More Heidegger

Last night I finished reading Martin Heidegger’s classic philosophy text, Being and Time. (That makes 98 books finished before the end of June 2021, which means I am on roughly the same reading pace that I was last year, but no one but me is measuring.) Heidegger’s mention of “falling prey” prompted me to write a recent post, which led to a comment by Slim Jim (whose blog I strongly recommend) that he would like to read some of Heidegger’s work. I was going to respond to his comment, but I think that instead I will share my impression of Heidegger with the world in general.

As a philosopher working in the first half of the twentieth century, Heidegger had a long tradition preceding him, one that had thoroughly inquired into many of the key questions that philosophy generally addresses. At the same time, many philosophical questions were beginning to be handed off to various branches of science—astronomy, physics, chemistry, psychology, anthropology, and so on. Heidegger found himself returning to some of the questions that many people considered solved already in the work of Plato and Aristotle: what does it mean for someone or something to exist? What does it mean to speak of existence? Is existence a quality like size or shape or color? The study of existence (technically called ontology) opened new doors for Heidegger to explore. His entire career consisted of various approaches to the meaning of existence and how a definition of existence shapes all the other philosophical questions we might ask about ourselves and about the world around us.

For others inclined, like Slim Jim, to go online or to the library and tackle some of Heidegger’s work, I have four suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Like most professional philosophers, Martin Heidegger used a carefully defined vocabulary in which some common words have very narrow and specific meanings. Other words you find in Heidegger’s work are used only by philosophers, and many of the words he uses, Heidegger himself invented. Philosophers do not write this way became they are trying to be difficult or to look smart. They do this so that, as they write, they say exactly what they mean, no more and no less.
  • Not only is the vocabulary challenging, but the sentence structure is also more complex in Heidegger and in most other philosophers than it is in (for example) a typical novel or newspaper story or Reader’s Digest article. The reason for such a complex style of writing matches that of the difficult vocabulary: Heidegger and other philosophers are trying to make sure that they write exactly what they mean, no more and no less.
  • Because of the difficult vocabulary and structure, the writing of philosophers such as Heidegger must be read slowly and repeatedly. Reading the same work five times is considered typical for the reader who wants to grasp what the writer is saying. (I will address this from a different angle in a few seconds.)
  • When you have taken the trouble to learn a philosopher’s vocabulary, to adjust to that philosopher’s writing style, to read slowly, and to read that philosopher’s work several times, you may find that the philosopher’s conclusions are startlingly simple. Perhaps they even seem like common sense. This does not mean that the philosopher wasted his or her time spent in writing or wasted your time spent in reading. The philosopher may have reached a conclusion that you already believed, but the philosopher has taken the difficult road to reach that conclusion. The philosopher’s conclusion is not a guess; it is based on long and deep thinking, consideration of many other options that never occurred to you, and considerable caution to make sure that no false steps were taken at any part of the journey.

My senior year of college, I was one of a team of students who came early to campus to help orient the incoming freshmen. College orientation means more than standing in the quad and pointing east. (The term, however, comes from the practice of observing the sunrise at the beginning of the day, knowing that the sun rises in the east, and using that information to identify north, south, and west.) During that orientation weekend, I had ten or twelve freshmen sitting in my dormitory room where we had a scheduled visit from their faculty advisor. Standing in my room, leaning against my closet door, this professor told the new students that they should consider college a full-time job. It was not enough to attend classes and do a little homework; they should expect to spend hours outside the classroom reading the assigned work, researching and writing, and thinking about what they were learning. One of the points he made was that, to understand a book well, one must read that book five times.

After the professor left, the freshmen asked me whether it is true that they had to read their books five times to understand them. “It depends upon the book,” I told them. I reminded them that this professor taught philosophy, where the five-times rule is generally true. Other books might be grasped in a first or second reading. With many more years to consider the five-times rule, though, I have come to the conclusion that any good book requires and deserves multiple readings. The books of the Bible require multiple readings—the five-time rule is a worthy guide for the Bible. Great literature needs repeated reading. Many science and history textbooks need more than one reading before they start to make sense. In our busy, hurried world, most of us read a document (on paper or on a screen) only once. Even our own writing, we often read once and then click “publish.” Good writing merits re-reading. When we want our writing to be good, we must read it again and again, verifying that we have written what we want to say—no more and no less.

Two little things (aside from “falling prey”) captured my attention in the last part of Heidegger’s book. One was his examination of conscience. Normal people (excluding psychopaths or sociopaths) have a conscience, an inner voice that warns us when we are wrong. Heidegger asks what we call that inner voice when it persistently reminds us that we have been wrong: is that a “bad conscience” or a “good conscience”? Stop and think about that for a moment. As a Christian, I have an answer Heidegger did not propose: a bad conscience reminds us of our guilt and keeps on warning us we were wrong but offers no hope to change our condition; a good conscience also reminds us of our guilt but leads us to repent of our sin, to throw ourselves on God’s mercy, and to trust his promise of forgiveness.

Dealing with the themes of being and time, Heidegger spoke about the items on display in a museum. We often say that we look at them to learn about the past. But, as Heidegger reminds his readers, we see them in the museum only because they exist in the present. Their meaning and significance may be altered now that they are displayed in a museum—they are not, in that sense, identical to what they were when they existed as everyday items in common usage. But they cannot bring us into their past because our being, our existence, our Da-sein, is seeing them only in the present, not in our personal past.

That’s enough deep thinking for tonight. J.

Teaching history

I miss being in the classroom. The COVID crisis helped the school for which I taught hasten its transfer from classroom teaching to online teaching. They had already been pushing that direction for some time. I took the training sessions but did not offer to teach online. The students who enrolled in my classes preferred to learn in the classroom. But when the campus was closed, the conversion to online teaching forced me to take a break in my college career. Now, I suspect, the break has become a permanent retirement.

My classroom was on a military base, although the school responsible for the classes is a state institution. Many of my students were active military personnel; others were family of active personnel, retired military personnel, and people from the community who enrolled through the state school. I had a few students older than me, while I also had students still in high school earning their first college credits.

I taught history. Occasionally I taught a class in world religions or in introduction to philosophy, but mostly I taught the survey history classes: World History to 1650 and World History since 1650. The year 1650 was arbitrarily chosen; it was the middle of the textbook. Even when the school faculty changed textbooks and the new textbook split around 1500, they didn’t bother to change the name of the classes. Sometimes I would challenge students to guess why the class either began or ended with 1650. I heard some good suggestions about the Industrial Revolution, the Age of European Exploration and Colonization, and other landmarks that might have happened around 1650; students groaned when I told them that the only reason the year was chosen was that it was the middle of the book. But I then made the point that we have as much information to study and learn about the past 370 years as we have for the thousands of years that preceded 1650.

Some of my student signed up for the class because they love history. Others took it only because they were required to have one class in history. I managed to benefit the entire range of students. People who think they hate history, more often than not, had history ruined for them by a bad teacher, one who forced them to memorize names and places and dates, to focus on trivia that is easily found online. I focused on teaching the bigger themes of history, giving students a reason to seek the details online. A survey class cannot spend time on details. Taking a survey class in history is like running through a buffet restaurant—one sees and smells some of the food available, and one can return later to sample the dishes that seemed most appealing. I had the students write some “compare and contrast” essays to force them into a bit of focused research: What similarities and differences can one find studying Napoleon and Hitler? What similarities and differences can one find studying Socrates and Confucius? I gave them choices so they could focus on topics most interesting to them (and so I wouldn’t have to read a dozen versions of the same essay). But mostly I invited them to see the vast themes of human history on this planet. We discussed migrations, wars, economic trade, and the spread of ideas. We talked about significant developments in technology, artistic expression, and philosophy. We analyzed the significance of geographic features, climate change at various times in history, foods, and diseases. At times we debated similarities and connections between past happenings and current events.

The first night we met was always exciting, and also a bit stressful, even anxiety-inducing. They would find out what kind of instructor I aimed to be and how their work as students would be evaluated; I measured how willing they would be to discuss ideas in the classroom and to share experiences that related to our lessons. For example, when we talked about the beliefs and practices of Muslims, some of my students were able to describe things they had seen in Muslim countries. One of the joys of teaching college is the presence of students who have learned things I haven’t learned or who have had experiences I haven’t had. I always invited them to share what they knew with the rest of us.

I also invited them to challenge interpretations of history, even those that were presented on the quizzes. I wanted them to see that history is more that memorizing a list of data; history is sorting the data, connecting the data, and interpreting the data. Historians sort through information, seeking understandings of what happened, why it happened, and what it caused to happen. Historians are allowed to disagree with one another. Sometimes I disagreed with the textbook. Students were allowed and invited to disagree with me—not to earn an extra point on a quiz, but to help all of us learn more about history. If they stated their case well, using valid information from the textbook or other sources, I gave them the point. If they were merely quibbling, I held to the point, defending it and showing how historians work to gather and share their understanding of history.

Near the end of the first night’s discussion, I told the class about President Nixon. In August 1974, Nixon resigned from the office of President—he is the only U.S. President to resign. The Watergate scandal that produced that resignation is complicated, and I did not describe it that first night. But I explained how distraught, discouraged, and depressed he was having to leave that important job that he had fought so much to gain and to hold. I then told the students how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had tried to comfort the President by saying that history would remember him more kindly than his contemporaries. I also quoted Nixon’s response to those words, as he said, “That depends upon who writes the histories.”

I pointed out to the students that, by enrolling in that class, they had become historians. They were taking on responsibility—they would help to write the histories. They owed it to their subjects, and to those who would read their work, to be accurate and fair. They would need to do thorough research, to think clearly and deeply about the information they had studied, and to communicate their conclusions effectively, convincingly, and honestly.

I would like to believe that, over the years, I have helped to shape a few good historians. I miss being in the classroom. J.

Remembrance of opportunities lost

We all carry regrets from the past. What we cannot fix, we try to forget. Sometimes, though, the memories linger for a while; they refuse to be lost in the mists of time now expired.

I remember a college cheerleader—I’ll call her Lori. One summer she and I were among the first students to return to campus for the new school year. We first crossed paths at an all-campus party for returning students. I happened across this party by accident and remained at the edge, not wanting to be surrounded by the crowd. Somehow, Lori and I noticed each other and began a conversation. The conversation continued back at my dorm room. (Nothing else happened; we merely talked.) She encouraged me to attend a scrimmage the school’s football team was holding the next day. Because of her invitation, I went to the scrimmage. It seemed odd to me—the team was recreating the closing minutes of the game they had lost to our biggest rival at the end of last season. They were experimenting to see what might have happened with our new quarterback in charge of the offense’s final drive in the place of last year’s quarterback. The scrimmage was designed to turn into a pep rally (celebrating the win that might have happened but didn’t); the pep rally included a meal, and Lori asked me to attend, but I declined. I wanted to get back to my room and finish unpacking, and I wanted to see if my roommate and other friends had arrived. Although some of my roommate’s possessions were in the room, he was not around when I returned, but a couple of other friends were there. While we visited, Lori dropped in again. I meant to introduce her to my friends, but somehow—in the confusion of the moment—introductions were not made. Instead, I pulled out a wooden box I had made that summer. Picturing it in my hands today, it would have made a nice cage for a cricket or other large insect. One of my friends asked if it was made from toothpicks, and I answered no, that it was made from splinters pulled off an old railroad tie. I did not say this, but I was thinking that no cheerleaders had been around to encourage my work on this piece of art. It seems that somehow Lori read my mind, because she suddenly ran out of the room, sobbing. At that instant, I was torn—I wanted to go to her, to comfort her, to have her come back so I could introduce her to my friends and make her part of the group. At the same time, I was reluctant to leave my friends for her, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to her. Before I could resolve the dilemma, I awoke.

Yes, this was all a dream and Lori, like the wooden art project, was only a creation of my dream mind. She didn’t even have a name in the dream; she was only “the cheerleader.” But the regret I felt was real. I appreciated our brief friendship, I wanted that friendship to continue to grow, and I hated the knowledge that I had hurt her feelings, even if it was only in my thoughts and in my dream.

I didn’t mention the earlier parts of the dream in which I visited a classroom where I had earlier taught a class, spoke with some of the students in that classroom, watched the new professor hand out candy and pizza to the students, then left and tried (but failed) to find my car in the parking lot, all of which led to the party where I met the cheerleader. I’ve been having (and remembering) a lot of dreams this year that are like this dream—vivid, filled with related happenings as well as people and places, and often shaping my feelings for the entire day following the dream. These dreams may be due, at least partly, to medications I am taking, but they obviously come from my own mind. I dream about people I remember—family and friends and coworkers, including some who have died, others who I haven’t seem for years, and some I still see nearly every day. At times the dreams are so vivid and realistic that I confuse them for memories of actual events or scenes from movies I’ve recently watched. (Did I recently see a deer, dream about a deer, or watch a movie that included a deer. That’s right—the deer was in last night’s movie.) In no way do I consider my dreams to be messages from God or predictions of the future. Dreams are mental problem-solving devices, managing hopes and fears, often in symbolic ways. But I still feel bad about upsetting Lori. If I could, I would let her know that I am sorry and that I still want us to be friends. J.

Remembering Woodstock

I was vaguely aware that some rock concert was happening fifty years ago. At the time I was young and I didn’t follow rock music. I knew what hippies were—I saw a carload of them one afternoon that summer. But the term Woodstock was not very meaningful to me while it was happening.

A little more than ten years after (Yes, I did that on purpose.), the college I was attending showed the Woodstock documentary on a Friday night. My friends and I attended, and we were won over to the Woodstock spirit. In fact, that same fall we dressed as hippies for the Homecoming bed races and won the top prize for our costumes (and second prize in the actual race). I went out and bought the three-disc concert album and came to know most of the songs by heart. When it was available, I bought the documentary on VHS. When I wore out the tapes from repeated viewing, I replaced them with the DVD set (which included Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and some other singers and groups that were omitted—at their own request—from the original movie). So of course I have watched the movie again this week, joined by my teenaged daughter, who has her own appreciation for hippies and Sixties culture. In fact, having watched Woodstock earlier in the week, we followed that last night by watching Hair, a movie made in 1979 that included the songs from the Sixties musical of the same name.

Observing and appreciating the culture does not include approval of all its mistakes. I still believe in marriage and faithfulness, in respect for authority, and in private property. I shower every day, and I just got a haircut this week. I have no illusions about the Age of Aquarius (and, by the way, most experts in the field say we are still in the Age of Pisces). But most of my favorite rock songs are from the Sixties. The Beatles were the best rock band ever, and Abbey Road is the best rock album ever recorded. I still ache when I think about the 1969 Chicago Cubs, how they stumbled out of first place as summer drew to a close, being overtaken by the Miracle Mets. (And this year’s version of the Cubs seem destined for the same disappointing results.)

I wouldn’t want to be seven years old again. But the summer I turned seven was full of amazing happenings that are worth remembering and celebrating. J.

Saint Rodney

I met Rodney at a time that I needed the very inspiration he offered.

I had been accepted into graduate school during my last year of college. On a path towards a career of working in the church, I had majored in religious studies while in college. Between college and graduate school, I took a summer job at a Christian publishing company.

The transition from college to graduate school was not easy for me. In college I had enjoyed the freedom to take any position and support it with evidence; in graduate school, I was expected to agree with the professors on most positions. Political turmoil within the denomination increased tension on campus: students joked that the salt shakers in the cafeteria contained microphones to transmit our conversations to the office of the school’s president, while the pepper shakers contained microphones to transmit our conversations to the office of the denomination’s president. Uncomfortable with the campus environment, I decided that winter to take the spring and summer off and to use that time to decide whether to return in the fall.

Those months away from school I shared an apartment with a friend, working an evening job in fast food and a daytime job at the Christian publishing company where I had worked the previous summer. Meanwhile, Rodney had been hired at the publishing company. He was of Japanese-Hawaiian origin and was a large man who had been a sumo wrestler and had played on the offensive line for the University of Hawaii’s football team. He was not yet a Christian during his college years, and he had abused alcohol and drugs at that time, causing chronic health problems that would continue to plague him later in life.

Rodney became a Christian and then became a pastor in Hawaii. Here is the kind of pastor Rodney was: he had given his name and telephone number to the downtown bartenders so that, if they had a customer who was despondent and needed help, the bartenders could call Pastor Rodney and he would drive to the bar and provide Christian counseling. The spring we met, Rodney was taking graduate classes at a Christian college and also receiving regular medical treatment for the failure of his kidneys.

Our boss called Rodney his dreamer. Every week Rodney had a new plan for his life, a new thought about how he could be involved in Christian outreach, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who were lost. He was waiting for a kidney transplant, but he had already declined offers of live donors, preferring to trust the Lord and medical treatments to carry him until a suitable kidney was available. Rodney spoke with wonder about the form of dialysis he was receiving, one that used the abdominal cavity to provide the filtering he needed for his blood. He spoke of it as a God-given back-up kidney hidden in the human body.

Rodney died while receiving treatment at the hospital on May 6.

His infectious enthusiasm for serving the Lord and his Church contributed to my decision to return to school that fall and muddle through the program until I received my degree and certification. Every year I remember Saint Rodney on May 6, and I thank God for the part Rodney had in my professional development. J.

A little bit of science on the occasion of a college graduation

This weekend I was out of town to attend a graduation. The night before the ceremony the family was gathered, visiting, and the graduate shared a recent event from her physics class. The professor described a scenario, asked the members of the class to make a prediction of the outcome, told them that they were all wrong, but was unable to explain why they were wrong.

Here is a scenario: a container of water has an ice cube floating in it, and a pebble sits on the ice cube. The ice cube melts. The pebble drops to the bottom of the container. Does the water level in the container rise, fall, or remain the same?

Along with most of the other family members, I predicted that the water level would rise. I had pictures of Archimedes running through the streets shouting “Eureka!” after realizing that the volume of a solid object could be measured by dropping it into a container of water and measuring the displacement of the water. Moreover, it seems that the water level should rise because of the melting of the ice. The graduate said all the members of the class had made the same prediction and it was wrong, but she still did not understand why.

One family member, an engineer, said that the professor was correct, and he explained why. The explanation puzzled most of the family members, although I caught on after a couple times through the scenario. The engineer wanted to produce a mathematical explanation with paper and pencil, but the rest of the family assured him that would not be necessary. We did try to experiment by creating the scenario with a measuring cup, an ice cube, and a pebble, but we could not find the right size ice cube or pebble to conduct the experiment.

The next day there was a party in the same house after the graduation ceremony. In addition to family members, several fellow graduates and other college students were present. To fill a lull in the conversation, I reintroduced the scenario from the physics class. One of the college students, a mathematician, insisted that the water level would rise. The engineer again countered that it would drop. This time the two of them did resort to pencil, paper, a laptop computer, and information from the internet, including the density of water and ice. The engineer was able to convince the mathematician that the water level would indeed drop.

It happens that the classic form of this scenario involves a boat and an anchor rather than an ice cube and a pebble. When the anchor is removed from the boat and dropped into the water, the water level drops, even though it seems that it should rise. The reason for the counterintuitive answer is that the boat with the anchor in it displaces some of the water in the pond. When the anchor is removed from the boat, the boat rises and the water level falls. When the anchor is dropped into the water, some water is displaced and the water level rises, but not to the height that it had been when the anchor was in the boat. The reason this happens is that the anchor sinks because it is denser than the water. (If the anchor floated and did not sink, it would not be an anchor, said the engineer.) Because of its density, the anchor displaces less water than its weight alone displaced when it was in the boat, being supported by the water.

By the same token, ice floats because it is less dense than water. As it floats, it displaces some of the water. When it melts, the volume of the water that was previously frozen is less than the volume of water displaced by the floating ice. Therefore, the pebble-ice cube combination displaced more water when the ice was frozen and floating, supporting the pebble, than the pebble displaced after the ice melted; even the melted ice did not add enough water to raise the water level to the height it had been when the ice was still frozen.

The rest of the weekend, including the graduation, was also nice. J.

E for effort

Leave it to college students to discover a new approach to higher education.

I was visiting with some students in a classroom one evening this week. One student described a video he had recently watched (presumably on YouTube) which demonstrated that contemporary education is failing because it is built on a social model that is obsolete. I replied that efforts to reform and restructure education have been around since the 1960s. Another student then remarked, “Why should a person have to take algebra in college if that person is going to be an artist and will never use algebra?”

“The usual answer,” I replied, “is that studying algebra develops thinking skills that are used in a lot of areas other than mathematics.”

The first student then said that education should be more career-oriented. The students were careful not to use history as an example—I am their history instructor—but the students did mention classes they are required to take that have no use in most careers. “The usual answer to that,” I said, “is that education includes more than learning how to do a certain job. Students need to learn how to make a living, but they also need to be exposed to various things that make living worth-while.”

A couple other students nodded. “But why should they have to pass those classes?” the second student asked. “Being exposed to other things is good, but—as long as they come to class and do the work—why should they need to pass the class or take it again if they didn’t pass?”

“That,” I told him, “is a very good point.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation for a while. A high school graduate should be able to do basic computation—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. He or she should be capable of giving correct change, balancing a checkbook, and filling out a simple tax form. A high school graduate should be able to communicate—to read, to write, and to speak in public. Beyond that, a high school graduate should be exposed to science, to history, and to the fine arts—visual arts, music, literature, and drama. It’s best for a high school graduate to have skills in some vocation, especially if that graduate does not plan to continue on to college. For that matter, all those things are true of a college graduate. Each college student should go deeper into his or her chosen field while at college, while also being exposed to a range of experiences from the sciences, the fine arts, and the liberal arts.

But why should they have to pass the classes not related to their major or career?

We already have a grading system perfect for this change, since grades are assigned as A, B, C, D, or F (for failure). Why not add an E for effort? If a professor or instructor perceives that a certain student is trying his or her best in the class but just not getting it, why not give that student an E? Those who don’t show up for classes and don’t turn in assignments would still receive the F, but the student who tries to comprehend algebra or history or chemistry or music appreciation and fails should be given some credit for his or her effort. After all, the object of education is to expose the students to various facets of life. That object has been achieved. Why demand that the student take the class again, when that will only sour the student upon the subject matter, reversing the point of that exposure?

This idea would suit high school and undergraduate college work. Elementary students are still mastering basic skills, so an E for effort would not be appropriate at that age. Likewise, graduate students are focusing on deeper and narrower aspects of their chosen specialty, so an E for effort would be pointless. Honors students would not be allowed to accept an E, nor would an E be given for a class in the student’s major or minor department. In all other cases, though, whether the class is required for all students or chosen as an elective, if the subject has no bearing on the student’s career or personal interests, why not leave the teacher the option of awarding an E?

An E would not enter into a student’s grade point average. That average would reflect only the student’s basic skills in computation and communication, as well as the student’s mastery of knowledge and application relevant to his or her career. The artist would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to master algebra. The engineer would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to understand Shakespeare. But the artist was exposed to algebra, and the simple effort to handle it enriched his or her thinking skills. The engineer was exposed to Shakespeare, and he or she may return to Shakespeare’s work later in life with a better opportunity to understand and enjoy that work.

What do you think? Should high school and college teachers be permitted to grant their students an E for effort? Why or why not? J.

Heavy hearted

The administration where I work discourages us from visiting Facebook while at work. Their biggest concern is not that we spend every minute while on the clock with our noses to the grindstone; their biggest concern is reserving enough bandwidth space for our patrons and our workers. Most of us cheat on this policy at least a little. I’m not going to worry about getting caught visiting Facebook briefly when I log in and see that my boss is also shown online.

Today was a bad day to glance at Facebook. One of the first posts I saw was from a close family member. Her post was personal and thoughtful, reminding me of the struggles she has been facing and the courage with which she has done so.

Right under that was a post saying that one of my friends from college has died.

I feel guilty not keeping in touch with this friend. Over the past few months he has been battling cancer, and he used Facebook to report his treatment and progress to all his friends. I regret that I never once responded with encouraging words. In fact, often I would skim his updates and then move on to someone else. (Can you spell TMI?) When I got home from work this afternoon, one of my first projects was to write a letter to his wife (also a friend from college) expressing my condolences and offering my prayers. I know this sounds odd, but I feel as though a mailed letter might atone for my lack of communication with them on Facebook.

When I first opened a Facebook account, my main reason to do so was to keep track of my children’s lives. Over time high school friends and college friends began emerging, and it was nice to be in touch. I’ve never been one to share much on Facebook, though—I’m more of a lurker, keeping tabs on other people in my life without reminding them too often of my existence.

The Big Chill was released when my friends and I were in college. We all saw the movie and speculated about the future of our friendships. Some of us were able to return to campus for Homecoming Weekend in the first years after graduation. I remember in particular one uproarious evening in a restaurant when most of the group was there. Over time, though, jobs and families made it harder for the group to assemble. If not for Facebook, by now most of us would be strangers to each other, with a few still making the effort to update one another with a letter at Christmas.

I won’t be able to make it to his funeral. I expect that most of the rest of our college group will also be missing. I feel bad about that absence, but it can’t be helped. Along with memories of past good times, I am also making sure to appreciate the people in my life today—especially the one who almost didn’t make it this far. J.

First Friday Fiction: An Incomplete Stranger

I don’t know why Annabelle Valentine is taking the class on World Religions. What is more, I’m not even sure why Annabelle is taking any class at Tech.

Every Tuesday and Thursday she strolls into the classroom and drops her backpack on the table with a weary sigh. When she speaks about the textbook or about the writing assignments—which isn’t often—she speaks in a tired and bored voice. “Can you believe how long that chapter was?” she asks in general, or, “Is there any chance we’ll get out early today?” She sits in her chair during class, curled with her feet underneath her as if she was in her living room rather than at school. While the instructor talks, she takes no notes. Instead, she twists the ends of her long black hair around her fingers or studies her brightly-painted nails.

Annabelle is not always bored. She talks with animation about recent books and movies. She can discuss Hunger Games at great length and with authority and conviction. She can match music groups to their latest tunes with unerring accuracy, and she can remember who is in tour and when they will be in the area. All these things she can do, but I don’t know why she is in college.

I know why I am in college, and I know why I am studying World Religions. For as long as I can remember, I have needed a good reason for everything I do. Before I signed up for this class, I reminded my parents that all sorts of people shop at the farmers’ market. It helps our sales if one of us knows at least a little about our customers and what they are thinking. If someone shopping at the market should happen to be Hindu or Buddhist, or—God help us!—Muslim, the information I’ve gained about their beliefs and practices can help me to connect with them. There may not be any more Hindus or Buddhists in this city than there are Mennonites, but surely there are some. A little knowledge about their religion, I told my parents, can do me no harm.

My parents and I are Mennonite. We live on a farm about fifteen miles east of the city, where we raise much of our own food and enough extra food to sell to others. Companies like Tyson have taken business away from small farms like ours, but interest in fresh and local food has never entirely disappeared. Lately, such interest has grown.

When I tell people that I am Mennonite, I always must add, “but not Amish.” My parents and I do not go to extremes. We wear clothes with buttons and zippers. We drive cars and trucks. We have electricity and running water. Anything that is useful, we can use. We strive, though, to avoid the empty and useless luxuries of the world. What we do not need, we do not have. We have no television. We have a radio, but we only turn it on when we might be in danger from the weather. The clothes we wear are simple and durable, with no bright or flashy colors. The food we eat is healthy, not laden with sugar or with factory chemicals. We do not dance or play cards or go to movies. My father brews his own beer, mead, and wine.

My parents taught me at home for as long as they felt that they could. Beginning in the seventh grade, I went to public school. I entered school at a difficult time. My fellow students had already made friends with one another. I was an outsider. They quickly noticed that all my clothing is the same. They laughed at me for missing their favorite TV programs and for knowing none of their favorite songs.

After two years, I finally persuaded my father that I need a computer to do my schoolwork. He bought me a desktop computer, but he had a man at the store remove all the games before he brought the computer home. Internet access was only added later after another long discussion and many promises about what I would not do online. Father knows about laptop computers, cell phones, Ipads, and the like, but he sees no use for any of them. “They bring many problems and sorrows, and very little joy,” he says. He grumbles about the cost of the Internet service and about anti-virus protection. “Your computer is a tool, my boy,” he often says. “I would never keep a shovel or a hoe that costs me money to keep up-to-date, or that sometimes fails to dig when I want to dig because of some virus or some program being updated.”

In spite of his protests, Father usually allows me to do anything I can defend to him as a useful activity. I am their only child, so Father and Mother plan that I will take over the farm when they no longer can manage it. Meanwhile, they expect me to prepare myself to be diligent and productive. After another long discussion and a year of waiting, I convinced Father and Mother that a high school diploma is no longer enough in today’s world, even for a farmer. College classes are necessary now. Together the three of us look at the class listings and discuss which classes will be most useful for my education. Nothing frivolous is permitted. Whenever I enroll for a class, I already have found a reason for me to take that class. Whenever I walk into a classroom, I know exactly why I am there.

Perhaps Annabelle needs someone like Mother or Father to question her about why she is in college, forcing her to defend every class she chooses to take. On the first day of class, the instructor had each of us say a little bit about our religious background and to say why we are taking the class. Annabelle said, “My parents used to take me to a Baptist Church, so I guess I’m a Baptist. I guess I signed up for this class because I’m curious about what other people believe.” Father would never allow me to guess about anything, least of all about matters of faith. “Know what you believe,” he says, “or you don’t believe anything at all.”

We have read about and discussed Indigenous Religions, Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, and Zoroastrians. Annabelle seems bored by all of them. Last Tuesday’s class was livelier than the earlier classes. We began discussing the chapter on Judaism. The instructor spent much of the hour summarizing Old Testament history. At least half the students in the class recognize names such as Abraham and Moses and David. Several of us took part in the discussion. The instructor promised that on Thursday we would cover Jewish history from Roman times until the present, as well as Jewish holidays and observances.

As we were packing our books, Annabelle turned around and said to me, “I guess you know your Bible pretty well.”

I was startled. She had never spoken to me before. “I should. I’ve been taught from the Bible all my life,” I stammered.

“You said on the first day that you’re a Mennonite,” she said. I nodded. “I want to learn more about Mennonites,” she commented. “My boyfriend’s a Mennonite.” Then, without even taking a breath, she corrected herself. “He’s not my boyfriend, though—he’s the one that I love.”

Her words rang in my ears as we walked out the doorway. I am sure that I know all the Mennonites for miles around. Could she mean Caleb? Surely not! Caleb has been married for almost a year. Could she mean Frank? Frank would never be interested in someone as worldly as Annabelle, and I find it hard to imagine that she would see anything attractive about him. Every other Mennonite man I can remember is either too old or too young to be her boyfriend, or the one that she loves. She must know some other Mennonite family that I have never met.

We were walking together down the hall, so I asked her, “What do you mean by that expression, ‘not my boyfriend, but the one that you love’?”

“He doesn’t know that I love him,” she answered, and she smiled at me with glowing eyes.

“I see,” I said, although I didn’t understand her at all. I wasn’t sure what question to ask to find out what I wanted to know. I saw that we were near the restrooms. “Excuse me,” I said, and I darted into the men’s room.

“See you on Thursday,” she called after me.

We did not see each other on Thursday. Wednesday night the instructor sent out an email saying that she had fallen ill and would have to cancel Thursday’s class. She told us to keep up our reading and work on our essays, and she would catch up on the lectures when she had regained her health.

The instructor addressed her one email to all the students in the class. I don’t know why, but I skimmed through the addresses to see if I could guess which is Annabelle’s. Undoubtedly hers was the last on the list: ABHeart, then a number, and then @aol.com . My address is even more prosaic: the letter d, then my last name, followed by my zip code, and then @gmail.com .

The week passed slowly. Annabelle’s name came into my head again and again, even though I tried to drive it away. I kept on seeing her face, her eyes, her smile. I did not dream about her, but I woke in the morning thinking about her, just as if she had been in my dreams.

Thursday night I did something I had never done before. I typed the name Annabelle Valentine into Google. Thousands of listings appeared in fifteen hundredths of a second. I added the name of our city to the search. The Annabelle who sits in front of me in World Religions rose to the top of the search. She won awards in high school as a cheerleader. Her grandfather died a year and a half ago. She has a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

I could feel my heart pounding. If Mother or Father should see what I was doing, trouble would follow, as surely as an east wind brings rain. They would not punish me, of course, but they would disapprove, and their disapproval would be worse than any punishment.

Annabelle’s Facebook page does not allow me to see anything about her unless I create an account on Facebook first, which of course is something I must not do. Her Twitter account is just the opposite. I skimmed through the last six weeks of her tweets, merely curious to see what she was saying about her life. Scattered among comments about a wide range of subjects were three tweets that made my heart race. The first read, “A cute boy in religion class. Need 2 find a way 2 talk 2 him.” Two weeks later, she wrote, “Does he know how he stares? A little creepy but strangely instead I’m flattered.” Then, on Tuesday night, “All but told him today I love him. His turn now.”

My head swam. Of course I had thought that she might mean me when she spoke of someone she loves who doesn’t know it. How many Mennonites can she have met? I persuaded myself that I was being vain and worldly to think such a thought. Now that I knew what she meant, I had no idea what to do about that knowledge. If it was my turn now, I had better find out first what sort of game she is playing.

Friday night I was online again, researching for my paper. An incoming email box appeared in the corner of the screen. “Danny, R U there?” I read. The message was from ABHeart.

My mouth was so dry I could not swallow. I thought about ignoring the message, but my parents had taught me never to be rude. “I’m here,” I wrote.

“What R U doing?”

“I’m doing research for school.” I wrote. “And you?”

“Just sitting in my little apartment thinking about U.”

I wasn’t sure what to write next. What are the rules to this game? “I’m not sure Mother and Father would approve,” I typed. As soon as I pressed “send” I grimaced. I could tell that I should have written something else instead.

“Approve of what?”

“A young lady starting a conversation with a complete stranger. That was never done in their day.”

“So do U need Ur parents approval? Haven’t U grown up yet?”

I had made a mistake mentioning Mother and Father. I did not know if I could recover. “I figured you wouldn’t understand. Approval means a lot in my family. ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’ doesn’t come with an expiration date. Not in our way of seeing things.”

“Whatever. I just wanted to schedule an interview with U 4 my paper. I want 2 write about Mennonites.”

“Maybe before or after class on Tuesday.”

“R U busy all weekend?”

“This is short notice for tomorrow. Sunday’s out of the question.”

“OK. Fine. Tues then. BTW, nobody’s perfect.”

“I never said that I was perfect.”

“U did 2. U called Urself a perfect stranger. lol.”

I scrolled through our conversation to check my memory. I remembered correctly.

“Wrong. I said a complete stranger, not a perfect stranger.”

There was a delay, probably while she scrolled too.”

“U win. But make sure U R complete. No pieces missing.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Never forget U told me that. Good night. C U Tues”

“Good night.”

I closed the email before Mother or Father might walk in and see it. I wondered what they would think of Annabelle. I know they would be aghast that she contacted me via the computer. As I told her, in their time young women were not so forward. Perhaps Mother and Father would see Annabelle as another Eve, already tainted by the serpent of the world, now tempting me with its forbidden fruit of idle pursuits and empty pleasures. But I am no Adam. I do not live in a perfect Garden, and there is no one woman created only for me. I am more of an Isaac, surrounded by worldly unbelievers. My Rebekah will have to be found among our own people, no matter how far away she lives. My parents and I have never discussed my future marriage openly. Still, I know their thinking. First I must prove myself on the farm, showing that I am ready to support a family. Then a Rebekah will be found for me.

All weekend I pondered Annabelle and her messages. I thought of her as I fed the chickens, as I gathered the eggs, as I helped Father check the newly-planted crops, as I pulled weeds from Mother’s herb garden, and as I milked our one dairy cow. I confessed to myself that I could not picture Annabelle at my side helping with any of these chores. Nor could I imagine her taking Mother’s place baking bread in the kitchen, sewing and mending our clothes, or leading a group of eight Mennonite women in Bible study and prayer.

As I thought of Annabelle, though, I realized that I could not see myself as an Isaac, waiting for Rebekah to be brought to me. I would rather be like Moses, a “stranger in a strange land,” who found his own bride and married her.

This morning I opened my email and saw that Annabelle had left me a message on Sunday. “Tues after class works for me if it works for U,” she wrote. Then she added, “U do realize that I was messing with you about being in love with a Mennonite, don’t U?”

My answer was deliberately short. “After class is fine. See you tomorrow.” I wanted to write more, but I didn’t dare. I wanted to ask if she was messing with me on Twitter too, or if her tweets were sincere. I wanted to ask if she had changed her mind about me—and if so I wanted to know why. I wanted to tell her that I had been thinking of nothing but her for days. All these things I left unasked and unsaid.

Instead, I am preparing myself mentally for tomorrow’s interview. I want to show Annabelle that I am not incomplete without all her worldly distractions and vanities. I want her to see the strength and dignity of our ways. I have no wish to convert her, for I am convinced she is happier as she is. But I want to open her eyes to another way of living so she can know who I really am.

When the final exam has been given and the World Religions class is over, Annabelle Valentine and I will go our separate ways. She will have learned, I hope, a few things about people whose lives are different from her life. In the future, for her, perhaps strangers like me will not seem so strange. Meanwhile, I have learned something too. Even though it was not in the instructor’s plan and schedule for the class, and it was not among the reasons I gave Mother and Father for me to take the class, I have discovered what I need to make my life complete. The time has come for me to begin talking to strangers.