Perspective on Distance

Thirty miles can be pretty close or pretty far, depending.  This time it was pretty far.  I know the Post Office has been having trouble, but when the tracking number on the package said it was “being held by customer request” (wrong) at a Post Office thirty-plus miles away, I had to wonder.  I still remember when zip codes were made mandatory for mail.  They would give the Post Office a more precise set of coordinates to get to your house or apartment.  The funny thing is they’ve been vastly outdone by other delivery services.  Amazon makes mistakes too (they recently delivered something I’d ordered for myself to my mother—thankfully it wasn’t too embarrassing), but less often.  It would seem that if you pay someone to bring you something, they should be able to manage a bit closer than thirty miles.

I went to the website where delivery instructions was an editable field.  In it the PO had helpfully written “DI not available for this delivery.”  If you want it, you have to drive over sixty miles round trip to get it.  Only during office hours.  Don’t get me wrong—I’ve always been a supporter of the Post Office.  They generally get things to you—it’s pretty remarkable.  (Junk mail inevitably arrives, of course.)  I even used to collect stamps.  I’m still reluctant to not save one or two that catch my fancy.  But thirty miles?  You’d lose at both hand-grenades and horseshoes with that kind of accuracy.  When I called they offered to put it back in the system, but that would add several days to the delivery schedule.  Who’s to say that it might not end up even more than thirty miles afield?

If it were an atomic bomb, or a volcano, thirty miles would hardly seem far enough.  It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose.  So it is with most things in life.  Nine hours isn’t long if you’re engaged in a task you really enjoy.  In fact, the forty-eight hours of the weekend go by so fast that you’re left wondering where they went.  If you take nine hours and put them toward a dull and tedious task, however, they stretch to monstrous proportions.  Science tells us that the amount of lapsed time—or space—is the same.  It’s just our perception that changes.  In the larger scheme of things thirty miles in the middle of the day can take only a couple hours, with traffic.  From that perspective it’s better than a nine-hour drive to the original shipping location.  It’s all in how you look at it.

It depends on your perspective

Thinking Plants

Consider your sources.  As an erstwhile professor I grew accustomed to repeating that, and this was before the internet started up, making claims of all kinds.  Certain news sources—think New York Times, or the BBC—earn their reputations slowly, over many, many years.  That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes, but it does mean they’re often on the mark.  So an article on plant consciousness on the BBC is worth considering.  Consciousness is still something we don’t understand.  We have it, but we can’t always say what it is.  Many, if not most, people tend to limit it to humans, but it’s become very clear than animals share in it too.  Why not plants also?  A few years back I read a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel.  He made the argument that human consciousness must come from somewhere, and as we look down toward animals, and plants, what we see are smaller pieces of the same thing.

I’m not stating this as eloquently as Nagel did, but the idea has stayed with me.  The BBC article  notes how plants seem to react to human interaction.  And they seem to communicate back.  We lack the natural range to hear their responses, but some experiments indicate that plants at least communicate among themselves.  Being the BBC, the story reports but doesn’t necessarily advocate this point of view.  Still, it makes sense.  For too long we’ve supposed human beings to be the only intelligent creatures on this planet, taking the arrogant view that animals are automatons with no thinking ability.  To give them that would be to make them too human-like.

That particular viewpoint still exists, of course, but more and more scientists are starting to consider whether consciousness isn’t emergent from, as Nagel put it, smaller building blocks.  I tend to be on the more imaginative end of the spectrum—consider your source here—but it seems to me that plants could well have a consciousness too.  Trees move.  They do it too slowly for our species to notice it, fixated as we are on our own brief time in the world and our human affairs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t move.  It simply means that if we want to see it we need to shift our perspective.  Communication, it would seem, pervades nature.  If it does, isn’t consciousness somehow implicated?  Plants may respond when we pay attention to them.  To me that makes the world an even more wonderful place.


Rebranding

Established in 1583, Edinburgh University has been a world-class research institution for centuries.  It appears in pop culture as a place of great learning and innovation.  While the newest of Scotland’s four (in contrast to England’s two) ancient universities, it has risen to the point of greatest name recognition.  Even as a kid in rural western Pennsylvania, born into an uneducated family, I’d heard about it.  Little did I dream that I’d actually attend it one day, skulking its time-honored halls and walking the same streets as so many worthies that I couldn’t count them.  It was an inspirational place to live and learn.  While it may not get you a job, a doctorate from it will keep you curious for the rest of your life, and that’s a fantastic gift.

Just as I was preparing to graduate that venerable institution announced it had decided to rebrand.  Wait, what?  A four-centuries’ old university known world-wide felt it had to have a brand?  At great expense, they hired a consulting firm to make them more modern looking while retaining the trusted tradition stretching back to the late middle ages. It wanted to attract “modern” students (since this was in the early nineties those modern students are now adults).  I felt crushed under the commercialism of it all.  Branding?  If a kid from remote foothills of the Appalachians can know and dream of a place, why does it need to get the word out about itself?  Ah well, these wee bairn be wantin’ somethin’ flashy.

I’ve lived through other corporate rebrandings.  They seem to me a waste of good money, especially if you’ve been around for a long time.  Some people, I suppose, look at an old logo and say “looks outdated, not with it.”  Others of us fall down and worship.  You see, staying power is something rare these days.  Corporations come and go.  Even higher education institutions sometimes close down, but the old ones keep on.  You can pick up a book from 1600 and read about Edinburgh University.  It won’t have the new logo—in fact, it may not have a logo at all—but it will still be around four centuries later.  If you get something right at the beginning, why do you need to change it to impress those who think present-day branding (which will only have to be rebranded again at some point in the future) is superior?  Perhaps our ancient institutions need to learn that old lesson—trust yourself.


A Life of Writing

One problem with being a graphomaniac is forgetting what you’ve written.  I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this.  Once we had the eminent historian Owen Chadwick to our house for dinner.  We of course had invited some students as well.  At one point one of the students asked him about something in one of his books.  The famed historian shook his head, not recalling it.  “One writes so much,” he replied.  Now, I’m not comparing myself with a knighted academic of international fame, but his remark in our living room has stayed with me all these years.  There are over 4,400 published posts on this blog, over a million and a half words, by my calculation.  Not even I remember everything I wrote.  “One writes so much…”

Just the other day I was looking for something I wrote.  You see, when I get an idea for a book (which happens frequently) I start writing it.  Inevitably, since I have very little time for writing on a daily basis, given my job, it joins many other partially written books.  Unless something like a book contract happens, my interests shift from one project to another, slowly building each up to near book length.  Once a project reaches that point I try to finish it off.  This involves writing and countless edits.  Holy Horror, for example, went through fifteen rewrites, some of them extensive.  Before it was sent to the publisher other books had already been started.  A conversation the other day reminded me of a book I’d started and I couldn’t find it.

My backup discs are a jumble of projects that take up too much memory on my laptop.  I try to organize them, but when a computer warning comes on while in the middle of a project one tends to cram things aside until one has room to finish up what one’s currently working on.  All of this authorial drama takes place before the sun rises, and when enough time passes I don’t always remember which file I put that old project into.  What did I even call it?  Writing, you see, requires constant practice.  Working nine-to-five creates a sense that you owe a great deal of time to your employer.  (Ironically, in my case, helping other people get published.)  The people I talked to the other day thought that that unfound idea sounded like a viable book.  Perhaps it is, if only I could remember where I put it.  Meanwhile I remember Sir Chadwick’s words from a quarter-a-century ago.


Thoughts on Job

The book of Job has been on my mind lately.  Leave aside the remarks of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu, it is one of the most honest books ever written.  Many people think Job is trying to answer the question of why the good suffer.  If so, it does a poor job.  No, Job is an exploration of suffering, and Job really isn’t looking for an answer why.  Instead, he simply wants his pain to be heard.  No fixers, no advice.  Simply to be heard and to know he’s been heard.  You see, in the world of the Bible words were significant.  Many prophetic utterances were simply that—utterances because it needed to be said.  Job ups the ante quite a bit, however, when he begins to wish that God would answer him.  God, after all, is responsible for his pain.

William Blake’s Job

The world is full of sadness.  Some people feel the sadness of others deeply.  We all strive for some kind of equilibrium, some balance.  There are, however, a lot of people out there that truly do suffer and for no particular reason.  Job is a polarizing book.  Many people dislike it intensely.  I suspect that some of them don’t like to think of the world in this way.  Those who do good should be rewarded.  (The book makes plain that Job is perfect.)  Those who do evil should be punished.  Job makes clear that that’s not the way the world actually works.  For reasons we can’t know (who’s privy to the divine council and its deliberations about our fates?) we may end up losing our hopes, dreams, health, and wealth.  Job is kind of a horror story.

There are those who read Job and argue from the point of view of his friends.  In the book itself God condemns the outlook of the friends, noting that Job—no matter how challenging his words were—spoke honestly.  Life is seldom fair.  We as human beings must strive for fairness as best we’re able since we sense that it’s morally good.  Indeed, much of the Bible upholds fairness.  The book of Job questions it.  Not it’s goodness or morality, but rather why the world doesn’t reflect it.  When someone is suffering one of the most helpful and difficult things we can do is listen to them.  We need not open our mouths to fix, suggest, or advise, like Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu.  We simply must let the words be said.


Healing Time

Twenty years ago today I walked into the refectory at Nashotah House after morning mass and wondered why the television was on.  Normally people had their own theological issues to hash out over breakfast, so this was unusual.   When I saw what was happening, I skipped breakfast and went home to my family.  I remember the feeling of shock and terror of those days.  America, I knew, wasn’t the innocent nation it projects itself as being.  We had provoked, but none of that mattered as the isolationism of over two centuries on a mostly friendly continent crumbled.  We were vulnerable.  Living in the woods of Wisconsin there was no immediate danger, but the sense of confusion—and certainly the feeling that a less-than-bright president wasn’t up to handle this—made us all feel weak, even with the most powerful military in the world.

Yesterday the New York Times headlines ran a consideration on whether we’ve emerged better in the ensuing two decades.  Looking at where we are—a deeply divided nation because a narcissistic president that the majority of voters voted against put (and still puts) his ego ahead of the good of the country—the answer seems obvious.  It will take years, if not decades, to heal the damage that one man did.  His putative party (really his only party is himself), seeing his popularity as their means to power, refuse to distance themselves.  We simply cannot move forward.  Not in the midst of a pandemic where Trump followers won’t get vaccinated causing new waves of the virus to surface and thrive.  I’d like to think that on September 11 we might reflect—yes, I know it’s hard work—on how we all need each other.

Photo by Jesse Mills on Unsplash

Little could I have guessed in 2001 that a mere ten years later I would find myself working in Manhattan.  Somewhere in my mind on every day of that long commute I wondered if something might again go wrong.  On the bus I was thrown together with people of every description—well paid and just getting by, women and men, gay and straight, from all around the world—and we knew our fates were linked together.  Differences had to be put aside.  Selfishness has no room on a crowded bus.  That was my introduction to life in New York City.  Those who hear only the poison rhetoric of 2016 through 2020 should try commuting with an open mind.  If we all took the bus, life after 9-11 might’ve turned out very differently.


All About Merch

Although I’d heard of it uncomprehendingly when I was in seminary, I first joined the Society of Biblical Literature in 1991, while a doctoral student.  I religiously *ahem* attended the annual meetings until I lost my job and my ability to afford it.  When I landed in publishing I started attending again, and over all these years I’ve started to notice a lot of swag creeping in.  Publishers sell bauble headed theologians (aren’t they all?), playful knick-knacks, and even socks bearing the cover design of established commentary series.  It’s as if we want to tell the world that studying the Bible is cool.  (Why not purchase some nice warm socks?)  So I wasn’t really surprised when the society itself, fondly known as SBL, started selling its own merch.

On most SBL electronic newsletters there’s a link to the vendor that produces shirts and mugs with jokes that only other biblical scholars will get.  (I never found this a very humor-laden community, being under duress, as it is, and as deeply conflicted as the country that hosts it.)  Eventually I grew curious and clicked on the link to the novelty tee-shirts and mugs.  It took me to a company called Redbubble.  SBL Press has its own page there with a strange header photo, apparently of a G. I. Joe and G. I. Jane reading some of SBL’s books.  Weird marketing is fine, of course.  Some of us have almost a connoisseur sensitivity to the bizarre.  As for the merch itself, it includes limited designs since, I suspect, most professors aren’t novelty tee-shirt fans.  What caught my attention was the button at the bottom that said “Mature content: hidden.”

Did the Society have some top shelf items?  The Bible certainly has quite a bit of mature content itself.  Questionable stuff as well as scenes that are, well, let’s just say scenes that are left out of children’s Bibles.  Of course I clicked the link.  It took me off the SBL Press page, naturally.  Redbubble has, I’m sure, many clients.  SBL’s demographics are slowly changing but the field is one still dominated, in numbers at least, by white men.  They’re the ones who benefit the most, I suspect, from a society that bases itself on the biblical outlook of the world.  At least as far as how it’s been applied in northern Europe and its colonial enterprises.  SBL tries to attract younger scholars, of course.  And everyone like knick-knacks and inside jokes. 


Ancient Near Ideas

Looking backwards has its issues.  I still think about the Ancient Near East.  My reputation on Academia.edu is based entirely on it.  (From the user stats, nobody’s really interested in my horror writing there.)  Let’s face the facts, though.  If you an expert in a field (mine is Ugaritic mythology, a form of history of religions), you can’t just write things off the cuff for publication.  I need to be very precise and accurate.  I like to think that’s why my articles on Academia get attention.  To do that kind of writing you need time—when I was a professor most of my “free time” was spent reading in that field—and either research funding or an incredible library.  Professional researchers (i.e., professors) get paid to do that kind of thing.  I don’t do it anymore but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it.

The other day I saw an article about Mehrdad Sadigh.  Although this antiquities dealer operated mere blocks away from where I worked when I commuted to Manhattan, I’d never heard of him.  It turns out that he had (has) a full-scale forging operation right in the city that never sleeps.  He has made a living, allegedly, for years by selling fake antiquities as genuine.  The story is tragic, but it underscores the point with which I began—people are interested in antiquity.  We want to be in touch with the past.  I can attest that there’s nothing quite like the thrill of being the person who unearths something on an archaeological dig.  Touching an artifact than no human hand has touched for two or three thousand years.  Looking back.

Looking back makes it easy to get distracted.  As much as I enjoy and appreciate my friends who still get to do Ancient Near Eastern studies for a living, I sometimes think how it’s good to move on.  Who knows, maybe I have another Ph.D. left in me yet.  Moving on increases the breadth of your knowledge.  Since university jobs are as mythical as the texts I used to study, doing a doctorate for a job is a fool’s errand.  Doing it to learn, however, is something I still heartily recommend.  There’s nothing like immersing yourself into a single topic for three-to-five years so that you come out with more knowledge than is practical about it.  I still think about the Ancient Near East.  I’m still tempted to buy new books that come out on the topic.  Instead, I watch horror and think it might be fun to earn a doctorate in monsters.


Screaming Season

The signs are all around.  The orange and black Spirit Halloween signs are appearing where vacant storefronts stand.  Advertisements for autumnal activities are cropping up.  Brochures broadcasting local haunted festivities now adorn store counters, free for the taking.  I picked up a leaflet for the local Field of Screams the other day although I really don’t like to be in scary situations.  I do appreciate the spooky sense that they generate, however.  This local event runs from early September through early November—the two months enterprising farmers can draw urbanites to their land, cash in hand.  Halloween has been a major money-maker for many years now.  The less doleful minded wonder why, but I think that lots of us are really afraid.  Halloween says it’s okay to be so.

Perhaps it’s the realization that it’s all in good fun and nobody will really hurt you.  I’ve attended a few of these haunted events over the years, but it was more fun to participate in them.  Perhaps it goes back to Nashotah House.  I’m guessing that most of you’ve never been.  Nashotah is a gothic campus, at one time pretty isolated, out in the woods.  Halloween was, once upon a time, a real celebration there.  Our maintenance crew would offer a hayride through farm fields owned by the school, then through the cemetery on campus.  I used to dress in a grim reaper costume and carry a kerosene lamp through the graveyard, awaiting the tractor.  Nobody instructed me to do it, but we all knew it was in good fun.  And I wasn’t the only volunteer who’d pop out from behind headstones.  Students got into the spirit of it too.

These days remembering such shenanigans is more appealing than actually going out at night to have other people scare me.  The last time I went to a haunted maze it was really too unnerving for me to enjoy.  I volunteered instead for a local haunted house in New Jersey.  The run up to Halloween was usually an intensely creative time of designing and fabricating homemade costumes, and thinking of ways to make pumpkins look scary.  Now it’s become a season in its own right.  An important segment of the economy.  I won’t be going to our local Field of Screams, but I will understand those who do.  Changes are in the air.  It’s dark quite a bit earlier these days.  The air is chilly in the morning.  And the local fear fields open this weekend.


Moral Bankruptcy

Last Thursday, apart from being the day after the plumber came, Tropical Storm Ida dumped on us, and the first day of September, the New York Times headlines were disturbing.  I don’t have time to read many news stories in depth, but I glance at the headlines to inject just enough worry into my day.  After discussing the flooding, Afghanistan, and a few other stories a particular quote caught my eye and kicked my gut: “Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, threatened to retaliate against technology companies that comply with the inquiry into the Capitol attack.”  This was a bit much after reading how much suffering is going on in the world.  Republicans threatening retaliation to keep the truth hidden in plain sight.  Is there any term for this but moral bankruptcy?

I simply can’t understand how any moral Republican can hold their head up proud.  I grew up Republican.  I was conservative most of my way through college.  I would never have stood up for a politician of either party that said “I’ll get you back if you tell the truth.”  Lies are the most insidious of acts.  How can you ever believe someone after they establish a reputation of being untruthful?  How can you believe he actually does support your cause?  How can you believe anything he says?  Not only that, but threatening his own fellow Americans for wanting to find out what his party supported on January 6.  There’s a reason the day is known as Epiphany—“the manifestation.”  When truth becomes clear.

A political party that has nothing to offer but lies and violence has become an organ of organized crime.  Perhaps our legislators should be given a dictionary open to the entry titled “perjury.”  We now have Republicans who lie under oath to become Supreme Court justices.  Who try to start rebellions with mobs ready to murder their colleagues and who then sit back and claim the rectitude of God Almighty when it’s over.  What have we come to here?  People were drowning in basement apartments and people were suffering loss of power and damaged homes.  Republicans meanwhile were working up threats of retaliation against people for simply trying to get at the truth.  The plumber did the job he said he would.  Those who projected and tracked Ida told the truth to try to save lives and property.  In the sewers of Washington, however, those loyal to the party vowed to keep their secrets safe. 


Witches of September

I’ve never read any John Updike before.  I understand that his novels foreground religion, which I didn’t realize.  I have watched The Witches of Eastwick, in movie form, a time or two.  In fact, I wrote a bit about the film in one of my books.  This got me curious to read the novel and I found a copy at a used book sale up in Ithaca some months back.  Now that September’s here, it seemed like an opportunity to see what the original story had to say about witches.  There is a problem, of course, in having watched the movie first.  Not only does it tell you which actors the characters should look like, but it also predisposes your orientation to what will happen.  In this case up that will mislead you.

The movie centers on Jack Nicholson’s Darryl Van Horne—like most Nicholson movies, his character takes over—whereas the novel is definitely centered on the three witches, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie.  They don’t fall into the background, but neither do they always work in concert.  The movie tells, in other words, a very different story.  Updike’s literary treatment focuses on female characters and the mischief they cause.  Nor is it entirely clear that Van Horne is demonic, as in the movie.  A church features prominently in both versions, amusingly Unitarian in the novel, with Van Horne not upstaging the sermon but giving an invited one himself.  No fear of sacred places here.

The wrath of the witches isn’t directed toward Van Horne either.  A character left out of the film, who marries Van Horne and whose brother is his real target of affection, is hexed and killed by the witches instead.  In many ways this could be construed as a kind of gentle horror story, although it’s never marketed that way.  I kept waiting for certain scenes in the movie to be narrated, as it were, in the flesh.  This led to the revelation that these scenes were invented for the cinematic version.  Both novels and movies are stories.  When shown on the big screen, we expect them to be adapted.  My personal preference is for the film to present the same story.  It can’t always be done, of course.  In this case the movie left some questions open that I hoped the novel would answer.  Since the stories are so different, the questions remain.  I have a feeling I’ll read more Updike down the road, but I’ll avoid watching the movie first.


Insect Inside

It seems a shame we don’t have an accurate name to classify all of them.  Insects, arachnids, and arthropods, I mean.  Those creatures smaller than us that inspire fear.  I suspect I’m not alone in experiencing a profound ill-at-easiness for some time after a close encounter with various of these small creatures.  Some experiences can be sublime, such as the other day when praying mantis on the glass of our front door provided a wonderful opportunity to look at a marvel from a seldom seen angle.  More often, however, the response is one of terror at being outnumbered, out-gunned, or out-run.  Spiders can be speedy as well as scary and I often yield the floor to them.  If I’ve got an empty peanut butter jar handy I try to catch and release, but I’ll look with worry at the spot of the encounter for days.

Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

Or the flying, stinging things.  Mostly they’re good for the environment and I don’t like to kill anything.  The other day, however, while returning the recycling bin to the garage I failed to notice paper wasps had built a nest (in just a day, since I’d taken the bin out only the afternoon before) above the door.  They were offended that I’d invaded their space—their concept of time is completely off from that of creatures that tend to live decades and want to stay in the same location for years at a time—and decided to attack.  This was a new stinging experience for me.  One flew down and stung my face then quicker than lightning landed on my right hand and bit again.  Its poison burned, I can tell you.  I’ve had run-ins with lots of stinging things in my time, but the shock probably added to the hurt.  I couldn’t even get the garage door shut, as previously mentioned.  

The next morning I awoke unsettled.  Houses have cracks and crevices.  They settle over time and critters can find their way in.  I understand.  Everyone needs a home.  But opening a door and being unexpectedly attacked hardly seems fair to me.  I hadn’t even seen the nest.  It’s easy to forget, in this virtual world of pandemic proportions, that we share the planet with a wide variety of others.  The large predators are mostly gone.  The countless small ones are still here, however, and many of them enjoy the way we’ve warmed the place up for them.  I have a feeling that when we finally outlive our welcome on our home, the insects, arachnids, and arthropods will be glad to stick around.


A Symphony of Horror

Horror season is upon us.  One could argue that it never left since summer has its fair share of horror when air conditioning is required.  The one horror director my wife seems to like, apart from the departed Alfred Hitchcock (and some would say he’s thriller, not horror), is Robert Eggers.  Eggers’ breakout The Witch worked on so many levels, even for non-horror fans.  The attention to historical detail and the solemnity of his approach and the slow build all helped.  The Lighthouse was moody and profound, with superb acting throughout.  The Northman, his viking epic shot in Iceland, is due out next year.  Rumor has it that his fourth film will be Nosferatu.  Anya Taylor-Joy, it is said, will be returning for it.

Nosferatu has, as of next year, a century of credibility.  F. W. Murnau’s classic, released in 1922, was technically a violation of copyright and was very nearly lost as copies were ordered destroyed.  This now iconic film, despite its subtitle A Symphony of Horror (eine Symphonie des Grauens), appeared before the category of “horror film” was assigned, and so it’s normally not considered as part of the genre.  The original was given a shot in the arm by Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre in 1979.  My long-suffering wife once agreed to watch it with me.  There are parts of the movie that are distinctly disturbing, but it remains one of the best vampire films ever made.  Many would classify it as an art film more than a horror film, just as Murnau’s was considered Expressionism rather than horror.

It remains to see how Eggers will handle this script.  The original plot was based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of the formative novels of the western canon.  The story of an unassuming individual unexpectedly encountering, through a small conspiracy (in the films), the supernatural.  That which we’re all told is not really there.  Many are beginning to wake, after the election of Trump revealed that evil does really exist, to the understanding that not all is as it seems.  It’s hard not to sympathize with the vampire in the movies, particularly when he’s the victim of a curse.  A vampire’s got to eat, right?  The original, of course, made him out as a devil.  That was in the days when selfish bloodsucking was considered evil, not business as usual.  We have a lot to learn from vampires, and I, for one, am eager to see how Eggers will handle Nosferatu.

Image credit F. W. MurnauHenrik Galeen, and Fritz Arno Wagner; Public Domain in the United States, via Wikipedia

Like a Hurricane

Around here we welcomed September in with the remains of Hurricane Ida.  For the second summer in a row, far inland, we’ve sustained hurricane damage.  For storms like this it’s not so much a question of if there will be damage, but rather “how much?”  It was complicated by the paper wasps.  It’s like a 1970s natural disaster movie.  It starts at the end of August.

I was going out to put the recycling bin away (more on this later).  When I opened the garage door I was stung three times by a paper wasp (or maybe two)—twice on the face and once on a finger.  The previous day when I’d taken the bin out there hadn’t been a nest, but 24 hours later, angry waspids were protecting their territory.  I couldn’t even get the door closed.  We don’t have any bug-killing spray on hand since we believe in live and let live.  But I do need to get into the garage.  Due to my weekly schedule I couldn’t get to the hardware store before Friday.  Fine, let the Hymenoptera have the garage.

The next day—actually later that day—Ida began to arrive.  We’ve had extensive roof repairs since moving in here.  We’ve had two-thirds of it replaced entirely.  Then the rain started.  The plumber came before it got bad to replace a cast-iron radiator that we had moved so I could repair the drywall behind it.  While doing that I repaired the ceiling where water from ex-Hurricane Isaias leaked through.  The roofer had patched this part after Isaias, so we thought we were good.  By mid-afternoon there was water dripping from the ceiling again and the repairs I had made crumbled into the bucket set there to catch the water.  So it goes.  Outside the street was closed due to flooding.  I couldn’t get into the garage to check for damage because, you know, wasps guarded the only door (still open).

It used to be that weather was a neutral topic to discuss.  Of course, it’s become politicized now.  Having a climate-change denier in the White House for four years made the topic dangerous to raise.  This area used to never get hit too badly by hurricanes.  Global warming, however, has changed everything.  I got up the morning after wondering where to start.  It was still dark and a cricket had come inside to get out of the weather.  It chirped as I came down stairs.  Everything will be all right.

Our unofficial rain gauge

Who Ya Gonna Call?

The haunting season is nearly upon us.  Apart from the usual fun of ghost stories, those of us with appreciation of science wonder about whether there’s any hope of confirming some of these tales.  Benjamin Radford’s Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits is a handy guidebook for those who don’t wish to be gullible.  Radford demonstrates just why much of popular ghost hunting reality television really isn’t scientific at all.  Knowing how science works, Radford is unusual in that he’s open to the possibility of ghosts.  He points out, however, that from the point of view of science there’s a conundrum—there is no consensus on what a ghost actually is.  Different readers and experimenters and experiencers have different ideas about them—everything from the spirits of the dead to “recordings” made by the environment to demons to time-travelers.  Radford’s quite right that to test an hypothesis you need to agree on what you’re testing for.

Ghost hunting groups, as he points out, are actually gathering evidence hoping to prove the existence of ghosts (whatever they are).  Evidence gathering isn’t the same as science, however.  If you’ve ever watched any of these shows you’ll likely enjoy Radford’s take-down of their flawed methodology.  Wandering an unfamiliar location at night with the lights off and gadgets in hand, they go here and there, possibly contaminating each others’ “evidence.”  Their theories behind why ghosts do this or that—make cold spots, turn lights on and off, make white noise into EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena—don’t match the science of basic ideas of ambient temperature, wiring, and audio pareidolia.  These things are well understood, but you have to read about them to apply them. 

The larger question, however, remains.  If ghosts exist, and if they choose (if they have will) not to cooperate, how can we learn about them?  Radford makes the valid point that coming in for one night with lots of equipment and little knowledge of what we might term “the deep history of a location” stands very little chance of achieving results.  It may be fun, and entertaining, and it may catch a legitimate anomaly or two, but it doesn’t, can’t scientifically prove the existence of ghosts.  We still seem to be stuck with the materialism that only measures the physical.  This fact may indeed fuel skeptics to suggest it’s “only this and nothing more.”  But science isn’t the only way we know the world.  It’s a pleasure to read a book from an investigator of this topic who has his head on straight.