Friday
Sep192014

Mighty Deeds

“There’s a lot of down time between the mighty deeds of God.”

I heard myself saying this to my friend Sharon over pancakes yesterday. We were talking about her church’s efforts to discern where God is taking them next. They were weathering some discouraging developments along the way, and even for people who have seen God’s unmistakable workings in the past, God’s laugh-aloud, no-doubt-about-it mighty deeds—even then, sometimes you wonder… what’s taking so long this time? And what are we waiting for, exactly? We live so much of our lives between promise and deliverance, those long cloudy stretches of hope and doubt.

It was time, for both our sakes, to recount what I had seen the day before.

First we have to go back twenty years, to when our mutual friends Trevor and Linda moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, after graduating seminary. Long, difficult years followed, years of trying a lot of hopeful but ultimately unsuccessful ministry strategies. Finally they experienced a turning point and slowly a vision came into focus. Today, New City Kids is an innovative, savvy ministry that transforms the lives of teens and kids through the power of the Holy Spirit and a lot of fantastically creative people. It’s a kids’ after-school program, a teen mentoring program, a training ground for leadership and hopeful futures, and a lot besides. I won’t say more; you can read all about it on their website. New City Kids was a long, slow miracle. But that’s what it has become.

For the last few years, however, Trevor and Linda have felt for a number of reasons that they should move to Grand Rapids, leaving the Jersey City site in the hands of their capable staff. But what would they do when they got here? Where would they live? How could they serve here? Years went by before anything became clear. The Spirit’s guidance? The Lord’s leading? Where was it? For a long time, it seemed there was a whole lot of silence.

Last year, finally, it started to seem possible that they could replicate the New City Kids program here in Grand Rapids, and let this site become a greenhouse for additional sites. The ministry could “multiply,” as they say in the biz. Great, but lots of things had to fall into place, funding primarily. And staff. And a site. And community buy-in. And a place for their family to live. And a school for the children. More waiting. Too much silence.

“Why does God tell us things only on a need-to-know basis?” That was another question I asked Sharon over pancakes.

The first question that was answered for Trevor and Linda, after months of consternation, was where they would live. Long story, but here’s the short of it: they bought the house next door. Yes. Ron and I have not lived in the same state with these people in twenty-two years, and this summer they moved into the house next door to us.

Next came, in rapid succession: seed funding for New City Kids Grand Rapids, a terrific core staff, the eager cooperation of school administrators, and a perfect site in a neighborhood where the need is great. Trevor found the site by meeting with all kinds of people, by visiting high schools, and by walking neighborhoods. One day he walked into a church, cold, and explained the ministry to the staff. They wanted in. It felt right.

It was the church where I grew up.

So that’s where I was the night before the pancakes: I was helping New City Kids Grand Rapids audition teens for jobs as tutors, recreation teachers, and performing arts teachers. There were forty teens present for this, the second audition day, and none of them know how to do this work yet. That’s the point. A dozen of them will get hired here, and they will get mentoring and training and become leaders.

And it will all happen in this old church that I love. Before the other night, I hadn’t been in the building for twenty-five years. The congregation of Alpine Avenue Christian Reformed Church sold the building around 1990 when their pastor of thirty years died of cancer. (This was when I was away at grad school.) The neighborhood had changed, and the congregation knew they were not equipped to minister there anymore. So they merged with another congregation and sold the building to a group ready to do urban ministry. I hadn’t heard a thing about the new congregation since.

I wondered what it would feel like to return. And then I turned the corner onto Alpine Avenue: same steeple spotted from blocks away. Same old reddish bricks and gold-and-green windows. But doesn’t it seem smaller? More compact somehow? And now there’s an accessible entrance ramp to the familiar old door. Still, I remember this feeling of entering here, turning right, pounding down the basement stairs.

We gathered in the basement, to me the site of potlucks and senior gatherings, women gossiping in the kitchen, after-church receptions on special occasions, sugary cake and coffee. Instead, there was Trevor and his staff on a freshly built platform, against freshly painted walls, playing drums and keyboards and bass guitar, leading a bunch of teens in a rap about the parts of speech. “This is how we teach kids at New City,” he told the teens, to the beat of the drums.

A couple hours later, after we finished our work with the teens, I took a solitary walk around the building. There’s the consistory room where I professed my faith before the elders, an occasion, as I recall, of great gentleness and blessing. The solemn, black-and-white portraits of previous CRC pastors had been removed, of course. It was now an adult education room.

In the upstairs hallway, more familiar rooms. That choir room, with its wall of closets for robes (empty) and that same old carpet with the gray-and-maroon swirly pattern, probably selected by a women’s committee in 1946. At the end of the hall, that big classroom with all the windows where we learned our catechism. The old green carpet and yellow, molded-plastic chair-desks were gone. It was now a youth room in classic style: garish colors and thrift-store couches.  

I passed through hallways and doorways and stairwells, amazed at how these old spaces came back to me, the feeling of moving through them. I still find myself here in my dreams occasionally; I know every corner and turn.

Then I went into the sanctuary. That’s where it all hit me hard. Anyone observing me might have guessed that I was tearing up because of the disrepair. That wasn’t it. Actually, things looked pretty good. The organ had been removed, the floor looked rough, some seat cushions were gone and all of them were worn thin. But all that beautiful old wood still shone, and those windows let in the same warm light.

I felt overwhelmed because… this is where I learned the faith. Everything most important to me started here. Such gratitude, and such sadness, because things change. So many people gone, so many ghosts, a whole world that I loved slipped away, all present to me for an instant in the emptiness of this silent room.

It felt to me, in that moment, that the ongoing life of my old congregation had been a mighty deed, in its own busy and ordinary way. I don’t know what’s been going on in this building in the past twenty-five years. Wonderful things, I hope, perhaps small and mostly unnoticeable to outsiders, perhaps a miracle or two.

But I do know that something new is beginning in that basement now, and I believe that more mighty deeds are coming.

 

If you would like to support New City Kids as a volunteer or donor, please visit the website. You will find ideas for getting involved in either the Jersey City and Grand Rapids ministries.

 

Friday
Sep052014

Ye Olden Reality TV

I suppose we Medieval & Renaissance geeks get our fair share of thrills in popular culture. The Lord of the Rings movies alone have given us as much clashing armor and flowing gownery as we could ever wish—not to mention horseflesh—but then there are some deliciously entertaining TV series, too. The short-lived but marvelously rich Camelot on Starz network, for example. Or the irresistible, hopelessly cheesy, BBC-made Merlin. Or, more recently, the castle-intrigue drama The White Queen, also from the BBC, based on Philippa Gregory’s historical novels. (With that last one, though, a quibble: good dresses, not enough horses.)

It never occurred to me to feel any tragic deprivation. But now I understand that until 2012, we M&R geeks were shockingly under-resourced in one crucial pop culture genre: reality TV.

I only discovered this a few weeks ago. I was searching on YouTube for videos of jousting I could show to my British literature students, hoping maybe for a clip from a Renaissance Faire or something. Instead I came upon … well, it was just too good to believe. A trailer for the The History Channel show Full Metal Jousting.

 

I know! Isn’t it wonderful?

Yes, they really joust! None of this Renaissance Faire theatrical choreography crap: pfuh! This is the real deal. Sixteen beefy guys with a glint in the eye and a fire in the belly suit up in 80 pounds of bristling steel armor, climb onto 1800-pound horses (they need a “ground crew” and a set of steps to get this far), and gallop at each other with 11-foot wooden lances at 30 miles per hour.

So that means about 2000 pounds focused in a 1.5-inch diameter lance tip … let’s see, multiply mass by acceleration… carry the one… yeah. That’s gonna hurt.

Whose lunatic idea was this? Well, here’s where we delve into some of the stranger subcultures of North America. The show’s creator is Shane Adams, an intelligent and civilized person who was a professional theatrical jouster and then shifted to competitive jousting—yes, it’s a thing—and won the world championship. He and some other competitive jousters wanted to “take full-contact jousting to the next level” and make it a professional arena sport like Mixed Martial Arts or bull riding. Adams thought this show could do for jousting what The Ultimate Fighter did for MMA (evidently MMA is definitely a thing).

Adams’ idea was to take sixteen guys who were not professional competitive jousters and train them how to do it, then have them compete for a cash prize and the baddest bragging rights in modern times.

The number one requirement for contestants was excellent horse riding skills. Actually, that was number two. Number one was being crazy. But riding skills was next. And then a fondness for pain. And then competitive spirit. Adams would teach them the rest, with the help of two trainers (one of whom is named “Ripper”).

Jousting in historical fashion, it turns out, is extremely difficult and more technical than you might guess. The goal is to lower the lance at just the right moment to hit a metal target on the other guy’s shoulder about the size of a license plate. A hit is worth 1 point. If you break your lance into splinters: 5 points. If you unhorse the other guy: 10 points. Managing the lance is awkward, the target is small, you’re galloping on a bouncy horse, you’re wearing 80 pounds of armor, you can barely see, and the hits feel like a car crash.

So who on earth would do this? Back to those strange subcultures. Among the contestants were five theatrical jousters, an Olympic caliber show jumper, an ex-marine, a riding trainer, and the world champion steer wrestler—a sweet-spirited man named “Rope” who used his home ranch’s website to blog his experience and “give a running commentary … of what the Father showed me while I was on the show.” Yes, he means God.

With all that going for it, you are perhaps wondering why you have not also heard of this show. Well, I am sorry to report that it was cancelled after one season.

I know. Isn’t it terrible?

They did what they could. The History Channel got the show’s premier, in February of 2012, covered in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, which referred to jousting as “the preferred extreme sport of badasses of yore.” And the show did garner some fans. One writer for The Guardian named it his “TV programme of the year” for its “glorious stupidity” and “brilliant, unreconstructed, gormless fun.” Word about the show reached down to the deeper layers of the geekosphere, to the horsey sites and armory sites and medieval geek sites. An LGBT pop culture site had a story on the one gay competitor. Even so—and despite a Facebook fan site whose sole purpose seems to have been petitioning the History Channel to renew—it was all over in one season.

Sigh.

By my estimation, three main things went wrong.

One: how are you going to find yet another passel of sixteen insane and equestrianishly qualified people to risk tooth loss and permanent skeletal damage? The prize was only $100,000. As Adams says, violent contact sports are part of “North American culture” and some people enjoy getting hit, there’s no explaining why. But a mere hundred grand is not worth it.  

Two: jousting matches consist of eight passes lasting only a minute or two each. So most of each episode has to be filled with footage of training regimens, which, admittedly, start to get a little repetitive.

Third, and I mean this seriously: they underplayed the horses. Watching people do something dangerous and technically skillful is all the more fascinating when this endeavor requires the cooperative partnership of a large animal. We did not spend enough time on the show getting to know the horses. As I explored websites looking for background on the show, the most interesting thing I discovered was a horsey site in which Shane Adams went on with great energy and affection about the horses on the show, all of which he trained himself.

And so, alas, like everything else adored by M&R geeks, this show exists in the past. You can, if you wish, purchase DVDs of Full Metal Jousting. You can, if you wish, look up the matches and scores on Wikipedia. Unfortunately—and this may be another problem for its future as an extreme sport—jousting stats are not all that captivating.  

Despite the disappointments we all face in the ever-churning, fickle world of reality TV, we can acknowledge at least one good outcome. We at last have the answer to a very important question about football, that other violent sport now harassed and criticized by those who lament our American thirst for gladiatorial blood. The question is this: Do we only love football for the violence? Well, we might think of Full Metal Jousting as an experiment in which football is effectively reduced to just the hits—with horses! And this did not, in the end, appeal. So perhaps we do not love football only for its brutality. In fact, compared to jousting, football seems more like ballet.

One other possible outcome. I met a woman last week who runs an equestrian therapy program. I told her about the show, and we wondered together whether jousting might also be used as a form of therapy, perhaps for the testosterone-excess challenged? Perhaps it could even be a ministry?

You know, Mark Driscoll may need a fresh start soon. Maybe he should look into it.

Friday
Aug222014

The Big Book of What She Really Thinks

I have loved Roz Chast’s cartoons since one of my college friends introduced me back in the 1980s to Chast’s quietly twisted portrayals of ordinary neuroses and domestic absurdities. Chast specializes in boring people, living room couches, potted plants—yet somehow she cuts life on the bias and makes thought-provoking curlicues out of the clippings. A typical cartoon: a glum-looking guy standing in a room, with the caption: “Never the experiment. Always the control.” Or a series of frames under the heading “Lifetime Achievement Awards,” containing figures with captions like “Recognized for never missing a 6-month dental checkup since 1948.”  

Chast has established a long and successful career on the foundation of the standalone cartoon format—a remarkable achievement. Publishing her cartoons mainly in The New Yorker since 1978, her odometer for that publication alone reads over 1200 cartoons. All those years spent reducing—as she might put it—“human fads and foibles” down to their cartoonish essence prepared her perhaps better than most prose authors for that most difficult of challenges: the memoir.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant is a graphic memoir about a topic highly resistant to humor: the decline and death of elderly parents. Chast details the last difficult chapters of her parents’ lives, a period during which she had to grapple not only with the bewildering challenges of elder care but also with a deep love for her parents streaked to the core with exasperation and hurt. Her story reads at once as entirely particular and startlingly universal.

The main narrative begins in 2001, when her parents are already 89 years old and can no longer make the trip to visit Chast and her family in Connecticut. So the daughter returns for the first time in over a decade to her parents’ apartment in Brooklyn, the same apartment where she grew up and which she hated even as a child. We follow in detail the parents’ decline in their home, Chast’s difficulties moving them to assisted living, and their last illnesses and deaths.

I flew through this book, not only because one can read pretty fast with all those pictures, or because I have reached the daughter-caregiver stage myself and thus can “relate,” but mostly because I was amazed anew at the deeply affecting power of the graphic narrative medium: to convey character concisely, to arrange materials effectively, and to modulate tone.

Chast spares nothing in her truthful depiction of her parents, both born in 1912 to Russian immigrants whose cups of suffering overflowed. Her father taught high school French and Spanish and her mother was an elementary school assistant principal, and both displayed the typical frugality and hoarding instincts of their generation. With just a few panels, some characteristic phrases, and several page-long episodes (as when Chast unearths a disgusting, forty-year-old oven mitt, and Mom comments: “Why waste your money? That one still works.”), we are quickly immersed in this world and we know these people. Dad, with his food neuroses, chronic anxiety, and gentle demeanor. Mom, who bosses everyone around, is always right, and, when crossed, delivers a “blast from Chast!” These two entirely dependent on each other: “Codependent? Of course we’re codependent!” “Thank God!”

As Chast portrays situations that anyone with older parents can recognize—a fall that leads to hospitalization, arguments over moving out of the home, agonizing decisions about facilities—she deftly interweaves the main narrative events with other material, timing the interludes to create emotional contour. We learn early on about her grandparents’ stories, for example, but Chast saves the bitterest truths about her own childhood until much later in the book. We only read about a series of terrible nannies and the depth of Chast’s childhood fear of her mother once her father has died and Chast is left to work through her anger and hurt as her mother’s life ebbs away.

During this sequence, as she recalls how she learned to cope with her mother’s dominating personality and angry outbursts, Chast draws a picture of herself as a child: “I learned to keep my head down…” the caption reads. In the next frame, the caption continues: “…and my thoughts to myself.” Beneath is a drawing of a book called “The Big Book of What I Really Think.” Behold the birth of the writer.   

That Chast was able, all these years, to keep hold of what she really thinks is exactly what readers appreciate—because she’s able to say what we’re thinking, too. Most bracingly affecting to me in this memoir are Chast’s frank portrayals of her own inner turmoils. Early on, she depicts herself in total denial, cheerfully imagining that her parents would die in their sleep and she’d “never have to deal.” Much later, she admits that her beloved father, brought to stay at her house while her mother was in the hospital, drove her to the limit with his “chatterbox” tendencies, a result of his senile dementia. In several places, Chast puts real numbers on elder care costs, laments how her parents’ lifetime “scrimpings” are gushing away in “a Niagara Falls of expense at the end,” confesses to thinking about how this will mean less money left to her—and then hates herself for thinking that.

After a hospital stay, when Chast has at last reunited her parents back at their apartment, she inserts a self-depiction in which her own crazed face is surrounded by thought bubbles linked with arrows in a circle—to depict how she was going round and round with guilt and self-justification for leaving them alone and returning to her own family. No prose account could depict the hopeless guilt and desperate self-preservation of a caregiving daughter as simply and immediately as this cartoon.Another in the "Am I a bad daughter" series.

This all sounds very grim, but in fact the book is often funny, sometimes hilarious, as Chast uses cartoon techniques to zip momentarily into absurdity or to follow a silly scenario to its end. Neatly summing up her parents’ hypochondria and paranoia, for example, is a single page entitled “The Wheel of Doom.” At the center are hazardous activities, such as sitting too close to the TV, and these are surrounded by a wheel of dire results, such as gangrene or choking, which are then surrounded by doom-ridden ends, mostly death, all surrounded by microtales of woe: “A lump, then dead.”

Chast manages to be use humor frequently while neither trivializing anyone’s pain nor lapsing into dark brooding. Instead, she masterfully deploys all her expressive tools to create the fitting tone for the moment. I felt a familiar sinking feeling when I turned the page to the chapter entitled “The Old Apartment” and realized that we had reached the point where Chast would—shudder—have to clean out the apartment where her parents had lived for forty-eight years. After a few pages of narrative with drawings, Chast switches to actual photos of junk-filled rooms and puzzling ancient artifacts. One photo is captioned “Why was there a drawer of jar lids?” Anyone who has been in Chast’s position will nod with recognition.

Chast handles the most difficult moments in this story with a lovely gentleness. She follows the moment of her father’s death with a page containing only a sweet photograph of herself as a child with him. The following two pages contain no drawings at all, only her characteristic hand lettering as she describes the next harrowing twenty-four hours with her just-widowed mother. The final pages of the book contain a dozen simple crosshatch drawings of her mother in her last hours, Chast’s familiar cartoon style set aside for the sake of a more somber artistic study.

Good memoirs should be honest, revealing, and full of engaging particulars. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant fully delivers, but gains even greater power from Chast’s signature cartoon style, skillfully adapted to tell this story. Readers who love Chast’s eye for the absurd and her preoccupation with anxieties will find that meeting her parents in these pages explains a great deal. We get a detailed portrait of crazy, but an equally compelling story of love. Perhaps that’s what her fans have adored about Chast all along: beneath the wit and wackiness there has always been, at heart, a clear-eyed understanding of human weakness, met with an abiding compassion.

 

Saturday
Aug092014

The American Road Trip: A Retrospective*

*Any resemblances to real persons or events, past or present, are strictly coincidental.

Circa 1978

She: Honey, I think we were supposed to take that exit.

He: Are you sure?

She: Well, I’m looking at the atlas here and … boy, this is right on the edge of this page … here, I’ll look at the detail map on the next page.

He: Let me see that!

She: You drive! I’m navigating!

He: Are you sure you’re reading that right?

She: Gives him a dirty look. I’m telling you, it’s exit 174. Stabs atlas with finger. I can see it right here.

2014

She: Which exit am I supposed to take?

He: Look at my phone mounted on the dash. It shows you. Just follow the arrows.

She: I can’t see your phone. It’s too small and there’s a glare.

He: Here, I’ll set up my tablet instead. Several minutes pass. Oh shoot. My tablet is out of power. Let me find my charge cable. Rummages through large tote bag containing a tangled knot of chargers, cables, plugs, devices of all sorts. OK, here it is. Flurry of plugging and unplugging.

She: So which exit am I supposed to take?

He: Just a minute! Minutes tick by. OK, well, Google maps has us using a different route from Apple maps. Pinches the image in. Agh! Too small! Stop that, you dumb thing! Pinches the image out again. OK, let’s see… Well, I think we should take exit 174.

She: Yeah, that was miles ago.

* * * 

Circa 1978

Dad: All right, I’ve been around the dial three times now. There is nothing on the radio out here in the boonies.

Mom: Let’s sing!

Small kid: Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, Ninety-nine bottles of beeeeeer!

Teenager: Shut up, dork!

Mom: Or we could play a game! How about the alphabet game? Or twenty questions?

Big kid: Look, it’s a “Watch for ice on bridge” sign! ABCEFGHI! Ha ha!

Small kid: No fair!

Big kid: Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall…

2014

Dad: All right! We’re on the highway now. What would we like to listen to together? I’ve got 27 audio books, 314 music playlists, and 67 podcasts on my phone. Or I could project YouTube videos on the car ceiling if I can rig up my laptop with the projector ap on the tablet, and then I could get audio by…, let’s see, …

Mom: (Driving.) Honey. Just stop. Kids, what would you like to listen to?

Kids: Barely perceptible twips and chutters of earbud noise, as each kid zones out in a private world created by a separate headphone/ipod set.

***

Circa 1978

She: I’m hungry. Is it time for lunch yet? Where shall we go?

He: Say, there’s a billboard advertising a truck stop with Marge’s Diner. Shall we take a chance and stop there?

She: Well, it’s hard to say when we’ll come across another restaurant on this lonely stretch. We had better do it.

2014

She: I’m hungry. Is it time for lunch yet? Where shall we go?

He: Let’s see. Tappita tappita tappita. Ok, Google maps says that in thirty miles there’s an exit with fifteen restaurants, including a Denny’s, an Applebee’s, a Noodles, and here’s an Italian restaurant.

She: Italian! That sounds good.

He: I’ll just look it up on TripAdvisor. Tappita tappita. Scroll scroll scroll. Yeah, no, never mind.

She: Where’s the nearest Chinese place?

He: Tappita tappita. Looks like forty-five miles, just off the interstate. Scroll scroll scroll. Gets good reviews, too. And they have free wireless!

She: Let’s do it.

***

Circa 1978

Parked on an exit ramp, Dad is peering under the hood, looking determined.

Dad: I think it’s the carburetor.

Mom: Are you sure? Shouldn’t we call Triple AAA?

Dad: Of course not! I can do this! Son, I think there’s a socket wrench in the trunk. Go get it and then crawl under the car with me to watch what I’m doing. Every man has to know how to fix a car!

2014

Parked on an exit ramp, Dad is peering under the hood while teen stands there with a tablet.

Dad: So what does the KIA website say?

Teenager: I went through FAQs, and that took me to the diagnostic page, which says we need part #24015-15A. And it has a link to the nearest place where we can get one.

Later, in the parking lot of the ginormous auto parts store in big-box world off the interstate.

Teenager: OK, I’ve got the instructional YouTube video up.

Dad: You sure that’s the one for replacing a running light on the 2011 Kia? That doesn’t look right.

Teenager: Oh yeah, that’s the 2010. Sorry. Hang on. Tap tap tap. Here you go.

Dad: That’s better. OK, hold it up so I can see.

***

Circa 1978

Kid: For the twentieth time. Are we there yet?

Parents: No!

2014

Parents: Sweetie! We’re here! Time to get out of the car!

Kid: Are we there already? I’ve still got twenty minutes left in this episode! I’ll just stay in the car and finish.

***

Circa 1978

Some place far from home in a distant state, at the end of many many miles of highway, the travelers at last arrive.

Travelers: We’re here!

Dear friends or family: Welcome! We’re so glad you’ve come!

2014

Some place far from home in a distant state, at the end of many many miles of highway, the travelers at last arrive.

Travelers: We’re here!

Dear friends or family: Welcome! We’re so glad you’ve come!

Thankfully, some things stay the same…

Friday
Jul252014

Civilization

Last night I sat on the steps of the United States Capitol and enjoyed my tax dollars at work in the form of the U. S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” It turns out that this elite army band is actually a collection of nine ensembles, including string players and vocalists, who combine in a variety of ways to perform thousands of concerts a year. Last night, as part of their free outdoor concert series on the National Mall, a small orchestra and some mighty fine singers performed a lively, one-hour program of favorite orchestral overtures and opera arias. For free! Opera! In uniform!

They sounded great—so if you are also a U.S. tax payer, be assured that a portion of the money that funds our military actually supports the arts. Before the concert, the conductor and two of the musicians—all of them charming and charismatic—gave a friendly talk on their role in the army, carefully explaining that they are one-hundred-percent professional musicians but also real-live soldiers, having earned advanced degrees in music, and then, after joining up, survived basic training and learned their way around an M-16 rifle. No kidding. The conductor referred to their concert performance as a “mission.”

My visit to the Capitol came after a week spent at the Center for Hellenic Studies, an elegant little enclave in a wooded glen just off Embassy Row. I have been studying Homer’s Odyssey with a group of twenty professors from small colleges and two expert classical scholars. At our meals together, talk among the professors often lingers on the topic of the humanities, and how our various institutions are attempting to preserve and revitalize them. How do we justify—to our students, their parents, and our administrators—spending time and resources to study the past, to read novels, to ponder philosophical quandaries? Here we are, spending an entire week studying in depth one long, old poem—a great and fascinating one, but can we even explain why?

This program—which I’ve been calling “Homer Camp”—is funded by the Mellon Foundation through the Council of Independent Colleges. I’ve been thinking this week about the enormous resources required to support this beautiful center and its project of making classical texts, along with endless volumes of scholarship and research tools, freely available to the public. I’ve been thinking about the years of dedication required to master any field of study, and the hours we put into teaching young people, and the years of their lives they spend in college.

It requires enormous resources to support things that are extremely valuable but whose value is difficult—actually impossible—to quantify. Yet unquantifiable goods are perhaps the most distinctive markers of the beautiful civilization. Or at least it seems so after a week in which my "mission" was to study epic poetry, and after a warm summer night, sitting on the steps of a magnificent neo-classical building alongside a diverse gathering of people, listening to an army sergeant sing an aria.