Monday, April 28, 2014

"What Can a Historian Tell You About the Resurrection of Christ?" A Talk Delivered Last Weekend at My Church

Sometime last fall I was asked by my church to give a presentation on the changing historical views of the Resurrection of Jesus, to be timed for the appropriate season of the church calendar.  Why they asked me in particular I’m not sure, given my shoddy attendance record, but it was nice of them and it sounded like an interesting topic, so I said I would do it.

Fast forward to this spring, when the deadline was drawing nigh and I had pretty much gotten nowhere on the project, and it became clear that the presentation was taking me in a different direction.  Sometimes projects do that – you start off with one thing in mind, and when you finish you are quite some distance away.  So when the minister emailed me to check in, I asked him if the new topic would work for him.  He said it would, and so I gave the presentation this past weekend.

It seemed to go over well.

It’s not a talk I will likely ever give again, so I figured I’d post it here.



I’ve been asked here today to discuss the question of just what a historian can actually tell you about the Resurrection.  It turns out that this is a surprisingly complicated question, actually, because it speaks to some very fundamental differences in what humans are and are not able to know, differences that are themselves interesting. 

The short answer to the question is that as a historian I can in some sense tell you both everything and nothing about the Resurrection.  The long answer, well, takes time.  It requires us to understand what exactly history is and what it can and cannot tell you about the world.

One of the running jokes in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series – a series full of all sorts of running jokes – concerns the alien metaphysician Oolon Colluphid, author of the “trilogy of philosophical blockbusters,” Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes, and Who is This God Person Anyway?

For his fourth book, Well, That About Wraps It Up For God, Colluphid describes the existence of the Babel Fish – a small animal that lives on thought waves and when inserted into your ear instantly allows you to translate any language in the universe – and then he uses this to demonstrate conclusively that God cannot exist.

“The argument goes something like this,” writes Adams.  “‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’ 'But,’ says Man, ‘the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance, it proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t.  QED.’ 'Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic, ‘Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next pedestrian crossing.”  

Which only goes to show you the dangers of taking metaphysical speculation too far.

Like any parable, there are lessons to be drawn here, and perhaps the most obvious one, and the one that is most relevant here today, is the notion that faith and knowledge are different things.  They speak to different realms of the human experience, and confusing the two will only get you into trouble.

The distinction between faith and knowledge has a long tradition in Western thought. 

It emerges among the ancient Greeks even before the time of Christ.  While not dominant it nevertheless remained surprisingly strong even through the medieval period, which often comes as something of a surprise to modern audiences.

We have reduced the word “medieval” to an insult today – nobody ever says “I’m gonna get Renaissance on you!” – and we often forget how sophisticated medieval thought actually was. 

The distinction re-emerged in strength with the Renaissance of the 14th through 16th centuries and the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.  In many ways the distinction between knowledge and faith remains one of the bedrock characteristics that separates Western civilization from Eastern civilization, which tends to take a rather more holistic approach to such things.

Further, not only are faith and knowledge different things, but also there is a fairly impermeable boundary between them.  We are on one side of it and the Divine is on the other, and trying to cross that boundary will only lead to trouble.  Again, this is an old idea in Western thought. 

John Locke, for example, spent a great deal of time arguing this very point.

Locke was one of the premiere thinkers of the Enlightenment, and he is best known today as the creator of the theory of political liberalism to which each and every one of you subscribe whether you call yourself liberal or conservative today.  The Locke we are most familiar with today is the Locke of The Second Treatise on Government, where he lays all this out.

But in the 17th and 18th centuries he was better known for other works, such as An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and Letters Concerning Toleration.  Using the reasoning developed in the Essay, Locke spent the Letters arguing that the realm of the divine was not accessible to human reason – that the former was the province of faith and the latter was the realm of knowledge – and thus attempts by humans to legislate their religious beliefs onto others by force were both politically unwise and bordering on blasphemous.  You couldn’t know that sort of thing – knowledge is simply incapable of crossing that divide.  All you can do is have faith.

This, when you get down to it, is a profoundly humbling realization.  It speaks to limits on the human animal – limits we can neither transcend nor fully grasp.  We are not godlike beings of infinite capacity, the way we like to think ourselves and the way we so often pretend to be.  We are, instead, creatures of a defined space that we cannot escape.  A grand and glorious space, of course, and one whose extent we have not yet even begun to sketch out.  But not an infinite one.  Not divine.

From this we get a sense also of what, exactly, faith is.  The science-fiction author Philip K. Dick once observed that “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”  The flip side of that is faith.  Not that faith is somehow unreal, necessarily, but rather that faith is in fact what does go away when you stop believing in it, regardless of what doesn’t.  Faith is that which you believe when you don’t have the certainty of knowledge to back you up.  It’s what you believe despite the lack of evidence, or even despite the evidence itself.

To the rationalist, this is an argument for discarding faith, for equating it with delusion and condemning it as something to be outgrown and tossed aside with other childish things.  But from a Lockean perspective it is simply the recognition that there are limits to what humans can know.  That beyond them we can only have faith.  That we should accept this demarcation with the humility and grace that is appropriate.  And that we should not allow the claims of the one side to determine the truth of the other.

You can fine-tune that line of thought any number of ways and probably make a decent living doing so, but there’s the heart of it.

That’s a lot to pack into a throwaway joke in a 40-year-old sci-fi novel, but that’s why The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is still popular today when most of the things that passed for culture in the 1970s have long since passed into oblivion

As a historian, I deal in knowledge rather than faith, and a very specific type of knowledge at that.   In order to see what history is, it helps to remember what it isn’t.

First of all, history is not the past.  The past is what actually happened.  History is simply what we can know and say about what happened, which is not the same thing.  There are a lot of things we cannot know or say.  There are limits.

Second, history is not memory.  Memory is simply what people think might have happened once upon a time.  It has no rules.  There is no way to check it.  It is completely unreliable.  “Once you’ve heard two eyewitness accounts of a motor accident you begin to worry about history,” said John McNab, more about memory than history.  People do tend to get very angry when you point this distinction out, but the bottom line is that memory is not history.

So what is history? 

History is a discipline.  And more to the point, it is an activity – it is something that you do.  In particular, it is something that you do in very specific ways.  It has rules about what you can and cannot know and how you can and cannot know about those things

There are two questions in history.  The first of which is the most basic: “What?”  What happened?  When?  Who?  How many?  The sorts of questions any journalist would ask.  Names, dates, places, peoples, battles, statistics, generals, and so on.  The facts, or as historians like to call it, the evidence.

Historical evidence has certain characteristics, most notably for us today that it is naturalistic.  History is a discipline of this world, and the evidence that historians consider valid is concerned with the things that make sense in the secular world.  All valid historical explanations are naturalistic and conform to the expectations of this world.  If you can’t explain things that way – if you have to resort to supernatural explanations – you have left the realm of history and entered into something else.

This is a key issue when it comes to things like the Resurrection, which – by definition – is not naturalistic.  Miracles, divine intervention, spiritual matters and the like – all are outside the realm of history.  This is not to deny categorically that they happened.  They may have.  They may not have.  But remember – history is not the past.  History is a discipline that tells us what we can know for sure about the past and how we can know it.   And when you leave the realm of history, you enter into something else: memory, faith, or something yet beyond, but not history.

Historians get this evidence from what are called primary sources.  Things that are first-hand information – “primary” – about the story you’re telling. These are usually documents – written records such as letters, journals, accounts, and the like – but they don’t have to be.  Objects, songs, images, and so on count too.  So long as they are part of the story you’re trying to tell, they count.

This brings up the rather knotty problem, particularly here in the US, of using the Bible as a primary source.  Most of the specific details that we rely on for the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ are recorded in only one place – or, depending on how you look at the different books within it, several places all rolled into one place – and that is the Bible.

For some Christians the Bible is the inerrant Word Of God, literally true in all ways.  And if you are one of these people, well, good on ya.  Such is your right and your faith, and I certainly will not try to talk you out of it.

For me as a Christian, I tend to side with the rather older view that the Bible is parable, higher truth, and not a newspaper article to be fact-checked.  If I want to read the Word of God, I look around at Creation and see what He has made.

Or the creatures created in His image.

This distinction is important for me as a historian.  Because as a historian, I see the Bible not as the inerrant Word of God but instead as a millennia-long record of humanity’s attempt to come to grips with the Divine, to recognize the Divine in the world and to understand what this presence means to us in our lives.  From this perspective the Bible is thus both sacred and very, very human. 

It is this which makes it approachable as a primary source document.  If you assume the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, handed down perfect and eternal from on high and not to be doubted in any way, then you cannot use it as a historical document.  It is a supernatural thing, and beyond the scope of history.

This is especially important because historians approach primary source documents in very specific ways. In particular, we do so with a fair amount of skepticism.  Any document, no matter how old or venerated, needs to be checked against other sources to confirm its validity, and if no other source is available then it has to be checked against the general run of what else we know about the times.

Much of what we find in the Bible can in fact be confirmed this way, or at least finds echoes in other similar sources.  The story of Noah and the Flood, for example, has parallels all over ancient sources.  Something happened to spark those stories, though what exactly is not clear from this distance in time.  And many of the long histories of the Hebrews that fill most of the Old Testament are fairly well substantiated by archaeological evidence and other records.

Again, note the focus on the naturalistic from the historian.  The stories of Creation and the personal interactions with God and the angels fall outside of that scope, and would have to be taken on faith.

So the bottom line here is that the Bible can be a very useful primary source for telling us much about the Resurrection – notably the events leading up to it and the events leading away from it – but as we’ll see, from a historical perspective, which focuses on the things of this world, there is a gap right where the event itself exists.

The second question of history – the interesting question as far as history is concerned – is “So What?”  Who cares?  Why is this important?  What does this mean?  It takes the evidence as a starting point and tries to put that evidence into some kind of coherent narrative, an argument, or, as historians call it, an interpretation.

This we can certainly do with the Resurrection, from a historical perspective.  Whether it happened or not – again, remember, that’s a question that history is incapable of answering – the fact is that people thought it happened, they based their lives on the assumption that it did happen, and this had consequences for the world at large.  Historians can and do argue over those consequences in an attempt to persuade others that their interpretation is the best one.

Not the right one, you will note.

With evidence you can be right or wrong – you have your facts or you don’t.  But interpretations are judged better or worse, depending on how much of the evidence they explain.  Again, we come back to that humbling sense that there are limits to our knowledge and our certainty, and that we ignore them at our peril.

So, given all that, the question then becomes just how much can such a historian tell you about the Resurrection, after all.  The answer is, well, quite a bit.  Though perhaps not what you really want to know.

What historians are good at is context – at placing events within the larger spectrum of other things that either led up to them, surrounded them, or resulted from them.  From that perspective, there’s a lot to tell.

First of all, we know a fair amount about the human being at the center of this story, one Yeshua ben Yosef – Joshua, son of Joseph, known commonly to us as Jesus of Nazareth – a Jewish man living on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea some 2000 years ago.  Because whatever people of differing faiths (or lack thereof) may argue about the divinity of Christ, the fact that there was such a human being – that a man calling himself Jesus of Nazareth existed and walked the earth at that time and place – is utterly noncontroversial.  We know this secular fact fairly well.  And we know a lot about this man from a historical perspective. 

While we have few records of Jesus’ daily life in particular, we know a fair amount of how young Jewish men of his era lived and can draw a few conclusions with a high degree of confidence.  Among them, that as a young Jewish male he would have learned to read and write within his own family, and would have absorbed the history of the Jewish people and kingdoms by hearing the commentaries on the holy texts that were proclaimed each Shabbat in the local synagogue.   He would have learned how to sing psalms and recite prayers, and likely did not shave the hair of his temples.  Religion was of central importance to the Jews of the period, and Jesus would have been thoroughly educated in the precepts of the Jewish faith and the practice of their rituals

He most likely lived in a small house with an inner courtyard where most of the cooking and social activities took place, on a street lined with pebbles.

We know that Joseph was a builder (most buildings of the period were stone, so “builder” is probably a more accurate translation than “carpenter”) – a respected trade during a prosperous era with a lot of new construction – and as a young man Jesus would probably have received some training in this trade as well.

The economy of the region centered on trade and commerce, particularly in the northern regions where Jesus was raised.  It was a lush area famous for its agriculture, and it was a fairly cosmopolitan place, with all sorts of travelers and merchants on the roads and in the inns.

We even have a fair idea of what he probably looked like, given the anthropological, archeological, and historical evidence that exists today.

No, not like that.  That fair-skinned blue-eyed man is clearly Swedish.

Or that.

Definitely not that either.


Not exactly this, of course, but probably close enough.  This was the man whose body went into that tomb to be Resurrected.

We also know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the Hebrew kingdom of Judea, the surviving kingdom of the Jews, and while much of his ministry took place in Galilee, where he was raised, all of the events of Holy Week including the Resurrection took place in Judea.

As near as we can tell, the Hebrew tribes arrived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea sometime around the 1500s BCE and spent the next several centuries under the rule of imperial Egypt.  By around 1000 BCE they had united to form their own independent kingdom, which lasted less than a century before splitting into two pieces: a northern kingdom known as Israel, and a southern kingdom known as Judea

The kingdom of Israel was overrun by the Assyrians in 722 BCE and its peoples scattered and merged into the Assyrian empire, but Judea lasted until it was conquered by the Chaldeans in the late 600s BCE.  When the Chaldeans themselves were conquered by Persians in 538 BCE the Persians allowed Judea to reconstitute itself, and it remained an independent kingdom until being absorbed into the Roman Empire in 63 BCE, where it would remain through the events of the Resurrection.

By that point, the area looked pretty much like this:

It would be the occupying colonial power of Rome that would be the main secular actor in the events leading up to the Resurrection.  Rome had grown from a small city-state into a vast empire over the previous 700 years.  It started out as a kingdom around the year 753 BCE, but by the time it took over Judea it had been a republic for nearly five centuries, and at the time of the Resurrection it was an Empire, having made that transition in 31 BCE.

Under the early emperors – notably Octavian, who ruled from 31 BCE to 14 CE and is referred to in the Bible as Caesar Augustus – the Empire was remarkably stable, and for the next 200 years the Mediterranean was a Roman lake.  It would not be as safe again until after WWII.  Trade flourished, piracy was largely eradicated, and travel was relatively risk-free.  The larger world in which the Resurrection happened, in other words, enjoyed an era of peace and prosperity that would not be equaled until the modern era, at least at the center of the empire. 

Rome was an expansionist power, and throughout its history it fought wars of conquest against its neighbors on the fringes of the empire. 

By the time of Jesus’ birth Rome controlled all of the shores of the Mediterranean, western Europe up to the North Sea, the northern shore of Africa (including all of Egypt), and most of the modern middle east.  It would continue to expand for most of the next two centuries.

Judea, in other words, was a small province on the fringes of a vast cosmopolitan empire and in a world where nothing moved faster than 3mph over any distance – not people, not goods, not information, nothing – controlling this empire was tricky.

The genius of Roman expansion was not so much that they were able to defeat their enemies and take their territory – many civilizations had figured out that part, some far more effectively than the Romans.  The genius of Roman expansion was instead that they figured out how to incorporate these territories into a functioning empire by converting enemies and subjects into friends, allies and, eventually, citizens.  They figured out that if they wanted to control this empire, they had to do so fairly loosely and with more carrots than sticks.

They offered the lure of Roman citizenship to many of those who would submit to Roman rule, and even those areas and people that did not fall under this offer were often treated with a level of tolerance that was uncommon in the ancient world.  They were generally free to run their own local affairs, maintain their own cultures, languages and religions, and generally carry on as they had before, provided, of course, that they acknowledged Roman overlordship, contributed soldiers to the Roman army as requested, and paid whatever taxes the Romans demanded – taxes that, by the standards of the day, were not especially burdensome

The local authorities who ran these provinces on a day-to-day basis would technically be subservient to a Roman colonial governor and at the time and place of the Resurrection that job was filled by a man named Pontius Pilate.

Pilate also appears in a number of other records besides the Bible, and his historical existence is unquestioned.  He became the prefect – or governor – of Judea in 26CE, a post he held for 11 years before being recalled back to Rome as punishment for an unduly harsh suppression of a Jewish uprising in the territory.  His job was simply to keep the peace, to monitor the local authorities for compliance with Roman rule, and to collect the taxes.  He also had a small judicial role as the local arbiter of Roman power and the secular authority to whom the local rulers and priests could appeal, and it is in that capacity that he appears in the story of the Resurrection.

For all that loose control and general tolerance, however, the Romans could be brutal when challenged – just because they offered a lot of carrots didn’t mean the Romans lacked sticks with which to beat recalcitrant provinces – and Judea was a constant challenge to them.

The situation in Roman-controlled Judea was not a happy one, mostly on religious grounds.  Roman religion was based largely on the Greek pantheon.  It was polytheistic, and each Roman god corresponded more or less to one of the Greek gods, such as the war god Mars (formerly the Greek Ares).

Perhaps for this reason, the Romans were generally tolerant of other people’s gods.  They allowed the worship of native gods and goddesses throughout their provinces and they even adopted some of those local gods into their own pantheon. 

In return they expected from their subject peoples the same tolerance of their gods.  They did not get this from the Jews.

Jewish religion was stringently monotheistic by time the Romans got there, and the Jews defined themselves as a people largely through their religious beliefs.  As such, they refused to have anything to do with the Roman gods, and the Romans came to regard the Jews as troublesome and ungrateful subjects.

This was exacerbated by the fact that the Jews themselves were deeply divided by religious differences at this time, with many different sects competing to have their version of the Messiah that they believed had been promised to them by their God deliver them from the Romans, and they probably spent more time fighting among themselves than they did fighting against the Romans.  If you’ve ever seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian, that’s a lot of what goes on in the film. 

None of these sects were particularly receptive to the claims of Yeshua ben Yosef, whom they regarded as a troublemaker.

We know that all of this eventually comes down to a series of trials judged first by the Jewish authorities and then by the Roman overlords.  According to the Bible Jesus was first tried by the Sanhedrin, a religious body and, at the time of the trial, an ad-hoc sort of committee rather than a standing court.

He was convicted of blasphemy, but the Sanhedrin did not have the power to impose the death penalty and so he was eventually brought before Pontius Pilate and tried as a secular criminal.

Romans took legal matters very, very seriously, and they developed a number of legal practices that would form the bedrock of Western law, such as the idea that everyone, regardless of wealth or social position, should be equal before the law, the idea that the burden of proof was on the accuser, not the defendant, and the idea that only the individual defendant could be tried for a specific crime, and not the entire family, clan or tribe of the accused.

Jesus’ trial before Pilate is well described in the Bible, and many of those characteristics appear.  The Roman prefect seems not to have cared about Jesus’ social status or worried about his family.  Throughout the trial he constantly asks for proof from the accusers that a crime warranting execution has been committed here.  Ultimately, however, Pilate was a political figure more than a judicial one, and he chose to pacify the local authorities rather than worry about the fate of one accused criminal.  He thus ordered Jesus’ execution.

The means of execution chosen for Jesus was crucifixion, a particularly painful and horrifying form of punishment meant to deter witnesses from repeating the crimes for which the condemned had been convicted.

It was an ancient practice, used by civilizations as diverse as Persia, Carthage, Macedonia, and even Judea itself in the decades prior to Roman occupation.  Under Roman law it was also meant to demonstrate the low social status of its victims.  Generally those crucified were slaves, lower classes, or rebels of some kind.

The condemned would usually first be whipped, which often led to significant blood loss and shock, and then be forced to carry at least the horizontal beam of the cross to the execution site.  The entire cross could weigh up to 300lbs and was thus often impractical for the condemned to carry.  The victim would be nailed to the cross with large, heavy spikes, and often their legs would be broken in order to hasten death, which could take anywhere from several hours to several days, and could result from any number of specific causes, among them heart failure, shock, suffocation, infection, dehydration, or – if the victim survived long enough – animal predation.  Jesus died fairly quickly according to the Bible, after several hours.

We know that Jesus was then taken down off the cross and prepared for burial.

There were any number of rituals that observant Jews of the period would have had to go through in order to do this.  The body would be washed and perhaps anointed with oil or spices, and then wrapped in shrouds, all of which the Bible reports as well.  Unless the deceased was an unmarried girl, their hair would be trimmed.  Jewish custom was particularly adamant that the dead be buried immediately, as leaving a body unburied overnight was considered extremely disrespectful.  This was especially important since Jesus was executed on a Friday and the following day was the Sabbath, on which no work could be done. 

All four of the Gospels then describe the body of Jesus being placed in a “rock-hewn tomb” by Joseph of Arimethea in front of which a stone was rolled to seal the grave until after the Sabbath, when further preparations of the body could be made.

But when they reopened the tomb on Sunday, there was no body.

We have a fair idea of what happened afterward.  There were reports from people who claimed to have seen the Jesus after having witnessed his death.  These appear in several places in the Gospels, and from that moment you can trace the emergence of Christianity as a religion and, eventually, as a powerful force in Western civilization.

So we know an awful lot, we historians, about the Resurrection – the things that led up to it, the events that surrounded it, the consequences that it had.  But there’s that gap, right there in the middle, where the event itself should be.  There’s a gap that is exactly the size of the tomb.

The tomb is a black box as far as history is concerned.  You know the input, you know the output, but the process of how you get from the one to the other is opaque.  Computers are black boxes to me.  I type things in, I get things out, and don’t even ask me how you get from the one to the other.  The tomb is just this – the body of Jesus goes in on Friday, the tomb is empty on Sunday, and how you get from that input to that result is a mystery.

There are any number of things you can fill that black box with, my personal favorite at the moment being this:

If you think that’s weird, a quick internet search will lead you to all sorts of ideas that are even weirder.  That Jesus didn’t really die – he was simply unconscious and later escaped from the tomb with or without the help of his disciples.  That he had a secret twin brother who took his place, hid the body, and claimed to be him after the burial.  That Jesus was actually an alien whose colleagues collected him after the burial – either the body or the living alien, depending on which theory you care to buy. 

And, of course, there is the story related by the Bible, which may be the weirdest of all when you sit and think about it.  That Christ died and was buried, and on the third day he rose again and ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, from whence he shall come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.

None of this is anything that historians can account for, and the Biblical story in particular is beyond the scope of history altogether.  It is not naturalistic.  It is a Deus Ex Machina explanation, one which literally requires a miracle to occur.  It is simply not within the realm of history

And yet if we wish to be Christians, we have to go there.  We must go beyond knowledge, and make the leap into faith.  It is essential to Christianity that we do this.  It is, after all, the main reason Christianity is a religion and not a philosophy.

There is a point beyond which knowledge cannot take you, and on the other side of that is faith.  That’s what faith is, after all, the belief in things that you cannot truly know.  That is why faith requires humility.  You can never know for sure.  You can never be sure.  It requires you to remain humble before God and Man and simply declare your beliefs. 

This is one of the things I have always loved about the Episcopal Church, that it is a church that does not claim to read the mind of God the way many churches do these days.  We don’t know.  We can never know.  It’s simply a matter of faith.

And when we take the leap into faith, we are leaving certainty and history behind.

So, the bottom line is that as a historian I can tell you almost everything you want to know about the Resurrection except what actually matters, and beyond that, I cannot go.  Beyond that, you will have to consult your minister, and – in the fine Protestant tradition that demands that every believer be their own priest – your own faith.

Thank you.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Our Little Town, 2005

Apparently I’m behind on my Throwback Thursday posts, since I missed last week entirely and didn’t actually write up a post about the one from two weeks ago at all.

Hey – it’s that time of the semester.

Lauren has always been a creative and busy sort of person, even when she was very young.  She's always had projects going, schemes simmering in the background, plans for us to carry out.  And in a house like ours, which is pretty much full of all kinds of random objects, that sort of disposition can lead to all sorts of strange situations.

When she was two and a half, she stumbled into a cache of old make-up that Kim had squirreled away somewhere.  One of the many things I love about my wife is that she is not a big make-up wearer, so there is no telling how old this stuff was.  It was just there.

At a level accessible to toddlers.

There was no way that could end well.

But there are things you just do as a parent, and one of them is that when your two-year-old comes up to you with a bag full of colorants and a bright smile, you just sit there and let her have at it.  Even if you do end up looking like GI Barbie at the end of the day.

That’s the artist over there on the top right.  She’s moved on to other projects by this point, apparently involving the cat.  I don’t recall off the top of my head whether those involved make-up as well, or whether there was a new slant on things to keep her busy.  You’d think I’d remember if she went Full Princess Makeover on the cat, but then there are a lot of things that you just let slide right through your memory and out the other side when you’re a parent.  It's cheaper than therapy that way, and less painful than alcoholism.

I will admit that after this photo was taken we found a more secure place to put the make-up, though.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Winding Up the Windy City

The people of Chicago go a long way toward making up for the city of Chicago.

The city of Chicago is a place with predatory and rapacious parking laws, randomly aggressive wifi networks that will take over your iPad as you drive by whether you sign on or not, and a downtown street network that exists on at least three different levels, none of which connects to any of the others except in the most tangential and counter-intuitive of ways.  You can go a long way through downtown Chicago without hope of rescue or escape simply by making the mistake of being fifteen feet further up or down than you’d planned to be.

This last is something that nobody has thought to explain to Google Maps, incidentally.

And don’t even get me started on that casserole that the locals insist on calling a pizza.  It is a fine casserole – tasty, completely without nutritional merit, and filling, the way food like that ought to be.  As a casserole, I would recommend it to anyone.  But it takes most of a lifetime to prepare and how anyone not actively hallucinating would mistake it for a pizza is a complete mystery. 

Rule number one of pizzas: they are not cylindrical.

But the people who live in that city treated us very well on our visit there.  The Starbucks where we went to create backup accommodation plans gave me my chai for free because I was wearing my old fire company sweatshirt.  The hotel where we stayed upgraded us for free to a suite big enough to house four people in modest comfort and was very generous with blankets, pillows, snack foods and beverages.  And whoever screens the workers at the Chicago Transit Authority must look for people willing to cut tourists some slack.  They all answered our questions politely and accurately, and one of them even let us ride for one stop for free, which doesn’t sound like much but it was a long journey just to get to that point and we appreciated it.

Even the lady who booted our car was nice about it.

Last week was Spring Break for the girls, which of course means that staying put was out of the question. 

My brother once observed that one of the many ways you can divide people into two types is by how they relax.  “There are people who relax by doing something,” he said, “and there are people who relax by doing nothing.”  In our house, Kim and Lauren are clearly in the former camp, while Tabitha and I fall into the latter.  This means that Tabitha and I often end up being taken on adventures that we hadn’t really intended to have, but at least we have fun when we get there.

We couldn’t do a whole lot for break, though, since a) it wasn’t break for Kim or me, and b) I spent Tuesday having my wisdom tooth removed, which on the scale of Things You Can Get Right Up And Travel Afterwards ranks fairly low.  But neither is it anything requiring lengthy convalescence, and thanks to a quirk in scheduling in my compressed video class (the joy of having students at multiple high schools) I was not actually required to be in class on Wednesday or Friday.  Kim has so many excess hours in that she could probably take off the rest of the semester and still be owed money.  So we decided to go to Chicago.

Because Divergent, that’s why.

If you haven’t read the books or seen the first installment of the movies, Divergent is the new Hunger Games/Twilight/Harry Potter YA sensation.  It’s a dystopian sort of series that I’ve written about here before, shortly before I read the books.  They’re not bad.  Entertaining.  A bit on the thin side, but fast moving.  The author is clearly very young, based on the extraordinarily rapid recovery times her characters have after serious injuries (you notice that sort of thing when you’re middle aged), but it was worth reading.  And it’s set in Chicago.  We had several places from the book on our list of things to see, and we got to a few of them.

Traveling is a lot more complicated than it used to be for us, in part because we now have nine chickens in our living room rather than the seven we had the previous week and the zero we had the week before that.  Chickens don’t take care of themselves very well.  Fortunately we had a friend willing to take them for a few days, so Lauren and I packed them up and drove them over to the other side of town, where they served as a mini-zoo for our friend, her daughter, and several of her friends’ kids.  They seem to have thrived.  The cats and rabbits we could just load up with food.

And we were off, bright and early Thursday afternoon.  Or so.

We stopped for lunch at IKEA, because that’s how we roll.  And because Swedish meatballs are noncrunchy enough even for someone recently down one wisdom tooth.  And because we had a return to make, as one of the projects Kim has been working on in her abundant spare time turned out to be half an inch smaller than the piece IKEA had sold her a month earlier.  So it was a good place to stop, for a whole lot of reasons.

We got to Chicago and found a Starbucks (which is about as hard as you think it would be), parked in the lot across the street, and found a hotel online.  Then we paid off the parking authority who had booted our car and promptly spent the next eternity exploring the Nine Levels of Wacker Drive, which Dante would have written about had he had the time and a more sarcastic style.

But we found our hotel – a 1920s-vintage skyscraper right at Michigan and Wacker – and got our stuff settled in before heading out to see the place.

The first thing we found was Millennium Park, which has more than its share of public art.  We were there to see the Bean, as it is called in Divergent (it’s not called that in real life, not yet, but it will be), but first we stumbled into this:

If you can’t tell, those are actually fountains.  Water cascades down the sides, and you can walk into the pool between them if you want – it’s only an inch or so deep.  The faces change over time.  There are screens beneath the glass bricks, and sometimes the two faces seem to be sharing something with each other that only three-story cascading public artwork faces could possibly understand.  Also, sometimes a jet comes out right about mouth level that makes them look like they’re spitting.  It’s moments like that that let you know that the artist took some time to consider the audience, and you have to appreciate that.

These pictures actually come from the next day, when we went back.  They’re much more dramatic things at night.

And eventually we found the Bean.

It’s pretty much what it looks like, only when you get closer it becomes one of those things you can play with endlessly.  We never saw the place without a crowd, which is rare for public art.  So three cheers for the Bean, I say.

After our first visit to the park we wandered through the Loop and found Geno’s East, where Tabitha and I split a casserole while Kim and Lauren tried other things.  There was hockey on as well, as the playoffs have started and the local team was in.  I sat facing the only screen that had my Flyers on (they got absolutely curb-stomped), but the Blackhawks seemed to be holding up their end while we were there.  Apparently they lost later.  Oh well.

We wandered back to our hotel and cashed it in for the night. 

Our next day’s plans were pretty basic.  We went go back to Millennium Park to take some photos.  And then we wanted to go to the Field Museum.

This took longer than we expected.

From Millennium Park we walked across a serpentine bridge over a vastly busy road, except that the bridge only let you cross so far because apparently the other end is being turned into the World Of Styrofoam.  Workers were fanned out across a four-acre plot hoisting blocks of Styrofoam the size of sheet-rock and a foot thick, and then doing, well, something with them.  It seemed to involve wrapping them in tarps to create landscapes.  Eventually there will be a bouncy palace, I’d imagine.

But this got us no closer to the Field Museum.

So we started walking, all the while looking for either a bus or a cab.  Neither came.  We kept walking.  We kept looking.  The tides came in.  The tides went out.  Small children grew up, loved, moved away, wrote memoirs, returned for visits.  We kept walking.

Eventually we found a bus whose driver said we were only one stop away, and he’d take us that far for free.  We were grateful.

The Field Museum is worth it, by the way.  It’s a vast clattering shell of a building stuffed to the rafters with things you can’t even imagine and organized according to whim.

Right when you get in you come face to face with this:

And the day we were there, also this:

We liked the dinosaurs so much we found a whole other hall full of them and spent some time there. 

It was at the midpoint of a long exhibit on the evolution of life on Earth, one that started with the creation of the planet and ended with the hockey game the previous evening.  Museum designers are getting really good at that sort of narrative these days.  We had a good time.

We also hit the Egyptology exhibit, which had all sorts of actual mummies and related gear.  We found a Mammals of Asia hall that let Lauren stare in goggle-eyed wonder at pandas.  There were several halls dedicated to gems – one just for jade, that Tabitha and I sped through, and another on all sorts of gems.

And then there was a gift shop, which was suitably immense.

It was enough to tire out a body.

We did eventually find a bus back to our hotel – another fairly lengthy search, but one that ended happily.  After a short rest, we headed back out to eat dinner.  And having already done the Required Chicago Meal, we opted instead for basic decent food that could accommodate all of our various food needs (no nuts, not much wheat, and non-crunchy options available).  We ended up at the Houlihan’s right above the parking garage where we’d stashed the car.  I haven’t been in one of those since the 80s, and they kept the soundtrack carefully preserved for when I’d come back apparently, a fact that irritated our waitress no end.  Our waitress was clearly having a great deal of fun with us, and so we had fun with her as well.  It was a good time.

We then decided that it was too cold (39 degrees) and windy to brave Navy Pier for the various Divergent-related sites there, so instead we went down to the station and got on the El, which is also heavily featured in Divergent but has the basic advantage of being enclosed and out of the wind.

It took us some time to get all the arrangements made, and the CTA guy there was astonishingly patient explaining the various things we’d have to do in order to pay for our rides (the machines were new and apparently temperamental) and stay on the Loop without heading off into the vast reaches of the outer city.  We had a good time riding along, being Dauntless, and then we went back to the hotel.

The next morning we had breakfast, checked out, and then spent an hour or so wandering along the Miracle Mile, a section of Michigan Avenue dedicated to separating you from your cash as quickly as possible.  We also enjoyed walking around the Tribune Building, which has embedded in it stones from all over the world, from both famous buildings and general areas, each with a little sign identifying it.

And then we very carefully found our way out of town.

But not home!

We had a lovely Easter dinner with Kim’s side of the family, an evening full of food and good people, and then we went home.  And then I went back out and retrieved the chickens.  Then I went home for good.

It’s nice to visit places and people.

It’s nice to be home.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Old, Not Wise, Just Worried

I’ve never liked taking naps.  Not even when I was little.  Mostly all they do is disorient me, and I get enough of that feeling in my everyday life.

But sometimes you have no choice.

Yesterday I reduced my quotient of wisdom by the sum of one tooth.  This meant heading over to the oral surgeon’s office where I sat in the waiting room with Kim for a good half an hour before being taken to the back room.  They like to make you think about it, apparently.  Maybe the pain isn’t that bad?  You can just go home, buy ibuprofen by the case, live on soft foods – it won’t be that bad, will it?

Yes, you decide, it probably will.  So there you sit.  Waiting.

Eventually they called me back and – as agreed – gave me enough medical care that I have no memory of the following hour or so.  I remember asking the tech if she was going to start pumping the meds in through the IV she’d inserted (my second IV ever – I’m getting to be a pro at these things) and her saying that yes, she was, and then I was in a different chair listening to Kim and another tech discussing all of the things I could not be allowed to do for the rest of the day.

It was a long list, none of which made any impression on me at the time.

I made it to the car, and then made it upstairs to my bed when we got home, and there I stayed for the next two hours.  Eventually I woke up, but I was not really supposed to do anything.  So I found an EPL match being broadcast on one of the channels way up in the stratospheric numbers and watched the entire game.  I think the red team won.

I was supposed to stay in bed all day and not do anything active, but I figured sitting in bed watching TV wasn’t much different from sitting in my chair plinking around on the computer, so I did that for a while too. I even got some work done on my US2 class, moving forward into the 1970s.  It’s strange to get to the stuff I remember personally.  It’s even stranger to get to that stuff when you’re still not entirely sure whether those are real memories or just anesthesia-induced hallucinations.  I’m hoping they were real memories. It would be a shame if so many of my hallucinations were centered around Richard Nixon when there are so many other public figures who would be much more entertaining that way.

Naturally, getting to sleep last night was a chore.  Two hour naps will do that.  Oh well.

So I’m eating soft foods, not driving until this afternoon, and generally consuming more pills than I would have dreamed possible only a semester ago.  This is my life these days.

The title of this comes from an old song by The Trash-Can Sinatras.  I don’t honestly know if I’ve ever heard the song or not, but it was a much beloved tag line of a friend I had when I lived in Pittsburgh, and I’ve always had a soft spot for it.

It seemed appropriate here.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Doing the Chicken Dance

There are seven chickens in my living room, much to the consternation of the cats.

They are little chickens, small enough to skirt the chicken ban put in place by the Powers That Be here in Our Little Town.  When they get big enough we will take them out to our friend’s farm and they can grow up to be, well, bigger chickens.

That’s pretty much it for chickens, really.

It’s not like they will produce art or literature.  They will build no lasting monuments.  They will leave few traces.

Except possibly ribbons.

Because these are 4H chickens, destined for the County Fair, where ribbons are awarded in abundance.  Lauren has been waiting for this day for months – the day her chickens come home to roost.  Some day we will explain this metaphor in full, but today is not that day.

I spent this morning proctoring ACT exams, a festive occasion of stressed out teenagers and ritualistic readings from the Book of Rules (“Did anyone miss that third time I told you to turn off your cell phones?  Good!  Thus we proceed to the fourth!”).  While I was there, Kim and Lauren ventured forth to the Great Small Animal Flea Market, held annually not too far from here.  It opens at 7am and we were told that if they got there much later than 7:05 it would be sold out – farmers and 4Hers being rather like garage sale cruisers that way – so they left the house even earlier than I did.

Tabitha enjoyed sleeping in and having the house for herself for a while, as teenagers will.

And when I got home: Chickens!  In my house!

They’re set up in the travel cages that the rabbits usually use to get to the Fair, which are small enough to provide some comfort, large enough to give them space, and sturdy enough to keep the cats from snacking, we hope.

It will be interesting.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

News and Updates

1. Lauren has written what she regards as the perfect country song.  It mentions pickup trucks, dogs, jail, red Solo cups, and momma, and she sings it in a drawl designed to showcase her generally low opinion of the intelligence of those who produce and consume country music.  I’m not sure where she comes by this opinion, really, as I find most country music to be unobjectionable most of the time and Kim actually likes it.  But there you have it.  Ask her, and she will sing it for you.

2. It has been quite the week here in Our Little Town.  Kim spent Thursday through Saturday up in northern Wisconsin at her department meeting, which left me here to mind the fort.  Naturally, it was an Event-filled three days, because we don’t have quiet days anymore.  I am continually amazed at the fortitude of single parents, who do this sort of thing on a continuing basis.  It’s hard enough with two parents sharing the load.  Getting everything two kids need to happen done while simultaneously getting your own work done, getting meals prepared, getting any sleep whatsoever, and not going completely bug-eyed insane is a whole other project entirely.

3. Thursday night was the Big String Thing here in Our Little Town.  Every year they gather up the string sections of the various school orchestras, clump them together by grade, and have them put on a concert for their parents, friends, and assorted hangers-on.  They used to do this at one of the high school auditoriums, which was a logistical nightmare with all the various orchestras trooping on and off the stage every couple of songs.  But last year some brilliant person got the idea of moving it to the other high school’s basketball court so all of the orchestras could just set up at once and play their bits sequentially.  Genius!  We sat up in the bleachers and enjoyed the show thoroughly.  Tabitha’s 8th-grade orchestra did a very nice job, and she was justifiably pleased with herself and her classmates.

4. The one thing that they do need to resolve with the new Big String Thing format is getting the various orchestra leaders some sound equipment.  Each orchestra – 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, 8th grade, and high schoolers – has its own conductor, and for some reason each of them felt obligated to give a short introduction before their pieces.  From my perspective up in the nosebleed seats of a high school gymnasium filled with about 500 people all told, what I saw was a distant figure step forward, begin waving their arms in our general direction, open their mouth and say, “                   “.   This was, it must be admitted, not very useful. 

5. Saturday was the Pre-Fair Cat Show, the 4H’s annual rediscovery of just what it is like to stuff 45 unhappy cats into a steel-and-concrete quonset hut of a building with about that many children and no sound-dampening qualities whatsoever.  Hint: it’s loud.  But Midgie did not freak completely, and for placing in the top twenty cats she earned Tabitha a copper medal the size of a baseball, strung on a traffic-cone-orange ribbon.  Tabitha also got a ribbon for cage decoration, which is pretty impressive considering that she had not actually signed up for that contest.

6. I spent the show manning the food booth.  Three of us usually do most of the actual show-day stuff, but this year we discovered – on Wednesday – that we were in fact in charge of the whole thing.  So I spent a frantic Friday raiding the local MegaMart for supplies.  Surprisingly, there were still things left for me after my colleagues had completed similar missions.  But it all went well.  We served all sorts of moderately lethal food, made a pile of money for the 4H, and perhaps next year we will figure out how to price things accurately.

7.  You would be surprised at how quickly simple food-related questions devolve into philosophical discussions.  We ran the food booth pretty much the way Taco Bell runs, with a small set of ingredients that we could recombine into an impressive array of meals (one of my favorite Onion headlines ever: “Taco Bell Figures Out New Way to Arrange Same Seven Ingredients”).  We had hot dogs.  We had chili.  We had nachos.  We had chili dogs.  We had chili cheese dogs.  And we had either chili nachos or chili cheese nachos.  But “chili cheese nachos” is redundant, isn’t it?  Don’t nachos, by definition, have cheese?  Can you even call them nachos if they don’t have cheese?  What is the quintessence of “nachos”?  Surely there is a cheese element there.  It can get pretty existential, back there in the food booth.

8. I felt much better before I was given medical care.  I am debating whether I should speak to my doctor about this, in the hopes that he will relent and stop treating me, or whether I should just keep quiet on the theory that doing so would just result in more medical care.

9. I thought I would take this moment to type out the phrase, “Governor Teabagger (a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries),” just to give the fine folks at the social media tracking site something to do tomorrow.  Hi guys!

10. Whoever approved the design of South Dakota’s entry into the recent “tourist attraction” series of quarters is an idiot.  Oh, I can see what they were aiming for – a nicely artistic angle to give a new look to Mount Rushmore.  The monument has been done so many times, after all.  A new angle would be good.  But this?  Seriously?  It’s just a love song to Jefferson’s nose.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Van Pelt College House, 1986

The lobby was the social hub of my old dorm.

Van Pelt College House managed to be both cosmopolitan and insular at the same time.  On the worldly side, we had more of a cross section of humanity under one roof than just about any other place I have been.  There were international students – 27 different countries among the 170 of us, at one year’s count – and students from all over the US.  There were students from a wide variety of races, sexual orientations, and athletic loyalties.  There were liberal arts students, engineers, scientists, and people who never did figure out why they were in college.  It was an eye-opening experience for someone who had been born, quite literally, half a mile to the east.

On the other side, we were way off on the corner of campus.  Nobody wandered through there by accident, the way they did in the Quad – if you were there it was because you had set out to be there.  And not many people did.

So we got to know each other quite well.

There was a lounge on the third floor that was mostly a quiet space, as I recall, though it got used for more than a few parties while I was there.  There was another lounge on the ground floor – a big long room that held our mailboxes and a piano, and that got a lot of foot traffic if for no other reason than you had to go through it to get to a lot of the rooms.  We’d have events there, such as the periodic talent shows or movie screenings that people scraped together. 

But the lobby was where the action was.

There was a door facing Spruce Street and another opposite, facing the dorm across the way, and both led to the same lobby – a squarish room with a large L-shaped desk dominating the southwest corner and sofas strewn through the remainder of the space.  That was our only portal to the world, so everyone went through it a couple of times a day.

Working the desk was a lot of fun.  It was one of the work-study jobs I had while I was a student there.  Theoretically you had to check everyone’s ID when they came through, but since it was only us we never really bothered.  We knew each other.  And to be honest people got upset if you asked to see their ID after the first month or so.  Don’t you know me by now?

You were supposed to keep a log when you worked at the desk.  The housing office decreed that you were to record any packages received, any unusual events (there was a document that tried to define that, vague as it was), and so on.  There was a list.  They never did tell us how, precisely, to record all these things and we took that as something of a license to be creative.  At one point there were three separate running novels being written in the log, each one weaving in the required reports with a greater or lesser degree of grace and accuracy, until the housing folks got mad and took the log book away.  We missed it.  We used to gather around and read it for the pure entertainment of it.

We did a lot of things in that lobby for entertainment.

There were impromptu concerts on many nights, often with my roommate Jack on guitar and me on vocals, but at other times with others doing their thing.

There was hanging out, conversation, and general silliness, especially after about 2am, when the bars closed.  One night James, a fairly large guy who lived in the dorm and was known for being both overly generous with his cologne and generally on the conservative side, came rolling in after a hard night’s drinking only to find me and Jack, stone cold sober and with nothing better to do.  The long and the short of it was that we sent him to bed convinced that a) there was a talent show in the piano lounge at 9am the next morning, and b) he was in it, having volunteered to dance ballet in a tutu.  I don’t remember if he figured it out before or after waking up the next morning, as for sure as all neither Jack nor I were around at 9am the next morning to check.

Everything happened after dark in the lobby, really.  The night shift was the time to be down there – during the day it was just another lobby.  But after about 10pm or so, it was our world.  People would drift in, and by midnight or so it was hopping.  By 3 or 4am it began winding down, and by the time the sun came up it was back to being just another lobby.

If you came by after midnight, your odds of finding at least three of the people in this photo were pretty good.  There were a few others of the Late Night Lobby Club missing from this photo (somebody had to take it, after all), but this is a pretty good sample.

That’s me on the far left.

Above me is Terence, and the guy in the white shirt is Scott.  Scott once became completely nocturnal for an entire semester, though the expedient of waking up in time to take his night classes and then hanging out in the lobby until the sun rose.  Billy-Bob’s, the greasy-spoon restaurant kitty-corner across the street, and Allegro's, the pizza place directly across, were open all night and you can do that when you’re 20.  That’s Tiz in the plaid shirt and Andy in the black one, and seated at the desk is Karen, one of the few genuinely larger-than-life people I’ve had the pleasure to know.

It’s probably about 3am in this picture.  The evening’s festivities are starting to ebb, though there will still be folks around for a couple of hours yet.  We’re not thinking about the morning to come, when classes will start up again and reality will once again rule.  The night is still rolling on.  There are still people about, stories to tell, stories to create.

And the next night, we’ll do it again.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Fool's Paradise

I hate April Fool’s Day.

Oh, it’s a charming little story, how it came to be.  How the old New Year’s Day was actually in late March for the longest time, and how those who refused to celebrate the newly declared January 1 new year date and held to the traditional date – now moved back a bit to April thanks to the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar – were labeled April Fools.  Hey – I’ve never fully come to grips with the whole “new year starts in January” thing either.  I’m an academic.  As far as I am concerned, the new year starts in September.

Unless that whole story is just another April Fool’s joke.  Wouldn’t surprise me if it were.

I’m not entirely sure how you get from a quiet little story about people refusing to move a holiday – the sort of conversations that happen every year in this country whenever the subject of President’s Day versus Washington’s Birthday staggers out of its swamp to consume the brains of the living – to the current state of the day, wherein one is supposed to celebrate the kinds of mean-spirited pranks that on any other day of the year would earn the perpetrator a well-deserved punch in the nose.  I’m sure it made sense to someone at the time.

Maybe the day holds no appeal to me because I never saw much point in those kinds of pranks to begin with.  They just seem like ways to inflict pain on others while demanding that the victims find it funny to be placed in that situation.  It's Theatre of Cruelty for the unambitious.  I’d like to think this is something people would outgrow by the time they learned how to tie their own shoes, but then I’d be wrong.

Oh, sure.  Most of it is harmless.  Some of it might actually be amusing when seen from the right angle.  A lot can be funny if it happens to someone else, after all.

And maybe I’m just a big old grouch who should be left alone to stew on the sad state of the world these days and why won’t these dratted kids get off my lawn anyway.

But I’ll be glad to see tomorrow.