May 23, 2008
Scraping Paint in the Boatyard
As I’ve previously let on, in recent years I’ve become a sailor. And this spring, the time came to haul my thirty-year-old sailboat out of the water, put it “on the hard” (sailor lingo for the dry ground of the boat yard) and repaint the hull.
Here’s the deal: boats kept in the water—particularly saltwater—accumulate marine growth on their hulls. This is bad for the boat. So periodically you need to take the boat out, pressure wash the hull, scrape and sand, and repaint it with a special “bottom” paint that sells for a tidewater prince’s ransom.
This already sounds onerous to non-nautical types. And I haven’t yet (nor will I) divulge how many other things sailors do with their boats while they are “on the hard.” Nor the vast quantities of cash they circulate through the local economy via the open funnel of their marine supply store. But never mind. One evening a fellow sailor was watching me work and commented, “It’s fun, isn’t it?” He wasn’t being facetious. I immediately agreed. It’s hard work, but it’s fun. And it’s hard to explain why.
But maybe it helps to say that this kind of work inspires dreams. The owner of a boat across the yard is refitting his sailboat for a trip to the South Pacific. Others are preparing to head up the Inside Passage to Alaskan waters. As for me and many others, this summer it will probably consist of local trips. But one can—and does—dream of possibilities beyond the horizon.
Now, while I was scraping and sanding and painting and buffing and huffing, I was reminded of something David Hubbard, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary and professor of Old Testament, said in class years ago. I can’t remember the context (it was probably related to wisdom literature), but he told us that he had stopped to talk to one of the seminary maintenance workers who was scraping paint off the side of a building. He said to him, “Ed, you know our jobs are’nt that different. Most of what I do is just scraping paint.” Now, from where I sat, the multi- and immensely talented Hubbard had hung the moon. So this was a striking comment. Was it false modesty?
Well, the longer I’ve lived, the more Hubbard’s comment has resonated with life—and editorial and book-writing life at that! Much of editorial life is just “scraping paint.” This is not a commentary on the quality of the manuscripts. It is to say that there is so much of the routine, same-old-same-old work that needs to be done week in and week out in order to bring a book to publication. This is particularly true of reference books, and “dictionaries” in particular. The work involved in a book that includes one hundred or more contributors, and more independent pieces (articles) than that, is—page for page—exponentially more difficult and time consuming than a single-author work. And there is a lot of “scraping paint” that goes on. At the same time, it is cumulatively interesting and “fun” in a way not easily recognized by outsiders.
There are dreams that envelope this work too. This barky book, when launched, is going to sail into unknown waters of the mind . . . And years later, in some coffee shop or academic conference corridor, you’ll bump into theological sailors who will tell you how it expanded their horizons and took them on intellectual voyages they’d only dreamed of taking.
Perhaps it adds another layer of irony to mention that I’ve been doing this boat work as a breather between sending one dictionary to the printer, turning to complete another, and starting up yet another. No, I do not really understand this behavior any more than you do. But I will say this: when it comes to intellectual voyages of the theological persuasion, the Global Dictionary of Theology (edited by William Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, a tome I'll be blogging on this in days to come), which I’m now preparing for launch, will take you around the theological world like no other barky book I know of.