Monthly Archives: September 2018

Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.

Come Salem Away

It’s the season.  Here in the fast waning days of September we can already taste October and thoughts turn toward ghosties and ghoulies and their kin.  Susan Fair’s American Witches: A Broomstick Tour through Four Centuries is, as any book in the nation of Salem, a mere skeleton crew of a long and feared tradition.  As is true of most things in the last two years, this book takes on a poignancy that was perhaps unintentional since it was written for fun.  It is a somewhat uncanny combination as it is—witch accusations often led to (and perhaps lead to, far from official eyes) someone dying.  We fear witches.  Fair reaches back pretty far, going even to the point of discussing those (generally women) hanged on ships on their way to America because their shipmates thought them witches.

Salem so dominates our witch consciousness that we sometimes forget these other episodes.  Fair explores, along with snarky asides, many early cases outside Salem.  In fact, the sad chapter in our history where hearsay became fact—one can’t help but think of “fake news”—the mass, “legal” murders carried out in Salem, is part of a larger pattern.  Not surprisingly women feature as the victims in this unholy web of fear and piety.  The combination is a dangerous one and otherwise rational people sanction evil rather than confront what is a mere perception of evil.  Fair moves on, however, to discuss other witchcraft scenarios—the witches (fortune tellers) of New York, the murder of a “witch” in Booger Hole, West Virginia (did I mention there was snark?), and the hex murder of York, Pennsylvania.  All of these represent an underlying fear that won’t go away.

This breezy tour ends near the author’s hometown outside Burkittsville, Maryland.  Although it is widely known that The Blair Witch Project was fiction from start to finish, this tiny town has been beset by those who refuse to accept that reality.  Such credulousness should stand as a warning to a country even capable of electing someone like Trump.  We are a suggestible nation with many people incapable of independent thought.  We are natural believers.  At the same time we’re a people that sees no value in studying religion even as it destroys us.  It’s like that embarrassing relative we never talk about.  But people still come to Burkittsville nevertheless.  Fair’s book was written before the election that showed who we really are.  Although the writing is charming, it’s hard to laugh about the subject these days.  We have forgotten Salem and all it taught us.

Express

Full sentences.  They’re underrated.  If, like me, you receive many tersely-worded emails—an inevitable result of the txt generation—you make know that disoriented feeling of not knowing what’s being said.  Sure, in caveman grunt style, you get the gist, but what of the tone, the context, or the art of polite human conversation?  Some colleagues think me quaint for beginning each email with a greeting, followed by a body, and a closing.  I try to articulate the purpose of my communication using full sentences, often explaining why I’m asking.  Sometimes I ask questions.  Sometimes multiple questions.  When I get an answer answer stating just “Yes” am I to assume that’s to all of the questions?  What if one of them didn’t accept a “yes or no” answer?

Scientists often suggest that it’s our ability to communicate vocally that set us on a different evolutionary track from other animals.  Our large brains, we’re told, were to accommodate the complexities of speech and the abstract thought that followed it.  Seems a pity that now that we communicate constantly we seem to have lost the ability.  Well, not so much lost it as have allowed ourselves to be completely distracted.  I get busyness.  There are times when new emails arrive every few seconds and everyone wants an answer.  At those times I try to envision the half glasses and green eyeshades of a telegraph operator.  Dots and dashes and a good deal of waiting and still business got done.  And I wonder what this cryptic email before me, not even a full sentence, was meant to convey.

Cave-dwellers, I imagine, had some pretty vital information to communicate.  Things like, “I just saw a cave-bear go in there, I’d avoid that place if I were you,” or “Do you think that saber-tooth cat looks hungry?”  The more precision they could put on their grunts the better advantage they would have.  Syntax wasn’t invented for the fun of it.  And yet, here we are.  No time.  Full sentences might serve to avoid confusion and mistakes.  None of us would have these jobs had we not the ability to communicate.  Would you apply for a job using anything less than full sentences?  In our rush to be more efficient we create situations where more information will be required further down the line.  A pity.  If we’d only take the time.  You know.

Riveting

The days of angry white men backlash are hopefully numbered.  One thing this strange phenomenon of privileged males feeling under threat has brought to the surface is the long struggle of women for the basic acknowledgment of human equality.  Ironically, it took a horrible war to move the cause forward.  Rosie the Riveter became a fixture during World War Two, blazing the message that women could do the tough jobs men had always done, now that males were off trying to kill one another overseas.  These images of Rosie have found new life in the era of Trumpism that has objectified women in the crudest possible ways, because it’s, well, monkey-see monkey-do in the world of politics.  Just consider Brett Kavanaugh and try to challenge the point.

One of the more famous portraits of Rosie, back when Fascism was an evil thing, is that painted by Norman Rockwell.  A pugnacious Rosie eats her lunch with her feet on Main Kampf and her riveting gun in her lap.  (These days she would need to have her feet on an elephant rampant.)  Something about this painting always bothered me.  I could never put my finger on it.  It certainly wasn’t the confident look on Rosie’s face—she’d earned that and deserved it long before it became a reality.  Even the patriotism at that time was tasteful.  No, it was her posture.  There was something uncanny about it.  Then I learned that Rockwell had consciously copied Michelangelo’s Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Isaiah, according to that famous rendition (Isaiah has never been a popular subject for paintings, for some reason), has his head turned at that peculiar angle because an angel is whispering in his ear.  Instead of a riveting gun, he’s packing a nascent Good Book, but he is receiving a direct message from on high.  I like to think it might be “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord,” but then I’ve always been a dreamer.  Rosie, in Rockwell’s rendition, is prophetic.  She is proclaiming an equality which, inexplicably, coming up on a century later, is still unrealized.  Why?  The angry white man only recognizes God made in his own image.

Virgin-Haunted World

One of the most frequent accusations of “idolatry” I heard as a child was leveled at Roman Catholic devotion to the virgin Mary.  Lessons learned during childhood are difficult to displace, especially when they concern your eternal destination.  I overcame this particular objection, a bit, during my sojourn among the Episcopalians, but I have to confess I never felt right praying to Mary.  In my Protestant-steeped mind, there were two classes of entities involved: gods (of which, properly, there was only one) and human beings.  Only the former received prayers.  The rest of us simply had to contend with non-supernatural powers and do the best we could.  Still, I met many believers devoted to Mary, and honestly, some accounts of Marian apparitions are pretty impressive.

A local source for inexpensive advertising in our area is essentially a weekly set of want ads.  For a small fee you can advertise just about anything you want to buy or have to sell.  Spiritual or physical.  A few weeks ago, someone ran a magnanimous piece on a prayer to the virgin never known to fail.  The words of the prayer were printed, along with the instructions, for nothing is quite as simple as “ask and you shall receive.”  The prayer must be recited thrice, and thanksgiving publicly proclaimed.  A number of questions occurred to me, regarding not only this, but all prayers for divine action.  One is the rather simple query of how you can know if a prayer has never failed.  I suspect this is known by faith alone.

There are any number of things most of us would like to change about our lives, and the larger issue of prayer is the daisy-chaining of causality.  One change causes another, causes another, and often that for which we pray will impact another person in a negative way.  This is the classic “contradictory prayer” conundrum—one person prays for sunny skies while another prays for rain.  Neither is evil, both have their reasons, perhaps equally important.  (The weekday is a workday for many, and that’s non-negotiable in a capitalist society, so I suspect prayers for sunny skies tend to be weekend prayers, but still…)  The prayer never known to fail is either a rock or a hard place.  It’s that certitude that does it.  I don’t begrudge anyone a prayer that works.  Faith alone can test the results.  And although we could use a little less rain around here, we could all benefit from a little more faith, I suspect.  And for that there’s no fee.

Forgotten Bible Verses

Bible believers are basking in the headlines these days.  What with Mr. “Meet My Genitals” gunning for the Supreme Court and displacing them for a few days, they must be getting anxious for more sonburn in the limelight.  If only they didn’t have the Good Book standing in the way.  As I was reading my Bible the other day, I was reminded of this little gem, “the love of money is the root of all evil.”  Now, liberals like myself know that Paul of Tarsus didn’t write 1 Timothy, but Bible-believers know he did.  So much the worse for them.  They elected a president who stands for nothing so much as the love of money, and the swamp has become quite a root of evil.  Senate Republicans, after hearing a second credible sexual assault allegation against their boy for the black bench responded by trying to rush through a vote before the news got out.  And this reminded me of the forgotten prophets.

“What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”  Well, you see, Mr. Micah, we know we’re heading to defeat in the midterms, so we’ve got to railroad through as many of our personal agendas as we can.  Don’t you know, o Lord, that this is a lifetime appointment?  And really, what does justice have to do with it?  Sure, he gropes and demeans women, but you’re a dude, right?  I bet you did the same when you were in high school and college.  And the money thing?  We’re only trying to help the economy because, well, wealth trickles down.  Who said anything like it’s the root of all evil?  “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate.”  Now, don’t go quoting Mr. Amos to me.  Next thing I know you’ll be telling me to let justice to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Forgotten Bible verses, in the new Evangelicalism, seem to be cropping up on the black market.  You might think we should turn back to the start of the Good Book and read from the beginning.  There the GOP will find its solace until they come to the 27th verse, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”  That semicolon says a lot; they will claim.  Man is the image of God, and he had a son.  Just don’t listen too closely to what that son says, particularly when he makes remarks like “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”  Young men like to drink and grope.  When they grow old they then like to be Supreme Court justices.  What’s that?  One more short verse?  “Jesus wept.”

Banned Wagon

In celebration of Banned Book Week (go ahead, let your hair down!), I thought I might muse about some good news.  Since I already posted on my banned book (Slaughterhouse Five) I need another angle of approach.  One of the less envious aspects of being an editor at an academic press is being yoked to facts.  Many authors have a basic misconception about numbers in their heads.  They think their book will sell on the scale that Barnes and Noble, such as it is, will stock them on the shelves.  I have to admit that I dream of walking into a bookstore and finding one of my titles on the shelf—and I know it’s not likely to happen.  Those of us who work in publishing see the hard figures, how many copies have actually sold.  And the results can be quite sobering.

The news isn’t all bad, though.  I ran across an article by Andrew Perrin titled “Who doesn’t read books in America?” and the way the question was phrased made me think.  I’m used to thinking of it the other way around: how many people read, or buy, books?  I once read that about 5% of the US population constitutes the book-buying market.  Now, that is a large number of people, even if it’s on the smaller end of the overall spectrum, but Perrin’s article from the Pew Research Center states that only 24% of Americans state they haven’t read a book, whole or in-part, over the past year.  This, I think, is cause for celebration.  It means more of us are reading than are not, even if we don’t always finish the books we’ve started.

Think of it like this: whether print or electronic, people know to turn to books for information.  Oh, there are all kinds of details I’m leaving out here—the safeguards of a reputable publisher over the self-published manifesto, as well as the self-published brilliant book over what managed to squeak through the review process at a university press because an editor felt the pressure of a quota—but the numbers are encouraging nevertheless.  Looked at this way, more people are reading than are not.  And the best way to promote books is to suggest they should be banned.  That’s why I don’t despair of the shallow books praising Trump—if they’re banned they become prophetic.  Academic books, my colleagues, don’t sell as many copies as you might think, even if they’re not banned.  The good news is, however, that we haven’t forgotten whence to turn for knowledge.