Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Archies: 2016 Now More Than Ever Edition

An erstwhile, lately abandoned, but now existentially necessary compendium of wonderful things.

Lest we forget.

  1. @Dog_rates
  2. "The Battle of Yorktown"
  3. "Drive It Like You Stole It"
  4. Everybody who works at the Kum & Go at Dave Ward and Donaghey
  5. Trader Joe's Sipping Chocolate
  6. Amazon Dash buttons
  7. Pikachus with Santa hats on in Pokémon Go
  8. Callbacks to "I Have Friends" in the underscoring on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
  9. Mom
  10. Mississippi roast
  11. The White House photoggraphs of Pete Souza
  12. Zachary Levi kicking his hat into his hand
  13. Laura Benanti singing "Where's My Shoe"
  14. Film Twitter
  15. Ramon Industries in the Flashpoint timeline
  16. Opal sock yarn
  17. The Pussyhat Project
  18. Katie Ledecky
  19. Daveed Diggs
  20. Archer's Questionable Questions: Jackpot Quest
  21. crazy eights dishcloths (in Crafter's Secret Cotton Multi)
  22. Southern Girl Soapery
  23. "Scusi! Io sono Marco Polo! Si, solo qui!"
  24. Vin Scully
  25. Verne Lundquist
  26. Consider the coconut!
  27. Serena Williams
  29. TIAA
  30. Calligraphy Cardigan 
  31. Fiction podcasts from Gimlet and GE Podcast Theater
  32. Brooklyn Nine-Nine + New Girl
  33. Anthony Trollope
  34. James Fenimore Cooper
  35. Larissa Brown
  36. MyFitnessPal 
  37. Elizabeth Zimmermann
  38. Cream cheese brownies at Cross Creek Sandwich Shop
  39. Allbirds
  40. Alone
  41. Drunk History
  42. San Antonio Riverwalk
  43. "Normal human standing"
  44. Owen Ellickson's #TrumpLeaks
  45. David Fahrenthold
  46. Joe Biden
  47. Hillary Clinton
  48. Barack Obama

Thursday, August 18, 2016

And they're off

It's a strange start to the semester, in many ways. This year's election has been surreal; we all swim through its constant downward spiral as if waiting to wake up from a dream, and there are still more than two months to go. Our retreat weekend with the incoming students has been moved up so that we're leaving tomorrow -- after only one class with them. And although I have worked steadily all summer, producing a journal article and 2/3 of a book, I still feel like I napped my way through these three months.

But here we are. Cady Gray has started grade 7 (accelerated math, we love you!), and Archer is warily wading into grade 10 (AP Physics, Algebra II and Programming woo-hoo, AP World History and Pre-AP English, not sure yet). A new batch of Honors students has landed in my class, and will be anxiously trying to keep their heads above water as they learn to navigate Blackboard and post their first assignments. I have two new teaching assistants and two new thesis students to mentor. And I'm on the search committee for our new dean, while at the same time the university searches for a new president.

It doesn't all happen at once, that's the saving grace. Except when it does. Which are the times I feel like nobody's got their hand on the regulator. More than anything I hate the feeling of a bunch of things, even little things, going wrong at once -- I start to get squirrelly when even one of those things happens, like something breaking around the house, as some primal part of my psyche whispers "this is how it begins."

That's because more than anything I like it when things are going right, when everything's under control, when there are no clouds on the horizon. Yesterday I listened to PJ Vogt, co-host of the podcast Reply All, describe how his mom obsesses about the health and well-being of everyone in her extended family. The only time she's truly relaxed and able to enjoy herself, Vogt said, was when everyone is gathered for a holiday or a reunion. That's when she can directly surveill the entire brood. No one is off falling ill or getting into an accident. Everyone's OK.

I don't have a worrying problem at this level, but I do have an addiction to security and safety. It's a trait that serves me well occasionally (saving money), but more often leads me to forgo even small risks or, worse, steer my children away from them for my peace of mind. Letting them go to camp this year was big in that regard. Maybe I can keep on taking those next steps toward their independence and my mental health.

They both had a great time at camp, by the way. Archer's favorite was all-you-can-eat meals at the cafeteria; CG's was the friends she made. You don't know how teary-eyed that last bit makes me, still, a month later.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

In suspense

It's halfway through the summer. I'm in the middle of writing a book (the volume on the theology of the human being for the Homebrewed Christianity Guides series) -- just finished chapter 3 (of 8), and plan to have two more completed before school starts. Still months to go before this uniquely horrible election season ends. And both Archer and Cady Gray are at their first-ever sleepaway camps.

Cady Gray is at Camp Mitchell, on Petitjean Mountain, about 45 minutes away. She's been there since Sunday. We haven't heard a peep. Every batch of pictures that the camp staff posts on Facebook gets scoured minutely, but we haven't found her in any of them. Is she having fun? Making friends? Homesick?

Archer is closer to home, at choir camp on the UCA campus. I've seen him once, texted with him a couple of times. He seems in very good spirits. I was never worried about him being homesick -- just maybe being discombobulated by a whole new set of rules and routines. But then, there's nothing he loves better than a new system to absorb, understand, and explore.

For both of them, it's a necessary push out of the nest, hard as it was for their parents to do. They're capable and confident human beings. They'll become more so as they experience some independence.

Meanwhile Noel and I hang suspended between their leaving and returning. We pick up Cady Gray tomorrow morning, Archer on Saturday. It will be good to have them back. All the fraught and frightening things in the world seem more so without the family together. (They're bad enough on a normal day.)

I look forward to hearing about their experiences, to seeing whether they've grown or changed. I'm praying it's been a completely positive experience. But even if not, it will be one that helps them learn.


Thursday, June 9, 2016

The joke's on us

On these recent summer nights, our household has been arranging itself as follows: Noel and I in the living room, watching TV, working, knitting, and/or reading; Cady Gray in Archer's room, watching Twitch, playing Steam, chatting with friends online, drawing, roleplaying; and Archer in the front room, keeping up with his various YouTube-based "camps." Every once in awhile Archer will pop up from the couch and go running into his room to tell CG something, or come into the living room to tell us something -- he's had a thought about how Ten Words of Wisdom is working out, or has just learned an amusing fact on Numberphile.

Last night he jumped up, hustled down the hallway, burst into his room and said "Hello!" Except CG wasn't in his room. She was in the living room with us, talking about Romeo And/Or Juliet. All three of us watched and listened, bemused, as he ran past and shouted "Hello!" to an empty room. Then we burst into laughter.

Archer came in and stood in the doorway, smiling uncontrollably. We were laughing at his mistake, at something he had done that turned out to be funny. But -- and here's the important thing -- he wasn't angry or frustrated with us, or even embarrassed about the mistake. He was enjoying the fact that we found it amusing, because he found it amusing too. He grinned and commented happily on the error, recognizing that his assumption had gone hilariously awry. He knew we weren't laughing at him, even though, y'know, we were laughing at what he did. He was having as much fun as we were.

I looked at that smile and thought how remarkable it was. For a boy who had to consciously practice being aware of how others saw him, putting himself in their shoes, and tailoring his actions accordingly, it represented how very far he's come.

And those YouTube camps he watches hours upon end? They're part of it. He emulates the YouTubers who play gamemaster to their subscribers, creating "object shows" where cartoon icons like Golf Ball and Cat Bed compete in Survivor-like competitions, earning points and being eliminated. These channels don't just entertain him passively; he learns from them (and from the feedback they incorporate into the ongoing game) how to manage interactions. His earliest efforts were based on popular marble-race videos made using the software physics engine Algodoo, combined with animated Wacky Races-style cartoons like Battle for Dream Island. But at the same time as his Keynote animation skills develop, so do his interactive instincts, all propelled by his simultaneous interests in designing a good game and keeping his subscribers happy.

Just look at what's going on in his most recent camp, Battle for Regal Planet (here's a video from 10 months ago, and here's one from last week after an Undertale-inspired design reboot). He's even started narrating his TWOW-homage Realm of Fifty Characters, just like his hero carykh. Listen to how smooth and expressive that narration is. He writes it all out, but it's full of dramatic twists. He's clearly aware of his listeners and pitches his presentation to their expectations, needs, and entertainment.

Years ago as we were trying to imagine our #robotboy's future, I hoped that computer interaction, with its throttled stream of cues and information, would allow him to make progress in socialization. Today I'm amazed at how that has happened, in realms I never could have foreseen.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The greatest

I always watched Wide World of Sports. It was a Sunday afternoon ritual. Jim McKay, Howard Cosell, those yellow blazers, and whatever random sporting event they were covering. (Based on this early experience, I would have projected cliff diving to feature much more prominently in my life than it actually has.)

I watched with my dad, mostly. Probably my brothers were around, too. But it was my dad I was aware of, in the room, following the standings of the giant slalom or weightlifting. And it's my dad I thought of immediately when I heard this morning that Muhammad Ali had died.

Wide World of Sports was the Muhammad Ali show for a lot of those years (with short breaks during which it become the Evel Knievel show). Howard Cosell was Ali's foil. Wide World previewed the fights, showed the fights, interviewed Ali before, after, and for all I can remember, during the fights. Cowell and Ali, Ali and Cosell, verbally jabbing at each other, engaged in a joyous dance, each endlessly amused by the other, needing each other.

Ali was on Wide World so much because he was a personality. He must have been great for ratings. And because of that, I felt ... odd about him. It wasn't always about the sports, is what I realized. Often it was just about putting entertaining, unpredictable people on air and waiting for the fireworks. I intuited, in a childish way, that Cosell was something of a parasite, when it came to Ali. I was disturbed that he could get so far by so blatantly hitching his wagon to a star. (There was more to Cosell, too, I know, but the relationship still felt one-sided.)

What I wasn't quite sure about was whether I should be equally disturbed by Ali playing along. Was he in on the joke? Was he doing an act for the cameras? Was he giving the people what they want? Or was he desperate for attention? In my world, one was expected to be self-deprecating and gracious. All the boasting and grandstanding -- it made me uncomfortable. And the Wide World machine enabling and encouraging it, egging him on. I really did not know what to think.

Boxing was different in those days, for sports fans. Now the title fights are all on pay-per-view. They're still very popular, no doubt, but they aren't a mass-market product. Back then they were on network television and we all watched them avidly. When Ali fought, that's when my confusion melted away. He was actually engaged in a different sport than his opponents. He was playing a different game. He could tell the whole world his exact strategy, like the "rope-a-dope" (which I remember so well), and still nobody could do anything about it.

Someone who could back up his braggadocio with actual domination -- someone who was bigger than life in a seventies wide-lapel suit and in boxing trunks -- someone who made for equally great copy in his interviews as in his contests. That's what I wasn't prepared to understand. Someone who always played his own game and expected us to come to him, in the media world and in the ring alike. I didn't know how to judge that, how to value it.

Race was a factor, there's no doubt. We were privileged white folks. I had very few black classmates in my private schools, and at least in the arenas where I interacted with them, they displayed few cultural traits or habits that weren't my own. We employed a black maid. Dad interacted with black truck drivers or other workers in his job sometimes, I knew. Our large and prosperous church was all white. Obviously I wasn't comfortable with black assertiveness, black speech patterns, black politics, black power. Obviously I was bound to see it as alien, as a threat, even if I had the most generous of curiosities.

I watched with my dad, and part of my discomfort was my suspicion that he wasn't okay with the changes in sports that Ali represented. I idolized and learned my sports fandom from my dad. I didn't know whether I should be okay with them or not. But we kept watching, together. There was never any question that when it came to the fights, these were monumental events, and that Ali's triumphs represented a historic dominance of the sport.

That ambivalence mixed with fascination defined my view of Ali during childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Boxing moved away from the mass market, and I stopped paying attention to it. It wasn't until the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (which Noel and I attended) that Ali re-entered my consciousness in a big way. I was stunned by the significance of that event, by the courage of the fighter bowed by disease standing up once again to be seen, taking it as his due. In subsequent years, the documentaries When We Were Kings and The Trials of Muhammad Ali (both tremendous, powerful films) filled in the massive gaps in my knowledge. I don't remember Cosell asking about, or Ali talking about, resisting the draft -- maybe he did and I just didn't know what was going on. I was ignorant of all the context surrounding the Rumble in the Jungle. I was ignorant. I'm glad in a way that I was too conflicted to have a strong opinion, besides just fascination. I didn't know enough to have an opinion.

Since then I've read David Remnick's biography. I've read many great sportswriters painting a picture of the man, in all his dimensions.  (Check out Jerry Izenberg's obit, just for a sample.) He has only grown larger, more imposing, more improbable with each detail. What I wasn't equipped to appreciate until only a few years ago, I think (having been fortunate enough to be educated by many eloquent, thoughtful, forceful, patient people of color on social media, especially), was how important he was as a black man. How his politics and religion unapologetically flowed from that singularly American experience. How paying attention to that could teach me things I could never learn on my own.

Muhammad Ali made me a better, more well-rounded, more nuanced and perceptive person for paying attention to him, for thinking through what he showed me, especially when it was uncomfortable for me to do so.

Yet he didn't exist for my benefit. That's what made him the greatest. He was exactly the person he wanted to be, almost from the moment he burst onto the scene until the day he died. I'd thank him, only it's beside the point. Better to say to the universe: We didn't deserve that. We're grateful.

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.