On Crankiness

Crankiness.   Most people find this posture rather annoying or just plain boring.  Yes, there is the occasional H. L. Mencken, whose curmudgeonly writing is entertaining partially because of its cranky tone.  But Mencken has a rare capacity for the mot juste, which makes one willing to suffer through page after page of cantankerousness to find the inexpressible one-liner that will knock one’s socks off.

However, crankiness ought to be rare rather than routine.  Yet, it seems that in the writings of the two vocational groups to which I serve, crankiness is routine.  I am a minister in a small, somewhat strict Presbyterian setting, and a classical Christian school teacher.  I’ve read somewhere that there are something like 107 different classifiable feelings.  But in the writings of some in these settings, all of these feelings are easily reduced to one:  crankiness.

I’m writing this because this is a temptation that I’ve often succumbed to.  I’m repulsed by it.  Most of us find complainers insufferable, but we often notice that one is rejected from certain affinity groups without the proper undertone of complaint.

I understand the reason for crankiness.  Pure and simple, the reason is a misappropriation  of conservatism.  Not 21st century American political conservatism, which is ill-defined and cranky in it’s own way, but classic conservatism.  Classic conservatism at its root entails a sense of loss, a mournfulness that the tried and true heritage of the past is being rejected in favor of the new and novel.  Classic conservatism sees an arrogance in this rejection of the past, a lack of humility and teachability, and a dishonor for one’s fathers and mothers by those in the present age.

However, this crankiness quickly turns into a requiem for the past and a scorn for the opportunities of the present.  Yes, true conservatives do and should long for a celebration of the best of the past.  However, what is required is not the proverbial turning back of the clock but the joie de vivre of seeing the opportunities of the present day and a creative imagining of a preferable future and the faith-filled steps and processes to bring this preferable future into place.  A robust theological and philosophical vision must be brought to bear to face the “fallen condition focus” of the environments in which people serve.

Crankiness is not a fruit of the Spirit.  It’s not enough to grieve the virtues of bygone eras. Biblically, the only “good ole’ days” were the ones before the Fall.  While many “white-bread” American Protestants look back with longing at the fifties, one does not need to think too hard in questioning if our African-American brethren experience a similar longing.  Crankiness is an unfortunate lapse into the flesh and a blessing of what is more properly called the lack of joy in our lives. Crankiness is the work of the flesh that the Christian must put off.  Joy is the fruit of the Spirit that we must “put on.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I will say, rejoice.”  While this is easier said than done for a habitual pessimist like myself, this is the imperative of the gospel.  The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is what allows us to rejoice, even when temporal circumstances may not bring happiness or optimism.  As long as God is present, all things are possible.  This is what is cause for rejoicing, rather than bygone virtues or present optimism.

 

 

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Update

I vaguely remember receiving an email telling me that my domain was about to expire.  Thinking that I had already broken numerous agreements with myself to work on writing, revision, and publishing, I agreed to renew the domain.  Of course, those unfulfilled commitments continued to haunt me.  However, a few things have changed over the last couple of months that have spurred me on to at least publish a couple of entries.

The first was that my sister passed away.  On May 16, my sister, Cathy Walker, entered her heavenly reward.  My family and I cared for her for the last year-and-a-half of her life while she suffered from end stage cancer.  Much of this time she was in our home.  She was positive, upbeat, encouraging, and faithful to her Lord right up until the end, and was an inspiration to all of us who knew her.  Even with all of these gifts that she provided, it’s still physically, mentally, and emotionally draining to care for a terminally ill patient, and this labor of love took its toll on all of us.

The second was that I was carrying an enormous teaching load, even by my standards.  Four tenth grade humanities sections, two eleventh grade composition and literature sections, two Latin I sections, two Latin II sections, one Latin III sections, and one night grade US History section.  This coming school year, I’ll have a similar number of sections, but only four preps.

The third was that my wife and I, along with my mother-in-law, were in a devastating car accident on June 26.  Seeing the photos, it would be difficult to believe that all of us came away with no permanent impairments.  However, I have some broken ribs and am generally pretty sore.

The sheer boredom of sitting around rekindled my desire to write more.  I’m faced with looking around my house and my innumerable books on writing.  Paraphrasing the words of Roxanne Gay, author of Bad Feminist, it’s like being “beyond Lane Bryant fat” and having a closet full of size 2 clothes; a monument to ambition and shame.  While I realize that such feelings don’t generally produce motivation to persevere in any long-term behavior, I must acknowledge them, even it it’s to rechannel them into both a realization that I get paid for teaching rather than writing, and that there is no shame in using my verbal capacity on my feet instead of on the page.

 

 

 

 

Reading Goals

I previously went public with my goal of reading 100 books this year.  I’m not quite ready to say that it won’t happen.  However several factors have intervened.  The first is that my sister Cathy is requiring more care from Amy and me.  This, combined with teaching, has left me in a state of exhaustion for a sizable portion of the last month.  I haven’t missed any days of class.  But I have had a difficult time keeping up with grading.1848-261926

The other issue that tends to cast a doubt on the viability of this goal is that I’m reading some behemoths now, the main one being A Secular Age by Charles Taylor.  Weighing in at 896 pages, Taylor chronicles how the worldview of the West has experienced revolutionary changes from the Middle Ages up until now.  He writes of how the outlook of pre-Enlightenment Europe was profoundly supernaturalistic, a world that was enchanted, in which the Divine broke through, even through inanimate objects (think of the Holy Grail, for example).  Taylor makes the case that over time, a number of developments took place across different areas, such as the Enlightenment, the rise of modern politics, “polite society,” and perhaps most of all, a change in the perception of the interaction of God in this world.  I’m about a third of the way through the book.  For me, it’s timely, it’s educational, it’s interesting, and being a work of philosophy, it’s stretching me.  At this point, I’ve having to trust the author to take me where he’s going.

James K. A. Smith introduced me to this book in his guide to Taylor’s work, How Not To Be Secular.  It’s been long enough that I don’t remember too many specifics about Dr. Smith’s book, except that it made me want to read Taylor.  So, it seems that Dr. Smith achieved his purpose with me.

Another book on the nightstand is Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life. Mr. Dreher is a senior editor of The American Conservativeand one of my favorite writers.  He went through a crisis in his life similar to my own in many ways, moving back to the town where he grew up after an absence of over twenty years after the death of his sister, and experiencing an adjustment difficult enough to lead to a physical, emotional, and spiritual breakdown.  The Lord used Dante’s Divine Comedy to lead him out of the dark wood that he experienced midway through his life, with striking parallels to Dante’s own experience.  It’s an enjoyable read, and it has succeeded in motivating me to begin again with the Commedia.  I’ve read Inferno several times before, but have gone no further, so I opened up Purgatorio last night.  I’ve only read through Canto III, but so far, it’s surprising how hopeful and optimistic the beginning of Purgatorio is.

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I’ve Surfaced Again!

Le_Morte_d__Arthur_by_ThorleifrTwo months to the day since I last blogged, here I am again.  After beginning the year with so many challenging goals, reality is creeping in, which brings the realization that some adjustments are in order.  I’m currently thinking through what those adjustments will look like.

So, in the last two months, I’ve taken on another composition and literature class.  We’re reading Le Morte D’ Arthur, which I hadn’t even read before, much less taught it.  In one way, it’s kind of difficult to connect with knighthood, the age of chivalry, and the quest paradigm.  However, Malory is forthright about the failures of both Arthur and the knights.  The Round Table is a community that aspires to live a virtuous life.  The inability of the knights to live up to their ideals doesn’t invalidate the ideals.  Rather, it shows that these are worthy of striving for.  I’m also teaching journalistic writing, which is something I’ve never done before.  I’m enjoying both the content and the students very much!

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Finally . . . Some Progress In Weight Loss!

Iscale1 weighed myself this morning.  Not a practice I would recommend on Monday mornings.  I used to do it every Wednesday because with the “w” in weight and the “w” in Wednesday, it was easier to remember.  Then, it just got too discouraging and I quit. In case you haven’t noticed from my previous posts, I’m not exactly svelte.  I do occasionally run some pretty long distances.  However, that is more of a matter of going really slow and not quitting than it is athletic talent or having the kind of body that would naturally adapt to such a practice. But finally, some good news!  Somehow, I managed to lose seven pounds from last week!  I was flabbergasted!  It occurred to me that there is more than one possibility at work here:
1.  The scale is off in a good way.
2.  Somehow, I managed to trick the scale.
3.  221 lbs. is really what I weigh now.
I’m going with number three at present.
I’ve felt lighter in the last few days or so.  Last week, I noticed that I had to cinch my belt a notch tighter.  I also noticed yesterday, while wearing a tie, that there is more room in my collar, and my shirt felt looser.  So, I was somewhat prepared, but had steeled myself for the possibility that it was all an illusion.
What do I give credit for this unexpected blessing to?  A couple of things:  first, I’ve picked up the intensity of my running.  Almost imperceptibly, I’ve started running harder.  A number of things are involved here.  I’ve been able to strengthen my core, which has helped me to hold my form and allowed for faster turnover.  So often, it’s a matter of paying attention to form and rhythm and not mentally letting down.  Secondly, my tastes have changed, at least temporarily.  I suppose you could call it aversion therapy.  My sister, who lives with us, is on steroids and craves massive amounts of foods with sugar in them.  I was getting sucked into the tide of this for awhile.  However, it’s almost like my taste buds cried out, “no more!”  So, I’m drastically reducing the sugar in my diet out of a desire to adjust to this aversion to sugar.  Good stuff!
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Being A Hermit Today And Enjoying It!

07392666639a183982794280ac73312dI see that I haven’t posted in a week.  Been putting in some long days at work.  Teaching is like that sometimes.  I’ve gotten myself in a big hole with lesson planning and need to dig myself out.
However, I did get in a little R & R today.  Ran an 8K race in 48:05 gun time.  I’m guessing the chip time will be about 46:30-47:00.  Now, I realize that this isn’t exactly the second coming of Steve Prefontaine.  But it’s the fastest I’ve run in many years.  To be able to hold under ten minute mile pace for five miles is bookin’ it for me, at my age and weight.  I think the difference now is that I’ve gotten my core strong enough to be able to preserve my form when I get tired.  Today, my mind was on preserving my form and rhythm, and not letting that get away from me.  Also, I’m proud of the way that I stayed mentally tough throughout the whole race.
I’m staying out of the house today because my wife is giving a baby shower for our niece.  So, I went to Riverside Arts Market after the race, and got a savory crepe with feta, spinach, and tomato from The Little Family Crepes.  Great food truck!  Then, I went to Chamblin’s Book Mine, Jacksonville’s treasure house of used books, and picked up more than my share, including an interlinear translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Now, I have about ten hours of study ahead.  Teaching Revelation 11 in church school tomorrow plus class prep for this week.  So, that’s what’s happenin’ today!
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Reading and Surrender

I’ve fallen woefully short of my publication goal for this week.  I enjoy writing for the blog. However, much of my time has been spent in teaching, getting ready to teach, or lately, running.  So, I haven’t exactly made writing in the strictest sense a priority, although most of the above has been a function of some kind of writing.  But it’s not finished writing — just enough to get the job done to either give my students a thorough lecture or devise good open-ended questions for a discussion-based class period.
In terms of audiobooks, I’ve been listening some to Middlemarch while I drive.  However, it’s kind of difficult on the run, as you really want to participate with all your faculties.  George Eliot demands a kind of surrender that many contemporary authors don’t require, and is difficult to render if a person is trying to listen while doing other tasks, or perhaps even trying to read other books.  The surrender pays rich dividends when the option is available.  This is something that I’ve noticed with other authors such as Tolstoy, Doestoevsky, and Melville.  Perhaps the reason that these works aren’t preferred by students is the necessity to utterly surrender oneself to enjoy a satisfying experience with these texts.  There’s a degree of resistance in the soul to such a surrender that must be overcome.  But this is essential to reading a work charitably, putting oneself under the tutelage of the text, and withholding judgment until understanding of the text is achieved.  I’ve also started listening to Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.  However, I’m wondering if he is going to require the same kind of surrender that George Eliot does.
I finished Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.  It was a worthwhile read.  The data he presents quite clearly supports his view that America is becoming more segmented and stratified as a society.  What may be controversial is how one interprets the data, and what conclusions are to be drawn from it.  And morally, is this a good development for American society, or is this something to be lamented?  On balance, it seems that this new stratification is something to be lamented.  However, the aggregation of brain power in what Murray calls ‘the new upper class” has some beneficial effects for all of America.  The downside is that the new upper class has little contact with the rest of America.  It appears that the new lower class does not either.  The only caveat on this book  I have on this one is that some of the later chapters could have been abridged or eliminated. However, I suppose he really wanted to convince the naysayers to his thesis.  I’m pretty sold on his thesis about the distance and America being segmented into demographic “neighborhoods,” but uncertain about what that means for the future or if anything can or should be done about this.
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Caesar, Cicero, and Middlemarch

I read recently an article about Dorothy Sayer’s education in Latin.  She assess various teaching techniques, pronunciation methods, why Latin is essential for one’s education, and what content to include.  For much of the article, I found myself in agreement with Miss Sayers.  However, I disagree with Dorothy Sayers about Cicero, when she said something like “throw that old fool out the window.”  I felt that way about reading Caesar when our Latin III class was reading from the Gallic Wars.  We found out that Caesar was extremely selective in the battle reports that he presented and that he liked himself a lot.    Although Cicero is way over my head and has a number of idioms, I’m enjoying him more because of his facility with language.
middlemarchI started Middlemarch this weekend. Some bill it as “the greatest novel in the English language.”  I had begun reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life In Middlemarch, an interesting enough memoir about how reading Middlemarch at different stages of life has shaped her as a person.   About halfway through this book, I decided that Middlemarch itself may be more interesting than Ms. Mead’s experience of the novel.    I’m only to chapter six, but so far, I haven’t seen any reason why Middlemarch can’t live up to this billing.  Moby Dick and a couple of other novels, maybe Bleak House, compete with MIddlemarch for this but it’s absolutely top drawer.  I love reading books in which it appears that the author has read everything that you have and the book is a conversation between the author and you.  That’s what I enjoyed so much about both Moby Dick and am enjoying about Middlemarch.  
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Around the House

818kGmg0fFL._SL1500_I ended up sleeping until almost 9 am today.  For most people, that would be the equivalent of sleeping until noon.  Is this a luxury?  Something I needed to do?  Or merely a lack of discipline?  My intention was to not set my alarm clock, wake up as close to 7:45 as possible to go get my blood drawn (no coffee, food, etc.).  Well, I accomplished sleeping in until the lab was open.
Consequently, I’m feeling rather “type b” today.  As we speak, I’m typing this from bed and it’s past noon.  However, it can be said that I have been a little too tightly wound this week.  Having recovered from some unknown respiratory virus that I caught last week, I’ve been on a mission to catch up on grading, prep for classes, find time to write, crank up the exercise, and read 4-5 books at the same time. Getting up at 5:30 or earlier each day this week,  I’ve caught myself being impatient with my sister, who lives with me and has a number of infirmities from the toll that cancer has taken on her.  If I need to take her somewhere, she’s debilitated enough so that she can’t really be hurried.  For her to get ready, it takes as long as it takes.  Meanwhile, I’m drumming my fingers, hyperventilating, obsessing about being late for class, driving way too aggressively, and in general, being rather annoying.  Not a flattering picture!
So, I got myself organized, made myself a list of things that I need to get done over the next couple of days, and am just going to go after them one at a time.  I’m almost caught up on grading, having maybe a couple of hours to go.  Since it’s the midpoint in our quarter, I need to notify the parents of my students who have gotten behind the curve, while there is still time and hope for them to improve.  A sermon that I’m scheduled to preach next week is still to be written.  Then, the weekly task of planning each class period for the upcoming week.  A good day to take time to think and sharpen the saw rather than go, go, go.
I made myself a list of books in my house that I’d like to read this year.  I counted 46 books, which include an assortment of fiction and nonfiction, education, life development, spiritual growth, biographies, histories, etc.  Good to know that I have enough reading to survive an  long economic downturn or reduced circumstances.  This doesn’t even include books in my study at the church, which would at least double that number.  At a future date,  I’ll categorize and publish the list.
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Of Books and Such

Currently, I’m licoming-apartstening to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart:  The State of White America 1960-2010. I decided I needed to get myself a little more grounded again after The Handmaids Tale. It’s a controversial and fascinating account of social developments that have taken place in America over the last fifty years of so, particularly the development of a new “upper class” and a new “lower class.”  There is a point in which the numbers of statistics from studies become rather mind-numbing to listen to, but I’m far enough into it that I’m going to tough it out.   My observations seem to be in line with the narrative of Dr. Murray, at least as far as the rise of the new upper class.  I just started the part on the new lower class.  I’m expecting it to be as on point as part one was.
 I’ve also gotten into Werner Jaeger’s Paideia.  It’s quite an interesting read on the educational aspects of ancient literature.  He makes the point that the poets were seen as educators, and brings out what each of the poets shows us and teaches us.  I’m really starting to think that these mid twentieth century literary criticism classics, like Paideia and Mimesis are classics for a reason.  Part of me is thinking that I should have read Paideia earlier, and part of me thinks that it wouldn’t have made that much since apart from a few readings of the Iliad and Odyssey.  It’s good to start taking the whole aspect of continuing education and preparation seriously.  Paideia has been on the shelf for a long time and it’s good to finally get into it. Jaeger has a great eye for making connections across all of the classical works.  He is able to teach out of depth in a way that very few contemporaries are able to do.
I don’t feel like I’m producing anything that close to something I’d want to share with cyberspace..  It’s kind of disturbing.  A few weeks ago, I was just churning it out. It’s possible that the cause of this is not making space in my life to think.  I’ve become a little too task oriented over the past few weeks, which may lead to shallow living.  It’s probably time to dial it back a notch and to live as if the people in my life really do matter, rather than having my nose to the grindstone 24/7.
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