Two Ghosts

To escape the harsh realities of a fractured career, I turn to celluloid. Lest Hollywood distract me too much, I strictly limit my movie viewing to weekends when I can let down, for a few moments, my constant anxiety. Since my religious antennae are always prickling, I notice implications sometimes in unexpected places. So this weekend’s fare included two ghost stories. Both of them utilize religion to resolve the haunting, but in very different ways. An American Haunting purports to be based on real events involving the putative “Bell witch” of Tennessee. The movie takes many liberties with this scant folktale, including a church condemning a seemingly upstanding member and a Bible being dismembered as the angry spirit attacks the Bell family. In the end, the plot is confused by a revelation of family abuse and the viewer wonders who it is that tears apart Bibles.

The second part of my double-feature was The Screaming Skull, a 1958 horror film that fails to raise a single follicle in fear. Nevertheless, the moody movie does provide the Dies Irae for Stanley Kubrick’s opening theme of The Shining as well as a sense of isolation that would also inform the latter exemplar. The religious element comes in the form of a priest who is a close friend to a clandestine murderer. With the help of a ghostly screaming skull, the priest is the one who eventually solves the murder and rescues the intended victim of our erstwhile protagonist.

Nearly half a century separate these two ghost stories, and the role of religion in them has reversed. In the 1950s the clergy were society’s protectors. Even though Rev. Snow is the only main character who does not actually see the ghost, he is a safe haven for the victims of evil. Fifty years later, it is the church that sets up the haunting of the Bell family by its unyielding laws. The family quotes the Bible at the spirit and the ghost tears the Bible apart. There is no sanctuary here. Films, no doubt, reflect social attitudes. When the foundations have lost their hold, confusion results. Who is to blame for the suffering of Betsy Bell? The movie leaves that up to the viewer. There is no solid Rev. Snow to whiten the sins of this world. Only ghosts remain.

Old Deuteronomy

Last night my family attended a performance of CATS. We can seldom afford shows, or even movies for that matter, but when CATS comes to town it is non-negotiable with my daughter. It is a must-see musical. Anyone who has seen the show knows it is all just for fun with only the thinnest of plots and the most colorful of non-religious characters (they are, after all, cats). T. S. Eliot and Andrew Lloyd Webber, however, were/are solidly C of E, and that orientation comes through in both some of the characters from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and the arrangement of the poems into the lyric of CATS. The basic message of the show is redemption, but the angle that I particularly noticed last night was the mosaic aspect of Old Deuteronomy.

Old Deuteronomy, the patriarch of jellicle cats and father of many of the cats in the junkyard, is a hobbled, old character who assumes the aspect of a law-giver to the younger generation. He has been to the Heavyside Lair and knows the path there. He leads Grizabella to her rebirth with the Everlasting Cat. Even his name suggests his association with the Torah, famously summarized in the book of Deuteronomy. When he is kidnapped (cat-knapped?) his return leads directly to the culmination of the show, the return to Mount Sinai.

No one would claim that CATS contains a profound religious impact, and yet the show conveys an unexpected emotional power. T. S. Eliot was not particularly known for his religious poetry, yet his personal beliefs permeate the children’s poems that form the basis for the show. His Moses is non-judgmental, a cat who was quite frisky in his younger years and who knows the value of a life well lived. A cat that believes in second chances. That simple message kept audiences returning to Broadway to see CATS on its incredibly long run. For those of us whose careers have run aground in mid-course, a Moses more like Old Deuteronomy would be a hopeful religious leader indeed.

Redemption through work

Baal Necessities

Baal has been on my mind lately, despite the limited time I’m able to dedicate to research. You see, Baal and I share a common interest in weather. One of those people whose moods synchronize with the atmosphere, I have always felt what the sky projects. So when a colleague asked me to lecture his class on the Baal Cycle, I felt it was a kind of catharsis after all the gray skies and snow we’ve had this year. Baal, or properly Hadad, was doyen of the skies. In modern perspective it is often difficult to realize that the seasons and climate of ancient Aram were quite distinct from our own. Whatever came from the sky came from Baal.

In the documentation we have on this god, we find him particularly associated with thunder, lightning, and rain. These were more common in the Mediterranean basin than the snows of the higher elevations. It stands to reason, however, that Baal meted out the weather to the denizens of Ugarit, no matter how wet or cold. Even his daughters’ names reflect their meteorological roles. Thunder and lightning may be the most dramatic expressions of divine power, but nothing makes you shiver like a good snow.

It is difficult not to take the weather personally when my long commute days are permeated with ice and snow. Continuing a pattern initiated last spring semester, my lengthy drive to Montclair has been accompanied by snow each class session I’ve been assigned so far this semester. Even the students have begun to notice. One co-ed asked why it always snows when I’m teaching. Meteorologists may have their naturalistic explanations, but somewhere deep down, I’m afraid that Baal has it in for me. It’s time to go and shovel the front steps again.

A Baal's eye-view

Works and Fridays

In rereading Hesiod’s classic Works and Days in preparation for my mythology class, I found the similarities with the Bible to be intriguing. One of the most noteworthy features of biblical wisdom literature is its universality. In a way that many believers find difficult to swallow even today, the wisdom authors accept – perhaps extol – the wisdom of sagacious “heathens.” We live in a world where religions are frequently engaged in building walls the envy of Jericho itself, while parts of the Hebrew Bible invite outsiders to join the party without even converting. Hesiod might have been a grumpy guest, but many of his words would have struck a familiar note with old Ecclesiastes.

Be not deceived – life is hard – so Hesiod tells us. The Greek gods made humanity to fend for itself. Men first and then Pandora to cause endless trouble, like the figure of Lady Foolishness in Proverbs. The misogynistic authors wave their flag in surrender to their passions; life is hard indeed. Instead of complaining (excessively anyway), the writers of wisdom interpret this difficulty as the crowning achievement of the human spirit. The gods made us to struggle, and when we’re up against it, we’re at our best.

Both Hesiod and the Hebrew Bible remind us that gods make the rules and we must obey. The human lot in life acquires an attenuated glory through living by divine standards. We will never shine like them, but we may sometimes outshine them. In the meantime, we must live by their apparently arbitrary rules. Reading the Torah, some of the Bible’s rules seem less-than-necessary to live a decent, honest, and moral life. We are not, however, to question the will of the divine. So it is that Hesiod warns, “don’t piss standing up while facing the sun” (Stanley Lombardo’s translation). Common sense might have added “while facing into a head-wind.” Such is the difference between gods and men.

The Triumph of Baal

“Snow weariness” is no strange phenomenon even to those of us who were reared in the legendary snow belt of Lake Erie. Although Buffalo consistently topped our records, months of deep snow burying all the familiar features of our landscape in northwestern Pennsylvania were regular expectations of winter. Snow weariness generally settled in around March when we longed for green pastures and unstill waters. As an adult in generally snow-deprived New Jersey, the weariness sets in much quicker. Attempting to drive on highways with sneophytes is a challenge; before I had my license I had driven in plenty of snow, otherwise I’d have had to hibernate from December through April of each year. Digging out from New Jersey’s third major snow-plop of January, however, the magic seems to have vanished.

Baal was a god who controlled the weather. Some years back I finished a book (still unpublished) on weather terminology in the Psalms. Many psalms are notable for containing archaic imagery and phrasing, leading some scholars to suggest they might have been new, revised “Canaanite” versions of songs originally dedicated to Baal. Perhaps so. The Psalms frequently note the wonder of weather, even occasionally of the snow. Psalm 147 contains the lines:

16 The one giving snow like the wool,
he scatters hoarfrost like the ashes,
17 throwing his rime like crumbs,
before his cold who will stand?

Originally a paean to Baal? Who knows? It’s just that we’re all shivering down here. And Israelites didn’t have to shovel a path to their cars to turn over reluctant engines to get a modicum of warm air circulating before they actually arrived at work.

Once Israel’s monotheism set in, Yahweh took control of the weather, thank you. Even a glance at the Psalms demonstrates the superiority of Israel’s divine weather-maker. From the view down here, however, it looks like maybe Baal has a few tricks still to play. Would Yahweh ever cause a Bible class to be cancelled because of inclement weather?

Dawn in the new snow Baal

Dog Gone!

Religion is a strange attractor. Maybe not in the exact same sense as in chaos theory, but in reality it brings together mental states so bizarre that science fiction and fantasy writers have a buyer’s choice. Yesterday the New York Daily News reported on a South Carolina woman who hanged and burned a one-year old pit-bull puppy. Why? The bitch had bitten the woman’s Bible. Citing the animal as a “Devil dog,” the southern woman became a vigilante for the Lord. Now she’s being tried on charges of animal cruelty. This story touched me in a number of ways.

With family roots in South Carolina, I can conjure up images of this happening. Having known many, many Fundamentalists, it seems even more plausible. Given the constant barrage of contrary messages descrying the presence of evil in the world, all the sudden any mutt can become Mephistopheles. Begging off the Baskervilles, the demonic hound has a long pedigree in mythical imagination. It is well known that the Bible cites dogs as unclean animals, but it is their charnel character that leads to the development of the full-blooded hellhound. Prior to the Hebrew Bible, in ancient Ugarit dogs had an infernal connection. It isn’t seen clearly, but the association is there. Snatches of the underworldly dog appear long before Cerberus, and last well nigh into the twenty-first century.

Hel and his hound

Unfortunately for the deceased canine, it is a myth. Hellhounds still abound in popular media, everywhere from The Omen to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Dogs, however, were among humanity’s earliest partners in the survival game. From about as early as I can remember, we always had dogs in the house, and nary a demonic encounter. We never put them on trial, even when house-training was in progress and an accident occurred.

The news story reminded me of an episode of Dragnet I saw as a child. A woman was arrested for murder, and Sergeant Friday, in his unflappable voice, told his partner it was because the victim had shot one of her books. In the final fade out, after Bill Gannon asked what book it had been, Friday holds up a Bible with a bullet-hole through it. I was a little confused. Was the woman guilty or was someone shooting a Bible just cause? The episode did not answer the moral dilemma. I can’t even remember the outcome. But in 2011 things haven’t much changed. If he goes to South Carolina McGruff better watch what he takes a bite out of, or it could be lynching time again.

Beside Metallic Waters

My brother recently pointed out the story of Rev. John Van Sloten, a Canadian pastor who has written a book about how he’s come to see the gospel in the songs of Metallica. Yes, Metallica. Even the members of the 1980’s hard rock band found the association a little surprising. It all came about, it seems, through an open mind. The story is narrated in basic form on the Gibson guitar website. Young parishioners at Van Sloten’s church suggested he should listen to Metallica. Perhaps aware of the principally negative conservative Christian reaction to rock in general and hard rock in particular, the pastor says he ignored the advice. Then the minister was presented with Metallica tickets. A divine mix was in the works.

At the concert the pastor had a revelation: the issues wailed against by the band resonate well with the concerns of Christianity. In fact, some of the band’s concerns sound downright prophetic. The concept of prophecy today often revolves around a prediction of future events (à la Harry Potter). Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible far more often concerns social justice, speaking out against the oppressor. Metal bands, from their inception, were vehicles for protest. Disillusionment against a system that perpetuates unfairness either at a governmental or a cosmic level. When I sat down to listen to the lyrics of Black Sabbath for the first time, I was surprised how biblical many of them were (don’t tell Ozzy).

Many religious folks prejudge heavy metal as “satanic” and evil without even listening to it. I have always been struck by how much these groups frequently draw on bleak biblical images. Today we treat biblical characters as paragons of emulation. The Bible does many of its characters no such disservice. Prophets are to be heard, not emulated. We think of Isaiahs or Jeremiahs as pleasant supper guests who happen to have a divine word inside. In the Bible their actions often lead to recriminations, but their uncomfortable message is sound. I grew up in a tradition that discouraged heavy metal, as if something in the music were inherently evil. I applaud Rev. Van Sloten for approaching one of the formative bands of the genre with an open mind. Truth may be found in some very unlikely places.

New Age Present

Okay, so I admit I’m curious. As my “six month” subscription to TAPS Paramagazine continues into its second year, itself somewhat paranormal, I get the feeling that I’m witnessing the birth of a new religion. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that new religions are hardly rare, but this one seems an accidental entry into the field. Now ghosts and religion are natural enough as corollaries. Both involve afterlife concerns and the unknown. Having watched TAPS Paramagazine feature fairies, tarot cards, and zombies, however, I wonder if the distinctions are becoming blurred. In this latest issue (January/February) many of the articles make explicit mention of God. God and ghost in the same breath, with the exception of a particularly holy spirit, is an odd combination, given the biblical injunction against mediums.

Spiritualism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was descried by famous debunkers such as Harry Houdini and accepted by famous intellectuals like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is that liminal area that stays out of the reach of traditional Christianity and Judaism, but strays into the afterlife-prepared psyche. If the dead are out there, they should be able to communicate. Right? And with God’s full approval, so it seems. This latest issue alone suggests that UFOs may be demonic, that clergy may be legitimately interested in ghosts, God may speak through dead children, and that one may become addicted to paranormal investigation. Sounds like a recipe for a New Age mythology. Throwing in light-hearted contributions about the Walking Dead, and suddenly zombies become real as well. Oh, and skunks have a special wisdom.

Traditional Christianity cautions against all of these things (except skunks). When it comes to the supernatural, it claims, there is only one super, supernatural being. The rest are charlatans and wannabes. The Bible certainly does not encourage consorting with ghosts, and yet, in this New Age milieu it is possible to find any remotely spiritual entity touted as proof of reality beyond reality. As Bader, Mencken, and Bader observe in Paranormal America, citizens of this country are inclined to believe. Where does belief lead when there is no pole-star to guide the ship? I sense that we may be steering into uncharted waters. Anyone want to volunteer to be captain? Religions always get to make up their own rules, so feel free to devise your own compass.

Black and White Zombies

One of the sweetest privileges of a school-year weekend is the Saturday afternoon movie. The advent of relatively cheap, boxed sets of old films has opened the realm of many forgotten classics for me. My wife recently purchased one of those 50-movie boxes of classic horror films for me, and I’ve been making my way through it weekend-by-weekend, and occasionally there is a gem among the tailings. Yesterday I saw White Zombie for the first time. Back in the days when Bela Lugosi claimed a faithful following after his trend-setting interpretation of Dracula, he played a voodoo doctor with the power over zombies in this widely panned movie. In these days of the Walking Dead, it may be hard to appreciate that White Zombie was the first full-length film about our undead friends.

With the exception of the always professional Lugosi, the acting in the film received a well-deserved trouncing. Interestingly, the “van Helsing” of the drama, the doctor who overcame the monster, was a missionary. White Zombie is authentically set in Haiti, and it is never made clear whether the undead are really deceased or simply mindless. But the goofy, pipe-smoking missionary is the one who defeats evil at the end of the day. As noted elsewhere on this blog, monsters frequently emerge from the dark realms of religion, and the zombie especially so. Today, however, the zombie is all the scarier for being secular, unaffected by God or human deterrent. Originally it was a case of voodoo versus Christianity.

In what is perhaps an unintentional irony, the character who comes across the most sympathetically in the film, apart from the fetchingly pouting Madge Bellamy, is Murder Legendre (Lugosi). The missionary wins out by dim-witted happenstance, while the character responsible for the actual death of the zombie master is a partially aware zombie fighting against his fate. It may be assigning far too much credit to assert that the film had intentional social commentary, but White Zombie has had an often unrecognized impact on what has today become the symbol of corporate America: the once humble zombie.

A typical zombie

Ghost in the Ark

Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love demonstrates what might happen if all the rules were broken. Slipstream writing is new to me, being a conventional nineteenth-century American writer fan. Nevertheless, I regularly try to stretch my imagination wider than it has previously gone to see how others view the world. The Ghost in Love was quite an adventure into multiple realities. As with all fiction I mention on this blog, however, there is a profound religious dimension to the work. Besides the eponymous ghost of the title, the Angel of Death also makes an appearance in the narrative. Among his early lines is the statement that black-and-white movies are like prayer because it is necessary to work harder to overcome disbelief. This is just before the Angel of Death is stabbed to death.

In an ongoing theme of my own, however, the truly striking element was the use of Noah’s flood yet again. In the fiction I’ve been somewhat randomly reading, the flood story continues to appear at unexpected junctures, underscoring its depth in the human psyche. In this case, a talking dog has to solicit support from other animals to assist the protagonist in fighting off death. Invoking what Carroll terms UPTOC, “universal peace to overcome chaos,” Pilot the dog engages the hidden communication skills of animals that had been first instituted at the flood to get everyone aboard the same ark. In this sly rhetorical use of the theme, Carroll throws light on an aspect of the flood story that might otherwise remain unilluminated: it is a metaphor for universal peace.

Reading the news headlines can be a trying exercise. I fully realize that bad news sells better than good and that what we read in the papers is, like most human activity, a business enterprise. Nevertheless, the truth remains that humanity’s greatest enemy is itself. Peace has never been universal, not at least since Sargon of Akkad began toying with the idea of empire. Great catastrophes cost countless lives, but in those dark moments are glimpses of light: humanity at its most human, caring for others regardless of outlook or creed. Maybe that’s why the flood story recurs so frequently in literature. We’re not all in the same boat, but we are all trapped outside the one vessel that might save us. As we fight against the overwhelming waves, gasping our last breaths, we realize that we all have a lot more in common than we might have ever supposed.

2012 Reconsidered

Maybe I was a little too hasty on the 2012 thing. Back in first grade Mrs. Shaw told us, “one bad one ruins it for everyone.” Nevertheless, I was somewhat content with my educational experience: not too many privileges were revoked over the years. But then things changed. When my wife and I expatriated to Scotland back in ’89, we flew on what had formerly been known as Pan Am flight 103, the route of the airliner that had been blown up over Lockerbie just three months before our international move. Being resident aliens, we had to register with the police in Edinburgh, so at 26 I acquired my first police record. Other than a disputed traffic violation ticket, after returning to the States, I’ve kept a clean record since.

Now I try to volunteer at the local schools. I had been newly elected as PTO president in Wisconsin just before I will dismissed from a position I’d held for some 12 years with nothing but excellent teaching reviews. Paranoia may have begun then. Here in New Jersey, to volunteer to help high school clubs (such as Robotics), you must be fingerprinted. As I made my way to a bio-tech company set up in a back room like a shady fly-by-night business venture, I reflected on how strange this world has become. I was duly fingerprinted and released. Then as I attempted to get back to the highway there was a roadblock with a sign reading “Check Point.” A black-garbed police officer was stopping cars and sending select drivers off to a detention point at the side of the road. I wondered if somehow I’d mistakenly awoken in Kosovo. Was this “the land of the free and the home of the brave”?

Not that I ever felt terribly secure at the best of times, I wonder what has happened to the country I was born in. Freedom now requires groping at airports, random check-points on local roads, and regular “silver alerts” on the highway. It feels like it’s a crime to be born American now. As a kid who was always taught to do what’s right, and who’s tried to live that exacting standard his whole life, the world has come to confound me. Fired for excellent work, fingerprinted for volunteering, felt-up for wanting to fly – the world may well have already ended before 2012 has a chance to get here. Now, what’s that guy doing on the telephone pole outside my window?

Is this now the game of Life?

Vote With Your Faith

Starting off a new administration on the right foot is the goal of many politicians. This was likely the case for Alabama’s new governor Robert Bentley. When he was sworn in on Monday he stated that anyone who was not a Christian was not his brother or sister. Likely the statesman was attempting to garner support among the predominantly Protestant population of this southern state. Instead he received a backlash from various groups complaining that his statement implied that some would be lesser citizens under his tenure. Yesterday he apologized for his remarks. The fact is, however, that the governor was not the origin of the sentiments expressed, but those of the “Bible believing” sects of the south were. This is the kind of language, Biblicalese, that they like to hear: either you’re with us or ag’in’ us.

Religions have much to gain (and lose) by maintaining high standards of separation. Exclusivity, I was told in a class on early Christianity, was what ensured the survival of this sect of Judaism. If anybody could join, then who would want to? Make it exclusive, and there’ll be a line out the door. So it is with political religion. The Bible is not a great unifier – it tends to divide people more than unite them. The real question is: should the way forward be defined by division or unity?

We have ample evidence of how division breeds religious contempt. Since I believe the correct religion, anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong. If they are wrong, my deity does not approve of them the way (generally) he approves of me. And so the story goes. And so the body count climbs. The Bible can be a great unifier, if those who wield it so decide. Venerating a book with multiple points of view, Bible readers may choose which aspect of their Scriptures they want to emphasize. And that little black-covered icon continues to pack a wallop in western culture, so the perspective you choose is backed with immense fire-power. Problem is, sometimes it backfires. The new governor of Alabama is learning this in his first week in office. It would be a lesson well learned by any who attempt to bludgeon others with the Good Book.

'Nuff said.

Winter’s Music

An editorial in this morning’s paper once again raised the question of whether we need a politically correct version of Huckleberry Finn or not. The story led me to recall the origins of rock-and-roll – not that Mark Twain was a rocker, but because I’d recently viewed the first installment of Time-Life’s History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Both Huckleberry Finn and rock-and-roll owe a vast debt of gratitude to African-American culture, and both bear the scars of prejudice. An unfortunate aspect of life is that few people willingly subject themselves to hard labor when they realize an easier lifestyle is available (thus, Brave New World). This has been true since civilization began. With the advent of the Sumerians we begin to read about the slavery of war-captives. Even today, dressed up in fancy clothes, slavery of various degrees continues to persist. The reprehensible treatment especially of Africans for slavery is a heritage that will not easily be overcome. And yet American culture owes much to its African components.

While already in the back of my head, this was once again brought to the front by the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Explodes” episode of the Time-Life series. Now, being a musically deficient individual, I claim nothing particularly insightful here – my wife and daughter are the musically accomplished ones in this household – rock clearly has its roots in the blues and gospel. In the documentary Little Richard explains how rock was often simply music of the black churches transposed to secular clubs. Xenophobic “white” culture of the 1950s felt threatened by this catchy music and sought to disarm it. Calling it “race music” producers had the more popular songs covered by white singers such as Pat Boone. (His cover of “Tutti-Frutti” always makes me smirk.) The real element at work here was the prejudice against the other.

As a youth I recall literally throwing my rock albums in the trash because of a Fundamentalist tract that declared in no uncertain terms that it was the “Devil’s music.” I’d bought those albums with my own hard-earned money, but sacrificed them to save my soul. Little did I know that “Devil” was a code word for “African” in this fundie literature. Otherwise, why was it alright when Pat Boone (of The Cross and the Switchblade fame) sang the same song? Mistrust runs very deeply in monotheistic religions. Even today many branches of Christianity inveigh against the horrors of rock without acknowledging that the music has its roots in the cry for liberation on the part of slaves, as expressed in Christian worship. Civilization will always insist on retaining its slaves. At the very least modern western culture should say “thank you” for the unrequited gift of the musical voice of the twentieth century.

Souper Sensitive

Last night we had minestrone soup for supper. That’s a pretty bold claim for a non-Italian family in New Jersey, but we try our best. This particular recipe called for shaped pasta, and we have an entire cupboard dedicated to that particular starch. In the back of the cubicle my wife found a package of aleph-beth pasta shapes, a novelty for kids, I suppose. Vaguely I recall having purchased it a few years back to try to interest my daughter in learning Hebrew. (It didn’t have that particular result.) Well, pasta is pasta, and just in case it goes bad after the course of a decade, we decided to use it.

As I was spooning some of the soup out, I noticed the letters shin and a final mem in close proximity, bringing to mind ha-shem, “the name.” It then occurred to me that aleph-beth pasta might lead to theological conundrums difficult to swallow. What if one were to end up with a yod, he, waw, and he in the same spoon? Does ineffable also count as inedible? The larger extrapolation then took over; letters are but abstract symbols, only bearing the meaning we decide they bear. Yet extreme devotion is frequently ascribed to certain words in various religious traditions.

A spoonful of trouble

Soup is, by its very nature, chaotic. Spellings could be simply accidental. To eat or not to eat? That was the question. The purchase of the pasta had been with the purest of intentions. Never before had a wheat product put me in such a compromising position. As I slurped up ha-shemp (only in abstract form, along with zucchini and a bit of carrot) I reflected how much religion controls human behavior. While we may consider it a system of beliefs, its real-world applications are far reaching. Sacred texts and pasta all at the same time. It must be that another semester is about to commence.

Epiphany Perception

Our local parks and recreation department has a Christmas tree recycling program. While trees are biodegradable, it always seems crass to me to take such a symbol of joy, hope, and anticipation and have it just thrown in the landfill. The local trees are recycled into mulch, and those who own their homes are free to help themselves to the giant pile of finely chipped pine that smells like the north woods just minutes from Manhattan. The strange part is transporting a dried, outdated tree through town to the drop-off point. Pedestrians and other drivers stare at a car with a tree strapped to the top a few weeks too late for anyone’s holiday. They may find it just a little disorienting: why would someone be taking a dead tree out for a drive? It is not how we’re accustomed to seeing it done.

Perceptions, even if entirely artificial, see us through each day. Some continue to argue that perceptions are indeed reality. When we see something mildly disconcerting, we might ask what is happening. A familiar character in an unfamiliar costume is a trivial sort of dissonance, but it is enough to raise perception to a conscious level. We all know the accepted color scheme, so what (other than bad photoshopping) is going on when the Enterprise crew swaps shirts?

The issue is, however, a serious one. Many of the troubles we experience in society are based on fictitious certitudes. It is a strange human trait that me may not know why we believe something, but of that belief we are dead certain. From an absolute perspective, we have no way to determine which way space is oriented. If we see a globe facing “the wrong way” the dissonance drives us to correct that misperception. North, south, east, and west are relative terms. They are models that we overlay on our universe. Which way that universe actually tilts is anybody’s guess. Freshly hewn pine trees atop cars are common in December. When such things transpire in January, many people, to guess from the stares, believe their world has somehow gone askew.

Which way is really up?