Category Archives: Just for Fun

Posts that are not intended to be taken too seriously

Monumental Time

One of my nieces works on the 10,000-year clock (aka Clock of the Long Now). I’ve written about the project before—the object is to build a clock that will run a myriad of years. For comparison, 10,000 years ago we were only beginning to tamper with this concept we call civilization. Clocks have been my muse this week. Monumental clocks have long fascinated people. The Engle Clock, in the National Watch and Clock Museum, was completed about 1878. In those days, these large clocks (it literally weighs half a ton) toured the country as technological marvels—something that fails to impress, I suppose, in an iWatch age. Nevertheless, this is a clock with all the whistles and bells—literally. Figures come marching out at various fractions of the hour, culminating with a skeletal death chiming the end of each sixty minutes. The figures are both secular and sacred, a mix that the people of the days just after the Civil War no doubt appreciated.

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At the top of the clock, at quarter to the hour, Jesus appears. Doors above him open and the “three Marys,” including, of course, his mother, come out. Meanwhile the twelve disciples process in front of their Lord, each respectfully turning toward him. The devil appears, shifting from window to window, and one disciple does not turn to greet Jesus. This is Peter who instead turns his back, and immediately, to borrow a Gospel trope, the cock above their heads crows. Finally, as the apostolic procession winds down, the Devil appears last in line. It is all quite elaborate. The clock took Stephen Engle two decades to build—time he would never recover. The religious message, I suspect, was taken much more seriously then than it is now. After all, the clock is a museum piece.

Throughout the museum, references to Christianity abound. Not only Galileo, but many Medieval time-watchers saw God literally in the face of time. Clocks were embossed with religious figures. Hours were kept to remind the faithful to pray. The time, as the New Testament insists, was short. Ironically, we still build monumental clocks. Some are based on the 9-billionth of a second vibration period of cesium, while others are made to last ten millennia. We have secularized time. Now its purpose is mainly to tell us when to go to work. When to wake up to go to work. And when we might eventually leave work. I might enjoy building clocks myself. The fact is, however, I don’t have that kind of time.

Eternal Huckleberries

It began as a quest for immortality. Sometimes, however, you don’t recognize something even when it’s all around you. As an historian of religion, the quest for immortality is a familiar one. Certainly the ancient Egyptians believed they had found the keys, at least for royalty, and most religions haven’t given up trying since then. Some clonal plants have achieved extreme longevity. Since they grow by extending their roots, rather than by sexual reproduction, a single plant can remain alive as long at, at least 8,000 years. The specific plant to which I’m referring is the box huckleberry. I first learned to pick huckleberries for food in the Pacific Northwest. In that part of the country, I’ve learned to identify the plant from a distance and have spent many contented hours picking berries. Time, however, is something always endangered for those of us aware of its passing.

The box huckleberry colony in the Hoverter and Sholl Box Huckleberry Natural Area in Pennsylvania is about 1,300 years old. Summer is waning and my family wanted to see it. Indeed, for this particular colony, development probably destroyed parts of the system and so it has to be preserved. With that strange east-coast worldview, “just over there in Pennsylvania” comes to mean things are closer together in the imagination than they really are. Driving three hours just to see a huckleberry colony became more appealing when we combined it with the idea of visiting the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. Both concepts were obviously related to the theme of time. They aren’t quite as close together as they look on a map. Map, after all, we are told, is not territory. The museum exists in a fixed location marked by a street address, so we went there first. There will be plenty to write about that later. As, ironically, we didn’t allow as much time as we should have for the museum, we had to head out further west and north to find the elusive huckleberry. All we had were the GSP coordinates and the name of a local town.

From the length of the line of cars behind me, the locals preferred to travel faster. Knowing only the relative direction and an approximate mile count, we stumbled upon Huckleberry Road and knew we must be close. Off into the woods we drove. As onetime manic geocachers, we had learned to both trust and distrust a GPS, but there was a trail head out here and a single parking spot. No one else was around. The signed indicated we were in the right place, but where were these ancient huckleberries? The ones we generally harvest grow knee-to-waste high with distinctive leaves. We walked the entire nature trail in frustration. How could a 1,300 year-old plant hide so well? Frustrated, we went back to the start. Fortunately, there were brochures. We found the box huckleberries. Indeed, they had been all along the trail, but we didn’t know what we were seeking. Just a few inches high, they cover the ground like a carpet. A few ripe berries poked through. We were in the presence of an entity that was older than Beowulf. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, this plant had been alive. Without the guide we’d never have realized we were standing in the midst of a kind of immortality.

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Biblically Business

Bibles are business. I recently read that the first book of which Oxford University Press sold a million copies was the Scofield Bible. The Scofield is incredibly resilient to the advancement of scientific thought, and, although large print editions seem to be gaining, it is nevertheless an icon. Conservative Bibles still make good business sense. Still, the Bible originated in a rather more Catholic context. As Christianity was being born, and growing up, there were many sources of information on what it mean to be a member. Initially, being Jewish was a prerequisite. When that was dropped, you would have needed to be able to find an enclave. This wasn’t always the easiest thing to do since Roman emperors sometimes made a quasi-Olympic sport out of killing Christians. Once a church was found and joined, you just participated in the fellowship and listened to the leader. Reading from “Scripture” was likely part of worship services, but the Bible we recognize didn’t exist.

Well, parts of it did. Torah and Prophets were around. The Writings were written. Paul’s letters—several of which are still missing—were still circulating. The Gospels and Revelation would come somewhat later. About the fourth century there was general agreement about which books we meant when the word “Bible” was used. There was some fuzziness around the edges, though. Books like Tobit and Maccabees were accepted by the church, but had never been part of the Jewish canon. Judaism never officially closed its canon, so putting a limit around what would become the “Old Testament” was not as easy as saying it was just the “Jewish Bible.” No books have been added, of course, but nobody bothered to set the list in stone. Now Catholic Bibles, largely because of the counter-Reformation, included the Deutero-Canonical, or Apocryphal books. Protestants soundly rejected them. And Protestants were the champions of personal Bible reading.

About the midpoint of last century, both Roman Catholicism and Judaism began to show a renewed interest in what had largely been a Protestant (and somewhat Teutonic) endeavor: critical study of the Bible. Bibles specifically directed toward these new readerships began to be produced. With metaphorical bells and whistles. The zipper Bible has always intrigued me. I never owned a zipper Bible. Once I had a zipper case, but never a zipper Bible. What was the message here: the word of the Almighty had to be protected? The other day I came across two zipper Bibles with saints’ medals as fobs. One was St. Christopher (who protects travelers) the other was for St. Mary (generally overall saint). These symbols of tradition interact with the more textual tradition that has come to be known as Bible. Religion is seldom monolithic, and even saints can watch over what is hidden by a zipper and regarded as the ultimate truth among those for whom Bibles are business.

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By the Time I Get to Phoenix

I remember when flying involved going to a travel agent, explaining where and when you wanted to go, and how much you could afford. The agent would contact airlines, get you your best price, and you left knowing that you’d just have to show up at the airport maybe half an hour before your flight so you got there before they closed the door. For our vacation trip, my wife used priceline.com. I’ve used it for business travel myself, but when I am going for work, certain strictures apply. For this trip, expense was a major factor. We flew, outbound, to Spokane, Washington via Seattle, on Alaska Airlines. Since our final destination was Spokane (at least for the air portion of the trip), that involved a bit of back-tracking, but, being Alaska Airlines, who could really complain?

In order to make the trip affordable, we flew back on a different airline (I’m still not sure if it was American or U. S. Air; both reference the same entity, apparently) via an alternate route. Whichever airline it was had a hub in Phoenix, so we flew from Spokane to Phoenix before heading back to Newark. I’d visited Phoenix on Routledge business, but I didn’t spend much time in the airport. It became clear from this trip, however, that the Day of the Dead is a big deal for tourists. Given the popularity of Halloween, I suppose that’s not so surprising. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of Day of the Dead merchandise was stunning, considering that these were, for the most part, impulse, carry-on items. Figurines of various sorts comprised the most popular arrays. Skeletons, fully dressed, engaged in many quotidian activities, although deceased.

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Amid the many daily scenes, I spied a last supper tchotchke. Skeleton Jesus and twelve skeleton disciples gathered around a table for a final meal. Maybe just a little too late. While not a theologian, I couldn’t help but wonder about the implications of this. I know little about the Day of the Dead beyond its association with All Souls Day. The last supper is set up in the Gospels as the grounding, in some way, for a divine plan or redemption. In other words, it doesn’t work if the principals are dead. Already jet-lagged and fuzzy-headed, I couldn’t think to take out my wallet. I really can’t afford baubles in any case, yet there was something profound to think about here. For some reason the market will bear much more in an airport than it will in no-fly zones. Still, as I struggled to stay awake all the long way to Newark, I couldn’t help but think that this was an appropriate image to signal the end of a much needed vacation.

Growing Green

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I married into a family of singers, and when we gather at a cabin in the woods, singing breaks out. In the drought-tormented northwest, under an extreme fire ban, there was no campfire, but that doesn’t stop the music. Once campfire songs begin, “Green Grow the Rushes, O,” always appears. I’m no singer, but I spent a couple years as a camp counselor, and many years before that as a youth conference attendee in the United Methodist Church. I know the song by heart. Usually it is now a sign for the adult males to sneak back to the cabin rather than endure the twelve repeating verses. Nevertheless, the question invariably comes up: what do the words mean? We have a couple of lists, here and there, explaining the lyrics, but the fact is the origins and meaning of the carol are obscure. It’s origins appear to be England, but the countdown of twelve verses contain imagery that is Christian, Jewish, and pagan. Over time, many of the verses have, like most oral tradition, undergone corruption. In many respects, it is almost biblical.
While it might be fun to run down all the verses and discuss their potential meaning, that is a task best left to a day when I have my computer working again. With limited internet access and an iPhone from which to post, full-scale exegesis is a daunting task. One aspect of the song, in any case, is clear—it is generally accepted to be a Christian catechetical tool. Repetitive and, especially before adulthood, fun, the song rewards those with strong memories for such obscure phrases as “April rainers,” “symbols at your door,” and “bright shiners,” in the proper order. After the song is over the teaching begins.
I have a book of camp songs from my counseling days, and it suggests a hermeneutic key to the song. My wife studied musicology, and she provided a somewhat more authoritative source. Then, of course, there’s Wikipedia. On some of the verses there is a general consensus, but most are open for debate, with some seeming to point to pagan origins. Tied up with the fact that the song is, in some places, connected with Christmas, this blend of Jewish, pagan, and Christian ideas comes as no surprise. The age and origins of the song are unknown, but it features references to Greek deities, Jewish laws, and Christian miracle stories. Musicologists have had a crack at the song, and surely will examine it again. The strangeness of the lyrics suggest a mystery to explore. Some mysteries are still to be found around the campfires of the north woods on a summer’s night.
  

When You’re Alone

The story is told of how evangelist George Whitefield, on one of his several Atlantic crossings, traded some commodity for a deck of playing cards that he immediately threw overboard. The antipathy to card-playing among some Evangelical groups is, of course, well known.  The idea is that instead of wasting time on trivial pass times, one could be improving one’s soul, growing closer to God than to dissapation. Similar objections were raised to drinking alcohol and going to the theater.  Leisure was a fairly new development as food production became more efficient and trades became specialized and the concept of the work day emerged. The real issue is what you did with your time off.  Here at the cabin, Whitefield might have experienced apoplexy.  Decks of cards are found in profusion, often in use over breakfast and after dinner. I learned to play Solitaire while in high school. Although we were evangelical, we never really had a problem with cards. An abandoned mother with three little boys could hardly come to any other rational decision.  

Solitaire, of which I believed there to be only one canonical version, was the ultimate game for when you were alone.  Nobody was around, and you were bored.  Grab a deck of cards.  Solitaire, as I eventually learned, specifically Klondike, was notoriously difficult to win.  And, in the right circumstances, can be very addictive. Often I’ll marvel at five or six people all sitting at the table playing Solitaire at the same time. As I join them, I wonder–why does it feel so good to win at Solitaire? It is a game with no opponent but chance. Your starting hand often determines your success.  

Why should I care if I can stack all my cards up on the aces? What does that prove? Whom have I beaten? Is it my rage against the gods, or the inherent unfairness of the universe? Repressed aggression against all those many people who’ve underestimated me, or never given me a chance?  Why should this make me happy?  At least with poker, crazy eights, hearts, rummy, or nerts, I have used some skill to win.  Instead I’m here taking on the multiverse itself, wrestling with the divine. I could say more, but there is a deck of cards in front of me, and nobody else is awake yet. I do what anyone would do alone in such circumstances.  

Ancient Tech

I feel like scraping Roman numerals on the wall of my cave with a sharp rock. One for each day I have to spend without my laptop. I’ve been working on this blog, born in this very cabin in which I sit, for six years now. With some exceptions, I’ve posted something new (and, I hope, thoughtful) every day. Even holidays and weekends. Most of those posts have been written on the deceased laptop that’s sitting in my carryon, electronic carrion. This has caused me to stop and consider that the most lasting words—the ones we all quote or at least recognize—tend to come from a far older form of communication technology: the pen and paper. Of course, there are older technologies yet. The Sumerians figured out that clay of the right consistency keeps marks made by a pointed reed pressed into it while it was still damp. Cuneiform writing lasted for millennia as the most advanced technology humanity had devised. The results, however, were bulky, heavy, and fragile. Few could learn the technique. It was an elite skill.

Nobody quotes the Sumerians anymore. Well, maybe the occasional quip from Gilgamesh will work its way to memory, but not much else readily does. The Bible, perhaps the most quoted book of all time, at least in western culture, wasn’t written on clay. By the time the earliest books of the Bible came along, scrolls had been developed. Probably suggesting itself from the way that papyrus naturally rolled up, this early form of paper—indeed, the word “papyrus” gives us our word “paper”—could be marked up with styluses or brushes and ink. Prepared animal skills, or parchment, sometimes called vellum, could also be used, but they were expensive. Pens at this period were sharpened objects dipped into ink, but the most famous words, well, penned by humankind were passed down in that medium. Copied, recopied, memorized. Electricity hadn’t even been discovered yet.

  

Printing presses and their children—typewriters and the consequent qwerty—have led the way since they were invented. Until, however, the 1980s at least, professors would accept only the old fashioned manuscript for papers. Indeed, the medium had given its name to the end result. We still write academic papers, although they are more often published and read electronically. So here I find myself in a cabin on a beautiful lake, surrounded by nature, worried about a communication device that can speak with the stars. There may not be workable clay here—the soil is far too sandy and I don’t have the patience to look up how to make clay on my phone—but there is paper. Pens are scattered everywhere. I am at home in the matrix that has given us the great ideas of humankind.