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.
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Environment, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Mesopotamia, Posts, Travel
Tagged Bible, cuneiform, papyrus, parchment, printing press, printing technology, scrolls, vellum
Those of you who punish yourselves by reading my posts regularly may wonder at how different my last couple of posts have been. “Vacation” in and of itself is sufficient explanation for the out of the ordinary—different time zones, unreliable grammar, a certain dreaminess of topic (this is why we should all take plenty of time off work). In this case, however, there’s more to it. My wife injured herself the night before our early morning flight, and although she’s recovering well, another traveling companion is moribund. My faithful laptop that has traveled the country, indeed, crossed the ocean a hextad of times, died in its sleep on the flight over. I shut it down before climbing aboard the plane, and when I tried to boot up after that, nothing. Not friendly Apple starting tone, no wink from the camera, no sign of life from the screen.
I pulled out my phone as soon as I landed and asked Siri if there was a Genius Bar nearby. I was headed into remote parts, where shotguns are far more common than laptops. I had projects to accomplish in the rainy moments. I had a couple of readers to keep updated. Could the geniuses perform a miracle? Alas, the schedule was unforgiving. I hadn’t made an appointment and even though I’d been pouring money into Apple products while the genius before me was in still in diapers, I was up a proverbial (as well as literal) creek without an Apple. He halfheartedly gave my keyboard some kind of Vulcan finger combination pinch, but the look in his eye was definitely more Klingon.
I remember coming to this remote cabin before cell phones were invented. People were just beginning to whisper about this rumor called the Internet. People still wrote each other letters. And here I am in downtown Spokane, weeping over the dead device in my lap. It had its limits, in any case. I can’t take it into the lake with me. It needs, at its age, never to wander too far from a power outlet. And yet, it holds all my darkest secrets and most enlightened ideas. And my thumbs are too fat for typing on my phone. Looking out over the mist dancing wraith-like across the Saran-Wrap early morning surface of the lake, I see two bald eagles fly by. Surely I wouldn’t have seen them had I been behind the large screen of my departed friend. These are, after all, communications from the very edges of civilization, and technology may not, all things considered, save my soul.
Posted in Consciousness, Environment, Just for Fun, Memoirs
Tagged Apple, Consciousness, death, Genius Bar, laptop, Spokane, vacation, Washington
Mysterium tremendum is the term often applied to numinous experiences. The sense of being in the presence of something both terrifying and compelling. Used to describe theophanies and divine encounters, it can also apply to entirely natural phenomena. As a child I visited Niagara Falls since I had relatives in the region. I would watch the Maid of the Mist with a fascination bordering on paralyzing fear. The boats seemed so small compared to the roaring falls. Surely serious danger was involved. Stories of passengers returning soaked and wind swept from the thundering cataracts only added to the mystery. We were poor, however, and couldn’t afford the thrill.
Many years later I returned with my own child. It was time to make an impression. We boarded the boat and came so close to the Falls that the draw of the numinous was overwhelming. Naked power. This water, were we not safely on a boat, would obliterate us, snuffing our lives with no more effort than it takes to fall from a cliff. A mere human could stand none of it. I was simultaneously humbled and invigorated. This was like touching a source of ineffable vitality. This was no mere boat ride. I was in the presence of something undefined. Distilled force deadly and blessed.
On my flight across the country yesterday, we flew over the Great Lakes. Between Erie and Ontario, we spied Niagara Falls. Navigating by air is usually a matter of inspired guesswork with me, but this was unmistakable. A large river near two Great Lakes, and a large misty curtain of spray, visible even from this altitude. Any remaining doubt was dispelled by the captain’s announcement . Here was one of the wonders of the natural world, tiny and silent from a gods’ eye view. Perspective, it occurred to me, made all the difference. Standing on the rim of that watery canyon, although the river is dammed and reduced, encompasses a sense of awe. Riding the Maid of the Mist close enough to be baptized in this unruly Jordan even more so. From above it was but one among many tiny features of a miniature landscape that had been conquered by an unnatural technology. Which was really real?
Some people are impulse buyers. In fact, retailers count on it. All those last-minute items next to the cash register while you wait your turn to consume—they beckon the unwary. I have to admit to being an impulse book buyer. I have to keep it under control, of course, since books are “durable goods” and last more than a single lifetime, with any luck at all. A few years ago I was in the shop of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was my last day in the city where I’d spent my post-graduate years and I didn’t know when I’d ever be back. What could help me remember this visit? A book, of course. Why I chose Monsters, by Christopher Dell, to mark this particular occasion, I don’t know. I love monsters, yes, but why here? Why now? Why in the last hours I had in my favorite European city? It was a heavy book, hardcover and unyielding in my luggage. I had to have it.
More of an extended essay than a narrative book, Dell’s Monsters begins with a premise that I never tire of contemplating: religions give us our monsters. At least historically, they have. There is an element of the divine as well as the diabolical in the world of monsters. As a student of art, what Dell has put together in this book is a full-color unlikely bestiary. These are the creatures that have haunted our imaginations since people began to draw, and probably before. One exception I would take to Dell’s narrative is that the Bible does have its share of monsters. He mentions Leviathan, Behemoth, and the beast of Revelation, but the Bible is populated with the bizarre and weird. Nebuchadnezzar becomes a monster. Demons caper through the New Testament. The Bible opens with a talking serpent. These may not be the monsters of a robust Medieval imagination, but they are strange creatures in their own rights. We have ghosts as well, and people rising from the dead. Monsters and religion are, it seems, very well acquainted.
The illustrations, of course, are what bring Dell’s book to market. Many classic and, in some cases, relatively unknown creatures populate his pages. They won’t keep you awake at night, for we have grown accustomed to a scientific world where monsters have been banished forever. And yet, we turn to books like Monsters to meet a need that persists into this technological age. About to get on a plane for vacation, I know I will be groped and prodded by a government that wants to know every detail of my body. Sometimes I’ll be forced into the private screening room for more intimate encounters. And for all this I know that William Shatner was on a plane at 20,000 feet when he saw a gremlin on the wing. Like our religions, our monsters never leave us. No matter how bright technology may make our lights.
Posted in Bible, Books, Britannia, Classical Mythology, Just for Fun, Monsters, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged Behemoth, bestiary, Christopher Dell, Edinburgh, Leviathan, Monsters, National Museum of Scotland, Twilight Zone
A story appeared on the BBC recently about “sin free Facebook.” The website, which started in Brazil, is based on the idea that users don’t like having swear words and violence among their friends. According to the story some 600 words are banned from use, making me think that I’m seriously behind the times. With an “amen” button and a keyword of “bless” Facegloria has been growing dramatically. Some 100,000 friends are now on board. Of course, the concept of friends in a religious conceptual context goes back to the Quakers, but they tended not to use computers, if I remember my history correctly. The odd thing, to me, is that on social media you get to select your friends already. If you don’t like what they post, why are you friends?
Sin is going through a resurgence of academic interest these days. One of the features that emerges from all this exploration is that sin is not as clearly defined as we might think it is. Wrong and right. White and black. Things in their proper order. In the biblical world the word “sin” seemed to mean missing what you’d aimed at. From there it grew to cover all kinds of infractions. Today most people think of sin in sexual terms—those things you aren’t allowed to do. Ironically we call other things phrases like “hate crimes” rather than “hate sins.” And crime is supposed to make it worse, since sin is often not illegal. Or if it is illegal, it’s not often brought to the law.
I have a Facebook account, but I have to confess to not looking at it much. My days are busy and although the marketing departments of publishers use Facebook, those of us with editorial roles are seldom encouraged to spend time on it when we could be doing something more valuable. I arrive home so late I don’t even check my email before bed. I guess I haven’t had the time to notice the sin on Facebook. Yes, a few of my friends use what Spock might term “colorful metaphors,” but I seldom feel the need for confession after reading a post or two. My friends, like me, are fallible and many of them are in less-than-ideal circumstances. I really don’t think social media with further restraints would help the situation. Of course, I could use an “amen” button on this blog, I suppose. I think I’d rather have it read “verily,” though.
Posted in Bibliolatry, Current Events, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged BBC, Brazil, Facebook, hate crimes, Mr. Spock, Quakers, sin
Among the most compelling questions raised by consciousness is “where am I from?” Humans are a species of widely traveled individuals and despite the fiction that we all derive from happily married couples, we often end up distant from our relatives. Over time we may forget who they were. Our descendants, however, may be very curious. I have spent some time, over the years, climbing my family tree. It’s endlessly fascinating because you find that the research is about people’s stories, not just who was coupling with whom. Those of us of non-American ancestry who live in America often wonder how we came to be here. Families preserve stories, and sometimes those stories are embellished over time. I’ve spent more than an afternoon or two in county clerks’ offices thumbing through records to try to push things back just one more generation. Who were these people who led to me?
The Mormons, among other aspects of their theology, have contributed greatly to genealogical research. It is an American religion indeed. My family recently gave me a DNA tracing kit, run by ancestry.com, as a gift. Although it wouldn’t answer all the questions about my background, I suspected it would either confirm or deny some of the stories. The results just came in, and, amazingly, family stories were right about on the mark. I’ve always called myself an “American mutt” but it would have been more accurate to say a “northern European mutt.” Mostly Germanic, English, and Irish, I fit into the typical early settler paradigm. There are minor traces in there that I’m not sure I understand, maybe less than one or two percent—some Asian, some African. All of this will take more research. You never really find out who you are. Completely.
Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons
DNA testing is the stuff of science. It isn’t a precise science in that it can’t tell the stories of those ancestors. It takes family tradition to do that. I know that one Irish ancestor stowed away on a ship and she arrived in America not as a paying passenger. I know another branch came as a German engineer and his wife, and that their son opened a bakery. Some of the branches have been here since the Revolutionary War, but they were also germanic—were we Hessians? I haven’t had time to read through all that the Mormons have discovered about me, but I’ve got a pretty good idea that family tradition hasn’t failed me here. While the stories can’t themselves be confirmed by the science, they are not inconsistent with the results. And when it comes to finding out who’s your daddy, the answer really depends on how far back you look.