early years was the “Peanuts” comic strip. That doesn’t make me unusual—I don’t recall anyone in my circle of family and friends unaware of what Charlie Brown and company were up to on a daily or at least weekly basis. Depending on my mood and what was going on in my life, I resonated either with tumblr_l8pnbvbVeh1qdz4kto1_500[1]Linus, with whom I shared a host of insecurities; Schroeder, with whom I shared budding virtuosity on the piano; Snoopy, who was the epitome of coolness and could communicate volumes without saying a word; or Charlie Brown himself, whose endearing ineptitude in all aspects of his life was uncomfortably familiar.

I was a hopeless romantic, generally falling in love and making silent wedding plans any time a girl would make eye contact with me. Because of this, the most poignant story line in Charlie Brown’s escapades for me was his unrequited love for the never-seen little red-haired girl. nye3[1]Although she does make a couple of appearances in later, non-canonical television “Peanuts” cartoons, she is never seen in the print comic strip, nor do we learn her name. Charlie Brown most often notices the little red-haired girl while eating lunch outdoors on the playground, often trying to muster up the courage to speak to her, but always in vain. Anything touched by her or associated with her is precious to him. Many strips concerning the little red-haired girl end with a classic Charlie Brown “SIGH.”tumblr_lwy627YD7t1r1g3g0o1_500[1]

I understood Charlie’s struggles because in first and second grade there was a little red-haired girl in my class. Her name was Laura, her hair was carrot red, and since her last name also started with an “M” she sat in the seat in front of me. No one knew that I was enamored of Laura, certainly not her, but one day the secret was out. She unexpectedly handed a note back to me—it said “Can I borrow a pencil?”—someone observed the note transfer, assumptions were made, and during the next playground session it was “Vance and Laura, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.” As Charlie Brown would have said, “Good Grief.” Laura set things straight from her end by pointing out that everyone knew that she liked David, not me, but my failure to immediately deny my admiration of Laura confirmed everyone’s suspicions. Word spread fast, and my brother three grades ahead of me announced at dinner that evening to my parents that I was in love with a girl who didn’t like me.

Time passed, we moved away, and the little red-haired girl faded into the mists of memory. Life happened, and I ended up getting married to the first person I had a serious relationship with, my girlfriend during my last two years of high school (she had brown hair). Over the next decade two sons were born, things fell apart, and at age thirty-one I found myself divorced, living in the same town as my ex, finishing a Master’s degree and making plans to get into a doctoral program.Trudy and Bruce June 1982 My parents invited me along with my sons—ages eight and five—to their place five hundred miles away for Thanksgiving. And oh yeah—they were inviting their friend Jeanne for Thanksgiving as well.

I had heard about Jeanne before—my parents had known her for a number of years. When she came up in conversation, my mother always mentioned her beautiful singing voice and her beautiful red hair. Jeanne and I had even talked on the phone once a couple of years earlier, when she called me out of the blue just to tell me that she had been accepted into st_johns_college_logo[1]St. John’s College, where I had done my bachelor’s degree in the seventies. Jeanne only knew about it because my parents had spoken of it in glowing terms based on my experience. She thought—correctly—that only someone who had been there would know how big a deal it was to get into St. John’s.

So now this person who I knew only through second-hand stories from my mother and a voice on the phone was going to be at my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I’m not big on meeting new people, but figured this was safe because I would have my parents as a buffer.

Those few days over Thanksgiving changed several lives. Although the last thing I was looking for was a relationship six months after my divorce had ended eleven years of unhappy marriage, it was immediately clear that there was something going on between the two of us. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Thanksgiving morning I sat on the sofa in the small living room of my parents’ condo observing Jeanne chatting with my mother who was puttering around in her little kitchen. Leaning with her back up against the wall as she talked, Jeanne struck a seductive pose (or so it seemed to me) and I thought “she’s the little red-haired girl, all grown up!” A few days later, I inexplicably had tears in my eyes as I started the long drive home. In some deep place I knew I was driving away from my soul mate. But after a month of nightly phone calls of more than an hour each, she joined me for Christmas and we were together for good. And the rest is twenty-eight-plus years and counting of history still being written.

If being a romantic means being someone who believes that “Love is all you need” or that “Love is the answer,” I’m not a romantic any more. One thing we’ve learned over the past twenty-eight years is that love is not enough. A couple of weeks ago the text at church was the fruit of the spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Goodness, Faith, Meekness, Temperance. We have needed every one of these many times in order to keep going, in addition to the tenth, unmentioned fruit—humor. Each of us considered and even tried walking away from the whole thing more than once. But here we are, twenty-eight years in, stronger and more connected than we have ever been. Of the list above, the first three are in the ascendant. Love—because like fine wine and single malt scotch love gets better as it ages. Peace—of the sort that only comes with having spent almost half of your life in love with your best friend. And Joy–because unlike Chuck in the “Peanuts” strip, I got the little red-haired girl.WIN_20160522_16_29_13_Pro

Here Comes This Dreamer

JoelYour old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. This, promises the obscure prophet Joel in the Hebrew Scriptures, will be one of the signs that God has “poured out [his] Spirit upon all flesh.” Exactly what I would expect a prophet to say. Unsaid, however, is that in the meantime “your old women, your young women, and your middle-aged men and women will roll up their sleeves and get shit done.” The tension between visionaries and realists, between dreamers and pragmatists, is a healthy part of the human condition—but only when each side recognizes the equal importance and necessity of the other side.

Some people confuse the dreamer/pragmatist difference with the difference between optimists and pessimists; these two distinctions are not the same. I, as an optimist and a pragmatist, am a case in point. 3 branches of govtI find that a closer parallel to the dreamer/pragmatist distinction actually can be found by remembering the differences between the three branches of government that we learned about in fifth grade civics lessons. The energies that drive the dreamer or visionary differ from those of the pragmatist in the same was that legislative energies are different from those of the executive. Not particularly being a political animal, I did not know about these crucial differences until core curriculum review began on our campus close to a decade ago. Although I participated in many focus groups and debated endlessly on line with my colleagues about the true purposes and value of a liberal arts education, I had no desire to part of the Faculty Senate legislative process that hammered out a new core curriculum that was finally approved by the college president. boots on the groundLegislators, in spite of appearances, primarily are dreamers and visionaries—persons who imagine what a better future might look like and how it might possibly best be organized, then turn the vision over to executive pragmatists to transform this vision into “boots on the ground” reality.

I am by nature one of those pragmatists and have spent the last three years leading the attempt to make a reality the central portion of the new core curriculum fashioned by the legislators, a revitalized and freshly imagined version of the large interdisciplinary program that has been the centerpiece of my college’s core curriculum for four decades. This new program is not exactly the one I would have invented had it been up to me (it isn’t a radical enough change), but as a pragmatist and executive the question is no longercore curriculum “What program would I (we) have invented had it been entirely up to me (us)?” or even “Do I think this new program is a good idea?” Both of these questions are irrelevant—the horse is now out of the barn. The question now is “How are we going to make this visionary product happen?”

I recall an interesting conversation that I had no long ago with a faculty member teaching in the program who also happens have been his department’s senator during the Faculty Senate’s shaping of the new core. My colleague was not entirely in agreement with some of the new policies being developed as the new program went into real-time reality. “Vance,” he said, “These new policies don’t really reflect the vision of those who were debating the legislation a couple of years ago.” “I don’t care, Jack,” I replied (his name has been changed even though he needs no protection and is anything but innocent). “It’s one thing to plan something—it’s another thing entirely to make it happen.” Yet Jack and I are good friends, just as dreamers and pragmatists should be (hear that, politicians in Washington?).

Jacob wrestlingIn Genesis, we find the story of a classic dreamer/pragmatist clash that generated a great deal of conflict. Genesis is full of great stories, including the story of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson and probably my favorite character in the Bible. Smart, manipulative, younger brother, momma’s boy, God-obsessed, believer in love at first sight—I find a lot of myself in Jacob. But then we move to “Jacob—the Next Generation” and are introduced to one of my least favorite guys in the Bible—Joseph. Joseph is son number eleven of Jacob’s twelve sons fathered by his two wives and two concubines (at least those are all Genesis tells us about). But he is the first son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, so it’s not surprising that as the first child of the love of Jacob’s life, Joseph is the favored son of the twelve. The subtext just below the surface of the Genesis account is that Joseph is a spoiled brat. He gets the best clothes, he doesn’t have to work in the fields doing farmer and shepherd stuff as his ten older brothers do, he probably hasn’t done a day of real work in his life—in short, his shit doesn’t stink. jacob lineageAnd he knows this, playing the superior, “special case” card with his older brothers every chance he gets. Furthermore, he has weird dreams that he interprets to support his general conviction that he is superior to his brothers in every way.

Jacob, who for a smart guy is remarkably clueless about family dynamics, sends Joseph off on his own to check up and report on his older brothers who are tending the family flocks some distance away and report back to home base. Upon seeing their “special case” brother approaching without Dad’s protection, the older brothers see an opportunity—“this time we’re going to get this little bastard.” And they do, first throwing him into a deep pit where they plan to abandon him, them deciding instead to sell him as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants on their way to Egypt. This is just the beginning of Joseph’s story, carried on through the remaining twelve chapters of Genesis, but as horrific the beginning of the story is, the energies are very human and familiar. JosephThose of you with a brother and sister, be honest. Haven’t there been times in your life when you would have loved to abandon your sibling in a pit?

When the brothers see Joseph approaching, they don’t say “Here comes the spoiled brat,” “Here comes the special case,” or even “Here comes that little shit Joseph spying on us.” Instead they say “Here comes this dreamer.” As they plot throwing him into a pit, they say “We shall see what will become of his dreams!” In other words, “Let’s see how visioning visions, dreaming dreams and thinking great thoughts helps you at the bottom of this pit, you son of a bitch!” Underlying the horribly dysfunctional sibling dynamics in Jacob’s family is a classic case of dreamer vs. pragmatist. When push comes to shove, as it always does, the pragmatist wants to know just how the ethereal perspective of the visionary or dreamer is going to put food on the table, while the dreamer reminds us that, as the author of Proverbs notes, “where there is no vision the people perish.”

As the story unfolds, Joseph will learn how to turn his visionary abilities into a practical commodity, first saving himself from execution then saving his adopted country from famine and starvation. His strong intuitive abilities will manufacture a family reunion that is both just payback and unconditionally loving. grindstoneHis journey from “out there” dreamer to integrated human being is a long one, just as it is for all of us regardless of which direction we are journeying from. Just as the dreamer needs to get her head out of the clouds occasionally and find something to eat, so the pragmatist needs to lift his nose from the grindstone often enough to remember that without regular dream infusions, getting shit done will be just that.

A REAL Philosopher

Somebody put a drop of his blood under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses. George Eliot, Middlemarch

My sons have never thought that I look like a philosopher. This has been an issue for more than twenty-five years, ever since the late summer of 1988 when they arrived with Jeanne and me in Milwaukee, where I began my PhD studies at Marquette University. They were nine and six at the time—I’m pretty sure they didn’t know what doctoral studies amounted to, but I told them that when I was done they would forevermore have to call me Dr. Dad“Doctor Dad” and that we would be getting a license plate that read DRDAD. Neither of those things happened, but they gradually got the idea that this was important. After meeting some of my fellow students and some of my professors, they began to form an image of what “Doctor Dad” should look like. And it wasn’t me.

I never was clear about exactly in what ways I failed to live up to my sons’ imaginary philosopher until several years later. I was in my first two or three years of teaching at Providence College, where I will be starting year twenty-three in the fall. The college is set smack in the middle of a well-established residential area, and a number of the faculty (including me) live within a few blocks of campus. One day my youngest son Justin and I were driving down an avenue that forms the whole south border of campus from end to end; many faculty and student dwellings are located on the parallel streets that run away from campus off this avenue. On the opposite sidewalk Justin spotted one of my colleagues from the philosophy department who lived in the area—professorit was a breezy day and my colleague’s almost-shoulder-length hair was blowing wildly, as was his unbuttoned trench coat as he leaned into the wind. Papers were falling out of the briefcase clamped under his right arm, and he was gesticulating with his left arm and hand as he apparently tried to make an important point. To himself. Out loud. My colleague was akin to Voltaire’s God—if the philosophy department didn’t have him, we would have had to invent him. “Now that’s what a REAL philosopher looks like,” Justin commented. So now I knew.

I’ve inhabited the philosophy professor stereotype sufficiently over the succeeding years that no one is particularly surprised to find out that I am a college professor when we meet for the first time; knowing that, they are even less surprised to learn that I teach philosophy. In what other profession could a sixty-year-old guy sport a gray ponytail, dress as I generally do, and not get fired? There is a certain amount of truth at the root of every stereotype, including that academics look, act, and talk in identifiable ways—ways that normal human beings can’t get away with (and wouldn’t want to). middlemarchOver the last couple of weeks, I’ve enjoyed returning to my favorite novel and rediscovering one of the great academics in all of literature—and I’m getting to do it with a bunch of academics.

I have a colleague in the philosophy department who started a reading group a few years ago. I’m not a big fan of reading groups, but gave one of his early ones—War and Peace a few summers ago—a shot. Although I read the whole novel (first time since undergraduate days), I made it through only two reading group meetings—just not my cup of tea. A few years have passed since then; although I receive notice each semester and summer of the new reading group text, I always send it to the e-circular file. Until now. My colleague, who is an occasional reader of my blog, knew from a couple of entries that this summer’s reading group choice is my favorite novel. “Middlemarch, Vance!” he said at the copier the other in a seductive tone. “George Eliot! Middlemarch!” And it worked. I’m still technically on sabbatical, I just finished my current book—why not?

The assignment for the reading group’s first meeting last week was the opening six chapters, around 60-70 pages. In those early pages we meet Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of the novel, and her sister Celia. Both are in their late teens (Dorothea is a year or two older) and are the wards of their uncle due to the death of their parents several years earlier. Dorothea is idealistic, is already inwardly rebelling against the limited opportunities available to an intelligent young woman in 1820s rural England, and is seeking to make a difference in the world (in the Prologue, Eliot likens her to a young Saint Teresa). A young man with money, land, and aristocratic blood is courting Dorothea, but she is so uninterested and oblivious that she assumes the man is courting her sister Celia. CasaubonAnd then one day something extraordinary happens. Mr. Brooke invites Mr. Casaubon to dinner.

Mr. Casaubon is the county intellectual. He is a Church of England minister with money, land, and the best education available, high enough on the clerical pecking order that the only thing he has to do for his parish on a weekly basis is give the sermon. Mr. Casaubon dresses in black from head to toe, has steel gray hair, is at least twenty-five years older than Dorothea, and is the stereotypical academic through and through. Dorothea and Celia agree that Mr. Casaubon is the spitting image of the great seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke—as if that’s a good thing. LockeHis magnum opus is to be titled “The Key to All Mythologies,” in which he intends to show “that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed.” Not a word of this masterpiece-to-be has actually been written, but Casaubon has been researching it for more than twenty years. old libraryHis musty library, indeed his whole musty estate, is filled with papers, books, and dozens of notebooks that he hopes to turn into a finished product that will “fill a small shelf.” Everyone in town and the surrounding county agree that Casaubon’s intellect is god-like and are willing to bemusedly accept his strangeness—because he’s an academic.

Against all odds, Dorothea is smitten by Mr. Casaubon. She has been looking for her life’s purpose—it has been revealed in the form of being the needed partner who will help bring Mr. Casaubon’s life work to fruition. Nobody can believe that Dorothea prefers this guy to other suitors—including Mr. Casaubon. But as the prospect of not spending his remaining years alone grows on him a bit, he opens the door to his long-neglected feelings a crack. The first returns are not encouraging; key to all mythologiesEliot tells us that “he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was.” But hey, give him a chance! This is new territory for an academic.

Once Mr. Casaubon has proposed to Dorothea in one of the most painfully god-awful letters of proposal ever, and Dorothea has accepted his offer, this peculiar match is the talk of the town. Mrs. Cadwallader, the wife of one of the local curates, summarizes everyone’s concerns about the upcoming marriage.

He’s got no good red blood in his body. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses . . . semicolons and parenthesesHe dreams footnotes, and they run away with all his brains. They say, when he was a little boy, he made an abstract of ‘Hop o’ my Thumb,’ and he’s been making abstracts ever since.

They do get married, and as they used to say in ads for sixties and seventies sitcoms, “hijinks ensue.” Hijinks of the sort that only an academic could encounter, that is; the sort of hijinks that only semicolons and parentheses provide access to.

As we went around the seminar table introducing ourselves at the first reading group meeting, my turn came last. I noted that I love Victorian fiction, and that Middlemarch is not only my favorite Victorian novel, but my favorite novel—period. “And I’m particularly looking forward to doing this with other professors,’ I continued, “because each of us knows a Mr. Casaubon.” There are thirteen members in the reading group, faculty from ten different departments ranging from philosophy and history to marketing and chemistry. Everyone nodded knowingly as they envisioned their personal Mr. Casaubon. I understand that some readers of Middlemarch consider Mr. Casaubon to be a somewhat over the top caricature, but those of us sitting around the table knew better. He lives among us—each academic on her or his worst day is Mr. Casaubon. As a former colleague and mentor commented once concerning the life of academe, “it’s a good thing that colleges and universities exist; what else would they do with us?”

Ordinary Lives

There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, or truth Leo Tolstoy

Although Jeanne and I have lived in our house since 1996, there has never been a time when some portion of the house hasn’t been under revision, ranging in seriousness from furniture arrangement through a new coat of paint to knocking down walls and starting over again. money pitOur largest project, transforming the basement into livable space, a three-year process that turned out to be about ten times more expensive than we originally budgeted, was finished a year and a half ago. Our most recent transformation was a small bedroom that has served multiple purposes, from a TV room to the living space for my son for four years through several eventful and difficult years that also just ended not long ago. We have finally turned it into the library/reading room that we have always wanted but have not been able to create until now.

Our library room has one large interior wall containing several dozen family pictures that we have never displayed fully. Both of us came into our relationship almost twenty-nine years ago with some pictures and many more have accumulated since. We have never been organized in our picture taking—years on end have passed with no apparent record of anything happening—but we have an eclectic mixture of items that will more than fill this wall. weaving-world-simone-weil-on-science-mathematics-love-vance-g-morgan-paperback-cover-artOne item on display is the cover of one of my academic books. Published almost ten years ago, the promotions people provided me with a half-dozen dust jackets suitable for framing, all of which have been collecting dust in one of my philosophy department office drawers ever since. I am proud of the book, but a book entitled Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics and Love was not likely to be a bestseller. And it wasn’t. Framing the dust jacket has given me yet another opportunity to think about how to measure success.

VM Ruane 8I have a new book under contract, to be a reality early next year–something I’m very excited about. I have been blessed with a number of high points in my career, but the vast majority of it has consisted of day after day in the classroom, days that turn into weeks, months and years that meld together into a generally pleasant but indistinguishable conglomeration. Will there be any more mountain tops? Are my most memorable experiences behind me? At the end of year twenty-five of teaching, I can’t help but wonder.

Not long ago I led a seminar during the morning of the first day of an Honors faculty two-day workshop with twenty colleagues. The text was a handful of essays from Montaigne; toward the end of a fine discussion we focused our attention on one of Montaigne’s many memorable reflections, this one from the next to last page of the Essais:

The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture.

My colleagues were not unanimous in their reaction to Montaigne’s sentiment, but when are academics ever unanimous concerning anything, even the Pope’s Catholicism? A few suggested that this seemed to be both a recipe for mediocrity and a denial of the importance of miracles and ecstasy. emily_dickinsonA fellow philosopher said “Socrates would not have agreed with any of this,” and I overheard another colleague close by opining sotto voce that Emily Dickinson would not have approved either. They are probably right, although I suspect that Montaigne did not have Socrates’ past or Emily’s future approval at the top of his list of concerns as he wrote.

Other colleagues found much to like in this passage. richardgraceA professor from the history department who had just finished the final year of an outstanding teaching and scholarly career as he moves toward professor emeritus status said “I find this inspiring. It says that a beautiful life is not to be judged by whether you get your name on a plaque in City Hall.” This from a man who has a seminar room in our beautiful new humanities center named after him in honor of his extraordinary contributions over several decades to thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues.

I agree that this passage from Montaigne is inspirational. He is not suggesting that mountain-top experiences are unimportant; rather, he is reminding us that a beautiful life is not constructed from such experiences. There is a reason why the majority of the Christian liturgical year, although seasoned with the miracle of the Incarnation and the rapture of Easter, churchyearis spent in long stretches of inwardness, waiting, and getting down to the day-to-day, week to week work of being a regular human being trying to live a life in the presence of the Divine. The biggest chunk of the liturgical calendar, from Pentecost Sunday in late spring to the beginning of Advent the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is Ordinary Time. As the old saying says, life is what happens while we are making other plans. Montaigne suggests that the beauty of a life is to be judged by what you are doing between the miracles and the ecstasy.

A year or so ago, Jeanne and I had brunch with two couples after church, a lovely occasion that we all agreed should happen more frequently. All six of us have been to a few rodeos—at fifty-eight I was the youngest person at the table. Jeanne singingMy friend Marsue’s birthday had occurred a week or so earlier, so we all sang happy birthday as the waiter brought her a small dessert. The waiter remarked on Jeanne’s beautiful singing voice, a nice connection was made, and good vibes were in abundance. Jeanne and I tend to be generous with tips when the service is good; this time, Jeanne was so generous when bill-paying time came that the waiter returned with the cash, wondering if Jeanne had made a mistake. She assured him that she hadn’t; we then learned he would be headed for LA in a month to pursue a career in entertainment promotion. Grabbing his hands, Jeanne offered a quick, heartfelt and spontaneous prayer asking for the Divine’s blessing on this young man’s endeavors. “I’ll remember you,” he said to Jeanne as he headed back to the kitchen. And I’m sure he will—it was a lovely moment of grace in the midst of an ordinary Sunday afternoon.middlemarch

I have written in previous posts about my love for the closing paragraph of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It not only is the most perfect paragraph I have read in any of the hundreds of novels in my reading life, but it is also a perfect expression of the sort of life Montaigne considers to be beautiful. Of her heroine Dorothea Brooke, Eliot writes:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I would love to write a bestseller. I would love mine to be the first  likeness carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. indexI would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. But I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.

Tasmanian Dog

As I was cleaning out files last week, I came across an essay from a few years ago, a pre-blog world when I was just beginning to write short pieces. This one is about a dog who had an uncanny ability to mess my world up just by being herself. Amazing how such challenges just show up uninvited!

I live with a dog who is “special” (as in “special child”).  My son and daughter-in-law, who are responsible for this, have self-diagnosed her as “autistic”; I just think she’s nuts. She is inappropriately named il_570xN.235743883[1]Sophia. If this is wisdom, count me out. A partial list of Sophia-caused havoc since she arrived a few months ago includes two destroyed screen doors, a demolished back gate, a back yard where grass has been replaced by a shit-covered moonscape, trails of urine following her from room to room when she’s overly excited (which is most of the time). I had to install a hook-and-eye lock on the master bedroom, because she pissed in the middle of our bed twice in one week. She chooses not to eat out of a bowl, preferring instead to head-butt the bowl of food (and therefore the adjacent bowl of water) until sufficient pieces to constitute a meal are scattered on the water-soaked floor. Laying down is a project of baffling complexity. She circles her chosen landing spot with clockwise circles of increasing velocity and decreasing circumference until, either from exhaustion or vertigo, she collapses.

This takes me back in time. For Proust it was a madeleine; for me, it’s an insane boxer. As a child, my favorite character in the pantheon of classic Bugs Bunny characters was the Tasmanian Devil.27840L[1] I lived vicariously through his uncontrolled and destructive energy. Who doesn’t occasionally wish for the opportunity to make a god-awful mess with impunity and without repercussions, just because you can? Mom doesn’t like the way I picked up my room? I’ll show you “picked up”! I whirl into a tornado of destructive frenzy, clothes and bedding flying everywhere, leaving a child-sized hole in the wall as I exit the scene. Dad doesn’t like my attitude?  I’ll show you an attitude, as I leave flying paper and debris in the wake of my Tasmanian exit through your floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Tasmanian_Devil_and_Bugs_Bunny_by_erickenji[1]Just as the Tasmanian Devil was an infrequent visitor to the Bugs Bunny Show (maybe once every third Saturday), so I wasn’t looking to be destructive on a regular basis. Infrequent and arbitrary scenes of total chaos would have been enough to keep everyone on edge and suitably respectful.

Now I have a Tasmanian Devil living in my house, and it’s no fun. I’ve tried to be patient and cope, looking for her good points, but have not been successful. She’s got the classic boxer look, which means she has a face only a mother or a dedicated owner could love.images[9] Her ears both flop over in the same direction (right), giving her had a lopsided appearance. A woman called her “beautiful” once when we were out for a walk, stretching the meaning of the word beyond recognition.

I am a patient man. “Laid back” is how my sons have most frequently described me over the years when they brought friends to the house. My tolerance level is high enough that Sophia is one of the few living things that has ever regularly exceeded it. But I’ve had it. I told my son in strictest confidence the other day that “I really hate that dog.” Interestingly, he responded “so do I.” 1379556_10202284079242854_547898063_n[1]But he’s been married less than a year, Sophia has been in his wife’s life a good deal longer than he has—I don’t think he’s sure how a “Sophia or me” ultimatum would play out. That’s his problem, though. There are no conjugal issues complicating my relationship with Sophia. I intend to reclaim my house, and she has to go.

____________________________________________

            Now, a few weeks later, my son and daughter-in-law have moved into their own apartment and Sophia has moved on with them. It is faintly amusing how put-out and self-righteous I can get about things that, ultimately, are simply part of life. Sophia, after all, is the one who has mental and behavioral problems, who is blind in one eye, who was uprooted from everything she was familiar with and moved across the country without even being consulted, imagesCAZEHXHDwho has such a difficult time simply coping with the most basic things such as figuring out how to avoid a human being who obviously doesn’t like her. In Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” after Ivan suffers a long and mysterious illness that leads to an extended and excruciatingly painful death, his widow Praskovya says to one of the mourners at his wake: “How I have suffered!” That’s such a sad, yet typically human response to messiness and imperfection—look how inconvenient and burdensome this has been for me. It’s all about me.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad Sophia doesn’t live here any more. Different people have different gifts, and the gift of love and patience for a Tasmanian devil in boxer form is not one of mine. Just today, though, I was reminded of a gift that Sophia left me. This summer has been a season of transitions and change both inner and outer, personal and relational. I am marking these sometimes disconcerting changes, as I often do, by taking close notice of the books that have been my anchors in the midst of uncertainty. Sophia decided that one of these books was her chew toy one day when I was not at home—I returned to find the book on the floor missing both covers, drenched with saliva and sporting numerous teeth marks. I love my books, so let’s just say that I was not amused. As I reviewed some of the places I marked in the book today, however, I see that not a single page of content is missing. Sure, there are still saliva stains and tooth indentations, but the good stuff’s still there. That’s sort of the way I feel these days—somewhat worked over by the Tasmanian storms of life, many of them of my own making, but everything’s still pretty much intact. I don’t know exactly what to make of it, but somehow this book is better for having been worked over by Sophia. Maybe I am too.

Fast and Slow

It is not often that Pentecost and Commencement Sunday fall on the same day. I wrote a couple of years ago about how they might tie together . . .

When my sons were young, one of the most important distinctions in their estimation, when food was the issue, was “is it fast or slow food?” In other words, how much of my important schedule is this eating event going to take up? Fast food—McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Burger King if going out; fish sticks, hot dogs, sandwiches if staying in—was obviously preferred. Slow food—any place where you have to sit down and wait if going out; anything involving more than five minutes of preparation time and that you would not be consuming in front of the television if eating in—was acceptable only if given sufficient warning. Going out to a slow food restaurant required preparation, including which coloring books to bring, psychological calming techniques, a consideration of the expected guest list, and so on.

The first slow food event that Jeanne and the boys ever attended together—Thanksgiving dinner 1987 with my parents and me at the Wort Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming—was such a slow food event that Jeanne finally walked into the kitchen to find out why the hell the food was taking so long. My sons were impressed that any human being would have the nerve to do such a thing. They were not the only persons impressed that night, though. Jeanne still speaks on occasion about how remarkable it was that these two kids, eight and six, managed to keep themselves occupied without fidgeting or complaint for a much longer period of time than any human being should be required to wait for food. That’s only because they knew how to prepare.

A couple of years ago, in his greeting to the thousands of people gathered for Providence College commencement at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, the President of the college gave one last reading assignment to the graduating seniors. “You must read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman,” Father Shanley said. In this book,  Kahneman distinguishes between two types of thinking that all of us come equipped with as human beings. Fast thinking, on the one hand, is the intuitive, almost unconscious way that we tend to make quick, snap judgments about events, people, choices, and even our life paths. Relying on emotion, memory, and hard-wired rules of thumb, much of our daily existence runs on fast thinking autopilot. Slow thinking, on the other hand, is much more deliberate, conscious, attentive, self-aware, and, well, slower. One of the book reviewers on Amazon.com’s site for this book writes that “The human mind is a hilariously muddled compromise between these incompatible modes of thought.”

Most of us rely on fast thinking most of the time, even though we know that such thinking is often inaccurate and shot through with bias and prejudice. The question is, Why do we do it? At least on the surface, the answer clearly is “It’s easier.” Slow thinking laboriously checks the facts against the appearances, critically evaluates information, but is extraordinarily lazy and easily distracted. Our slow thinking self is more than happy to turn things over to fast thinking simply because it conserves time and effort. Why take the time to consider the relevant details and nuances of a political candidate’s positions when it is so much quicker and easier to label her as a “conservative,” a “liberal,” a “socialist,” or a “tea-partier” and move on? Why expend the effort to actually get to know this new colleague or neighbor when it is much simpler to label him as “one of them” and go to lunch?

When the stakes are higher, when one’s spiritual health and growth are the issue, the fast and slow distinction becomes far more than an interesting topic of conversation. Is the Christian life more like fast or slow food? Is it more like McDonald’s or the Capital Grille? The Christian narrative is full of fast food events–Pentecost, Christmas, Easter–instant gratification events at the heart of belief that are so filling and satisfying that one could imagine that this is the exclusive food that fuels the life of faith. Each of us has had our own fast food, Big Bird moments, times when the veil between the mundane human and glorious divine is pierced, even for a moment, in some unforgettable way. What more does one need?

Plenty. Will Pentecost be enough to sustain those who experienced it when, weeks or months later, they are alone in chains waiting for torture or execution? Will your most spectacular Big Bird moment from the past be enough to get you through the stress of parenting, the tragedy of loss, a divorce, a lost job, an illness, or simply the daily grind? If slow food is analogous to delayed gratification, then much—probably most—of the life of faith is slow food. Waiting, attending, struggling, just being, all the time wondering if you are ever going to get food again. That conversion experience, that healing, that moment that you vibrated with the presence of God are all distant memories. And one cannot eat memories.

Our fast thinking selves, applied to the spiritual life, decide that an occasional trip to the McDonald’s of faith is good enough. A few milestones, both doctrinal and personal, become the sole sustenance of faith, bolstered by some quick and easy rules of thumb and prescribed ways of behaving. Go to church, say your prayers, maybe read your Bible on occasion. Our slow thinking selves are willing to concede that this has to be enough, because what else is there?

The answer lies in some of the food analogies that Jesus uses in the Gospels. “I am the bread of life,” he said. “He who believes in me shall never hunger.”  “Whoever drinks the water I will give them will never be thirsty again,” he tells the Samaritan woman at the well. The message of Pentecost completes the Incarnation story—God, in the form of the Holy Spirit is in us. The source of life, the food we need, is not in the fast food of events, of churches, nor is it in the slow food of waiting interminably for something to happen. It is in the regular, daily supply of nourishment that is in us “a well of water, springing up into everlasting life.”

Many of the hymns related to the Holy Spirit—“Spirit Divine, Attend Our Prayers,” “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove,” “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”–all appear to be petitions for God to show up, to pay attention. But Big Bird hasn’t gone anywhere—she is in us all the time. These texts call us to attentiveness, to remembrance, to awareness that we have been provided with all the food we need. It’s just a matter of consuming it, because it is never used up.

Four years ago, during my one visit to Paris for a conference, I walked the city as much as time would allow. And for once I saw first-hand that a common stereotype is true. Parisians really do walk down the street holding a cell phone to one ear while carrying a baguette under their arm. Tearing off and eating a piece while walking down the sidewalk is as habitual to them as breathing. Maybe that’s how the life of faith should be. We don’t have to go shopping for the bread of life at either a fast or slow food establishment. It’s with us all the time. Take a bite. It’s really good.

It’s That Time Of Year

On Monday, one of my Providence College faculty colleagues posted this on Facebook:

Today was my one and only day of exams, so all that stands between me and Summer research is:too many papers

  • 74 short papers
  • 28 medium papers
  • 32 long papers
  • 3 longer papers
  • 28 final exams

See you all on the other side…

I know this colleague well—when he says “long” and “longer” papers, he means it. I conservatively estimate that he has 600-800 pages of student writing to read, grade, and internally digest over the next few days. “The other side” is no more than a week away, since final grades have to be submitted quickly at the end of the spring semester—certain seniors getting their degrees at Commencement in two weeks may depend on their final grades from the just-finished term. I noticed, by the way, that over the next twenty-four hours my colleague did a whole lot of posting on Facebook about a lot of stuff having nothing to do with grading papers. I’m not surprised. grading memeAnything—including sticking a fork in one’s eye—is preferable to grading under pressure.

It’s that time of year—the time when teachers wonder why the hell they ever went into this profession in the first place. I’ve learned over the years not to whine and complain about grading papers and exams—at least not around my wife. After hearing me do so on a regular basis, Jeanne once simply asked “Isn’t that part of your job?” Followed by “If you didn’t assign so many papers, you wouldn’t have to spend so much time grading.” Both true—and both completely unwelcome observations when one is facing hours and hours of the worst part of one’s job. So professors usually save their most intense griping for conversations with other professors who are more than willing to play the “can you top this?” game when it comes to how much grading they have to do. I’m careful not to contribute much to such conversations these days—I’m on sabbatical, so I have no grading to do. Hardly the sort of person you want around when you are facing hours of virtual root canal. I have, however, twenty-five years of college teaching experience that qualifies me to say something about student assignments; unfortunately, I find that those qualifications don’t help very much. The question of what and how much to assign over a semester presents itself anew every time one starts thinking about a new class. It’s that time of year.

I realized the other day that once my colleagues finish their current round of grading papers and exams in a week to ten days, my sabbatical will effectively be over.ending sabbatical Technically speaking, it ends on June 30th; I’ve been telling friends and family that it actually ends on August 29th, the first day of classes in the Fall 2016 semester. But practically speaking, my colleagues’ current round of grading, followed by commencement a week from Sunday, are the last professor-related items that my sabbatical frees me from. I will be spending the summer months doing the exact same things I usually spend my summer doing—writing (which this summer means getting my book into the format my publisher wants) and planning for my fall classes. I’m pumped for both of these activities. There are few things professionally for an academic that beat getting a book published, but one of the things that (for me, at least) might rank higher is planning classes for a new semester.

One of the many wonderful things about the life of a teacher is that the world is created anew twice per year. I realize that many non-academics are under the impression that college professors, once they have taught a course two or three times with a modicum of success, continue to teach that course exactly the same way every time it shows up on the calendar for the rest of their careers. resetI’d love to say that this never happens, but my own experience on the inside of the academy has been that there unfortunately are such professors out there, hitting the reset button the first day of each semester as they prepare to bore their new students to death over the upcoming weeks. But I’m happy to report that such professors are rare and are becoming rarer. Like the dodo bird, the “I haven’t had a new thought or teaching technique in decades” species of professor will hopefully go extinct soon. I find that most college professors share my energies as they begin to think about the next round of classes a few months down the line—eternally optimistic, positively energized, and full of hope.

For instance, in the fall I will be teaching two sections of General Ethics, the philosophy department’s gateway course into moral philosophy, the place where the strange, unfamiliar world of philosophy and real life intersect most obviously and immediately. My two sections are full of twenty-five juniors and seniors each, most of whom are taking the class because they have to—an ethics class is part of my college’s required core curriculum. So how do I convince fifty students, who would probably rather be doing anything else than sitting in an ethics class, that they are about to embark on an unforgettable voyage?

How NOT to plan a syllabus.

How NOT to plan a syllabus.

That’s the never-ending and always exciting challenge to a teacher—the world created anew every semester.

General Ethics is my favorite course to teach; although I have taught three or four dozen sections of the course in my career, due to four years of heavy administrative duties followed by a year’s sabbatical, my fall ethics classes will be the first time I have taught General Ethics in five years. The last time I taught it I used an entirely new syllabus, essentially teaching ethics through literature. I was satisfied with both sections I taught that semester, received great student reviews at the end of the term, so common sense would indicate that I should pull that syllabus up on my tablet, change the assignment dates to match our fall semester meeting times, order the books, and move on to my next task.

But that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? So today I begin planning for next fall’s General Ethics sections with a blank tablet screen in front of me. I’m convinced that these will be the greatest classes I’ve ever taught, that my students’ lives will be changed because of spending a semester under my teaching care, that a new book will percolate up from our brilliant and stimulating discussions, and that the last thing I’ll say before I breathe my last breath a few decades down the line is “Man those Fall 2016 General Ethics classes were terrific!” No pressure, of course—it’s all part of the wonderful life of being a professor. Even if we do have to do a lot of grading. I’ll keep you updated over the summer as I build the syllabus. Some things are more fun than sabbatical!

Sheets from Heaven

VT hunting seasonI grew up in hunting country where at the appropriate times each year the males of the species took their preferred firearms and started shooting things. I remember my father returning from a day of hunting with a partridge or two or even a squirrel in his backpack (much to my mother’s consternation). Every third year or so he would hit the jackpot and get a deer, setting us up with meat for most of the upcoming winter. My older brother became a fellow hunter with Dad when he reached the appropriate age, but when my time came, problems arose. I didn’t want to do it. hunting seasonI did not know that principled objections to killing non-human animals were available to me—it just was very clear to me that this was not something I wanted anything to do with. At the time I didn’t have any trouble eating the meat my father and brother brought home; it wasn’t until many years later that I cut red meat out of my diet.

The first reading a week ago Sunday from Acts told the story of one of the most game-changing events imaginable, a “kill and eat” scenario with implications far beyond mere dietary preferences. The story of Acts, of course, is about the early Christian communities and the spread of the “good news” inexorably from Palestine toward Rome and beyond. Often lost in the midst of the story is just how disorienting and belief-challenging all of this must have been. Major debates raged about exactly what this new system of beliefs is. Is it a new version of Judaism? If so, then new Christians are subject to the same dietary and behavioral rules from the Pentateuch that all Jews are subject to; male converts, for instance, should be circumcised. Or is this new set of beliefs something new altogether, perhaps a challenge and direct threat to Judaism? Complicating the issue, at least according to evidence from the gospels, is that Jesus himself was not always clear or consistent about who his message and teaching was for. Jesus was a Jew, and at times clearly said that kill and eathis message was for the “House of Israel,” while at other times he packaged it for everyone, including non-Jews.

In Acts 10 we find Peter, the man who perhaps knew Jesus best and who, as the lead disciple, is now at the forefront of spreading the good news, hungry and exhausted after an extended prayer session on the rooftop of a friend’s house in Joppa where he is staying. And then the strangest thing happens, as Peter reports to some critics in the next chapter:

In a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

The sheet is full of all sorts of animals that, according to Jewish law, must not be eaten under any circumstances, as Peter immediately recognizes.

unclean animalsBut I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”

Peter knows the rules backwards and forwards; furthermore, he knows that for a Jew, strict obedience to these rules is required in order to be right relationship both with God and with his community.

But as seems to happen so often in the context of what we think we know about God and our relationship with the divine, the rule book is thrown out entirely.

But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Imagine Peter’s consternation and confusion. Imagine the consternation and confusion of his fellow Jewish believers when they find out that he has been hanging out with and spreading the good news to Gentiles. For after the voice from heaven in essence tells Peter “You know all of that stuff about what not to eat in order to be in right relationship with God, the stuff that has defined the diet of a faithful Jew for the past couple of millennia? Never mind. You can eat anything you want,” CorneliusPeter is further informed that the human equivalent of unclean animals—the Gentiles—are now to be recipients of the good news that you might have mistakenly thought was just for Jews. There’s this Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius who has been asking some really good questions—go to his house and help him out. Subsequent chapters in Acts pick up the theme. Cornelius and his household convert to the message of Christ, start speaking in tongues as Peter and the other disciples did at Pentecost, more conservative Jews are appalled, and eventually there is a big council in Jerusalem to decide what the hell’s going on. But Pandora’s box has been opened never to be closed again. The old rule book is out, and it’s anyone’s guess where this is going to end up.

Don’t you hate it when someone changes the rules of the game just when you’ve gotten really good at working within the framework of the old rules? Just when you think you have everything relevant and necessary figured out, it all changes. In truth, we are currently in the midst of a radical, contemporary parallel of Peter’s vision.dt and owg In politics, one major party’s presumptive candidate for President has risen to the top of the polls by ignoring or deliberately breaking just about every traditional rule for success, while at the same time resisting the best efforts of traditionalists and moderates within his own party to derail his candidacy. Pundits and talking heads are reduced to “I don’t know” and “beats me” when asked to predict what is likely to happen in the next several months. transgenderPublic attitudes concerning homosexuality and same-sex marriage have evolved and shifted more quickly than anyone could have foreseen. People are talking about the rights of transgendered people. More millennials are checking “none” when asked about their religious affiliation than check the box for an identifiable religion; these “nones” exhibit little interest and find no home in traditional religious structures. Sheets from heaven filled with female priests, less-than-conservative Popes, LGBTQ persons, Muslims, and seventy-five-year-old Socialists are being lowered before the eyes of those who thought they knew what they were supposed to think about such things. What’s a person to do?hemingway

Jeanne and I saw “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” last evening, enjoying the sights of Havana that we experienced when we visited in 2003. Hemingway tells his young reporter friend on a couple of occasions during the movie that the value of a person depends entirely on how much that person is willing to risk. Sheets from heaven such as Peter experienced provide an opportunity for extreme risk—how willing am I to leave all of my preconceptions and frameworks of understanding behind in exchange for growth and change? Peter could have dismissed his experience as merely a result of overwork and hunger. But instead he helped to change the world. We are presented with similar opportunities every day.