This has made the rounds on the internet for some time under various titles. It ought to be mandatory reading for anyone posting a Facebook comment or standing to ask a question during a session at an academic conference.
This has made the rounds on the internet for some time under various titles. It ought to be mandatory reading for anyone posting a Facebook comment or standing to ask a question during a session at an academic conference.
The turn to a new year ought to bring excitement, but I’ve learned over the past several years that it provides somewhat of a letdown for me. It usually takes a few weeks for the melancholy to settle in. I’m anticipating it now. I’ve tried to pinpoint its cause and I’ve identified three possibilities.
The closing months of most years are full and busy and fun. At work we build toward the highlight of our year: AAR-SBL. I work feverishly to squeeze out the last few projects before the conference. I spend a good deal of time leading up to the conference scheduling meetings with friends (and [possible] authors!) old and new. I attend the conference and go full steam from breakfast to nightcaps. And from there we move right into Thanksgiving, which has been for the last few years spent with extended family. December, of course, is packed with Advent rituals, Christmas parties, more time with school-free kids, and the like. The last quarter of each year is extra-ordinary, and I think that is what makes it so exciting and invigorating. January, too, usually begins with an extra dose of energy. A few extra days of the boys out of school. The novelty of the new Soda Stream Christmas gift hasn’t worn off yet. A slew of projects at work that had to be set aside for more urgent matters awaits me. But eventually the energy wanes and the “normal” routine takes hold. I suppose I shouldn’t mind the mundane routine. I actually thrive better with routine. But routine is not energizing, is it? And so when I notice I am settling back into the routine that governs most of my year, there is a bit of a letdown.
Most years I try to make some resolutions, knowing full well that I will not keep many (or any!) of them. As January 1 rolls around, I am still riding the year-ending wave of energy enough to think I can stick to some resolutions this year. But the resolutions practice can sometimes disappoint and discourage. As I look back on the previous year’s resolutions, I see a list of things partially completed, abandoned, or never attempted. So I adjust. This year I will not be so unrealistic, which can feel like I’m cutting back on ambition and adventure. What a letdown that can be!
There is very little I would want different about the life my family and I have established in Eugene. It really is a great place to live and raise kids. But the weather! Part of what lends to the thrill of the last quarter of each year is the changing of the seasons. Fall is beautiful and winter has its own charms. Having lived in Texas and Southern California, I appreciate actually getting to experience seasons. But the gray, wet, dreariness of the Northwest begins to weigh down my spirits after a few of months. Usually around late January or early February I am ready for it to be over. I get tired of biking to work in low light and returning home in equally low light. I get tired of having to put on various articles of clothing to keep dry and/or warm as I make the 2.5 mile pedaling trek. The letdown is only amplified when I realize I’ve got a few more months of this.
Any and all of these things can contribute to the annual dip in energy I feel in the early stages of most years. I’ve learned to cope pretty well, I think. It helps to spin each of these contributors to my letdown in a different direction and take a look at them from a different vantage point. One of the benefits of growing older is being able to get a better sense of the long game. The exciting periods of the year can make the rest of the year look too routine and dull, but if I step back from it, I see that these exciting periods are themselves part of a larger rhythm of life. That is, they are part of a bigger routine, which is not so dull taken as a whole. Some aspects are dull. Life, with the full rhythms of ups and downs, is not.
It is easy for me to dwell on unfulfilled resolutions. They outnumber the fulfilled ones (if there are any fulfilled ones). I too easily lose sight of the fact that there was a lot that I did over the past year. I even kept a resolution or two. I ran my first marathon, for goodness sake! And, hey, even a few of the goals I did not reach pushed me further down the road than I was before. So what if I didn’t read as many books as I had set for myself. I read a good deal more than I might have without the early-year resolution. Plus, there were several things I did that I cannot check off my list of resolutions because they were not on the list in the first place. The backpacking/hiking trip with my brother was not on my radar last January, but it was a highlight of 2014.
I may never grow to like the extended gray season of the Northwest. I can, however, learn to appreciate its necessity. Have you seen Oregon in the summer? It’s absolutely gorgeous, and naturally so. Part of this may be that Oregon summers look magnificent over against its winters. More importantly, though, is that the beauty of the summer requires the damp dullness of the winter. The rivers are full and rushing and incredible because the mountains have melting snow to shed. The flora is blooming because it has been soaking in the nourishment for the last several months. Much like the rhythm of my own life that I am beginning to understand better, the rhythm of nature in the Northwest makes better sense when I take a long view.
Well, I feel better now. I know the doldrums are coming. I needed to steel myself for them. I, therefore, resolve to ride the rhythms; take pride in accomplishments large and small, listed and unlisted; and appreciate the need for gray, wet, dull seasons. I am sure I could make a connection to the way the Christian liturgical year conditions us for these sorts of things. I won’t try to spell it out here though.
One last thing. I’ve purposefully avoided the language of “depression.” Depression is a much more serious condition and not to be taken as lightly as I have “letdowns and doldrums.” And it has secrets we would do well to uncover.
The title is a trick. The two things—skepticism and years of jubilee—have nothing to do with one another in my post today other than I want to say something about both of these things without making two separate posts. So first skepticism…
I am pretty skeptical by nature, I think. Lord knows I’ve nurtured that trait as well over the years. So it was pretty easy for me to have my doubts about the integrity of the first ever College Football Playoff selection of teams. I know there were all sorts of criteria and data that went into the selection of Alabama v. Ohio State and Oregon v. Florida State. And these four teams all have good cases for being in. I’m not arguing that, so no comments explaining to me why such-and-such team deserved to be there. Still several things make my skeptical antennae buzz:
My skepticism has not quite reached the level of conspiracy theory, but I wouldn’t be surprised. To add insult to injury, the highest ranked team not to make a big six bowl game is Kansas State, also of the Big 12.
Now to years of jubilee…
I have twins who turn 7 today. The story behind their birth is filled with highs and lows—we were told we lost one during the pregnancy; we feared we lost the other; later the doctor discovered BOTH babies still there; Gail got put on bed rest just before we were to move to Eugene and then again later in the pregnancy; the boys arrive a bit early and have to stay in the NICU for 18 days. Fortunately the final result was a high one, even if their first Christmas was in the hospital. Today, these two boys are full of energy and life. So while we will not be taking a year of respite (Gail and I could use one though!), we will celebrate their jubilee year giving thanks for God’s goodness these past 7 years.
I did say years (pl.) of jubilee. The second bit on this topic comes from the recent presidential address given by outgoing AAR president Laurie Zoloth.
Dr. Zoloth used her presidential address to call on her colleagues to plan a sabbatical year, a year in which they would cancel their conference. In her vision, they would all refrain from flying across the country, saving money and carbon. It could be a year, Dr. Zoloth argued, in which they would sacrifice each other’s company for the sake of the environment, and instead would turn toward their neighborhoods and hometowns.
Read the full NY Times piece here. I wonder how seriously this idea will be considered.
Each year around this time the pace in our offices start to pick up. Students and professors heading back to school need books. We make books. Academics also seem to get back in their groove after a summer spent
feverishly writing enjoying their breaks, and now they want to get their books in shape for publication before the annual conferences taking place in later autumn. Editors, designers, typesetters, and marketers (at least the ones with whom I work!) are doing their parts to make sure these books see the light of day. The intensity builds right up until we board the plane to make the trek to that year’s location for the AAR/SBL conference, the apex of our publishing year.
In many ways AAR/SBL (and ETS, which immediately precedes it in a nearby location) is an exciting and fun trip. It’s a lot of work to be sure, with days beginning in the early mornings and going into the later part of the nights, but it gives us a chance to show off our books, meet in person authors we’ve known only by email and phone for months, see old friends we’ve not seen since the last conference, and meet new authors and friends that will become a part of the two aforementioned groups. A good many of the academics I know who go to the annual conference year after year do so for two reasons: friends and books. Of course there are those younger, eager students or would-be-students who attend to meet luminaries, get that first paper presentation under their belt, and generally soak in the environment. There are also those seasoned veterans who like nothing more than attending sessions and hearing paper presentations. And usually there is a session or two featuring a hot topic, book, and/or figure that people will look forward to attending. But on the whole the “academic” side of the conference is not at the top of most people’s list of reasons to attend. I’m lucky. My primary reasons for being at the conference—selling books and building relationships—are at the top of most lists.
This post is not about why people attend AAR/SBL, or to tell you how excited we get as the conference approaches. Rather, this time of the year makes two blog posts I’ve read recently especially pertinent, and I want to bring attention to them.
The first is a post from a while back by David Lincicum, “Some scattered tips for not being a jerk at conferences.” (See also Mark Goodacre’s much older post “How to enjoy SBL“) The second references David’s post and was written by an author with whom I’ve had the privilege of working: Christopher Skinner, “Negative Reviews and Unintentional Slights: Some Further Tips on Not Being a Jerk in Academia.” Both of these posts have great advice for academics: praise others effusively and genuinely, network without instrumentalizing, have fun, keep your ego in check, retaliation is rarely worth it, maintain perspective, be nice, etc. The thing is this is all advice for living as a human, whether one within or without academia. Though I wouldn’t use the same words every time, this is advice I’m trying to pass along to my three boys: encourage others, toys do not a friend make, have fun, don’t hit back, keep your reaction the same size as the problem, be nice. What Lincicum and Skinner are really saying to their academic peers is “Be a good person! Or, at least try.” And never forget to use turabian annotated bibliography.
See you in San Diego!
Last week at this time I was trekking up the side of the third tallest mountain in Oregon. South Sister (aka “Charity”) is, as the name indicates, the southernmost peak among the Three Sisters in the Three Sisters Wilderness of the Cascade Range.
My younger brother, Brad, turned 40 in late July. As a gift to him I used airline miles to fly him across the country for a short backpacking excursion into the beauty that is Oregon. He lives in Charlotte, NC. I didn’t have that many airline miles, so we were limited on the dates and flight times. The closest I could get to his birthday with the miles I had was last week. So last week he finally arrived in Eugene on Wednesday morning after an overnight delay in San Francisco. He hit the ground running. We took off toward the trailhead soon after his arrival. After an hour on the road, we stopped in Oakridge for lunch at The Brewers Union Local 180, Oregon’s only real ale pub and brewery. It’s the closest thing to a British pub I’ve seen in the States.
After lunch and another couple hours on the road, we arrived at the Green Lakes trailhead. We hiked along the Green Lakes Trail for a couple of miles until we reached the intersection with the Moraine Lake Trail. The Green Lakes Trail follows Falls Creek for most of this section. The hiking is easy and the scenery is idyllic. There was a waterfall around every turn.
Another mile and a half or so along the Moraine Lake Trail led us to Moraine Lake and the U-shaped valley/crater in which it is situated.
At Moraine Lake we found a spot to pitch our tent and settle in for the night.
The next morning we hit the trail to the South Sister summit. The hike ascends over 4000 feet and is about 9 miles round trip. In addition to the elevation and distance, we had to contend with lots of wind and tons of scree. It took about 7.5 hours all total—about 4.5 up and 3 down. Despite my aching joints, grit in my teeth, and scree in my boots, it was magnificent.
You might be wondering what’s the big deal about a backpacking trip with my brother. Well, it’s a trip of firsts. I had never been backpacking before. Brad and I had never been camping together ever. It took us over 40 years and living on opposite coasts finally to do something like this. I can’t say that I caught the backpacking bug; although I am sure I will do it again. The best part was the time with my brother. I miss seeing him regularly. We may see each other once a year at best. I hadn’t seen him since Thanksgiving of last year, and I am not sure when I will see him again. And when we do see each other it is always with lots of family around. It was really nice to spend about 48 hours with him. It made me nostalgic in a lot of ways. One thing that kept coming to mind while we grew more silent as our hike grew more strenuous was a saying our parents used to say to us when we faced difficulties—”That ain’t no hill for a stepper.” It works well in Texas. It hasn’t gone over as well with my boys. They don’t quite understand Ain’t. The saying came to mind for obvious reasons on our hike toward the summit, but I thought of it as well with regard to where Brad and I have gone in life. We’ve both had our hills to step over. Brad more so than me in a lot of ways. As we hiked up that hill, I was more times than not following my little brother. He’s always been more of an athlete. I would look up to see how far ahead he was and think how proud I was of him—not for leaving me in the dust on our hike, but for the person he had become. He’s not perfect, but he’s a good man, and I love him dearly. Happy late, late birthday little brother.
Most Thursday mornings I come to work and the first task of the day is to post something to Running Heads. Thursday is my day.
A good number of these mornings I come in with a clear idea about what I want to say in a blog post. Quite often it relates to what’s going on in my life, what I’ve read, what I’ve done, what I will do, etc. Life is such for me that I don’t have or don’t take the time to think deeply and sit with things for long periods of time. It is the exact opposite of life as a graduate student and classroom instructor, where pondering and sitting and working through things was all that I did. I miss those times some days. But I am not willing to give up parenting three energetic boys, grabbing a few spare minutes with my wife in the evenings, running around Tracktown USA, and editing several dozen books a year in order to carve out some time for the kind of contemplation necessary to say something deep and meaningful every Thursday morning. Some Thursdays I do. Others I don’t. I do my pondering on the go, and sometimes I’m able to stop and collect my thoughts well enough to say something worthwhile.
The past few weeks the world has given us all much to ponder. Almost too much! ISIS, Ferguson, Ukraine, Gaza, Ebola, etc. are too significant for me to just post something about my favorite music find, or how poorly my fantasy Premier League team did this past weekend, or the anxiety I feel about coaching my boys soccer team this fall. These world events also overshadow any news I might have about a forthcoming book I’m editing or the way plans for this year’s AAR/SBL have already started to take shape.
It all makes my head buzz. It’s overwhelming. It is nothing new really, I suppose. There are always tragedies, crises, wars, diseases, and strife. In my periods of self-diagnosis, I figure my insignificant posts about books, soccer, music, and the like are my paths of escapism. But today…today I can’t make the buzzing stop. I can’t escape all that is whirling around in my head about the world’s current events. Neither can I find anything meaningful to say about any of it. Sometimes, I guess, the only thing to do is stop with my thoughts all a mess and say nothing more than a prayer. And so a Prayer for the Human Family from the Book of Common Prayer:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.
Officially there are 39 days left in summer for those living in the Northern Hemisphere. And yet the signs of Fall are starting to show.
Two weekends ago I ran my first marathon ever. (I mentioned it before.) The good news is that I finished. The bad news (for me at least) is that I did not hit my goal. I was trucking along just under my target pace for over 17 miles. My knees and eventually my whole legs decided to stop cooperating and I had to slow down and even walk several times the last few miles. Two nights later, legs still sore, I woke up very early and was unable to go back to sleep. I was replaying the race and prior training in my head, trying to figure out where I went wrong. This reflection on a specific thing got me spiraling onto thoughts more general. Follow me on this. I think it could go somewhere eventually.
I identified a handful of things I could have done differently or additionally in my training or on race day that might have saved me those four and a half minutes I lost to sore knees. And once I gain full use of my legs again, I am sure I will take on another racing challenge. If my record is any indication, however, I am likely not to meet the next goal either. In three of the five races of various lengths I have run, I failed to meet the goal I set for myself going in. Maybe I should set more achievable goals. (I thought I had this last time. My training gave every indication that my goal was within fairly easy reach!) I need those targets, though. They motivate me. Still, even if I hit every target I set—even if I exceeded them!—I would never be an elite runner.
This is true on a lot of fronts. Try as I might, I will never be a best-selling author, a professional basketball player, a rock star, or even the world’s best dad, husband, editor, etc. Millions, nay billions of people all over the world work hard to be mediocre, to fall well short of elite.
In the West, especially in America where the narrative of the American Dream continues to run strong, mediocrity is a blight. It is something to overcome. Must this always be the case? Can being average be OK? Of course it can. Being average or mediocre is the reality of most people’s lives. That is, most people move and act in varying shades of mediocrity with varying levels of success and failure.
Mediocrity can lead to complacency, I suppose. So, of course, I will try to be a better dad, improve my skills as an editor, lower my marathon time, etc. But my knees, both real and metaphorical, will give out some times. There will always be something to remind me that I am just your average person.
I am fully aware that “average” and “mediocre” need to be parsed out for different contexts. I am equally aware that this whole post can be filed under “first world problems.” I am wrestling with the more general tension of being OK with falling short and yet striving for improvement—and in that struggle to be better, knowing that I will never be the best. I’m sure there is something theologically important in all of this reflecting, but right now I don’t have the mental space to tease it out. I’m too busy thinking about my next race! Somebody else should consider writing A Theology of Mediocrity. I could help. My editing skills are getting better everyday.
Oh boy, the day has slipped by and I haven’t posted my obligatory blog post.
Let me share two recent encounters with two of my sons. I know these sorts of things are cutesy and all, but if you can get past the cutesiness and contemplate the gravity of the two questions, I’m open to comments and suggestions about how to handle these issues.
First, the other night my wife was reading to the boys from a book about who God is. God is bread. God is friend. God is king. And so forth. At some point when the book was talking about how God gave his son, one of my six-and-a-half-year-old twins stops her and asks, “Why does God make people die? She was the one who came up with the plan that people have to die.” Note first the deeply theological reflection on death here, as well as the implied question about God sacrificing God’s own son for our sake. Those are big things to wrestle with! Even for seasoned Christians. Second, notice how freely this little boy, whose favorite teases is to talk about how much he hates girls, so loosely speaks of God with the feminine pronoun. I have no desire to change the gendered references to God. However, I am at a loss as to how to answer his question about God and death and sacrifice. When he’s older I will point him to some readings on theodicy.
Second, the other day my nearly-four-year-old was talking with his mom about life as we all get older. He was trying to imagine what it would be like for him and his brothers to be adults. And he was trying to imagine his Mommy and Papa as grandparents when he said, “How can you be a grandma with that face you have on?” Good question.
During this season of graduation my Facebook news feed is filled with graduation pictures of some of the children of my high school classmates. I got a fairly late start on parenthood and so it throws me off a little to see people with whom I graduated sharing pictures of their own children graduating. I’ve even seen a few pictures of grandchildren who are about the age of my youngest! It’s weird. That’s all I’m saying.
Along similar lines, or at least related to parenthood, the other day on a longer run (I’m training for my first marathon at 42! I seem to get started late on a lot of things) I was thinking about my childhood and the things I experienced that my boys will not. [Cue the drumroll for a corny dad joke] I guess you could say these thoughts were running through my head [duh dum dumm!]. These sorts of lists are fairly common as people reflect on previous generations. Often the lists are written as if to say, “These poor kids today won’t experience the really cool things I did.” Sure there are some wonderful things about the 70s and 80s that I wish my boys could know, but on my run I also thought about the things my boys get to experience that I wish I had had when I was a boy. Here are a few things that came to mind.
Commercials. The only time my boys see commercials are when we watch live sports. Otherwise, what little television they are allowed comes via Netflix or some other streaming service. Commercials are nowhere to be found, unless you consider Power Rangers episodes nothing more than 23-minute-long commercials for Power Rangers toys.
Information and Instructions. My twins played t-ball this past spring. I never considered how difficult it is to learn to hit and throw properly. I took them to a park the other day to play a baseball game. It was not fun. They are terrible! But they insisted on playing baseball NOT t-ball. Coaching the necessary skills to sons is not easy for fathers or sons. I had flashbacks to tension-filled times in another yard 35 or so years ago. Didn’t I pick this up more quickly than these three goof-offs? Maybe my dad was just a better coach. He almost certainly was! I had to contend with lots of tears and frustration. I also had to tend to my boys. When we got back home, I got out the iPad and looked up videos for how to throw a baseball. One of the twins sat with me and watched a few. I think he might have picked up more from those videos than he did from me at the park. He almost certainly did! His younger brother was not interested in throwing a baseball. He was too busy throwing Lego minifigures around the playroom, with terrible throwing form, by the way. The other twin, the one who has an almost unhealthy level of competitiveness, was still sulking about striking out at the park. But that same sulking six-year-old is beyond excited for the World Cup (I don’t know where he gets his enthusiasm for this event). The other day he just had to know how many times various countries had made the World Cup. By the sincerity and intensity in his voice one would think that this information was vital to his survival. The iPad again came to the rescue. A quick search and a link to Wikipedia later, we discovered Brazil has been to every World Cup ever held and China has only made one. We’ve also used the iPad to determine how many types of Tigers there are and find instructions for assembling Lego Hero Factory robots.
Professional Soccer. I know some form of professional soccer has been around for a good long while in the US, but in small-town Texas, soccer was something you knew about and maybe tried like you would fancy cheese—it’s OK but it’s more for Europeans and a few big-city folks. My boys have the luxury of growing up at a time when soccer is picking up steam in the US, there is a pretty successful professional league to follow, and access to the more refined European leagues has never been greater. Plus, we happen to live in a part of the country where fanaticism for the sport is highest. A couple of weeks ago we took a day trip to Portland, and to our surprise, all three boys wanted to get Portland Timbers hats as their reward for a good week at home and school. They’ve worn those hats almost every day since, much like I used to wear my Houston Oilers shirt when I was a little boy (I liked going against the flow in a predominantly Dallas Cowboys crazy part of the state).
An early Happy Fathers Day to all you fathers out there. Especially that father in small-town Texas who, despite the fact that I had to endure commercials with my Saturday morning cartoons and missed out on rooting for a soccer team together, still filled my childhood with lots of love and somehow taught me to throw and hit a baseball. Also a special greeting to the fathers and mothers (and grandparents!) from the Kilgore High School class of 1990.