On just about any playground you’ll spot the kid who’s watching from the side, instead of playing with the others. That’s me. I don’t suspect that anyone starts life wanting to be left out, but some of us—attuned to the subtler messages of life—become aware that we’re not really invited or welcome. That sensation bathed me in its eldritch light once again while waiting for my flight to Chicago for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I’ve often wondered what it must be like for those innocent aeronauts not clued in that the Friday before Black Friday (the real holiday, I’m led to believe) that flights to a specified city will be choked with crusty professors of religion. Sitting in Newark Airport and hearing the word “Ugaritic” from the seat behind me, I knew it had begun. I turned around. No flash of recognition. If was as if I hadn’t spent years learning that obscure language and publishing in the main journals. The invisible man.
The airport before the AAR/SBL annual meeting is a theological locker room where the guys gather to compare the size of their, um, theses. It’s pretty hard not to overhear, once you’re tuned in to your specialization, as colleagues lay out their publications, invited papers, international travel plans. I’ll admit to being jealous. They’re living the life for which I trained. I had taught for nearly twenty years and was never really invited to play. Now here I sit, knowing what Ugaritic is among the perplexed business travelers, but I’m not one of the big boys.
I realize that outside the rarified world of higher education Ugaritic matters even less than the homeless unfortunates shivering in the streets of Manhattan or Chicago. Back in the brief days when I tried to be a player, I remember attending an Ugaritic conference here in Illinois. Crowded into an elevator with renowned colleagues, one of them joked, “If this elevator falls, the field of Ugaritic studies may never recover.” An exaggeration, but not by much. Present company excepted. Of that august group, only one was asked to step off into the void. His exit was barely noticed. Ugaritic studies thrives. The poor beg for alms. And one kid, even though he now understands the rules of the game, still watches from outside.