A decade of the law

It will be ten years this sum­mer that I set out on the jour­ney of becom­ing a “priest of the law” — tak­ing the first steps toward my degree, and my career, as a canon­ist.

It is with con­sid­er­able ambiva­lence that I reflect on that deci­sion, and all that fol­lowed. My life, and the life of my entire fam­i­ly, has been for­ev­er changed by the dis­rup­tion, the adven­tures, the tra­vails and the new expe­ri­ences which crowd­ed upon us, indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly, from the moment we left behind all we knew in search of all I thought we want­ed.

Every­thing has changed in these ten years. I have climbed to some mar­velous vis­tas, to be sure, but far more time has been spent wan­der­ing in the val­ley of the shad­ow of death. I can­not change any­thing that has tran­spired. Maybe I can learn from it: that seems a bit too cute for my taste, though. Prin­ci­pal­ly, I am grate­ful to have sur­vived it all, amazed to be still stand­ing, still breath­ing: that I still have a chance to try again.

When I first set out to study canon law, I wrapped myself in pride and ambi­tion: I want­ed to make a name for myself in this new dis­ci­pline, this new call­ing, which I was pre­pared to throw myself head­long into. I thought I had final­ly found a sphere in which I was real­ly going to be a some­body. But I lacked the for­ti­tude to actu­al­ly do the work that this would entail: I set­tled for coast­ing through as I had done my entire adult life, added idle self-indul­gence and near­ly con­stant ine­bri­a­tion, and the fact that all of us have sur­vived the exis­ten­tial train­wreck that ensued is a dai­ly cause for won­der­ment.

But sur­viv­ing is just what we are doing. I am learn­ing — for what seems like the first time — to push myself, to fol­low through on my com­mit­ments, to be the per­son that seem­ing­ly every­one except me has always believed I could be. That’s hard work. But I tell myself every morn­ing that it is hard work worth doing, and that I am going to do it.

Waiting to know

Six­teen years ago.

I still remem­ber so many details about that day, most of them so triv­ial, incon­se­quen­tial, which was, I think, all I was real­ly capa­ble of tak­ing in and pro­cess­ing any­way. I can still see my store man­agers face as she received an ear­ly morn­ing tele­phone call from a friend. I can still hear her sharp cry of alarm at the news, freez­ing me in place in the ghast­ly flu­o­res­cent glow of the back­room of the book­store where, a moment before, I had been sleep­i­ly try­ing to remem­ber all the mun­dane steps of count­ing out cash draw­ers and prepar­ing to open the shop for anoth­er day of busi­ness.

Even after all this time, I still don’t know what I can mean­ing­ful­ly say about the real events of Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001. But in the wee hours of this morn­ing, as I checked for updates of dam­age from Hur­ri­cane Irma and won­dered how my few friends and acquain­tances in Flori­da were far­ing. I was struck by how much our infor­ma­tion pipelines have changed from what they were when the jets hit the tow­ers. There was no Twit­ter. There was no Face­book. I knew peo­ple with cel­lu­lar phones, but no more than a hand­ful of them.

At the book­store, we rolled out the tele­vi­sion that was used for train­ing videos and stood around, employ­ees and cus­tomers alike, watch­ing the break­ing cov­er­age on net­work news. We eager­ly clus­tered around the news­pa­pers the next morn­ing when they arrived to pore over the writ­ten cov­er­age, to first begin to digest the news and to try to under­stand the how and the who of it. And a few days lat­er, when the week­lies like Time and Newsweek and The Econ­o­mist and the New York­er, we again eager­ly seized and devoured them to begin our jour­ney to real­ly under­stand­ing what had hap­pened, and what might hap­pen next.

And when time per­mit­ted, we would call each oth­er on our respec­tive work breaks and talk for a few min­utes, ask­ing each oth­er how we were, what we were think­ing, if we had heard any­thing new. We would take com­fort in each oth­er’s voic­es at the oth­er end of the line, the long spi­ral cord of the tele­phone hand­set fol­low­ing us around the cramped break room, teth­er­ing us to that con­ver­sa­tion, to that moment, to that exchange of dis­tant con­nec­tion.

It is trite to say it was a dif­fer­ent time. But it was, and I am feel­ing that most keen­ly as I reflect on the dif­fer­ences in the flow of infor­ma­tion, in the gains in instan­ta­ne­ity in our news sources, and the cor­re­spond­ing loss­es in cred­i­bil­i­ty for the same. Six­teen years ago, we wait­ed to learn the sto­ry, hop­ing to under­stand. Now, we refuse to wait for the news to fin­ish hap­pen­ing before we want it parceled out and post­ed in eas­i­ly-shared snip­pets. And we don’t need to digest it, because most of us all know exact­ly what we want to know already. We already believe what we are going to believe. Any news sto­ry that attempts to counter what we already know? Well, that must be biased, or fake, or… who cares? We dis­miss it as eas­i­ly as we dis­miss our fel­low cit­i­zens who hold to dif­fer­ent hopes or ideals than ours. We don’t wait to lis­ten, we don’t wait to under­stand. It does­n’t even occur to us to try any­more.

Is this all because of that day? Is this chok­ing of our civ­il dis­course the result of those smoth­er­ing clouds of ash and dust that went roil­ing through the streets of Man­hat­tan? Is our nation­al patience and con­cord left buried under the unsort­ed rub­ble? I don’t know: I’m still wait­ing for the news to come in.

I’ve Been Watching Justified

The ear­ly months of 2010 found me unex­pect­ed­ly liv­ing alone in Cana­da, work­ing hard to dis­tract myself from the fact that my wife was hos­pi­tal­ized in the Unit­ed States, and I had cho­sen the self­ish route of con­tin­u­ing with my dioce­san-spon­sored stud­ies instead of remain­ing by her side and tak­ing charge of our two young sons, who instead I had entrust­ed to my in-laws to man­age until Uxor was bet­ter. My pri­ma­ry mode of dis­trac­tion was the afore­men­tioned stud­ies, and most days I would spend at the library from late after­noon when class­es end­ed until the wee hours of the morn­ing, with only brief breaks for food and the quick night­ly Skype call home. My class­mates, few of whom knew much about me aside from the pleas­ant ban­ter we exchanged, often mar­veled at the “fortress of knowl­edge” I would con­struct around myself at my table in the library, often haul­ing thir­ty or forty vol­umes at a time from the shelves and por­ing through them for source mate­r­i­al for my var­i­ous papers.

But I can’t study all the time, and so I also watched a lot of video enter­tain­ment. I made fre­quent walks to the pub­lic library to check out films from the past decade that I had nev­er had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see. I also embraced the Apple iTunes Store and the week­ly offer of a hand­ful of episodes of new shows as free down­loads. Many of these were utter tripe, and the fact that I down­loaded and watched the pilot episodes of shows like Bas­ket­ball Wives and Bub­ba’s World should ade­quate­ly illus­trate how avid­ly I was seek­ing to absent myself from a dire head­space. (That even with all of the above, I still end­ed up drink­ing myself to sleep most nights with sev­er­al ounces of increas­ing­ly-cheap Scotch is prob­a­bly also on indi­ca­tor of some­thing.)

On 23 March 2010, one of the free episodes was the pilot of a new FX series called Jus­ti­fied. Unlike most of the shows, which I down­loaded and played blind­ly (and usu­al­ly delet­ed with a shud­der after the ini­tial view­ing), I had heard rumor of this series in the pre­ced­ing weeks, and I had liked what I had heard. Spoil­er-proof as I am, watch­ing “Fire in the Hole” for the first time was a tremen­dous­ly enjoy­able expe­ri­ence, even though I had read descrip­tions of most of the key scenes already in The New York Times review online. The open­ing reveal of the back of Ray­lan Given­s’s hat, and the pool­side show­down with Tom­my Bucks that fol­lows: I bet I watched that 100 times that week. I watched the episode as a whole at least a dozen times through, enough that, the fol­low­ing Tues­day, I made a high­ly unusu­al choice: I decid­ed to splurge the $2.09 Amer­i­can to down­load the sec­ond episode to see if it car­ried through on the promise of the first.

It did, and so did the third, and by the time I had pur­chased five or six episodes, I stopped look­ing back. The char­ac­ters became part of what I clung to through the remain­der of that lone­ly semes­ter: the life-and-death dra­ma of Har­lan Coun­ty became an inte­gral part of my own strug­gle to sur­vive long enough to rejoin my con­va­les­cent wife and begin to rebuild our life togeth­er. And when the show sur­vived it’s ini­tial sea­son to tell more of the sto­ry in a breath­tak­ing sec­ond sea­son, and jaw-drop­ping, gut-churn­ing third, it was defin­i­tive­ly estab­lished as part of the fab­ric of my life expe­ri­ence.

Not only has this series held me mes­mer­ized from one cliffhang­er to the next, but most impor­tant­ly to me, it has held up to repeat­ed view­ings. Most notably, as the third sea­son unfold­ed in all its sor­did won­der, I re-watched all the episodes to date each week while I wait­ed for the next one top drop the fol­low­ing Wednes­day morn­ing. Many were the nights I paced up and down our tiny rent­ed house in sub­ur­ban Ottawa, sooth­ing our new­born third child while watch­ing the machi­na­tions of Robert Quar­les and Elstin Lime­house on the tiny iPod screen I held behind her.

Tonight, the final episode of this sixth and final sea­son of Jus­ti­fied will air, and some­time tomor­row morn­ing that finale will be avail­able to down­load via iTunes, and – unable to wait until evening – I will spend my lunch break hud­dled over my desk at work and gorge myself on every deli­cious minute of the last hour of this mar­velous show. It has been a glo­ri­ous ride, a show I have allowed myself to invest in like very few oth­ers. Some­day, I hope to put into thought­ful words the great esteem I have for this grand exer­cise in sto­ry­telling. I am not ready to do so yet. If you are one of the many who have watched and loved this show over the past six years, you under­stand. If you are not, and you love good sto­ry­telling (of the vio­lent vari­ety), do your­self the great favor of giv­ing Jus­ti­fied a chance to amaze you, too. It pays off in spades.



*The title of this post is a hat tip to a love­ly lit­tle Tum­blr project of reflec­tions on each episode that sad­ly only made it halfway through the sec­ond sea­son. But once you watch that far, I high­ly rec­om­mend read­ing Meghan’s posts, they are gems.

So very tired

I am expe­ri­enc­ing an acute onset of social net­work fatigue these days. No dis­cernible sin­gle cause, no dis­tinct bad expe­ri­ence that stands out as spoil­ing things for me. No, I am just tired of so many places to put things, and so many places to check for things put by oth­ers. I am tired of too many options for pret­ty much the same sorts of con­tent, tired of gaug­ing my arbi­trary pref­er­ence for one place over anoth­er with no more pro­found or defin­i­tive basis than the “feel” of the user inter­face or some such. I am tired of lik­ing and shar­ing and com­ment­ing. I am, in a word, tired.

Now, before this turns into one long whinge, let’s put on the rhetor­i­cal brakes a bit. I love social media; I always have. I am a nat­ur­al at it. I almost nev­er have a thought I don’t feel like shar­ing. What I am going on about is noth­ing against social net­works as they are, but rather a recog­ni­tion that some­thing in me has changed so that I am left won­der­ing if I need a change.

There is no doubt that one con­tribut­ing fac­tor in this is my rel­a­tive­ly recent addi­tion of a prox­i­mate wifi device to my every­day car­ry. Not that I was short of oppor­tu­ni­ties before to flip open my lap­top or tog­gle over to my ever-open brows­er win­dow on the fam­i­ly iMac. But now my access to each and every one of my var­i­ous streams of input and shar­ing are pal­pa­bly omnipresent wher­ev­er the req­ui­site sig­nal reach­es.

Some­times I can keep my check-ins in check. But more and more often I find myself “loop­ing” in a man­ner not far off from the sketch in the pilot episode of Port­landia, and that is not a good feel­ing. I am lost in a fog all too often, not ful­ly present to my fam­i­ly, and unable to ade­quate­ly con­cen­trate on projects and tasks. So what should I do? Cut myself off from the dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ty? I don’t want to. But I do need to find a delim­i­ta­tion to my engage­ment with said com­mu­ni­ty, and I think the time may be a hand to focus my scope of engage­ment a bit. I am a com­pletist by nature, so just as I strove to col­lect and read every Alfred Hitch­cock and the Three Inves­ti­ga­tors mys­tery, so too I have felt near­ly com­pelled to keep a wrig­gling toe in every major social net­work. But I am reach­ing a point where I am ready to say:

Yeah I tried Pin­ter­est, but I just don’t need that in my life.”

Goodreads is a good idea, but I just can’t fit it into my soul any­more.”

Foursquare isn’t a social net­work; it’s a game, and one which yields me no real reward.”

I am not try­ing to paint a scene of win­ners and losers here, but rather, I am try­ing to define a rea­son­able amount of engage­ment with social net­works that still leaves me time and ener­gy to be engaged with, well, my real life. It’s an ongo­ing process, but the soon­er I can pare down the num­ber of but­tons on my mobile touch­screen, the soon­er I can define what streams of input and out­put are most enrich­ing and mean­ing­ful to me, then the soon­er I can delib­er­ate­ly make myself avail­able to the peo­ple and expe­ri­ences most impor­tant to me.

Goody goody gumdrops!

It was Dr. Michael Miko­la­jczak, the pro­fes­sor with whom I took three of my eleven cours­es in my under­grad­u­ate major (Eng­lish, if you are just join­ing us), who first inspired me to don a bow tie, for which I will always thank him, as I am sure does the gen­er­al pub­lic. A col­or­ful and dynam­ic instruc­tor, he is also mem­o­rable for his pecu­liar views on final exam­i­na­tions.

Lit­er­a­ture cours­es in a lib­er­al arts insti­tu­tion are not, in my lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence, gen­er­al­ly seen as con­ducive to eval­u­a­tion in writ­ten exam form. These are the sort of things we write essays for, texts spread out on our crowd­ed dorm desks while we fid­dle with the mar­gin and line-spac­ing set­tings and try to avoid spilling either cof­fee or beer on any of he library books. But Dr. M. had his own approach to ped­a­gogy, and he was very fond of the final exam.

On the morn­ing of a final exam, you should leap out of bed and say, “Goody, goody, gum­drops!”

I want you to think of the final exam as an occa­sion of joy,” he would explain to the class, and in each of the three semes­ters I heard this speech, the stu­dents seemed pret­ty uni­form­ly skep­ti­cal on this point. “The final exam gives you an oppor­tu­ni­ty to revis­it all that you have learned this semes­ter. On the morn­ing of a final exam, you should leap out of bed and say, ‘Goody, goody, gum­drops!’ ” The class would pret­ty much just be star­ing at him at this point, won­der­ing what he was on.

I won’t pre­tend I was any fan of those final exams at the time, but I have nev­er for­got­ten Dr. Miko­la­jcza­k’s words. And now, in the ulti­mate days of my grad­u­ate stud­ies, I think I can say I final­ly say that I share and embrace his enthu­si­asm. It is only in these long hours of pan­icked review that I am tru­ly see­ing the extent of what I have (the­o­ret­i­cal­ly) learned these past three years of work toward my Licen­ti­ate in Canon Law. It is almost not too strong to say that it is only in this review that I am learn­ing what before I had only heard, which is not meant as a judg­ment on my pro­fes­sors’ ped­a­gogy but rather as a telling com­ment on my own lack­adaisi­cal learn­ing style.

Let’s dis­pel any illu­sions you may be har­bor­ing about me. I don’t take notes. I don’t make flash cards. I don’t ask ques­tions. I don’t raise my hand dur­ing lec­tures. I don’t get around to read­ing a lot of the ‘rec­om­mend­ed’ texts, or even many of the ‘required’ ones. What do I do, then, to have made it this far in aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suits? Two things: I lis­ten in class, as active­ly as I can man­age, and I care. Most days, that is enough. Which is for­tu­itous, since that is all I can man­age.

Now, three days before I must stand before a pan­el of my pro­fes­sors and answer on the spot what­ev­er ques­tions they choose to throw at me, I am doing some of those stu­den­ty things I just said I don’t do. I am por­ing over canons and com­men­taries, labo­ri­ous­ly cre­at­ing a heap of index cards dur­ing the day which my lov­ing wife will use to quiz me in the evenings. I am, in a word, actu­al­ly work­ing at this, which feels for­eign to me (because it is), and also feels down­right thrilling.

Should I have felt this sort of agency regard­ing my own learn­ing before now? Absolute­ly. I am embar­rassed and ashamed that I have large­ly slouched through my aca­d­e­m­ic degrees, because I could, rather than muster the ener­gy and courage to real­ly try. Who knows what I might have become? At the least, prob­a­bly a bet­ter man. But it is too late to change what is past; what I can do is change the game, even at this late hour, and I am unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly con­fi­dent that I might be able, not only to make this work in this crit­i­cal moment, but to make a last­ing change of it that will open new pos­si­bil­i­ties of pro­duc­tive learn­ing and knowl­edge reten­tion for me in the future.