Yearn Books

While this blog ranges over an outdated map of my mind, one of the two common elements that hold it together is books.  I don’t have many bibliophile followers, but for any who happen upon my pages, welcome.  Each year at this time I look back over the year in books.  I started doing this when I joined Goodreads.  I don’t put every single book in Goodreads, but it’s a fair register of what I’ve been up to.  This year I set a reduced goal of 65 books (I knew I’d be moving and commuting less, and I do most of my reading on the bus).  Happily I ended the year with 83 officially read, but then the first five months of the year were still spent in daily commutes.

Three years ago my wife discovered the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  I can’t say just how much I look forward to the new year just to begin reading the books I select to meet that challenge.  The reason I do this is to force myself into reading things I might not feel like reading, or often, books I’ve been putting off for some reason or another.  It only amounts to a dozen books and if I can’t get through twelve in a year, something’s terribly wrong.  Margaret Atwood once said something like “Show me a person who’s read a thousand books and I’ll show you an interesting person.”  I didn’t really need that quote to set a goal, and I don’t think of it as bragging for readers to share their experience with books.  I started getting into books in middle school, and although I didn’t keep track in those days I likely read a thousand books before I graduated from high school.  Branches begin to bend to the light early on.

So, were there memorable books this year?  My reading, due to contractual obligations (I brought them on myself), has tended to be dark.  There were, nevertheless, spots of light.  Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Paul Bogard’s The Ground Beneath Us were early favorites.  I managed to stop my ears enough to miss spoilers from Jeff Vandermeer’s wonderful Annihilation.  Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World was artfully done, and Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? was a saunter down memory lane.  Selections from my reading challenge fiction that I really enjoyed were Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, and Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. And Lee Irby’s Unreliable.  And and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.  The last inspired non-fiction title I read was Susan Fair’s American Witches.  I always appreciate suggestions, just sayin’.  Reading is the balm in my personal Gilead, and I look forward to a 2019 full of books, even if I can’t keep the pace of years past.

Holly Days

Thirty years ago today, my wife and I were penniless grad students.  Trying to be logical about when to marry—I’d been accepted at Edinburgh University shortly after we’d decided on a May wedding and the latest I could matriculate was April—we decided the holidays would be the best time.  Not Christmas, of course.  Or New Year’s Day.  As students we held to the illusion that others observed the natural caesura between the two.  We considered it from the feast of Stephen to New Year’s Eve, days when everyone is recovering from the intensity of Christmas or staying up late to welcome in 1989.  We settled on December 30.  The church was already decorated for Christmas, saving that expense.  Having moved up the date by some five months we did ask them to remove the banner that read “For unto us a child is born.”  Our reasons were purely academic.

I generally avoid writing too much about my personal life on this blog, but a thirty-year wedding anniversary is somewhat extraordinary.  Being a working-class kid I told my wife when I proposed that I couldn’t promise much but I could assure her our life together would be interesting.  That slippery qualifier has proven correct time and again.  Our first three years as a couple were spent in Edinburgh, and quite unexpectedly, the next fourteen at Nashotah House.  The first two of those years involved being apart from Sunday through Wednesday as I commuted from Champaign-Urbana to Delafield to teach my courses.  And, of course, to attend chapel.  Our daughter was born while we lived at the seminary and a Fundamentalist takeover led to the loss of my first (and to date only) full-time academic job.

The academic job market had been tough when I started and it had tanked in the meantime.  We had to uproot and move to New Jersey to find any work at all.  Publishing proved remarkably unstable and yet we stuck together.  This year we bought a house and moved to Pennsylvania.  It took three decades, but we’ve finally achieved what some would term normalcy.  The fact is, though, that long-term marriages are to be celebrated.  Many of the vicissitudes we’ve faced could easily have capsized our little boat.  Looking back over the years I can see that we never did prosper in any kind of financial or career situation.  Life has indeed been interesting.  I don’t blog much about my personal life, but today I can’t help but think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have found a soul-mate willing to stick with a guy who still thinks like a penniless grad student.  Thirty years of schooling and it’s not nearly enough.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

Poppins Fresh

The holiday season often means doing things out of the ordinary.  Despite writing books that deal with movies, I can’t afford to see them in theaters often, but we went as a family to see Mary Poppins Returns.  A few things about that: I grew up never having seen Mary Poppins (I first encountered it in college).  The new movie is neither a remake nor a sequel proper.  It follows the same basic pattern as the original but with new songs and animations, and all of it based on a somewhat darker premise—the death of the mother (which allows Jane and Michael, as adults to both be back in their childhood home) has led to financial straights that threaten to leave the Banks family homeless.  The bank has turned cruelly capitalistic and wants as many foreclosures as possible.  Sinister stuff.

The reason I mention the movie here, however, is a premise that it shares with Hook: children can see things that adults can’t.  Or more precisely, that adults learn not to see.  Some investigators of unusual phenomena suggest that as we grow we’re taught not to believe what we see if it’s impossible.  I’m in no position to assess the validity of such an assertion, being an adult, but it does give me pause for wonder.  We regularly shut out the vast majority of stimuli we experience; our brains are not capable of taking in every little detail all the time.  Instead, we’ve evolved to pay attention to that which is threatening or rewarding to our survival, and we tend to ignore many of the mundane feelings, sights, sounds, and smells that are constantly around us.  Perhaps we do shut out what we’re taught is impossible.  Mary Poppins Returns says it outright. 

In many ways this is behind the materialism we’re spoon-fed daily.  The only reality, we’re told, is that which can be measured and quantified with scientific instruments.  Any apparent reality beyond that is simply illusion.  We all know, however, that our experience of life doesn’t feel that way at all.  There seems to be no counter-argument, however, since we have no empirical evidence to offer.  Experience, we’re told, is unreliable.  Perhaps we’re not too old to learn a few things from the movies.  Mary Poppins Returns won’t likely become the cultural sensation that its forebear was, nevertheless it contains a message that may be worth preserving.  Childhood may hold the keys to understanding reality.

Fossilized Ideas

In our current political climate, perspective helps quite a bit.  Indeed, one of the shortcomings of our conscious species is our inability to think much beyond the present.  In either direction.  Because of the biblical basis of western civilization, a significant portion of otherwise intelligent people believe that the world was created 6000 years ago.  I grew up believing that myself, before I learned more about the Bible and its context.  I also grew up collecting fossils.  Somehow I had no problem knowing that the fossils were from times far before human beings walked the earth, but also that the earth wasn’t nearly as old as it had to be for that to have happened.  Faith often involves contradictions and remains self-convinced nevertheless.

While out walking yesterday I came across a fossil leaf.  Unbeknownst to our movers last summer, I have boxes of fossils that I’ve picked up in various places that I’ve lived.  I find it hard to leave them in situ because of the fascinating sense of contradictions that still grabs me when I see one.  There was an impression of a leaf from millions of years ago right at my feet.  It was in a rock deeply embedded in the ground and that had to be left in place.  Never having found a floral fossil before this was somewhat of a disappointment.  Still it left an impression on me.  Perhaps when dinosaurs roamed Pennsylvania—or perhaps before—this leaf had fallen and been buried to last for eons.  How the world has changed since then!

After that encounter, I considered the brown leaves scattered from the recently departed fall.  Some lay on the muddy path, but few or none of them would meet the precise conditions required to form a fossil.  If one did, however, it would be here after humanity has either grown up and evolved into something nobler or has destroyed itself in a fit of pique or hatred.  We know we’re better than the political games played by those who use the system for their own gain.  The impressions we leave are far less benign than this ossified leaf at my feet.  The Fundamentalist of the dispensationalist species sees world history divided into very brief ages.  God, they opine, created the entire earth to last less than 10,000 years.  All this effort, suffering, and hope exists to be wiped out before an actual fossil has time to form.  It’s a perspective as fascinating as it is dangerous.

The Cult of Relaxation

Relaxation comes with a price.  As with most people who work hard, I find taking more than a day or two off work tricky.  It’s not that I want to go to work, but that I feel the need to keep improving my mind.  I read quite a bit on holidays, and, being of the opinion that movies are the modern mythology, I like to watch what I can.  Last night I saw a film I’m too embarrassed to name, but which was so utterly awful that I can’t get it out of my head.  Call it an experiment in relaxation.  Or call it madness.  Either way, I came to realize just how much impact a movie might have without really containing anything to give back.  This particular film is often listed as a cult classic.

I’ll confess right now that I loved Attack of the Killer Tomatoes the first time I saw it.  (This is not last night’s feature.)  It is a bad movie—so bad that it’s good.  My professional reputation may suffer for it, but I have to admit to having watched it multiple times over the years.  I’d heard that last night’s film was like that.  So bad that it’s good.  And that made me ponder the blurring of these categories.  Without a universal deity to declare the terms, good and bad are matters of consensus.  No quantitative means exists for making, a movie for example, good or bad, beyond the human judgment of viewers.  We tend to listen to critics, who experience more cinema than the rest of us can afford, but I’m sure we all have our secret likes that don’t match the decrees of the experts.

Films that flaunt convention so radically, and which gather disciples, are, as I mentioned, called “cult classics.”  This is the language of religion.  Although religionists have moved away from the use of the word, cult implies irrational intensity of devotion toward that which is clearly, in the eyes of the majority, bad.  Again we come to the question of who defines value.  For most of human history it has simply been majority opinion.  Cults, however, give meaning to those who “get it.”  Cult classics have faithful followers.  In the line of duty some months back I watched Exorcist II: The Heretic.  I later found out that it also frequently makes the list of all-time worst movies, despite starring Linda Blair, James Earl Jones, Paul Henreid, and Richard Burton.  It’s a cult classic.  The unnamed film from last night has no known stars.  Hideous acting.  Ludicrous writing.  I watched it to relax.  Now I wonder if I’ve joined a cult, or if I just need a vacation.

Puzzling Traditions

Like most families, we have tried over the years to develop our own holiday traditions.  These, like all things, evolve.  When I was a professor the semester break meant, after a flurry of grading, a month of a more relaxed schedule.  We would travel to family outside of Wisconsin every year, and worked on what a “usual” holiday might look like for our small family in the remaining time at home.  Now that I work for a company, and my wife works for a company, the holiday break is severely curtailed, but it has allowed us the opportunity to invent our own traditions.  One of them is to put together a quality jigsaw puzzle on Christmas Day.  (Two of these puzzles were destroyed in the flood that ruined so many books, and will need to be replaced eventually.)

I’m aware how nerdy puzzle-solving might sound.  I’m not spending the day out riding an ATV through the woods, discharging a firearm, or watching sports on television.  Piecing together a puzzle is a quieter pursuit, and the puzzles we have are of quality artworks, and completing one makes it feel like all is right with the world for a little while.  As with most things on this blog, it also serves as a metaphor.  Yesterday as we watched the movie The Man Who Invested Christmas (which portrays very well the life of those who try to write; the exception being that Dickens had little trouble finding publishers and the benefit of early success), it occurred to me that as we put together the puzzle of our lives, we do so with the box top missing.  We don’t know what the picture is.  Slowly some sections start to come together, but overall, we don’t know what we’re doing.

Long ago I learned the folly of planning out a life.  Moving forward is good, yes, and making plans wise.  You cannot, however, know the way those plans might fit elsewhere in this decades-long unfinished puzzle.  There’a a fairly large section of mine called Nashotah House.  I would never have planned that intentionally, and thinking back, it was being there that renewed my interest in horror.  I thought I’d be at a university where I might continue my research into ancient deities and how the world of biblical Israel developed its own conception of that world.  That’s what I thought the cover of the box would look like.  Instead I’ve found myself editing the books that others write and using the scant time left over to write my own, on a topic far different than that in which I earned an advanced degree.  As the last piece slips into the puzzle, I feel a sense of accomplishment.  I may not have done much, but I’ve used the limited time off to step back and try to take, however briefly, the larger view.

Christmas Lights

How many people read a blog on a major holiday?  The process of writing takes no vacations, however, and I often think of holidays as a time to write.  It doesn’t really matter if anyone reads it; writing is our witness to the cosmos that “Kilroy was here.”  Even if most of us have no idea who Kilroy was.  So I find myself awake earlier than most children on Christmas morning.  My long habit of rising early to catch the bus hasn’t been easy to break.   I creep down the stairs and water the tree before turning on its colorful lights.  I make a cup of coffee and wash the dishes left in the sink after a festive Christmas Eve.  And I think.  There’s always the thinking.

The meaning of Christmas, as the holiday classic tells us, eludes Charlie Brown.  Linus van Pelt gives one rendition—that of the Gospel of Luke—as the canonical meaning, but in my experience it shifts during a lifetime.  Christmas, after all, is one of a host of solstice celebrations.  My thinking these days is that it’s all about light.  Shimmering angels, glowing stars, light coming into the darkness.  These ideas seem to have, for the most part, Zoroastrian origins, but they’ve been thoroughly appropriated and, in true American style, commercialized.  The news headlines read how disappointed retailers always are.  The take could’ve been bigger.  Capitalism relies on Christmas to make the third quarter.  Light in the darkness, in its own distorted way.

As I sit for these quiet moments in the glow of only a tree, I think of those for whom the holiday has become a kind of disappointment.  Not a cheery Christmas thought, I know, but an honest one.  As families grow and diversify the childhood Christmas of excited children scrambling under the tree to excavate the next gift for me starts to fade.  Our economic system separates, and the dearth of days off around the holidays makes travel back to childhood homes difficult.  We do the best we can, but the fact is the sixties (speaking for me) are over.  Our reality is colder and darker than it used to be.  I part the curtains and look for any sign of dawn.  It will be a few hours yet before the sun brightens this winter sky, but then, that’s what the holiday has come to mean for me.  At least this year, it is the hope of light returning.  And that, alone, makes it a holiday.