Tuesday, August 31, 2010

spirit jambalaya

this is a great idea. it only makes sense in a world growing ever closer physically and psychologically yet sometimes splitting at the seams that we train our future religious leaders to see each other's truths in perspective rather than pretending each is privy to a sole truth. after all, we train keynesians and friedmanites and marxists, freudians and jungians and adlerians, new critics and pragmatists and post-structuralists under the same roofs. well, all right, we don't. but we really should.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

love is a rite

I married another couple last night. I'm a sentimentalist when it comes to these things. I'm very proud of the work I do on ceremonies and rituals --weddings, funerals, memorials, child welcomes, coming-of-age rites, community welcomes--and I think a part of the reason I do them well is because I don't feel drawn to the ceremony itself but to the emotion and release people associate with these rites. while I don't cry at weddings, for instance, I love to watch other people, especially the bride or groom, do so, and cater my message and performance to elicit that as honestly as possible. below is the homily I wrote for this most recent ritual and I won't pretend to false modesty--I share it because I think it's a good one.

"The Good Grey Poet, Walt Whitman, has come down to us as a poet of many topics, of self-identity and community, companionship and optimism, equality and even bereavement. But Jon and Sara have, by their inclusion of him, given me a new understanding of Walt’s topicality: as a poet of adventure. Of tenderness. Of marriage.

"We don’t choose our children or our parents. But we do choose our companions. We choose our partner. We choose one another. Jon and Sara, today you look one another in the eye and say, “I love you and I want to be with you, and I want to share my life with you. The good, the bad, the swiftly-moving giddy days when I’m happy just to be with you and the long, never-ending nights when it seems I will never like you again. I want to share my greatest, my least, with you, because only with you do I feel complete.”

"We have to take a lot of “what ifs” in hand when making our choice. “What if I’m not as likeable as I think I am?” “What if she’s not as willing to make concessions as I am?” “What if he just thinks he loves me?” Here is another “what if” most of us never even consider: What if the other person is unwilling to move as often as I’ll need to? What if she or he simply isn’t willing to pack up and go as the opportunity arises? Earlier, Sara’s sister Megan read an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s long poem “Song of the Open Road.” Elsewhere, what he writes sounds almost like a prophecy:

"Listen! I will be honest with you;
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes;
These are the days that must happen to you:

"You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d—you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction, before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you;
What beckonings of love you receive, you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

"The solution is compatibility. Jon and Sara, a fear you shared, maybe even a fear you were certain of, was that you would be unhappy all your lives because the person you settled down with wouldn’t have your passion for different cultures and lands, your love for education and your need for it. You were each afraid that what you wanted in your life was yours alone, that there was no one you could love who could share that. You feared, in Walt’s words,

"'The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.'

"What you feared was the unspoken assumption that they were yours alone. Your focus would remain on the “me,” “I,” “my” alone, so you would end up

"'Scatter[ing] myself among men and women as I go;'

"Fear is a funny thing. It keeps us from doing things—like dating the friend we feel attracted to because to do so would seem unprofessional—and it forces us to do things—like opening ourselves to that friend because the thought of being alone is unbearable. Remember this in the days ahead as you live in the space of a walk-in closet getting in one another’s way. Remember this is the person you love, the person who shares the way the world excites you and wants to be with you as you explore it. “We will sail pathless and wild seas” you promise one another today, and sometimes those seas will be the distance between the two of you. Be as unafraid of crossing those intimate borders as you are of crossing national ones.

"It is traditional that the officient of a marriage service charges the newly married couple with some office, some task they are to keep in the back of their minds to help their marriage succeed. But I can’t improve on Walt’s charge:

"'Here is the test of wisdom;
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools;
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it, to another not having it;
Wisdom is of the Soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities, and is content…'

"Sara and Jon, your wisdom has come from schools but is not bound by their limits; has been shared with one another but is made greater than the sum of the two of you. The only proof your wisdom requires is that you remember to love, honor, share and be patient with each other. If there is only one certainty, it is that we’re alone in our lives until we accept another person as our companion. Your road will not be smooth or always clear but it will always be the one you travel together."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

skullion uber alles

for decades I've made a point of finding at least 1 insight in every book I've read, no matter how trashy or silly, even going to the extreme when I was younger of typing lines onto index cards and taping them to a door I passed in and out every day. but there is precious little I've found worth remembering in tom sharpe's porterhouse blue. it's not that it's a bad book; it's just not a very good one.

the hero--and by "hero" I mean the person whose conduct is least nasty among a slew of nastier people, an equation I realized 21 years ago when I read harry crews' all we need of hell, and have had reiterated recently by the graphic novel cry for justice--turns out to be skullion. skullion is bigoted, petty, mean-minded, narrow and at least accidentally responsible for a death. but it's skullion's view which prevails.

"skullion lay in bed and stared at the pale blue ceiling of his hotel room. he felt uncomfortable. for one thin the bed was strange and the mattress too responsive to his movements. it wasn't hard enough for him. there was something indefinite about the whole room which left him feeling uneasy and out of place. it wasn't anything he could put his finger to but it reminded him of a whose he'd once had in pompey. too eager to please so that what had started out as a transaction, impersonal and hard, had turned into an encounter with his own feelings. it was the same with this room. the carpet was too thick. the bed too soft. there was too much hot water in the basin. there was nothing to grumble about and in the absence of anything particular to assert himself against, skullion's resentment was turned in on himself. he was out of place...skullion...couldn't pretend even for a moment he was other than he was, a college servent out of work. the knowledge that he was a rich man only aggravated his sense of loss. it seemed to justify his dismissal by robbing him of his right to feel hard done by...he'd go back to cambridge...he collected his things together and went down to the desk and paid his bill. two hours later skullion was sitting in the train smoking his pipe and looking out at the flat fields of essex. the monotony of the landscape pleased him...he could buy a bit of land...if he wanted to, and grow vegetables like his stepfather had done. skullion considered the idea only to reject it. he didn't want a new life. he wanted his old one back."

he doesn't get it. what he gets instead, through unforeseen circumstances and misinterpretations, is a jump in class to mirror his jump in finances (in a little under a page it's reported that skullion has become a very wealthy man through some shares left him by the previous head of the college). he becomes the master of the college and suffers what we were told early in the novel is called a "porterhouse blue"--a stroke--before he can either decline the honor or tell the truth about the previous master's (a character I admit liking mostly because he seemed the sort of person played on brit tv by paul eddington) death. we see the college at the end, exactly like it was only more so:

"around [skullion] the life of the college went on unaltered. lord wurford's legacy helped to restore the tower and skullion had signed the papers with his thumbprint unprotestingly. as a sop to scholarship there were a few research fellows, mainly in law and the less controversial sciences, but apart from these concessions, little changed. the undergraduates kept later hours, grew longer hair and sported their affectations of opinion as trivially as ever they had once seduced the shopgirls. but in essentials they were just the same. in any case, skullion discounted thought. he'd known too many scholars in his time to think that they would ever alter things. it was the continuity of custom and character that counted. what men were, not what they said, and looking round him he was reassured. the faces that he saw and the voices he heard, though now obscured by hair and the borrowed accents of the poor, had still the recognizable attributes of class, and if the old unfeeling arrogance had been replaced by a kindliness and gentle quality that he despised, it was still them and us even in the privilege of sympathy. and when an undergraduate would offer to wheel the master [who is confined to a chair] for a walk, he would be deterred by the glint in skullion's eyes which betrayed a contempt that made a mockery of his dependence."

the novel's last line reiterates of skullion that he "had always known his place."

it's clear that the novel's sympathies are with the old order, the order whose tradition reaches back just to about a year before they came on board and who are unwilling to see any upset in it. the college fellows of this novel are the academic versions of conservative pundits who, despite being on the wrong side of history, nevertheless intend to do william buckley one better by having someone else standing athwart the traintracks of history and yelling "stop!" it's not only that people like this are in the wrong but that they're willing to (let someone else) die for their beliefs while stopping the trains for the day so no one can get anywhere. it is selfish self-delusion and it stinks.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

the becks will be with us always

this is, I suppose, why I keep reading a book like porterhouse blue even after I've seemingly given up on it. here's a passage from nearly 40 years ago that serves to remind us that someone like glenn beck has always been with us:

"cornelius carrington spent the morning in his room organizing his thoughts. it was one of his characteristics as a spokesman for his times that he seldom knew what to think about any particular issue. on the other hand he had an unerring instinct about what not to think. it was for instance unthinkable to approve of capital punishment, of government policy, or of apartheid. there were always beyond the pale and on a par with stalin, hitler and the moors murderers. it was in the middle ground that he found most difficulty. comprehensive schools were terrible but then so was the eleven-plus. grammar schools were splendid but he despised their products. the unemployed were shiftless unless they were redundant. miners were splendid fellows until they went on strike, and the north of england was the heart of britain to be avoided at all costs. finally ireland and ulster. cornelius carrington's mind boggled when he tried to find an opinion on the topic. and since his existence depended upon his capacity to appear to hold inflexible opinions on nearly every topic under the sun without at the same time offending more than half his audience at once, he spent his life in a state of irresolute commitment."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

class and peter o'toole

here's a bit more from the aforementioned porterhouse blue in which the head porter, skullion, finds some little bit of class consciousness.

"as the full extent of his deprivation dawned on him, the anger which had been gathering in him since sir godber became master broke through the barrier of his deference and swept like a flash flood down the arid watercourse of his feelings. for years, for forty years, he had suffered the arrogance and the impertinent assumptions of privileged young men and had accorded them in turn a quite unwarrented respect and now at last, released from all his obligations, the anger he had suppressed at so many humiliations added to the momentum of his present fury. it was almost as though skullion welcomed the ruin of his pretensions, had secretly hoarded the memories of his afflictions against such an eventuality so that his freedom, when and if it came, should be complete and final. not that it was or could be. the habits of a lifetime remained unaltered...his anger was all internal. outwardly skullion seemed subdued and old, shuffling about his office in his bowler hat and muttering to himself, but inwardly all was altered. the deep divisions in his mind, like the two seperate lobes of his brain, his alliegence to the college and his self-interest, were sundered and skullion's anger at his lot in life could run unchecked."

this is a not-unwelcome change in the social conscience of skullion who, after the death of zipser, has seemed to become our hero or at least our major character. but it seems sharpe wasn't really clear what he wanted his novel to be. it seems a lucky jim-style light satire for most of the time, but then slides into darker territories with scenes like the deaths of zipser and mrs. biggs or the fury skullion displays on being sacked or the decimation of the tv personality carrington by the dean. I can't call it dull but I can't call it very good either.

otherwise, I realized yesterday that in my list of campus novels I read long before I joined academia that had an impact on me I left out one of the most delightful: jeremy leven's creator. I'd watched the horrible movie with peter o'toole and vincent spano at least a half dozen times by the time I located a copy of the novel, and was gratified at how very, very different it was. I can't lay my hands on my copy so I don't have any quote here, but I can link to one of the reasons I watched the film so often: the deep laconic effortless resonance of peter o'toole's acting even when he's phoning in his role. this was, at one time, the professor I wanted to be.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I've been reading sharpe's porterhouse blue since thursday and I'm nearly done--about 80 pages left. it's not the worst example of a campus novel I've read--that would have to be prose's the blue angel--but it doesn't really have a lot to recommend it. it's a snapshot on a moment in british academic history when the old public (by which are meant private) schools shifted from the way they'd done things for centuries to reflect the changing tastes and mores of the younger generation of the late 20th century, if for no better reason than that that was where their future monies lay. it's a bit like watching an old bbc sitcom from that time, the good neighbors or fall and rise of reginald perrin or only fools and horses in which the older generation comes rubbing up against the new and neither comes off looking well.

but it's not a bad book and here is a section from almost midpoint that makes my point. zipser, as the only graduate student at the college, has discovered that he's developed a mad passion for the widowed mrs. biggs, his "bedder"--a term I've never come across before but who seems to be someone who cleans up his bedroom in the mornings. he's taken his problem to the chaplain who suggests that the solution to this unfortunate situation--seeing that mrs. biggs is older, fatter, more caustic and of a lower station than he is--is for zipser to find and have sex with a swedish girl. this being the early 70s, the chaplain of course is under the impression swedish girls are sitting around with their panties off and their legs up waiting for virginal graduates.

zipser goes off in search of a condom first because you can't reliably expect a girl to have sex with you without having the right accessory. his search through the town for a condom is kind of funny, and through a series of misunderstandings he ends up with two gross of condoms. on his return from town he has a run-in with the dean of the college, and afraid he'll be sent down for the combination of the run-in, having the condoms, and the certainty that he's committed some felony by appropriating them, zipser decides to destroy them. he first tries flushing them down the toilet, but prophylactics have a preternatural passivity against being disposed of this way.

"twenty minutes later he was still searching for some method of disposing of his incriminating evidence. he had visited six lavatories on neighbouring staircases and had found a method of getting the things to disappear by first filling them with water from a tap and tyng the ends. it was slow and cumbersome and above all noisy and when he had tried six at a time on j staircase he had to spent some time unblocking the u pipe...it was one o'clock and so far he had managed to rid himself of thirty-eight. at this rate he would still be flushing lavatories all over the college when mrs. biggs arrived in the morning...put [the remaining foil and plastic packets] behind the gas fire and burn them he thought and he was just wrestling with the gas fire and trying to make space behind it when the howling draught in the chimney gave him a better idea. he went to the window and looked out into the night. in the darkness outside snowflakes whirled and scattered while the wind battered at the window pane...a moment later he was kneeling beside the gas fire and undoing the hose of his gas ring and five minutes afterwards the first of 250 inflated contraceptives bounced bouyantly against the sooty sides of the medieval chimney and disappeared into the night sky above. zipser rushed to the window and gazed up for a glimpse of the winsome thing as it whirled away carrying its message of abstinence far away into the world, but the sky was too dark and there was nothing to see."

this goes on for another 3 pages of closely-written exposition involving much moving of a desk and minute description of the look ceilings get when sooty balloons waltz across them. the paragraph I've quoted from above begins near the top of page 94 and peters out near the top of 97. zipser reckons without the effects of ice on the condoms, so that they don't float much beyond his chimney before dropping to the ground where the dean and others find them. more importantly, he doesn't reckon with the effects of gas. many of the prophylactics become enbedded in the chimney and sharpe doesn't say it but a charitable reading of his adventure might be that zipser's decision to go to bed with the condoms still stuck in the chimney is a result of his having sat over a hissing gas ring for hours.

meanwhile, the dean and another enemy have discovered the bobbing condoms in the courtyard and are trying to collect them all without much luck until they begin poking at them with pins. mrs. biggs, far from being insensate to zipser's interest, has decided to act on it and comes to visit him in his room at 3:30, where she undresses and lights the fire before slipping into zipser's bed with him.

"'wants to spare me,' mrs. biggs thought tenderly and climbed into bed...grasping [zipser] in her arms she pressed him to her vast breasts. in the darkness zipser squeaked frantically and mrs. biggs's mouth found his. to zipser it seemed that he was in the grip of a great white whale. he fought desperately for air, suraced for a moment and was engulfed again."

we are led to assume that mrs. biggs is in the act of taking zipser's virginity when we're treated to this abrupt scene:

"[skullion the porter] had just run a small but agile [balloon] to earth in the rose garden when a dull rumbling noise at the top of the tower made he turn and look up. something was going on in the old chimney. the chimney pot at the top was shaking. the brickwork silhouetted against the morning sky appeared to be bulging. the rumbling stopped, to be succeeded by an almight roar as a ball of flame issued from the chimney and billowed out before ascending above the college. below it the chimney toppled sideways, crashed onto the roof of the tower and with a gradually increasing rumble of masonry the fourteenth-century building lost its entire facade. behind it the rooms were clearly visible, their floors tilted horribly and sagging...a bed on the first floor slid sideways and dropped onto the masonry below. desks and chairs followed suit. there were shours and screams. people poured out of doorways and windows opened all round the court."

in the next chapter we are told that zipser, whose book we have taken this to be or at least the book is partly about him since we have been following him about every other page and are privy to his confusions and concerns as if they were our own, and mrs. biggs have been killed in the explosion and that somehow the investigators have discerned they were caught in flagrante because we are treated to the discussions of the faculty about how more satisfying it might have been had zipser been committing suicide and been on drugs, but at least they can take comfort in the fact he had been a subversive since "anyone who could go to bed with mrs. biggs must have been either demented or mativated by a grossly distorted sense of social duty and to have launched two hundred and fifty lethal contraceptives on an unsuspecting world argues a fanatacism..."

to this point the novel has been a kind of early peter devries kind of thing, the humor being belabored and almost underlined by sharpe (the pages devoted to zipser's maneuvering of his desk back and forth in a vain attempt to get at the condoms that leave those sooty marks on his ceiling is indicative of this) as if we might not have got it. but this sudden explosion changes more than the fates of zipser and mrs. biggs, who we are to suppose were the only victims of the situation since no one else's injuries or deaths are remarked on, and after this both zipser's name and mrs. biggs are never spoken of again. it takes a dark turn here as if sharpe had decided he needed a sacrifice of some sort to make a point that may well have been understood by his peers, but the rest of the novel reverts to the slapstick of people whacking their heads against pipes and falling off of stools and the play on words and counterexpectations I ascribe to brit comedy. but it also serves to reinforce the presumption of classicism, that little tossaway line about mrs. biggs apparently being out of bounds to members of the campus, as if there hadn't been several centuries of people playing master-and-servent previously.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

is obama muslim?

the answer should be "it doesn't matter." this is similar to an example I give my research students of what I call the WGAS ("who-gives-a-shit") issue about the questions media outlets often use to fill up space, as if people's opinions about them mattered. cnn asked back in 2003 "is osama bin laden hiding in afghanistan?" is this how the cia does intel? if enough people say "yes" and he isn't, does that mean he has to go there?

it's usually a funny thing but it can get ugly. one question one of the twin cities' fox tv affiliates asked before dru sjodin's body was found was "do you think dru sjodin is alive or dead?" that's just plain thoughtless. what's sadder than the large number of self-professed republicans who claim obama is muslim is that someone at the pew forum thought the question needed to be asked.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"dear rest-of-america..."

I'm a fan of the village voice from the early 70s when it cost 60c and that seemed pretty dear. I've got several books written about its history from both outsiders and insiders (the long-hoped for upclose history by norman mailer never appeared, and we have to be content with the interviews he gives in other books) and I'm especially fond of the political and arts coverage in the 80s, what alex cockburn and james ridgeway used to write about in the "annals of the age of reagan."

when I was living in new paltz in 86-7 I had a subscription--by then the cover price had gone to $1.50 but for subs it came out to a little less than a buck an issue--and it came every saturday in the mail (the week after the week it covered--it was the 80s, nothing was perfect). I'd settle in for the afternoon with a beer or 2, flipping through each huge 150+ page issue to get a feel for what was covered, and then parcel out my stories for the next week, reading every single page if not every word. the smell of stale ink and paper was intoxicating and tho I knew better I imagined the paper wafted to me from one of manhattan's still-operating manned kiosks after all the early editions had gone out, and I could smell the fingers of every person I imagined riffled its pages, bagel in 1 hand, greek-style coffee cup in the other. when I was sports editor of my college newspaper and called before one of the deans and asked "whereever did you get your ideas about how to cover sports?" I said, "the village voice."

the voice remains one of my daily reads now that it's nearly a daily with its blogs and immediate content. I especially love the "runnin' scared" daily blog (particularly roy edroso's "exploring the right wing blogosphere" appearing at midnight sunday and alan scherstuhl's "studies in crap" on thursday mornings) and I'm a supporter of the return of "press clips." there's a certain voice to the voice and that is nowhere more evident than in its coverage of the so-called "ground zero mosque" controversy. here, typos aside, is an excellent riposte to the creative fears of newt gingrich and pam geller and others. the final sentences--"Now: Fuck you. Fuck you and shut up, you assholes. Shut up and leave New York alone"--could be the coda to every story the voice has ever printed.

Monday, August 16, 2010

campus novels

every summer about this time I read a book, usually a novel, that takes place on a campus. this year's will be porterhouse blue by tom sharpe, a british novel I'd never heard of but I found a free copy this spring and that's as good a reason as any to read it. as a sort of memory game I'm listing the campus novels I've read the past decade's worth of summers:

  1. 2009: the groves of academe by mary mccarthy

  2. 2008: the rebel angels by robertson davies

  3. 2007: traveling through the boondocks by terry caesar

  4. 2006: a portrait of the artist as a young man by james joyce and lucky jim by kingsley amis (something of a cheat since I was rereading both in preparation of teaching them in the fall)

  5. 2005: the historian by elizabeth kostova

  6. 2004: the matter of desire by edmundo paz soldan (also something of a cheat since I was teaching it at the same time)

  7. 2003: straight man by richard russo

  8. 2002: small world by david lodge

  9. 2001: the glittering prizes by frederic raphael

  10. 2000: in plato's cave by alvin kernan

  11. 1999: publish and perish by james hynes

I may have juxtaposed some of the years but I don't think that matters much. this list doesn't include campus books I've read at other times of the year, like donna tartt's secret history and michael chabon's wonder boys and stanley aronowitz' knowledge factory and any of a half dozen other books about teaching and administration, or campus novels I read long before I became a part of academe, like john osborn's paper chase and robert rimmer's harrad experiment and vladamir nabokov's pnin and philip roth's professor of desire and ghost writer and john gardner's mickelsson's ghosts and francine prose's blue angel and r.f. delderfeld's to serve them all my days and evelyn waugh's brideshead revisited.

here, I think, is the difficulty. I am pretty well-read on this topic and I admire almost all of the books I've listed and some I haven't. but there isn't a single one which I can point to and say it is similar in substance to my experiences as a student or as a teacher. (the closest might be the gardner novel with its failed and mediocre academics. I imagined it happening in my undergrad school throughout, which makes sense given that gardner's binghamton university is a mere 95 miles from my alma mater and a part of the same system.) it's not that all of them have plots or topics that are too sensational to have been something I've experienced; not a single one has more than a page or 2 of descriptions of classes or conferences or meetings where I recognize myself as having been in something like it. is there such a huge difference between the types of colleges these books are about and the types I have been to that they have no overlap?

another note: all of these books involve colleges or universities. I don't know of a single novel that takes place in a community or technical college.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

diversity is acceptance

I'm not the only one to give sermons. my wife gave one this morning in her church in menomonie. I don't think I'm being biased when I say it was quite good because a number of people spoke with her afterward to compliment her.

because she is a xian, it was on a xian topic: "breaking the 5th commandment." what I'm most interested in talking about is the example she gave for finding common ground within divirsity: the question others have raised about the prudence of building an islamic center 2 blocks from the site of the world trade center.

putting aside for the moment the question whether non-muslims ought to be voicing an opinion about where an islamic holy building ought to go--no one polls non-xians about whether a church should be built somewhere--the solution is clearly this: the people who own the site are within their rights to build anything they want to on it. that's codified in our laws and traditions, and so long as we profess to be a republic that enshrines private property, this is how the law will be decided and how it should be decided. as new york representative jerry nadler puts it,"we do not put the Bill of Rights, we do not put...religious freedom to a vote."

on our drive home I saw a muffler shop sign the response to which encapsulates this. it read, "we vote 'no' on mosque at ground zero." it's lovely that whoever is responsible for that sign put his opinion for everyone to see, but the fact is that we don't get a vote. how someone chooses to put his property to use is not up for public debate (outside some caveats like ecological impact or the legality of the business or road congestion or sometimes the effects it might have on other businesses). none of these are at issue for the islamic cultural center and mosque. propriety is obviously an issue for some people--although I note not the people most immediately affected by the building--and they have voiced their objections and that's as it should be. but they don't have the final decision and to insist they somehow do is embarrassing.

this is how we live, surrounded by events and things and people we like and those we don't. it's a measure of our maturity and faith that we accept the latter with greater equanimity than we give the former. diversity is not about tolerance but about acceptance of those things we don't have the right to a voice in. simply put, non-muslims do not have a voice in the outcome of this debate.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"not waving but drowning"

I have an issue with suicide and I also have issues with people who attempt suicide. I take it so seriously that I lost a friend years ago because I called 911 after she threatened to hurt herself, and she did not take kindly to cops showing up at her door to make certain she wasn't going to do it. I don't understand people for whom it's a joke, but more than that I don't understand people for whom it's an option, and I understand even less the people who try to make it happen.

that said, I'm also aware there are elements in other peoples' lives I don't understand, and if I lived with those situations I might also consider it. I do understand the catholic reaction against it, that killing yourself is a denial of god's goodness and maybe of god's existence. for myself, bad as things have been, I've always held onto the idea that so long as I'm alive, things can improve. I recognize not everyone believes that or that there could be an improvement to their lives. as with almost everything else, it is complicated.

all this is a roundabout way of broaching that I have spent time with friends whose eldest son attempted suicide 2 nights ago. this was not the first time and he has placed himself or been placed in psychiatric wards 4 times since may. his mother and brother found him unconscious in his apartment, lying on the remains of the coffeetable that broke his fall. he had taken an overdose of lorazepam and passed out. his mother told me after he regained consciousness enough to answer questions about what he'd taken and when that he intended to die.

I'm close with his family and was with them through the accidental death of a daughter 4 years ago, and since he's joined them here on the rim from california, I've nudged closer to him. he isn't aware I feel strongly about suicide and I don't intend to let him know that. (his family, having been present at sermons when I've talked about suicide, probably is.) how do I counsel someone who's attempted something that is the ultimate "fuck you" to everything I believe, that it is better to be alive than to be dead, and that so long as we breath there's hope? I suppose the same way I do on so many things: by keeping my mouth shut and listening, reminding him from time to time that he is not alone and not unloved.

his mother told me she had come to an epiphany in the last month, that she and her family chose to live the way they do because there are precious few others willing to live that way: taking in troubled kids, kids with addictions and mental illnesses, and providing them with the love of extended family. this is an important recognition. there are times when clergy like me have to admit, if only to ourselves, that we just can't understand the depth of how defeated some people feel and the best we can do is quietly be there.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

what if?

this is an idea I've long considered and I intend to think in greater earnest about it after having read this essay. what would be the consequence theologically of our finding life elsewhere? not necessarily nasty or enlightened life and not even intelligent--by which we almost always mean "more intelligent than we are"--life, but life of a sort we would recognize?

this would have a tremendous impact as most faiths assume this planet is alone in the universe as a site for god's or nature's or ultimate reality's experimentation. it's a science fiction topic ripe with possibilities and I almost never see it handled in novels or movies. almost invariably extraterrestrial life is handled almost like we handle new neighbors we hadn't realized were building over the hill: surprise and then reaction to their behavior that has an impact on us.

what if the raelians and scientologists and ufo cults are right, not in their particulars, but in their generality that we share the universe with other independently developed beings? would faiths adapt, accepting these unknowns as co-existers? would the unknown itself become the new god or some aspect of a new god? or would most religions retreat into isolationism, claiming that there really isn't any other life or that it isn't important or it's a development of the adversary (as some have done with fossils)?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

at the mall

after seeing my dad off at the airport--the flight out to the rim was the 1st he'd been on a plane in nearly 20 years--I swung around to the mall of america for my semi-annual pilgrimage. I'm not much of a shopper but I like the mall, the opportunity to walk unimpeded for as long as I like, to people-watch, and to see what the zeitgeist is up to. today there were a few surprises:

  • it took me 45 minutes to walk the 4 floors at a brisk pace. I seem to remember it used to take me an hour, so I may have sped up or the mall may have hunched in;

  • who knew franklin covey still has a store? I was sure they'd gone belly up;

  • the stores are less interesting than I remember, all clothes and smoke machines now.

  • there are fewer interactive games: the rides of nickelodeon universe and the store games by james, devoted to monopoly and darts, are still there, but gone are minigolf, the virtual golf course, and lasertag;

  • gone also is the store pain is good, the only store I've ever known that catered to the hot pepper fan;

  • the number of good-looking, well-dressed sales associates is infinitely greater than the number of good-looking, well-dressed customers (at least late morning on a tuesday);

  • there are also fewer (obvious) hookers working the floors that time of day;

  • similarly, there were also no roving packs of suburban tweens on this schooless day;

  • all the comfortable chairs that have been removed from the b&ns and borders in the area have been taken to the mall to be used in various lobbies. I counted at least 3 such lobbies, all of them settled into by elderly men, on each floor;

  • there is no other way to put it but that the mall is an assault on all the senses--visual, aural, tactile, taste and esthetic--but I like the way it smells. it is a jumble of spices, cleansing chemicals, baking odors, perfumes, body odor and sweaty hair and the obnoxious tang of recycled air, with occasional and delightful whiffs of cinnamon, coriander, lilac, fir, balsam and soap and wax. I could remain a full day with my eyes open in the butterfly garden, but I could remain with my eyes closed in the mall.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

an unintended vacation

my now-widowed dad is visiting, and while I hadn't intended to take a week's vacation from writing, it's turned out that way. we've been very busy, spending most days away from home, and as a sample of how we've spent our time I'm posting a video of our visit to como zoo's butterfly exhibit made by my wife.

Monday, August 2, 2010

the political disciple

my dad is coming to visit so the house is in an uproar as we try to make up for 10 years' worth of ignoring the interior so it looks at least a little presentable. which is a long way of saying that my wife had declared the shower off-limits yesterday. I wanted to attend a church service but didn't relish the thought of doing so scruffy and with much sweat from the day before, so I decided this was a good opportunity to try an online service.

I spent about 10 minutes choosing one--there are of course many, many to choose from--but this one sounded interesting. while I was interested in the topic, I was also interested in the existence of alpha as a completely web-based church. this is a field that interests me as I work out the concept of an online alternative to brick-and-mortar sermons and services especially geared to teens and tweens and young adults.

the service was quick, the sermon following immediately after a short prayer and scripture reading. there was no "good morning" or "welcome," simply a direction: "let us begin with a prayer." the sermon was good, a focus on one of the less-talked about and sometimes offensive disciple simon the zealot whose jewish zealotry is sometimes used to illustrate the supersessionism of xianity over judaism. this was not one of those sermons. the preacher, rev. pat walker, called him "the political disciple" and he certainly was, and while I'm not certain I buy her argument that simon was more interested in jesus as a spiritual than a political leader, she offers enough good evidence for that interpretation and it's as good an argument as any. it was a bit hard to follow the sermon as illustrations were constantly changing so it seemed more like a powerpoint presentation than a lecture. that might not be a bad thing, however; perhaps my discomfort is a result of my being unaccustomed to listening to a sermon this way. I will need a few more examples to find out.

but I am unhappy that the sermon is unable to be accessed either as a document or as a searchable audio for later reflection--you play it from beginning to end and if you want to hear something again, you replay the whole sermon. it's not long at all; I timed the whole service at about 20 minutes including the readings. there were no songs (although there was incidental music during the sermon) or opportunities for joys and concerns or community sharing. there was a children's sermon available, which I ignored, and a 10 minute communion, which I opted to take part in. from beginning to end it lasted about 30 minutes, which seemed strange as I'm accustomed to hour-long and longer services and don't shrink from multi-hour fundamentalist meetings. it was a rich service but seemed too quick, and that may again be my reaction against what I'm not used to.

but here is what I liked best about the service: rev. walker's voice. it was straightforward and charming and heartfelt. she probably does the services in a single take as evidenced by her voice occasionally strainging. she stumbles over words and names and sometimes when her audience read along with her she missaid the written words, adding or subtracting from the text. that seemed right to me, a reflection of what a real, felt, honest service sounds like (and a reflection too of my own experience preaching, when I'll often add or subtract words and sentences from my written sermon as seems appropriate, sometimes leading me to stumble). I appreciate that frailty and humbleness in a preacher, one who is less concerned in getting things correct than in getting things right. I am certain to visit this church again.