Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Happiness is a warm pupper

I always appreciate the way that Noel tries to make Mother's Day both special for me, and not actively annoying to me. He gets the kids to pick out cards and little treats. He asks if I'd like him to make anything special for dinner, but if I don't have any ideas, he comes up with his own (delicious) ones. Otherwise he knows that I want what Frankie Heck wants: a Not-Mother's Day. No pressure, no pomp, and for God's sake, no brunch.

That's exactly what I had on Sunday, and darned if it wasn't one of the happiest days I've had (in the midst of a very happy season of a very happy year). I laughed and played games with the kids, I ate delicious food, I took a long walk with my podcasts, and I watched television with my husband. The exact definition of good times.

And the next day the A.V. Club published a list Noel and I put together of the most useful shorthand quotes from Charles Schulz's Peanuts, a comic that definitively shaped both of our childhoods and helped to bring us together. It was so wonderful to collaborate with him and to enjoy the reaction of those who shared it and commented on it.

School is out, and the living is easy. I'm working on a qualitative research task brought to me by some faculty in the physical therapy department, part of a paper about use of an outcomes assessment tool in students' clinical rotations. It needs to be done by the end of the week, so I'm working through it chunk by chunk. Once that's done, I'll start on my writing project for the summer -- a book for Fortress Press's Theology for the People series.

It's only week 2 of the summer, by even the stingiest accounting. There's much warmth and many pleasures to come.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A pop culture education

Most parents will tell you that part of anticipating a child coming into the family is looking forward to sharing one's culture. And pop culture is a lot of that. Noel was shaped by the records in his father's collection; I devoured the classic books on my parents' shelves. We were excited about introducing our children to the things we loved.

That ended up being on a slower timeframe than I think we had imagined. Yes, we shared some classic children's literature when they were young, but it took a while for CG to develop an interest in the television, music, and film that consumes her parents' lives. AA, meanwhile, has always gone his own way and developed his own obsessions; we worried, early on, that he would have nothing to talk about with his peers, but it turns out that Pokemon is a universal language (thankfully).

Another factor, though, is that it turns out the easiest way into popular culture's archival depths (aka the stuff that was meaningful to us when we were younger) is by way of current culture. And those entry points need to have some family appeal. They need to be things that we can watch or listen to with our child. CBS's Supergirl, for example; we made plans early on to include CG in our viewing of it, based on the creative people involved, its empowering messages, and the geek appeal factor. But once we're all hooked, when the show makes references to other parts of the DC universe (or even does a version of a classic story, like its retelling of Alan Moore's "For the Man Who Has Everything"), it's a simple matter to give those ancillary materials to CG and let her expand the connections.

We all treasure the moments when we bond with our children over shared culture. But those moments aren't really the heart and soul of a cultural education. As suggested by those records of Noel's dad and those books of my parents, the most important thing is to leave a lot of culture lying around, and wait for your kids to burrow their way in, by any route they choose. CG uses our Amazon Echo to stream music from our collection while she reads, and sometimes we can suggest other artists she might like. She developed her love of comic strips from the many collections with which we seeded her shelf. But as rich as our libraries might be, they'd be a prison if that's all she ever explored. She made her own way to manga and anime, and together she and Archer have ventured into gaming and design, areas their parents would never have been able to lead them.

And now they teach us, and amaze us. That's the part that we didn't know enough, years ago, to anticipate, and it's the part that now seems most miraculous.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Prep work

While walking to the office today I was congratulating myself on making it to the end of the school year. The summer, much longed for in the darkest days of February, was suddenly and gloriously here. My calendar: empty. My schedule: my own to determine.

I still have quite a bit of grading to do. But I can do it in the order I prefer. I can do it fast or slow. A couple of assignments unrelated to class lurk on my task board; I owe some researchers an interim report, and an editor an essay. Not behind on them yet, though. Just know that I need to find a little time in the next few days to move forward on them. None of it affects my chill.

Then at about 11:30 this morning, something triggered my memory. I don't recall what it was. Maybe a student assignment I was grading, in which the student innocently asked about Catholic soteriology ... but I think it was long after that. Maybe the teaching assistant for next semester who arrived for an appointment I had forgotten I'd made ... but I don't remember panicking at that point either.

At any rate, I suddenly remembered that I'd agreed weeks ago to lead a discussion on Augustine for a group at church. Was that tonight? I wondered, with rapidly growing suspicion that it was. It was.

I suppose I should be grateful it came to mind at all. I have in the past simply blithely failed to show up to something I agreed to do, for lack of checking my calendar or getting a check-in from the organizer. (If you ask me to do something, send me friendly reminders. I need them.) I dug up the email with the assigned reading, made a few notes, and in 30 minutes I was ready.

What surprised me was how much of my sang-froid was troubled by the event. It wasn't that I had an appointment, or that my anticipated free time was interrupted. It was that I had to prep for something.

I have to prep for things almost constantly. Every day at work I am prepping for a class -- usually a class that meets in a day or two, but (more frequently toward the end of the semester) a class that meets in an hour or two. To prep, I read, take notes, formulate questions for the seminar, occasionally design an activity, and preface it all with reminders about upcoming events and course logistics. I also have to prep for committee meetings by reviewing the agenda, minutes, documents.

I thought that my happiness about summer break was mostly about my calendar being empty -- about not having classes and meetings and a rapidly rotating schedule of deadlines. But now I think it's because I have nothing I need to prep for. When a prep necessity popped up today, I was unaccountably deflated. I hadn't realized how much I look forward to not having to look forward.

Monday, April 25, 2016


Last Friday was a very full day. I served as a moderator for a half-dozen senior thesis presentations, then had a short break before delivering a lecture to sixteen applicants to my academic program. I spent maybe 90 minutes in my office all day.

During one of those 90 minutes -- one of the last of them, actually -- a man poked his head in my door. I recognized that face, even though it was older and wiser than when I last saw it. Austin was a student of mine several years ago, and he has gone on to amazing things. I haven't seen him for quite a while.

He said he was in town and just dropped by the campus to see if anybody was around. I explained that my colleagues weren't in the office because they had schedules like mine that day, and that I was only a few minutes away from my next obligation, apologizing that I couldn't do more than hug him and promise to spend more time later.

Austin said that he understood, with his usual grace. He didn't seem disappointed or make me feel bad at all. But he did mention one thing he said he needed to tell me.

Not long ago he spent some time out of the country, in a place with only brief and spotty internet access. He told me he would go to my blog and open a bunch of posts in separate tabs. That way he could read through it while he didn't have internet. The blog, he said, was a lifeline.

"I haven't updated it in so long," I apologized. He said it didn't matter. Reading through the years of previous entries helped him stay connected.

My book Prayer Shawl Ministries and Women's Theological Imagination came out last November. I excused myself from a lot of other writing during the two years of intense research, writing, and editing that it took to produce. I've got another book under contract that I am about to start working on in earnest -- another reason to postpone a potential re-commitment to writing more often here. I still have this blog in a lot of social media profiles, and sometimes wonder if I should take it out since it's largely historical.

Well, historical is just one perspective. I'm glad it's here when I need it. And maybe somebody else sometimes needs it. Thanks for the view from across the ocean, Austin.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

To new heights

2015 was not a great year, in a lot of ways, for a lot of people. Aside from my friends and acquaintances who've suffered setbacks or losses, personal and professional, there's been a lot of garbage fires in the news. Hateful rhetoric and bullying by politicians (and wannabe politicians), war and chaos in the Middle East, epidemics in Africa, breathtaking mendacity and corruption in the halls of power.

But if I allow myself to refocus (and if you'll allow it, with all of the above stipulated and duly mourned), 2015 was a great year for me. I published a book, the culmination of four years of research, fieldwork, and writing. I was lured back into weekly TV reviews to write about Better Call Saul for the A.V. Club.  I lost 30 pounds. I sewed my first dress. I knit a lot of stuff I'm proud of (I'll post more about that over on the other blog). I left administrative work behind and debuted a successful new course, with others in the works. I celebrated my fiftieth birthday feeling stronger, healthier, more creative, and more content than I have in many years. My children continue to astound me, and my husband graciously allows me to bask in his reflected glory.

For causes I care about, too, there was good news. Marriage equality prevailed at the Supreme Court. Thanks to Obamacare, the number of Americans without health care coverage dropped to historic lows. A historic deal to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions was reached. Relations with Cuba were normalized, allowing travel and commerce to resume after decades of fruitless sanctions. Guantanamo Bay continues to shed its detainees, slowing bringing to a close a shameful episode in American history.

I think back a few years, and remember being fearful, frustrated, strangely lost. I cast about for disciplines and programs to try to regain control of what seemed to be slipping away. That time seems like a dream of a distant sickness. The prescription was simple: autonomy, fulfilling work, creative and nourishing leisure, loving and being loved.

Whether you are bidding a fond or a bitter farewell to 2015, I wish you greater things in 2016. May we find peace, empathy, and mutual flourishing there.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Way We Lived Then

I preached on these texts (Track 1) yesterday at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway. What a lovely correspondence they had to my gender and religious belief class this semester, to my work with older women in prayer shawl ministries over the past few years, to my obsession with the category of "widow" in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and to the raging war over the moral statuses of the poor and of women in our culture. I think the sermon turned out rather well.

Sermon for November 8, Proper 27 Year B

A few years ago someone recommended that I read Anthony Trollope, a prolific and very popular British novelist of the nineteenth century. His Victorian-era fiction turned out to be right up my alley, like a mix of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Most of his characters are marginal members of the aristocracy -- clergy with a parish granted by the local lord, baronets who gamble at London clubs and play at Parliament, widows with money besieged by suitors with none. The rules were different at that time and place, and among those people. A young man with a title was not supposed to stoop to earn money with a regular job, but at least if they lost all possibility of living off inherited wealth, they could go into law or finance, shameful as such a fate might be.

Trollope’s women, however, are in an altogether more desperate situation. Every now and then some spirited young lady will take it upon herself to explain to a male character that while he might not like his options, at least he has them. She has none. Her choices are: (1) marry, and acquire some share of her husband’s property and independence, (2) live with family members as a spinster until she dies, (3) become a live-in companion to a widow or a tutor to someone else’s children. Getting a job, much less a profession, simply isn’t a path that’s open to her. So when an offer of marriage evaporates because the man changed his mind, or a parent can’t afford to outfit a daughter for the social scene where potential husbands roam, these women stare into the maw of impending doom. It’s not just that they will fall off the approved track of their culture and into some disreputable state. It’s that their very lives have become insecure. Who will take care of them? How will they live?

Those women came immediately to mind when I read the passage from Ruth. “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you,” Naomi tells Ruth, before outlining exactly what that security means: a wealthy husband, a landowner. And how does one get such security? By “uncovering his feet” when he lies down to sleep. I have to keep this sermon G-rated, so I’ll just say that in this biblical euphemism, feet does not mean feet. You can find other examples of this delicate language in Exodus, regarding the circumcision of Moses’ son, and in Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim covering themselves with their three pairs of wings. I’ve seen some Bible commentaries that try to sanitize this story by claiming that Ruth was trying to wake up Boaz by making his feet cold. But Naomi specifies that Ruth is to wait until Boaz finishes partying at the threshing floor, put him in a state of undress, and lay down next to him. It’s clear that she is bent on creating a situation in which Boaz believes he is obligated to Ruth, and indeed, in the next chapter, Boaz takes it upon himself to make sure that Ruth has a husband -- a “guardian-redeemer” as the text puts it -- whether it be himself or another relative who has a claim on Naomi’s property. That is the only way a woman can find security. Faced with no way to fend for herself, her only option is -- by hook or by crook -- to get a man to accept her upkeep as an obligation.

The readings for today are unified by the theme of widows. Perhaps we gloss over that word without too much thought in our ordinary reading. Widows are women whose husbands have died; it’s a simple designation of marital status. But it’s anything but simple for women in the ancient near east. In both Hebrew and Hellenistic law and custom, a woman has no independent legal status as an individual. She can only be represented in society by a male guardian -- first her father, then her husband, and finally perhaps, her son. A woman without any of those people to protect and speak for her is the most vulnerable member of the community, with the exception of slaves. She literally has no standing -- no way to acquire a secure footing from which to lead a life that deserves respect and contributes to the community.

So when Jesus praises the widow who gives her mite at the synagogue, he was noting not just her financial contribution relative to her economic wealth. He points out that she is relinquishing the only thing that stands between her and nothingness. How is she to get something to live on? There is no one to procure it for her, and she has no respectable avenue of procuring it for herself. She is giving up the possibility, slender and temporary as it might be, of the pretense of membership in the community. And she does it, Jesus says, for the sake of a greater community in which she hopes to find a place.

I would like to think that those who heard Jesus’ words didn’t just watch the widow walk out of the synagogue with the vague thought that God would reward her bye and bye. Perhaps one of them ran after her and said, “My mother,” or “My aunt, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” After all, that’s what the community of apostles did, the author of Luke and Acts tells us, organizing a system of contributions and support for the widows and orphans among them -- a welfare system, a social safety net, if you will. They did not wait for the coming kingdom of God to make things right. They took responsibility for creating that reality in the here and now.

Too often the message “give sacrificially and trust that the Lord will provide” gets preached disproportionately to those for whom any giving is a risk. For these, a finger pointed to the Lord as provider is a finger pointed very deliberately away from those of us right here and quite able to provide for more than ourselves. I hope women have more and better options for finding security these days than tricking men into marrying them. (I’m terribly afraid that many do not.) But what I really see in these passages is a reminder that we are responsible for each other -- that when one of us casts off their last mite and throws herself on providence, they should find that God’s sheltering hands look a lot like my own.

Friday, October 23, 2015

These are the good old days

National attention has been focused for the last few decades on the effort to create meaningful standards for K-12 education. In recent years, Common Core standards have become a flashpoint for conflict. I see Facebook posts from friends both local and far-flung complaining that Common Core is forcing an unnatural and incomprehensible pedagogy on children, especially in math, frustrating kids and parents alike.

Parental complaints like this always reminds me of the Peanuts comics Charles Schulz drew in the 1960s about the so-called "New Math," which focused on set theory, concepts of equivalence, and number lines rather than memorizing arithmetic facts and computation methods. It's clear from the set of strips that Schulz understands the new math, and while he lets Sally channel the displeasure of a generation of angry parents, he doesn't side with her. Instead, he presents her as the voice of willful ignorance and stultifying lack of ambition.

Noel and I were talking yesterday about how we sometimes seem to have stumbled through a portal into an alternate educational dimension, with our kids. Their teachers are, almost to an individual, dedicated, energetic, creative, and loving. Their administrations stress college and career preparedness, and I see that emphasis in the teachers' classrooms. The assignments they give and the pedagogies they employ engage our highly intelligent children; nearly every day we hear from them about what they are learning, and the innovative ways the lessons have been brought home to them. Real-world applications have been presented and stressed; when I ask my kids how a certain abstract concept matters in life or careers, they are always ready with an answer.

Maybe we have just lucked out with the teachers and schools we've had. But I don't think so. Seems to me that, despite all the obstacles in their way (of which the greatest by far is legislative parsimony -- far more than unions or out-of-touch professional training, the favorite villains of conservative media in the state), most educators never stop trying to do their job well. I'm constantly amazed at what my kids are learning to do and how they're being challenged. I went to expensive college prep schools when I was their age, and in so many ways they are getting a better education that I did -- largely because teaching methods are so much more advanced, standards are clearer, assessments measure actual learning better, and enrichment opportunities are more plentiful and more challenging.

I'll always be grateful for the teachers and principals that are giving my kids this terrific foundation for advanced learning and lifelong curiosity. What they're being asked to do now -- and how they're rising to the opportunity -- bodes very well for what they'll be able to do five, ten, and twenty years down the road.

Friday, October 16, 2015

30 minutes

I find myself with 30 minutes and no obvious task pressing itself upon me, demanding to get done. Next week is a short one, only three days of classes before a four-day weekend. I'm running (well, jogging) (well, mostly walking) (okay, all walking) a race tonight, so I don't need to squeeze in time at the gym. I glance up at my open tabs and there is my blog, opened when my browser starts like everyday. So here is my 30 minutes.

Like this unscheduled time, I feel the unbearable lightness of waiting. The steps toward my book's publication have been many in the last four months -- some big, like the compiling of the index and the final proofing of the galleys, which I did in late July and early August; and some small, like approving cover copy and answering copy-editor queries. But on October 5 my patient production editor sent the book to the printer. Now I look forward to holding it in my hands. A part of me worries that it will seem small and insignificant when I do, not worth the years I invested (not to mention the unbounded generosity of my interviewees). A part of me defensively shouts that I don't care if nobody reads it. But of course I do. All those steps, large and small, have left me proud of what it's turned out to be -- a pride that makes me vulnerable to what becomes of it.

And meanwhile my husband takes his own career-expanding steps (like his byline in the New York Times) and my children grow (into their choirs and online communities and YouTube channels and artistic endeavors). I think about what comes next after this book. I'm contracted to write a volume in this series, and I'm looking forward to it, but taking the first step is always difficult. I'm having a great semester teaching, and that makes me want to create new classes, but I also know that I should be making what I'm already teaching even better, for next time -- learning by redoing.

I turned 50 last week. It was marvelous; I feel great, I've lost 30 pounds since this time last year, I'm so much happier than I was two years ago. 50 feels like a freeing milestone instead of an ominous one, like the moment when the drive to the trailhead ends and the actual adventure begins. Noel threw a little gathering over Mexican food and fishbowl-sized margaritas, and I thanked my lucky stars that my terrible friendship skills haven't yet driven away my generous and forgiving friends. We're starting our twentieth year of marriage. I find it hard to believe how much we've done of what we always wanted to do, and how close we are to what we always wanted to become.

My time is up, and I'm off to the conclusion of a work week, spent as always with my students listening to some provocative, challenging, informative ideas. Until the next half-hour presents itself ...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


When I'm working on a book, I naturally sometimes picture it on a shelf, in a bookstore, on a conference display table, in a reader's hand. When I do, though, the image of the book is indistinct. I don't imagine a particular color or font on the color. It's all kind of a blur.

I think I've had next to no input on the covers of my other books. Perhaps I've blocked it all out; I do remember that Clayton, my co-editor, had an artist he wanted to use on the jacket of our book Cosmology, Ecology, and the Energy of God, and asked me which of several paintings I preferred. For The Divine Decision and Handbook of Process Theology, to the best of my recollection, the covers were presented to me already complete. I probably had some kind of opportunity to approve or make suggestions, but nobody involved me in the design. And that was pretty much okay with me. I wouldn't have known where to start.

So when I'm asked (as I was last week by my editor) to weigh in on cover design, I feel like I'm completely at sea. I don't have any firm opinions about what my book ought to look like. I scroll through page after page of possible templates, try out various combinations of keywords at the stock image library. It's all far too indeterminate, with way too many possibilities, for me to express any kind of preference.

Somehow, though, with my editor's considerable help, we arrived at a cover design after a dozen emails back and forth. Forced to look at possibilities and think about options, I developed some opinions, some preferences, some absolutely-this and if-possible-this and certainly-not-that, all of which nudged me toward a dwindling number of designs and images. And after a week of this, like magic, we have a cover. I can see it. I know what it will look like, the image and the font and the layout and maybe even the color. My imaginary scenes of shelves and laps and tables and pages turning now have a detailed object at the center of them.

This is a new kind of excitement for me. I have no expectation that my book, specialized as it is, will set the world on fire. But being able to picture it as an object in the world, several months away from its emergence in that physical form, is unexpectedly thrilling.

Friday, July 3, 2015

A big week

It's been quite a week here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Tomorrow is Independence Day, and several Supreme Court decisions have transformed the emotions, opportunities, and political rhetoric of millions of people across the country, in all parts of the political spectrum.

As for me, you can all probably guess what my emotions and outlook are in the wake of this momentous week. But regardless of my personal views, as a Christian theologian I want to resist the framing of these issues as Christians versus Everybody Else. That framing requires us to distinguish between True Christians and Fake Christians (since people who consider themselves Christians are on all sides of the issue), and that leads us down a path that is untenable in light of history (Christians have always believed and behaved in a wide variety of ways; there is no one pure doctrine or creed to point back to).

I've shared a lot of resources on Facebook and Twitter over the past week that I think do a good job of raising issues, pointing out nuances, and providing perspectives that people like me, my family, my neighbors, and my students are likely to find helpful. I thought I'd collect them all here.

However, for those seeking to be faithful to the example of Jesus, to the prophetic strain of Jesus' message, and to the countercultural vision of the kingdom of God shared by Jesus and Paul (at what I consider his best moments), here are a few ideas you might find inspiring or thought-provoking.

A New Day (Jason Hines)

Let There Be Light (Don Bowman)

And a few takes that reflect some righteous anger, but which make points I needed to hear:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


I woke up to an email from a student, asking for a list of ten or so books "that you have found essential in the formation of what we know as Donna." Having taken a few minutes to put together a briefly-annotated list, I thought I might as well share it here. Links are to the Goodreads page, so you can add whatever takes your fancy to your "to-read" shelf or click on through to buy from Amazon.

Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ -- a very readable account of the transformation of Jesus' message in the first few centuries of the common era, not just philosophically and religiously but also politically.

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics -- an entire aesthetic and media theory in the guide of a comic book about how comic books work. Amazing.

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms -- using records from the Inquisition, historian Ginzburg reconstructs the diversity of the intellectual enterprise from the side of both commoners and elites during the tumult of Reformation. A constant reminder that intellectual history isn't just the record of great thinkers, it's also the story of how ideas were received and transformed by the population, and how that transformation boomeranged back on the elites.

Erasmus, Enchiridion -- Erasmus is my favorite Reformation writer, and this is his great work on the life of faith. He's just such an amazing prose stylist, even in translation.

David Hume, The Natural History of Religion -- Hume demolishes the idea that religion began with pure revelation and has degraded to the conditions we see today, with wit and irony, in this brief little treatise. Essential to my understanding that every reality we encounter has an evolutionary history.

Elizabeth Moon, The Deed of Paksenarrion -- my favorite book, which I reread every couple of years, a fantasy trilogy about a soldier who becomes an instrument of the gods. You may find it very silly if fantasy isn't your thing, but it's undeniably the work of fiction that has most shaped me.

Shusako Endo, Silence -- For years Martin Scorsese has been trying to make a movie of this novel about Jesuit missionaries in 19th c. Japan. The most powerful portrayal I know of the sacrifice of Jesus.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun -- an examination of women's lives in colonial America through the objects they made. Reads like a detective story, uncovering something previously anonymous and subterranean.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead -- A pastor reflects on life and faith and relationships as he nears his own death. Engages with all kinds of great thinkers, but never ceases to be an unfolding revelation of a novel.

Paul Collins, Not Even Wrong -- One of the great non-fiction writers tries to understand his autistic son by digging back into the prehistory of autism.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Every now and then I hear our song

Colleagues on campus who foolishly ask what I'm up to are likely to receive a lengthy explanation of how I've never really had an academic summer. If I recall correctly, I taught a summer course my first or second year at UCA, and then went straight into an administrative position that offered 10.5 month employment for a few years, followed by a long stretch of 12-month administrative contracts. That ended in summer 2013 with a summer sabbatical, the only kind available to administrators. I took two week-long research trips that summer and spent every remaining day researching, conducting phone interviews, traveling within the state, correcting transcripts, and scrambling to be ready to start writing my book. But during this sabbatical, my dean pressed me for a commitment on whether I would continue in administration, and I declined to do so. The summer of 2012, then, would be the last I would spend working full time.

Turns out I would continue to do phone and local interviews into the early months of 2014; the only part of the book with a complete draft by the time classes ended that spring was the introduction. So I spent every day of summer 2014 writing. By the end of August, with classes already underway, I had six chapters done, with four more to go before my Christmas deadline. As I wrote in a January post, that summer I wrote a chapter every 2.4 weeks.

I got a very helpful reader report from my editor on March 2 of this year, and immediately began revisions. Once classes ended in early May, I was in the office full time every day doing additional research, editing, and rewriting. I turned in a revised manuscript on June 10.

And since then, it has been Summer. The kind where I don't have to come to the office, where no one is expecting me. I have work to do -- classes for fall to prepare (including a new one), some assessment (done), some faculty reports (done), and then the research and dreaming and thinking about the next scholarly projects -- but it's completely up to me when I want to make progress on that and when I want to do Summer Things. That's the life a lot of faculty live. Yes, many of them teach summer classes or take other temporary work (scoring standardized tests, teaching at summer programs), but many just have a Summer. Like the one I'm finally having.

I come to the office most days. I have research I want to move forward, and interlibrary loan books that I can only keep for a short time. Reading and thinking is a pleasurable occupation, especially compared to the stress of rewriting and cutting and checking citation formatting on a deadline. I give myself plenty of leeway to follow my train of thought wherever it leads, chasing down information on a stray inquiry if it grabs my interest. 

But I also take a walk every morning before the heat and humidity build to unbearable levels. Today I listened to podcasts, but most days I just think for half an hour. Yesterday I took the kids to a nearby state park and hiked a trail along the river. Now that Summer is here, I am going to do more of that.

Summer seems very short when the first six weeks of it are eaten up by deadline work. In July the kids have camps and Noel has trips; my days will not be my own, like they are now. In August the new semester will be on the doorstep. But Summer seems so long, so luxuriously empty, on a day like today. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Against the tide

Most days that the weather is bad -- raining or threatening, too hot or cold -- you can find me walking on the indoor track at the HPER Center, my campus's exercise and recreational facility. The track runs around and overhead of the basketball courts. It's 1/10 of a mile on the inside lane, where walkers are supposed to stay, and 1/9 of a mile on the outside.

Now, I'm there so often that I feel rather proprietary about it. And I'm there so often that I see all sorts of people who either don't know or don't care about the rules. Walk in the direction indicated by the arrow (which flips every day). Runners on the outside, walkers on the inside. I see people stretching right on the track, with people having to step around and over them. I see them doing interval work where they stop running suddenly in order to start doing lunges or something, heedless of people behind them. And naturally, I see lot of people completely ignoring the lane rules, running or walking in any lane they want, weaving around people or forcing others to weave around them.

But what I saw yesterday was a first. There was only one other person on the track when I arrived -- a jogger. And he was going the wrong way. I looked at the arrow, looked at him, and as I stepped onto the track as he approached, I said, "Dude, other way," indicating the arrow. He shrugged. "This is the way I go," he said as he passed.

I walked 27 laps before he finished his jog. He never turned around to go the other way. Just kept running the way he goes. Other people arrived to walk and run. They joined me going the right way. A fellow faculty member who jogs as much as I walk, and that I see almost every time I'm there, spoke to him like I did. I saw him step onto the track and make a circular gesture with his hand as the wrong-way jogger passed him. Again, the jogger shrugged and kept going.

Because we were going in opposite directions, I met him two times on each lap -- a little more, actually, because he was moving a bit faster than me. Because he was jogging on the inside lane (sigh), he had to move out of my way every time we met. After the first time, we didn't make eye contact. He had to snake his way past oncoming traffic in multiple lanes when the several users of the track happened to converge in his path.

What was he thinking for those 40 minutes before he stopped jogging against the current? Was he annoyed every time he had to dodge another person? Did he ever consider turning around and going with the flow, or was he dead set on his own direction? What were his feelings toward me and the other faculty member who had questioned him? What about the others who joined us and mutely testified to the rule, and against his choice, with their actions?

Most of all: Why?

During those 27 laps and maybe 50 face-to-face encounters, I thought a lot about what I would have done if I found I were going the wrong way. Many years ago when the HPER was new, I feel certain I went the wrong way, before somebody pointed the arrow out to me. I don't remember it particularly, but I have many similar memories of learning the rules and folkways of an exercise facility because I did it wrong at first. I might have gone to the start of my lap and turned around there, so I didn't have to account for incomplete laps in my counting. But I can't imagine just continuing on, minute after minute, lap after lap, as the evidence of my error mounted.

But perhaps he was aware from the start he was going the wrong way. "This is the way I go," he said to me, as if he had a private methodology that no rule could sway. I'm not sure why running the track counter-clockwise was preferable. The direction arrow changes daily so that we don't all get shorter legs on one side like mountain goats from always pivoting on the same foot. Maybe he had an injury that made it hard to turn to the right. But that's also why runners are supposed to be on the outside, the rule that he and others widely ignore, so that the curve at the corners is more gentle, not requiring a pivot at all.

I recognize myself in the wrong-way runner. I can be stubborn. I don't necessarily want to be told what the right process is; I prefer to reinvent the wheel because (and I've only just recently recognized this about myself) I get irrationally mad in certain situations where other people know more than I do. But I think I'm learning to overcome these flaws, in large part thanks to my research among the prayer shawl makers, where I had to listen and refrain from imposing my knowledge and perspectives. I've had too many experiences where hindsight tells me I could have saved myself frustration, and done a better job, by trying to learn from others at the outset rather than just bulling through on my own unfounded notions.

What can I learn from Mr. The Way I Go?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


I walked to school today thinking about Archer's future.

He came home last night and told us that he'd gotten his scores on the ACT Explore test, a version of the college-entrance exam given to eighth graders. His composite was 23 out of 25. His math score was a perfect 25 out of 25.

Now, as a member of a collegiate admissions committee, I know that tests like this don't tell you nearly as much about a student's college readiness as the test companies would like to claim. But because admissions officers find it convenient to craft policies -- including scholarship policies -- that rely heavily on such tests as a shorthand for aptitude, the one thing you can say about a person who scores high is that he will receive lots of attention and lots of opportunities.

I thought about that on my two-mile walk to Cady Gray's school, then to mine. I talked about it with Cady Gray; she told me what her fifth-grade teachers were saying to their students about scholarships and college. Archer's college choices are likely to be shaped by his autism; he may not be able to leap into independence and go to school away from home. His sister won't have any such limits. I thought about the training, the challenges, the resources that will be available to students as capable and promising as they are. I walked onto my campus under a gorgeous blue sky, feeling like a wind was gathering under their wings, ready to lift them up. I imagined how they might soar.

Then I glanced at my phone while waiting for my chai latte, and saw the news of the three Muslim students killed at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.* Suddenly I was aware of the fragility of any student's promise. Hate and violence, motivated by whatever ideology makes you see difference as a threat, can strike anyone. It seems especially tragic and sad when it happens at a college, a place devoted to enlightenment, a place that draws people of all backgrounds and beliefs in a common quest for a better life, a more informed mind, skills that can build the future and solve problems. If we can't find a way to live without fear of difference there, then where?

Like all parents, I worry about the treacherous parts of college for my children: binge drinking, sexual assault, study and recreational drugs, depression, time and task management, interpersonal relationships, anonymity and isolation. I see students just as smart as my kids get derailed by one or more of these, year after year. One test, no matter how remarkable, won't inoculate them against those dangers. Even years of training and character-building are no guarantee -- for some of those pitfalls, you can do everything right and still wind up shattered and victimized. And then there's the rage, the prejudice, the deadly weapons, that sometimes strike out of a clear blue sky.

We can do better -- as college officials and administrators, as teachers, as citizens, as communicators, as neighbors -- to change the culture, to rescue those who stumble before they hit the ground, to talk back to hate loudly and consistently, to insist that the values of the education we provide -- complexity, diversity, rationality, empathy, free inquiry, solidarity -- escape the classroom and reach into every moment of our students' lives.

Only if we do better can my children, and yours, and the children of people all around us who look to the future in hope, climb on to that upward trajectory with confidence.

* Early reports don't indicate conclusively that the murderer was motivated by racial or religious hatred. I don't mean to draw that conclusion here about this particular crime, just to follow a train of thought sparked by the way I am routinely shocked by expressions of hate, division, intolerance, and violence in threat and actuality on my campus and others.