Saturday, February 21, 2015

Back to Zanzibar?

Well, I think it's way too early to say that with any certainty, but at least it's a possibility.  First off, however, I need to get nine students and my great friend Cyndi Brandenburg to Jordan and back.  I've never led a student group to a foreign country before, so the next three weeks will determine whether I have the desire/courage to do it again.  That said, I've been thinking a lot about potentially leading a student group to Zanzibar in the spring of 2016.  In addition I've drafted my friend Steve Wehmeyer and he's now an enthusiastic supporter or the trip.  First off, I loved my time in Zanzibar and have always wanted to go back.  Moreover, I'm teaching a class called The Periphery of Islam, which is focused on the travels of Ibn Battuta.  So, we've been reading his account of, among other places, the east coast of Africa (he blew by Zanzibar on his journey in the 14th century because it wasn't anything then - and devoted his time on Kilwa, which has since faded into obscurity).  We've also been reading the fascinating Tim Mackintosh-Smith three-part travelogue where he follows the path of Ibn Battuta.  What really drew me in were the accounts which almost read like an Islamic form of voodoo (obviously very haram, at least to the Wahabbis).  To me the chance to study this very syncretic corner of the world seemed like such an extraordinary fit with Steve's expertise (see my posts about traveling to New Orleans with the excellent Wehmeyer).  It would be a wonderful, but also an emotional, trip.  Whenever you revisit someplace where you were really happy - and also living in a different universe - there is always the potential for bittersweet moments.  However, who could ever turn down a chance to return to Zanzibar?  More on this later . . .

It's an odd picture to post, but it just reminds me of one of my happiest moments - just sitting at the end of the dock, talking, staring into the water, enjoying the blissful breeze, and waiting for the sun to go down.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Let's Rock

Last Friday I enjoyed one of the oddest and happiest classes of my generally odd and mostly happy career.  In my Heroines & Heroes class we were discussing psychoanalytical literary criticism, preparing them for the paper they're writing this weekend on "Death" from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (which, as all right-thinking individuals know, is the greatest American novel).  Whenever we're talking about conceptual tools I liked to give the students a text to examine (I'm a huge believer in having students learn a theory and then use a theory - which I must have picked up from my father's discussion of medical school).  In this case I showed them the iconic Cooper's dream sequence from Twin Peaks.  I am a firm believer in the notion that David Lynch, with all of his peculiarities and failings, is the most influential director of his generation.  There are movies before and after Blue Velvet, and TV before and after Twin Peaks.  Not surprisingly, very few of the students were familiar with the scene, although a few more had heard of the series, which is not particularly strange since we're almost a quarter-century removed from its inception.  What I loved was when it came time for the midget to dance about half the students began to snap their fingers along with the music; and so we sat there in the darkened room on a snowy day, watching a dancing midget speaking in subtitles, and the students gave themselves to the moment.  All we needed was Lynch himself filming away.  As Nietzsche reminded us, when you stare into the abyss the abyss stares into you.  I guess my students just stare into me, and the weirdness flows.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Journeys - to the West and Elsewhere

I was sitting at my desk at home contentedly writing away when I glanced at the precariously structured pyramid of books to my left (the view to the right wouldn't have much more organized) and thought I would pause for a moment and reflect.  Several years ago when I was living in Quarry Hill for a year and living the life of a faculty resident for first-year students I posted a picture of a large pile of books, composed mainly of different versions of epics such as the Ramayana and the Iliad and Beowulf and the Sundiata and Journey to the West and the Popol Vuh - as well as a few select copies from the related small libraries that each of them has inspired.  At the time I was preparing to embark on a semester-long sabbatical to work on my long-delayed book on the epics, which would have mainly consisted of me tramping around the UVM library stacks or me monastically hiding myself away so that I could write.  And then out of the blue Zayed University asked me to spend a year with them in Abu Dhabi and Dubai running professional development programs and redesigning some classes.  Obviously, my life changed dramatically both professionally and personally, and I would not trade that time for anything, even if it led to some heartbreak along the way.  So, here I am a couple years later older and wiser - or at least older - and I'm back buried in the project.  I'm really happy with the progress, although it is an exhausting one.  I made the decision to tackle the longest and most complex works - and the ones that included the largest collections of related scholarly commentary and media (films and graphic novels and video games) - first, mainly because I like to take that approach with any large project.  In one form or another I suppose I'm a believer in the concept of a tipping point or a moment of critical mass when the project is so far advanced/evolved that it will write and complete itself.  With that in mind I immersed myself in the Ramayana and then the Journey to the West, and now I'm working on the Shahnama.  Theoretically, I will finish the Shahnama this semester (as much as these projects are ever finished before they're finished) and then delve into the Sundiata and the Popol Vuh over the summer (they're shorter, both in length and also in related scholarly research, although still fascinating) and then jump into the Iliad and Beowulf next fall.  I'm getting tired just thinking about it.  There's still much more to do after that, but I think that's a workable schedule for the next year.  As with all projects it takes a while to find your "voice," and especially so in this case because I'm treading a narrow path between scholarly and more generally accessible, but I'm really happy with how things are flowing now.  That said, check in with me in a year when I'm a shell of a man - or, more appropriately, even more of a shell of a man.  Still, this project is making me very happy, and providing me with a raison d'etre that I really need at this point in my life and career.

I would raise the issue of whether this pile of books is so high that neither Hanuman (from the Ramayana) nor Sun Wukong (from Journey to the West) could fly over it, but then I'd have to get into the debate over whether or not they're actually the same character and that's where it get complicated . . . as it always does with research.

Pajamas and/or Leisure Pants

Students are amazing little creatures, and despite my fierce reputation I find them fascinating and actually like them very much - and not simply because I believe so wholeheartedly in what we try to do in the classroom every day (although that helps).  On Tuesday one of my students wore pajamas to class, which is not totally unusual - although fairly rare for a 12:30 class, especially one taught in the depths of a particularly bitter Vermont winter.  Two days later he comes into the next meeting of the 12:30 wearing pajamas once more.  I, of course, take the opportunity to berate him comically for his choice of wardrobe: "Bloody hell, do you still have on the same pajamas?"  His response, delivered in a brilliantly understated fashion, was, "No, these are different pajamas," which is all you need to know of student logic (which isn't a totally oxymoronic concept).  I've since been informed that students like to refer to pajamas as leisure pants, which shows that are kids are not entirely bereft of imagination or humor.

I tend to now write down amazing/amusing/goofy student comments on the board and cite them, maybe hoping against hope that it will inspire them to include citations in their own papers.

My Boy

Just wanted to post a picture of my son Gary that my sister Lisa was kind enough to send along.  Gary, in his normal peripatetic fashion, apparently passed through Savannah, Georgia, and Lisa showed him around.  Here he is at the Crab Shack, a restaurant that the two of us, along with my Mom, went to years and years ago when we lived in Atlanta in happier and simpler times.

He looks really good, and I'm sure there's some lovely Peter Pan metaphor evolving.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Steiner-Burkhardt Wedding Ceremony

OK, so it took a year and a half to post the actual wording of the wedding of my two wonderful friends Heidi Steiner and Andy Burkhardt, but historians tend to operate in centuries - so actually I'm moving pretty quickly.  As I've said before, it was one of the great privileges of my life to officiate at their wedding.  Heidi prepared the bracketing sections (clearly the best part) and I wrote the clumsily philosophical piece in the middle.

As the Canadian philosopher opined, "We are only what we feel," and we should all be so lucky to feel what they felt that day - and what they still feel for each other today.

Steiner/Burkhardt Wedding

Good afternoon!
We have come here today to celebrate the marriage of Heidi and Andy. They are delighted that you have come to share in their joy on this special day, so thank you for joining us. By your presence, you celebrate with them the love they have discovered in each other. And you support their decision to commit themselves to a lifelong relationship.

Who supports this woman in marriage to this man?
Father/Family: I/We do.

Please be seated.

Heidi and Andy, this afternoon you are surrounded by your family and friends, all of whom have gathered to witness and share in the joy of this occasion. In marriage, we give ourselves freely and generously into the hands of the one we love, and in doing so, each of us receives the love and trust of the other as our most precious gift.

New experiences lie before you with opportunities to grow deeper in love with each other. As you walk hand in hand into the future, cherish each moment as a gift – a gift, given to strengthen the bond between you.


We have come together to celebrate the wedding of Heidi and Andy, but, come on, we all know this is Heidi’s day.  Andy’s job is to sit there and be goofy and make Heidi look even more breath-taking.  Our job is to make this day as wonderful – and stress free – for Heidi as possible.  There are people who may have been using social media to convince Heidi that they forgot the actual day of the wedding, but I don’t think that can be proven in court. 

So, Heidi is the boss today.  And I always obey authority.  When she sent along favorite ceremony she included a blank section that simply said Scudder’s Sermon.  I protested that I had nothing to say, but she told me that since I was getting paid the big bucks I had to earn it.  She assigned me two chores.

First off, she wanted me to say something about the two of them, which I am more than happy to do since I love them both.  I asked her if she minded if I took a more philosophical approach, and she said knock yourself out.  Normally at this point my default answer is to quote Marcus Aurelius, while my friends politely roll their eyes.  However, in this case, I’m going to shoot even higher – and quote Neil Young.  In one of his earliest songs Young proposed that, “we are only what we feel.”  That is, while people such as Sanford Zale and Mike Lange will tell you it’s all about the brain, in reality it’s all about the heart – and how we feel, which Sarah Cohen could have told you anyway.  So, being a professor, I gave Heidi and Andy some homework.  I asked them to, separately, answer three questions:
 1) how did you feel the first time you met the other person?
 2) how do you feel today?
 3) how do you feel about the future? 
They sent me their answers via email, and I’m going to read them to you – after correcting all of Andy’s spelling mistakes.

Andy – when he first met Heidi:

“I felt excited and anxious.  She was funny and pretty and I didn’t know exactly what to say.  I talked to her about libraries and told her she was good at foosball (she was OK).  We hung out at a conference and I got more excited talking and texting with her.  It was that excitement that you get when everything is really new but it’s also really good.  After that I went to Montpelier and we watched what was to be the first of many Vikings’ losses together.  And she didn’t ditch me after seeing my picture in the Free Press after eating 50 chicken wings, so that has to count for something too.”

Heidi – when she first met Andy:

“My first answer requires a smidge of background.  When I was still in Michigan, getting ready to move, I was trolling library blogs looking for new, smart people to pay attention to.  I ran into Andy’s blog, looked at the About page, and saw he was in Vermont.  I can still picture the moment and remember thinking – “Whoa, he’s cute.  Maybe I’ll meet him someday.”  So . . . the first time I saw Andy, I felt nervous, clearly.  And I also hoped he was at least a little bit awesome.  I can still relive a lot of the first night we hung out in my head . . . what he was wearing, how I felt when he stood by me . . . by the end of the night, I wished for the feeling to not only be me.”

Andy – how he feels now:

“I feel joyful and challenged.  Heidi is really thoughtful, supportive, and takes care of me in ways that I deeply appreciate and take joy in.  She holds a different mirror up to me and gives me a perspective that I wouldn’t normally see.  It’s also challenging learning to accept someone and understand someone for who they are and trying to figure out how to support them in ways they need, not ways I need.”

Heidi – how she feels now:

“Today when I look at Andy the only word that really describes the feel is: lucky.  It’s such a clichéd thing, but he makes my life so much better.  It is hard to fathom where or who I would be if it weren’t for Andy.  My world is bigger and I know myself better because of him.  He is supportive, thoughtful, kind, funny, and challenges me.  I cannot imagine a better life than one I get to spend with him.”

Andy – how he feels about the future:

“I feel confident about our future together.  Heidi can get stuff [shit] done and can execute a lot better than me.  She’s really good at planning, problem solving, remembering thing, and paying attention to details.  I think more “big picture” and am willing to try a lot of things.  I’m really curious and like adventures.  I feel we balance each other out really well and can teach each other a lot about ourselves.  I know there are going to be challenges and also really happy times, but ultimately I feel really lucky being on her team and having her on mine.”

Heidi – how she feels about the future:

“When I think about Andy and our future, it feels exciting.  We’ll never know for sure quite what’s next or where we’ll be living and doing in five years, but knowing I will still be cooking and walking and exploring with Andy . . . that’s all I want.  It is exciting to know you are getting the one thing you truly want . . . a life with the person you love most in the world.”

Scudder’s Rules for a happy relationship:

Heidi’s second directive was for me to say a few words about what it makes a successful marriage.  My initial thought was – really?  Me?  Truthfully, who knows less about a happy relationship than me?

But then I thought about baseball.  One of the great truisms of baseball is that great players make lousy managers because they do not understand how hard the game is.  Great managers tend to be career minor leaguers – second-string catchers who couldn’t hit a curveball – who spent lots of time on the bench studying the game.  And then I thought – with that in mind, really, who better to give advice on a happy relationship than me?

So, here are Scudder’s three rules for a happy marriage:

First off, look at each other.  This is who you are marrying.  Not some idealized version of that person, but that person.  You should never marry someone on potential – on what you think you can turn them into with a little hard work.  Heidi, you can shine him up a bit – and, Andy, you might theoretically make Heidi root for the Vikings – but you’re not going to change them that much.  And that’s OK.  You fell in love with that person.  Cherish them.

Secondly, and even considering rule one, you will both change – and your relationship will change.  I believe that marriages are made up of 10,000 small compromises, most made unofficially and organically and made just to get through the day, especially down the road when the kids arrive.  They are almost uniformly small, but they add up over the years.  Sometimes long-term relationships end when you suddenly look across the breakfast table and feel that you don’t know that other person hogging the Pop-Tarts.  And sometimes one of you, on a particularly dark day, might even think – this isn’t what I signed up for.  Well, in a sense, you didn’t.  Years earlier, a much younger version of you married a much younger version of your partner, and then the compromises started. Actually, they’re not all that bad, and part of it is the process of two people becoming one couple. Your relationship will change – and it should.  It should evolve, not just survive.  The key is to be part of the evolution.  Be actively involved in your relationship – work at it – be a part of every one of those 10,000 compromises.

Thirdly, I’ll come back to the words of the great Canadian philosopher Neil Young: we are only what we feel.  Remember how you feel today. Never forget that.  When you’re sitting on the couch arguing about the bills or wondering why it’s really necessary to watch a two-win Vikings team lose another game or why you’re watching another documentary on dinosaurs, remember how you make the other one feel, for good and for bad – and always remember this day, and how you feel.

And so ends my sermon.  Now let’s get these two married.


You come here today to affirm your love for one another and formally acknowledge that which your hearts already know…that your lives are meant to be shared as one, that you are stronger together than you are apart, and that, for all the days yet to come, you wish to share together all life’s joys and challenges, committed one to the other.

Andy, do you promise Heidi that you will love her for today and for all of your tomorrows? And that from this day forward, you will faithfully walk beside her?
[I do]

Heidi, do you promise Andy that you will love him for today and for all of your tomorrows? And that from this day forward, you will faithfully walk beside him?
[I do]


Heidi and Andy, you are about to exchange your marriage vows. These vows are an expression of the promises you have chosen to make to each other. Marriage is the uniting of two people and a journey towards the unity of two hearts. The vows you share will thrive on the love that you have for each other and your marriage will grow deeper as each of you grows older. As you journey through life together, may you continue to trust each other, laugh together and speak often to one another. And may your lives together be filled with joy, whether in times of peace or chaos, trouble or good fortune.

Heidi, please hand your bouquet to your maid of honor, face each other and join hands.


Andy, please repeat these vows to Heidi:
Heidi, I join my life to yours,
to be your partner in marriage and in life,
to love and to honor you,
to be honest and faithful to you,
to stand by you and care for you,
all the days of my life.

Heidi, please repeat these vows to Andy:
Andy, I join my life to yours,
to be your partner in marriage and in life,
to love and to honor you,
to be honest and faithful to you,
to stand by you and care for you,
all the days of my life.

Heidi and Andy, as you walk through life together, remember that you are unique and different from one another. Give your love openly and honestly. Do not try to change each other, for your differences are what brought you together. Always accept and respect what the other has to say -- and even if you do not agree, take time to understand the other’s feelings and opinions. And remember that each day is a new beginning. Be willing to follow and never be afraid to lead. Maintain your capacity for wonder, spontaneity, humor, and sensitivity. Trust your partner
and trust yourself – for a marriage is a journey that leads to greater love.

May I have the rings, Peter?

These wedding rings symbolize the unbroken circle of love, signifying to all your union in marriage As often as either of you look upon these rings you are about to exchange, may you be reminded of this moment and the love and commitment you have promised to one another.

Andy, please place the ring on Heidi’s finger and say to her these words:
Heidi, with this ring I take you as my wife and pledge my love and life to you.

Heidi, please place the ring on Andy’s finger and say to her these words:
Andy, with this ring I take you as my husband and pledge my love and life to you.

Andy and Heidi, before I declare you husband and wife, I want to wish you both much love and happiness as you begin this new journey. I give you my best wishes with the following words.
The two of you are now joined in one unbroken circle. Wherever you go, may you always return to one another in your togetherness. May you two find in each other the love for which all souls long.

To make your marriage work will take love.  Love should be the core of your marriage; love is the reason you are here.

But it also will take trust - to know in your hearts that you want the best for each other.

It will take dedication to live by the vows you have made. To stay open to one another, to learn and to grow together even when this is not always easy to do.

It will take faith to keep your promises. To always be willing to go forward to tomorrow, never really knowing what tomorrow will bring.

And it will take commitment - to hold true to the journey you have both pledged to share together.


Andy and Heidi, today you have promised your love to each other and sealed your promises with the giving and receiving of rings. It is my joy and pleasure to declare that you are now husband and wife.

Heidi, you may kiss the groom.


Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my honor and privilege to introduce to you for the first time
Mr. and Mrs. Andy and Heidi Burkhardt.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Returning to Jordan

After years of threatening to do so I'm actually going to lead a student travel course trip this spring.  I've had students and colleagues, both here and on the other side of the planet, repeatedly encourage/dragoon/beg me to take advantage of my experiences and connections to lead a student group overseas.  For any number of reasons I've always begged off, but this year I've changed my mind.  My dear friend and stand-in little sister Cyndi Brandenburg are taking nine students to Jordan over spring break in March.  Initially I was considering a study abroad trip to India, but my excellent friend and student Mahmoud Jabari dashed the idea.  Mahmoud and I meet for coffee every month and solve the problems of the Middle East.  When I proposed the India trip he essentially said - and I'm not paraphrasing much - "no, you're going to Jordan, because you do love Jordan and the students will love Jordan." (spoken like a true Palestinian, I might add)  Who am I to disagree?  I'm embedding the trip in a couple sections of my Heroines & Heroes course, and I always have the students read a short retelling of the Ramayana, so the India trip made perfect sense.  Instead, Mahmoud proposed that I should build it around Lawrence of Arabia, both the reality and the legend.  It is a great idea, and so I took his suggestion.  I haven't turned my back on an India trip, although Jordan is certainly much easier to throw together in a hurry as compared to an Indian excursion, which would take much more planning.  So, get prepared - Jordan will be dominating the blog again very soon.

As these trips tends to be, it has been more than a bit of a logistical nightmare to put together (although it will pale in comparison to planning a trip to India).  Still, I am getting very excited.  There is so much to be revealed in Jordan.  As my friends quite correctly point out - I like to introduce my students to parts of the world that their parents aren't going to take them to on family vacations.  And, truthfully, can you think of a time when American students need to acquire a more sophisticated understanding of the Middle East?