Saturday, September 15, 2012

Albert Plotkin, ז״ל

A few days ago, September 8, was the birthday of a friend.  Here's what I posted about him on 2/10/10.    L'Shanah Tova to my other Jewish friends!

A dear friend, Rabbi Albert Plotkin, passed away on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010. Here are some announcements of his passing, which refer to his longtime service to the Phoenix community since his 1955 arrival at Temple Beth Israel. These news stories describe him very well.

Here is also a YouTube interview

I met Rabbi Plotkin when I taught college classes in Arizona in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The religious studies department often called upon him to visit classes and explain Judaism, and he visited my class, too. He and I hit it off. He was about the same age as my mother, and of course was a different faith. But we always enjoyed chatting. As these tributes indicate, he was a character and very fun to spend time with. I visited him at Beth Israel when it was still located on (if I remember correctly) 10th Avenue in Phoenix, rather than its eventual location in Scottsdale. I took confirmation classes to Saturday morning services there for "interfaith experiences," as well as to a mosque and a Native American congregation.

My wife Beth and I visited him during the summer of 2008 when we were in Phoenix. He was staying at a Scottsdale hotel because he had had a minor house fire which required repairs to his home. I called him on his birthday, September 8, each year, and last fall he seemed particularly touched that a Gentile colleague remembered. With Rosh Hashanah upcoming, he prayed that my and my family’s names would be written in the Book of Life. I still become misty-eyed when I think of that.

Two personal responses to Rabbi Al. One is that my interest of Judaism, which had begun years before, were definitely enlivened by my acquaintance with him. I read books about Judaism for pleasure; in my work I’ve struggled to understand the Gospel in ways that are not anti-Jewish; and in my writings I’ve frequently cautioned people about the implicit and explicit anti-Judaism that we find in the New Testament writings. I think I purchased my copy (which I use often) of The Torah: A Modern Commentary at the Beth Israel bookstore.

Another is the sense of validation that Rabbi Al gave me. At that early point in my own career, I kept feeling pigeonholed by Christian colleagues: surely I wasn’t a good clergy if I was interested in academic work, and surely I wasn’t a serious scholar if I worked in the parish. I shouldn’t have let this kind of nonsense hurt my feelings as badly as it did.

But, of course, for Rabbi Al my vocation was not at all surprising or off-putting and was, in fact, an exciting combination of passions for serving God and neighbor. He, too, loved caring ministry and scholarship, as well as the "prophetic," socially concerned aspects of both. More than many Christian clergy in my "younger days," he helped give me confidence in my sense of multi-track calling. I expressed my gratitude to him while he was alive and now I’m thinking about ways I can honor his memory. And may his memory be a blessing!

In the meantime, I appreciate this prayer of praise by which Jews can hold to faith amid the bitterness of grief:

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Few Miles on US 6

As reflected in some of these posts, I like to travel old roads and think about their sights and histories.  US 6 is interesting road, present within fourteen states. It was once the longest transcontinental highway in the nation, running over 3600 miles. Its eastern point is Cape Cod. Its western point was Long Beach, but in the 1960s the highway was truncated at Bishop, CA.  If you look at a map, follow the path of US 395 south of Bishop to CA 14, and then trace CA 14 down to Long Beach, and that will give you the original final miles of highway 6.  After the road was truncated at Bishop, US 20 (from runs from Newport, OR to Boston, MA) became the longest highway in the country. But US 6 is still the longest continuous highway, since 20 is not marked through Yellowstone Park.

If you’ve studied the federal highway system that was laid out in the 1920s, you know that the zero-ending routes, 10 through 90, were east-west transcontinental highways, while the 1-ending routes, 1 through 101, were north-south roads. US 6 wasn’t originally planned as a transcontinental route and was limited to the northeast. But subsequent extensions expanded the route all the way to California.

Here are some websites that I found, concerning its route and history.  Highway 6 is also called The Grand Army of the Republic Highway. Highways can serve as memorials: the famous Lincoln Highway is an example, and the old Robert E. Lee Highway (which became US 80) in the south. You notice stretches of interstate that honor or memorialize; I live near a portion of I-70 that memorialize Senator Paul Simon. Route 6 honored Union veterans.

I like to find old signs on eBay and other places, and over the years several US 6 signs came up for sale. I also have an Iowa US 32 sign, a highway that was absorbed into Route 6 during the 1930s.

I’ll likely never do so, but I fancy an interesting road trip: to drive Highway 6 from Cape Cod to Long Beach. When George Stewart wrote a history of a cross-country highway, one of the reasons he chose US 40 over US 6 was that 40 was a fairly straightforward road from the east to the west coasts, while 6 tends to meander. When I taught Kerouac's On the Road a few years ago, I was pleased to see the highway mentioned near the novel's beginning, although the character Sal is persuaded to hitchhike on a busier road than 6.

I’ve actually traveled very little of US 6: a street in Cleveland, a little bit in Rhode Island, and a few-mile stretch around the Cook and Will County border in Illinois, where US 6 and IL 7 run concurrently. The latter was my first and primary acquaintance, because that was the way my wife Beth and I drove to visit her parents after we left Interstate 80. We were looking forward to our upcoming marriage, and after that we were happy newlyweds. Of course those feelings linger around those few miles of Route 6. Some of my memories are of Christmastime: gray, overcast days over the Illinois farmland, with snow in the air, as we drove 6 and 7.

There my memories stay, because my in-laws moved from the area over twenty years ago, and my father-in-law passed away in the 1990s. I might not recognize the drive now. At the time it was a fairly peaceful two lane through a particular kind of landscape: new suburban businesses alongside farmhouses, barns, and rural fields. I imagine that development continued unabated.    

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Writing Life

I haven’t written anything on my blog lately, because I’ve been focusing on a manuscript for which I hope to find a publisher.  I considered the project finished, but then some improvements and other ideas came to mind. That’s a nice thing about the creative process; new ideas develop with patience and time. The manuscript is about ready again, either to show to the publisher with whom I already have a submitted proposal, or for other publishers.

Writing even a short book is a complicated thing. Heck, writing a poem is complicated!  You have details to keep track of, the sound of words to rehearse  A change in a later chapter, or in a stanza or paragraph, may throw off something else. But that’s part of the joy, managing such details. Annie Dillard called book writing “life at its most free,” although some of my motorcycle-riding friends would vouch for that passion instead.

Not including this manuscript, I’ve written sixteen books, ten of which were for-hire works, all but one for Abingdon Press. All ten required a deadline, and although that’s never a problem for me, it does obviate the ability to mull over your work and to polish it as you might like if you had more time. You have to have a trusting relationship with your editor.  One work was a longer church-related book which was the result of a successful proposal pitch, but the publisher gave me eleven months to complete the project.  So that one turned out to have a deadline, too, although a slightly longer time than some assignments.

Having plenty of time to write, though, doesn’t always help. My first book, a history of my hometown published by an academic press, was spread discontinuously over fifteen years. In hindsight, that was too long a time and the manuscript lost some “naturalness” and consistency.  

Finding a publisher can be a difficult process, not always related to the quality of your work. If you have feedback from an editor, you could adapt it, but editors don’t have time to comment on every manuscript. I was fortunate that that first book found a home with the very first publisher I approached. My second book, which had been my doctoral dissertation, found a publisher after three years. But I remember submitting it to three or four other places. One publisher, Westminster John Knox, declined it, but then an editor contacted me again to consider it again, and declined it again.  Sheesh.

Another distressing thing, that I’ve begun to notice lately, is that editors don’t write back at all. Several months ago I submitted five poems to a small magazine and I have a feeling they’ve been declined, but I’ve no idea.

You do have to have thick skin to submit your work for publication. I learned that long ago.  It’s no shame to be rejected; the renowned poem William Stafford admitted that his poems are declined four times out of five submissions. Some works are submitted dozens, hundreds of times. But even knowing that, you do feel discouraged. “Submission”----that’s a decent word for this process, because you’re putting yourself in a vulnerable position by seeking approval for your work. But there’s nothing “submissive” about the process; you have to be strong and never give up.

I love Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life, with all its wonderful metaphors and images of writing. I wonder if she meant the book as a “manual,” though, but rather an essay on the mysterious Presence that fills the universe, this time glimpsed through the hard, give-it-your-all work of writing, rather than the sights and sounds of Tinker Creek or the wonders of growing up.

I feel that Presence in particular when I’ve lost myself in the writing process----when two or three hours have passed without my awareness of the clock. It’s not a vision of God, but it’s definitely a lose of a sense of self, cares, and worries not unlike very deep prayer. Sometimes it is literally a prayer, a "sigh too deep for words" because you're devoting all the words you have for this kind of service.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What's Obama's Vision?

Another interesting article, calling for the president to help us see his economic vision of the U.S.  What  do you think?

"Post-Truth Politics"

Another interesting article: how should journalists respond when candidates lie and don't care?