Holly Days

Thirty years ago today, my wife and I were penniless grad students.  Trying to be logical about when to marry—I’d been accepted at Edinburgh University shortly after we’d decided on a May wedding and the latest I could matriculate was April—we decided the holidays would be the best time.  Not Christmas, of course.  Or New Year’s Day.  As students we held to the illusion that others observed the natural caesura between the two.  We considered it from the feast of Stephen to New Year’s Eve, days when everyone is recovering from the intensity of Christmas or staying up late to welcome in 1989.  We settled on December 30.  The church was already decorated for Christmas, saving that expense.  Having moved up the date by some five months we did ask them to remove the banner that read “For unto us a child is born.”  Our reasons were purely academic.

I generally avoid writing too much about my personal life on this blog, but a thirty-year wedding anniversary is somewhat extraordinary.  Being a working-class kid I told my wife when I proposed that I couldn’t promise much but I could assure her our life together would be interesting.  That slippery qualifier has proven correct time and again.  Our first three years as a couple were spent in Edinburgh, and quite unexpectedly, the next fourteen at Nashotah House.  The first two of those years involved being apart from Sunday through Wednesday as I commuted from Champaign-Urbana to Delafield to teach my courses.  And, of course, to attend chapel.  Our daughter was born while we lived at the seminary and a Fundamentalist takeover led to the loss of my first (and to date only) full-time academic job.

The academic job market had been tough when I started and it had tanked in the meantime.  We had to uproot and move to New Jersey to find any work at all.  Publishing proved remarkably unstable and yet we stuck together.  This year we bought a house and moved to Pennsylvania.  It took three decades, but we’ve finally achieved what some would term normalcy.  The fact is, though, that long-term marriages are to be celebrated.  Many of the vicissitudes we’ve faced could easily have capsized our little boat.  Looking back over the years I can see that we never did prosper in any kind of financial or career situation.  Life has indeed been interesting.  I don’t blog much about my personal life, but today I can’t help but think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have found a soul-mate willing to stick with a guy who still thinks like a penniless grad student.  Thirty years of schooling and it’s not nearly enough.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.


I have moved from the territory of Sharon to that of Laura. New York City is a conglomeration of smaller neighborhoods, and even Midtown Manhattan hosts hundreds of smaller sub-divisions. Although I’ve never intentionally consulted a psychic, I do tend to notice them. Once while on a visit to Galena, Illinois during the summer, we stumbled on a psychic booth where the proprietor was giving free readings. With some trepidation, we let her give our daughter a reading, just for fun. I don’t recall what she said, or even what her name might have been. There’s just enough fear of the unknown left in me to compel me ever want to visit a psychic, even if it is for entertainment purposes only. Clearly, however, there is a market. Where the market makes a hole someone will fill it. So I pondered Laura the psychic.


The other day I passed her sign. Like most psychic ads I see, Laura’s sign makes use of religious symbols; the cross, bird, crescent and star, all thrown together amid an interfaith openness from which most religions might learn a lesson. Are psychics religious? I suppose that’s a personal question. The phenomenon of psi, if it does exist, and if it does involve spooky influence at a distance, tends to be classed with the supernatural. A few brave universities have from time to time explored the phenomenon, whether or not commercial psychics have it, scientifically. They set up controlled experiments and have even obtained statistically significant results. I’m more inclined to doubt statistics than the outcomes. Statistics are the tools of markets, and markets, well, make me shiver.


Then I passed another sign. This one, just a block or two from Laura, seemed to suggest that witchcraft might unleash my potential and power. That sounds like a good thing. But then I noticed the FOX logo at the bottom. Another quality program, it seems, has fallen to the spell of witchcraft. It did confirm, however, that it is all about money. One size does not fit all. Religion adapts to fit a free market economy. Totalitarian states either attempt to disband religion completely and/or build up a national mythology that supplements traditional teachings. It doesn’t take a psychic to see that coming. As long as there’s money to be made, who’s complaining?


The tragedy outside Oklahoma City transcends petty human differences. Tornadoes, no matter how we dress them up, look like the wrath of God incarnate. The fifteen years I spent in the Midwest were filled with literal nightmares of tornadoes and even a few hours spent cowering in the basement. Such phenomena remind us that we are quite small in the face of nature, and the news reports are full of religious sentiment as people want assurance that God hasn’t abandoned them. Nature doesn’t favor humans over anything else that happens to be in the way of whirling 200 mile-per-hour winds. Even one’s belief might get blown away. Yet it doesn’t.

Although a tornado hit New York City last year, my terror of the storm evaporated when we moved back east. In the Midwest, although there were hills, I felt so exposed under the open expanse of the heavens. In the utterly flat part of central Illinois, I recall some truly awe-inspiring storms. The sky was so ubiquitous and overpowering, and you could see clouds towering thousands of feet over your head, throbbing with constant lightning. It was then I began having the idea for my book on weather terminology and the book of Psalms. Humans helpless in the face of nature. This is the raw material of religion. Like children we pray to God to make it go away. Storms do not obey prayers.


By their very nature tornadoes are capricious. We like to believe the good are spared and the evil punished, but as schools are destroyed and children killed we have to face the cruelty of nature. What happened in Oklahoma was a random act of nature, as much as hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, and Sandy were. We can’t help, however, any more than the people of the Bible, supposing that God must somehow be behind the weather. We may influence it, as global warming has repeatedly demonstrated, but seldom for good. And when we look for the divine in the fierce winds, we will end up facing tragedy.

AAR/SBL Chicago

On just about any playground you’ll spot the kid who’s watching from the side, instead of playing with the others. That’s me. I don’t suspect that anyone starts life wanting to be left out, but some of us—attuned to the subtler messages of life—become aware that we’re not really invited or welcome. That sensation bathed me in its eldritch light once again while waiting for my flight to Chicago for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I’ve often wondered what it must be like for those innocent aeronauts not clued in that the Friday before Black Friday (the real holiday, I’m led to believe) that flights to a specified city will be choked with crusty professors of religion. Sitting in Newark Airport and hearing the word “Ugaritic” from the seat behind me, I knew it had begun. I turned around. No flash of recognition. If was as if I hadn’t spent years learning that obscure language and publishing in the main journals. The invisible man.

The airport before the AAR/SBL annual meeting is a theological locker room where the guys gather to compare the size of their, um, theses. It’s pretty hard not to overhear, once you’re tuned in to your specialization, as colleagues lay out their publications, invited papers, international travel plans. I’ll admit to being jealous. They’re living the life for which I trained. I had taught for nearly twenty years and was never really invited to play. Now here I sit, knowing what Ugaritic is among the perplexed business travelers, but I’m not one of the big boys.

I realize that outside the rarified world of higher education Ugaritic matters even less than the homeless unfortunates shivering in the streets of Manhattan or Chicago. Back in the brief days when I tried to be a player, I remember attending an Ugaritic conference here in Illinois. Crowded into an elevator with renowned colleagues, one of them joked, “If this elevator falls, the field of Ugaritic studies may never recover.” An exaggeration, but not by much. Present company excepted. Of that august group, only one was asked to step off into the void. His exit was barely noticed. Ugaritic studies thrives. The poor beg for alms. And one kid, even though he now understands the rules of the game, still watches from outside.

Illini Wisdom

Running through the Midwest like a massive, erosive serpent, the Mississippi River has an unrivalled place in the American imagination. In many locations the relentless river has carved impressive bluffs over the millennia, providing impressive views out over the valley that has been carved in nature’s time. Down near the town of Alton, Illinois, along the eastern bluffs left by the sculpting waters, is a reproduction of the Piasa Bird. Years ago, while living in the Midwest, some relatives took me to see the replica, a local tourist attraction and not a bad place to watch for bald eagles. It was then that I first heard the myth of the Piasa Bird. “Bird” is a bit of understatement, or perhaps a misnomer. The creature was really a monster, by any description. According to the lore presented by the tourist literature, the Piasa was a flying, human-eating beast that terrorized the local Illini tribe. Unsure of what to do, the tribe was at a loss until Ouatoga, their leader, had a dream that revealed an ambush as the means of defeating the monster.

The ambush involved, as is often the case in folkloristic accounts, a victim. Someone had to be bait to draw the Piasa into the ambush of poisoned arrows that had been arranged. Ouatoga, aware of the obligations of leadership, volunteered for the role of the victim and stood in the open to lure the Piasa into the trap. As the monster swooped down on him, the warriors released their arrows, killing the beast and saving their leader. The story bears much in common with myths throughout the world: a frightful beast, a sacrifice, and ultimate deliverance. This framework also appears in many religions, outlining the human condition. It also reflects, in an abstract way, the ideal of pre-modern society; we are all in this together. Banding together against an outside evil, human society might banish the monster and everyone’s chances would be improved. It is the world of mythology.

In our enlightened society the emphasis seems to have changed completely. Our leaders are often our Piasa, snatching from the populace at will and maintaining uneasy control. Ouatoga, in the myth, understood the role of leadership as being willing to sacrifice everything for the good of those who were under his watch. The idea also occurs in the Bible where Ezekiel charges the ungodly kings of Judah with being shepherds who eat the sheep. I still believe in the power of mythology. Stories are preserved because of a truth that resonates with the hearers. Monsters are in no short supply, and a society that is subject to the whims of an oligarchy perhaps has the most to learn from our mythological past. When is the last time a public leader offered to give up anything in order to serve the populace who grants him (sometimes her) his power? Old Man River, he must know somethin’. Looking up at the Piasa, I think I might be able to guess what it is.

Dukes and Serfs

Once upon a time in a land far away, a man and woman worked a fertile garden, blessed by God. That garden was in the incredibly rich, black soil of Savoy, Illinois. The zucchinis harvested were of biblical proportions. Some of them miraculously grew to the size of my calves seemingly overnight. The broccoli and carrots my wife and I grew had so much flavor that we couldn’t believe just how much leeched out while vegetables sat in the back of a truck or on a grocery-store refrigerated shelf. Even with their periodic mistings. It was as if Bunnicula had visited them at night. So long ago, the garden. It seemed obvious in those days why the writers of Genesis compared paradise to a garden. Ours was no Eden – it was hard work – but my wife and I had a lot of fun with it.

James Buchanan Duke, namesake of Duke University, owned a considerable estate outside Hillsborough, New Jersey. Having established both a tobacco monopoly and an electric company, Duke was enormously wealthy. He left his Hillsborough farm (not the tobacco farms which were in his native North Carolina) to his daughter Doris, making her one of the wealthiest women in the world. Her estate now consists of a socially conscious Duke Farms Foundation that has offered gardening plots to the plebeians of the region. So yesterday I found myself once again back in the garden. Sharing a plot with a friend, we arrived for opening day and were greeted by one of the organizers of the garden. Her name, of course, is Eve.

New Jersey planting requires more manure than the black earth of the Midwest. Yesterday I found myself shoveling horse manure, not for the first time in my professional life, while Eve supervised the garden. It seemed strangely biblical. Dodging between my summer classes this year, I will be emulating the first profession of our mythic father Adam. In the afternoon, after cleaning up, we headed to Rutgers Day, the university public-relations festival that shows off the tremendous wealth that cannot afford to hire full-time faculty any more. As I kept a weather eye on the clouds, worried about the seeds I’d just planted, the future continued to look stormy to me, even on the campus that has at times been my only source of barely sustainable income. Perhaps I should have changed my shoes, because it seemed to me that the smell of horse manure still hung heavily in the air.

I wonder if this is how Adam got started

Washington’s Birthday

Today’s post is an excerpt from an unpublished tween book I wrote on the origin of American holidays a few years back. Other excerpts are available on the Full Essays page of this blog.

Our founding father, a little worse for wear

Today is the earliest of only three government holidays devoted to an individual, specifically George Washington. Also called President’s Day, this holiday comes on the third Monday in February. Washington was born February 11, 1731. In an interesting twist of fate, when the Gregorian calendar was finally accepted in the United States in 1752 Washington found his birthday shifted to February 22. Washington died in 1799, but the idea of national holidays for a single person had not yet been invented. It took almost a century for someone to do something about it. When Washington’s Birthday was first observed in 1880 only the government offices in the District of Columbia (named for Washington, of course) got the day off. Naturally, they celebrated it on February 22. Five years later, in 1885, all federal offices took the day off.

Now, the problem with government holidays is that Post Offices, which are run by the government, are also closed. That means no mail. For businesses that used to mean an interruption of work – believe it or not, before the Internet was invented nearly all business relied on snail mail! It is hard for a business to take a day off in the middle of a week, so in 1971 George Washington’s birthday was moved again so that it would always be on a Monday. Washington, being long dead, said nothing.

When I was a kid I always thought Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (February 12, 1809) was a holiday too. It came before Washington’s birthday, but still in February. Since junk mail hadn’t yet been invented, I didn’t notice whether the mail came or not. Lincoln’s birthday was printed on the calendar, but it has never been an official federal holiday. Now, here’s a funny thing: individual states have the right to set state holidays or even rename federal holidays. Lincoln’s Birthday, for example, is a state holiday in Illinois.

In the 1980s Washington’s Birthday underwent another transformation. Noticing that Lincoln’s Birthday was ten days before Washington’s (remember, on the Julian calendar Washington’s birthday was February 11) businesses could call it President’s Day and stores could offer sales. So, wait, what is this holiday called and when is it? Its official, federal name is Washington’s Birthday. Many people, and some states, call it President’s Day. It is always observed on the third Monday in February. And George Washington would have been just as confused as anybody, because he is the only president with three different birthdays!