Monthly Archives: September 2009


My Aunt Isabelle died this past weekend, and I’ve been thinking of her and touching base with Margaret and my relatives as circumstances permit. She was the eldest of my mother’s three sisters, a lovely, strong woman, a beloved mother to my cousins Martitia and Adele, and to my late cousin Daniel. We’ve had her and Martitia and Adele in our hearts for the past few days.
This morning renewed my thoughts of her when the BBC pointed to the seventieth anniversary of the evacuation of London. My mother’s family received an evacuee — Mark — into their New Haven home during those years, and the experience made a strong impression on them, which has been transmitted down through the generations (Pippa can quote extensively from Winston Churchill’s June 4, 1940 speech before the House of Commons).
Our lives were woven together in the forties, as we sheltered one another in need. Our lives intertwine and interpenetrate now more than ever. At our family gatherings, now, Aunt Isabelle will be present in loving memories, in her daughters, in her namesake (my young first cousin, once removed), in photos, and in the precious legacy of a dear, generous, resolutely good soul.

Reach For Your Fountain Pens

Both Umberto Eco and Arthur Krystal have recently published columns that portend well for writers who use fountain pens. While I don’t agree that ballpoints are intrinsically without soul, style, and personality, I think that the characteristics of ballpoints (the texture of the ink, the standardized colors and points) militate against stimulating the writer’s imagination as variously as fountain pens do. Krystal mentions only in passing that “different parts of the brain are switched on by our using a pen instead of a computer — and the cognitive differences are greater than what might be expected by the application of different motor skills,” but the broader point of his essay strikes me as quite applicable, and especially so to preachers and lecturers.
Krystal’s point ought to remind those who flatly advocate one approach to preaching or another — notes or not — that different people excel in different modes of reflection and activity (cf. St Paul on “varieties of gifts”). so no one should be so ungentle as to insist that everyone prepare and preach in the same way. Practitioners stand to learn from experiencing the modes with which they’re less comfortable, but ultimately each of us do does best to lead from strength. (And some people can read aloud well from a manuscript — think of the performers who read narrative fiction aloud on programs such as NPR’s “Selected Shorts”) — and some people can’t express themselves fluently in either spontaneous oral or composed written modes.

Pride Goeth

or something like that.
Last night when I got home from the office, I was fiddling with some of the settings on my computer and the DSL router to make the wireless connection work (I had hitherto been connecting to the router by a CAT-5 cable; how 90’s!), when I lost the connection to the ISP. I’m baffled; I don’t know what I could have done that would have interrupted the data flow from the ISP through the router; but even though the laptop connects suitably to the router, and the router shows awareness that there’s a DSL signal out there (the DSL light on the front panel lights up), ain’t nothing getting from here to there.
So I came in to the office today to chat with Margaret and check my mail. This is getting a wee bit nettlesome.

Back In The Saddle

Yesterday’s Historical Jesus seminar went so well, and the news that my home broadband connection would be up was so welcome, that I sailed through the day on a cloud of elation. I was so buoyant that I forgot that I’d agreed to meet a nearby scholar at 5:30 (I left the building, eagerly, at about 5:15, durrr; truly sorry, Nicholas).
This morning, I caught Doc for a few seconds while he was getting ready to fly back to the USA. We reminisced about the good old days, when the wireless waves rolled free and open in the UK (where, after all, Matt Jones invented the “open wifi” warchalking symbol).
It’s overcast today (at least for the moment — clouds appear and disappear here with giddying rapidity), and my James-and-Matthew class meets from 2 to 4; we’re revising Monday’s lecture on the history of Israel, addressing a student question about messianic expectation, and going over their reading of the Pirkei Avot. Then a weekend, wherein I can browse for shirts at the local charity shops, tidy up the flat, sit and read at a coffee shop, and think about my wonderful family at their varied pursuits back in the States. Mmmmmm.


Class went pretty well on Monday — so far as I can tell — especially since it was a ninety-minute rapid-fire monologue covering the history of Israel from David to the Mishnah, with twenty minutes or so reserved for varieties of Judaic identity in the first century. No one vomited (in the classroom; a couple of people slipped out to the rest room toilet). Tomorrow I meet the Honours seminar for the first time, and Friday I see how many survivors I have for Bibs 2b (the “level 2” course, in which we’ll read from the Mishnah and the Didache preparatory to reading James and Matthew). Tomorrow we’re discussing the Pirkê Avoth; how can anyone not enjoy that?
Still no connectivity at home. Someday Margaret and I’ll look back at this and marvel at how we got by for two weeks without the capacity to chat during her afternoons/my evenings, but for now we’re counting it a victory that we haven’t assaulted someone in the effort to get across the urgency of our interest in getting online.
I read David Weinberger’s notes on Clay Shirky’s lecture and thought about the extent to which newspapers provide a distant mirror to the situation of institutional education. Things for which we used to hold a cultural monopoly (instruction, accreditation, access to information) will soon be readily available online, in ways that undermine our hegemonic hold on defining these. We can hold tight to accreditation if we have strong enough brand identity (otherwise our degrees will sound no more convincing than those of diploma mills), but we’ve already lost the status of go-to sites for access to transcribed information, we’re losing our status as a unique venue for recorded instruction (branding can help, if it’s upheld vigorously), and our standing as a place in which to encounter living scholars is at some risk (if only because it will become increasingly difficult to pay for the scholars if learners begin turning in increasing numbers away from our cumbersome superstructure for learning). The Department of Theology and Religious Studies is tapping me to lead our planning for digital resources, where I will bear the unwelcome tidings that the axe is already laid to the root of the tree, and the stifling legal and institutional constraints on our department may render moot the sentiments of our members — but even if everyone jumps on board to make ours a shining example of online theo-religious academic presence, we may have to fight a losing battle. Maybe they should have picked someone else.
I’ll blog more when it can happen first thing in the morning, when I’m waking up, or later in the evening, when I’m winding down (watching American TV reruns). For now, I’ll leave an occasional marker here so you don’t forget me.

Glasgow And Me

People keep asking, “What’s it like in Glasgow?” and “How are you doing?” The short answers are “Lovely” and “Doing all right”; the long answer to both is, “It’s more complicated than that.”
Glasgow first: Magpies instead of crows ( I don’t even see that many pigeons here).
Sandstone buildings everywhere; the question is “Red sandstone or yellow sandstone?”
Cloudy skies much of the time, but not as wet as one might think (so far) (Of course, it’s supposed to rain all day tomorrow, and my overcoat hasn’t arrived yet. If Samuel L Jackson is reading this, would you consider mailing me one of your full-length black coats? Thanks).
This “drive on the left” practise has effects beyond the obvious. A great many behaviours follow from the initial axiom that one drives on the left. For instance, the whole notion of a “passing lane” changes. For another, the habit of making eye contact with the driver when one is crossing the street works much less well when it turns out that you’ve been staring at the passenger.
Almost every restaurant I’ve seen has a vegetarian option, frequently a vegan option. Unfortunately, they rarely offer more than one or two, so if you don’t like those (or if they emphasize tomatoes, as many do), it’s hard luck. If you do like it, you’re in for a lot of repetition.
I like living as a pedestrian, but Glasgow is distinctly hilly — and my walk to and from work begins and ends on hills, with a more level stretch in the middle. From Partickhill to Hyndland, there’s a serious slope; then from Hyndland to Byres Road, it’s much more even. From Byres Road to the University, it’s uphill again (especially the short stretch from the gate I enter to the building that houses Theology). So every day, my walk begins comfortably enough heading downhill, but winds up with a steep uphill stretch.
I like Glaswegians, although I have to ask people to repeat themselves embarrassingly often. They (mostly) indulge me with a smile. I haven’t explored much yet, but I look forward to learning more about the neighborhoods beyond the West End.
I hadn’t been listening to much music, partly because I wanted to learn to hear Glasgow, and partly because my iPhone now functions almost exclusively as a music player, and carrying one more electronic item (besides my actual mobile phone, for which Thanks, Gary!), seemed unnecessary. Yesterday and today I took the iPhone on my walk, and listening to music that I love contributed to a notable uptick in my feelings. That, together with the recollection that I can use the iPhone’s wifi even though I can’t use it for phone or phone-based data transmission, has me thinking again about jailbreaking it.
That reminds me that I’m startled by how security-conscious institutions in the UK seem. The folks I meet every day aren’t suspicious or unfriendly, but the University network is more tightly locked-down than any I’ve worked on in ages, and practically every net access point I see is password-protected. I can think immediately of several places in Durham and Evanston where you could easily catch open wifi signals, no big deal; here, even the cafes that offer free internet require that you enter a secret password for the day. And considering the size of Glasgow and the presence of students, there are startlingly few places that offer free net access at all. It won’t irk me so much once the broadband at my flat actually starts working, but for now it’s an unsettling nuisance.
That touches on the “How are you?” question, and in a sense I’m certainly doing quite well. Sleep is reliable and comfortable. My colleagues have welcomed me with intoxicating warmth. I’ve been eating frugally, but with a view toward getting my fruits and veggies, and minimizing carbs and fats. And of course, I’m getting a lot of walking in!
All that, however, masks some real and persistent stresses that accompany intercultural displacement, isolation (aggravated by my relative lack of connectivity apart from working hours; Margaret and I have to get by with truly minimal interaction), the limitations of having only one suitcase of clothing, and the fact that it’ll be another two weeks till I’m paid. I could handle the relocation stress and loneliness much more manageably if (a) I had pots of money, so could just spend on clothing and eat out and pay per-hour for cafe wireless and seek out self-indulgent treats without thinking twice; (b) I were less committed to eating more carefully, so that I might consume more of the bready foods that surround me in a carb-driven food culture; (c) many of the social settings didn’t require intermittent expenses like cups of coffee or pints of beer; (d) my shipment of books and clothing would arrive (two formal shirts in my closet); (e) the economics of everyday life here didn’t differ from the USA in ways to which I’m not yet accustomed, so that I have to calculate all the time, and make judgments based on unanticipated differences in expense; and (f) a few other things. The simplest angle would just be to use money freely to ameliorate most of my frustrations, but we don’t really have access to cash till payday (and family and friends have already supported me very, very generously — thank you all very much!).
So I’m resolving to spend more of my day in social space (office and flat don’t count), and to spending a little more money than my frugal self would ordinarily venture to. The difference between a cup of instant coffee made at home and a brewed cup at a cafe isn’t only the £1.80, but also the spiritual cost of isolation. And a few pounds on bottled ink, or a shirt, or subway fare (as Steve was pointing out to me yesterday, just riding on the world’s cutest subway makes you cheerier), or a dinner out, may strain the budget, but they relieve very real tensions and burdens.
Tomorrow is my first class; that’ll absolutely help too.
So I think I’ll head out to get a bite of dinner and maybe a pint, and to log in somewhere to post this update. Glasgow is lovely and delightful, and I’m orienting myself to it gradually. And I’m doing fine, I’m doing all right — better and better.

Status Quaestionis

It’s been a very busy week. I have to prepare two and a half syllabuses for course systems that I don’t know from the inside, for courses I’ve never taught before (well, I’ve taught Historical Jesus several times, but not in this configuration). Plus, I have to put the letter “u” in various wourds to prove my fealty to the croun.
That part has mostly come together, but my flat is and will be offline for the foreseeable future. That means that the principal means of communication on which Margaret and I planned to rely has been cut off. We can communicate easily during the afternoon when I’m at work (1 PM here is 8 AM in Margaret-land). Once I go home, we can text each other, but that gets expensive fast. We’re managing, but the world will be a happier place when we can chat in the evening ( = afternoon in Margaret-land). Maybe sometime next week? Or the week after?
My possessions have landed in the UK, but they haven’t cleared customs. Once they do, they’ll wend their way northward till they come to my office building (where some will be carried upstairs to the seventh heavens, and a few boxes will come home to provide a much-needed degree of variety to my wardrobe). Still no word on when, though.
I think I’ve figured out how the washer-dryer works. I’ll give it another test run this weekend. Apart from that, I’ll be fine-tuning syllabuses, perhaps participating in “Doors Open Days” in Glasgow, I’ll make sure to hit a cafe sometime in the afternoon or evening (to catch up on email and perhaps glimpse Margaret online) — maybe I’ll pop in at the office. And read, and watch TV. See you around….

Oh, Right

I was aware that my students this year would be younger — mostly second-year undergraduates — and was thinking about my courses with that in view. What I hadn’t remembered was what that implied about the pitch of campus life. For some reason, Seabury didn’t have “Freshers Week” with numerous bar-sponsored vans parked along Sheridan Road, pumping out high-volume dance music to win the patronage of seminarians. No live bands rocking the refectory, no drunk students vomiting in front of the main gates. (If I’m wrong about that last one, don’t tell me.)
In other words: Oh, yeah, this is a large urban public university.
The Head of Department just offered me the chance to sub for a few of the Early Church History lectures in October: 5th October – Life, Worship, and Ministry in the Early Church; 6th October – Doctrinal Controversies; 8th October – Formation of the Christian Canon/Christian Literature; 12th October – Constantine; 13th October – Augustine. It’ll make for a crazy couple of weeks, but I’m pleased to help out. You know I love early church history. And there’s a small emolument, which will allow me to perk up my ramen diet.
On an unrelated note, I was pleased to see our family friend Stan Leavy get some appreciative attention in the New Haven Register. Would have been great if the article set the Soup Kitchen more clearly in the context of Christ Church, but the congregation wasn’t the point of the article — Stan was, and deservedly so.

Tell Me About Your Week

It seems impossible that I’ve been in Glasgow less than a week. If old age speeds time up, perhaps we can counteract that effect by moving from familiar surroundings to strange new cities, every week or two. On the other hand, it’s so exhausting that the perceived protraction of time is squandered by naps and lassitude.
I flew from Durham last Sunday afternoon. The flight experience was unremarkable, save that I only got bout ninety minutes’ sleep on the overnight to Glasgow, and the elderly 757 had only a few screens, showing all the same programming (and the one nearest me was dimmer than optimal, so the darker scenes in A Night At The Museum: Smithsonian escaped me.
I arrived at Glasgow on schedule, and was permitted through immigration after a thorough (but agreeable) questioning. There were no customs inspectors in sight (literally; one could have smuggled any sort of contraband into Scotland). Since I arrived at the crack of dawn, though, and had no keys to my flat, I hauled my baggage up to the upper-level dining area to pass an hour or so drinking coffee and trying to think through the fact that I now live in Scotland.
I then took a cab into downtown Glasgow (at rush hour) to obtain my keys from the landlord’s solicitor. After an hour or so, the lease was ready, I signed, received the keys, and took a cab out to my new neighborhood. I opened the flat, unpacked my clothes into the closet, and hiked from the flat to the Department of Theology and Religious Studies to show them that I actually exist. They showed me my new office — third (= US “fourth”) floor walk-up — and greet some of my new colleagues. Then, suddenly, I was overwhelmed with weariness and staggered home.
This is where the story gets weird. When I arrived at my flat, barely conscious, I couldn’t manage to open the doorknob lock. I turned and twisted and pushed and pulled for ten minutes or so, but nothing worked. I asked my friendly downstairs neighbor to give it a go; he tried for another fifteen minutes. Since I didn’t have a mobile phone, I asked whether I might use his phone to call my landlord’s solicitor. I called her, she called my landlord, my landlord called my neighbor, and eventually soeone in the chain arranged for a team of joiners (yes, “joiners,” just as in Midsummer’s Night Dream) to come pry open the door and replace the knob. As it turns out, they had to break the doorknow off the door altogether, and they wouldn’t have a replacement knob-lock assembly till the next day. By now, it was about 5:00 Monday afternoon, and I still hadn’t slept more than 90 minutes since Saturday night. I collapsed, slept and waked in alternating shifts till morning, when I woke up and prepared to greet the joiners.
(More after church)