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Interstices

College move-in weekend can be a stressful time. In our particular case it means crossing a couple of state lines and staying in a hotel. Well, I suppose we technically might manage to load, drive, unload, and drive in a day but that seems awfully abrupt. You need time to shop for those supplies that might have run out, wait for roommates to arrive, and spend the last quality time together before facing an empty nest for four months. So we find ourselves in a hotel. It’s the one closest to the university, but it is also the host to some kind of event that draws a lot of people but fails to make internet event calendars. We usually stay at this hotel, and they even emailed us at the start of summer to make reservations early. The clientele this weekend is a cross-section of town and gown. It’s a mixed group. In the hall I see other students about, but there are those here who’ve come for non-academic entertainment, whatever that might be.

The barking started about 6 p.m. I grew up with dogs and most members of my family still have dogs. In fact, evidence points to the dog—the wolf at the time—being the first of the domesticated animals. Before agriculturalists rounded up sheep and goats and cattle, the dog accompanied the hunter-gatherer and both engaged in a win-win scenario. The successful hunt of a large animal left food for both humans and their best friend. Ironically for dog-owning anti-evolutionists, dogs are among the most selectively bred of animals. Looking at a pug, or a maltingese, it’s difficult to conjure up images of the wolf pack. The dog next door, obviously lonely and abandoned, was the small, yippy sort with a high-pitched, insistent bark. It was clear there was more than one in there. And, of course, hotel doors are about the least soundproofed surfaces on the planet. It was like Fifi and company was in the room with us. When I turned in about 10, the barking was still going on, and the front desk said they were trying to locate the guests registered for that room.

What's that shining?

What’s that shining?

I grew up with dogs, and I understand the attachment. I do, however, sometimes wonder about the courtesy of others. Some actions impact other people in direct ways, and sometimes we just don’t think of the consequences. I don’t just mean dogs. Lying awake, listening to distraught pets, I thought of the point of higher education. It is an “industry” in which I have a strong investment. The point of it all is to make our life together on this planet better for everyone. There will always be those who can’t travel without their dogs. There will always be those who have to venture far from home to get the education they want. Can’t there be affordable hotels with doors to dampen the noise just a little bit? Or maybe some of us a just over-sensitive at times like this. Maybe it’s time for me to go back to school to try to figure it all out.

The Fall

“Herr, es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross,” go the opening words of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1902 poem, “Herbsttag.” Autumn day. “Lord,” one might feebly translate, “it is time. The summer was very great.” The English words fail to capture the lyricism of the Teutonic original, but these words have been running through my head since about the middle of August when, standing outside before dawn waiting for the bus, some days, I think a jacket might be nice. Just a light jacket. Something to cover the parts of my arms not protected by a tee-shirt. And I realize, although autumn has always been my favorite time of year, it cannot come without a sense of loss. I’m no summer beach fan. Most of the time when I wander to the ocean it has already taken on its gray fall coat. But still, the passing of summer is sad, always sad.

At the National Watch and Clock Museum, we learn that Galileo, often presented as the antagonist of the church. got his idea for the pendulum from watching church lanterns sway from their chains. Time was passing, but it was “God’s time.” The growing season ends, and the harvest is at hand. Our children head reluctantly back to school after too few months of unstructured time. Time when sleep is abundant and the sunshine lasts long into the night. Adulthood robs us, perhaps, of such finery, but I can still appreciate it from a distance. Were I more mature, I might even say it is of greater significance for being further away. I’m a little too young, however, to have forgotten how summer can make me feel. I adore the autumn, but I miss the sun nevertheless.

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Here in that transition between hot, endless days and the chill release of Halloween, I find myself contemplating the religious nature of time. “If I could save time in a bottle,” Jim Croce wrote, and then his plane crashed on take-off. Time is like that. It promises eternity but gives mere seconds. Apart from the beach bums pining for endless summer, those of us enamored of autumn stand still and reflect on the cusp of seasonal change. Perhaps, like the year itself, this is all a cycle. The face looking back at me from the mirror has more gray hair than I remember growing. And yet the clock on the wall continues to tick. Work will always be waiting there on Monday morning, and the sun can reach quite as high in the sky as it did only last month. “Herr,” I sigh, “es ist Zeit.”

Teaching Vampires

VampireLecturesWhat do you get when you cross German literature, psychology, and the undead? The Vampire Lectures, of course. Laurence A. Rickels, one gets the feeling, must be one interesting guy in the classroom. When I was a student the thought that anyone would take vampires seriously enough to offer college credit to study them was, well, a foreign concept. We all know that there’s no such thing as vampires, or werewolves, or Frankenstein’s monsters, or mummies—wait, mummies are real, but just not animated. In the reigning cultural paradigm, if something’s not real, it’s a waste of time. The human psyche, however, disagrees. The fact is there’s an awful lot of mental baggage that the vampire addresses. So much so that the University of California at Santa Barbara can offer a twenty-six lecture course on the topic. The results are what we have in this unusual book.

Rickels has read widely in the literature of the undead. The vampire’s share of the material goes to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the novel that defined, in many ways, the modern concept of vampires. The lectures do cover earlier and later literary representations, but when movies began to be made, they started with Stoker. One of the most interesting aspects of the lectures is the utter breadth of movies Rickels addresses. Movies that I’d never heard anyone else mention, let alone analyze, are here, alongside the more famous examples. It becomes clear that vampires have been a favorite of film-makers as well as readers. Culturally they are omnipresent. One gets the impression that Rickels might have an inkling of why we have this fascination, although his analysis is often Freudian, he does come back to the concept of mourning. Vampires (who would’ve guessed?) mask our unresolved sense of loss.

The style of The Vampire Lectures reflects the kind of literary criticism that isn’t always easy to follow. The book has more puns per hour than any other academic title I’ve ever read. Perhaps such serious topics as loss, parental relationships, and sexuality require a good dose of humor to make them less overwhelming. Still, the puns show the shifting nature of the ground beneath your feet when you try to take a topic like this seriously. Not surprisingly, Rickels does spent some time reflecting on the religious nature of vampires. There’s no question that monsters trespass on—or maybe even arise from—sacred precincts. They also occupy similar mental spaces. Perhaps it’s no surprise that as the number of nones grows so do the fans of monsterdom. We need an outlet for our surfeit of fear and loss. Come to think of it, perhaps I need to take a class in this as well.

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.

More Blessed to Give

Religions, we are told, are in violent opposition. There’s no denying that sometimes it’s true. It is a sad commentary on belief structures when one way of looking at the world only finds validation in the destruction of other perspectives. Despite all that, religions can, and do, reach beyond their parochial interest to assist others. Recently I mentioned a story in The Christian Century of an Islamic effort to raise funds to rebuild vandalized black churches in the US south. The idea of Muslims helping Christians reestablish their, by nature, heterodox teaching is, I believe, newsworthy. The most recent issue of The Christian Century has a story of a Jewish group in Israel raising funds to help repair a damaged church in the Holy Land. These two stories have made me wonder why we so seldom hear of Christian groups raising funds to help rebuild mosques or synagogues. Surely it must happen, but we, who rely on the mainstream media, so rarely read of Christians helping others that it becomes a surprise when they do. Is this reality or just what we’re taught to see?

Please don’t misunderstand—I’m not suggesting that Christians don’t help others. Indeed, one of the founding principles of the Christian movement was the care of others, be they pagan or orthodox. Still, in my own life I’ve experienced the heartless, cold treatment doled out by “conservative” groups who believe that maintaining their idiosyncratic view is the highest possible mark of faith. Well beyond reaching out a hand to those in need. Far and above the care of fellow human beings. This distortion of any kind of historical Christianity has become what the mainstream media presents as normal. Meanwhile, millions still attend church every week, trying, in some measure, to make the world a better place.

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This isn’t the same, all politics aside, as supporting Israel as a nation. Many Fundamentalist groups do. In fact, they insist that our national budget include aid for Israel. Not because they particularly care about the Jews. In some viewpoints, the end of the world cannot come without Israel regaining a status that some read into obscure Gospel passages and the book of Revelation. This is not the same as donating to rebuild a torched synagogue. It is worlds away from restoring a vandalized mosque. It is naive to suppose that there is one normative Christianity. Historians inform us that such a monolithic entity never has existed. Temples, synagogues, churches, mosques—these are all expressions of the deepest of human longings to find and be in communion with that which is beyond the everyday. Any religion can become radicalized. All, however, also have the potential to look beyond themselves. When they do it is newsworthy indeed.

Time in a Museum

Over the weekend we visited the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. I became aware of the museum during one of my steampunk phases, and since we were running out of summer, it seemed the ideal time to go. I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t anything quite so profound as what we actually found. Time, as we now know, is relative. In fact, up until just two centuries ago, nobody really knew what time it was. Well, maybe those people in Greenwich did, but the average person, even if s/he owned a watch, lived on approximate time. Try telling that to any boss today! The need for people to meet trains at various stations led to the standardization of time in the United States. Now the government declares official time, kept by atomic clocks. You could be a billionth of a second late for work and Uncle Sam would know. What happened to the days of looking for when the sun was directly overhead and guessing from there? Greenwich Mean Time indeed.

Time in inherently religious. For human beings, conscious of its passage, it is a limited commodity. Our concerns for our personal A.D. (“After Death” as the misnomer used to go) have led to religions suggesting that God, or gods, take a special interest in the passing of time. That became clear from the first display in the museum. Hardly a placard existed without some reference to the gods—people knew that time was somehow divine. Not only that, but the passage of time was punctuated by religious observances. Even such things as deciding when to harvest your crops could lead to religious revelations. Besides, time was set in motion by those ageless beings known as gods, and they mandated on-time performance. The ability to influence time was far beyond human capacity, thus deities informed us how to handle it. Into the Medieval period clocks maintained a regular array of religious imagery, reminding the user that this is the ultimate non-renewable resource.

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It was almost overwhelming, being surrounded by so many clocks. I remember being a young man—indeed a little boy—when time seemed to be in infinite supply. Religious observance was always a large part of that pool. Here I stood, a middle-aged man, spending my time pondering time. All the while, it was passing. Time is measured by regularity. Uniformitarianism is the geologic principle that informs us of the age of the earth itself. Beyond that, we’re told, the universe—so long ago—had its own beginning and anything that has a beginning will inevitably have an end. Such sobering thoughts amid the beautiful timepieces that so many spent their lives crafting. Now we only need glance in the corner of our computer monitors, or pull out our phones to glance the time. Taking a bit of it is wise, it seems to me, to explore our fascination with time itself. There is an air of eternity about the very enterprise itself. Well worth a summer’s day when forever is in your rear-view mirror on the way home.

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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