Monthly Archives: October 2017

All Hallows Eve

I can tell that I’ve been far too busy when I don’t have time to prepare for Halloween. I don’t mean commercially—running out and buying decorations and the like—but mentally. For reasons perhaps only understood by psychologists, Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love the comfort of being with my small family on Thanksgiving and Christmas, huddled inside while the cold whistles against our windows. The sense of relief at not having to go to work even though it’s a weekday, and that increasingly rare luxury of simple breathing space. Still, Halloween takes me back to a childhood with which I resonate in a way against which other holidays only vibrate in sympathy. The days are undeniable darker. My fears, I’m told, are not unfounded. I wear a mask and am free to be myself.

Commuting prevents me from getting out to see the decorations for which some neighborhoods have become notorious. The large, billowing, air-filled frights, however, are just hot air. Even the younger generation at the office, whispering among themselves that this is also their favorite holiday, decorate their cubicles in a way that’s more cute than chilling. No, I’m not a fan of gore—this is more subtle than that. Those who’ve long dwelt with existential angst are connoisseurs of dread. We know, for example, that it will be many months now before we step out into the morning light or come home from work able to see our way clearly. The shades of darkness aren’t always the same. There’s a texture to them. To prepare properly, you need time. The very commodity of which I’m being drained.

Those who know me as a mild, “uncomplicated” sort of person don’t know me. They’ve only become accustomed to the Halloween mask that I wear almost constantly now. Life can do that to you. Instead of the creepy novels which generally crowd my autumn, I’ve been spending time with the existentialists, listening to them reflect on death and its meaning. Or lack thereof. Religions, of course, hurl themselves into that void offering plans of escape. And yet in October that man who walks his dog before dawn wearing a white bathrobe sure looks like a ghost to me. And I’m standing on this street corner utterly alone as the wind blows down the avenue, chasing frightened leaves past me, sending a chill down my spine. I’m looking forward to sitting on a bus to get out of the cold. I’m complicit, I realize, in the death of Halloween.

Contracting Something

Book contracts make me happy. After slipping from higher education into the limbo of editing, it took a few years before realizing that not all books have to be academic monographs. For the past couple of years I’ve been silently writing a book intended for general readers. The subject will remain hidden for now, but a contract for the book has arrived and I’m happy. As my friend Marvin says, “for a man being published is about the closest you can come to giving birth.” There’s a bit of truth to that. Several months of thoughts growing in your head finally culminate in a full developed form, capable of surviving outside the confines of your protective mind.

The motivation for many academics to write is “publish or perish.” In my career track I both published and perished. The thing is, I write because I read. It seems unfair to read so much and not to share a bit of what I’ve learned. If you read this blog regularly you know that I have a restless intellect—the kind of thing that in the old days would’ve made you a professor. I no longer have access to university libraries with their arcane journals and massive collections, but reading on the bus is its own kind of research. (Anyone who’s tried to write notes on a bus, however, knows that the research is limited strictly to what can be remembered after a wearisome 90-minute-plus ride in stop-and-go traffic.) A few years back I decided to start writing up what I’d been observing. Slowly a book was formed. The process is not a swift one.

Many people question the ability of editors to write books. No, seriously. Agents are generally only interested in professors, celebrities, and journalists, not those who may have been one of the above once upon a time. That’s why this book contract feels like a small victory. Weathering the Psalms was written for other professors while I was still one myself. A lot has happened since then. I’ve read hundreds of books in the intervening years. Slow study that I am, it took some time before I realized I could begin to analyze all of this and write it in a way the average educated reader could find engaging. Agents declined the project, but now I’ve found a publisher who believes. When you work on your own, like many authors do, finding just one believer is sometimes all that it takes.

Kings of Israel

Eating out is something that has become more of a habit than it should. Still, when we get together with friends it’s a cause for celebration, and a restaurant is usually somehow involved. You only live once. Well, maybe. In any case, while waiting for a seat at a new place I happened to glance over at the bar. Two huge bottles of wine stood there. I asked our friends if they knew what they were called. I can’t recall how I’d learned, but the proper name for them is “Jeroboams.” Jeroboam, in case your reading of 1 Kings is somewhat rusty, was the first king of Israel when the “United Monarchy” split into Israel v. Judah after Solomon’s reign. The curiosity of my friends led me to research the subject a bit. What I found was alcohol of biblical proportions.

Another name for the same size bottle as a large Jeroboam is Rehoboam. Rehoboam was Solomon’s son, the king of Judah while Jeroboam took over Israel. Moving up to a 6 litre bottle the name becomes Methuselah. Methuselah, of course, is the Bible’s oldest man. Symbolically, if you do the math, he drowned in the flood. Nine litres will be called a Salmanazar, also known as Shalmaneser, a king of Assyria who attacked Samaria. Twelve litres, and perhaps the namers were getting a bit tipsy here, is either Balthazar or Belshazzar. The former, while not biblical, is the name of one of the three Magi from the visit of the wise men. Belshazzar was, according to Daniel, king of Babylon and is somehow scripturally mixed up with Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar, by the way—famous for his madness in Daniel—denotes 15 litres. An 18 litre bottle, depending on which line you’re following (if you can) is either Melchior—another of the Magi—or Solomon, the father of Rehoboam and one time boss of Jeroboam. The 27 litre bottle is called Goliath, for obvious reasons. And if you’re still standing, the 30 litre bottle may either be Midas or Melchizedek. The latter is the mystical king of Salem, later to be called Jerusalem.

I’m personally no fan of wine, so much of this was news to me. Not all bottle sizes are biblical, but many of them are. Spirits, in all seriousness, were taken to be related to the spirit world in ancient times. And the Bible, a book most familiar to those engaged in the industry of wine, was a natural place to find often ironic names. According to John, Jesus’ first miracle was changing water to wine at the wedding at Cana. Prohibitionists shudder to read that the carpenter from Nazareth changed six jars, each holding between 20 and 30 gallons, into free spirits. Wine bottles, perhaps to society’s benefit, never grow so large. But it’s time to go, our food has arrived.

Justice for All

One of the perks of working for a publisher is author talks. I’ve worked for three publishers now, and the last two have made great efforts to bring authors to their New York offices to present their work, in a kind of dry run, to those in the industry. When an author (whose book will eventually feature on this blog, so I don’t want to provide any spoilers just yet) was to speak on misogyny this week, I quickly signed up for a seat. Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination, but I could never understand how one human being could ever feel superior to another. As a child with no father around, my experience suggested that women were the strong ones. Yet when out in society I saw men always stepping in to take charge. What was wrong here?

I realize that I view life through male lenses. I’m also aware that gender isn’t nearly as definitive as we tend to think it is. Biology fits us with bits and pieces, and some of those constructed somewhat like me assume this gives them the right to dominate others. And they say we’re better than animals. Better at what, I ask? No, this isn’t about chauvinism—a man stepping in to support weaker women. This is about justice, plain and simple. We’re all born human. Humanity is nothing without those of both genders as well as those somewhere between. What should separate humankind from the vicissitudes of nature is the inherent commitment to fairness. Life is harsh and not all receive fair treatment. Do not listen to the narrative coming out of Washington, DC! The father of lies dwells there. And yes, I mean “father.”

We used to take pride in having climbed above the mere animals. We have constructed something that used to be known as democracy. Lawmakers, while fighting against women’s rights in word, nevertheless tacitly supported them at home. Now our government has declared open war on women. Men who have no idea what it is like to be viewed as and treated like an object every single day of their lives are making laws to punish those who do. I feel as though the sky is about to crack open and that blind principle we call justice is about to shout “Enough!” That’s not, however, the way that nature works. It is only when women are treated equally with men that we’ll ever be able to call ourselves civilized. Or even human. Until that day we’ll hunker down in our caves and await lawmakers who have any inkling at all of what fairness, what justice, even means.

Hiding Out

It’s seen better days. The spine is coming unglued and the pages are brittle, fracturing into tan snowflakes as I turn the pages. Still, this unusual little book is crowded with memories. I recall the used book store where I bought it—the Boston Book Annex, now sadly defunct. Unlike any other paperback I’d purchased, this one has gray-dyed page edges, adding an appropriate October gloom to the reading. Friedrich Duerrenmatt may not be properly among the existentialist novels, but that’s where he lives on my bookshelf. I picked up The Quarry three decades ago when “Der Besuch der alten Dame” was still relatively fresh in my mind. If I were a younger man I might’ve tried to find an edition in German, but the internet didn’t exist in those days and after a few years of no use, my Deutsch was dusty. It had been my gateway language.

As I read The Quarry I wondered why I had waited so long to do so. The story is brief but intense. And like novels of the period, it is philosophical and theological. (Like many translations it is sold under different titles; this one is also known as Suspicion, but The Quarry captures the duality nicely.) Hans Bärlach, a Swiss police commissioner, is on the trail of a Nazi war criminal. Suffering from cancer, Bärlach is bed-ridden but his quarry is a doctor and he finds a plausible excuse to become his patient. To help him set the trap, he enlists the aid of Gulliver, a Jewish concentration camp survivor. Their dialogue is what makes this brief story so theologically pregnant. Gulliver calls Bärlach “Christian” and reflects on how that feels to a Jew who was intended to be exterminated. I won’t spoil the ending here, but when Bärlach meets his quarry and realizes that he is also the quarry, the conversation once again turns to religion.

There’s an honesty to such novels as this. Writers were not yet afraid to invoke philosophical dialogue. A friend at the time I purchased the book once told me “nobody writes like that anymore.” Since his father-in-law was a novelist, I supposed he was right. I should have instead relied on my memories from high school German. We read “Der Besuch der alten Dame” and even went to see a stage adaption at the local community college. I’d shortly discover the existentialists. Their views on the absurdity of life mingled so readily with a theology becoming broken, tired, and top-heavy. Those ideas I’d met in class such as, if memory serves, Ilse Aichinger’s “Wo Ich Wohne,” became a part of my young psyche and, not surprisingly, many years later I’m finding myself their quarry.

Trained Witnesses

The problem with lying is that it generally doesn’t hold up. Eventually people will figure out that a falsehood is exactly that and the liar will be scorned. In other words, truth is determined by witnesses. This is tested and confirmed every day in our legal system. The witness is invaluable (except in the hands of lawyers). Since no one person can see everything, we rely on others to help us fill in the blanks. Think of it; when you see something unusual don’t you ask whoever’s with you “did you see that?” We witness the world around us, and unless we’re untruthful that observation becomes part of the collective narrative of what the world is like.

A story from IFL Science! sent by a friend describes “Ancient Legends And Myths That Were Later Proven True By Science.” Apparently this is part of an annual series. What the article lays out are recorded myths later confirmed by science. Scientists are trained witnesses. Taught to silo information, they separate belief (so they say) and eschew non-natural causation. They peer into the mirror each morning with Occam’s razor firmly in hand. Then everybody seems to be surprised when non-scientists have actually observed something correctly. This is the ancient bickering between religion and science—you can’t have it both ways, the reasoning goes. This is a zero-sum game. The winner takes it all. Reality, we observe, is seldom so simple. Articles like this one express surprise that non-scientists can get it right once in a while. The fact is, we’re all witnesses to what happens on this planet. Some of us are just taken more seriously than others.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not equating religion and science. Nor am I suggesting that all people are equally good observers. It’s just that sometimes things happen when there’s no scientist in the room. Or if there is there’s no time to wire everything up appropriately. The events in the IFL Science! piece are all like this. Observed by people before science was invented—some of them before civilization was invented—events were called myths until scientists came round with their notebooks and validated the long-departed witnesses. The problem with occasional phenomena is that they don’t come on cue. The universe isn’t here to please us or satisfy our curiosity. It’s just that sometimes we see things that don’t match up with the textbook. Whether you call an exorcist or a scientist depends entirely on your point of view.

Infinite but Expanding

What could be more humbling than living in an infinite but expanding universe? Since the days of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton we’ve known that the apparent reality of both our own lives and that portrayed in Holy Writ is inaccurate. The earth doesn’t hold still, and the sun doesn’t rise or set. The universe isn’t a layer-cake with Heaven above and Hell beneath. Instead it’s mind-numbingly massive. The only appropriate response, it would seem, would be silent awe. Marcelo Gleiser, whose work I’ve mentioned before, is a rare scientist. Rather than continually slapping the rationalist card on the table and declaring science the trump suit, he brings an element of humility to his writing. So much so that he’s willing, almost eager, to engage religion. Not in debate, but in conversation.

The Prophet and the Astronomer is a wide-ranging book that is tied together around the theme of the end of the world. A few weeks back we had yet another brush with a biblical literalist declaring the end of all things. Gleiser, although his book was published over a decade ago, was called in to comment in various places. This book opens by discussing ancient ideas of the end of the world. These are necessarily religious ideas. We don’t fully understand ancient concepts, but enough remains for us to see that apocalypses have their origins in Zoroastrian thought. Judaism encountered such thinking and the book of Daniel ran with it. Early Christians also had the world’s end on their minds, and the book of Revelation developed into a full-blown apocalypse. The world, or at least the western hemisphere, has never been the same since. Centuries of living under the threat of a cataclysm that could come at any second surely takes its toll.

Gleiser then shifts to the real harbingers of potential apocalypses. Comets and asteroids still exist and could theoretically deliver what the Bible implies might happen—a fiery end to the planet. This is sobering stuff. But the book doesn’t stop there. Bidding adieu to the dinosaurs, The Prophet and the Astronomer sweeps us into this great, expanding universe and how it may end, scientifically. Black holes and the heat death of the universe can be truly terrify. What is remarkable about the book, however, is that Gleiser openly acknowledges that science can’t give the comfort and meaning that religion can. Instead of saying, “be tough, face facts” he suggests that scientists might consider a narrative that adds value to a cold, dark universe. That’s not to say some of the story isn’t technical and some of the concepts aren’t difficult to grasp, but it is to suggest that science and religion should sit down and talk sometime. Hopefully before the end of the world.