My Dad and Me, Part 10

Perpetuation

The gravity of the sun is exactly the thing needed to cause hydrogen atoms to fuse with helium atoms, creating a fusion reactor at the center of our solar system. The gravity of the sun is also exactly the thing needed to capture other bodies, which, in various ways, orbit it. Some bodies orbit regularly, a safe distance away; others are too far away for any benefit. Some are definitely too close (e.g., my Uncle Forehead), while yet others orbit irregularly.

Thus my grandfather, who died in 1967 at the age of 76, six years before I was born. My dad was 26, living at home four years after a tour in the Navy. My dad talked frequently and endlessly about his dad, telling story after story, trying to “regularize,” I think, a terrible upbringing. One criticism I had of my dad, when I was younger, and foolish, was that he made a virtue out of poverty, which really hurt us. Later, another criticism I had of my dad, when I was a little older and a little wiser, was that he would not take care of his wife, which really hurt us, even when we four children were all adults.

Yes, my dad spoke of his dad often, I think trying to understand the effect such a figure—this giant radiating source of emotional fusion—what effect this man had on his own person, the ninth of twelve children brought forth by this towering, physical hulk of a figure who was supposed to never father a child, but who, wounded, brought many forth and wounded them by his wounds, a terrible perversion of the great type of father.

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My dad pristinated, that is, he tried to convince us that life in rural Alabama on a farm in 1950 governed by a man driven mad by physical and psychological pain was the best life imaginable. In many ways, considering the geographical setting and the freedom thereof, he is absolutely right. When he brought me to the Mulberry Fork of the Warrior River to relive his childhood and also teach me basic outdoorsmanship, he fostered in me a love for hills, the forest, and running water.

We were swimming in the river, naked, of course, whooping and hollering. He showed me how to cross my arms over my chest and lie on my back, letting the current pick me up and shoot me feet-first through two big rocks into a deep pool. I must have been seven years old. When I came up for air, in absolute exhilaration, I saw him looking up at the sky. A muscle in his jaw went taut.

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“Run with me,” he said. The tone in his voice needed no increased volume, nor did he need to repeat: he was afraid. We scrambled for shore and heard the first crack of thunder, none of that low, rolling, boom which warns those who live in the flat lands so that they may make preparation: a true crack and smash, a million tin-roofed houses being thrown against the bluffs all at once, announcing the arrival of God Almighty.

We were in a chasm, lined by tall granite bluffs, and they were funneling the energy of this squall upstream from around a bend, right toward us, these stately gray bluffs, mute faces judging us in our nakedness, challenging us to make it home alive. Here it came, and there we went, running upstream, running, tripping, falling, for every tree root reached up, allies of the granite faces, grasping for our ankles. Dad knew the way; I did not. He reached back for me and threw me over every obstruction. It did no good for him to carry me; he would only be tripped all the more easily, top-heavy with his only son.

Sheets of rain pelted us from behind while my dad searched with his eyes up the bluffs, looking for the demi-cave, and, finding it, he switched us back up the bank into the granite bluff. He grasped my arm and threw me into the darkest reach of that overhang, roof black with the fires of Indians from long ago. I buried my face in the sand while my dad pressed himself against me. I heard something like a train pass by, the wail of judgment passing over us, and then I heard my dad sigh. He released me, and we sat on the edge of the cave, sheltered by the overhang. One more blast of wind caused the forest to shudder, shaking loose all the rainwater all at once, much of it around us landing in the river to add percussive rejoicing to the congratulatory shout of the rapids. We had proven ourselves. My dad had proven himself a father.

Love includes proper fear, especially when you love a force much greater than yourself.

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The Old Man is dead since 2005, and still I tell these stories, as they percolate while I interact with my own four sons, little mirrors, growing, so that I see my dad increasingly clearly in them, which must mean I see my grandfather in me.

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The John Duke family, in large part. Sister in black gave birth in November. I’m in the middle, back row. I look almost exactly like my dad did when he was 45.

I meant to start Part 10 here with the word “Anxiety,” but I thought, “No, a metaphor first,” and then it got away from me. The gravity of the sun, you see, is the metaphor for our anxiety, that great big force within us which cannot be defined, not any more than the fusion caused by the sun can be defined. I mean, sure, the science textbooks can show us the movement of the subatomic particles from one atom to another, and they can declare, “And a great deal of energy is released,” just so, but who can imagine such a release of energy? Who can understand the pressing forth of tears? Who can understand the declaration to a veteran of a horrible battle, “You shall not father children”? It is not scientific, not any more than trying to describe to people, “Yes, she suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” without punching the next guy in the face who says, “Well, why can’t she just think happier?”

Unleashing. We have a proper word for this, see? It is an unleashing of energy. And it, like life, goes on.


Note: I’m going to pause here for a while. 1) I got really sick between Part 9 and Part 10, hence the month-long delay, and, I think, the shift in theme and emphasis. So it goes. 2) There are other things I’d like to write about, and I don’t have all the time in the world, as some people who work in tall buildings in the Greatest City in the World do. 3) I want to return to these topics and write serials about them each on their own. 4) Naturally I will tell more stories about my father and my grandfather because they percolate endlessly. 5) I don’t tell too many stories about my mother and siblings because I’m more sensitive to their feelings, being objects, as it were, of the energy unleashed upon them. Also, they have not been dead for 14 years.

Ta-ta for now.

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The Loud Thing Quiet

Unquiet has crept into the warp and woof of my daily sensibility. Disquiet, perhaps. Restlessness in conscience.

I have settled firmly into middle-age. It began five years ago, on my fortieth birthday, when, just as my elders predicted, my eyes began to shut down. Let me qualify that: I still have perfect vision, 20/20, clear as Burl Ives’s Lipton Tea, up until about four feet in front of me, and at that distance coming in, I emit high-pitched yelps to determine location and motion.

After a period of mourning, I made my way to the local apothecary, made visual contact with the proper aisle from the doorway, then, as I approached the reading glasses section, I slowed down, the weight of middle-age anchoring my every step. Youth stood somewhere outside, waiting for the next gust of wind to carry it away. My hand reached out, fumbling for a pair of reading glasses, any pair that I might hold up to my eyes so that I could read the advertised power of magnification on the various offerings of the entire inventory of reading glasses. I found a pair which suited me practically: very narrow rectangular glasses over which I might peer at recalcitrant students. I scowled in the mirror at the sight: reflected back at me was an adult version of myself. Then, without having to move my feet, I reached over to pick up a bottle of analgesic (heh: he said “anal”), and I began to read it.

For the first time in a considerable number of months, I felt joy, and it was the joy of relief, for I could read once more, and I could read without suffering. The lights in the building suddenly flickered, and as I looked up, I heard a sudden gust of wind, a short, fresh breeze, and then it was gone.

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The preparation of youth to ride on the career arc is a preparation filled with anticipation, a sack of doubts enclosed each by a little plastic egg of knowledge–Knowledge–the ground upon which we tread in order to shuffle around on this groundless mortal coil. Indeed, youth does somehow blossom, as experience teaches us failure and success, more or less, for some more or less than others, the pink blossoming yielding to rich green, perhaps a little money in the bank, a spouse, a house, a bigger apartment on the way to a suburban home in which to continue growing and prospering. The early stages of prosperity is our obsession, and our minds are ever fixed upon it. The first whispers are heard but not heard.

It is all for nothing.

“I am rising in my field of expertise! See, I have established myself! Even failure is a learning experience, a temporary setback, a springboard from which to leap up and forward, wiser, craftier, warier.”

The birds of the air and varmints of the earth find the fruit of your vine to be very sweet indeed, and free. New York State grins, saying, “Thank you very much.” The Treasury Department of the United States scowls, saying, “You should be grateful we leave you anything at all.” You find yourself thinking forbidden conservative thoughts, but you comfort yourself, saying, “‘Tis libertarian, dammit, not conservative.” As soon as you think those thoughts, the institutions which preserve for you a modicum of happiness and comfort approach, hat in one hand, other hand outstretched, eyes low, “Please, sir, your children thus benefit.” And you put money in the outstretched hand, and a little more in the hat.

It seizes you, the loud thing, shouting when you try to sleep, “IT IS ALL ASHES!”

“No, no. It is sweet fruit of my labor. I taste a little bit of it; it tastes of prosperity, of longevity, of fortitude! See? I can see it! I have reading glasses now!”

ASH!

Breath quickens and labors, the fruit of which is open eyes, aching shoulders, crazed twilight fantasies of an arc which is pointed downward. What seemed a gentle grade yielding after a length of time to the end of it all has steepened dramatically, ending in a sucking maw.

“Father. Husband. Vocation. Avocation. Citizen. They’re going to take it all away. All of it.” These are mere offices, at that, without any inherent malice in and of themselves; they represent how we even awaken to the rising sun.

The coil of mortality tightens ever so. It is the loud thing, sending whispers over every single thing you propose to do.

The mediocrity I can live with; the general futility troubles me greatly. I thought I was pursuing him, but it is not so; he has only waited for me, and I am his. I thought I would advance some ideal, even in mediocrity, just pushing the thing forward infinitesimally, along with all my peers, in the right direction, but there is no pushing the thing. It is ephemeral, a cloud, a deception, not even a coherent dream. It is, indeed, an arc which ends in utter meaninglessness. Why do we percolate so?  Why do we puff ourselves up over accomplishment? Why do we think we can see what is right before us?

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Helen Keller

Yet we say to ourselves: isn’t life so much better? See these graphs! Poverty is being eradicated the world over! But to what? Toward a sun which will wink out? To alleviate our suffering and the suffering of others to help endure the blink of an eye we appear? We are by far the most prosperous people in the history of the world, yet we are by far the most unhappy, contentious, childish wretches in the same measure. We are decidedly ungrateful, a spoiled lot of undisciplined toddlers, emotionally underdeveloped babies, despite all our self-praise through various international prizes and awards. How do we see ourselves in this way?

It is a malady of the human heart, I think, to know with absolute certainty that we are to make progress to a kind of permanent prosperity, but with equal certainty knowing that such permanence is fleeting. A notion of preserving something “for the children” is a noble one, but it is not anything at all. As Michael Jackson taught us, we are the children. What he never taught us was of whom we are the children. He did not because he could not. Not even he could see the object of our desire.

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If I may speculate on the crisis which afflicts the middle-aged, we who eschew checking the clock in the middle of the night for the effort of finding one’s reading glasses, it is just this unanswered question: the days of being cared for are long gone; the days of caring for are waning quickly. And what then? I suppose one ceases avoiding the anxiety, standing to, representing in your body a piece of eternity, if there is such a thing, getting on with it because that’s what there is to do: get on with it.

As for me: it’s time for me to drive my kid to hockey practice.

Nihil Nisi Bonum

Death made an unexpected visitation upon one of our friends, and now he is excluded from our company, unless you happen to be of his faith, and then you are excluded from his company, for the time being, and, really, only by sight. As such, he has unfortunately embodied this website. Brock Cusick, requiescat in pace.

I was thinking about–can’t help but think about–our last conversation. It was…how shall we say…not one I wish was our last, but it stands as our last conversation, and it was unpleasant, so there you go. Until the great test of my faith shall come, it will remain standing as a monument to the ruin wrought by pettiness. How petty? How petty a conversation is it that mars the dignity of a perfectly innocent, genuine, kind, nihil nisi bonum fellow? He was giving me a hard time about my decision for my D&D character to roll initiative at disadvantage, and I was annoyed. That’s how petty.

I’m 45 years old with four children! He was 39 years old with three children! And all the responsibilities thereof, which we commonly consider of adulthood, requiring some measure of gravitas, sobriety, and maturity! It was so petty, so petty, but it was the last conversation I ever had with Brock. He private-messaged me, which annoyed me, but that was Brock. That was his way. And he was adorable that way, a wonderful teddy bear of a man, but I was so annoyed.

There was another important death in my life, one which I may or may not write about all the time, and I know without being told that his wife–the fellow who died importantly, his wife–I know she was in the room screaming at him about something, probably something important, and she walked away–he was standing while they argued, not at all ill, not visibly, accomplishing some chores around the house–she walked away, and when she returned a few moments later, he was dead on the floor.

And so we are excluded from each other. It is true.

Only in part, I think. A marriage of over thirty years, even a rocky one, has probably established some rather deep roots, giving life to life, a grandeur nourished to grow around a knot. Brock was kind to me, and I, to a lesser degree, was kind to him. In addition to the faith we share, we have nourishment in kindness which does not have to be overcome by the rot of pettiness. This petty conversation we had is no horrible disfigurement; it is a knot, character for the grand old living tree.

I was afraid to go to bed on Monday night, the day I learned Brock died. I was afraid in the realization that I could be so reaped by death, and excluded, leaving my wife and children excluded from me and all the roles I fulfill for them, along with friends, students, clients, and family. Unable to sleep, I wandered from room to room in the house, resolving to behave more gently, kindly, and, as it is with teenagers in the house, with long-suffering fortitude. I sincerely hope that I have been properly chastised, on the one hand, to act as fertile soil for the roots necessary for relationships to grow. I sincerely hope that I have been comforted, on the other hand, so that I can forgive myself for being so bloody annoyed at Brock.

I think it is childish and entirely selfish for me to have said, as I have been saying, “I never want to make another friend ever again.” For all the unnecessary hurt we dole out to each other, even by dying, kindness is far more nourishing towards growth, far more than withdrawal.

Philosophy as Genre

As we walked along the paved path in Millerton, NY, my father posed to me this question:

“What is the point of all this reading you’re doing? What are you trying to accomplish?”

My father is hardly the type to suggest one ought to read less, and he is without a doubt where I inherited my habit – some might say compulsion – of regular reading.  Yet his reading is often directed by some overarching questions or project. So what he was asking me was not “why are you reading so much,” but “what’s the goal? What’s driving it?”

If I had to answer, I’d have to say: more questions than I can count. More than I know how to formulate.

I started out on the trajectory that ended up shifting my reading habits from being heavily skewed towards popular nonfiction towards being heavily skewed towards academic philosophy with some specific questions and even a specific project, which has been all but abandoned.

What I came to feel was that philosophy could not provide satisfying answers to those questions. Literature and poetry and art in general are, without a doubt, more fertile grounds of exploration.

Yet after concluding this, I continued to read philosophy. If anything, I read more of it.

Hence my father’s question.

The answer is simple: because I love it.

Richard Rorty said that philosophy is a kind of writing, which is not quite right: it is a genre, and like science fiction it can take forms other than writing. To the tradition of thought we could broadly characterize as rationalist, this is a heresy; to them, philosophy is modeled on science, not literature. To model it on literature is simply a sign of the unseriousness of pragmatists like Rorty and postmodernists like Derrida.

But to say so is to presume that science is serious while literature and art are not. This is precisely what I would dispute, with Rorty. Great literature and art have the potential to broaden our horizons, to teach us about life and the human experience. To show us the way to wisdom.

Philosophy, like other genres, can broaden our horizons as well.

Or perhaps I’m simply an unserious person, putting off the literature and poetry I ought to be reading more of, in favor of philosophy, my favorite guilty pleasure.

The Safety Razor

My friend Adam Gurri (who, if you didn’t know, adds excellent content to this blog on a regular basis) recommended, upon being asked, that I try a safety razor instead of a disposable razor. He recommended a particular style and brand, which I used as a basis to pick one for myself. When it came in the mail, I inserted the razor blade, tightened the nut, lathered up, and became grateful to Adam for the recommendation.

My father taught me how to shave, one of the greatest days of my life, that he should look at me and see that I need to shave, and that he should be the one to teach me. This was thirty years ago, I think, when I was 15 years old (I know without a doubt it was before I was 16). He demonstrated very clearly, using a not-inexpensive disposable razor. These were the days when a wet-shaving disposable razor had only two tiny blades embedded within.

“It’s your face,” my dad said. Now, we were not terribly poor, but neither were we rich. When he died, I discovered that he had basically kited credit card bills from that era unto the next one, which endured, say, fifteen years, just to float the family along in a lower-middle-class lifestyle. The four of us had the opportunity to go to college, in other words. Yet he was buying the expensive disposable razors.

“It’s your face, the first thing you present to people. You want to give them a well-groomed face, something pleasant to look at, not something pock-marked, scraped, and spoiled.” Then he showed me how to shave in the direction of my whiskers, even teaching me that it changes direction at certain spots on my neck. I must say, I had very few shaving-related blemishes throughout the remainder of my adolescence. On one occasion I sneezed and cut myself. I was late for school, bearing the cuts below my mouth, but that is all.

A year or two before he died, I discovered in the back of his station wagon (“Old Woodie” he called it) a sack full of the cheapest disposable razors available. I confronted him. He replied, “Aw, Dave, it’s just a face scrape. One scrape is as good as another.” He had just filed for bankruptcy after incurring some massive expenses due to the mental health issues of his adopted son–along with some other, er, irregularities that life had presented him, shall we say…

I did not believe him. As I have grown into middle-age, I have maintained his original philosophy of a well-groomed face as a presentation to the world. It is, first, love for self, which in turn becomes love for neighbor, and readily so. “Look,” I say when I present a groomed face, “I love myself, and I love you so much that I should care for myself to be in your company inoffensively, as inoffensively as I am lovingly able.”

In the meantime, disposable razors–or the industry thereof–has become risible. Not two blades! No, no longer two, but three! Three? No, four! Five! A million! And with comfort grooves here, flexion there, lubricating strips below! Were you just now comfortable with the last improvement? Now we shall reduce the quality suddenly and precipitously, in order to encourage you to move to the next, more expensive solution to face presentation.

But this is not necessary, is it? Men have been presenting their faces to the world, and in much more expectant societies than ours–for thousands of years! A proper razor is a piece of metal polished properly. That is all. The rest of the presentation is a little skill coupled with a little love.

Now for me, I am not brave enough to put a straight razor to my face, considering the fact that my father taught me with a disposable razor. I do wonder, however, how it is he abandoned the razor of his youth, the safety razor with its easy replaceable blade, a very cheap piece of properly polished metal, for the abomination that is known as the disposable razor. Was it the lure of the “space age”? The call of mid-Century ineluctable advance toward true technological utopia? Was it laziness? Was it loss of love?

I miss seeing his face, and talking to him. I’m grateful to him for teaching me to shave, but I’d like to ask him what it was that set him on a path, beginning with the disposable razor, leading to “one face scrape is as good as another.”

Whatever it was, he certainly traded away quality for it.

 

3, 2, 1…Let’s Jam

The graduate program in economics at George Mason University was a formal community of a very particular sort. As students, we had been granted membership in that community though a selective (or so I tell myself) admissions process, and kept it by paying out tuition and keeping a full course load (without failing out). We learned economics, yes, but we also learned a common language; the language of Hayek, of Ostrom, and above all, of Coase. In social gatherings among classmates, future spouses joked to one another that they were quite tired of hearing about this Coase fellow. Near the end of the program, some of us wondered out loud, “what are we going to do when we have to go out into the world and never be surrounded by so many people like us?”

We have all managed to survive, somehow. My career has had very little to do with what I learned there, and was probably only impacted in ways that (GMU econ professor) Bryan Caplan would appreciate.

But what I really came away from GMU with was a connection to their scene.

In 2008 when I started the Master’s program there, the department was fairly unique in the high number of professors writing on blogs or putting out podcasts. Part of my desire to enter the program stemmed from having followed these professors beforehand. But it wasn’t until after I started that I really dived in deep.

A scene is different from a community, though it is no less “imagined;” that is, the intersubjective product of games played among meaning-making individuals. In the online scene of which the GMU econ professors are still a part, they form a sort of center of gravity; one network cluster among a few, the boundaries of which are ill-defined and ever shifting. Where communities are shaped by membership and belonging, scenes are shaped by audience and participation.

A common audience forms the glue between GMU econ blogs and podcasts, Slate Star Codex, Modeled Behavior, and a constellation of sites and communities that form the scene I used to be an active participant in. This audience participates in shared experiences – in this case, most frequently shared experiences of media consumption. There was frequently a book of the moment, which everyone who was part of the scene either read or read about. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation was an example that comes to mind, but the book does not necessarily have to be by someone in the scene, or even have much to do with the typical interests of the audience in that scene.

A coworker who follows the comedy scene closely gave me a good example of this recently. He said that a comedian’s wife had passed away and her book would be published posthumously, so the comedian was promoting it on comedy podcasts even though it had nothing to do with comedy. This coworker said that he decided to give the book a shot, if for no other reason than everyone else would be, and he wanted to get the jokes about it and other references to it. You don’t have to keep up with every new text embraced by the scene, but if you stop keeping up with any of them, you’re likely to find yourself falling out of its orbit.

Membership offers a formal boundary for communities, in relationality if not in geography. I don’t want to exaggerate the concreteness of communities; there is churn, there is overlap with other communities, and there’s substantial grey area. But the ebb and flow of scenes is of another order entirely. Participation, either in the audience or as the object of their attention, is more easily withdrawn than membership, which often requires some formal step. More to the point, it is far easier to dip your toes in. You can go to one metal concert without becoming a part of the metal scene. It’s a far bigger hurdle to become even a part time student at a university. And when you do, there is a paper trail to show it; the line between when you go from a casual concert-goer to a part of the metal scene is vague in the extreme.

Scenes are often called “communities” as in “the online economics community”, and that’s fine; that’s one way the word is used. I distinguish between communities and scenes here not to get at the essence of either word, but merely to observe that there is a distinction to be made. Formal community and scenes are two forms of meaningful existence in the modern world, where we have left the primordial village community of the Romantics’ fantasies far behind.

Frameworks, Models, and Math

One could go mad seeking a vocabulary to speak of vocabulary, a language to speak of language.

A framework is a shared semantic web, a range of possible pragmatic moves to make in language-games played with fellow adherents as well as with proponents of alternatives. In short, it is a language.

A model is a much more regimented language; its moves are fewer but more penetrating, the domain of its meanings narrower but, one hopes, more illuminating if kept within those confines. In economics, all they taught us were models. Even at the not-particularly-mathematical George Mason University Department of Economics, there was no substitute for the value of a formal model. Simplicity in the model was pared with sophistication in collecting the larger menu of models; we were taught to be undoctrinaire about models that might add up to an inconsistent whole, so long as the application brought us closer to truth for the matter at hand. Somehow, though, these models all fit comfortably inside of a utilitarian framework, albeit the more qualitatively sensitive and uncertainty-emphasizing Austrian variety.

Models turn out to have an unusual portability. The economic models, as I mentioned, were clearly utilitarian in design. They existed in a hermeneutic circle with utilitarian frameworks; the model as the part and the framework as the whole. The law of supply and the law of demand, perfect competition or price discrimination, are all models that are seemingly incomprehensible without a foundation of utilitarian assumptions.

And yet, these assumptions can be relaxed. Perhaps not entirely eradicated. But a humanist like Deirdre McCloskey can comfortably turn these models into metaphors and integrate the “P(rudence)” values into a framework which includes “S(acred)” ones.

But such an integration has its costs, or at least its impact. McCloskey is no mystic. Integrating the economists’ prudent models transforms the framework they are integrated into, just as the models themselves must be transformed as they enter into a new hermeneutic circle with a different whole.

Of course, Gadamer emphasized that all understanding is a creative act, and transformative. All fusions of horizons leave both horizons forever changed. The utilitarian is transformed merely in the act of applying his model to a specific case, just as certainly as the humanist is transformed by integrating models of utilitarian origin.

As I thought about these things, my mind wandered to the question of math. Math, like models, is quite regimented. So much so that – again, like models – it requires a less regimented language in order to provide the resources to explain it, discuss what is going on in a given example, and so on. Nevertheless, there are few things more portable than math. Mathematicians do their work in a staggering variety of vernaculars. And their work can be understood without too much explanation by mathematicians who do not share a common tongue.

It is no wonder that math so dazzled the Pythagoreans and Platonists, seeming to transcend the contingencies of language as it does. But it does not truly transcend those contingencies. The positivist dream of a perfectly rational language is long dead; mathematics requires the resources of unregimented, highly contingent language in order to be understood and to be maintained (never mind further developed). Math itself is, as I said, a regimented language. But it is not just another language. There truly is something miraculous about it, and about the portability of models and of meanings, across the creative and transformative gulf of fused horizons.

Templates Overlaying Expectations, and Futility

I was trained, I think, to have a lot of kids, a cache, as it were, for the world to consume, or, perhaps, to protect from the world, but who can do that when one is shielding his own face from the ceaseless blows? Maybe I wasn’t trained, but it was modeled for me. I liked the idea of having many children, but I wasn’t particularly enthralled with the idea of it. Nevertheless, when I met a girl who expressed a desire to have many children, a quiver full of arrows, as it were, with which to conquer the world, standing strong in the ceaseless battle, well, who can resist? So I married her.

We snapped into a template quite quickly, into career obligations (we thought they were obligations). The institutions of this present evil age foster themselves as protectors and guides, and they eject a newly married couple of individuals into the fray with promises of further protection and guidance, but when you look back at the fortresses of the institutions of your trust, you see that they are being assailed without cessation, and if you have the will to look closely, you see that the worst of the flames are being set from those whose charge is the maintenance and operation of the institutions. And so you are demoralized. They said “career,” and I with the wife of my youth said, “okay,” then chafed, then fell away, and we found ourselves abandoned. This is a template. It happens predictably to a subset of human beings (oh, how I hate that designation; what are we? Are we human beings? Aren’t we a communion, man and wife?) every single day. And the outcry goes up into outer space, swallowed by the beepings of exploring satellites and the wind of the sun. Will Jupiter turn his eye upon us in mercy? The bloated god will only flatulate and turn away.

We fell when we fell away. “Just desserts!” cried out the men. “You have become to us as rebels.”

“But we are your own flesh and blood!”


We had two children at the time, and circumstances convinced us that two was enough. Those two would help us limp along to the end, whence they, perhaps, according to hope, could bound away. This is also common.

But we were expected to have more children. By whom? Ghosts, I should think. Spirits and unseen powers, bidding us to resume that good work, as it is also enjoyable. Career had failed us (and we certainly failed it) and progress was in ruins, so why not flex ourselves, as man and wife, and shatter the template?

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An Asshole to the End

A few days after Peter died, I got a text from his pastor telling me Peter wanted me to read John 11 at his funeral. “That asshole!” was my reflexive response. The request was true to his character.

John 11, he knows, I cannot read at a funeral whose corpse I do not know, not without being overcome with the emotional force, so for him to make a dying request that I read over his was a coup de grâce upon our friendship, which death ended. That was it. It was over. The text made it plain: Peter is dead.

A thousand people moseyed over to the big Lutheran church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Of the thousand, I knew Angie, his wife. It’s possible some others from the early days of our friendship in the mid-90s were there, but I would only have recognized their faces and known nothing more about them. A thousand people, and never did I feel so alone, not even when my father died, for in that case I had my three sisters and my mother.

That one was also a rather large intrusion of claimants to the corpse. They had to have two separate funerals for my dad: one in southern Louisiana, where he died; another in northern Alabama, where he was raised. I skipped the first one because of the many claimants I would not have known. Besides, I had what they call a “complicated” relationship with my father, a deep and abiding love which was made white hot by long-standing patricidal notions borne of deep-seated philosophical disagreements, which were, at his death, which was sudden, then peppered with anger and guilt, as one would be when one hates how one was raised. I was a pastor’s kid. My dad was a Lutheran pastor. His many surviving brothers and sisters and their families and extended families, along with his childhood friends, were jammed into the Lutheran church in Hanceville, Alabama, where his mother was baptized by a Lutheran pastor from Milwaukee sometime in the 1940s, along with five of her children, including my father, who was five years old at the time. She was an American Indian. It was the Lutheran pastor from Milwaukee who broke down that racial barrier.

His corpse was in the narthex (the common area before you go into the sanctuary (the main room of the church where all the pews are)), a week old already, having sat in refrigeration during a particularly warm August, having been transported within the mysteries of the mortuary crafts from Louisiana to Alabama. We greeted family and friends, and they were seated. As it was, I had not seen the corpse, and I requested to see him with my sisters and mother. The mortician turned the appropriate latches, raised the lid, and there was my father, laid out in sacramental splendor, to be buried in his priestly garments, including a golden chasuble. When I reacted, every head in the sanctuary snapped back to stare. My mother comforted me. Peter was a pastor’s kid, too.

There is an expectation–at least, there was an expectation for a pastor’s kid, especially the pastor’s son, placing him on one of the two paths he can go by. He can either adopt a Pharisee’s mien, the faultless son of the Most High Pastor, who himself is the representative of the Son of God, and can make no error, neither his sons and daughters–a Pharisee’s mien, I say: a hard, cold, exacting, cruelty expected of a sniveling wretch who cloaks himself in an expertise of religiosity. Or he can unleash his anger in a destructive lifestyle, usually in a hedonism akin to that exhibited by the wonderful Sam Kinison. In either case, his identity is not his identity, but that of someone else. To craft an identity is exceedingly difficult, and much discouraged, both by Father and by his disciples.

It can be done, though, if he can navigate that Scylla and Charybdis. Indeed, forgiveness has been known to prevail upon those pastors’ kids who wreck their ships, and they can set sail again. I think Peter and I managed to escape, a pair of Odysseuses in our own right, but not without paying a heavy emotional toll. The tax is high, my friends, for those of us who wish to live free of those peculiar expectations. And, thus impoverished, Peter and I leaned on each other. We developed a shorthand with each other, much as twins do, and we leaned on each other.

Another lonely claimant was there, whose name escapes me. He was flown in from Ghana, where Peter served as a missionary over the course of over 20 years, both formally, and then later on as an emotional supporter of the burgeoning Lutheran Church in Ghana and throughout that stretch of Africa. That is to say, this second lonely claimant was another who had Peter as a close friend and confidant for over two decades, beginning together as young men with babies, enduring the travails of this ephemeral career in the visible futility of the Christian Faith, ending with teen-aged young-adult progeny. Ah! Death! You sting us! Where is your sting?

The funeral was horrible. It was just horrible. Peter wrote it. He wrote the structure of the service, picked the readings to be read, picked the hymns to be sung. Structure? There was no structure. It was a vile Sacramentarian Baptist service with Lutheran trappings. There was no Kyrie, no proclamation of the gifts of the sacrament of baptism, no declaration of the resurrection of the body because there was no Apostles’ Creed, only that godawful John 11, gaping before me like the grave itself. And he had me read it. He did it on purpose. He did the whole despicable thing on purpose because he knew I was the only son-of-a-bitch in that building who would weep while the confrontation of that text was being laid out before us. Do you understand me? He laid out a structure-free funeral service, departing from every form and norm known to our tradition in order that he might have my weakness for reading that particular text in public actually highlight that thing around which his hope revolved.

It’s not the part where Jesus weeps that gets me, nor the many indications of the upwelling of utter despair expressed by a despondent people. Those are, indeed, difficult to read, but where my throat constricts, where my chest heaves, where my mouth clamps into a quivering vise, is the question. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” At this comes the existential pause, where you stare into the abyss, and it stares back, tearing at your guts, shouting, “WHAT A LOAD OF STUFF AND NONSENSE! RUBBISH! THERE’S NOTHING HERE! DO YOU HEAR ME? NOTHING!”

Do you believe this? Peter’s corpse is within arm’s length. What an asshole. Truly, he was a brother. Peter Kelm, 1972-2017, RIP.

 

It Depends

One important but easily overlooked lesson from hermeneutics is that you must attend to the particulars.

Students who lack experience and have an appetite for abstraction are generally looking for shortcuts. I recall a math teacher who joked that mathematicians would spend enormous amounts of time trying to find the quickest way to solve a lot of problems at once. There’s nothing wrong with that mindset—it’s how we get innovation in general. But there are domains where it is inappropriate.

Understanding texts is one of those domains. It takes patience and consideration to understand a text. Moreover, it is an ongoing task: the more you read beyond that text, the more context you have for understanding it. There is a gulf between an experienced scholar and a newcomer to the field which can only be bridged by a great deal of patient, careful reading. And that takes time—there is no shortcut.

The desire to seek shortcuts where they are inappropriate is common. One man wanted to determine whether the great works of the western canon were really all that great through a very simple probabilistic analysis. Another wants to be able to expand the price system to every facet of life so that he can know what he ought to prioritize. The latter’s impoverished hermeneutical framework makes it literally impossible to conceive that there is concrete knowledge that (say) a dog show judge has about different dog breeds which allows them to have superior judgment over the audience, or that such judgments are qualitative rather than expressed in equations.

Perhaps this is the aspect of hermeneutics that causes those ignorant of it to attribute an anything-goes relativism to it. Unlike the various species of rationalism, or even skepticism, hermeneutics offers no concrete answers. It provides a fairly skeletal outline of how understanding works in general, but offers no constraints on the nature of what might be understood. Intellectual shortcuts are precisely that—constraints on possibilities.

But this isn’t relativism at all. It’s the simple admonition, which we all know on some level but love to deny, that there’s no shortcut to wisdom. It’s very easy to find a reason to be dismissive but much more hard to actually wrestle with what you wish to dismiss, to understand it enough to see if you were correct about its lack of value.

No matter how wise you become, you may have missed something truly crucial. Perhaps you missed a great deal. This is not relativism, but humility.