Geoffrey Sheehy

Geoffrey Sheehy considers teaching high school students a privilege and hopes to remain an English teacher until he retires at age 85. He and his wife have four children and live in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Caring Who Wins

This piece comes from our archives.

The Royals just defeated the Mets in the World Series, and as a native New Englander and lifelong Red Sox fan, I had no dog in the fight. Sure, the Mets beat the Sox in the ’86 Series, but with the three subsequent Red Sox’s Series wins, any sense of rivalry has dissipated.

Yet even without rivalry, I did care who won. It had to be the Royals. And it was.

I was listening to the game on the radio (my preferred method of digesting baseball—who can beat the deliciousness of crowd noise as communicated through the AM bandwidth?), carrying it around the house. As the Royals scored the tying run on a fielder’s choice in the top of the 9th inning, with my wife and children long since gone to bed, I somehow refrained from cheering out loud.

How did this happen? How did I end up caring about a team I have no real connection to? Fundamentally, the story of the World Series captures me, just as the stories of the NBA playoffs, the Olympics, or the Tour de France hook me. Like most sports fans, I am enticed by the drama of a contest, though I never know until the end whether I’m watching a comedy or a tragedy. When I turn on a game, I often discover an exciting story, a true cliffhanger, with a rising action and thrilling climax—14 innings! The last pitcher in the bullpen! And I will stay up until the early morning seeking the denouement.

The sports-media industry most clearly reveals how fundamental sports-as-narrative is to sports’ popularity, as their function is to provide character development and plot analysis (not to mention to debate ethical questions about bat-flipping and calls). The media helps us interpret games and stories often in terms of traditional archetypes, even if they have to simplify a complex contest: LeBron (the last man standing) vs. Golden State (the blitzkrieging army); Luck (the young gun) vs. Manning (the old guard); Red Sox (good) vs. Yankees (evil).

Even in sports, too much narrative simplification is like having a library only made up of Grisham and Sparks and Steele—it lacks nuance or subtlety. Yet not all sports media simplifies contests; some writers see Joycean possibilities in sports. If you read any Brian Phillips of the now deceased Grantland, you begin to recognize the plot of sports contains intricacies and intrigue; you notice the weight of underlying symbolism. In Phillips’s world, Serena Williams is a symbol of freedom, “a special version of freedom, not just through her physical talent but through her marvelous spontaneous performance of her own personality.” In this world you realize Russell Westbrook’s “function is to implode your entire idea of genre.” And Kevin Durant’s scooter, necessary after his foot surgery, is not only “a scooter of mortality, not triumph” but ultimately, and tragically, because “this is Kevin Durant we’re talking about here—it’s a scooter of actual scooting.” Reading Phillips so enamors me with sports’ possibilities that when I watch a game, I don’t want to be left out. I want to be involved in it, to participate in its drama.

In the most basic sense fans lie outside the action, no matter how much athletes praise the crowd as the “sixth man.” Yet our emotional investment reveals how we make ourselves part of the drama. Isn’t this why diehard fans often slip into first person when referencing their favorite teams? They didn’t lose, we lost.

Yet even if I can refrain from the illusion of direct involvement when the Red Sox lose—say, when Aaron Boone hits a home run off Tim Wakefield to lose the ALCS, to name a wound that may never heal—I am devastated by the tragic ending. Though I am not a character, it is still my story, and the hero of my tale has died. The dragon has burned the prince and flown away with the princess. I am crushed. I may wear black the next day.

Doris Kearns Goodwin captures this experience most beautifully in her essay, “Fan,” written as a contribution to Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns’ Baseball: An Illustrated History. Born a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, Goodwin describes when Bobby Thompson hit a home run to defeat the Dodgers and clinch the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants. Goodwin’s sister, Charlotte, had predicted the shot, and when she saw the ball fly over the left field fence, Goodwin writes that she “thought for a moment my sister had made it happen and I hated her with all my heart.” A non-fan might call Goodwin’s phrasing hyperbole; anyone who has truly rooted for a home team knows better. “With all my heart” is the only way to root for our team.

Experiences like this capture the delicious beauty of tragedy. Though before 2004 Red Sox fans would not have admitted it, it was special growing up under the grip of The Curse. Bill Buckner’s error was a story no other fan could tell. It was like having your king kill his father and marry his mother, the kind of story that goes down in history. And when you’re a tried-and-true fan, it’s your history.

This might be why for fans the ultimate transgression in sport is for an athlete to cheat, to fix the contest, because this means we were not part of something genuine. We’ll look the other way if football players use steroids, because instead of robbing us of the story, they amplify the conflict. We were willing to look the other way for a while with baseball, but then we realized steroids diminished the game’s epic heroes. How could we have allowed a handful of bionic creations to steal Roger Maris’ magic record of 61 home runs?

This is what makes the Black Sox and Lance Armstrong so terrible and still so intriguing. We discovered those stories were manipulations, that the hero was actually the villain, and that we were the victims. So we keep writing about Lance and making movies about him, because now he is the greatest villain imaginable. He tried to deceive us! He wants to draw us in again! We won’t be fooled, however, and will refuse to listen to his wizard-talk and will cast him out of our friendly shire. 

Now I’m talking like a fantasy fan, which raises Phillips’ sense of symbolism and story anew. If we are too involved, doesn’t that make us the child who may be a bit too into the story that is not actually his or her own? Too into Gandalf and Dungeons and Dragons? Sometimes we describe the passionate fan with admiration. We picture young Doris Kearns Goodwin finally celebrating her Dodgers’ World Series victory, creating “one of the happiest moments of my life.” But at other times, with Phillips, we

“…meet someone who actually cares whether the Cowboys win on Sunday, not ‘cares’ in the way you care about something you’ve semi-arbitrarily decided to invest emotional energy in to make your life more exciting, but actually cares in the way you care whether your family is fed and the war is postponed till next week. At those times, I feel despair.

Phillips’ despair is real; it’s the despair that arises when a fellow fan threatens the life of a kicker who fumbled away a victory. Yet this wild involvement is a risk we have always been willing to take when we invest in a narrative. A few delusional readers will think of themselves as wizards or princesses, and a few delusional fans will think their lives really are over when a tragic season or career ends.

To respond to the risk of delusional involvement by withdrawing our passions, by remaining aloof for fear that would transform us into one of those people who care more for Peyton Manning than our Uncle Bill, is to lose the heart of the narrative. It leaves us where Goodwin found herself after the Brooklyn Dodgers abandoned her for Los Angeles: withdrawn from the game, “without a team to root for, my emotions became detached; my heart wasn’t in it anymore.”

I want my heart to be in it, so each year I find a reason to root for a side in the World Series. This year, I sided with the Royals. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe it is because my college buddy from Kansas City swayed my thinking, or my love of George Brett’s iconic baseball tantrum, or because San Francisco Giant’s pitcher Madison Bumgarner dominated them in the 2014 World Series. It doesn’t matter. What really matters is that I choose a team and commit to rooting for someone, because that is how I become part of the story.

The Cost of Customization

A couple years ago we painted a map of the country on the wall by the guidance office. There’s really nothing strange about this (what’s weird about a map on the wall of a high school?), and as I walk by it, heading from the English department toward the activities office, I frequently pause to examine the small papers posted where students plan to attend school next. Mostly, the papers cluster around South Dakota’s state schools, and a few dapple Minnesota, where we enjoy reciprocity.

It reminds me of the wall in my own high school in New Hampshire, where the guidance office hung laminated pennants decorated with our photos and post-high destinations. My friends were headed to places like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma, while I was headed to Illinois.

Illinois is a long way from New Hampshire and before I visited my college, the furthest west I’d traveled was Florida. Upon attending, I was completely on my own, and I loved it. What was most important was that it was my college. I had discovered in this place, even in its brochures, an expression of myself, a setting befitting the person I wanted to be, even if I was aware that every college in existence was promising I could be a good-looking and intelligent pedestrian among orange deciduous trees.

It happened just like I’d hoped it would, too. My new environment encouraged me to thrive in particular ways, and I sensed the change when I returned home on breaks. I didn’t hang out with my high school friends much, though I harbored no animosity towards them. Yes, I was back, but I had replaced the ties of my old life with ties that matched my desires, a set of customized bonds. I’d inserted myself into a different community, one that kindled what I saw as my truer self.

These are the contours of my story, but the story’s arc is common enough to be a cliché. The teenager goes off in search of self-actualization and chooses a school that fits his vision of what he’d like to be. Colleges play their role by offering a particular “cultural identity” (Prescott College) and promising a corresponding experience of “personal transformation” (New England College) that will leave the student “caring about the community” and a “citizen of the world” (Whitman College). And as a cog in the machine meant to churn out cosmopolitan college graduates, I help cast my students as characters in this story: find out who you are, pick the perfect college for you, pursue your dream.

Yet as my high school economics teacher taught me, there is such a thing as an opportunity cost. To pursue one experience is to forgo another. As teenagers pursue their customized experiences of self-fulfillment, what are they missing? What are they giving up?

One thing they’re giving up is their high school classmates. When I watch my seniors hug goodbye to one another, trying not to poke each other in the eye with their silly square hats, it occurs to me how permanent some of those goodbyes will prove to be. I uttered the same goodbyes twenty years ago to people I have not seen since, and while I don’t regret leaving, I must admit that this separation from my community is one of the heavy costs of pursuing my own path. To customize my life meant to unknit myself from previous communal experience.

I recognize these contours in stories far different than my own, even in Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, where Arnold Spirit, an intellectually curious young man, decides to attend school off his reservation. Arnold needs to leave to keep from despairing, and as his teacher asserts, “You’re going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk from this sad, sad, sad reservation.”

part-time-indian

So Arnold goes, and the greatest cost is his bond with his best friend, Rowdy, a cost Arnold realizes most powerfully when the two play against each other in a basketball game. Rowdy, a natural athlete, has always destroyed Arnold in their pickup games, but in this instance Arnold plays better than he ever thought possible, and his team beats Rowdy’s. Though he’s the hero, Arnold realizes after the final buzzer that while he had seen himself as the underdog, it’s his old school who is David, and he’s joined Goliath. With this thought, he recognizes his adoption of this new community as a kind of betrayal. He throws up and weeps, “because I had broken my best friend’s heart.”

Being a novel, Alexie moves Arnold to a place of insight. He weeps at the end because he wants his old community to have hope like his, but “I was the only one who was brave and crazy enough to leave the rez. I was the only one with enough arrogance.” And while Arnold won’t be going back, he wants to find Rowdy “and hug him and beg him to forgive me for leaving.”  He thus lands where he can see the good of his leaving, even as he recognizes the importance of loving those he’d left.

Like I mentioned, Arnold’s ordeal is mostly foreign to me. I didn’t need to leave my hometown and my leaving was not viewed as cultural betrayal; but I still understand his impulse to ask forgiveness. 

Mine was the ultimate knitted community, a town of fewer than 5,000 residents where the entire eighth grade class traveled to Washington DC on one bus. We attended a regional high school, which swelled our class’s ranks to 100, but that did not destroy our links, it simply extended the chain. We all knew what it was to jump off the covered bridge, to ski the Twister trail at Pat’s Peak, to get speeding tickets on Route 114. We knew who owned the town’s old names, which classmates were cousins, and whose dog would never bite if you entered the house when no one was home. These were experiences that were shared, not customized.

And while these were all good things—privileged things, really—to customize our experiences, we left. We withdrew ourselves from the limitations of what our small town could offer. We left behind the accents of the lifetime New Hampsha’ men for the spoils of a particular college. You can’t have it all, so we gave up our small-town community.

I see via Facebook that a few of us have returned, but I don’t know how many because I’m not there. A single plane ticket to New England costs around $600. A drive takes thirty hours. I won’t attend my high school reunion and, a bit like Arnold Spirit, feel a compulsion to apologize to my childhood friends.

In light of this, I recognize that when my students cry at graduation, they’re emotional for legitimate reasons, especially the students pursuing their dreams in California or Arizona. They’re right to see their leaving for college, in part, as a loss. I doubt they’ll change their minds or regret their decision, but to recognize the loss is at least to concede a certain reality.

It’s a reality we educators frequently deny. Each year when my students register for classes, my colleagues and I emphasize what their priorities should be: sign up for what you need, for classes you’re interested in and classes that will help you pursue your goals. Don’t just sign up for the classes your friends are taking. Then we extend the same advice to college: Don’t just pick the school your boyfriend is going to. Don’t be roommates with your friends.

In many specific cases that’s good advice, but I admittedly dole out the idea as a self-evident maxim. I wonder if I’ve been as right as I’ve thought. When students choose to value community over customization, who am I to say they’re wrong? I’ll always praise the man who elects to spend time with his children rather than pursue a promotion; why am I so loathe to praise the student who adheres to the same priorities in choosing classes or a college?

Even though I’ll never regret my choice regarding college, I could benefit from a mindset that values community more and a customized experience less. The conflict between the two recalls a passage from The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s fictional collection of letters from the demon Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood. At one point, Screwtape warns Wormwood about the power of the parish church, which,

“being a unity of place and not of likings, brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.

Lewis’ point concerns the church and shows how there, too, the cost of customization is community. America provides an interesting case study of his idea. Having embraced the congregational principle, American churches long ago fell into coteries, where attendees continue to break fellowship with one church and attend another for reasons as miniscule as singing styles or nursery workers. Some Christians have even followed the congregational principle to its extreme, creating, instead of a church, a one-man outpost. This form can use the Internet to customize a morning worship experience, maybe opening with Hillsong’s music and following it up with a sermon from John MacArthur.

Yet, certainly, Lewis’s idea applies to schooling since a college is a community of likings. A quick perusal of how students describe their classmates affirms how colleges naturally form sets of coteries. On Unigo (a website that helps prospective students “find the right school for you”) students at Brown suggest they are often “hyper-liberal”; at Reed, students report they are “predominantly liberal and non-religious”; and at Westmont students describe themselves as “very religious.”

But in the public high school classroom, I see a parish arrangement. When I finish class a bit early and my students mingle, they create a mixture they may never experience after graduation: the rancher is joking with the artist, the kid on Free and Reduced lunch is talking to the kid who drives a Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Fox News Republican is teasing the Bernie Democrat. I have my students’ best interests in mind when I encourage them to pursue their dreams the same way I did, but I have done so without appreciating the cost of that choice.

As I walk by that map in our hallway and see the glut of students attending our state universities, I admit I typically feel something akin to pity. Since my own classmates and I grew up surrounded by picturesque New England campuses, “college” meant a private liberal arts school. With so many choices available, we had thoroughly imbibed that there is a perfect school for you. My students, I therefore assumed, had not realized the possibilities for their own education. They had restricted themselves to what our area could offer, and what our area offered were state schools. 

Yet as I begin to recognize the cost of customization, I suspect I’ll view that map on the wall a bit differently. My students may have “settled” for a state school, but look at their Instagram accounts: they’re littered with recent photographs of the same best friends they had in high school. They’re still hanging out, they’re still laughing, they’re still together. Their opportunity, while lacking the ultimate customization, has not cost them all their community. I, meanwhile, have not seen my best friend Matt in a decade. I may have to quit viewing that cluster of papers around South Dakota with pity and replace it with admiration.

I still do not regret my choices, but over the last 15 years I have embedded myself into a new community, one I cherish. So the next time I face an opportunity to customize my experience—or the next time I discuss college options with a teenager—it appears I should consider these students’ example. They have something important to teach me about the cost of customization.

A Review of Barton Swaim’s Memoir, The Speechwriter

In 2016 an American writer pauses at his keyboard. He is working on a project, but this morning he has decided to put it aside to write a letter to America. The letter is his attempt to re-court a prodigal country, and while he’d love to follow John Steinbeck’s lead in Travels with Charley, devoting a year to search for her and dedicating an entire book to describe her, he is hoping the morning’s work will convince his dearest to return to him and be the country he knew.

What he needs to do, he is convinced, is write about Donald Trump. He needs to explain to his beloved America the cost of her flirtation. In this, he hopes to channel Mark Twain’s Dr. Robinson from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like our writer, Dr. Robinson refuses to stand idle as imposters deceive those close to him. While the King and the Duke pose as the late Peter Wilk’s brothers, attempting to steal Wilks’s fortune from his nieces, Robinson steps forward and declares the King and the Duke impostors, frauds, tramps. Drawing upon his long-standing friendship with the girls, Robinson pits his character against the character of the King:

“I was your father’s friend, and I’m your friend; and I warn you as a friend, and an honest one that wants to protect you and keep you out of harm and trouble, to turn your backs on that scoundrel and have nothing to do with him, the ignorant tramp . . . He is the thinnest kind of an impostor—has come here with a lot of empty names and facts which he picked up somewheres, and you take them for proofs, and are helped to fool yourselves by these foolish friends here, who ought to know better.  Mary Jane Wilks, you know me for your friend, and for your unselfish friend, too.  Now listen to me; turn this pitiful rascal out—I beg you to do it.  Will you?

With minor substitutions, the Dr. Robinson’s plea is precisely what the writer wants to say to America. It is an appeal from the heart predicated upon character and love—both exhausting and cathartic.

***

At least I imagine this to be a typical scenario, since virtually every writer I follow has commented upon the Trump phenomenon.

Many of these pieces have been memorable—baseball writer Bill James’s cranky rant at The Federalist demonstrates how far the impulse has travelled, and David Brooks’s gloves-off, governing cancer thesis typifies the urgency and tone. But most remarkable is how, for my writer (and by implication, for these real writers), the similarities between Dr. Robinson’s situation and his own extend to their results. The Wilks sisters dismiss the doctor in the most unfortunate manner—Jane votes for the King by entrusting to him her inheritance of $6,000—and all Dr. Robinson can do is affirm that he told everyone so: “But I warn you all that a time’s coming when you’re going to feel sick whenever you think of this day.” The writer, meanwhile, if he lives in a state with an early primary, is left to watch America pass a bag full of delegates to the real estate mogul-turned-politician from New York.

My writer’s primary trouble is not the nature of his opinion or even his desire to make an appeal, but that his strategy mimics Dr. Robinson’s tactics, not the tactics of Dr. Robinson’s creator, Mark Twain. The doctor is correct, but he is frustrated. His good-natured and rational appeal to character is powerless before a pair of crooks who do not abide by his rules of conduct. Twain, on the other hand, always managed to subvert such maneuvering. His arrows flew true and his barbs held tightly, maintaining their grip long after killing their target.

twain

The legacy of Mark Twain’s satirical strategy is evinced in Barton Swaim’s memoir, The Speechwriter, in which Swaim ably uses humor to reduce a public figure to his proper size. In this case, the public figure is Swaim’s old boss, former governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford. And while for any reader of The Speechwriter, Sanford’s political standing will shrink, the book will assuredly inflate his status as a comic figure. No matter what else he achieves, Sanford will live in my mind as a comic grotesque.

Swaim’s sketch of his boss had me shaking with laughter, fearful I’d wake my wife. The governor was so cheap that his staff’s Christmas presents were re-gifted trinkets, “…a Christmas ornament bearing the words, ‘Merry Christmas! Love, the Peterkins,’” so verbose he used “indeed” to cover over poorly phrased nonsense, “Jefferson and the founding fathers indeed founded this nation on the notion of limited government,” and so vain that “he apologized to his mistress and to his family…in that order.”

Yet as funny as this material is, its value arises primarily from the insight it provides. Swaim’s book, published well before the 2016 election, has shaped my view of Donald Trump’s triumphs this primary season. And while the tower of Trump might be larger-than-life, Swaim’s point of view has helped me see him less as an anomaly and more as a sharply outlined type.

Swaim articulates the particulars of this archetypal 21st-Century Politician in his concluding chapter, pointing out that high-level politics cater to a certain kind of person: “People like Tom Sawyer [here he quotes Catherine Zuckert], serve others not for the sake of others…They serve because they glory in receiving glory.” Applied without exception the claim is unfair, and Swaim recognizes this and accounts for its varying degrees. But Swaim also observes that these elected officials have “sought and attained high office by innumerable acts of vanity and self-will.” In this, our democratic process, which can variously resemble the election of a prom queen or the selection of sides for schoolyard football, does not always feel like governance. And it certainly doesn’t feel like service.

Certainly, a person might enter politics out of a desire to advance a good cause or serve a constituency—local elections can feel purer in this way—but the process sifts candidates until those of only a certain mettle remain: the kind of person who enjoys the glory that attends being elected and getting things done.  “What drives him is the thirst for glory; the public good, as he understands it, is a means to that end.” In this sense, Swaim’s depiction is wondrously similar to the description of the Pharisees in the New Testament, the ones Jesus excoriates because they “love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” Not wanting particularly to vote for Pharisees for President, I wonder: can’t we choose someone else? Can’t we find the humble candidate and uphold him or her?

Unfortunately, in answering this question, Swaim brings us more bad news by reminding us that, “Successful politicians are people who know how to make us think well of them without our realizing that that’s what they’re doing; they know how to make us admire and trust them.”  If Swaim is right, then the candidates who strike us as selfless and trustworthy are likely the most adept at using their self-will to hide their vanity.

***

What, then, is my despondent writer to do? To accept the truth of Swaim’s final thesis could invite despair: they’re all miserable! They’re all selfish, glory-seeking, unctuous Pharisees! And America is falling for their wiles! But to temper this truth by adopting Swaim’s approach, the approach of the humorist, is to see that truth in perspective.

This is where Swaim’s memoir moves beyond depressing description and provides capable guidance. While laughter is a familiar political tool, used to imitate Alaskan governors and make modest proposals,  the laughter Swaim induces represents more than a typical gag or criticism. He’s not just mocking ineptitude or dishonesty or bias—though he does those things—and he’s not just laughing to keep from crying. For Swaim, his laughter is a declaration that he recognizes the farce, that he will not be duped again into trusting the 21st-Century Politician. 

I say duped again because the key element of Swaim’s experience is that he plays the stooge for his own joke. As exaggerated and vain as his boss clearly was, Swaim trusted this governor. This was his mistake. Now, while Swaim can’t change the man, he can choose how to see him. He can see him for what he is and he can choose not to trust him.

And the best way to assert his lack of trust, to inoculate himself against the 21st-Centry Politician, is to laugh at him.

Yet while laughing at someone is essentially the definition of mockery, I would characterize Swaim’s laughing differently. It is closer to the laugh of self-deprecation, because it sees the truth—even though it is preposterous—and recognizes the truth for what it is. It sees that this preposterousness is partly our own doing, our own desire to hear what we want to hear and see our leaders as we want them to be.

***

Mark Twain claimed that his humor was a vehicle, not the purpose, for writing what he did. “If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited,” he wrote, “I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of humor. I should have written the sermon just the same, whether any humor applied for admission or not.” In this way Barton Swaim imitates the American master of satirical humor. His insights can give us the perspective we need during an election where humorists are straining to parody an already exaggerated reality.

 

The Turkey Bomber

I’ve never felt comfortable interpreting my life’s events. When someone suggests that my alarm clock not going off was meant to teach me a certain lesson, that “there is no such thing as coincidence,” I cringe. It’s not that I shouldn’t learn a lesson, but that it feels presumptuous to interpret such an event as providence, presumptuous to determine with such confidence why something happened.

Yet as ridiculous as it may feel to interpret a small happening as providential, I admit it can feel similarly ridiculous to declare every circumstance coincidental. That is certainly the case with a recent incident involving my father-in-law.

My father-in-law spends much of his time in one of three places in his office at home: lying on the floor, lying on the sofa, or sitting in his rocking chair. The piles of papers and books that cover every inch of the desk amply prove he never sits there. Yet in this instance, he sat at his desk, his phone to his ear, waiting for a human being to pick up.

Despite the 20-degree temperature outside, the room was warm and pleasant, filled with light from the four casement windows. My in-laws were the only ones home; the radio, TV, and computers were silent. Then the second window to my father-in-law’s right exploded, propelling shards of glass across his office.

Given the angle of his seat to the window, he could not have chosen a safer place to sit. Twelve feet across the room, four-inch shards of glass impaled the sofa, the drywall, and a wooden picture frame. In the middle of the room, two panes worth of glass rained upon the open magazine and scattered books. In the back of the rocking chair, near the window, and just below where my father-in-law’s head might have been, glass tore holes in the suede backing. Thus, his position was as perfect as it was unlikely.

Like me, many are uncomfortable interpreting stories of coincidence. A distinctly American form of this discomfort reaches at least as far back as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in The Scarlet Letter wonders about our penchant for interpreting natural phenomena as personal signs. When Arthur Dimmesdale is suffering in guilt and standing upon the scaffold alongside Hester Prynne, he looks to the midnight sky and sees a giant, red A. Such a case as this, Hawthorne asserts, “could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a man…had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul’s history and fate!” Hawthorne sees in Dimmesdale’s interpretation arrogance; only vanity could believe the entire universe revolves around him. And similarly, even though I view God as creator and sustainer—a personal being providentially guiding creation—I chafe at the idea of interpreting every coincidence as a kind of handy providence. Something about the way it’s applied strikes me as off-kilter, like a too-convenient exposition of a poem.  

Yet as self-conscious as I might be about my vanity, coincidence still intrigues me. This American Life explored the phenomena of coincidence and our attitudes toward it memorably, and while some of the incidents they share occupy the realm of the bizarre, host Sarah Koenig admits she found it difficult to remain skeptical in the face of these stories. Though she began a skeptic, she ended up

“agreeing with this one woman I interviewed about her coincidence: she knew her story could probably be explained away with statistics and probability, but she said, “There’s just a poetry to things like this when they happen. There’s some kind of beauty in it. There’s meaning in the noticing it at all.”

As This American Life suggests, the more random and strange the coincidence, the easier it is to see the poetry behind it. No matter how skeptical we are, poetic coincidence can provide the opportunity to see a bit of providence in the world.

After the window exploded, my father-in-law’s next sight was equally shocking: in the middle of his office floor, an adult turkey convulsed violently, feathers scattering everywhere. 

We initially speculated that the turkeys, a species of limited aerial ability, were using the hill above the house as a launching ramp, enabling them to reach their roosts in the ponderosas behind it. This turkey failed to attain the goal.

Whatever the cause, as I consider how narrowly my father-in-law escaped injury, I keep returning to Problems with Hurricanes, a poem by Victor Hernandez Cruz:

A campesino looked at the air
And told me:
With hurricanes it’s not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I’ll tell you he said:
it’s the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.

How would your family
feel if they had to tell
The generations that you
got killed by a flying
Banana.

The campesino’s question has always struck me as funny. Poetic coincidence is often something to be thankful for, but it can also be humorous. Now, in my gratitude that my father-in-law was not hurt by this fowl kamikaze, I find it even funnier, with my laughter acting as a celebration for his safety.

Still, questions linger. Is it arrogant for me to celebrate my father-in-law’s seemingly random moment at his desk? To celebrate his safety as providential? If I celebrate his safety as providential, am I suggesting he is more important to the one who determines providence than those who have coincidentally suffered? Am I as arrogant as Arthur Dimmesdale, interpreting the movement of the galaxy as part of the text of my life?

Despite my reservations, I think not. My sincere gratitude arises not from arrogance but from humility. It admits that apart from providence, my father-in-law has no protection, even from random natural phenomenon like turkey bombers. My own interpretive gratitude, then, is not an attempt to explain the ways of providence, but an attempt to accept them.

To the fowl and her relatives, the incident appears far less coincidental. My father-in-law put her out of her misery as quickly as possible, spent 12 hours cleaning his office, and had the window repaired. Two weeks later, with no one in the room, another turkey propelled herself through the glass, dying on impact. Clearly, we now realize, the birds are seeing something in the window and diving for it. So my father-in-law has covered the windows with black plastic and blue tape. While grateful for providential protection, he is not so arrogant as to demand it again.

The Payoff

The first time I stopped reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest I vowed to return, but I quietly doubted. I lacked faith. I picked it up because people whose opinions I valued wrote about it with admiration, but these writers-on-the-Internet were not with me while I read it, and late at night I struggled to comprehend the meaning, let alone the purpose, of a four page riff on a drug dealer’s thoughts. At least I thought that’s what it was. I can’t recall now and since I barely knew then, what does it matter?

The second time I stopped reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I did not vow to return. I knew I would. I restarted after reading a number of Wallace’s essays, catching his tone and sense of humor. I grew attentive to his singular observations of seemingly obvious phenomenon, shaking with such laughter that I could not read him in bed for fear of waking my wife.

In that second reading I caught all the characteristics of Wallace I’d missed–that humor, that insight–and found myself willing to slog through difficult stretches for the sake of discovering what else he was offering. I had been “seduced into doing the work,” to use Wallace’s own words.[1] I’d begun to comprehend the payoff of reading this demanding novel.

Payoff, I am learning, is vital to my reading as well as my life. I am entirely convinced that Wallace is right when he says, “the demands you make on a reader are not in and of themselves valuable; . . . demands on a reader need to serve a discernible function and there needs to be some sort of payoff.”[2]

Discernment of payoff begins with the long-term payoff—a confidence that the result of our reading will justify our efforts. Our confidence may arise from previous experience with an author or a trustworthy recommendation. Frequently, the book itself alerts us to the worthy nature of its conclusion. In many essays, a promise is made in the thesis and delivered through its claims; with stories, even simple foreshadowing can draw us along.

No one delivers the foreshadowing of an epic and worthwhile conclusion better than Homer, who in the first pages of The Odyssey unabashedly builds our anticipation for battle: “if only he might drop from the clouds / and drive these suitors all in a rout throughout the halls.” Once we’re hooked, Homer will not permit this desire to shuffle to the back of our minds: he constantly uses dramatic irony to increase tension and our anticipation, like when Antinous famously hurls a stool at Odysseus-as-beggar, leaving Odysseus shaking “his head, / silent, his mind churning with thoughts of bloody work.”[3] Thus the bloody work of the coming payoff never escapes our mind. Its importance builds to such a crescendo that when we experience it, it’s cathartic.

Yet ideally a reader will not have to wait until the conclusion of a book to experience a bit of payoff. I learned this through Thoreau’s Walden, a book I did not read until after I’d graduated college. With no due dates bearing down on me and a roommate with an opposite work schedule, I read it aloud, savoring the rhythm of each line by phrasing it properly and enunciating it forcefully:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Had I not read so slowly, I surely would have missed the feel of such a sentence: its parallelism and its patient rise to a climax. And in contrast to my first Thoreau encounter at age 17, I had learned to attune myself to nuances of figurative language, like when he compares our muddled understanding of reality to muck and mire a builder must dig through:

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe . . . till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake . . .

The best rewards I received from Thoreau were not ending payments. To be sure, Walden contains those in the form of wisdom and perspective, insights that can change the way a person lives (“Simplify, simplify”); but I ultimately appreciated the ongoing payoffs, the aspects of literature one can savor even while enduring the difficulty of reading.

 My ability to seize payoffs undergirds my enjoyment of literature, but I find it striking how the same notion applies to other areas of life, notably to my experience of religious faith.

In the most obvious way, one must wait for the rewards of the Christian faith—Heaven after death assumes this, and typically this realization undergirds an adherent’s initial adoption of faith.

I personally began to trust in that ending in high school. Over the course of twenty years, though, I have grown capable of spotting and appreciating the nuances of the payoff, even those available now. They tend to arise from loving God and loving my neighbor—the benefits of a faith lived out in deed. They materialize in the form of a kind word or an answered prayer, the surprising joy of a humble confession or a tearful apology. They manifest themselves in the form of a mysteriously grateful heart.

This recognition of payoff ultimately distills to trust in the author–be it the author of a book or the author of life. If a person does not trust the author to deliver a worthwhile ending, they will abandon the author and find another way to occupy their time. In my faith, I am learning to trust the author’s intentions and better interpret his work, encouraged by how frequently I recognize the ongoing payoffs of loving him. I am bold enough to believe my reading life is growing similarly, and that’s why I trust that the next time I attempt to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I’ll finish it.

[1] Wallace, David F., perf. “Interview from the Leonard Lopate Show A.” David Foster Wallace: In His Own Words. Hachette Audio, 2014. CD.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1997. Print.

Art by: Fish-man

Adoption in Reality

The first time I saw Third Day’s video for the song Children of God, it brought tears to my eyes. This isn’t saying much, as I once choked up at a scene in Air Force One (the F-16 pilot’s taking a missile for the President struck a noble chord in my soul), and the music video clearly aims to manufacture such a reaction. Still, the video tapped into something personal for me the first time I saw it.

The song is simple—almost simplistic. It marvels over an image that appears in various places in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s epistles, like Galatians 4:5, which says believers in Christ “receive adoption as sons,” thus becoming, as Third Day puts it, children of God.

The video features children who have clearly been adopted—their international faces don’t match their white American families and to ensure crystal clarity, each conspicuously wears a white t-shirt that reads “adopted.” American viewers likely feel happiness for these children who, we presume, have been saved from languishing in some orphanage that barely provides for their physical needs. Given that set up, the emotional kicker comes when the band and the adopting families remove their layers to reveal their own “adopted” t-shirts.

I teared up in part because the sentiment echoed the reasoning I’d been using to explain why my wife and I were looking to adopt, reasoning I’d also acquired with a reading of Russell Moore’s Adopted for Life. The sentiment is sincere, touching and simple: Christians are adopted into God’s family, so they should identify with (and champion) adoption. In this way, adoption is a mirror of a Christian’s own faith journey.

My wife and I chose to adopt after having three biological children. As Christians, we were looking to the Bible for insight into the process, and as we did so, I was surprised by how frequently I saw references to adoption in the Bible—it was like looking to buy a Camry and realizing suddenly that half the cars on the road were Camrys but I had never noticed. And this metaphor of God adopting believers was a central piece of what I noticed anew.

It was at such a point that I saw the video, which captured so poignantly the reality I’d discovered.

Except that it didn’t.

That is, it did capture what I’d discovered, just not the reality I would experience.

The adoption reality began to crash when I read James Gritter’s Hospitious Adoption, where Gritter points out that adoption places the adopting parents in a position of power over the birth parents. I did not appreciate Gritter’s labeling me with a kind of privileged power archetype, but my discomfort arose from the accuracy of his claim. Similar to Gritter’s insight was a comment from our adoption agent, which assured us that every adoption begins in mourning, with loss.

These were not the triumphant situations I’d been envisioning, the tear-infusing moments of salvation for an orphan, but they were right, because what mother wants to give up her child? Maybe a few truly do, but surely the vast majority of mothers placing their children into adoption would like to change their situations, would like to raise their babies. And when they cannot, they mourn. And the children, when they’re big enough, will mourn as well.

The trend in adoption in the United States that tries to address these realities constructively is called “open adoption.” At its best, “open” means everyone is open about the process—open with the child about explaining the situation, open to maintaining contact with the birth parents. With time, my wife and I embraced the open framework, finding it the best way to be honest with our child and the most loving way to relate to birth-parents.

Four months ago, Tim and Suzie reached out to us, asking to place their baby in our home. Tim and Suzie and their families will not raise Paul, our now-adopted baby, but they want to take part in his life in smaller ways, to let him know they care. Convinced that receiving love and knowing the fullness of your story is a good thing, we will keep these relationships open and encourage Paul to experience them.

And with that I think how starkly Paul’s adoption contrasts with the concept celebrated in the music video. To the Christian, adoption is a helpful metaphor for capturing the dynamic of God’s relationship to his people. That’s why it’s in the Bible. In this way, God has dramatically and authoritatively altered the situation, pulling his people from slavery to sonship, transferring them from darkness to light, to invoke another oft-used metaphor of the Bible.

But what if I extend the metaphor in its reverse direction, to say that the nature of God’s relationship to people describes the essence of adoption’s reality? That is inaccurate and can ultimately impair a believer’s understanding of adoption. Paul, my son, has not fled a kingdom of darkness. Though unable to parent him, his birth-parents love him; though their world is not ideal for a child, it is not a world of slavery. And though wanting the best for Paul and possessing a home situated well to receive a child, my wife and I are not saviors. We are not the light, with Tim and Suzie standing in as darkness.

I am not a theologian, but I try to be a good lay student of the Bible. Looking back to my own reaction to Third Day’s video, I think I misused a metaphor; I took an idea the Bible uses to communicate one thing, and I used it to say something else. A metaphor seeks to illuminate a piece of reality; to expand it beyond its purpose limits our understanding of the reality it intends to describe. I would say the Bible contains plenty of convincing ideas that might motivate me to adopt—one of them being God’s care for the “alien” and those in need—but my extended application of this metaphor is not one of them.

It is easy to do this, to take some kind of insight into life and extend it beyond its original span. I can apply my understanding of a political truth, or a friend’s character, and I can push it to apply further than it should. If I am not careful, my insight can lead me to misinterpret the reality before me, to see reality as more simple than it really is. It’s not necessarily so complex I cannot comprehend it, but with my interpretive lens, I do not see it.

My reality is rich and, to my ultimate joy, far more complex than a music video. Paul is adopted, but his adoption is not like my adoption. The world he leaves behind is not a world of death. In fact, the idea of open adoption is that he need not leave that world behind; instead, he can maintain communication and communion with Tim and Suzie, and doing so will not be evidence of his lack of commitment to us but to his love for them.

I confess, I teared up at a cheesy music video, but I’d like to observe that I have matured beyond the simplistic understanding of adoption that manufactured my tears. In my maturity, I am far more capable of loving Paul, his birth family and a world full of people I as a Christian believe God wants to adopt out of darkness.