Honest Labor

When an artisan begins a new job, s/he must acquire the tools of the trade.  During a period of unemployment I seriously considered getting certified as a plumber.  I’d done some plumbing repair and, unlike many people, I wasn’t afraid of it.  (I am, however, terrified of electrical work.)  When I was looking into it, it became clear that there would be a significant outlay of tool purchasing up front.  While all of this may seem obvious, people are often surprised to learn that writing books also involves tools acquisition, although it generally pays far less than plumbing. The tools used to be made of paper, but they can wrench pipes apart and rebuild a bathroom from scratch.  I’m referring to books, of course.  In order to write books you have to read books.

Long ago I gave up on trying to read everything in an area before writing.  There’s just too much published these days.  When I was teaching and actually had a modest book allowance I would attend AAR/SBL only to come back with armloads of books that I needed for my research.   Of course I had the backing of the seminary library as well, so I could find things.  As an independent scholar doing the same work, however, you have to do a lot more tool acquiring since no library will back you up.  Nightmares with the Bible came back from peer review with a standard-issue academic who wanted me to “show my work.”  (I.e., document everything.)  Apart from slowing the book down (it is written), this also means acquiring tools.  AAR/SBL always reminds me of just how much is being published these days and that my toolbox, although already quite hefty, isn’t nearly big enough.

As I’m going through Nightmares rewriting and adding footnotes, I’m discovering more and more material that could be included.  As an editor myself I try hard to keep to assigned word counts, and the entire allotment could easily be taken up by bibliography alone.  I am very modest in my spending at conferences now—independent contractors have to be.  Nightmares will likely be my last academic book; I can’t afford to keep going like this.  I don’t plan to give up writing, of course, just academic publishing.  Both this book and Holy Horror were written for non-specialist readerships, to showcase my non-technical way of explaining things.  Both ended up with academic presses and are slated to be among those specialist tools that the beginning artisan covets but for which s/he has to budget.  And when this house is finished it will have an impressive, if most unusual, private library.

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?

Focus on Religion

Publishers Weekly, or PW to those in the biz, is a great place to get information about, well, publishing.  I often spend AAR/SBL telling authors and prospective authors something that I wish I’d been told when teaching: time spent learning about publishing is never wasted.  PW every year has a “Religion and Spirituality Update” released in time for this meeting.  Despite the relatively small number of sales, religion is a discipline that loves its books.  I’ve only been quoted in PW’s special edition once, and it’s not been for a few years, nevertheless I always learn a thing or two from this free—yes, if you’re here in San Diego it’s free!—update.  It may seem odd to suggest that religion titles can be hot, but it is indeed possible.  Sexuality is hot.  I suppose that goes without saying.

A number of titles dealing with religion and sexuality appear every year.  What caught my attention, however was an observation from Jennifer Banks, from Yale University Press.  Noting the rancor that sexuality often introduces to discussions of religion, she observes that (and this is a quote from PW, not directly from Banks) “some Christians apparently need others to go to hell.”  (I can send the full citation, if you want to know.)  In an era when academics have been stressing inclusion, the retrenched religious world has been spinning in the opposite direction.  Instead of inviting everyone to Heaven, as might, say a Universalist, many conservative Christians consign fellow believes to Hell, and gleefully so.  It’s almost as if Christianity and capitalism have merged into a zero-sum game.  If some win, all the others have to lose.  They haven’t however, studied the history of Hell very well.

It’s kind of an insidious idea.  Given that we all want to justify ourselves, some go to the extremes of demonizing those who see things differently.  This form of religious thinking was original neither with Christianity nor the Judaism from which it grew.  There was no Hell in the Hebrew Bible.  The idea, when it did develop, wasn’t a place to torture your enemies, but rather a place demanded by justice.  Those who were utterly and unrepentantly wicked couldn’t hobnob in God’s country club with those who tried to be righteous.  In the modern evangelical narrative those who make certain medical decisions for basic human situations are among the utterly wicked.  Not surprisingly their sins are usually sexual.  If you want to see this in a wider context, pick up a PW when you pass by the stand.  “Anything free,” to quote another sage, “is worth saving up for.”  And who knows, it might keep you from Hell?

Wisdom of Trees

Stepping out of the airport the first thing I noticed was the palm trees.  I’ve traveled to this area enough times that I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am.  And since we are creatures of the culture in which we’re raised, palm trees inevitably make me think of Gilligan’s Island.  We grasp for culture to help us make sense of this odd world of negotiating other people and, like many children born in the sixties, I was raised on television.  Gilligan’s Island (somehow appropriate training ground for attending AAR/SBL—it actually featured a professor) was as close to seeing a palm tree as I ever got, being raised in a very humble household.  To me, palm trees were as much creatures of fantasy as the monsters that populated the movies I watched on Saturday afternoon.

My first experience of a real palm tree was in Israel, 1987.  I’d signed on as a volunteer at Tel Dor, an archaeological dig near Haifa.  Then, as yesterday, I encountered palm trees—so alien and yet so natural—at the airport.  Welcome to Tel Aviv!  And so we think of palm trees as being part of paradise, a place where it’s always pleasantly warm and although well-watered it doesn’t rain too much.  Trees symbolize our culture.  Although back home in the northeast most of the leaves are down from the hardwoods, the region is also defined by its large plants.  Trees do that for us.  Spreading high over our heads, with dense cellular structure that makes them heavy, trees have always been attractive to our species.  And they can help us define, at a glance, where we are.  “Paradise” derives from a Persian word for “garden.”  Even in arid zones they value their trees.

Looking out my hotel window I see the bay.  In the bay stands a marina.  Back home most boats are shrink-wrapped by now and I’ve already seen smaller bodies of water start to freeze over.  Paradise has no ice.  For the castaways, being on the island was always a challenge, but never a terribly serious one.  Thurston Howell III used his money (useless where there’s nothing to buy) to try to assert his influence.  Everyone treated him with respect, always calling him “Mr. Howell.”  In that paradise, however, one of the two characters (who had names) referred to always by title, the professor—the skipper, of course, was the other one—was the person looked to for guidance.  If anyone would figure out a way to be rescued, it would be the academic.  I’ll be spending the next few days on an island with mostly professors.  And when it gets too intense I’ll look at the palm trees and remind myself that this is paradise.

Speedy Delivery (SD)

Ritual, no matter what scientists say, is deeply woven into the fabric of human psyches.  It may be either the warp or the weft, but it’s downright basic.  I was reminded of this on my hurried and slow trip to San Diego yesterday.  I always wear the same shirt when I fly to this conference.  This isn’t superstition, but rather it’s a case of sticking with something that works.  I don’t often wear turtlenecks, and one reason is that they seldom fit well.  More years ago than I care to admit (I’m wearing the shirt in the photo below, which was taken at Nashotah House nearly two decades in the past) I found a navy blue turtleneck from Land’s End (this is not a sponsored post, although it probably should be) that works perfectly.  Even today it fits snugly around the neck after hours of wear.  Maybe ten years back I bought a black turtleneck from the same company and after pulling it over my head, it gaps something awful.  I tend only to wear it around the house.  The original still does the job.

I was ready to drive myself to the airport yesterday and I grabbed a quick lunch at home.  Part of said lunch involved opening a ketchup bottle probably nearly as old as the shirt I was wearing.  (I’m sure you can see where this is going.)  I ended up looking like a murderer, which is not something you want to try to explain to a TSA agent.  I quick threw said ritual shirt into the washer and the drier buzzed at the same time as my phone did for when I had to leave for my two-hour-ahead check-in.  This remarkable shirt was dry and ready to serve.  Maybe you can see now why I’m so ritualistic about clothes.  I also opt-out of those Star Trek scanners at the airport.  This means I get lots of governmental pat-downs.  It feels more authentic when you have actual hands running down your body—at least it’s honest.

The TSA agent commented that you don’t see many turtlenecks these days.  I explained that it’s good for flying because I’m always cold on planes.  As this stranger’s hands were rubbing down my chest, I was wondering how many times this shirt has been felt up by the US government.  It has no pockets to pick, and besides, at airport screenings everything is stowed in my carry-on, including wallet.  At midnight San Diego time, I checked into my hotel.  East coast time said I’d been awake 24 hours because who can really sleep on a plane?  Once my patted-down body reaches 3 a.m., Eastern Time, it wakes up.  In these circumstances it’s good to know I can rely on that shirt in my drawer.  That’s what rituals are all about.