Snow in September

One of the trendy things when I worked in United Methodist youth camp was “Christmas in July.”  Although not quite six months out, the idea was to inject some fun when it was starting to feel too hot out and, as evangelizing efforts go, to talk about Jesus.  The origins of this tradition predate me, actually.  Even secular camps were using the idea in the mid 1930s.  By introducing the mystery of the unexpected, I suppose it might’ve helped to deal with camper homesickness, a perennial problem.  It worked, in my experience, because nobody was really thinking about Christmas in July.  It was a ploy.  Just after the summer solstice, Christmas would have to wait until after the winter solstice to materialize.  Now this past week we observed the autumnal equinox.  I usually write a post about that, but I’ve been kind of distracted lately.

Over the weekend I had to head to a big box home goods store.  I prefer to visit our local independent hardware store, but they don’t carry lumber and I needed some.  I walked in to find the store decked out for Christmas in September.  This was just a bit disturbing.  It’s not even Halloween yet.  In fact, it’s not even October!  For many people in temperate regions autumn is their favorite season.  Harvest themes, apple and pumpkins, turning leaves, falling leaves, and Halloween.  Putting on the occasional sweater for the first time after a long and hot summer.  Big boxes are leaping past all that to get to your Christmas bucks, even while you still have to mow the lawn when you get home.

Okay, so I’m not the only one to grouch about the premature appearance of Santa Claus and the extreme commercialization of Christmas.   I know that Bethlehem is called “Christmas City,” but as we wandered to the Celtic Festival underway downtown, people were sweating in the eighty-degree heat.  The leaves have begun to turn around here, reminding us all that Halloween and Thanksgiving are coming.  The holiday season.  I enjoy it as much as anybody else, but I don’t want to rush it.  I suspect the internet has accustomed us to instant gratification.  You want it?  If you can type it and click on it, it can be at your doorstep in two days.  You don’t need to wait for Christmas to catch up any more.  Meanwhile our landfills overflow with the stuff we throw away from Christmases past.  Christmas in July I think I get.  Christmas in September is just a little too much.

Flipping

The mind-blowing book I mentioned last week is here unveiled.  I discovered Jeffrey Kripal’s work years ago, and have subsequently had a few conversations with him.  The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge is a challenging and necessary book.  In a way that only full-time academics can, Kripal examines the large picture.  When I say “large” I mean cosmic in scale.  He does so through the lens of the humanities and, especially, religious studies.  If anybody’s going to make religious studies cool, it is he.  The world is full of weird things.  If we’re honest most of us will admit to having had strange things happen to us.  Often we’ll filter them out or explain them away, but at other times we will stop, scratch our heads, and wonder what just went on.

The Flip is not a book of such anecdotes (and I, along with the author, am willing to take anecdotes seriously).  There is some strange stuff in here, but there is also a lot of science.  Historically the humanities, as understood by ancient Romans, included what we would call sciences.  Humanities, in other words, were attempts at understanding the world.  Today religious studies is among the humanities while science is separated out into STEM.  Kripal takes science seriously.  In fact, much of what he discusses here is the application of quantum physics to the macroscopic.  (I’m probably not explaining this well, but then, I guess you’ll have to read the book!)  In other words, science and the humanities need to come together again.  It’s not either/or, but both/and.

Holding out a hand across the aisle is uncomfortable.  Religion has done a great deal to disgrace itself of late, and it’s no wonder respectable folk want to keep their distance.  To understand what we are, however, requires a willingness to admit that humans are both deeply intellectually curious and deeply religiously inclined.  We can be both.  In fact, it is unlikely we can be any other way.  Anomalous occurrences aren’t generally welcome in religious studies any more than they are in the sciences.  That doesn’t stop strange stuff from happening.  This little book of big ideas uses that disjunction to lead the reader into spaces where the future might faintly be discerned.  Wide-ranging and provocative, this book needs to be read.  It is a strange world where two different approaches to knowledge so often decline to speak to one another.  Here they do, and their conversation is mind-blowing.

Grasses and Bans

It’s been so busy that I didn’t realize it was Banned Books Week until yesterday, when there was but one day left (today).  I usually make a point of reading a banned book during this week, but I suppose I read so many of them normally that the observance might lose its edge.  But that’s just an excuse—in this world of uber-corrupt governments, preventing censorship is a sacrament.  We’ve seen just this week how dictators try to silence those who expose them.  Banned books, whether we like what they say or not, should be available for reading.  This is an amazingly bipartisan holiday.  Some places have banned the Bible, to which true believers in the principles of Banned Books Week would respond “Even books we might disagree with should be made available.”  Censorship seeks to cut off discussion.

Although I won’t finish in time, after work yesterday I quickly grabbed my unread copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to begin to make up for my oversight.  Leaves of Grass has been called America’s homegrown Bible and it has an almost religious following, as it has for decades now.  Poetry has a way of moving people that frightens autocrats.  It taps into something that skirts around our conscious mind at times, opening up possibilities that censors would rather keep closed.  Over the past couple of years books of poetry have again begun to appear on the New York Times Bestseller list.  People read to be moved.

One element banned books tend to have in common is that they’re honest, even when they’re fiction.  Honesty is a source of great anxiety for many.  We don’t like to let our true selves be seen because, truth be told, we feel vulnerable.  Banned books take us into uncomfortable places.  And sublime places.  Not all books are great literature, of course.  Even I have been known to part with a book after reading it because it simply didn’t speak to me in the way I like to be spoken to.  Still, I’m loath to give such a book a negative review.  It didn’t speak to me, but it spoke to the author and the publisher, obviously.  It is a voice that deserves to be heard.  That’s what Banned Books Week is all about—defending the right of human expression.  I may not finish my banned book by the end of today since weekends tend to be busier than many work days.  Still, I’m looking forward to my encounter with America’s other Bible.

Book Signing

Okay, so I’ve got a book signing for Holy Horror coming up at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem.  And they’ve advertised it in the local paper.  I’m humbled and honored by this, especially since I have no local following.  When I go to the website of the newspaper, The Morning Call, ads pop up on the top, bottom, and center of the page, obscuring the event.  I take this as kind of symbolic.  Life is crowded.  We seem to have turned the corner to autumn around here with nights being distinctly chilly.   After the languorous heat of summer when even thinking about winterizing seemed to add another layer of insulation over already too warm body, now we suddenly have to try to fit it in among an already crowded schedule.  At least I don’t have to commute too much any more.

I’m trying to get ready for the book signing, but I don’t really know what to do.  Perhaps I should try to get some business cards printed up.  Maybe I should think of some catch-phrase to use if anyone actually buys a high-priced book.  What should I wear?  Working at home can make you feel like a recluse sometimes.  I don’t have enough money to be considered eccentric, but I don’t get out among hoi polloi much either.  If most people have as much trouble as I do clicking off the ads to get to the event underneath, those who swing by the table are likely to be few.  Still, I’m looking forward to meeting local horror film fans.  They are, in general, a surprisingly cordial bunch.

After Nightmares with the Bible I’m going to focus on trying to find more mainstream publishers.  The reason is simple: academic publishers tend to be overpriced.  I’ve worked in publishing long enough to be able to decode pricing schemes.  There is a logic to them, even if at times it feels like you’re being overshadowed by pop-up windows.  To get a wide readership you need a pretty big platform, and getting a following on any form of social media takes the one thing I don’t have enough of.  Time.  You see, just the other day it was summer and we felt like we were baking.  Now the equinox has plunged us into the days of getting the furnace cleaned and operational and looking at the prices of insulation and shaking our heads.  Somewhere under all of these pop-ups are ideas waiting to be written down.

Time To Meet

I feel compelled to state up front that this wasn’t the mind-blowing book I was writing about in yesterday’s post.  One of the perks of working in publishing is the occasional offer of a free book.  (It’s not as generous as you might think, so when one is offered I always say “thank you.”)  The Surprising Science of Meetings, by Steven G. Regelberg, isn’t exactly “mind-blowing.”  The realization that some people make a living studying meetings was certainly, well, surprising, but the corporate world is all about returns on investments and boring stuff like that.  We all hear of companies that value innovative and exciting ideas, but most of us know the feeling of being desk drones parked behind a soulless monitor all day.  At least I’m no longer confined to a cubicle.

The academic world I once knew was the stimulating environment of learning for its own sake.  The academy has followed the business world to its own form of perdition and as Rogelberg points out, there are millions of meetings any given day.  Many of them are poorly run.  This book is for those who want meetings to flow more effectively, to better the bottom line.  Still, I found the chapter on servant leadership particularly hopeful.  I couldn’t help but wonder if Rogelberg was aware that servant leadership was something that developed in the church, out of the effort to imitate the way Jesus was said to have led his flock of disciples.  The point was not to aggrandize himself (this is a chapter 45 and his ilk should read) but to help others to be their best.  This is the kind of leadership—rare, to be sure—that the church has always, at least vocally, promoted.

It didn’t take long for ecclesiastical organizations to start running like businesses, however.  The bishop became a boss rather than someone who reluctantly had the crozier forced into his (or her) hand.  I’ve always believed you should have to take a pay cut to become a bishop.  That would immediately weed out most of the climbers.  In fact, if servant leadership is really the ideal, and the good of the company is really the goal, pay cuts should be expected as you climb the corporate ladder.  Can you imagine a business world where workers were well compensated, and those who really had vision sought promotion because their motivation wasn’t their own bottom line?  It’s an intriguing idea, to be sure.  I’d like ponder it more, but I’ve got a meeting to get to.

Book Magic

Something happens to you on a long bus ride, reading a mind-blowing book.  Part of the transport—literally—is that you’re captive for an hour or two and your book is your boon companion among snoring strangers.  Another aspect is the earliness of the hour.  Days like yesterday, when I have to commute to New York, involve awaking at 2:30 a.m.  The day is cast very differently when your timing shifts back by a few hours.  It’s almost mystical.  The largest portion of the transformative experience, however, is the book itself.  I’ve begun commutes with a book that I quickly realize is a mistake, but since I’m not a quitter, I soldier through it to the end anyway.  On yesterday’s commute the book was one of those that caught my imagination and flew it like a kite from the rear of the bus.  Arriving in Manhattan before six a.m. added to the feeling.  The city’s a very different place that time of day.

Not everyone enjoys reading, I realize.  My late stepfather once had a job as an elevator man.  Not the kind dressed in livery at a big-city hotel, but as an operator in an antiquated building in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where you had to pull the metal gateway  physically across the door and wait until the floor leveled before opening it again.  I didn’t get along with my stepfather, but one day I went to visit him in the elevator.  It wasn’t a busy building.  He sat on a stool, staring straight ahead.  For hours at a time.  Not a man prone to meditation, I knew he had to be bored.  I asked if I could bring him something to read, at least.  He declined for fear of missing someone’s call signal.  It was one of the most frightening scenarios I could imagine.

The clock in the Port Authority read 5:49 when we pulled in.  The day seemed full of possibilities.  I caught the 4:30 home, but the magic was gone.  The book had moved on to more technical things.  Traffic was bad, and there’s a world of difference between reading while the bus moves and trying to do so when it’s caught in traffic.  The commute out of New York City is normally a nightmare, and yesterday traffic didn’t flow freely until we were nearly through New Jersey.  My book was still my companion, but rather more like when a conversation ebbs after an intense discussion.  There was the worry of getting home, taking out the garbage, and trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour.  The book would still be there tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be the same.

Sleepy and Hollow

Call it nostalgia.  (“It’s nostalgia!”)  What with major expenses rolling in like the longer nights—a major plumbing job followed by the roofers back again to fix another leak—I try to accept my joys in inexpensive doses.  I’ve written before about how “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” caught my childhood imagination.  My brothers and I, growing up in quite humble circumstances, were collectors.  Not having much money, the collecting tended to be of free stuff, much of which drove our mother crazy.  Bottle caps, believe it or not, could be had for free from the openers on vending machines that dispensed genuine glass bottles.  We had bags full and the aroma was wonderful.  We had baseball cards—which were cheap and would now be worth something had they been kept—by the boxful.  And we collected stamps because they came free in the mail.

Yes, even bills used to have stamps.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow stamp was released for Halloween in 1974.  I don’t recall how I heard about it, because there was no internet in those days.  I knew, however, that I fervently hoped one would come so that I could add it to my collection.  It never did.  In fact, I never actually saw the stamp itself.  When we moved house my childhood philatelic ambitions met an abrupt end as those endless childhood collections (which included metal slugs dropped from trucks rumbling out of the local steel mill and fossils found by the river under the bridge where those slugs pinged) were simply thrown out.  I would never see the coveted stamp, and now we use email.

It took many years—decades now—to occur to me that the stamp might be available online.  I guess I had pictures of the price tag of that upside-down airplane stamp in mind as I navigated to a vendor who was asking less than a dollar for a mint copy of a ten-cent Sleepy Hollow stamp.  Gritting my teeth between plumbing and roofing bills, I finally clicked “check out.”  With postage ironically costing more than the contents, still I felt giddy.  This was a piece of childhood on a simple slip of sticky paper.  I am not a stamp collector.  I will likely never be.  I do have vivid memories of bags full of aromatic bottle caps, and shoeboxes groaning with baseball cards, and cheap albums with common stamps.  They’re long gone.  But on my desk I now have a small piece of memory from many years ago, and  I have to wonder if I’m the pedagogue or his headless haunter.