Too Tired or Not too Tired?

An article in the current Discover magazine ponders invisibility. Sight is actually the perception of certain wavelengths of light, and by bending particular wavelengths around an object it can be rendered invisible. There’s nothing really new there, as anyone who’s heard of the Philadelphia Experiment knows. The next step of the quest, however, is to determine if, by sending parallel light rays at manipulated speeds, an event might be rendered invisible. Event in this sense of the word currently denotes an event on a cyclotronic scale, an incredibly miniscule and inconceivably brief occurrence. Since humans are endlessly inventive, the corollary is naturally what might transpire from there as larger events are targeted and rendered clandestine. Could an historic event be lived out in (or engineered into) complete obscurity? It sounds like science fiction, but these questions are being asked in the workaday world in which we live.

Messing with history is related to fooling about with time. Twice every year we attempt to manipulate the standard determined by our sun and human convention to set clocks forward or back to maximize daylight at certain hours. We are rendering times invisible. Every year when I groggily adjust to the new time scale, I grumble about how wasteful it really is. Being one of those people who wakes up before the alarm clock goes off (I had never even heard the alarm on my current clock), twice this week I have found myself startled awake by the foreign beeping next to my head. In disbelief I stare at the 4 a.m. displayed in placid blue digits floating in the dark. Well, changing three time zones the day before setting clocks ahead probably didn’t help, but I wonder why we don’t just leave time alone.

Waiting for the bus in the dark, a silent kind of joy begins to grow as daylight creeps into those murky morning hours. Then we fool about with time and plunge those on the verge of daylight back into the darkness. Just that one hour leaves a nation yawning uncontrollably for a couple of weeks until our bodies adjust to the new schedule. Why can’t we leave time alone? People are never satisfied with time as it is, but since we can’t seem to stop it, perhaps we can render select portions of it invisible. The potential for abuse seems awfully large to me. Let’s put it to a vote. If we are going to make one historical event disappear, I suggest we do it twice annually. And those events would be the insane toying with time by setting our clocks ahead and back. Excuse me, but I feel another yawn coming on.

Stuff and Nonsense

I don’t pretend to know much about politics. Beyond the required social studies classes through which I was channeled as a high school student and as an undergraduate I glimpsed the halls of power and they seemed pretty dirty to me. Not that studying religion was a much better choice, but then, enough Bible-dust in the eyes can obscure any vision. So I see some political pundits claiming that Santorum’s victories in the southern states demonstrate that his conservative platform resonates with the electorate. In their sense of surprise, I wonder why the elephant in the room is generally ignored. No matter how enlightened the modern political scientist may be, the fact is that Mormonism is held to be a “cult” by many evangelical churches. Religion specialists have long made the mistake of dismissing right-wing conservative Christian groups as an aberration, a mirage that will disappear when the coolness of evening settles the turbulent air over the pavement. The Republican primaries should shatter such illusions, but it won’t.

Just an ordinary guy, with his millions

While many of us have been trained to treat all religions as striving after the amorphous other, many others are raised to believe that Mormonism is a danger to society. Not that I agree, but I know from personal experience this is what they teach. I was raised on the tracts and texts that spelled it out in black-and-white claiming Mormonism to be a “cult.” The very word “cult” is eschewed by scholars of religion as a description for non-conventional theologies. As a term it is so 1980’s. Tell that to the electorate. The political pundits, it seems to me—and I may be wrong—underestimate how much people vote with their faith. Over the past twenty years, the Roman Catholic Church has demonstrated itself a champion of conservative causes. It has gone from pariah among the parishes to pontiff of the politicos. When evangelicals can’t stay in the race, it is difficult to distinguish Catholics from Pentecostals. Even scholars of religion should be scratching their heads.

The fact is we simply do not know enough about religion. Media treatment of the field is often dismissive or facile. Meanwhile, it is fueling the political engines that will lead to a showdown of worldviews in November. Maybe the Maya were correct after all. I don’t know much about politics. I’ve studied religion long enough to admit that I know little about it as well. I fear the experts with too many answers. If I turn out my pockets I find they are full of nothing but questions. (And lint.) Religion is what wins elections, yet our universities dismiss its study as juvenile and irrelevant. I read the headlines from the primaries—only a farce like this could make me miss Sarah Palin.

Fun with Dick and Jane

Occasionally somebody will ask me what the purpose of this blog is. I’ve read enough blogs myself to admit the question itself puzzles me. Those of us who are driven to write (and I know some of my readers can verify this—I’ve been a writer all my life, no matter what my job) are all Pontius Pilate. The reference is in the Bible, if you are unfamiliar with the allusion. Anyone uncomfortable with ambiguity will not find much satisfaction here. Our society likes to believe the truth comes in two shades only—black and white. Our society really should get out more. Even “black-and-white” pictures are actually shades of gray. Some people believe we should stick to our assigned roles, but a person is larger than the job society will allow her or him. Religions have often called this embiggening a “soul,” others have recognized it as “personhood.” No matter what you call it, an individual defined only by their job is mere shadow-play.

Back when I was teaching I always told my students that we are taught to read so early that we soon do it unconsciously. Yet, somewhere below the surface we know different materials hold different reading requirements. It is my sincere hope that the Constitution is not read with the same expectation as the sports page. For those who are willing, however, profundity can even be read in road signs. Reading is a two-way street: we bring to it nearly as much, if not more than, we take away. Truths may be out there, but no one down here can lay claim to their totality. If such were the case, there would be no need of elections, or more than one publisher. Bibles, properly speaking, have no covers.

Writing is an end in and of itself. Those few untrammeled moments of each day when the demands of work or responsibility lessen their grip just a bit, and the universe seems to welcome your thoughts. My experience of life from rather humble family circumstances has been that those better off like to tell you what to do. I have never been a boss, nor do I ever really want to be. My dreams are more vapid, vacuous, and vivacious. In my writing I can actually have fun. After I lost my long-term teaching post a career counselor told me that I had to separate myself from my job. Every day there are those who try to undo that sage advice. A blog is nothing more than a tall ship and a star to steer her by. If you can figure out what that means, please let me know.

Tattered Dreams

If I sometimes wax rhapsodic about Bruce Springsteen, it is partially because the world is sorely in need of believable prophets. I’m not the only one to notice this phenomenon. Writers on American culture and religion frequently cite Bruce, and his message has been called everything from a prayer to a gospel. The fact is he, like the best of prophets, is one of us. To those of us who grew up in working class families, Bruce seems like the torchbearer who encourages us to keep going. We may end up still in the darkness, but we’ll be a little closer to the light. Sunday’s paper has a review of Bruce’s latest concert tour kickoff, and there is some sadness there at those who’ve been lost. Although I haven’t yet had time to listen to Wrecking Ball, I did read the tribute to Clarence Clemons in the liner notes. It reads like a secular liturgy.

The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people,” or some such concept. And that is what Springsteen has always projected, the honor, the angst of the working class. There is trouble in paradise, from Cadillac Ranch down Thunder Road to My Hometown. Through it all, despair is always tinged with hope in, for lack of a better word, resurrection. In times when many artists focus on the escape, Bruce reminds us that hardship is real. Escape may be a possibility but even Born to Run still ends in New Jersey. Unlike many, the Boss is not willing to give up on this humble state. Perhaps the most diverse mix of people in the country, New Jersey is the American dream, scars and all.

Although his music has brought him fame and wealth, Bruce has not forgotten whence he came. Social inequality has been highlighted throughout his oeuvre, from the late 70’s on, and guess what? We’re still there. Like children of alcoholic parents we’ve grown used to promises being made that will never be kept. After reading what contenders for the presidency are saying, I cower, shivering with fear. I’ve never been one to believe a good beating is the way to solve anything. How is it possible that we’ve come so far only to have left so many behind? The American dream is indeed tattered, a mirage thrown to those slowly dying of thirst. If we’re going to make it through difficult times, we’re going to have to do it together. I guess that’s why I keep coming back to Bruce. In a world where lies are the coin of the realm, the words of true value can still be found, even in New Jersey.

Sheep, Goats, and Preferred Customers

The American dream, at least for many idealists, includes a classless society. Class has less to do with individual wealth than it does with a sense of entitlement or importance. During an election year we hear politicians advocating such utopian ideals, at least until they get into office. When is the last time you’ve seen a politician flying coach? I have had to fly quite a lot lately, and nothing underscores the rampant sense of self-importance as flying. First class passengers are pampered and fussed over while those of us of more humble means—or who work for more frugal companies—are treated with such condescension that Amtrak actually starts to look pretty good. Nowhere is this more evident than the mythical construct of “boarding lanes.” Anyone who has flown knows that, like in death, we all have to pass through that same narrow jet-way to get to our destination. There is one door and we all walk through it—even the flight crew. I’ve flown several airlines that now offer preferred customers the dubious advantage of boarding the plane through some kind of special “lane” that is in reality a ratty looking carpet that reinforces that some passengers are more equal than others.

Even religions that began as egalitarian enterprises soon constructed their own stratified societies. When’s the last time a bishop came calling, or even deigned to look your way? It’s not leadership that is at issue here, but the sense of superiority that comes with it. Can someone lead without the need of putting others in their place first? I have known some wealthy people, and occasionally met some very wealthy people, who have laid aside pretension and confessed that they were lucky enough to get a good deal. Such people, it seems, are rare. The fact is that hard work sometimes only leads to backaches and headaches, not personal advancement. And yet we literally roll out the red carpet for those who want to board first. If the plane goes down, we all go down together.

I realize that airline gimmicks are merely strategies to get some people to pay more for basically the same services as those in economy class. Oh, maybe your first class meal is complimentary, but it is still airline food. The pressurized cabin air we breathe we breathe in common, even with a thin curtain between us. Some of us have thinner wallets than others, and perhaps even thinner skin. But still we can dream. Looking down on the towns and cities of this great egalitarian experiment from 40,000 feet, everyone looks pretty small. Rich and poor alike are so tiny that you can’t even see one single individual even if you tried. That is the metaphor that perhaps sums up best the experience of flying. My sole has never touched the special carpet of privilege, I am frisked and prodded by strangers while first class customers are above suspicion, and I hear very wealthy men braying why I should elect them to lead this classless society. Time for a reality check. Step this way, sir, and spread your feet a little further. This will only take a minute.

Who's who?

Sh*t Apes Say

Knowing from experience that when I stay alone in a hotel, despite my best intentions, I will get bored and end up watching Mudcats or Dual Survival until my brain feels like a boiled egg, I anticipated my trip to California. I packed Planet of the Apes, the original and best of the lot, hoping for some intellectual stimulation. Having grown up in an anti-evolution household, we were curiously allowed to watch Planet of the Apes, a kind of forbidden zone of the mind. It remains one of my favorite movies of all time. It is also a manifesto of science besieged by religion. Note what Dr. Zaius says, “There is no contradiction between faith and science… true science!” And he is the Minister of Science, and Chief Defender of the Faith. The trial of George Taylor, a thinly disguised parody of the Scopes Trial, has Honorious (read William Jennings Bryan) stating, “It is based on our first article of faith: that the almighty created the ape in his image, that he gave him a soul and a mind, the he set him apart from the beasts of the jungle and made him lord of the planet,” and turning on his fellow apes Zira and Cornelius, he accuses them of being “perverted scientists who advance an insidious theory called evolution!”

Dr. Zira, as one of these “perverted scientists,” asks Cornelius (incidentally, the name of the first non-Jewish Christian, according to Acts), “How can scientific truth be heresy?” This is echoed by Dr. Zaius in the trial where he states, “It is scientific heresy that is being tried here.” Indeed, the entire simian culture is based on the blurring and blending of science and religion. Throughout the film various characters make barbed statements about the human propensity to ignore the obvious. Landon, challenging Taylor about the time change they experienced in space, says—in a line that could come straight from Answers in Genesis—“Prove it! It’s still just a theory.” The exact rhetoric currently used by creationists in school board meetings around the country. To which the most apt reply seems to come from Dr. Zaius, speaking of humanity: “his wisdom must walk hand-in-hand with his idiocy.”

Occasionally even the gun-toting humans get the picture clear. In his opening monologue George Taylor wonders about the world seven hundred years from now, “Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely. That’s about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?” This seems to be the true measure of heresy—a religion that puts fellow humans on the same level as animals (and even animals deserve far more credit than we are willing to give). Among my favorite lines is Cornelius’ response to Taylor shaving his beard; “Somehow it makes you look less intelligent,” he opines. Endlessly remade, Planet of the Apes is a movie that still answers some of the issues that plague our society nearly half a century later. Perhaps the last line should go to the apes, adjusted of course, for gender sensitivity, “[hu]man[ity] has no understanding.” Well said, Dr. Zaius, well said.

A piece of childhood

Dreadful Dander

When it first appeared, mash-up literature seemed strangely novel for such a derivative art form. I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with some amusement, but a nagging suspicion kept asking if I was being fair to the genius of Jane Austen. At the same time, I like zombies. A lot. I decided to give the genre another try with Coleridge Cook’s mash-up of Franz Kafka’s classic, The Metamorphosis. During a long, late-evening flight from Los Angeles to New York, I finished The Meowmorphosis with a sense of dread. Instead of seeming funny, the idea of trying to make light of Kafka’s profundity felt like a devaluation to the classics of existentialist writers. Nobody writes like Kafka, Camus, and Durrenmatt any more. These are writers who welcomed me to an adulthood that seldom makes sense, but which is often generous with pain and angst.

The story of The Metamorphosis is well known. In the Meowmorphosis, obviously, Gregor Samsa is transformed into a kitten and is thrown into the same dilemma. The book takes a detour into Kafka’s The Trial along the way, and my memory of The Castle is rusty enough that I may have missed if it was referenced as well. Kafka’s work passes over from the entertaining to the profound. Perhaps that is the mark of classic writers—they seldom make a career of their literary efforts, for most people who read do so for entertainment. The Metamorphosis is not easy going. Perhaps that’s why I reacted so viscerally to Kafka’s truly horrendous bug being presented as a fluffy kitten. The idea is funny, but Kafka seldom smiles.

My reaction shed some light on the concept of sacred writing. Historically, the first book to receive that accolade seems to have been the Bible. Specifically, the Torah. There are sacred writings older, I know, but the reception is what makes a book sacred, not its words. Anyone who has read the Bible knows that it is a mixed bag of profundity, tedious lists, and literary beauty. Even Fundamentalists seldom quote 1 Chronicles 1-9 with the same ardor as Genesis 1-11. It is our reception of texts that make them sacred. Perhaps Christianity was premature with its insistence on closing the canon. Some of the best literature, the most inspirational words ever to be penned, lay centuries in the future. Our world would likely be a better place if sacred texts continued to keep their borders open and would admit texts that had passed the test of time. In any honest Bible including the twentieth century, The Metamorphosis would find a place. What a world it could be.

California State of Mind

California, it is sometimes said, is a state of mind. I leave today after a few days in Santa Barbara with a bag of mixed impressions of one of our nations great schools. My first impression on the University of California Santa Barbara campus was almost a physical one. Literally. I had no idea of the bicycle culture and nearly stepped into a bike lane with the flow of a New Jersey storm drain during a Nor’easter. California is a culture of wheels. I’d never been to a campus before that has four traffic lanes for non-motorized travel: two bike lanes going opposite directions, a skateboard lane, and the humble pedestrian walkway. There are so many skateboards here that the counter-culture has become conformist. Sorry, Bart, it’s true. And concern for the environment is palpable. Reclaimed rainwater feeds the lush plant life, every possible recycled item is sorted and sent to the correct facility, students bicycle instead of drive, smart cars are very evident for the two-wheel impaired, and almost nobody smokes. And as I ate my supper alone in the student union two separate groups of Christian students were having very vocal conversations about their faith. Free spirits not realizing that they’re trapped.

One conversation with a Native American specialist stayed with me. She spoke of how missionary work has damaged indigenous cultures irreparably. I listened in fascination as she told me about the local history. How an historic Spanish mission was publicly adorned with the skull of a murdered Native American and how it took years of persuading to get them to take it down, even in the late twentieth century. Across campus students are praying to Jesus for the courage to continue witnessing. In Newark, I suspect, a couple of guys are still laughing.

On a brief respite from my busy day of meetings, I walked the Lagoon (sorry, I can never see or say that word without thinking of Gilligan’s Island) Trail. Emphasizing the environmental features of this wetland habitat, the trail leads down to the ocean where flocks of pelicans and egrets fly overhead, unperturbed on the shores of the vast Pacific. In 1969 what had been to date the worst US waters oil spill took place from Platform A, still visible in the distance from the beach. My thoughts turn from Gilligan’s Island to Deepwater Horizon. My laughter to tears. The Lagoon Trail winds through the headland to a labyrinth. In today’s resurgence of interest in the labyrinth, it is viewed as a spiritual journey. Labyrinths appear in churches as early as the Roman Empire, but nobody knows what they mean. I silently stand beside the maze. What does it mean? Platform A leers from the ocean. Christian undergrads look to convert the world. And under the cross is not the skull of Adam, but that of an anonymous Native American. What does it mean?

Tortured Gospel

Tornadoes? I don't see any tornadoes.

It is a little difficult to force yourself to think of tornadoes when you’re in sunny California. On my flight into Santa Barbara I could see the tail end of the gray whale migration from a few thousand feet in the air. Outside the tiny municipal airport (with its full-body scanner) I see palm trees swaying in the wind. The air smells like flowers. Life is too easy in California for me ever to live here. I need more angst in my diet. I can’t come to the sunny coast, however, without the Eagle’s “Hotel California” replaying endlessly in my head. It was the running joke at Nashotah House that the real Hotel California was located in the woods just outside Delafield, Wisconsin. The haunting lyrics by Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey managed to capture the witch’s brew of mind control, humiliation, and desire that laced that little, gothic seminary in the woods. Yet even sitting in California with its full greenery in March, I see that Pat Robertson is blaming the devastation of the recent tornadoes on lack of prayer.

Blaming the victim is a classic fascist technique, and it is very easy to proclaim one’s own righteousness when not in harm’s way. Herein lies the darkest sin of the self-justified; they think themselves specially blessed and therefore not responsible to help the victims. While flying over the Santa Ynez Mountains, seeing the smoke from California wildfires climbing like the terminal flames of Babylon, I could hear a voice like a choir of fascists singing, “Alleluia And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.” Schadenfreude fuels too much of the evangelical worldview. According the Gospel writers, when Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem, he wept. WWJD, Rev. Robertson?

Tornadoes look so much like divine judgment that it is almost understandable how a naïve believer might see them as coming from God. We, however, are the gods destroying our own planet with the accompanying degradation of the weather. Neo-cons deny the fact of global warming. It is not a myth or a theory, there is inconvertible proof that it is happening. Still, it is more convenient to blame God. After all, chances of him showing up to deny false charges, as history repeatedly shows, are very slim. Ask any innocent woman tied to a stake in Medieval Europe accused of being a witch. Apparently the divine calendar is too full to worry about the troubles of hundreds of thousands, or even a few millions who are falsely accused. Why not send some terror from the sky? It is hard to think of such things in sunny California. Yet as the “good news” of the televangelists spreads to the ends of the earth, even those forever in the sun will need to stand in judgment before a very capricious deity.

Real Hope

I’m doing something I seldom undertake: posting a second blog entry on a single day. Well, I’m in California and my time scale is all out of whack anyway; who’s to say what time it really is? Last night (or was it afternoon?) I checked into my hotel to find a message from Una McGurk, the colleague of Trina Paulus and coordinator of the Hope for the Flowers Kickstarter campaign. I mentioned Trina Paulus’ Hope for the Flowers in a recent post, as a way of summing up some thoughts on resurrection and societal change. I am a die-hard idealist, often to my own detriment, and I didn’t really elaborate on just how important a book Hope for the Flowers is. In all seriousness, it is a transformative book for those receptive enough to read it with an open mind. Sometimes we’re inclined to think that books that look as if written for children can’t have anything adult to say. We are so wrong.

In keeping with the spirit of the book, Trina Paulus and Una McGurk are attempting to raise funding to produce an independent animated version of the story. Since movies and books dominate my post topics, this is a cause I find worthy of support. A bit of a spoiler alert here—if you haven’t read the book, or if you simply need to be reminded, Stripe and Yellow are caterpillars in love. Stripe, however, is drawn to the world of what all other caterpillars do—climb. Forsaking his love, he climbs to the top of one of the countless caterpillar pillars in the world only to find that those at the top get there by throwing others off. The top of the pillar is empty. Nothing is there except the hollow feeling of having beat others to the pinnacle. Still, above the pillar, butterflies soar.

It is a simple story, but the message is profound. And necessary. Looking at the progress of corporate greed and heartless acts of personal promotion, it is difficult not to call Trina Paulus a prophet. In a day when Christianity is identified primarily with draconian restrictions on what “true believers” cannot do, I think we could all use a few more butterflies. Chances are, if you are reading this blog, you have some sympathy for the human race. If you do, visit the Hope for the Flowers website and consider pledging a donation, no matter how small, to spread this message further afield. Not only the flowers, but also the very survival of humanity could well depend on it.

A California caterpillar says yes!

Religion Undisclosed

I’m getting to be a pat-down connoisseur. In Raleigh-Durham it was a more intimate affair with Mr. TSA—I don’t even have his name or number—narrating the intimate details. “I will move my hands up your thigh until I encounter ‘resistance,’” he said. At Newark the pat-down was quicker, more business-like, almost as if Mr. TSA were embarrassed. In Raleigh-Durham, nobody batted a lash when I said full-body scanners were against my religion. At Newark, they laughed. The gate attendants began asking me what my religion is. Private. My religion is as private as my “resistance.” And I was being ridiculed for it. This is the Patriot Act vision of America. Regular readers of this blog know that I have never revealed my religious convictions. They are a very private matter with me, and I had supposed that I’d been born in a nation where that was respected. Instead, I am laughed at.

We extend religious liberty to those who wish to handle rattlesnakes. To men who wear black dresses and have an historic penchant for young boys. To people who believe the world was created in six days. To people who believe golden tablets only seen by one man through rose-colored glasses are the basis for sacred scriptures. To the traveler who believes in the integrity of the human body and cannot divorce it from the respect and dignity of human modesty, this does not apply. Religions arm military forces. Religions rape women. Religions murder children as well as adults. Who’s laughing at them?

I wonder if I might have a legal case here. When has the free practice of my religion—which decrees that full-body scanners are immoral—been opened to public scorn? And don’t tell me it’s the price of security. I walked through “security” with my eyes open; first class passengers do not get scanned like hoi polloi. It’s not a matter of security—it’s about control and money. When will the people take back control of their own country from officials inebriated with power? I feel no safer with a stranger’s latex-gloved hand on my resistance. I feel no safer when people who couldn’t cut college get jobs in the US government and look at their fellow citizens naked. You’ll blank out my face? That makes it even worse. If someone’s going to violate my dignity I want him to look me in the eye and realize that it’s a human being he’s humiliating, not just a hunk of meat. Or in the language of the TSA, mere resistance.

First, show me yours

I Pledge Allegiance

It would only be with the most tentative and hesitant of reservations that a person might call her or himself an intellectual. The denotation carries with it such possibilities and potentialities of arrogance that even being seen reading Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in public could be cause for considerable timidity. The end result, however, is so rewarding that it is worth the risk. Seldom have I read a single book that explained so much of what continues to define our society. As an historian, Hofstadter was acutely aware of American self-perception—so much so that it seems foolhardy to distrust him. Although the book was published in 1962, it seems as though the five decades of my life haven’t had time to transpire—things are shockingly similar to the myth of the 1950s that still drives the Religious Right. Hofstadter could be lurking in the corner with his pen even now. I turned to this book because I had grown weary of having felt set upon by a society I have only ever wanted to improve. In tracing the roots of anti-intellectualism Hofstadter clearly demonstrates that the distrust is felt on both sides of the divide. Having not had the dubious benefits of an affluent rearing, I simply followed where my limited talents led. What future is there for a poor boy who likes to read and write? My earliest and most honest aspirations were to become a janitor. At least in that job you can see the filth being scrubbed away.

Expecting an objective historical account of intellectual history, I was surprised to discover that the first section of the book dealt with the privileged place of evangelicalism in early America. I’m not so obtuse as to have overlooked the obvious mockery that the intellect receives so freely from the coffers of Christendom; one need only glimpse the headlines or listen to street-corner evangelists for a fraction of a minute to learn that. I had supposed that my limited experience had made me naïve in assuming religion stonewalls free inquiry. The problem, it seems, is endemic. Those who would suggest that brains are actually meant to be taken out of the box and played with incur the wrath of the almighty.

Hofstadter resisted keeping the gaze too long upon the faithful, for there are clearly other forces at work. The rugged, self-made individualism of a nation that consisted of frontier until comparatively recent times also plays into this suspicion against the self-proclaimed sages. We have all had the displeasure of knowing the self-impressed, and their sticky indulgence in immodesty clings to many who simply can’t turn off the motor in their heads. Instead of walking away from the book feeling justified, I instead felt reflective. My own perceptions have led me down the path of trusting the guidance of the soul (whatever it may be), but the perceptions of others raised in different circumstances lead to materialistic assumptions, or the hunger for power. Deep down inside, though, I know that I shifted perceptions by the slow, steady influence of education. There is no unlearning that. And education has brought us this far. And a little intemperance in appreciating intellectual life may be the most venial of sins.

Book Me

I’m a reader by nature. I grew up, however, with television. I recall somewhat precisely when reading really grabbed me. Starting in fifth grade I began to stash cheap books in an old duffle bag in the room I shared with my brother. We lived in humble circumstances and bookshelves were a luxury, but I kept my precious books together so that I could always find the one I wanted. Eventually I upgraded to a suitcase made out of what appeared to be cardboard. This fascination with books would stay with me my entire life. So would the television side of my education. When I wasn’t watching cheesy B movies or World Federation Wrestling, I was watching documentaries. A few weeks ago, I posted about a documentary site on the web, and I have discovered another site as well, Documentaryz.

One of the benefits of the web is the access to free information. I regret not having the time to watch all the quality material that can be found with a bit of poking around. Documentaryz has several categories of shows available including, as befits this blog, religion titles. The documentary has clearly become an art form as well as a source of information. The problem with the web, however, is so little material is peer reviewed. I can imagine a better world where political speeches and sermons would have to stand before a board of peers to justify their often phantasmagorical claims. A world where someone can make no claims to special knowledge because an old man laid hands on his head or because he has too much money and wishes to run other people’s lives.

So it is that I come back to my books. On the bus, or in the airport, or train station, I often feel hopelessly outmoded as I sit among people with beeping, chirping, or rhythm-and-blues spewing devices. I sit holding a book. It’s bulky, and sometimes requires both hands to keep open. It doesn’t make any noise. I am the librarian of public transit. Sometimes well-wishers suggest that I might cull the herd a bit, get rid of some of the books I’ve spent a lifetime gathering. I think back to a little kid in a stuffy room with a duffle full of paperbacks and I realize that books are a lifestyle choice. They are a part of me. As much as I enjoy watching documentaries, I begin and end my day with books. It may be a parody or some bizarre irony, but the only room in our apartment without books is the bathroom. They are not the waste products, but the stuff of life itself.

Hope for the Flowers

Resurrection can become a tired trope, but it is the stuff of both religion and science. Last week it was reported that Russian scientists revivified a plant frozen on the tundra 30,000 years ago. Quite apart from proving that Siberia was already in place 24,000 years before God got around to creating the planet, this amazing feat teaches us lessons about life and its resilience, and also of the possibilities beyond the great pale. The scientists regrew the plant without the benefit of using seeds, making this a kind of virgin birth of the florid kind. Using plant versions of stem cells (the kind of science forbidden in the USA: “won’t somebody think of the seedlings!”), the dead plant was rejuvenated and is alive and healthy in a world vastly different than the mammoth-infested, frosty plains of northern Russia where it first saw daylight. Still, that environment was less hostile to science than the Religious Right. This resurrection shows that we don’t need miracles to bring inert matter back from the dead. No doubt there are covert Creationists trying to sneak into Russia with travel-sized bottles of Roundup in their carry-on bags.

Science has brought us to incredible places by its continued, self-critical process. Religion, preferring no critique, has given us characters like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Rick Santorum. And a really big book. Looking at the religious scene today it is difficult to believe that religions began as exercises in optimism—the world could be better if only we’d progress. Regress now characterizes the religion in the public eye—men (occasionally women) claiming that things were better when we were tilting with mammoths than they are now with people advocating equality for people of other genders, races, and sexual orientations. Science represents our progress, and the vocal theocrats claim we should be going backward. Back to when men were measured by the size of their spears.

Back when I was a teenager I discovered the book Hope for the Flowers, by Trina Paulus. Not really a graphic novel, and not really a children’s book, it tells the story of two caterpillars with the courage to reject the constant, heartless climbing so often required by the world. In the end, of course, they become butterflies. The story has a religious subtext, naturally, but it was for a religion that believed butterflies should be valued rather than smashed between the pages of a heavy Bible. Butterflies bring the pollen that allows flowers to thrive. We live in a world where butterflies have become soft and defenseless while religion is aggressive and offensive. Science has shown us the way to bring flowers back from the grave, but old-time religion is waiting in the shadows with its rusty scythe.

Attack of the 50-Foot Women

A society will be remembered by its lowest common denominator. At the mention of the Roman Empire many people immediately think of the decadence of that once mighty power in decline. Rome ruled the world at one time—or so it seemed—but Nero had his fiddle and Caligula favored his horse Incitatus as a senator (today we’re more accustomed to seeing asses in government than horses). The madness of Napoleon. The insanity of Hitler. Mighty powers crumbling under their own weight. Walking through Times Square is an education. Recently a fifty-foot woman appeared, looming over the heads of commuters, tourists, and the homeless. Unlike the classic 1958 sci-fi flick, this woman is apparently happy, smiling broadly, and nearly naked. She is an advertisement for Sports Illustrated’s soft porn swimsuit edition. Stories above us all, she pulls back her hair and, if she weren’t a fantasy, I’m sure she’d be chilly dressed like that in a New York winter.

We’re talking lowest common denominator here. As I man I can’t help but to understand the appeal. Advertisers know it too. At the corner of 42nd and 7th, there is another fifty-foot woman, apparently nude, sitting in an office chair for Go Daddy with a QR card across her torso offering to those who would scan her, “See More Now!” It is difficult to be judgmental when advertisers are using basic psychology to sell their products, and studies have shown that men are very easily aroused by visual images—our juvenile imaginations never do grow up. But women this large? In 1958 Nancy Fowler Archer was salaciously considered a monster, but the producers knew teenage boys would watch in fascination. Such simple creatures.

There is a disturbing subtext here. Men are weaker than they pretend to be, but that doesn’t bother me much. Vulnerability is where humanity is most authentic. The problem with the fifty-foot women in Times Square is the message to American society that women are a commodity. They, like everything else in Times Square, can be purchased and owned. They exist solely for the pleasure of men. I am not a prude, but I do believe that such blatant shows of the female body for sale bear as a subtext “mene mene tekel upharsin.” A society that cheapens its women in such a forum is creating the standards by which a hopefully more advanced future will remember it. Standing beneath the open thighs of the fifty-foot woman on my way to work, I am profoundly sad. This is Rush Limbaugh’s American Dream writ large.