Camera Ready

A friend recently asked me about cameras. I’m no expert, but after I finished my master’s degree I worked at Ritz Camera for about a year. It wasn’t an ideal job, but I learned a lot.  (Interestingly, I say that about most of the varied jobs I’ve held—janitor to editor.)  The conversation led me to dig out my box of pre-digital photographic equipment so that I could familiarize myself with f-stops and shutter speeds.  Handling my old Pentax K-1000, I reflected on how actual cameras (not that device in your pocket) transitioned from using actual film (which is superior for capturing images) to emulating that experience for the needs of digital photographers. Taking a stunning picture was more than just framing and lighting—it involved manual control.  The modern digital camera will allow the photographer control over things like shutter speed, aperture, and film speed (even if in altered terminology).

At the camera store, as in much of retail, waiting was involved.  Sometimes quite a lot of it.  Between customers coming in—and you had to be ready for that at any time—you had to find ways to amuse yourself.  Some would restlessly straighten up counter displays, restock the film (remember film?) bins, or find something that required putting away.  Most (and this was a young adult’s job) found ways of goofing off.  Immaturity takes a long time to settle into more reflective adulthood.  I often used the opportunity to read through the photography books we sold.  Well, in actual fact, I don’t remember ever actually selling one of those books.  If you’ve looked at the pictures most people take that will be evident.  That’s how I learned the little I know of photography.

At least you could see this kind.

We live in an era of disputing experts.  We like to think that we know just as much as the next guy.  Trump’s bull-headed tenure only made this fashionable.  Photography, on the other hand, no matter whether digital or print, is an art where the truth is clearly evident.  Gifted photographers take better photos.  The rest of us can learn some tips, but we all know when we see a stunning photograph.  We might even question if it’s real.  Although cameras can be made to lie—all photographs are fragments of the past—photography is perhaps the most impartial form of art.  Learning about it can improve results, but the camera is a revelatory device.  In the hands of an expert it can change the way we see the world.


Mystical Trip

It’s easy to believe we live in a “post-Christian” world.  People aren’t tied down by Scripture strictures the way they used to be.  Sunday mornings are free for lots of people.  We don’t spend our time hunting for heretics.  One thing that might not be obvious, however, is that our underlying culture is deeply Christian.  Beyond mere assumptions, this goes down to the very presuppositions of the way we think.  While society might not be overtly Christian, it remains so at a deeper level.  I’m reminded of this when I’m out and about (which is starting to happen again) and able to hear, or overhear, people talk.

Grounds for Sculpture is a whimsical, fun space to visit in New Jersey.  It consists of acres and acres of a former fair grounds with sculptures of many different kinds scattered along the shore of a small lake on one end and a busy road on the other.  Many of the statues were designed by Seward Johnson, showing people in a wide variety of activities.  Since the displays change over time multiple visits are rewarded with new insights and displays.  It seems to be a popular place since pandemic restrictions have started to lift.  So much so that the usual seclusion that is part of the charm of a visit is somewhat stifled.  In a typical art gallery, the visitor has some space to reflect and contemplate.  The sheer number of visitors leads to a “wild animal in Yellowstone” situation where, if a creature dares appear, it’s immediately swamped by city-dwelling humans who’ve never seen a bear in the wild before.  This leads to some interesting overhearing.

One of the sculptures I don’t recall having seen before is “Mystical Treasure Trip.”  It is a fantasy scene in which a couple, attired in what could be biblical garb, is sailing across the water in a boat filled with gold.  Perhaps it’s the dress of the characters.  They look like Mary and Joseph, perhaps fleeing from Herod, but with a boat full of gold.  Overhearing others commenting on what they thought it was I heard “they’re going to the ark.”  Admittedly, this is something I would never have come up with on my own.  Noah, according to Genesis, was six centuries old at the time and was commanded to collect animals, not gold.  Material for trading would’ve been pretty useless in a world devoid of other people.  Still, when our imaginations stretch for the interpretation of something we don’t understand, often they reach for the Good Book.  It’s its own kind of mystical trip, really.


Visualizing Twilight

Graphic novels still feel like cheating.  That childhood message that comic books “aren’t really reading” has proven difficult to dislodge.  That, and the fear that we are entering a post-literary world, keep me from reading many of them.  Koren Shadmi’s The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, however, caught my attention right away.  Like many other people my age, my thinking was heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone.  As a kid, television had a kind of authority to it.  This is what adults were feeding us.  Although I was hardly intellectual then, I thought deeply about things and one of those things was The Twilight Zone.  The episodes were profound.  The twist endings certainly were among the best on the tube.  Shadmi’s graphic novel of Rod Serling’s life is a tribute to the influence the man had.

For a graphic treatment, The Twilight Man is strangely affective (yes, that’s spelled correctly).  I tend to shy away from hagiographies, and Shadmi’s treatment isn’t one.  It does illustrate, however, how Serling fought against a commercialism that would eventually win out.  Those who control the money control what we see.  Granted, the democratizing influence of the internet has let competition arise from unseen quarters—there are young people who watch YouTube to the exclusion of television altogether—but few shows manage the impact that The Twilight Zone had when there were only essentially three large networks.  Now we have so many choices that cultural reference points are rare.  Those who’ve never seen it, at least for the time being, know what The Twilight Zone is.

This book is biographical, based on published biographies.  There’s something about knowing, however, that the episodes actually happened.  Being in combat (as Serling was) puts some people into their own kind of limbo.  At least one person in my own family was irrevocably changed by fighting in a war.  The remarkable thing is that Serling came out of it wanting justice for all people. The book even points out that he became a Unitarian, although it doesn’t dwell on that point.  Some things, such as spiritual insights, are difficult to illustrate I suppose.  I can  see why Shadmi’s tribute receives good press.  Graphic novels are a means of telling a story that moves people.  I re-learn this each time I read one, which is something I rarely do.  Now that I’m starting to explore this genre I’m perhaps learning to address my own prejudices.  As long as there are still words to read.


Stay Curious

Needle felting.  I’d never heard of it.  I’d got along some five-plus decades without knowing a thing about it.  My daughter received a needle felting kit as a Christmas gift and, being the kind of person I am, I had to research the history of felt.  I always knew felt was different from other fabrics, but I couldn’t say precisely how.  I came to learn it is perhaps the oldest textile in the world, known by the Sumerians.  Felting is a process for making non-woven cloth.  The natural fibers of some wools are scaled, like human hair is, and when compressed and worked with moisture (wet felting), becomes cloth.  Finding out how things work is one of the great joys of life.  It also made me think again of how anyone could possibly be arrogant.

The longer I’m alive the more I’m learning what I don’t know.  Granted, felt has appeared in my life at numerous junctures—how many crafts do kids make of felt?  And I have a felt hat—but I had never thought much about it.  My wife likes to read about pioneer women who had to make pretty much everything by hand.  We call such people “rusticated” these days, but they know far more than most urbanites, simply by dint of having to do things for themselves.  Modern conveniences are great, but I often wonder how many of us might survive if we had to make it on our own.  Just the last couple of weeks we worried about losing power with the storms that blew through.  What do you do when the thermostat no longer works in winter?  Something as simple as that vexed me for days (I had to work rather than worry, so it couldn’t properly use my brain power).

I’ve known many people impressed with their own knowledge.  I can’t imagine how actually learning new things doesn’t make someone humble.  The universe is a vast and mostly uncharted space.  Down here on our somewhat small planet we have so much yet to learn.  I’ve studied the beginnings of agriculture, metallurgy, writing, and religion.  There’s still so much I don’t know.  I wouldn’t do well on Jeopardy—I second-guess myself too much.  Staying curious about the world is a good way, it seems, to keep humble.  I entered into this holiday season thinking I knew a fair bit about various crafting options.  As a family we cover the creative spectrum fairly well.  Then a small, soft thing such as felt made me realize just how little I really understand.  Any invitation to learn is one that should be accepted.


Koyaanisqatsi

I recently saw Koyaanisqatsi for the first time.  This was initially prompted from an excellent blog post over on Verbomania, suggesting words to describe our current crisis.  I had never heard of the movie before.  In case you’re in that same jolly boat, Koyaanisqatsi is a feature-length film from 1982 with no plot and no spoken lines.  A score by Philip Glass underlies, and sometimes dominates, images of an earth beautiful in desolation (the Badlands, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon) juxtaposed with technology.  The images are fascinating and disturbing.  The title translates to something like “life out of balance” and the images of sausages being mass produced cross-cut with humans being lifted by escalators speaks volumes.  The long, slow footage of 747s on the ground was enough to make me wonder if they really can fly.

Frenetic is perhaps the word that best captures images of life in the early 1980s.  The images of Grand Central during rush hour show just how like ants we are.  On the other hand, some of the scenes of people waiting for trains show a high percentage of them reading—we have perhaps lost ground in the last four decades.  The mechanized, technologized way of life has perhaps made us something less than we could be.  There are people in the movie, but not many of them look happy.   Back when I commuted into New York I can’t think of any reason I would’ve been smiling on my way too or from work.  Crowded streets, often smelling bad.  Harried and harassed even before I reached the revolving door to my building.  I watched the movie that was a slice of my life and wondered if so much of my time commuting couldn’t have been better spent.

Of course, I did read on the bus.  On average I was able to finish about forty books more per year than I do now.  Even home owning participates in koyaanisqatsi.  It’s spring during an epidemic.  Cold, yet rainy, the grass continues to grow and there’s no sunny time off work to mow it.  It’s now May and it feels like we haven’t moved since March.  Watching Koyaanisqatsi during the pandemic was itself a haunting experience.  All those crowds.  So many people bunched so closely together.  I don’t miss the crowds.  The cross-cut images of computer chips and city layouts made me wonder just what it’s all about.  The SARS-CoV-2 reality has plunged me into a philosophical mood.  I’m hoping when the crisis is over we might strive for a better sense of balance.


Dancing

An artist is never really gone.  I have been listening to Leonard Cohen’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance.  Haunting in the way of Bowie’s Blackstar, there’s a poignancy to listening hard to the dead.  Especially when they saw it coming.  Artists are never really gone, and we can forgive them because they’re oh so very human.  Cohen was an exceptional poet and this album captures a man who knows the end is near.  Still he sings of girls and sins and God.  There’s an eternal soul there, and Cohen captures longing better than just about anyone.  The artist knows longing and understands not knowing for what.  The album struggles with religion and depression, a remarkably common combination.  Memories of glories that linger even as the body ages.

Listening to someone else’s music is taking a stroll through her or his head.  Someone once gave me a disc of songs built around a theme.  Although the theme came through I feared a little of what I heard here.  Some who know me primarily from my overly pious upbringing would be shocked to find Cohen on my favorites list.  For me he has no pretense.  Instead of ignoring religion, sexuality, or politics, he tried to make sense of them through song.  For me—and listening to music is a very personal thing—I think I understand when I’m drawn into his lyrics.  His experience of life was vastly different from what mine has been, yet he’d accurately mapped the direction my mind might wander, if given free rein.  Religion will hold your imagination captive, if left to its own devices.

Those who reduce Leonard Cohen to his over-used “Hallelujah” catch only glimpses of this complex man.  I once read an article about Bruce Springsteen in which a friend of his said that if he hadn’t succeeded in music he might’ve become a priest.  There’s an authenticity to these artists who write probing songs that have deep spirituality yet allow themselves to be human.  Cohen’s songs revealed he could see death with some ambivalence from afar.  Even in albums recorded thirty years ago the hints were there.  Instead of running and attempting to hide, Cohen’s lyrics, at least, indicated that he’d continue to try to live.  Maybe these are just the reflections of a middle-aged man who’s only glimpsed a fleeting connection between an artist in perpetual motion and a one-time scholar sitting up alone at 3:00 a.m., seemingly stuck in one place.  Whatever else they may be, such quiet moments will ones be haunted by Thanks for the Dance.


This Is a Test

For the next sixty seconds…  (If you were born after Civil Defense aired these commercials, it’s your loss.)  I’ve been reading about animal intelligence—there will be more on this anon.  Today’s lesson is on artificial intelligence.  For now let this be an illustration of how difficult it is to come down from an inspired weekend to the daily technology-enhanced drudgery we call day-to-day life.  One of the real joys of seeing art in person is that no tech intervenes in the experience.  It is naked exposure to another human being’s expression of her or himself.  Over the weekend we wandered through five venues of intense creativity and then, back home, it was once more into the web.  The ever-entangling internet of things.

I write, for better or for worse, on my laptop.  My writing’s actually better on paper, but you need everything in electronic form for publication, so who has the time to write and retype, especially when work is ten hours of your day?  Then a system update alert flashes in the upper right corner of my screen.  “Okay,” I say setting the laptop aside, “go ahead and update.”  But then the message that states I have to clear enough gigs for an update.  I have been a little too creative and I’ve used my disc space for stuff I’ve made rather than Apple.  This is a test.  Okay, so I plug in my trusty terabyte drive to back things up before deleting them.  But the laptop doesn’t recognize the drive.  Oh, so it needs a reboot!  (Don’t we all?)  I give the command to restart.  It can’t because some app refuses to quit beach-balling, as if it is the computer that’s doing the actual thinking.  Force quit.  “Are you sure?” the Mac cheekily asks.  “You might lose unsaved changes.”  I need a technological evangelist, I guess.

All of this takes time away from my precious few minutes of daily creativity.  Restart, login, start copying files.  Time for work!  Just a mere sixty hours ago or less I was wandering through showcases of genuine human creation.  Art pieces that make you stop and ponder, and not have to upgrade the software.  Artists can talk to you and shake your hand.  Explain what they’ve tried to express in human terms.  Meanwhile my phone had died and was pouting while I charged it.  I know Apple wants me to upgrade my hardware—their technological extortion is well known.  Anyone who uses a computer experiences it.  Buy a new one or I’ll waste your time.  The choice is yours.  This is a test.  For the next sixty years…


Trailing Art

One of the many trails that wend their way through Ithaca is the Art Trail.  (The town finds waypoints on the wine and beer trails of the southern tier as well, but we were looking for visual art.)  In early October several artists open their studios—these are personal places—to the tourists passing through.  Those of us on the trail are seeking inspiration in human expression.  I’ve neglected my own art for many years.  While other guys my age are retiring and expressing their boredom, I struggle to find enough time to write, dreaming of the day when I can again take up my pencils and brushes.  Being in so many studios over the weekend jump-started something in me.  Humans are at their most god-like when they create.

Seeing artists in context is revealing.  They don’t worry too much about convention.  I found myself hanging toward the back of our little group.  There was so much of others’ souls on display here.  While some were young, a fair number were older than me.  Perhaps retired from a novocaine job that dulled many days until enough years had passed and the need to let the art out escaped.  If felt like visiting a small farm where the true independent, liberal spirit of this country once resided.  These were farmers with paint brushes rather than shotguns and Trump bumperstickers.  Free thinkers, not Fox thinkers.  Under a sky October blue after two days of rain and gray, this was a mosaic of autumn.  Art is a muse.  I think of my neglected brushes and dried out paints, tucked away in the attic.

Modern art sometimes feels like someone slapped a frame around something random, but in talking with the creator something different emerges.  Something that doesn’t feel like plastic.  Something that defies words.  Like poems sometimes break conventional lines, art refuses to be confined.  Some of these studios used to be living rooms.  Houses converted and dedicated to creativity.  Why is this so difficult to accomplish in my own life?  How has the time come to be consumed with work, even when the commute has been effaced?  I suppose I’ve been using words to express myself—this blog is certainly an example of that.  It is, however, a mere fraction of visual ideas awaiting release.  I don’t know if I could ever open my studio to strangers.  Art trails are labyrinths, and once you’ve entered that maze, it will take some time to reemerge.  And when I do I know I will have been transformed.


The Sound of Musik

“Why is there so much people here?”  The words aren’t mine, but those of a random stranger I heard in Herald Square.  Not only was it grammatically offensive, I always find “much people” in Manhattan, but this was the occasion of the Pope’s visit a few years ago, so more of us were crowded into that area than normal.  It was a feeling that returned last night as my wife and I wandered around Musikfest.  If you’re not from around here, Musikfest is the largest free music festival in the United States, and it takes place in Bethlehem each summer.  Ten days of free, live music and tents hawking wares and all kinds of comestibles, as well as that strangely satisfying feeling of being lost in a crowd.  We ended up there more or less accidentally.

I was an experimental subject.  Those of you who know me will probably not find this odd, and you may well come up with many reasons to find me in the psychology department, some involving locked doors.  This was, however, a voluntary research project that required participants and it had been literally decades since I’d volunteered to be one of the “much people” who was not not part of the university crowd.  It felt good to be on a campus again.  The Lehigh Valley hosts several colleges and universities, and that draw is perhaps related to why Musikfest is held here.  When we got to town my wife realized we might have trouble parking.  Sections of downtown Bethlehem are closed to traffic and there are people everywhere.  I finished my experiment and we became part of the crowd again.

Music and religion, I’ve noted before, hang out in the same crowd.  They both have the ability to be transcendent and people seek out such experiences.  Since we hadn’t planned on attending—accidental musicologists we—we had no groups as targeted hearing while we wandered.  Mostly we marveled at the size of the event.  The city of steel transformed to the city of music.  And the religious feelings music brings.  As I walked from the college back to downtown, a couple strangers accosted me.  “Hi, brother,” they said.  “Heading to Musikfest?”  This, I realized was a congregation.  I was an unknown brother.  Music brings peace.  Dona nobis pacem, sisters and brothers.  Like those crowds a few years back hoping for a glimpse of the pontiff, an entire city had kicked off its shoes for a Friday night of potential transcendence.  Why is there so much people here?  Simply listen and you’ll have your answer.


McChristianity

Christianity isn’t known for its sense of humor.  The same can be said of other religions as well, of course.  What else should we expect concerning belief systems that claim eternal consequences?  A story by Colin Dwyer on NPR explains that the Haifa Museum of Art had to remove a sculpture titled “McJesus” due to public violence.  The sculpture depicts a crucified Ronald McDonald, and a number of althoughs follow: although Haifa is in Israel a large number of Christians protested.  Although the practice of crucifixion was uncomfortably common in ancient days it has come to be associated with one particular case.  Although the message might be interpreted as a condemnation of commercialism, protestors took it to be aimed at their faith.  Perhaps it was.  Artists can be notoriously ambiguous in that way.

Ronald McDonald is a liminal, if ubiquitous figure.  Instantly recognizable, he has been challenged before as a threat to christendom.  I once heard a priest lament that children recognized the golden arches more than the cross.  Well, that’s not surprising—we don’t go around telling our kids about crucifixion daily.  (Or shouldn’t.)  A massive Ronnie, on the other hand, floats down Manhattan every Thanksgiving Day.  He’s on posters, commercials, and 42nd Street.  He’s the patron saint of branding.  With his garish clashing color palette, his red and yellow never mix to orange and they linger in our minds to ensure us that no matter where we might be there’s always cheap, if unhealthy, food nearby.  Mr. McDonald has become a religious symbol of capitalism.

Even as a child I noticed the great deal of excitement that accompanied the opening of the local McDonald’s.  In a small, corroded corner of the rust belt, families piled into cars to drive to Oil City to see this wonder.  It was like an epiphany.  Eating out that the poor could afford.  Just about everything in downtown Oil City is now closed, but the last time I was there that McDonald’s still stood.  Back in Haifa an ironic depiction led to real violence.  Angry Christians carrying stones couldn’t see the statue as a condemnation of consumer culture.  Their beleaguered religion was at risk.  Blood flowed and the art piece was removed and packed off to Finland.  Although the point of the display was to question religious appropriation in the support of consumerism, and although that message could ultimately support the teachings of the religion it evokes, the branding came across all wrong.  Church is your kind of place…


Beyond the Facade

Over the summer the New York Historical Society had an exhibit, now over, on Norman Rockwell, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms.  I think we may be down to one or two freedoms by now, but nevertheless.  One weekend my wife and I went to the exhibition.  She’d just read a biography of Rockwell, and although his Americana is my America, I suppose, his pluck is sometimes unnerving.  You see, an artist has to show emotions on people’s faces and in their gestures.  Long ago I learned that if you show what you’re feeling in real life, people will quickly take advantage of you.  I learned, even as a teen, to be subtle.  If you think you’ve got me figured out, here’s a hint—that subtlety continues even into my writing.  It’s often not what it appears to be.

Some months back I wrote a funny piece on this blog.  Some people who actually know me—or the part that I let be known—thought I was depressed.  Or angry.  Or both.  That’s a side effect of subtlety.  Episcopalians have it down to a science.  At least they used to.  The only place they showed emotion was in high mass, and that, if done right, packs a wallop.  One of my brothers comments that I seldom smile.  I might say too much about myself if I did.  What would you do with that knowledge?  In my earliest experience, you might use it to hurt me.  Walking through Manhattan to the exhibit, I noticed the stone facades.  Some buildings have solemn stonework, almost gothic is aspect.  Behind the windows, however, I can sense emotion left unshown.  It’s not very Rockwell.

I admire Rockwell’s outlook.  Indeed, I might share more of it than I want to reveal.  Rockwell, according to the exhibit, believed in America for all races and all creeds.  Strong women dominate his paintings and illustrations.  Equality was what America used to stand for.  And although I’m reluctant to admit it, when my writing’s most serious an element of humor enters in.  Like a Rockwell painting.  He wished to be taken for a serious artist, but had a difficult time suppressing the irony of life itself.  I get that.  It’s just that if other people see what’s beneath the surface—what goes on behind that stone facade?—they will find a means of extorting it.  Best to be subtle.  Words can mean the opposite of what they say or can be literally true.  The shades between the extremes are endless.


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.


Museum Haven

At various points of my career I’ve applied for museum curator positions.  Since those who actually land those jobs have degrees in museum studies, I’ve never gotten as far as an interview.  Still, I like to think I’d be good at it.  I spend time in museums and I’ve been told I have an okay eye for design.  And I recently read that museums are educational institutions.  That makes sense since people tend to be visual learners.  (This is something I took into account in my classes as well, illustrating lectures to make a point.  The traditional academic feels that pictures are somehow “soft” learning as opposed to the harsh realities of text and word-based instruction, but I beg to differ.)  We see things and they stick with us.

On a visit to the New York Historical Society museum I once looked at their somewhat abbreviated sculpture collection.  This isn’t the Met, after all.  One of the tricks I’ve learned about museum displays is that some curators place subtle humor in their framing of objects.  For example, my gaze was drawn to a figure of a pilgrim.  A stern-looking fellow, he’s captured in full stride, massive Bible tucked under his arm, determined frown on his face.  This is a man trying to create Heaven on earth, dour though it may be.  Taking a step back, my camera found a smile in this image.  On either side of this angry Christian were two naked women: one was apparently Artemis with her bow, the other perhaps a Muse.  The lines of the display draw attention to this juxtaposition.  There’s some humor here, intentional or not.

This also takes me back to yesterday’s post about Heaven.  Perceptions of what it is differ.  There’s a mindset like the pilgrim that sees a life of suffering being rewarded in the hereafter with endless bliss.  I do have to wonder whether too much hardship down here might not make one forget how to enjoy oneself.   It’s difficult to picture a Puritan in rapture.  It’s as if the journey—the hard road—is the real source of enjoyment here.  Each of us, I suppose, has her or his own view of Heaven.  Mine’s kind of like a library with all the time in the world without end to read.  Others, I suspect, would find paradise as a garden.  Yet others would see Heaven as a kind of museum, but it would be one where laughing out loud was okay, for the Curator definitely has a sense of humor.


Cthulhu You Knew

Humans tend to be visually oriented.  Arresting images stop us cold, causing us to focus on what we’re seeing.  As a tween I could be transported by large, lavishly illustrated, full-color books of other worlds.  While these went the way of Bradbury, I still sometimes recollect scenes that stopped me in my young tracks, making my juvenile mind wonder, what if…?  As an adult I realize “coffee table” books are heavy and a pain when you’re moving.  Printed on specialized paper, they have more heft than your mass-market paperback, or even most academic tomes.  Nevertheless, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu was a book that carried me, like a time-machine, back to my younger years.  Unlike in those days, however, I read the text as well as lingered over the images.  And I wondered about Cthulhu.

You see, I didn’t know about Lovecraft as a child.  The only reading regularly done in my family was Bible-oriented.  I discovered science fiction and gothic literature as a tween and, living in a small town, had no one to guide me in my choices.  Rouseville (the town pictured in the background on this website) had no public library.  My reading was left to my own, uninformed devices.  I discovered Cthulhu through my long fascination with Dagon.  I’d pitched Dagon as my dissertation topic, but settled on Asherah instead.  While teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered Lovecraft, and Cthulhu, through Dagon.

Gordon Kerr, the author of Gothic Dreams Cthulhu, might be forgiven his hyperbole about H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft was not a great writer—that’s not intended as any kind of slight, I hasten to add.  Classically, however, he didn’t have the level of literary finesse of Edgar Allan Poe, for example.  Still, Lovecraft created credible worlds.  His was a life of imagination—one might almost say divinity.  He was a creator.  Cthulhu has become a cultural icon.  With the magic of the internet bringing a writer still obscure to international attention, many people who never read horror fantasy nevertheless know who Cthulhu is.  Or they think they do.  As Kerr explains, the descriptions by Lovecraft himself are spare, thus the variety of ideas represented in the delicious artwork on every page of this book.  As Lovecraft earns more academic attention, surely others will notice the religious potential of the Great Old Ones that were, in their time, gods.  A guilty pleasure read, to be sure, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu fits well into this serious world of chaos we’ve created for ourselves.


Upstate Goddesses

Goddesses give you connections. Here in Ithaca, all kinds of specialty shops abound. University towns are like that. This one had lots of goddesses. Ever since writing my dissertation on Asherah I’ve been interested in female divinities. Part of the reason for this is that I fail to understand how many men don’t see the power of women in their lives and insist that men should rule. Goddesses remind us that women have as much to contribute as do men, and they should be honored and respected just the same. Deities, after all, are projections of humanity. In any case, I found myself in a shop with many goddesses. The proprietor noticed my interest and struck up a conversation. This was ironic because where I live no one asks about my academic background; I have to travel to find interested takers, I guess.

She told me of an upcoming conference that would like to hear my thoughts on the topic of Asherah. Since my book on the goddess has been plagued with high prices, it remains hidden down three or four pages on Amazon, while lower priced dissertations easily float above it. My conversation with this stranger brought out that I had planned to write on other goddesses. A friend had done his dissertation on Anat, so I began working on book on Shapshu, the Ugaritic goddess associated with the sun. Some cultures made the sun male, the people of Ugarit, however, knew the true nature of brightness. I was going to make an academic career of goddesses.

Every great once in a while an academic will ask me about Asherah. Chances are their book or article will fail to cite my work, but they do seem to know to make queries. In my hopes to get a job beyond Nashotah House I followed the advice of colleagues to write a biblical book before finishing another book on “pagan” deities. In the career vicissitudes that followed, goddesses had to fall by the wayside. Although there can be money in deities, as this shop in which I stood proved, they aren’t really a marketable commodity in the realm of making an academic living. Now that I’ve found my way back to writing books again, perhaps I’ll return to my goddesses. That brief encounter in an Ithaca store resurrected some of the fascination of learning about the inner lives of divine women. The need to remind the world, it appears, has only become greater since I first wrote about Asherah decades ago.