Looking In

There’s a real danger to the lifelong study of religion.  Learning to look at any tradition from the point of view of an observer will create a sense of being on the outside looking in.  I’m a member of a religious organization.  I occasionally consider pursuing ordination within it—this was my original sense of my calling in life—but I’m compelled to consider the phenomenon of being outside looking in.  When I was an Episcopalian (before the church showed its true colors in my particular case), I wrote a letter to my rector asking how I could get off of the church steps and be invited inside.  My rector wrote back with some insipid advice and was among those who voted, as a trustee, to oust me from my fourteen-year career at Nashotah House.  Outside again.

Studying the history of religions provides dangerous levels of insight.  Simple, mindless acceptance of teachings becomes impossible.  This isn’t arrogance, as any who know me can attest, but rather a form of hyper-awareness.  You can’t emerge from forty-plus years of reading about, and deeply pondering, religion unscathed.  Many, of course, dismiss any observations by those lacking the denominational seal of approval.  “If you knew what you were talking about,” so the reasoning goes, “you’d be a minister or a professor.”  So you speak from the sidelines at best.  Outside.  Even within my own group I have merely the role of “member,” lacking the official piece of paper from the seminary or other accrediting body that states I might know some things.

Of course, I have much yet to learn.  This religion thing is a tough nut to crack.  Were I younger and better paid I might consider undergoing college again to take a different path.  As it is, I’ve invested more than a half-century trying to get where I am, wherever that is.  I sit outside watching the birds.  They’re back pretty much in full force now.  They seem so certain about where they’re going.  How can you fly without a full level of commitment?  Earthbound, I muddle about with my head somewhere above the clouds I cannot reach.  I read about religious traditions unknown to me.  Often I find nuggets of great value in them.  Of course, I’m not clergy so you need not take my word for it.  I, after all, draw inspiration simply by sitting outside, always outside, and watching the birds. 


Our Stories

People’s stories are interesting.  The received wisdom is that if you wish to change a politician’s mind, tell her or him a story.  In fact, it seems that we’re hardwired to enjoy stories.  That’s why it’s so unfortunate that we seldom take the time to listen to other people’s stories.  We’re too busy.  For an organization to which I belong, I recently asked that five minutes of each agenda be set aside so that one member could tell her or his story at each meeting.  That way it’s possible to get to know who it is you’re working with, without the tired “one thing nobody knows about you” trope.  The idea was adopted and it seems a worthwhile use of agenda time.  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard someone’s account and found myself anything less than fascinated.

When we reflect back over our lives, we do it in narrative format.  We tell ourselves a story about our life.  And these stories intersect with other people’s stories.  Some of those people may be famous or wealthy or ordinary, but each is unique.  Considering that there are billions of us on this planet, that’s a lot of tales.  There’s not so much a lesson to be learned from this than there is a simple reminder—it is worthwhile to listen to others.  I’ve run into a few people who are household names in my time.  Some of them are routinely criticized in the media, by people who never met them.  Who don’t know them.  Who don’t know their stories.

Much of our time at “work” is really time trying to earn money for a company.  It may involve dealing with other people, but not closely enough to really know their story.  I think of this every time an author and I could engage in a conversation about our experience of the academic life only to have to keep the discussion to “the business at hand.”  The human element, it seems, is unimportant.  I would read other people’s stories all day, if I could.  We crave a narrative, but getting one’s not a paying position.  How have we come to this place where we have time for only disconnected memes and not the stories behind them?  Bookstore owners know a perennial selling genre is the biography.  We’ll pay to know a famous person’s story.  The fact is each of our lives is also a tale worth telling.  We would all benefit from listening to each other’s experiences.  Tell your story, I’m listening.


Considering the Time

Does anybody else find the name “Office 365” ominous?  Perhaps I’ve been reading too much about Orwell, but the idea that work is waiting for you every single day of the year is worrisome.  The way people unthinkingly buy into technology is a way of being used.  Like Cassandra, however, I get the feeling I’m just talking to myself.  365 could simply mean it’s always available.  For me, however, the PC is symbolic of corporate America.  And corporate America wants everything thing you have, at least if it can be liquidated.  That includes your time.  Now that the weather’s improving I spend beautiful days sitting at a desk behind a screen.  Before I know it that beautiful day’s gone for good and I’ve not stepped outside once.  I’ve been 365ing.

An organization I know has a dysfunction.  It keeps trying to plaster on technological bandages to solve its problems.  Such bandages only pull the wounds open again when they’re yanked off.  It’s the latest thing, the new communication technology that “everyone will use.”  Only it never is.  It’s just one more app that I’ll have to learn and yet another way to invade my private time.  Time I might otherwise spend outdoors.  Look!  The sun is shining!  All day long the birds and bees fly by my windows, celebrating.  I’m sitting here scratching my head.  Yammer or Slack?  And who comes up with these stupid names?  And are they available 24/7?  Do they even take into account that human beings have to sleep?

Studies now show that people my age who routinely get less than six hours sleep a night have a greater risk of developing dementia in their seventies.  Yet Office 365 will be waiting even for them.  Those whose retirement funds were never as secure as they hoped or thought they were face a future at the Office.  It will be there, always waiting.  Like Winston my time comes at a cost.  It’s the chill, early hours of the day.  Even as I work on my personal writing (which is not even done in Word, thank you very much), I know that the Office—which now includes Teams and even holds my calendar in its icy electronic fingers—is waiting.  Perhaps, if it’s a weekend, I’ll be able to stave it off a bit.  Even if I can, however, it will be waiting 24/7, 365.  Only time outside those parameters can be called one’s own.


Artificial Priorities

Maybe it has happened to you.  Or perhaps it only affects ultra-early risers.  I’ll be in the middle of typing a blog post when a notice appears on my computer screen that my laptop will be shutting down in a few seconds for an upgrade.  Now, if you’re caught up in the strengthening chain of thinking that develops while you’re writing, you may take a little while to react to this new information.  If you don’t respond quickly enough, your computer simply quits and it will be several minutes—sometimes an hour or more—before you can pick up where you were interrupted, mid-sentence.  Long ago I decided that automatic updates were something I had to do.  Too many websites couldn’t run things properly with old systems.  It’s just that I wish artificial intelligence were a little more, well, intelligent.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I keep odd hours.  I already know that.  I’ve been trying for years to learn to sleep past the long-distance commuting hour of three a.m.  Some days I’m successful, but most days I’m not.  That means that I write these posts when computer programers assume everyone is asleep.  Doesn’t it notice that I’m typing even as it sends its ominous message?  Is there no way for automatic updates—which send you warnings the day before—can do their work at, say, midnight or one a.m., when I’m never using my computer?  Ah, but the rest of the world prefers to stay up late!  I need the uninterrupted time when few of us are stirring to come up with my creative writing, whether fictional or nonal.  So I have to tell my electronic conscience to be patient.  It can restart at ten p.m. when I’m asleep.

Wouldn’t it be easy enough to set active hours for your personal devices?  After all, they pretty much know where we are all the time.  They know the websites we visit and are able to target product advertising to try to get us to buy.  They data-mine constantly.  How is it that my laptop doesn’t know, after many years of this, that I’m always working at the same time every day?  Is there no way to convince it that yes, some people do not follow everyone else’s schedule?  What about individual service?  You know what brands I like.  You sell my information to the highest bidder.  You remember every website onto which I’ve strayed, sometimes by a poorly aimed click.  I could point out more, but I see that my computer has decided now is the time to resta


Welcome the Stranger

Welcome, sibling! Have you ever contributed to a genealogy online?  I know not everyone’s into their ancestry, but there’s enough of the treasure-hunt to it, and enough mystery to keep you turning the pages.  Some time ago—it was when I was a professor, because I actually had some leisure time—I posted a bit on WikiTree.  WikiTree is a free communal effort to map the world of relationships.  Just about every week there’s a newsletter emailed around, offering how many degrees of separation you are from someone famous.  Often this is tied into the news cycle, so recently Prince Philip was among those measured.  Then Carrie Fisher.  Without fail, over the past several weeks, the family member through whom I’m connected to the famous is a great uncle.  The same great uncle.

I usually lose interest when the relationship starts to get to siblings and spouses.  There are webs everywhere.  Still, this intrigued me.  I’d never knowingly heard of this great uncle (and certainly never met him) but he was under 20 degrees of separation from several famous people.  It made me consider how you never can tell what relationships might lead to connections.  My direct ancestors, as far as I know, were all humble, work-a-day sorts.  One branch of the family had an engineer a couple generations removed, but for the most part they were farmers, laborers, truck drivers, and such.  The web of human relationships includes everyone, of course.  At some point in our family trees, we share a common ancestor, be they Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon (or a blending of the two).  When we harm or hate another person we’re harming or hurting a sibling, distant or close.

Getting along with everyone may be too much for which to hope, but at least tolerating seems worth stretching for.  I once found a long-lost cousin.  This was accompanied by a wonderful feeling of having found a family I didn’t even know.  Genealogy made that particular reunion possible.  Before that I might have passed this cousin as a stranger on the street.  It made me stop and think.  Is that stranger actually someone related?  Traveling back to the areas my ancestors lived I occasionally glimpse a face that could be a distant uncle or aunt.  My mental calculus kicks in, but there’s really no way to know just how close they might be.  Now, if I were my unknown great uncle chances might be somewhat better that I’m only a degree or two removed.  Even so, I should try to treat the stranger as though that were the case.

We’re all interconnected.


Learning from Nature

Netflix is one of those companies that has shown that new models for providing both television and movies are emerging.  Of course there are many subscription services, but Netflix rose to the top of the pile during this pandemic.  I don’t watch it much, since my time is generally otherwise spoken for, but I did have a chance to watch My Octopus Teacher, a documentary about Craig Foster’s relationship with an octopus.  The story unfolds over a year in which Foster comes to know, and to be recognized by, an octopus.  Quite apart from the Cthulhu references that may come to mind, octopuses are often skittish, highly intelligent mollusks.  Perhaps what made this movie such a surprise hit was just how emotionally attached viewers become to the cephalopod through Foster’s relationship with her.

Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

Almost immediately in the documentary, the viewer is struck by just how intelligent octopuses are.  The particular personality—and there is no other word for it—featured in this film is able to think and solve problems.  Not only that, but she is capable of forming a relationship with a human being she came to trust.  For many decades we’ve been taught that animals are like automatons, reacting with stock behaviors, because they can’t think.  Any claims to animal intelligence were chalked up as “anthropomorphism,” or inappropriately allowing animals to share in that coveted human trait of being “intelligent.”  The idea comes from the Bible and not even scientists would question it for the longest time.  Spending part of each day with one octopus, however, gives the lie to animals being subject to programmed behavior.  Like both Heisenberg and Schrödinger demonstrated, being involved in the scenario necessarily changes it. 

Animal intelligence has great implications for religion, of course.  This is perhaps why it is such a taboo subject.  What does it mean if animals can think and act intentionally?  Does it imply morality?  Foster implicitly raises that very question as he tries to decide whether to keep the pajama sharks away from the octopus he’s befriended.  Is he watching nature or has he become a part of it?  Our religions are often our ethical signposts.  In more recent years ethics has been shifted to the philosophy department since many people outwardly distrust the obviously mythical aspects of religious stories.  Nevertheless, the implications are clearly there.  Doesn’t it make a difference that our world is filled with other intelligent beings apart from those of us with opposable thumbs?  Watch My Octopus Teacher before deciding on an answer.


Post-1984

To truly understand a religion, you must be part of it.  This is the dilemma that underlies the entire discipline of religious studies.  And it all comes down to that slippery concept of “belief.”  One of the books that has been on my reading list for years now is Heather and Gary Botting’s The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  What finally prompted me to read it was the (relatively) recent receipt of an invitation to spend what many call Good Friday (for it is today for the Orthodox) with the local Kingdom Hall crowd.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the last people to come to my door before the pandemic began were the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I’ve read about them before, but scholarly literature on the sect is rare, despite their obvious influence.  One reason for this, I suspect, is that to understand you have to partake.

This is where the book by the Bottings comes in.  They were raised as Witnesses and eventually left.  They have been on the inside.  This book takes the interesting hook of comparing that inside world to the vision of the Party in George Orwell’s 1984.  Not only that, but the math regarding the end of the world, or Armageddon, more properly speaking, showed that 1984 was the terminus for the next phase of Witnesses’ history inaugurated by the spiritual return of Jesus in 1914.  It is no accident that this book itself was published in 1984.  The world of the Watchtower is explored creatively and somewhat thoroughly here.  The only problem with reading it nearly forty years later is that I’m left curious for updates.  The Witnesses are, after all, still out there.

The thing about beliefs is that we all have them and we can’t always explain them.  They are part of our rational faculties, but also part of our emotional thinking as well.  No one is totally objective and even Mr. Spock gives in to feelings once in a while.  No system of belief is entirely rational.  Since we don’t have all the data it necessarily can’t be.  We tend to believe what we feel is right.  Those raised in traditions of NRM (New Religious Movements) absorb the beliefs their parents and guardians teach them just as much as Catholic school kids do.  They are often warned about those outside the tradition and what they will inevitably say about it.  This makes them look prophetic.  Once a child has been raised in an exclusionary system, getting her or him out of it is not only difficult, but often damaging to them.  So it is with belief.  This book really made me think.


The Cost of Content

Those who don’t read this blog (you, my friend, are in a rarified crowd) aren’t aware of my antipathy to tech for tech’s sake.  Many people mindlessly go after the latest technology without stopping to think of the consequences.  I was reluctant to get a cell phone.  Not a decade ago I got along fine without one.  When I finally succumbed, I found I didn’t use it much.  I still don’t.  Nevertheless, many have charged ahead.  It’s not the first time I’ve been let behind.  I recently wrote about an organization I joined that unilaterally decided to make all members sign up for Slack.  “It’s better than email,” they said.  What they didn’t say is that it doesn’t replace email.  In fact, what it does is gives you yet another communication medium you have to constantly check.  Why?

Not that long ago—a year or two perhaps—it was recommended that you ask people what their preferred form of communication was.  Phone call?  Text?  Email?  Well, my cell phone plan charges by the call and text so please don’t use that.  My preference, since about the last century, has been email.  I check it regularly and I respond as long as emails don’t get buried by others on top of them.  What did my organization do?  Went to Slack.  How long, I ask, will it be before advertisers and others figure out how to do the Slack stack?  How long before a new technology (giddy giggle) comes along and we all have to do that instead?  I’ve lost track of the number of software packages and apps I’ve had to learn for work.  Several dozens at least.  What suffers?  The content does.

Now I get three or four, or nine or ten Slack notifications a day, through my email. (My computer has no room for a nw app.)  It has compounded the premature burial issue I’ve got.  That email that arrived just yesterday is now on page two.  When will I have time to navigate to it?  I guess I’ve been slacking off.  So now I check my email to see if there’s another system that I have to check to find out someone wants to contact me.  I miss the days when humanity drove communication instead of technology doing it.  Learning some new system isn’t always the solution to complex problems.  Or at least we can find out the preferences of the individual before making them learn (and probably eventually forget) a new communication system.  It seems to me that we should be spending actual time on the content of the communication itself instead of playing with new toys.


Time To Think

Although I’m not Roman Catholic, I often thought about joining a monastery as a teen and twenty-something.  The idea of spending all my time devoted to contemplating the ultimate reality still has a strong appeal.  I know quite a few rationalists who have no time for spirituality, but it seems to me that we all need it for facing death.  Most people, I know, avoid the topic if at all possible.  Contemplatives, on the other hand, spend quite a bit of time preparing for it.  Since it’s inevitable that makes sense.  I often wonder why people consider the most common thing in human experience with such trepidation.  If it’s a source of anxiety, shouldn’t it be confronted?  That’s not to say we need to look forward to it, but it does mean we shouldn’t run from it either.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

The combination of Christianity and rationalism, it seems to me, lead to this terror.  Christianity because it views death as an enemy, and rationalism because it has no comfort to offer.  I’ve been reading about how pre-Christian cultures thought of death.  They didn’t display the fear that Paul seems to have introduced into the equation.  Since American culture is so heavily influenced by the Bible (as was European culture before it), we have adopted the scriptural view that death is a problem.  The Hebrew Bible, in which there was no real afterlife, was less concerned with making sure you avoided Hell—they had no Hell to avoid.  The anxiety seems to have been introduced by, ironically, the concept of resurrection.

I’ve noted on pieces I’ve written for other websites that resurrection is among the favorite themes for horror films.  One of the reasons is precisely this discomfort in taking death at face value.  Our religions keep us aware of the spiritual side of our nature.  They have developed around the world in different forms and all of them address death in some way.  Most without a profound sense of anxiety.  There is some irony in cultures that adopt resurrection as a theological tenet are among those that try to avoid death most assiduously.  It plays into those cultures’ views on abortion and capital punishment.  As well as their performance of social justice.  While Paul asked death where its sting was, and seems legitimately not to have feared it, in the centuries following his position seems to have eroded.  There seems to be plenty to contemplate here, if only secular society had monasteries.


Scary Thoughts

The kinds of places I hang out, online, dictate my reading.  It’s not that I like to be scared, it’s just that I’m honest.  Besides, even when hanging out in person was possible I didn’t do much of it.  So I became aware of Peter Counter’s Be Scared of Everything: Horror Essays.  Like me, Counter’s a blogger (among other things), but unlike me his blog is themed horror.  (This blog has an element of horror but is very roughly themed religion.)  Counter’s book is a fascinating collection of thoughts.  Some of the essays are funny, some are sad, and a few are downright profound.  It’s clear that what gave Counter his crisis was watching his father get shot.  Even those of us who grew up not knowing our dads can see how that experience would traumatize a life.  My own traumas were less focused than this, but we learned the same lesson—it pays to be afraid.

When I was young I never met a phobia I didn’t like.  As I grew older and left home, I came to bring them under control.  You can only get so far in life hiding under your blanket, secretly afraid you might suffocate.  I learned that if I wanted to be a minister—something that never happened—I had to overcome my fears.  Being a parent did it even more.  In order to try to teach your child not to be afraid, you find yourself doing things like scooping up bugs in your bare hands to show that they won’t hurt you.  Like putting a brave face on a truly scary situation.  Like carrying on when everything you’ve built crumbles around you.  Counter’s essays don’t shy away from the difficult things in life.  He’s right: there are many.

I was a monster boomer, but I only really came back to horror after losing my long-term teaching post and longed for career.  Horror helps you cope with trauma.  It gets a bad rap, but mostly from people who don’t understand its therapeutic value.  I don’t like being scared.  Horror, however, reminds me of that cozy childhood feeling of watching monster movies and knowing when it was over the threat would be gone.  Only it never was.  Not really.  Sleepless nights and their febrile dreams may’ve been triggered by the movies, but the realities happening behind the scenes were their real source.  I couldn’t know that at the time, and most of the time I’m not conscious of it now.  Still, I read books like Be Scared of Everything and I think maybe I’m on the right track.


One, two, three

The danger of statistics is that they turn an individual into a number.  A few days ago an article in the New York Times addressed the rare blood clots that some women develop after receiving the Johnson and Johnson covid vaccine.  The response of the cited physicians was telling.  Many praised the decision to halt use of the J&J vaccine immediately.  Others, however, point to the numbers.  If a vaccine is halted many more could be exposed to and contract Covid-19.  It is better, they aver, to take the statically smaller risk and use the vaccine.  While I understand the logic here, I do wonder if the side effects occurring primarily in women has anything to do with the reasoning.  Why not save this vaccine for the men instead?

This raises once again the specter of consciousness.  Statistically the odds are small that a woman will develop a clot.  What if you are the woman who does?  This dilemma always bothered me while camping in the woods.  Statistically black bear attacks are rare.  How does that help you if your tent is one that looks like a candy wrapper to a bear of little brain?  You become a statistic instead of a living, breathing, feeling, blogging person.  Statistics.  There’s a reason some of us identify with the humanities, I guess.  I can imagine what it would be like to have your doctor say to you, “Sorry, this is rare, but look at the bright side—you now become a statistic!”

Photo credit: HB, via Wikimedia commons

The fact is we’re all statistics to strangers anyway, the government above all.  We are vote-bearing numbers to be gerrymandered and prevented from voting.  Beyond that we’re merely annoying.  This pandemic has introduced Stalin’s accounting with a vengeance.  542,000 is a big number.  Unless you know one or more of them personally.  Then the statistics seem to melt.  Life is full of risk, of course.  We’ve barricaded ourselves in our homes for over a year now, eating things that are likely more dangerous for us than a rare complication.  The virus, and perhaps some vaccines, are among various killers on the loose.  Nobody can declare with any certainty the correct course of action.  Actually doing something about the virus when it was first a known threat would’ve helped, of course.  We find ourselves on the brink, it seems, of getting Trump’s disease under control.  Would that we all could do so, without having to worry about lying down to be counted.


Who’s Upstairs?

The other day the New York Times ran yet another article on UFOs.  This topic, which has been maligned since the 1940s, is now being discussed without mockery in the mainstream media.  Perhaps following the Trump presidency nothing’s impossible to believe.  There are, interestingly enough, many writers who connect UFOs with religion.  And these aren’t all writing about UFO religions, of which there are many.  Exploring the Outer Edges of Society and Mind ran a piece on biblical UFOs earlier this month.  The topic was taboo, of course, when I was teaching (I remember a colleague laughing when I told him I covered it in a course called Myth and Mystery) but it too is now becoming mainstream.  I don’t need to summarize the Outer Edges piece here since it’s easy enough to follow the link and read, but I would point out that a longstanding connection exists between UFOs and religion.

A spate of books on UFOs came out in the seventies and eighties.  Some of those more or less overlooked by the media focused on religion—often the Bible—and how UFOs play into it.  Quite often the biblicist writers identified these unknown objects in the skies as either angels or demons.  This continues to this day with some congressional leaders (many of whom are too religious for the good of the nation) averring that UFOs are “demonic.”  Frankly, if demons are incorporeal, I wonder why they need to fly around in saucers.  Perhaps they too grew up eating too much Quisp for breakfast.  In any case, the connection was made early and it remains.  When we see something in the sky we used to give it a religious explanation.  Now we chant “drones.”

In his article David Metcalfe begins by noting the forthcoming publication of Alan Steinfeld’s Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Contact with the mainstream publisher St. Martin’s Press.  The difference between yesteryear with its Quisp and its flying saucer houses, and today is that people are starting to be serious about the topic.  This, I expect, is one of the benefits of increasing technology.  People are seldom without a camera in their pocket these days and although there are plenty of drones and other strange things flying around, the classic UFO hasn’t gone away.  A generation of people endured ridicule and scorn for being gullible.  Now the gray lady herself is asking questions with nary a smile.  Perhaps we’re becoming more tolerant and perhaps we’re more willing to believe we’re not alone in the universe.  Some would claim that even the Bible got in on the act millennia ago.

Image credit: George Stock, via Wikimedia Commons

Lines and Silver

If you’re thinking about silver linings, here’s one to ponder: waiting in lines has, with certain exceptions, disappeared during the pandemic.  Yes, some people waiting in line to be tested, others to be inoculated.  Early on lines were long to buy toilet paper.  By and large, however, waiting in lines has ceased for many of us.  For me that’s a silver lining.  Even from my youngest days I’ve found waiting in line problematic.  Not that I think I’m more important than other people—not at all—my mind keeps itself pretty active and standing in line has been one of the more difficult times to keep it engaged.  I generally keep a book with me.  The lack of mass-market paperbacks in the categories I tend to read, however, makes having a book in your jacket pocket difficult.

People standing in line are often surly.  It’s not always a great place to strike up a conversation, to improve your mind.  It is the epitome of wasted time.  Not just for me, but for everyone involved.  Learning to live mostly at home has greatly reduced that wasted time.  Interestingly, many people have reported being bored with their extra time.  Others of us find this small windfall just enough to keep in place as we continue sprinting along.  Regardless, the line waiting absence has been one silver lining.  When I was a student I used to call waiting in line a theological problem.  What I believe I meant was that time should not be wasted and your options were severely limited by standing in a queue.

For many people, I suspect, the smartphone has addressed the issue even before the pandemic came.  My smartphone has never been that much of a comfort to me, when it comes to time.  Although I’m on social media I don’t spend a whole lot of time on it.  It can easily become yet another way of spending time I don’t have to squander.  Reading ebooks on a small screen doesn’t really lead to any sense of accomplishment for me.  Perhaps I think about it too much, but it seems that real goals are met in the real world.  Ah, but this is meant to be a silver lining post, the lack of lines.  As the pandemic slowly dies down, queues will return.  Books won’t have grown any smaller in the meantime.  Perhaps I could use the time wisely by learning to explore the wonders of the universe in my pocket.  Just after, however, I finish this book in my hands.


Not Out Loud

I’ve been thinking of funny things lately.  Literally.  You see, while many of us are waiting for vaccines or any sign of hope, it’s natural to try to cheer oneself up.  I try reading books with the reputation of being funny.  I try looking for movies that IMDb tells me will make me laugh.  One thing I’ve discovered is that what’s truly funny is a matter of taste.  Some comedians make me laugh.  Others, well, don’t.  Books that I’m told are LOL (“laugh out loud”) funny often turn out to give me a snicker or two as I wend my way through the pages.  The “out loud” part remains elusive.  But it’s the movies that get to me most.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that made me laugh from beginning to end.  “Sophomoric” is the word my wife used to describe most of the movies on online comedy recommendation lists.

I suppose funny is a matter of buying into lowest common denominator culture.  Education, if we’re honest, can knock the sense of humor out of you.  Besides, most movies have a story to tell and few stories are funny every step along the way.  During a pandemic you might well need something like that.  Of course you couldn’t go to the theater to see it if it came out.  There’s some fun stuff on the internet.  People I know will sometimes send me things that make me chuckle, but I’m guessing I need to step away from horror movies for a while to reacquaint myself with what’s funny.  I got so desperate the other day that I sat down and tried to make a list of the funniest movies I ever saw.  Then I looked at the lists I found online and saw little overlap.  Where to go for a good laugh?

Our sense of humor must have roots in our youth.  I really got into religion then, and I became a very serious teen—we’re talking eternal consequences here.  So much so that I had a conscious epiphany one day that I no longer laughed.  I needed to rebuild my sense of humor.  I tried buying funny books (which wasn’t easy in a town with no bookstores).  I tried to catch up with the others in school who were always talking about this or that funny movie they’d seen.  Of course, anything crude scandalized me then, so it had to be clean fun.  Now it’s a matter of trying to see if anyone gets my sense of humor.  After a year in lockdown we could all use a good laugh.


Whale Tales

Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

Always I’m surprised when other people seem surprised, specifically about animal intelligence.  Then I have to remind myself that our culture has absorbed the biblical view that people are different so thoroughly that even scientists believe it.  I watch the birds out my window quite a lot.  What they do is intentional and often quite intelligent.  True, not all animals are college material, but they are far brighter than the “automaton” paradigm with which I grew up.  So when I saw a piece in The Guardian titled “Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information” I kept the tab open until I could read it.  Then I woke up this morning wondering why one of my many open tabs had the header “Sperm” on it, only to remember that I was going to read about whales.

I’ve written about Moby-Dick many times on this blog.  Although Melville didn’t experience financial success with it, he managed to pen one of the most profound and memorable novels ever.  One of the things he stressed was the intelligence of the whaler’s prey.  The Guardian article describes how, due to the magic of digitized log books, researchers can now compare captains’ notes about whaling.  What this comparison makes clear is that whales shared the information about attacks and avoided the areas where they occurred.  Despite the massive size of their brains, researchers had supposed whales to be rather stupid—or automatons—simply waiting to get slaughtered.  Animal intelligence is visible anywhere as long as we’re not afraid of that bogeyman, “anthropomorphism.”

We’ve been taught that human beings are so special that we think other animals act like us only because we’re projecting onto them.  Since the Bible informs us that we’re special and they’re further down the food chain, we must assume that creatures who destroy their own planet believing that they’re serving the will of God are somehow smarter than animals living in harmony with their environment.  We’re so smart that we had to add an extra sapiens to Homo sapiens to show just how special we are.  I’ve long suspected that animals are far more intelligent than we allow them to be.  Philip Hoare’s article offers us yet more evidence that we’ve underestimated our non-sapiens companions time and again.  Ironically we can accept that evolution explains how life forms change over time, but we somehow can’t let go of the story that says we’re somehow different.  I think we need to get out more and simply watch how animals behave.