2016 in Books

As is my custom on this last post of the year I’ll be revisiting the books that made an especial difference to me in 2016. I record most books I finish on Goodreads, and I welcome friends in that venue. I draw on their recollection for what I’ve read and all of the books I mention here have individual posts on this blog. Use the search function. It’s free!

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The first important book was Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street. If you missed this one, it is well worth your time. Economics has become a religion. If you doubt that, look at 11/9 and tell me so. Philip Gulley’s The Quaker Way was also an early read that’s worth revisiting. November has made many of these books more important than they seemed at the time. Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal’s The Super Natural will expand the minds of those who allow for unconventional possibilities. And Marc Bekoff’s Minding Animals will remind us we’re not alone on this planet. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery was a book I really couldn’t put down, and a nice complement to Bekoff. Marcelo Gleiser touched a chord with The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected, a book worthy of anyone who wants to consider how science and humanity might cooperate for everyone’s benefit. While not really a reading-through book, Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs is important and worthy of attention.

In the realm of monsters, Elizabeth Baer’s The Golem Redux was a fantastic introduction to a Jewish legend that I revisited in three more books over the year. Several other monster books followed, but especially memorable were Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, and Maya Barzilai’s Golem—please be patient with me regarding this one. I haven’t written a post on it yet, since an official review has yet to be published. Alexandra Petri’s A Field Guide to Awkward Silences won her an instant fan. I’ll read anything she writes. I didn’t give Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child the attention it deserves. It’s kind of a personal thing. Kyle Arnold’s The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick was utterly fascinating, looking at another person Miller would have found intriguing. Also on the topic of writers, Melville’s Bibles by Ilana Pardes spoke deeply to me.

For fiction, highly recommended are Amy Tomson’s The Color of Distance, Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Toni Morrison’s, The Bluest Eye, Pete Hamill’s Snow in August, and Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People. Less profound, but thoroughly enjoyable were Jonathan L. Howard’s Carter and Lovecraft, and Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died a Lot (reading anything by Jasper Fforde is time well spent). My childhood favorite, Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants retains its magic.

According to Goodreads, I finished 106 this year. Along the way I finished the 2016 Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge. Many of the books were excellent, and this shortlist represents those that idiosyncratically stick out in my mind. Please participate in a show of hope for the future: make 2017 a year of reading.

We Are an Island

moana_teaser_posterApropos of both building your own deity and Disney, my family went to see Moana. Now, I have to admit up front to being a bit behind on my Polynesian mythology. Scholars of the history of religions feel terribly insecure if they don’t read the languages or haven’t spent time with the culture first-hand. I’ve seen the Pacific Ocean a few times, but never from the point-of-view of an islander. In fact, one of the areas of growing interest in biblical studies is the interpretation of Holy Writ by islanders. Their perspective, it seems clear, is different from others in more populated land masses. So Moana, which delves into Pacific islander mythology, was a brand new world for me. More than hearing about the demigod Maui, it was a chance to consider what destruction of our ecosystem looks like to those who have more limited resources at hand. Those who, when global warming really kicks in, will be the first to become homeless.

One of the strange things about living in the post-truth world (defined as the world after 11/9) is that many movies, novels, and other creative explorations I encounter seem to underscore the demon we’ve invited in. Moana is about a girl who saves her people, but she only does so by defying the man in power. Had she not journeyed beyond the reef, her people would’ve starved on their island. Meanwhile the big white man prepares to assault the White House and all that our founders held dear: an educated leadership. Progress. Fair treatment for all. Someone needs to remind these short-sighted individuals that every landmass is an island.

As we approach the end of 2016 it’s time to think of where we’ve been. At the theater, an ad by Google showed the newsworthy events of the year. There could not have been a better rendering of the high hopes with which we began and the sorrow with which we’ve come to an end. Our scorn of education has caught up with us and we’ve asked “the man” to please destroy our world and enslave our women and deport anyone who’s different. We need a lesson in how to build better deities. We need to be willing to admit that a girl might know more than her father. We need to learn the wisdom of the islanders.

Lions and Lambs

This brief break between Christmas and New Year’s Day, taking into account the vacation days expended to enjoy it, is a time filled with movies, reading, writing, and sufficient sleep. In short, it’s like a dream. I’ll get around to addressing the movies eventually, but right now one in particular is on my mind: Zootopia. Disney movies weren’t a big part of my childhood. We did watch the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, but movies were an expensive treat. I remember seeing The Jungle Book, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Herbie the Lovebug. When we could afford a movie, it was frequently at a drive-in where a carload was cheaper than individual seats. I missed several of the childhood western canon—I never saw Mary Poppins until I was in college. Becoming a parent in the 1990s meant becoming conversant with Disney.

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Oh, I’ve heard the conspiracy theories: Disney is “the evil empire,” part of the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, and any number of other collectives that want to run the world. They have access, we are told, to the young and a reach that excludes few before the age of ten. I know little of Disney’s business practices, but Zootopia suggests to me that they are telling our children the right message. The movie follows the ambitions of Judy Hopps, a bunny that want to be a police officer in Zootopia, the largest city in the animal world. Threatened and bullied because she’s a girl, and small—traditionally prey—she nevertheless overcomes the obstacles necessary to meet her dreams. Once she meets success, however, she finds herself engaging in prejudice against predators. Species profiling takes over and the white sheep (literally) take over.

The message of not assuming someone is a slave to their “biology” is a powerful one. Nick Wilde, the fox that assists Judy to her goal, becomes a victim. The only way forward for Zootopia is to recognize that profiling—gender or species—is wrong. Since the story isn’t preachy, it’s all the better. Watching unchecked prejudice surging through our political machinery today, it was difficult to believe that this movie was released all the way back in March. The prey animals are the majority, and they feel threatened and so follow the leadership that controls, deports the predators who’ve been law-abiding citizens all along. Only when we once again see shrews living peacefully next to elephants, rabbits, lions, and polar bears, do we get the sense that everything’s as it should be. I know nothing of Disney’s business practices, but with messages as important as this, I have but few worries.

Build a God

One of the more amusing gifts to find its way under my tree was a Design Your Own Deity magnetic play set. Since I have roughly only this brief holiday break for play in the entire year, I hope to make the most of it. Nevertheless, things like this always suggest something a bit more profound than they were possibly intended to do. The origin of deities is, by its nature, an unresolved question. Partly it’s because regardless of the reality of gods, religions are human constructions. Claims for revelation are frequently made, but the implementation is always our own. We can’t help but think that divinities are motivated by the same kinds of things that people are. I suspect that’s because we make gods in our own image.

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Historically there are few religions that were admittedly made up. We tend to treat with scorn more recent religions since we’ve become skeptical of a make-your-own deity talking to a person in the post-Enlightenment world. It’s much easier to believe if we say it happened long, long ago. Before we had the reassuring uniformitarianism of science, much could be left to the meddling of deities. Once we had a naturalistic paradigm, the door seemed to have slammed shut on supernatural explanations. Gods, who had been persons, now became symbols and symbols seemed to be less important than the real thing. Hadn’t we been designing our own deities all along? Now don’t we feel silly!

One of the common misconceptions of modernity is that ancient people weren’t very smart. We believe that because they lacked our technology. Looking at the way technology now demands most of my time, I wonder if that’s right. In the light of gadgets, deities have been squeezed out. I’m quite aware that the career choices I’ve made—involved with thinking about gods in some description—are hopelessly outmoded in the technological world. Still, as I look at the political landscape I see that we are still in the process of making our own deities. My play set includes some pretty exotic divinities. One that it seems to be lacking is Mammon. Of course, it’s best not to offend the currently reigning god, even if it is just a symbol.

Prejudicial Monsters

snowinaugustWitnessing injustice is traumatic. Especially when you’ve been conditioned to believe there is nothing you can do about it. That helpless feeling crushes you as you see the guilty, the powerful, the cruel getting away with whatever they want to do. This is the perspective of young Michael Devlin in Snow in August. Pete Hamill’s novel is full of observations about prejudice and ignorant blustering about those who are different in 1940’s New York City. Michael accidentally observes a robbery that may also be a murder. The perpetrator, an older boy who leads a gang in Brooklyn, hates Jews. Michael, however, has become the shabbos goy for a synagogue that has seen better days. Although a Catholic, he is curious about this strange rabbi he comes to know and what this other religion teaches. At the same time, Jackie Robinson is being called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers and prejudice about an African American playing in the major leagues sets up a parallel to the story of understanding the Jews.

It is an engrossing novel. I have to confess, however, that I read it because of the golem. A traditional Jewish monster, the golem is an animated being of mud that protects oppressed Jews. In the novel this begins as a legend Rabbi Hirsch tells the boy as they teach each other their native languages. Michael learns Yiddish as the rabbi learns English, and the story of the golem is part of the rabbi’s own sad history as a Jew during Nazi days. Then as Michael, his mother, and the rabbi are all beaten or molested by the gang, it is time for the golem to make his appearance.

Not exactly a monster story—as often in such cases the monster is someone recognized as fully human but without sympathy for those who are different—Snow in August is a thoughtful, almost nostalgic tale of “a simpler time.” What we learn, however, is that it wasn’t really simpler at all. Prejudice could be worn openly and proudly. What many of us may have forgotten, until recent elections forced us to remember, is that such hateful intolerance is still very common. We live in a world where hatred can be currency and bigotry has more power than we’d like to admit. Reading stories, such as Snow in August, will become increasingly important in days ahead. We will need to remind each other that even if only as metaphors golems do indeed exist. All we have to do is believe.

The Morning After

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Quite apart from seeing a live performance of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens has been on my mind a bit this Christmas season. I suppose that’s not surprising since it has been suggested that Dickens “invented” the modern Christmas, but it is really, I think, because of how the wider world seems to be spinning backwards. The poor have always been a personal concern of mine. I grew up poor and I know how much suffering it entails. My case was a rather mild poverty—we were never out on the street, and we didn’t actually go hungry. We had nothing in the way of luxuries, though, and I could see the possibilities even as I could see the sky where the boards on the roof were pulling apart. It wouldn’t have taken much for us to have been cast out in a cold Pennsylvania winter. Others have it much worse.

On my daily walks to work, I see the homeless. Some sleep in cardboard boxes, some in tents. Others are out under the stars. One morning I walked by a particularly creepy and sad sight of a person sitting, shrouded in a blanket over his or her head, on a subway vent to catch some of the ambient heat. I know that I don’t have the means to buy each one a meal. Their number has been going up, not down. And I think of Bob Cratchit, threatened and bullied by Ebenezer Scrooge. He will lose his job if he’s not in early today, the day after Christmas. Because of his change of heart, Scrooge buys his clerk a pot of “smoking bishop.” And herein lies the only possible cheer.

My wife got me started on Dickens. She also sent me a story from NPR on smoking bishop. It seems, according to the story by Anne Bramley, that British Protestants delighted in making fun of church offices by naming their tipples after titles. Churchmen (and they were men) were largely exempt from being poor and, according to historians, often supported the Poor Laws that made the fate of the poverty-stricken even worse. In a kind of perverse revenge against privilege, drinks were named after various ecclesiastical offices. There’s little that the poor can do, except to try to find the scant humor in a situation where no one has the reach of a Charles Dickens anymore. Ebenezer, unlike Bob, is a biblical name. It means “stone of help.” In these chilly days dare we hope that help may come, even from a stone?

Capital Carol

The idea of exchanging presents on a holiday emerges from the impenetrable veil of time. We don’t know when the practice began—the idea of copying the Zoroastrian wise men in Matthew is a bit of a stretch and the date of Christmas wasn’t settled until much later in time. However and whenever it started, giving gifts at this time of year has become one of the defining features of late capitalism—it’s almost as if Jesus of Nazareth was born for this. An economy that measures self-worth in terms of money is just the place to have God-incarnate celebrated by giving lavish gifts. Those of us who make no money off the holidays can’t deny that it feels good to give someone something. People like, in general, to make each other happy.

This year my wife asked for a non-material gift. We made our way to the McCarter Theater in Princeton to see their acclaimed performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A gift of a memorable family time and a truly spectacular play. Seeing this story in 2016 felt especially important. Dickens was a famous advocate for the poor and was well aware of how they suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Indeed, those with too much money lose their humanity almost completely. The story is focused around Christmas, but the message is needed for every day, especially in over-long years such as this. Capitalism is a form of social evil. Anything that lowers humans to mere ciphers on a page is the very definition of sin.

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We all know how the story goes, but to see accomplished actors undergoing conversion is nevertheless a strangely hopeful experience. As the story makes abundantly clear, it requires so very little to make others happy. The point of having money, after all, is to use it for the good of others. Seeing one man facing his own mortality only to realize that he has isolated himself from the care of others is a powerful experience. As we move forward into the long and dark days ahead, there is a reminder here that we need to keep close to our hearts. There may be fewer presents under the tree this year, but we are all the richer for it. This is the kind of gift that we need to share with the entire world.

Charlie Grinch

There were probably about half-a-dozen animated Christmas specials I recall watching as a child. The two that became fixtures, and remain part of my present holiday ritual, are It’s Christmas Charlie Brown and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I remember watching them from early days—of course you had to wait until their respective channels announced their advent in TV Guide (just writing that makes me feel older than the Grinch). Commuting wasn’t an issue then, so watching television was as common as candy canes and hopeful stockings. As an adult, though, you see things you overlooked, or simply accepted, as a child. I guess that’s what “believing in Christmas” is all about. The willful suspension of disbelief.

I’ve commented on these Christmas specials before. Charlie Brown has so many inconsistencies that an old biblical scholar can’t help but think of J, E, D, and P. What does the signage on Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth really say? How many branches are on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree? How does Sally get to the school before her big brother? The animation is clearly a little off—Lucy appears to emerge from the center of her booth’s wooden top as she gives advice to the woeful Charlie Brown with his Trump’s-been-elected-type depression. Still, Linus’ rendition of Luke’s Christmas story brings it home every time. Compare that with the Grinch.

Those who see a war on Christmas (there’s not) seldom cite the Grinch. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is entirely secular. No mention of a special birth. No angels or shepherds. Just a mean old man and his dog. The Grinch shares with Charlie Brown its message of looking beyond the commercialization of Christmas. In the case of the much better animated Grinch (although I still can’t figure out why that one Who’s hat repeatedly flashes from white to blue and back) it would seem that religion matters less than spirit. The Who’s Christmas song with its strange, non-English words, is a celebration of difference. Diversity. Even that angry old man who would steal Christmas itself is welcome in the end. The only war on Christmas is one that has been spawned in the imagination of those who fit the Grinch’s description in Thurl Ravenscroft’s rendering of Dr. Seuss’s lyric. Those my age will understand, and unless you were born yesterday, I suspect that you’ll get my meaning.

Lap of Luxury

How terribly rude. I was right in the middle of a sentence when my word processor shut down. Then my computer. A system update. It’s 4:00 a.m., the time I usually upload my blog post. You have to understand that I get up at 3:30 so that I have time to write. My laptop assumes nobody is working “in the middle of the night.” I would’ve thought my fingers on its keys would’ve given it a clue. Now it tells me I’ll have access, new upgraded system installed, in 25 minutes. Doesn’t my laptop have all my personal details when it comes to shopping? You’d think it would know all my personal habits by now. I mean, this is the way I do it every day. Right now my concerns are secondary. This system update can’t wait. I wasn’t even given a choice. Power nap for Apple.

What disturbs me most is that my computer reads every word I type, yet it still thinks I’m just like everybody else. Who’s awake and writing at 4:00 a.m.? And I thought we had a rapport, my laptop and me. I was the Skipper to his Little Buddy. The Agent 86 to her 99. The Will Robinson to its Robot. I guess I had it backwards all the time. The brain on my lap doesn’t agree with the brain in my head. If I can’t get my writing done now, it won’t get done at all because at ten minutes to six I’ve got to be on that bus. New Jersey Transit doesn’t offer working overhead lights much of the time, let alone wifi. It’s now or never. My coffee’s already gone and the next thing on my daily agenda is the shower. I always come up with ideas in the shower—I need my Little Buddy waiting for me when I rush out to write them down.

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Who’s sitting on whose lap? How could I have gotten something so very basic so terribly wrong? In ancient times the one sitting was superior to the one standing. When the computer’s sitting on the one sitting we know who’s really in charge. Let the one with eyes to read understand. I’m a busy man, but my Little Buddy—my Skipper—is busier. When’s the last time I read a paper map? Opened a phone book? Wrote an actual letter? I can hear those bus wheels rumbling. Excuse me, but my master is calling.

Bible Riots

One of the more embarrassing questions I get asked is “What do you do?” This has been true throughout my career (if what I do can be called that). I should clarify—I don’t mind saying “I’m a professor,” or “I’m an editor”—it’s the follow-up question that’s difficult. “What do you teach/edit?” Mentioning the Bible is a conversation-stopper. In the silence that inevitably follows you can almost hear the electronic buzzing in the interlocutor’s brain as s/he tries to come up with something nice to say while backing away. In actual fact my degrees have been more in the history of religions rather than Bible per se, but those who’ve done the hiring haven’t tended to see it that way. This is not a nostalgic post, asking to go back to yesteryear (that’s happening politically without my help), but it is a reflection of what James Wallace Harris says on BookRiot—the Bible is a good book to read.

It’s easy to get swept away in the criticism of religion, and particularly Christianity. Those who profess it, historically, have a lot to answer for. What we’ve allowed religion to do to others is inexcusable. What we sometimes miss is that the motivation is one in which all people participate—learning the truth. This is more difficult than it might seem. If someone had discovered “the truth” we’d all know by now. The fact is we’re deeply divided about what that truth is and that alone proves no one has found it. We’ll recognize it when we see it. We just haven’t seen it yet. What sometimes gets forgotten along the way is that the Bible was, and is, a great milestone of humanity’s search. As I keep having to remind myself, there’s some really good stuff in there.

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Harris isn’t alone in suggesting that atheists should study the Bible. Some very prominent non-believers have declared the same thing from time to time. The Good Book is densely interwoven with western culture—even secular western culture. I’m currently at work on a book that explores one thread of that complex fabric, and it’s amazing to me how much we miss when we ignore holy writ. We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, as the old saying goes. That’s not biblical, but it does hint at the truth, I think. Or maybe it’s just that I want to be able to answer that most basic of questions without having to make excuses for what otherwise looks like a series of poor life choices.

Solstice Blues

The relief is so real that you can feel it with your fingers. Or brushing your cheek. The feeling of being done with another semester, and knowing you’ve got some time for recovery after the intensity of going flat-out for months at a time. I miss that feeling. As a guy who has often been accused of being “too intense” I tend to run pretty near the red line all the time. Pit stops are few and very far between. Once this vehicle’s in drive, there’s no stopping until the destination is reached. What do you do when there’s no clear destination? That’s what working for mere money is like. How do you know when you have enough? Just ask Mr. Trump. Too much is always too little. That’s the kind of world we live in.

Higher education, it used to be, was a place for people who believed in higher values than mere lucre. There was a time, historically, when we took transcendence seriously. The price (if you’ll pardon the analogy) that we’ve paid for letting transcendence go will become apparent. Those who believe only in what they see miss most of reality that swirls by them like a river under the ice. Yes, it still flows. Just ask the fish. There’s a wisdom outside our paltry economic efforts, if we’d only just get out to inquire of it.

Work is built around the foolish concept that you can never have enough. I have to think that our fear of a year of drought has deeply impressed itself on our psyche. Back in biblical times and up until just a couple of centuries ago people considered work to be farm work. Growing your own food. Building your own house. Knowing what to do in an emergency. If nature didn’t cooperate with that scheme what choice had you? Now, however, we labor for a concept as abstract as transcendence. When’s the last time you were paid with actual cash? What wouldn’t you pay for a little more time off? Time to stay in your pajamas all day and ponder what’s really real? Perhaps sleep until you’re not tired rather than awaking at the sound of a factory bell? The sun hasn’t risen by the time I reach my windowless office. When I step out again it’s already set. The solstice reminds me of the semester break that no longer exists. I have to believe, however, that under the ice the river’s still flowing.

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Evil That Men Do

the-demonicTheologians, for the most part, gave up studying demons a long while ago. With the advent of modern medical science, the descriptions of demonic possession in the New Testament seemed pretty clearly to be cases of epilepsy. Since people in antiquity had no means to study brains electro-chemically, there was no recourse for them to understand the sudden changes in behavior that often accompany seizures. They drew on what their culture knew—malevolent spirits—to explain this disturbing behavior. Ewan Fernie takes a different approach in The Demonic: Literature and Experience. As an English professor, he looks at both demons and the demonic in mostly English literature, often focusing on the adjective more than the noun. There is a great deal of insight in this study and characters the reader may or may not recognize seem to fit fairly easily into the category as described by the author. Indeed, God and the Devil appear much closer than many religious readers would feel comfortable seeing them.

Although I enjoy reading about literature, my favorite chapter in this book was the treatment of Martin Luther. Not having grown up Lutheran, I feel that I don’t know the great reformer well enough. The anniversary of his 95 Theses is coming up next year and there’s a lot of attention being paid to the former monk right now. Even despite this, he was a fascinating figure who firmly believed in diabolical activity in the world. Indeed, much of what science would eventually strip away he saw as evidence of the demonic. Other theologians who’ve followed him built on these same ideas. The Dark Ages were the high point of official demonology, after all.

Writers since Luther, many of them touting fiction, also latched onto the concept of the demonic as a great explanation for “the evil that men do.” Quite often Fernie traces them to Shakespeare, the anniversary of whose death is quickly drawing to a close. The Reformation would’ve been much closer to the Bard than it seems to us. Demons were still around and available for all varieties of nastiness against human beings. Fernie makes the point that the association of the demonic and sexuality became more pronounced over time. We see this even today in possession movies. The origins of the ideas, however, are more complex than they might seem. The Demonic will give the reader plenty to think about in this season of long nights and short days and the basic confusion running rampant over what is good and what is evil.

The Naked Truth

As my regular readers know, I’m struggling. The shock is palpable. Even over a month and a half later, I still keep going over in my head the many, many reasons why Trump can’t be elected and wake up in a cold sweat with anything but visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. I recently saw a video on YouTube that made the point: with the millions of smart, qualified Americans our system decided that only someone like Donald Trump was able to lead us? (That is, if Mr. Putin didn’t cast a few votes himself. It might be understandable if he was Putin’s choice.) I have trouble coping with the lack of transparency. It’s like opaque cellophane. Except when it comes to women. Then the motives are perfectly obvious.

It bothers me that we’ve lost our dignity. I never thought it’d be possible to find the first lady naked on the internet. Some might argue that this is progress, but government is, and always has been, about decorum. It’s pretty hard to maintain that your king is a god when you see him sitting on the toilet. We like to believe our rulers are somehow better than us. We’re in trouble when they start believing that. There are those that say “quit your whining, pull up your socks, and accept it.” The naked truth is that I bought into the illusion that America couldn’t sink so low. There are lots of qualified Republicans out there. To have a man that makes Ronald Reagan look smart in charge is too frightening to accept, however. Let me have my neuroses. They’re all I’ve got left.

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The whiplash is the thing. Just three presidents ago the nation was up in arms about Bill Clinton’s peccadilloes. It was such an outrage that the same people who voted for a naked first lady wanted to impeach him. My neck hurts from my head swiveling so much. Ladybird Johnson this is not. Let alone Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m not whining, I just want a solid spot to place my feet. Never before has the fact that we’re spinning at 1,040.4 miles per hour felt more real. What do we want as a nation? It isn’t going back to the fifties—that much is clear. You couldn’t even show a toilet in the movies back then. No, we’ve gone beyond Psycho’s flushing scene and right into the shower with its curtain ripped back. And yes, like Janet Leigh, we’re struggling for our life.

My Stranger’s Keeper

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He was a bearded young man, maybe in his twenties. He kind of reminded me of my own youth, only cooler. I was at a stop sign on a snow-covered hill with tires honestly a little more worn than they should’ve been. Three times I tried to get some traction only to have to reverse and give it just a touch more gas. He walked by and called out “On the count of three, okay?” I shouted my thanks. It took him a couple of minutes to get me moving and as much as I wanted to stop and give him something for his efforts I knew that if I did I’d be right back where we’d started. Once I got moving, I had to keep going. I’ve driven in snow since I earned my Pennsylvania license in the snow belt of Lake Erie and I’ve helped drivers stuck in snow a time or two, but I was touched by this young man helping an older guy in a neighborhood he didn’t know get out of a jamb. That’s what I think of Americans as being like.

Seeing the utter selfishness of those “elected” officials posturing over the last few days I say to myself they didn’t grow up in the snow and cold. Nothing compels a young man with better things to do to help a frazzled older guy except for common human decency. Those who grow up with hardship know the value of their fellow human beings. We help each other because that’s what people do. Those born to wealth and power help themselves and only themselves. They need to learn the message of snow. Nature is our most natural teacher.

I don’t know his name. He didn’t have any idea that I had four hours to drive through snow, sleet, and freezing rain, but he helped me despite that. He didn’t ask for any money and I’m sure he expected nothing so coarse. I’m old enough to miss such kindheartedness and to cherish it deeply when I encounter it. Snow and hills and bald tires aren’t a winning combination, but the human capacity for goodness mixes well with any conditions. On a cold winter’s day I encountered the warmth of human concern for a guy in trouble. I need to listen to what the weather is saying more closely. More than that, I need to step out of my car more often and throw my shoulder against a stranger’s hatchback. It’s what makes us human.

Identity Crisis

It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day. The movie, I mean. As a child I was taught never to talk to strangers, but that’s a little hard to maintain in New York City. You’re never really alone there. Standing in line for the bus, I read. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is a crowded place around rush hour and I try to spin my literary cocoon so that I can get some reading done and so that I can have a little alone time. Introverts are like that. When the guy standing in front of me is confused, however, I like to help. There are three different bus lines that get mixed at my gate, and since I do this nearly every day I usually have a pretty good idea where to stand. I pointed this young fellow in the right direction. “Thanks,” he said. After a pause he asked, “are you a teacher?” I get this a lot, actually. By everyone but deans and search committees.

The writing on the wall.

The writing on the wall.

I was out for a walk in a city I’d only been to once before. Some guys were setting up for an outdoor function (the city was in the south). I was actually using my phone for geocaching, so I wasn’t paying too much attention to what was going on around me. One of the guys stopped me and said, “Excuse me—are you a professor?” Some might accuse me of cultivating the look—glasses, beard, slightly puzzled expression most of the time—but the reality is the look is simply who I am. There are those who are professors because they want to be. There are those of us who should be because we can’t help it. I read as if books were food. When somebody asks what the weather’s like, I’m wondering if this world is reality at all. Thing is, academics too are busy finding jobs for their friends to care.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he went on. “I mean, I’m a complete stranger.” Actually he’s not. He’s a student. I don’t know him. I’ve never had him in class, but he needed some information I had readily available. I shared it with him. No, the fact is I’m not a professor. Professors are paid (much better than editors) for dispensing what I’m glad to give away for free. A teacher, you see, teaches. The best teachers I ever had were those who continued the lifestyle outside the classroom. They were never arrogant or privileged. They simply shared. Every day, in this situation, begins to look like the one before.