The Good of Others

On a recent trip to visit family in upstate New York, the Sunday we had to leave (for work Monday is an implacable law), we decided to have lunch in a local park.  The weather was fine and there was plenty of social distancing, given the size of the grounds.  After a nice picnic and stroll, we realized it was getting late to start out in order to get home by my oddly early retiring time.  We headed back to our hosts’ car only to find it wouldn’t start.  They had a new battery and so we popped the hood and hoped to find something obviously wrong as we waited for the long response time for AAA in a rural area on a weekend.  We were a little concerned because we still had a long drive and no real way to get back to our own car, parked at our hosts’ residence.  A stranger came up and asked if we were having trouble.  Listening to the symptoms he said, “Do you mind?”  Putting his head under the hood, he said, “I’m a mechanic.”  He had our host try again and the car started right up.  He refused to take payment and wouldn’t even give his name.

Despite the fear the Republican Party tries so hard to spread, it has been my experience that good Samaritans abound.  When I’ve had car trouble far from home, I’ve never waited long beside the road before a stranger has stopped and asked if they could help.  Technology may make us feel more self-sufficient (we have smartphones and can call for our own help), but it doesn’t always work that way.  My wife had accidentally left her phone at our hosts’ place, and I’d forgotten to charge mine so the battery was depleted.  Uber would require an active, charged phone and our hosts were using theirs to communicate with AAA.  If the stranger hadn’t stopped by we would’ve been stuck, likely for hours.

I oftenconsider how Calvinistic GOP thinking can be—assuming the “total depravity” of everyone and declaring that we must be kept in check by laws that maintain outdated concepts of both humanity and justice.  To be sure, there are dangerous individuals out there.  Would you want Trump to stop by if you were having car trouble?  What selfless behavior could you expect from that quarter?  Sucker!  In general, however, people are good.  They are motivated by what they think is right.  We’re in a pandemic.  The mechanic didn’t know us (we outnumbered him), he had no obligation to help.  Good Samaritans exist, and they are frequently found outside the yellowed leaves of Scripture.

Balthasar van Cortbemde – The Good Samaritan, via Wikimedia Commons

Twain Shall Meet

On a slightly hazy fall day, when the autumnal colors were alive, we stopped in Elmira.  To understand the significance of this stop, I should explain that from the time my daughter could appreciate it (and probably even before) we used to make fall literary trips.  We would take a long weekend and drive to where a famous author had lived.  Laura Ingalls Wilder in Pepin, Wisconsin, or Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri.  When we moved east we visited Edna St Vincent Millay at Austerlitz, New York, and Washington Irving in Sleepy Hollow.  More recently, in the spring, we went to see Rod Serling in Interlaken, New York.  So it was that we stopped in Elmira, New York, where Mark Twain rests.  I had always assumed Samuel Clemens was buried in Missouri, but his most productive literary period was his time in upstate New York, and it is here he remains.

His tombstone was covered with pennies and a few higher denomination coins, a rock or two, and a guitar pick.  People want to show their respects to the writers who’ve meant something to them.  I find this a moving tribute.  I suspect it happens at the tombstones of many famous people, but in Highgate Cemetery in London we found Douglas Adam’s small plot filled with pens stuck in the ground as mementos.  I travel through the world lightly, seldom carrying anything extra with me.  Somehow I never stop to think to bring a memory to the cemetery.  Fortuitously I had found a penny on the ground the morning we left for Elmira and I placed it among the others on Twain’s marker.  

What would make the appropriate calling card to leave?  I often wonder that.  If I had such a token, I suspect I would feel the need to revisit the various cemeteries of years past to leave a sign of my respect.  There are lots of them.  Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore.  George Orwell in Sutton Courtenay.  H. P. Lovecraft in Providence.  Is there anything that ties them all together?  Pens seem an obvious choice, but stones are far more traditional (especially in Jewish settings).  The tradition is traced back to building cairns in biblical times, and the idea survives in that stones are more permanent than flowers and are a sign of respect.  Writers often have more elaborate items left, but it’s clear that they are removed from time to time by the grounds keepers.  Before I visit my next literary grave, I’ll give some thoughts to symbols and tokens and the importance of celebrating writing.

Almost Ancestors

During the Covid-19 crisis, cemeteries seem to be safe places.  Not too many people are in them, at least not people that can spread the virus, and they always provide grounds for rumination.  Besides, being outdoor spaces they can get you someplace outside the same four walls you see all the time.  My wife and I both have an interest in genealogy.  We’ve worked on our family trees and even try to keep our Reunion software up-to-date.  This past weekend we visited a family burial plot in upstate New York.  My wife’s family has a more accomplished pedigree than mine does, and one of her ancestors here actually merited an obelisk and was written up in local histories as a noteworthy member of the community.  I also have ancestry in upstate, and we’ve traveled to some of their sites in the past, although their markers are usually harder to find.

Being in a cemetery, the logic of ancestor worship suggests itself.  Without these people history as we know it would’ve been different.  Without those who are our direct ancestors we wouldn’t even be here pondering our own insignificance.  We wish these headstones could talk, saying more than the names, vital dates, and perhaps a quote from the Bible.  We listen, hoping to gain knowledge of who they were.  It seems to me that cemetery histories would be a boon to genealogists.  For those of us whose predecessors were buried in small towns, such guides could be a real boon.  As it is, Find A Grave dot com is often a helpful resource, but who wouldn’t like to be written up in an actual book?  Network reception often isn’t great out here in rural America.

Graveyards are gateways to the past.  In a world that feels like it’s changing way too fast, it seems right to have these places—these sanctuaries—to stop and reflect.  They represent lives lived.  Peaceful after the trauma of day-to-day angst and struggle.  Unfortunately the pandemic is daily adding to the number of those who’ll be buried in cemeteries across the nation and around the world.  Although somewhat preventable, we have no national will to stop the tragedy.  So it is I find myself staring at a monument erected to someone I never knew, but without whom my life would’ve been vastly different.  It’s a sunny day and I’m outside amid a crowd that can cause me no harm, but who, at times like this, inspire me. 

Narrow Passage

While on a rare family visit (it’s scary to get out too much) we visited Watkins Glen State Park in upstate New York.  My mother’s family has roots in this area, and we’ve visited it several times in the past.  There are always people there, but in manageable numbers.  The website declared it was mandatory to wear a mask (“New York tough”!) and to keep social distancing.  It perhaps didn’t help that we went during a heat wave when a walk along a waterfall-laced path seemed like a refreshing idea.  I guess I had in my head the modest crowds we’d encountered in our many past visits.  We were, however, not the only tourists (although somewhat local) with that particular plan.  Not by any metric I can conceive.

If you’ve never been to Watkins Glen, the park has a Civilian Conservation Corp-built stairway and trail (approximately 600 stairs) through a glacial and water-cut gorge.  The sedimentary layers are fascinating for anyone with an interest in geology and for those who like to ponder the millions of years required for the laying down and lifting up of multiple bedding planes.  The gorge itself has a curvilinear appeal that is almost mystical.  Waterfalls produce negative ions which, everyone knows, tend to make people happy.  I was, however, more on the terrified side of the spectrum.  It became clear even before we reached the gorge that there were hundreds of people already in the park.  Most of them unmasked.  Large crowds gathered around the more picturesque waterfalls, blocking the narrow walkways.  Tourists have no idea what “six feet” might possibly mean.  Stair-climbing is an aerobic exercise, and wearing a mask in such circumstances is the only smart thing to do.

While on the considerably less crowded trails of the Pennsylvania outdoors venues we more commonly frequent, I’m nervous when someone walks even more than six feet away in the opposite direction.  This felt like a nightmare to me.  Too many people paying too little heed to the mandated caution.  I’ll be quarantining myself for two weeks for sure.  Maybe more.  I don’t get out much in any case, but even though we were obstructing our view through cloudy glasses and trying to get adequate oxygen through made-to-specification cloth masks, there’s only so much that prophylactics can do.  I jog at first light to avoid other health nuts on the local trails.  I go to stores only for necessities.  Being in a canyon with the careless invincibles inspired less than confidence in this petrified pilgrim.  Knowing human nature, it seems closing popular state parks until people get smart may be the best way out of a tight squeeze.

No So Innocent

Mark Twain’s best-selling book in his own lifetime was his first commercially produced one: The Innocents Abroad.  Originally a set of letters sent during an excursion to parts of the Mediterranean basin with stops in Europe and the Levant, it’s difficult to read today.  Although satirical with much of it clearly for fun, Twain’s humor about those other than Americans embodies an attitude that would fit into Trump’s America a little too comfortably.  Other religions are strange and therefore wrong, for example.  People in the regions visited did not bathe frequently enough and were often singled out for their looks.  There’s something rascally about the behavior of the American visitors, chipping away at monuments so that they might take a piece of history home with them, yet never failing to feel superior.

I had to remind myself constantly that this is a period piece.  It contains much of the gritty humor for which Twain became justly famous.  Travel broadened him also.  A southern abolitionist, Twain nevertheless never overcame some of the racism into which he was born.  My wife and I were reading the book because of its early description of western visits to Palestine (there was no Israel at the time).  Keeping in mind that travel to much of that part of the world was expensive (his trip was sponsored by the newspaper for which he worked) and difficult, his account is actually one of the early modern travelogues on what would eventually become a fairly common pilgrimage.  Twain, like all of us, was a product of his time.

Twain’s diary famously reveals what he came to believe about religion.  There are inklings of it here.  Although he refers to the manner of dress of the ship’s passengers as “Christian,” and although he casts aspersions on Islam frequently, he reserves his most biting humor for his own brand.  During their visit to Smyrna (one of the seven cities of the book of Revelation), for example,  he writes, “Thick-headed commentators upon the Bible, and stupid preachers and teachers, work more damage to religion than sensible, cool-brained clergymen can fight away again, toil as they may” (page 327 from the 2018 SeaWolf Press edition).  Still, the assumption of the rightness of Christianity is something that he would eventually come to question.  His humor does often fall flat in an era of government support of racist, sexist tropes.  And the impressions made on those they met was summed up in his contractually-obligated note to the paper: “Many and many a simple community in the Eastern hemisphere will remember for years the incursion of that strange horde in the year of our Lord 1867, that called themselves Americans, and seemed to imagine in some unaccountable way that they had a right to be proud of it” (page 526).  Some things, it seems, haven’t changed despite the time elapsed.

Missing Markers

Something truly remarkable happened this week.  The Society of Biblical Literature, which, along with the American Academy of Religion, meets annually in November, has canceled its in-person meeting.  I’ve been attending this conference since 1991 (with a few years off for good behavior).  It always meets the weekend before Thanksgiving, stretching to the Tuesday prior.  Some academics use the meeting to have an exotic Thanksgiving break with their families, particularly when it congregates someplace warm.  (It was scheduled for Boston this year.)  So I’m ruminating what this will mean for a year of missing markers.  Some of you may recall I missed two years ago, electing to stay in Newark Airport instead, but this is different.  We’re all being changed by this virus.

Missing markers.  That’s what my wife calls it.  March 12 was the day that Covid-19 became a crisis.  In my extended family that’s in the middle of birthday season.  Travel plans had to be altered.  Trips to see loved ones had to be delayed.  Then cancelled.  Memorial Day came and went.  It was a long weekend, but for most of us it was a long weekend at home.  Our usual summer trip to the lake was also a victim.  A remote lake may be the safest place to be, but you have to get there.  Flying doesn’t seem safe and we don’t have enough vacation days to drive all the way out and back.  Here we are halfway through the summer and each day feels pretty much like the one before, even if it’s a day off work.  Time seems out of whack.  Back in April it was hard to believe it was still 2020, now it’s difficult to comprehend that the year’s more than half over and there will be no AAR/SBL in November.

Growing tired of the phrase “unprecedented times,” I prefer “missing markers.”  Yes, the weather’s still doing its time-keeping job.  This summer has been quite hot around here, for the most part.  I remember shivering in my study sometime not so long ago, bundled up in layers and thinking that when summer rolled around this coronavirus would be a bad memory.  If only there were something governments could do to keep people safe.  If only there were people in the White House who cared.  I had visions of professors, hundreds and hundreds of them, wearing masks with their tweed.  It was a vision of wonder.  They’d walk up to you, extending an elbow to bump, but you’d back off.  That’s actually too close.  And lecturing spreads germs very effectively.  Over time 2020 itself will become a marker.  I’m not sure anyone will miss it, however.

Page Count

Research has taken on a different flavor now that I don’t have a teaching post.  I’ve started work on my next book after Nightmares with the Bible, and I’ll reveal more about it eventually, but the topic does require research.  Much of the reading required for both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible was done on the bus.  Those long commuting years weren’t exactly conducive to getting a lot of writing done, but there were hours of built-in reading time each weekday.  My research often involves reading big books and I’m a slow reader.  It’s a valid question why a slow reader would go into editing for a career.  A bit of research on this blog would reveal the answer to that, but the fact remains that big books take a huge amount of time to get through.

Back before any of this was a concern, back when I was a mere seminarian, I had plenty of time for reading.  One summer I volunteered for an archaeological dig at Tel Dor in Israel.  This involved meetings ahead of time and a lot of advanced planning.  One of the questions that naturally got raised was how many books to take.  It was a long flight from Boston to Tel Aviv, and I didn’t have much cash for sightseeing.  Most people, I was told, take James Michener’s The Source.  This is his archaeologist book.  In addition to that, it is a long work, just like most Michener novels, which meant you only had to take one book for the entire trip.  I decided to buy a paperback of Tolstoy’s War and Peace instead.  What a luxury it seemed in those long Israeli days to read such a tale.

In fact, I didn’t finish the book during the flight over, the six weeks at Pardes Hanna, and the return flight.  It took me at least until winter back in Boston.  These days when I take on a big book I generally read smaller ones alongside it.  You see, I have to see some progress as I’m going.  I tend to read nonfiction before work in the morning and fiction after work is done.  My days are literary work sandwiches, I guess.  And the stuff that I need to do around the house doesn’t pause while I indulge in my favorite vice of reading.  Yes, my research has definitely taken on a different flavor since being paid to do it.  What hasn’t changed is the desire to push knowledge forward, one page at a time.

Ancient History, Part 3

It was an old idea.  I had it when I was still teaching at Nashotah House, that’s how ancient it is.  It seemed to me that if brains evolve with the rest of us, our perceptions of gods might change over time.  I’d been working on this for an Ugaritic conference held in Sherbrooke, Quebec.  The conference took place, but I’d been ousted from my position at Nashotah House.  The conference organizer, in what was an amazingly magnanimous move, came up with funding for me to attend.  I delivered the paper and Jean-Marc Michaud, of blessed memory, encouraged me to submit it to the tome with the very academic title Le Royaume d’Ougarit, de la Crète à l’Euphrate. Nouveaux axes de recherche, Actes du Congrès International de Sherbrooke 2005, Faculté de théologie, d’éthique et de philosophie, Université de Sherbrooke, 5-8 juillet 2005 (Coll. POLO–Proche-Orient et Littérature Ougaritique 2).  Unemployed and unable to access libraries, I had to decline the publication.

In one of those great ironies of life, I began to be approached to take on projects after I lost my academic position.  (This continues to happen; I received an invitation to contribute just last week.)  I often have to turn them down because I still have no access to an academic library and academics generally have no idea just how draining a nine-to-five is, with or without the commute.  In any case, a Festschrift for Simon B. Parker was announced.  I knew Simon as a student at Boston University School of Theology, and he wrote many letters of recommendation for me.  His sudden death shocked many of us.  Herb Huffmon, of Drew Theological Seminary, asked me to contribute to the Festschrift.  I still had this article that required some work, so I decided to try to finish it.  I received a note that the volume is about to go to press with Pickwick.  Academic publications won’t let me go.

If I had my druthers, I’d be getting along with my fiction.  I’ve had over twenty short stories published, and I’ve got many more in the works.  Every time I think, “Now I’m in the clear, I can focus on writing that is fun to read,” I get another academic invitation.  Those invitations don’t come with job offers, so I wonder why I have such trouble saying “no.”  Anyone who writes wants to be remembered.  We have ideas that we hope others will find engaging.  In academia you publish to keep your job.  Most of your work will be forgotten unless you’re groomed as an academic superstar (yes, they exist!).  I’ve never been groomed.  I write because I have ideas that beg to be expressed.  One of those ideas, many years old, will soon be available for consumption at Pickwick Press.

Travel Ban

I’m not at home.  I know in the current crisis that sounds like heresy, but I can honestly say that getting out of the usual routine where COVID-19 is all you hear about feels right.  More and more organizations are instituting work from home policies—many of them mandatory.  I’ve worked from home for going on two years now.  You need to get out a bit.  I know travel isn’t recommended, but I’m really not afraid to die.  Besides, I put a box of latex gloves in the car and when we stopped for a restroom break, wore them until they could be safely removed.  Exposed surfaces in the rest area were being continually wiped down.  Don’t get me wrong—for an introvert like me working at home is fine.  It’s just the idea of feeling like this virus is some zombie apocalypse happening just outside my door that I needed to dispel.

When I told a friend I was no longer going to be commuting on a regular basis he said if it were him he’d only ever buy sweatpants again.  Now that my reality is life with my wife being the only person I regularly see, I’m beginning to realize just how much our clothes purchases are for impressing others.  My haberdashery is akin to that of Henry David Thoreau; I wear clothes until they’re no longer functional.  They can be badly out of date but they still work.  The fashion industry is built on pride.  To put it in the words of my old friend Qohelet, vanity.  We want others to see what we’re wearing.  If we’re still donning last year’s gay apparel we’re not playing the game.  Never mind those of us whose wardrobes could be carbon-dated.  The pandemic can be revealing.

So I’m away from home for what is really the first time in months.  I had to stop in the grocery store for a few things.  Only one person I saw was wearing a mask, but I was wearing prophylactics, so who’s going to cast the first stone?  Many shelves were bare.  The CDC has become our new gospel provider.  I’m limiting my outside exposure.  Driving door to door, greeting no-one along the way (that actually is the gospel, but substitute the walking for the driving part).  I know when this weekend’s over I’ll be back to my cloistered existence as the rest of the world tries to get used to the loneliness of the sweatpants crowd.  If you’re one of them take it from me—the rest of the world is still out there.

Quiet Night

Reading challenges are a good way to expose yourself to books you might not otherwise find.  This is my fifth time through the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s annual challenge and she tends to favor books in translation.  That’s fine by me, because we could all use a bit more cross-cultural understanding.  My latest book in this challenge was my third novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Hotel Silence.  Ólafsdóttir, although a professor of art history, is quite a gifted novelist and her stories probe what it is to be human, and also reflect life on a somewhat small island.  Icelanders are known for their love of reading as well as for their geothermal power.  This novel deals with darker subjects that some of Ólafsdóttir’s previous work, but one thing becomes clear—the Bible is an influence.

With a writing style that is poetic and descriptive, she acknowledges that the Good Book plays a role in forming her story here.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it swirls around the difficult topics of suicide and war, and, ultimately, a kind of redemption.  As I’ve come to expect from her writing, the characters are quirky and have foibles.  There’s a matter-of-factness to them.  They go about following singular ideas and all of her work that I’ve read is based on the concept of a journey.  Maybe that’s something of a given for those who live on an island.  Taking her characters to far lands is a way of reaching understanding, not xenophobia.  That’s one of the reasons for reading the literature of other people.

In academia I was taught that exoticizing other cultures was a kind of evil.  I can see the point in that, although, like most academic things it takes the fun out of imagining far-away places.  Human beings need sources of wonder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a trip to Iceland, so reading stories written by a native feels, well, exotic.  Academics have a point, though.  For people of an exotic locale, their life is pretty much a daily struggle just like our lives are.  The backdrop is different and the specific circumstances are unfamiliar, but at the end, people are people.  That’s why I like Ólafsdóttir’s novels.  At the end we find them facing the same kinds of problems the rest of us face.  And we come to realize that our world is an isolated place in space.  And if there are aliens out there watching us, they must think we’re fairly exotic.  Let’s hope they’ll read us in translation.  We can all use a good challenge.

Geocheating

So, we geocache.  Not as much as we used to, but over 15 years ago my family and I began the sport and really got into it for a while.  Geocaching involves using a GPS to find a hidden object (“cache”) so that you can log the find.  It’s all in good fun.  The organization that hosts the website also offers the chance to log “trackables”—these are objects with a unique identifier that you sometimes find in caches and you get credit for logging your find.  There are no prizes involved.  We started several of these “travel bugs” ourselves, years ago.  If you started one you got an email when someone logged it, and you could see how far around the world your little bug had gone.  For many years we’ve not heard much about any of ours and assumed them to be MIA.

Recently I started getting several email notices about a resurrected travel bug.  It was as if someone had finally found a cache somewhere deep in the Sahara where it’d been hidden for a decade.  Then I had an email from a fellow cacher, in German.  I figured it must be serious.  The message was that a Facebook page was publishing trackable numbers so that anyone could claim to have found them.  One of ours was on that list.  I went to the page to look.  It said, “Let’s face it, it’s all about the numbers.”  And they proceeded to list hundreds of numbers so that you could claim to have “found” the pieces with your posterior solidly sunk in your favorite chair.  This is annoying not only because we had to pay for the trackable dogtags, but also because it was cheating.  I said as much on the page only to have my comment blocked.

How sad is it when people cheat at a game when there’s no gain?  All they do is claim to have done something they haven’t, for no prize or recognition.  A fun family pastime falls victim to the internet.  Ironically, geocaching was really only possible because of the internet.  It required a place where players could log their finds in a common database.  Facebook, continuing its potential for misuse, allows someone to spoil it.  I, along with my unknown German counterpart, reported the page to the powers that be.  But since we live in a world where the powers that be don’t recognize any rules beyond inflating their own numbers, I shouldn’t be too optimistic of any results.  I guess this is how Republicans play games.

Back to Normal

The western philosophical tradition is built on the idea that permanence is reality.  From the Greek philosophers on, the idea has been to identify the basic, unchanging building blocks of reality to get at what’s really real.  The eastern philosophical system posits that change is reality.  Permanence is illusion, and that which we think of as unchanging is a deceptive projection of our own minds.  This dichotomy keeps coming back to me when things change and I keep waiting for them to go back to “the old way” or “the usual way.”  Most recently, for example, the shift to or from (I can never remember which) Daylight Saving Time.  This was followed closely by a mandated trip to San Diego, three time zones away, that lasted five days.  While there I met with potential authors later into the evening than I generally stay up on eastern time.  Now that I’m back home I keep waiting for things to go back to the way they were.

My response to all of this is to wonder if maybe I have the wrong philosophical disposition.  Problem is, the entire western world is built on the proposition that permanence is reality.  The things that worry us are, in eastern thinking, part of the constantly changing flux of reality.  While away from the usual constant connectivity of life at home, bills still come electronically.  Websites ask you for passwords that, like eastern thought, are constantly changing.  I play along, even to the point of “buying” property so that it will always be mine.  Right now lots of things are up in the air in the western world—the future of democracy itself is uncertain—and I keep waiting for things to get back to normal.

Part of the problem is that I keep too busy.  It is easier for me to maintain this illusion if I slow down and have time to think it through.  Things change too quickly for that, however.  Using time as a pole star to navigate this constantly heaving sea, I’ve become a little confused about my longitude.  I’m settling back into eastern time at the new hour they tell me that it is, but I feel as though I’ve left lots of things behind.  I’ve had a little time off work over the holiday and there’s a tremendous amount of change awaiting me once I fire the laptop up again.  I want to go back to where I was before I boarded that plane, back before I “gained” an hour.  Back before I had to learn everything you need to know to “buy” a house.  I look to the east and nod.

Post Facto

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Psalm 23 asserts, “I will fear no evil.”  Nor should one fear evil when flying over Death Valley, as I did coming out of San Diego, but I did.  There are perhaps not too many national monuments that can be appreciated from 30,000 feet, but the only way I’ve seen both the Grand Canyon and Death Valley is by plane.  My flight home from AAR/SBL had me sitting over a wing, so a photograph of the famed graben would simply show mostly wing and a bit of Death beyond.  This valley holds the record for the hottest ambient temperature recorded on the surface of the earth (134 degrees) and is famed as one of the filming locations for Star Wars.  Still, from the air the juxtaposition of mountains and salty, flat dearth was impressive.  I had no one with whom to share my excitement; the kid next to me was watching a movie on his phone and I had no idea who he was or if he’d be interested.

Disneyland, they say, is the “happiest place on earth.”  While I have my doubts about than endorphin-laced claim, I do know one of the opposite locales.  The hotel in which I stayed, the Grand Hyatt, San Diego, hosted the AAR/SBL Employment Center.  The hotel is not to be blamed for holding the most unhappy place on the planet, but as I looked at the booth I wondered if this was truth in advertising.  Should it not read “Unemployment Center”?  That two-letter prefix would make this at least honest, if not cheery.  I have spent some of the most miserable hours of my life in the employee hopefuls’ lounges at past conferences.  Hours and hours wasted, waiting to see if anyone, anyone at all was willing to grant you an interview.  I saw more than a few tears shed in that horrid place.  Some of them mine.

Now I’m high over Death Valley.  It feels far too sanitary to experience it in this way.  The professorate, which seeks to improve the world, is generally a powerless lot.  Signs scattered throughout the Convention Center and hotels asked such things as Does your school have over 50% contingency faculty?  And statements like Tenure track is not the norm.  The psalmist, it seems to me, got it right.  If you want to face the valley of the shadow of death and not fear, you have to walk through it.  The more people who do, the better the hope that we’ll land this plane with some kind of resolve to do be open to visions and to act upon them.

J L Seagull

Perhaps it has happened to you as well.  At some undisclosed period life became so busy that you felt as if—in a good southern California metaphor—you were riding on a huge wave and you couldn’t get off.  Back in my teaching days I had time to plan my trips to AAR/SBL and fit in some human activities as well as maybe even getting around to see the outside once in a while.  It’s great to run into so many people from every stage of my academic life—toddlerhood at Grove City College through my current doddering editorship—but I can’t help having the feeling that I’m popular now because I’m thought to have something others want.  The keys to the kingdom.  A possibility of getting published.

Those of you who read my daily reflections know that I’m glad to share publishing knowledge.  I encourage academic authors to learn a bit about the publishing industry.  It’s rapidly changing and when you have an inside track (here is the real added value) you need to look beyond your current book project to see what goes on behind the veil.  Widen the focus.  There’s a whole world out there!  My glimpses out the hotel window inform me that there’s an entire bay to be explored.  I watched seals or sea lions (it’s hard to tell from this distance) playing in the water as the sun rose.  Then a seagull flew up and landed inches from my face on the windowsill of my room.  It stayed for nearly a minute, looking me over as I looked it over.  Noticing the tiny white feathers that formed a W on the edges of its beak.  Its Silly Putty pink feet with small black nails.  The emerging red patch on the underside of its bill.  It took a step off the ledge, spread its wings and looked elsewhere for a snack.  I soon learned why.  A second later a larger gull landed in its place.  We too regarded one another curiously.  Had the glass not been there, we could’ve easily touched.  It also lept off to be replaced by an even larger, more mature gull.  None of the three were in any hurry to get away, but when they realized I couldn’t give them what they wanted, they left.

I’m a great fan of metaphor.  Academic writing, unfortunately, doesn’t encourage the craft of utilizing it (neither does it often encourage being coherent).  Later this morning—it will be early afternoon back home—I have to rush to the airport to catch a hopeful tailwind back east.  Someone else will check into my room.  If, perchance they sit by the window with the curtain drawn before dawn, the gulls will visit.  And maybe a lesson will be taken away.

Armed Forces

You ought to feel safe with the U.S. Navy so close by.  The naval base at San Diego is the second largest surface base in this particular branch of our sprawling military system.  From my hotel room I can watch the ships chugging through the harbor and from the Convention Center you can see quite a spread of naval real estate.  Still, all this hardware doesn’t make me feel safe.  Perhaps because I’m a child of the sixties, I can imagine a world at peace where military budgets don’t literally take food from the mouths of hungry citizens.  The last time I was in San Diego for AAR/SBL I toured the USS Midway aircraft carrier.  It’s clearly visible from my room.  I was amazed at both the technology and the obvious expenditure for such a craft.  It can’t be easy to set a city afloat.

Whenever I experience things like this I can’t help but wonder what we might accomplish if we loved each other as a species and put our heads together to try to solve our problems.  Lack of water—perhaps ironically in this naval city—is a serious global issue.  Poverty is the ghost of civilization.  The grasping of power by the driven but inept is clear worldwide.  We build great, complicated war machines.  The noise generated by the helicopters charging overhead bespeaks their weight and weaponry.  Down here in the southwest there are places civilians just can’t go because our military is busy keeping us too safe to allow us to wonder what they’re up to.  Black budgets must be nice.  I stand here among religion scholars and dream.

Ironically religion often leads to the fear that leads, in turn, to militarization.  We want to protect our “way of life.”  We’ll follow the prince of peace into war any day.  Just give the signal and release the missiles.  It doesn’t make me feel safe at all.  One time on a family visit, we drove through Norfolk, Virginia.  We stayed at a cheap hotel, because, well, we’re cheap.  The metal door was heavily reinforced with a stolid steel lock.  Navy men, we were informed, didn’t always behave well while ashore.  The locks were to keep us safe from those protecting us.  We stayed only one night and left early the next morning.  So I while the annual meeting away under the watchful eye of our largest line item on the budget.  They’re keeping our bodies safe, but who’s keeping track of our souls?