Monthly Archives: May 2016

Dairy King

In the way that only social pundits can generate stereotypes, people born between 1979 and 1994 are called “the entitlement generation.” Large scale social attitudes, it is alleged, set an almost unbreakable Zeitgeist that defines us neatly so that we can be made easier to handle. Obviously I don’t fit into that generation, but as I watch the super-rich—often old enough to know better—claiming that they shouldn’t pay taxes because they do such good for society simply by existing, I wonder if the pundits might’ve missed the boat. An antonym to entitlement, it seems to me, is social responsibility, gratitude even. That’s why I find a story in Time from back in April so encouraging. Hamdi Ulukaya, the president and CEO of a successful yogurt company (Chobani), decided to give his full-time employees, in a reverse kind of tithing, a 10 percent share of the company. After all, one can only eat so much yogurt.

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This generous action sets out in sharp relief some of the dangers of quotidian capitalism. Many of those who feel that unencumbered free enterprise is the only fair system don’t spend long enough looking around themselves. I’m sure studies must exist that explore what the cubicle mentality does to people. Working in a little cell, open to the view of others to ensure you aren’t slacking, knowing that someone on the floors above is getting rich from your efforts, it’s hard to believe the system’s working. Descend to street level and those who don’t even rate as drones will meet your eyes, if you keep them open. We are in the habit of discarding people as just another resource that can be remaindered and wasted. Let them eat yogurt. Social obligation? What’s that?

No, entitlement didn’t begin in 1979. Perhaps the most obvious idealist in this country the past century was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He repeatedly earned the wrath of the entitled wealthy for wanting to set up social safety nets to help the poor. When the United States entered World War Two, he realized, however, that military contracts had to allow for owners to get rich otherwise they wouldn’t contribute to the effort. If you’ve got the money to keep yourself safe, what do mere concepts as liberty and fairness mean to you? Wealth entitles personal survival, obviously. Let the others fend for themselves. There are companies with a conscience, but the fact that they stand out so clearly against the backdrop of business as usual should be telling us something. As you chew this over, you might consider having a Chobani. Go ahead, you’re entitled.

Holiday Weekend

John Seward Johnson II is a sculptor whose work is instantly recognizable by a number of people. Realistic, life-size bronze castings of people doing everyday things, some are painted so as to be difficult to distinguish from quotidian humans. Others are left more abstractly colored or sized so as never to be mistaken. They are, in many ways, explorations of what it means to be human. One of Johnson’s statues, “Double Check” presents a business man sitting on a bench, checking his briefcase. It is most famous for having sat near ground zero and having confused rescuers as a real person traumatized by the events of September 11. Memorial Day seems like a good opportunity to revisit the statue that many thought was human, and which many people still adore.

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While perhaps the most obvious question a sentient being can ponder, what it means to be conscious (and in our case, human) is without an easy answer. We are animals aware of our own mortality in a way that causes many of us angst, or even terror. Humans (and perhaps other conscious animals are) notorious anthropomorphists—we think of other creatures, and even inanimate objects as being like ourselves. We can mistake statues for real people. All too often we treat others as if they were made of cast bronze. Memorial Day is for remembering, but the fallen haven’t only been the victims of the madness we call war. Violence done to others for one’s own gratification is an act of war on a personal scale. Individuals who destroy many others need to stand long before a statue and ponder.

“Double Check” has become an icon of sorts. People left gifts and remembrances for the victims of the attack on the statue. When the real thing isn’t there, sometimes a statue will do. This can teach us something about being human. As we die, at least in this culture, we are buried and a headstone becomes our statue. Our representation for the world to remember that we were here. Our progeny may lay flowers on our grave on this date some day in the future while statues that look just like humans will remain largely unchanged, asking those who remain alive to check again. To think, what does it mean to be human? And when any of us may be tempted to harm anyone else, perhaps we should gaze at a statue and consider the implications.

Literate Madmen

My experience of paternal parents growing up never led me to think Father’s Day was a holiday particularly worth celebrating. (Don’t panic—today’s not Father’s Day!) I do have an ironical sense of humor about the commemoration, though. So the other day when I clicked through one of Amazon’s many daily ads to my email account, I noticed it was for Father’s Day gifts. The first item listed was Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Probably based on my browsing history, I thought. But no, I’ve been looking at non-fiction lately and I bought my well-worn copy of Dostoyevsky before Amazon was a gigabyte in Jeff Bezos’ eye, back when I was in seminary. Then it dawned on me: this is perhaps the most famous patricide novel ever written. Had the Amazon advertisers really thought about what they were recommending? “Here, Dad. It’s a book about sons killing their father.” If marketing is driving America, it may be time to pull over at a rest stop for a coffee break. Or at least read the book first.

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I don’t pay attention to when Father’s Day is. It comes somewhere in that complex of spring holidays that include Passover, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day. When my father was alive I sent him a card. It was a card to a stranger, but as Episcopalians know, it’s the done thing. I loved him, but I didn’t know him. Not that I’ve been a parent that deserves a holiday dedicated to my skill either. I confess my fair share of parental failures. They play and replay in my head, in the way the Protestant brain can never quite clear itself of guilt. We, as people, I believe, generally try our best to be good parents. It can be difficult, though. Nothing really prepares you for it.

One of my brothers once told me that, after having a girlfriend with kids from a previous marriage, he better understood how our stepfather viewed us as inherited children. Although I always want to claim the victim role in that scenario (I was only ten, what could I do?, etc.) his insight has stayed with me. It can’t be easy to inherit someone else’s progeny. It’s tricky raising your own child—that new person you want never to experience your own disappointments in life. Even cynics can be sentimental. But then again, I’ve been plowing through The Brothers Karamazov again since January, frequently laying it aside for weeks at a time. It’s not the kind of book I’d give a father on the edge. It’s okay, I think I’m good to drive again. I just won’t pay any attention to the ads I see beside the road.

Mythisotry

Positivism takes no captives. I’m not talking about the philosophical system—not necessarily—but about the phenomenon of assuming absolutes are available for human consumption. Some physicists, for example, assume that because our five senses can detect reality only the perceptions of those senses can be considered real. Material. Nothing more. Nothing less. A similar view plagues those who believe history is the telling of “what actually happened.” No historical event has ever been fully explained. All stories are told from a perspective. This is particularly dangerous when religions get involved. Many mistake historical veracity for “truth.” If it didn’t occur just as “the Bible says” then we should throw out the whole shebang. No point in believing in half truths. This is a myth.

This point was reinforced when a friend send me an article about the production of “The Hollow Crown” on the BBC. Apparently a local politician tweeted that having a Nigerian of Jewish descent (Sophie Okonedo) play Margaret of Anjou, a French queen, didn’t match history. As proof he provided a downy white Medieval illustration of the queen. In a rare moment of academic cool, an historian quickly pointed out that the illustration came from a manuscript that claimed Margaret descended, Leda-like, from a swan. Her whiteness, thus, belonged to her avian DNA. As the story makes clear, history is the modern mythology. We assume we know what happened, but we will only ever have part of the picture.

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Prejudice seldom worries about historical accuracy, unless, of course, it helps to uphold the bias. I used to caution my students about taking history as a statement of fact. Certainly there are events with factual elements, but when everything is interconnected we can never untangle precisely what happened. When we “believe” history, we are choosing to accept a certain viewpoint of things. One person’s manifest destiny is another person’s genocide. Peculiar institutions are very peculiar indeed. History, as we’ve come to know, reflects the point of view of the historian. It must be read and evaluated as the opinion of the writer and not as the absolute truth. For me, I rather like the idea that some people are descended from birds. It certainly helps to make more sense of what I see in the behavior of those who claim to be making history today.

Religious Melancholy

DamnedNationI’d never come across the term “religious melancholics” before, but somehow it seemed to suit me. Perhaps that goes without saying as I’m reading Damned Nation, by Kathryn Gin Lum. While sitting on a bus. We’re sitting in traffic and the guy sitting next to me has obviously just finished a cigarette before climbing aboard. Having grown up as the victim of second-hand smoke for my first two decades in life, I’m thinking about Hell as well as reading about it. You see, Gin Lum’s descriptive subtitle is Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction. The fact that Hell’s alive and well, despite some evangelicals’ attempts at annihilating it, suggests that it’s best to keep informed on the topic. This book’s mostly historical, however, reporting how Americans interpreted Hell in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

As with most histories, I find the earliest material the most interesting. Gin Lum tends to focus, naturally, on preachers at this period since they are the ones most likely to talk about eternity. The thing that struck me the most was the number of people she describes who, after contemplating (a primarily Calvinist vision of) Hell, attempted suicide. I tend to think of suicide as a contemporary problem, but obviously it has been a steady human practice since our species first learned that you don’t have to wait for someone else to help you slough off this mortal coil. It is troubling, however, that it was a “doctrine” barely found in the Bible that led people—most of whom later became preachers—to try to kill themselves. It also seemed a touch odd that evangelicals in those earlier days of our nation didn’t find it troubling that those leading the flock had almost sent themselves to perdition. These early days of literal Hell believing were most interesting indeed.

The phrase “religious melancholics” comes from the resistance. There were those—generally skeptics, doctors, psychologists, and the like—who felt that the preaching of hellfire and brimstone took a toll on the healthy psyche, particularly of the young. As one of those who grew up attending revivals where Hell was a featured guest, I know that my life has been a prolonged attempt to avoid said eternal lake of fire. Even when I rationally learned that there is no three-tiered universe in which it still fit, and that the idea was cobbled together from a variety of religions into the ultimate scary place, Hell still manages to haunt me. Does it keep me moral? I don’t suppose that to be the case, since I have tended to believe people are basically good. Don’t bother trying to convince me logically that Hell doesn’t physically exist. I know that already. It’s the mental one that I’m trying to avoid. And that can be a full-time job for a religious melancholic brought up on a diet of overcooked theology.

The Werewolf in Summer

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It must be incredibly difficult to write a truly scary song. I don’t mean the kind of scare that most heavy metal can innately deliver, but I mean the kind of thrill that a classic horror movie gives. I’m constantly looking for the movie that can recreate the chills without getting blood all over the carpet. Music, however, soothes the savage beast. I remember when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out. Now, nothing about Jackson’s musical style shows any hint of being scary. It’s too upbeat. In the end the ghost will be a mere reflection in the mirror, and the zombies will fade with the sunrise. I had some people tell me back then that it gave them the chills just listening to it. Amateurs. A couple weeks back I wrote a post on Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch.” It’s kind of scary, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. I haven’t heard Paul Simon’s new album Stranger to Stranger, but when I learned from NPR that it has a track called “The Werewolf,” I knew I’d eventually add it to my growing stack of MP3s.

Like Thriller, the musical style of the song isn’t inherently scary. The organ in the final minute is pretty effective, though. What’s scary about “The Werewolf”? The lyrics. Simon is, to this child of the sixties, the foremost lyricist of his genre. Rich, complex, nuanced, his words tell a story and that story is scary. While I prefer my werewolves with different baggage, it’s pretty clear that like most shapeshifters the werewolf stands for hunger. There’s violent rage, of course, but like the wendigo, hunger drives those who can’t fulfill their desires in human shape. The Howling, for example, shows how lust can make a werewolf. There is a lust more dangerous than that of the flesh, and that is the greed that leads to societies with one-percenters who just can’t stop eating.

When we see Trump-clones who pay no taxes at all, due to the good that being uber-rich offers the economy, we should listen for howling in the night. Too many an April has rolled around where those of us called “middle class” stare in wonder at just how large a cut our government takes. The werewolves don’t wait for October to come around. No, those who are hungry eat all the time. I don’t find Simon’s music to be particularly scary. The tempo is upbeat and his voice just can’t feel threatening. Still, I’m shivering after listening to “The Werewolf” even though the shortest night of the year is fast approaching on padded paws.

Sundog

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Spring has been taking its time to arrive here in the northeast. Just when things seem to have set on a course of identifiable progress, the temperature drops twenty degrees and the rain sets in again. It’s been great weather for toadstools. There are bright patches, however. I read on the bus, but one day last week as we were trundling toward New York City I glanced out the window. The sky was mostly clear and a sundog shone brightly to the north like my own personal star of Bethlehem. Sundogs feel like good omens. I’ve read enough about meteorology to know that they are merely a refraction of sunlight due to ice crystals high in the atmosphere. Depending on your angle of view, they might appear as a halo all the way around the sun, at which point they’re no longer dogs, or, at certain times of day they may appear as a solid beam coming down to earth in the form of a sun-pillar. It’s only ice and light.

Those of us who stare long at the sky know that the weather is merely a metaphor. The earth spins. It revolves. It rotates. It’s cold at the tips and warm in the middle. The laws of physics—unbreakable they tell us—state that all bodies seek equilibrium. A constant California temperature. If humans should survive long enough we might find our globe of uniform temperature, smooth as a billiard ball, and utterly lifeless. We need the variations of our weather. The chill of a spring that just won’t warm up. The heat of a summer that wilts down to the roots. Ice and light.

I’m heading into a large city. It’s a quotidian trip that some might suppose to be void of meaning. The sundog follows us for a while until it’s lost in the skyscrapers of human devising. Towers that over-reach but which the gods have to bend down to see. Nobody knows the origin of the term “sundog.” My favorite explanation is from Norse mythology where wolves pursue the sun and moon to consume them. This feels so appropriate to me as I enter the artificial canyons of hubris, glass, and concrete. As the day progresses the sundogs appear to disappear. Towers continue to grow. Beyond them, high in the sky, ice and light will continue their play, even if the dogs never do reach the sun. Refraction of light may cause things to manifest as other than they truly are.