Without the Cliff Notes

The problem on Wall Street at the end of the housing bubble is that all judgment was cast aside.” -Joe Nocera, the business columnist for The New York Times

 To analyse what had happened for the crises facing these times, all judgment was cast aside, had been cast aside, in the salaries paid to CEOs.  All judgment was cast aside in mergers and acquisitions, and the layoffs in the years before.  All judgment was cast aside in the era of free agents in sports.  Wall Street.  In the age of moral relativism.     


Waterford Wedgwood PLC, the maker of Waterford and Spode, filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday.  Waterford.  Spode.  Bulls in the china shop.  Crashes.  Bankruptcies.  GM and Chrysler did not have much more than 2 months.   


The significance of the moment.  The present.  The clock.  One minute.  A countdown.  A broken people?  What did anyone really know?   


In a world where all risk is unknowable, I have a bachelor of arts degree in history and English, a graduate of Creighton University.  When I was a student there was a philosophy professor’s whose dad was Bob Richards.  When I grew up, Bob Richards’ photo was on the boxes of Wheaties.  General Mills in that day and age never put many other people on the boxes of Wheaties.   General Mills changed that in 1987.  I never took a class from Professor Richards in college.  I only took the prerequisites in philosophy, and like most prerequisites, those classes were not very interesting.  The overview course.  Just the introductions. 


My love of history has exceeded that of literature.  At the time, the English literature courses were for me more of a challenge.   With a retrospective, I am not sure how anyone can read without an understanding history.  In my junior year, I sat In Professor Garcia’s modern literature class next to a basketball star who was as responsible as anyone for getting Eddie Sutton’s team to the Sweet 16 that year.   He was struggling as bad as I was.  (He is now an attorney.)  Struggling with the meaning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Struggling with more than just the meaning of James Joyce’s Ulysses.  The language on all 1264 pages.  Did you need to know Irish history?  What was going on in the Belgian Congo?  Greek Mythology?  Homer’s epics?  World history?  I don’t remember any of Ulysses.  This was tough stuff. 


I had gone to the one of the best college prep schools in these parts, and I had done well enough there.  I had spent a year translating Homer’s Iliad and then the Odyssey.  I did not know then that this was the same Ulysses.  After 4 semesters of college, I thought I knew how to study.  I did not use Cliff Notes.  Somewhere along the way, during that semester, I discovered that the library had literary criticism where I could figure out what the experts saw that I had missed.  I still never used Cliff Notes.   


For the next 18 months, I learned to study and really read on my own.  


And for the next 2 semesters, I avoided professors like Professor Garcia.  And what a mistake.  My last semester, I finally signed up for a class with Lloyd Hubenka.  The word in the dorms was that he was tough.  I was surrounded by kids interested in obtaining a seat in medical school, law school, dental school, and for the most part English lit classes were just a bother.  At the time, Creighton reserved 50% of the seats in their professional school for their degreed undergraduates.  That seemed to affect the atmosphere on campus, as it did on most American campuses.  I was surrounded by kids interested in good grades. 


Lloyd Hubenka was the best college professor I ever had.  He was allegedly a George Bernard Shaw world renowned authority.  How could I have listened to the fear in the dorm?  How could I have missed this guy until the very end?  Avoidance as a response to an unknown fear.  At the end of the semester, I regretted the classes that I had never taken from him.  Those would-be professional students really feared the curve breakers who actually loved to learn.  I had succumbed to fear.  (A finance major who graduated a year before me, told me about 25 years later that I had also missed a presentation by Warren Buffet on campus in the mid-seventies too.  I feel worse about missing more classes by Lloyd Hubenka.)    


Somewhere along the way, a lot like those semester with Dr. Garcia and Dr. Hubenka, I discovered experts saw what I had missed.   Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was about epiphany.  The conflict.  The tension in literature, in life.  This “other way” is what Epiphany means.  In the dark.  Heart of Darkness for all practical purposes was a true story.  Conrad addressed the truth.  All great writers did.  It was why every chapter in the book of life was exciting, and not just the ending. 


What did I really know?  About anything?  Those grades and the fear of falling short motivated a lot of the young.  I had grown up in a great generation but one too much concerned about grades.  And in some ways that same generation was surrounded by an interest in good money, in good china, and in good crystal. 


A college educationFor those who know so little. The search for meaning each day.   Post college.  In the news.  In markets.  In sport.  In the age of moral relativism.  The “unknowable” God who somehow was leading us somewhere.  Unconditionally.  The “other way?”


Today is the Feast of the Epiphany.  Three wisdom-figures whose whole spirituality was based on interpreting those celestial beings, following a single unknown star in a sky that seemed alive.  A lot like investing, a lot like signing up for a class, a lot like going to college, theirs was a search with knowledge of the patterns from the simple to the complex, to an unknown destination.  Three wisdom-figures whose whole spirituality was based on interpreting the movement in the sky, somehow connecting the dots? Guys who seemed to have set out, unconditionally, not held down by conventional thinking, not unlike the connection made by God to Abraham about all the stars in the sky, which one day had affected the entire universe and guys like me.


Wise men, three: Did they represent the three major Abrahamic religions? Did you know that a rabbi, a priest, or an iman would get excommunicated for apostasy if they asked this question? Was it the number three which called the question about the major Abrahmic religions? When over and over GOD humbles us along the way, even if we humble ourselves before God. “As knowledge leads you to a destination and somehow God, in your life….”

And so the crossings. . . and never being the same. What the three wise men, also nomads, seemed to have known, amidst forms of hardship unfathomable, was God manifest. The connection in those stars to Abraham in something like 5500 galaxies, and the connection in the Atonement, in grieving over our lives. Wanting to kill his ONE son — over what he had done or over what he had failed to do. When, on issues of living inheritance, Isaac’s great sin had been not recognizing Abraham’s God? Or not quite wanting the inheritance as it was being presented in this strange blessing on Mount Moriah?

So of these “leaving and coming back” stories, some are known, most are not. Leaving and coming back. Births and deaths and new generations. Like Isaac, born oblivious, to all of the emotions. Like Isaac, oblivious to the suffering that had occurred in Abraham’s life – in the first one hundred years. Oblivious to all the tension and feelings around him. Oblivious to all the movement in the story of nomads or emigrants. About those who left, or those who stayed behind. In the initial public offering, God manifest. To take something so private public. And the involvement of the public power in the story — stopping in to see Herod.

And so the appearance of the outsiders in the Christmas story, in the connection of Atonement to the story of inheritance and birthrights. The outsiders without quite the baggage. The wise men. The learned men. The spiritual awkwardness in the story, with the movement in the sky to reap the dividends of power. Did these three guys remind you of the three men who showed up to Abraham and he ordered Sarah to start preparing a feast?

Dealing with life and death and innocence, the three wise men coming before God, to try and worship God. With gold, frankincense and myrrh somehow connected to the old stories of birthright which came out of the story of the Akedah. In a sense, learning to study for the wise men was really learning how to worship and find the power of the divine. When beginnings are so much related to endings. In the great stories.


Crossings.  And never being the same.  The Heart of Darkness.  The Belgian Congo.  Amidst forms of slavery.  Amidst forms of poverty unfathomable.  Amidst the quest for power.   In my own Illiad and  Odyssey.  When epiphany was all about good undertakings, sound fundamentals over risk-taking in the dark.  With even more mergers and acquisitions, in a quest both for survival with the search for meaning, God manifest.  With some kind of an audience as an essential necessary part, if the story-teller, if God, is “going to influence the consciousness of our times.”  In the crises of these times.  Without the Cliff Notes. 


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