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.

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.

Trench Warfare

Once something becomes socially acceptable, it is nearly impossible to change. I’m no prude, but I remember when “swearing” in public was considered bad taste. When I was a tween (and there was no such thing as tweens then) I heard a guy talking to a friend in a department store. They were on the other side of those kinds of shelves where you can see through to the other side. One of them cussed and his friend said, “Man, you shouldn’t say that when there’s a little kid just there.” I wasn’t shocked by the word; I’m more worldly than most people grant me credit for being. Still, the sentiment was appreciated. These days I dodge f-bombs all the way to work. It’s effing acceptable.

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The tragic multiple shooting in San Bernardino to which I opened the paper yesterday morning was completely dispiriting. The statistics showing more multiple shootings than there have been days in the past year while Republican hopefuls chain their wallets to their pockets backing the NRA should give anyone pause to reflect, no matter their party. Our gun madness has led to a collective deathwish for our country. The only acceptable solution, according to the GOP, and Texas, is to get more guns out on the streets. The Old West is called “Old” for a reason. We should’ve become more civilized by now. Instead we accept fantasy for reality.

In a land where politics is making love to gun lobbies, the surest investment is the casket industry. It has become socially acceptable to shoot lots of people and then kill yourself or get yourself shot. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t read about such an incident in the news. Swift, decisive action is called for but we’re mired down by politicians who need ever so much more money to campaign. Bread and circuses. I know responsible gun owners. It has become clear that the only real solution now is to do what is socially unacceptable. Give up our guns. If those who are responsible gun owners were willing to lead by example we might stand a chance against a socially acceptable plague that we’re unwilling to name. Even US citizens can be terrorists in their own country.

Duck Overboard!

Moby-DuckI remember the moment precisely.  I was in Santa Barbara, California on a campus visit for Routledge.  I stopped into the university bookstore to see which of our/their books were being used.  From the cover of one of popular books in the general reading shelf stared a friendly yellow duck.  My thoughts went, as they often do, to my daughter back home.  The cover copy explained that this was the true tale of a bunch of “rubber” ducks lost at sea and the captivating story of how they ended up in diverse places.  I bought it for my daughter since rubber duckies had been a kind of childhood theme, and when I saw it on her shelf recently I also grew curious again.  I’ve always been fascinated by the sea, even applying for jobs at the Maine Maritime Academy just to be near the water (and in Maine). 
 
Of course I’m referring to Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn.  It wasn’t really as cute and cuddly a book as I thought it might be—that duck on the cover sure looks happy—but it was far more important.  As Hohn explains, he was a teacher captivated by the story of a cargo container holding plastic (not rubber) bath toys falling into the Pacific Ocean on a crossing from Asia.  The ducks (and frogs, turtles, and beavers) spread out as far as Alaska and points south on the west coast of the US, and some perhaps made it back east.  Some were even reported in Maine (but Hohn came to doubt they are the right ones).  So he set off on several ocean voyages to follow the trail of the toys.  He has left us a moving and thoughtful memoir of the journey, and also much more.
 
The oceans are incredibly polluted.  As Hohn points out at several points, entire cargo containers—sometimes several at a time—tumbling into the ocean and being left behind is not uncommon.  Add to that the trash, particularly the plastic, that otherwise makes its way into the ocean, in some places forming islands of garbage so large that they can be spotted by satellites, and I begin to grow truly alarmed.  Hohn learns about plastics and how toxic they might be, as well as how thoughtlessly they are hurled into the oceans.  Not written as an environmental manifesto, Moby-Duck—literate, witty, and very human—nevertheless narrates how a father came to see the world through the eyes of parenthood.  And some of what he finds is truly frightening.  My takeaway?  Little things matter.  Immensely.  That, and we need to clean up our act before it’s too late.  No bath will wash away the stains we’re still in the process of creating.

Get Me Jesus on the Line

The letter is the greatest casualty of the internet. I sometimes obsess about how little time people put into their emails, often coming across as gruff or short. I always start mine with a greeting and end them with a closing followed by my name. Of course, I’m from an older generation where communication was initiated with respect. Getting an actual letter is now, however, occasion for great wonder. A friend recently mailed me a couple of fascinating articles from the Prescott Journal, a Wisconsin newspaper. Dated to 1868, the articles actually post-date Nashotah House, but still count as when Wisconsin was rather more pioneer than Pioneer territory. Both articles involve what might be termed “scams” today. Newspapers in the nineteenth century were notorious for sometimes perpetrating hoaxes, and at other times falling victim to them. Still, as the only sources we have for some of these delightful tales, it is difficult to check them out beyond the fact of noting that the amazing stories have been subsequently forgotten.

One of the stories was wired in from San Francisco, the article claims. A certain F. Wilson was applying for copyright on a letter he acquired near Iconium, written by Jesus. As my friend noted in her letter, this is perhaps the earliest case of a rock inscribed “turn me over,” promising some kind of reward. Wilson claimed to have found, under a large (implied) rock, a letter written by Jesus. The rock could not be turned, despite reading “Blessed is he that shall turn me over,” even by a group of men. Then, according to folkloristic protocol, a small child turned it unaided. The letter underneath, although written by Jesus, was signed by the angel Gabriel. The letter contained the ten commandments, a note from Jesus answering a missive from King Abrus, an account of Jesus’ miracles, and a description of his person. The story doesn’t tell if the copyright application was successful.

Newspapers were a form of entertainment a couple of centuries ago. Of course, some four decades earlier than this story Joseph Smith had claimed to have found documents to which he was led by the angel Moroni. He published them and, although lynched some 24 years earlier, had nevertheless done pretty well for himself, as his followers would continue to do. Why not cash in on the new religion craze? After all, this was California, and even in the woods of Wisconsin some religious zealots had started an institution that would grow strong enough to displace dreams and livelihoods. What struck me most reading this story was just how little things have changed. Outlandish religious claims are still credulously accepted by the gullible. And the web encompasses the entire world. This story though, must be true, because it came to me in that most magical of forms—an actual letter.

"Don't forget to look for my letter!"

“Don’t forget to look for my letter!”

Saint Diego

Didacus of Alcalá fortunately, I think we might all agree, was more commonly known as Diego. The city of San Diego is named for him, as his nickname was a diminutive of Santiago, or Saint James, patron saint of Spain. Ironically, the more recent Saint Diego is best known for his visions of St. Mary, or Our Lady of Guadalupe. To keep your saints straight you need a score card sometimes. To go by the names, California must be a most sacred place. 120 miles north is the City of Angels. Then the city on the bay named after Saint Francis. Then Saint Barbara. One of my favorites, however, is San Louis Obispo. Everywhere saints. What of Didacus? Born in Spain, he was a missionary to the Canary Islands. I don’t think he ever visited southern California. The Franciscan mission dedicated to him, however, is what grew into the presently eighth largest city in the United States.

Wandering the streets of the old part of San Diego, you might find evidence that a mission led to this sprawling city. Or perhaps not. Now it is famous for fun in the sun—beaches and clubs and the US Navy. I have to wonder what Didacus would have thought of his namesake. I wouldn’t presume to speak for a saint, but I can’t see him surfing or enjoying perpetual summer. Did he have any idea what he might have been starting by denying himself and helping others? He was known for his curing of the sick, although he himself died of an abscess some five-and-a-half centuries ago this month. Like most ascetics, it seems one thing he highly valued was being left alone to contemplate. Would he have even survived in modern San Diego?

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One of the observations I make quietly, from the sidelines, is how frantic religion scholars seem to be. Frantic to write that book, get that tenure, find that recognition. It is sometimes easy to forget that educating students is a reward in itself. Having attended large conferences like this for nearly a quarter century, I have watched carefully. Saints and sinners both wander these carpeted halls with motivations as widely diverse as those of Didacus and Daedalus. Although there are 10,000 people here, including, briefly, Jimmy Carter, the world will go on tomorrow as if none of this ever happened. The homeless will still sleep in the park across the tracks from this world-class convention center. We’ll send our sick to hospitals instead of to churches. And if it weren’t for this conference in this city, I would never even heard of Didacus of Alcalá.

Flight of Fantasy

Today marks the end of the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting. As the last attendees who have stayed through to the final half-day make their way through the dreaded Tuesday-slots for papers and wander the exhibit halls in search of last-minute bargains, I wonder what impact we will have made in San Diego. Many of my conversations this year included lamenting over the state of higher education, particularly in the study of religion. Religion, which led to the very concept of higher education, is now perceived mostly as little more than a somewhat unsophisticated intrusion into the cold, hard reality of business. And educating future entrepreneurs is, make no mistake about it, business. Wither the institutions go, publishers will follow. The life of the mind is a perk that we no longer can afford. And yet, as colleague after colleague attests, this is what students really find fascinating. Perhaps even important.

As we get ready to head back to the airport, I reflect how it is so much like being a passenger on a plane. We’ve purchased tickets to get us near where we want to be, but we aren’t directing this jet. The pilot, isolated from us by an unsurpassable barrier, will, we trust, get us to the designated airport. That, however, is not really where we want to go. We won’t happily loiter there. Impatiently we’ll await our baggage at the carousel so that we can wend our way back to our homes. Where is the business end in that? Isn’t it, however, what we live for? And what of the San Diego we’ve left behind? How many people will say that their lives will have been improved by having the lion’s share of religion scholars in their neighborhood for a long weekend? Will the number of homeless have decreased? Will they have found jobs?

While those of us “not from around here” ride elevators more nicely appointed that some people’s houses, the televisions meant to prevent us from growing bored from the twentieth floor to the first, show how the other half lives. It’s sunny and nearing eighty today and Buffalo has snow higher than our heads. Reporters flock to the snow-locked city and wonder at nature’s extremes. It doesn’t seem to play along with our business plans. There must be some way to make some money out of this. But I have an unconventional theory. Maybe I’ve watched Bruce Almighty too many times, but I wonder if all those prayers made by children for a snow day may have been stored up in, what scripture assures us, is a great divine warehouse awaiting release. Perhaps the doors of that storehouse have been thrown open to remind us that sometimes the business of living is simply the wonder of watching it snow. No matter how inconvenient it might be. And lives will have changed for the better.

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