My First “All Nighter”

An annual tradition, the Mother’s Day post. 

When I was in the third or fourth grade, my mom signed me up for this after school space program. She was a single mom. This was in the days of the old gray Chevy Citation. Money was tight, and I think Mom did not want me to be alone by myself too much. I remember three things about this program. One, we watched a lot of videos that I later learned were voiced by Carl Sagan. Two, Carl Sagan’s voice makes it hard for me to stay awake. Three, we had a project due at the end — something to do with designing a space station. I forgot about it until the night before, and then I panicked.

Before going any further, I should say that I do not think I understood this was an extracurricular activity. It took place at a school, and so I thought it was for a grade. If my mom tried to explain that to me, I do not remember any of it. I was unable to keep it in perspective. I wanted to do well in school, and this was school.

Mind you, I did not do very well in school. I would not start being somewhat successful until my sophomore year of high school. Before then, I remember actively trying to pay attention, really wanting to, trying to focus, but I just could not do it. As I got older, I learned to compensate. I take medicine for it now, but in those days I was told I just needed to try harder.

Mom helped however she could. In fifth grade she had the idea for me to do math homework on graph paper so that I could keep all the columns of numbers lined up. My teacher loved the idea so much, she started doing it for other students like me, who had a hard time paying attention.

My third grade teacher, Ms. Caito, cared a lot about spelling. I came late to reading and spelling. (That is another story.) I was eager to prove to my parents, others, and myself that I was good at it. Every Thursday, Ms. Caito would have a class-wide spelling bee. And every Wednesday night, my mom would quiz me. Any word I got wrong, I would say to myself four times. She would mark the word and go back to it later. This was at my insistence, by the way. She was happy to oblige at first, but Ms. Caito’s bees were cumulative. So as the year progressed, my sessions with my mother got longer. By the end of the year, we were going over every single unit, sometimes for over an hour. There were many nights when my mom would be bone tired and try to get out of our personal spelling practice, but I would insist, and she would relent. I think I only lost one of Ms. Caito’s spelling bees.

On the night of space station project, I was in a complete panic. Mom and I went and bought construction paper and markers, and we set to work. All things considered, I remember a surprising amount about the project. We drew the design of the space station in one corner, diagramed some of its specifications. It was cube-shaped because we felt that this would allow it to absorb maximum solar energy on its interstellar travels (starlight from every direction). It was a multi-generational craft. I think it spun on its y-axis to create the effect of gravity. In the center were the gardens that provided oxygen. We decided the crew would have different colored uniforms like in Star Trek — blue for medical, yellow for engineering, etc. Children would grow up and fill the jobs for which they were best suited. It was a permanent space habitation.

To tell it now, it seems like a rather fun and creative bonding experience. But the truth is that every few minutes I would completely lose my mind and scream how it was impossible. There was too much to do. There was no way we could finish it all. My mom would calm me down, tell me we were going to be fine, just one bit at a time. Just do this part, then move to the next thing, and so on and so on. I say it was an “all nighter” because that is how it felt. I might have gone to be close to 11. I did not understand at the time that my mom was probably more tired than me. She never let it show.

Maybe it was the fatigue, but I do not remember much about my presentation on the space station itself. I remember my teacher asking me questions. I remember feeling like a lot of my classmates had designs that were “cuter” than mine, but less feasible. One kid brought in a potted plant, and I still have no idea what that was about. I think that was the point when I realized we were not being graded for this. Part of me was kicking myself for trying so hard on something that did not matter, but most of me was proud for having done it. That might also have been the first time I understood that the work done can be its own reward.

This memory came to mind last month, and I made a note to write about it today, because my middle child had his first meltdown moment. He came to me because a project he thought was due next week was actually due the next day. He got angry. He panicked. He said he could not do it. I tried to imitate my mother. “One step at a time. Just do one, and then the next one, and so on.” I do not think I was as successful. He got the project done at some point or another. It is hard to know for sure. I was actually impeccably honest as a youngster. My son is less so. So it is hard for me to know the truth of what he does and does not have to do. But hopefully it matters that I was there for him, and he will remember I was. We have different work ethics — he and I — and that is okay for now. (He does not have to like to work; he just has to do it, because I am his father and I damn well said so!)

Stephanie (my wife) says I can do anything. She says I amaze her. If I set my mind to something, I get it done. I think she gives me too much credit. There are plenty of things I cannot do and have learned not to attempt. (It is important to know one’s limitations.) But I do approach problems differently than her. A counselor we once saw said Stephanie is like a turtle, and I am more like one of those lizards with a frill around its neck. In the face of something big and overwhelming, she pulls back to seek safety and comfort. I inflate my neck and run at it with abandon. It is one of those ways we have a difficult time understanding each other. I think that approach came from my mom.

It is not that my mother or I are brave and confident. It is more like a kind of fatalism. Either take on the threat, or put on a good show trying. When Stephanie compliments me on this, I think she is complimenting the woman who made me like it. And when I try to talk my son through his all-nighters, I am trying to pass onto him the lesson my mother taught me: When you are facing something that seems impossible, then the only choice you have, is to do everything you can.

My mother had a hearing impairment at a young age, married the first boy who liked her, protected her children when he started beating her, divorced the bastard, put herself through school, and retired from a career of civilian military service. Along the way, she was an activist, an author, and a world-class saber fencer. In her retirement, she became a founding member of her county’s League of Women Voters.

In my case, it is too early to tell how effective her lesson will have been. But in her case, I think it worked.

The Untold Story of St. Mary of Egypt

As I write this, it is the fifth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, the Sunday when we commemorate the life of St. Mary of Egypt. The story goes like this: Once there was a girl named Mary. When she was 12, she left home to pursue a life of “sin and debauchery” (Orthodox code for “lots of sex”). But then one day, as a young woman, she tried to follow a group of pilgrims into a church in Jerusalem, but she was prevented by an unseen force from going beyond the doorway. She realized that her sin was the reason, and so she fled to the desert to pursue a life of asceticism and penance. (Click here for the full version.)

I have a problem with this story as it is told. On the one hand, coming in the fifth Sunday of Lent, the story of St. Mary of Egypt is a reminder that none are so far gone that God’s grace cannot find them. On the other hand, it is a cautionary tale against being a slut. But what the story glosses over is Mary’s age. She was 12. A tween girl ran away from home and started having a lot of sex with a lot of different men. What kind of child does that?

A child is not capable of consent. Today, if a man had sex with a girl that age, he would be a pedophile. He would have committed an act of rape, even if the girl had somehow initiated it. It was not the law at the time, of course, but it is today because we understand that a child who has been hyper-sexualized is a child who is herself a victim.

Mary was a victim of rape. That is the common denominator among most 12 year old runaways. Mary was fleeing her rapist. The fact that she then is said to have pursued intercourse with countless others is consistent with the behavior of such victims. Girls who have been repeatedly abused often locate their self-worth in their sexuality.

(I recall having read a number of years ago a version of this story as told by St. Jerome, in which Mary flees from the desert to a brothel after being raped.)

From this angle, Mary is no longer the “slutty” sinner. She is a victim, a survivor. Is she still a sinner? Sure. She is not guiltless. But neither is she wholly guilty. Mary’s adult sins were established by those of (most likely) a family member’s horrific and repeated acts against her when she was still a blameless child, and those acts definitively shaped the woman she was to become.

I probably need someone with better pastoral sensibilities to weigh in on the spiritual implications of this consideration, but it seems to me that the story becomes less about the repentance of a sinful woman and more about how little judgment such “sinners” deserve. Perhaps she was prevented from entering the church not because she was impure, but because she was still caught, as if by a net, in a sinful system. We all make victims of each other in some way. Our sins are never wholly our own. And yet, the responsibility to repent still is.

In this way, the triumph of Mary is not a triumph over her personal sin as much as it is a triumph over the effects of the sins of others. And this, so it seems to me, is more in keeping with the message of Pascha itself. Christ is risen; death is trampled; and new life is bestowed upon those who were made, through no fault of their own, sin’s victims.

Baaalderdash! We’re All Just Sheep Here: A Response to Fr. John Parker’s LGBTQ Fearmongering

Orthodoxy Today, that bastion of theological internet civility, recently published an excerpt of a presentation Fr. John Parker gave at a conference on pastoral care in a digital age. In it he accused the editors and writers of Public Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy in Dialogueand The Wheel of prowling around like wolves in sheep’s clothing, preying on an unsuspecting catechumenate to sow division, discord, and confusion. They pretend to promote dialog, when really they have diabolical motives, mostly having to do with making the church more welcoming to LGBTQ people. It is a tired and thus boring accusation, a thesis plagiarized from a myriad of internet blog comments and coffee hour conversations with like-minded people. More importantly, it is a hypocritical thesis. Fr. Parker accuses the above sites of trying to sow confusion, when in fact he seems to do precisely the same thing.

I know in some way the editors of Orthodoxy in DialogueThe Wheeland Public Orthodoxy. I myself have contributed a couple of articles to the latter. The blanket accusation of a general, almost conspiratorial intent to sow confusion is both offensive and false. It is offensive because, speaking for myself at least, that is not the case. It is false because there are contributors to those sites who share his same views on gender and sexuality and because the active solicitation and publication of authors who share those views bellies the any supposedly nefarious intent on the part of those who run the sites.

(I should say here that I am speaking from my experience with Orthodoxy in Dialogue and Public Orthodoxy. I am less read in The Wheel.)

The problem with accusations like Fr. Parker’s is that they assume a great deal about the inner motives of those who have taken the time, effort, money, not to mention loads of personal abuse, to start and keep those sites running. To write and publish something even remotely affirming of LGBTQ individuals is to douse oneself in troll pheromone. That is a whole lot of work for something so nefarious.

A more charitable, dare I say “Christian,” presumption would be that those who seek to engage in dialog over controversial issues really do want nothing more than dialog. Perhaps they do not seek confusion but understanding. They have studied enough history to know that Orthodoxy today is a lot more reactionary than it used to be. We have lost political power (thanks be to God) and cultural influence, and so out of fear, like caged animals, we lash out at those who seem to represent that which we falsely perceive to threaten us.

Those whom Fr. Parker derisively accuses of considering themselves to be “teachers” of the faith would be more inclined to call themselves “students” of it. They have questions, and the church has provided no answers, or at best bad ones. We have had too many conversations with people that have gone something like this:

Person 1: The Orthodox Church has always opposed homosexuality. 

Person 2: Yes, but to what extend do–


Conversations with those not interested in dialog are both frustrating and at times infuriating. The other party provides a scripted answer and gets frustrated with the person who keeps having more questions. Perhaps if an answer does not satisfy the person asking the question, then the answer is not a very good one.

It is not as if those who draw the ire of the Orthodoxy Today crowd are any less committed to the church’s survival. They perceive the threats differently. For the one, the main threat to Orthodoxy is modernity; for the other, it is failing to take modernity seriously. Modernity has questions, and the Orthodox Church must have the courage to provide good answers. And good answers, as any moderately competent teacher knows, requires the willingness to question oneself—the courage to be challenged. For some people, far too many actually, that prospect is absolutely terrifying.

That is why I call “hypocrisy” on Fr. Parker’s accusations of diabolical intent on the part of his online bogeymen. He says their intent is to sew confusion, but that is the very thing Fr. Parker is doing. People are not asking questions Fr. Parker does not like because they want to cause confusion. They ask questions because they are confused. They do not seek discord but conversation and eventually clarity. What Fr. Parker would like is for people not to have questions to begin with, to stay in darkness, or to argue themselves into disingenuous belief, faith that is more an act of stubbornness than a gift of God’s grace and love.

Fr. Parker is sowing confusion because he is sowing fear. “Be afraid of the wolves!” Get the adrenaline pumping. Make people react emotionally, even violently (if not in real life then in words, thoughts, and tweets). A priest should do his best to avoid stirring up people’s passions. A priest should not encourage the trolls.

I cannot speak for all people, of course, but I have yet to come across any wolves. We are all just sheep here, doing our best to follow our Shepherd. Our pastors would do well to lead us toward him without fear, not to bark at us like border collies, nipping at our backsides to get us to fall in line.

Getting Hired with a “Useless” PhD

This post is a followup to a previous one in which I talked about the skills people with “useless” PhDs have in work outside the academy. But how do you get a job outside the academy? That is trickier. There is no secret formula. Mostly a lot of persistence and luck. Still, there are some things academics can do to make themselves more attractive to a potential employer.

Write a Resume

Academics have things called a curriculum vitae. The vitae is sometimes described as a resume for academics, which is sort of like saying that the Easter bunny is like Santa for the crucifixion. It maybe makes sense if you think about it sideways for a bit.

The fact is that a resume and a vitae serve two completely different functions. They are two different genres. One is slam poetry. The other is supernatural romance. The audiences for each tend to have rather different expectations.

  • Vitae: A comprehensive list of all intellectual accomplishments.
  • Resume: A selective list of skills and experiences.

Think of a resume as a selected bibliography of the elevator pitch of your life. So to know how to organize it, you need to start with your story.

Tell Your Story

“Tell me about yourself” is going to be one of the first questions you are asked at interview, and it is one you must anticipate in your resume and cover letter if you even want to get there. Your story should have three parts.

  1. Where are you from? Keep it simple. Identify two or three dominoes that knocked you into the present moment.
  2. Where are you now? Keep the focus on your skills and personality. This is a story about you, not your research.
  3. Where are you going? End your story in the future. In 5-10 years, why will “future you” be happy they had this job?

Be careful not to belabor the last point. Employers want to know there is something at stake for you beyond the paycheck, but you don’t want to come across as too self-interested.

Be Relatable

Nobody is hiring your brain. They are hiring you. Academics, especially junior ones, spend a lot of time trying to prove to others (and themselves) that they really are pretty smart. Avoid that. Your employer knows you are smart. If anything, you need to overcome the stereotype of an aloof intellectual. Be yourself (use words like “aloof” if they are part of your vocabulary), but resist the urge to posture. And avoid the temptation to geek out once conversation turns to your research, which it will.


At interview, you will be asked about your research, either what it is or why you got into it. Again, do not geek out. I mean, you can geek out a little bit. Passion can be compelling. But keep the focus on you and your skills. For example, I study religion, which means I have spent the better part of my adult life trying to understand one of the predominate forces that shape human behavior. (See what I did there?)

You can also talk about the skills your research gave you. If your current job is “grad student,” then you read several hundred pages of difficult text a week, write and present at conferences, teach and mentor new students, and work across departments to bring your dissertation to committee.

Watch Your Face

This is just an observation that may turn out to be rather controversial, but I have found that academics tend to have more transparent faces than others. They spend a lot of time looking away as they think, furrowing their brows, or demonstrating obvious incredulity at the asinine observation of a peer.

Either way, though, be mindful of what your face and body may be communicating. That is just good advice in general. All I am saying is that, if you are an academic, you may need to be especially mindful of that. The academy is a place of often friendly combativeness, but that culture does not translate well to other contexts.

Be Persistent

The trick to getting an interview is like the trick to publishing: overwhelming volume! Apply everywhere for as much as you can get. Employers (not unlike Reviewer 2), are sometimes fickle and distracted. Apply again. And again. And again.

Getting a job is as much about timing and luck as it is skills and qualifications. For my current job, I happened to be the right individual at the right time for a position that was very high need. Yes, I was qualified. But I was also lucky. Employment is half-serendipity.

When it comes to job sites, I have found personal success with ZipRecruiter. Your main goal is not to get the job. It is to get to interview. So any site with screener questions is going to work in your favor, especially if you are a half-decent writer.

Settle, But Don’t Settle

You may need to take a “gig” that is short-term and pays less than you are worth. You should definitely negotiate for the highest wage you can get, and you must be willing to walk away from bad deals. On the other hand, know that an employer is taking a risk when hiring you. There are people above me looking at how much I am paying the people below me. I prefer to hire for potential and train for competence. Most employers are going to be conservative if they have any reservations about you, but a reasonably competent boss is always looking for people to mentor into leadership roles they know they will eventually need to fill.

If you decide to take a job for less money than you would like, be upfront about that. It will not hurt your chances. If you want to move into leadership, be upfront about that too. Small opportunities can lead to bigger opportunities. You may have to start from the bottom, but the more work you do the more possibilities you create for yourself to gain meaningful, long-term employment outside the world of academe.

Five Reasons Why Mike Pence is the Author of the NYT Letter

A number of individuals have speculated that Mike Pence authored the anonymous New York Times letter about a dysfunctional White House and president because of the use of the word “lodestar,” a favorite of the VP’s. But I thought it might be Pence before that was ever pointed out to me.

Reason One: The letter is gutless, and so is Mike Pence. He has shown himself more than willing to back away from his own deep moral convictions in the face of public pressure. Mike Pence is a coward. Anonymous whistle blowers are not cowards by default because they incur risk to themselves and their family’s livelihood, but in this case we are dealing with a rich and powerful person who worries about becoming less rich and powerful. That is cowardice.

Reason Two: The letter depicts a cabal of the righteous, which is basically how Pence’s Christian Dominionist political philosophy operates. (If you are not familiar with this philosophy, it is basically the backstory to the Handmaid’s Tale.) The author of this letter says he wanted to avoid a Constitutional crisis, but are clearly already in one. Stealing things from the President’s desk is not how democracy works.

Reason Three: The letter is written by an ambitious machiavellian, and that is more or less how those who have worked with Pence describe him. Pence’s political career was over before Trump plucked him out of the Hoosier state to make his campaign more palatable to the Evangelicals. And Pence has been fine whoring out those bona fides to launch into power a man he, in all likelihood, knows is unfit to lead. Why? Because it gets Pence closer to power too.

Reason Four: The letter is written by someone who is morally compromised, and Mike Pence is morally compromised. Again, the fact that he has to defend a scoundrel, and indeed not only defend but sell him to the American people is proof enough of this fact. The letter reads in part like an individual trying to convince himself that he really is doing the right thing, which of course means the author knows he really isn’t. We do not have to convince ourselves of what we already know ourselves to be doing.

Reason Five: This letter is self-righteous, and so is Mike Pence. The anonymous author depicts himself as a quiet hero for the American people. “Don’t worry, America. Trump is a morally bankrupt person. But there are moral people working behind the scenes. Moral people like me, Mike Pence.” #PresidentPence2020.


Getting a Job with a “Useless” PhD

If you have an advanced degree in a field everyone else questioned, like theology, philosophy, or literature to name a few, then you are an individual who is passionate, reasonably intelligent, and above all else determined! What you may not be is employed. Tenure tracks are out! Adjuncts are in! Those fortunate enough to do a lot of teaching still need side gigs to pay the bills. The good news is that you have some pretty valuable skills to offer an employer outside the academy.

I am writing this from my experience as a man who earned his PhD in theological studies from a top-tier university in 2011. I was an adjunct for a bit at a small college and a program administrator at a big university. Now I am the director of a local learning services organization. Each path is unique, but my own path has taught me a thing or two about skills my professors never knew they were giving me. I am going to extrapolate some of those skills from my own experience and offer a few “success stories” of their use. I apologize if it sounds like I am boasting sometimes. My purpose is only to make the theoretical or hypothetical a little bit more concrete.

You Are a Creative Problem Solver

You have spent the better part of your adult life learning to see subtle things, things that most people miss. You can digest the finer points of complex arguments, see where things do not quite fit together, and propose more consistent and desirable alternatives. A PhD in the humanities is a PhD in problem solving.

You have a proven track record of creativity. Indeed, novelty is one requirement of your dissertation. You would not have passed your defense if your work had not been new. Such creativity is all the more impressive when you consider all the thousands of people in your field competing for a limited number of opportunities for publication.

Back in 2012, I had noticed that our organization was still doing manual data entry and spending loads of money on paper catalogs and applications. So I asked if I could investigate getting an online application system. My executive director gave her approval, but she added, “We looked into that a few years ago and were quoted an initial startup cost of $50,000, not to mention yearly upkeep in the tens of thousands, minimum.” But within a month, I had constructed a system out of resources nobody had known about and thought to put together. There is nothing quite like telling a potential employer, “I increased productivity and customer service while saving our organization about $200,000 over the long term.”

You Are a Skilled Reader

Exegesis refers to the art understanding, interpreting, and explaining a text. It is generally used in the context of holy writ but applies equally well to Shakespeare, credit card terms of service, tax law, and institutional policies. As someone with a doctorate in the humanities, you have honed the ability to decipher the arcane, the obtuse, and the poorly written. You can understand text and subtext, find fallacies, and leverage reasonable ambiguities to the benefit of your organization. Your skills as an exegete go beyond your own field. The intellectual “muscles” you have strengthened over the years have given you powers to interpret a wide variety of texts.

For example, a number of years ago my supervisor came into the office with a document in hand stating that, from now one, there must be one adult supervisor for every ten minors on campus. She was upset because, while it is a good policy for younger kids in a day program (it was our policy for younger kids in our day programs), it would not work for teenagers in residence. (For instance, it would require an adult to be stationed outside the showers every morning; and it meant a kid who got sick in class could not go see the nurse.) It was a dumb CYA (cover your ass) policy written by lawyers who cared more about not getting sued than protecting kids. I asked to see the wording of the text, then ran some quick numbers. Overall, our student:staff ratio was around 7:1. I pointed out that the wording of the policy left enough room for interpretation so that we could reasonably argue we were already in compliance. My supervisor read the policy and saw the probable intent of the drafters (none of whom worked with kids). I looked at the policy and saw the loophole.

You Are a Shrewd Negotiator

Chances are, your advisor was a mentor to you in more than just the subject of your dissertation. She also helped you learn about people and the internal politics that can get in the way of your success. The fact of the matter is that diplomacy is just as important to getting your degree as a strong dissertation. Over the years, you have learned that your best ideas are the ones people in charge think they came up with and that getting things done requires giving the right people “cover.”

Professional environments are not that different than universities when it comes to the politics of the people in charge. The higher up the organizational ladder you climb, the bigger are the egos of the people you encounter, and the more delicate the relationships you need to maintain. Getting things done requires moving laterally without seeming to go outside the system or going over the heads of superiors without seeming to be insubordinate. You need to clear roadblocks without rolling over others, and you need to convince the people in charge that your best ideas are the ones they helped you come up with. Every academic needs to be just a little bit Machiavellian.

Somewhere around 2013 my program tried to hire a professor to teach a literature class for a weekend event, but we found ourselves blocked by a dean who said that she could not teach for us because 100% of her “effort” came from her own department. So we could not hire her. But I noticed a loophole. This person worked for another program that involved mentoring new students. The reason for that inconsistency, the dean explained, was that the provost considered that program to be a “priority program.” Within a couple of months, our own dean (who was quite powerful) had gotten us declared a priority program as well. Problem solved! We were able to be right while allowing the dean who had stood in our way to save face by enlisting him to become part of the solution to the problem he had initially created.

You Are an Effective Communicator

People with advanced degrees in the humanities spend a great deal of time arguing with their peers. Sometimes these arguments are little more than “pissing contests” (a crude colloquialism with masculine implications because it is often male academics doing it), but more often than not these are arguments among friends. There is a genuine interest in understanding the point the other person is making, if for no other reason that that it informs your own counterpoint (hopefully, though, the willingness to change your own mind is also involved). The complexity of the topics discussed, and their multifaceted implications, require avoiding distractions and red herrings, maintaining an even temper, and keeping your attention focused on the fundamental issues under discussion. This skill will serve you well in all sorts of meetings.

Meetings are the mainstay of the professional world. People get together and disagree with one another. Meetings are also a place where feelings get hurt, leading to gossip, long-term frustration, and a toxic work environment. As an academic, you are well-practiced in the art of maintaining harmony while moving discussion forward to the main goal. When two people start to disagree, you can keep the peace by pointing out how each different view subtly affirms the other. You can help create distance between the issues discussed and the personal stakes people have in them. You know how to “bracket” what does not matter to keep the objective in sight.

I was recently involved in a meeting involving the implementation of a new technology. The people who worked hard on the technology had opinions about the way it should be implemented. Those of us who were more on the operational end of things had some concerns. One individual said, “Shouldn’t the people who are teachers be able to do this if they are so smart!” I agreed that they should, but the fact was that they wouldn’t. They would be distracted, busy, and cause errors. When I was talking through one scenario, a colleague said, “Well what happens when [X].” I replied, “Good point. Let’s hold onto that for a second because we are trying to figure out [Y] first.” After 90 minutes of this, we had a plan in place, and we all still liked each other after it was over.


Of course, these skills only come into play after you have a job. Getting a job is another matter. I will offer some practical tips for that in another post. In the meantime, I recognize that, because I am drawing on my own experience, there is a lot I may be missing. For other humanities academics who have found success outside the standard (and rare) path of the tenured professor, what skills have you found you possess for a job outside academe?