Up the Downgrade

My computer’s been telling me that it wants to upgrade.  In fact, when I first bought this laptop several years ago, and started it up the first time right out of the box, a message popped up that a system update was available.  The tech business, you see, never really sells you a computer.  They’re working on it constantly, often at the same time I’m trying to use it.  In any case, the reason I haven’t upgraded has been that I need to clear off space on my hard drive.  Each upgrade requires more and more of the limited space I have, so my work has to be shoved off onto external drives that I stack like bricks in my attic.  And that takes time.

This wasn’t a problem with my pre-internet computers.  You bought them to do PowerPoint for work and word processing for publications.  Said publications were printed out and sent via mail to publishers.  Just typing that makes me feel old.  The fact was, however, you could get by on those computers without any upgrades at all.  The system that came with it was sufficient for the life of the machine.  Once you get connected to the internet, though, you have to keep up.  I often run into websites on my work laptop, which doesn’t have the latest system, that simply don’t work.  If they’re going to upgrade, I have to upgrade, and to upgrade I have to discard stuff I want to keep.  Every day I get the red warning signal—computer is hungry but can’t be fed until I start throwing my hard work away.  Or at least putting it where it will take extra effort to get it back.

Also, how are you supposed to find the time for upgrades when you use your computer constantly?  A typical download and install takes over an hour.  If we’re so wired, when are we possibly going to find the time for that?  And I still haven’t cleared enough space on my hard drive.  My external drive’s getting too full.  I guess it’s impossible to keep everyone happy.  In the midst of all this I squeeze in some time to use my laptop for that which I actually bought it—to do my research and writing and, during the pandemic, to buy the necessities of life.  And if I don’t upgrade Zoom’s going to stop working because it’s upgrading too.  I need to buy a computer that does nothing but upgrade itself.  That might be the solution.  That, or going back to good old-fashioned pen and paper.

Layers of Brick

If, like me, you can’t see a neighbor’s brickwork without thinking of “A Cask of Amontillado,” then I need not explain why I watch horror films.  I know that as of late some literary scholars have challenged the idea that Edgar Allan Poe wrote horror.  There is now, and always has been, a bias against the genre.  In fact, many would point out that Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone wasn’t really horror, no matter how creepy some of the episodes were.  Some would cast Ray Bradbury into that lot as well, and others would not.  I spend a lot of time pondering this because those of us who enjoy some of what’s called horror are often cast as misfits.  And misfits have a lot in common with monsters.

The connection with religion is a palpable, yet intangible one.  It does seem that religion has its origins in fear and as it branched out it came to have different emphases.  Jesus, for example, apparently stressed love, at least according to the gospel of John.  That religion of love came, eventually, back around to fear.  Calvinism, especially, is suffused with it.  There’s a reason that it is the religion expressed in particularly effective horror.  Apparently they meet similar needs, but psychology is not an exact science, and our tastes in it differ.  Even our interpretations do so.  As the bricklayer puts down row after row of masonry, the thoughts get walled up in days where work prevents serious consideration of the deeper questions.

It’s been years since I’ve read “A Cask of Amontillado.”  The story has stayed with me, however, whether it’s horror or not.  Stories about imprisonment are like that.  The other day a police car stopped outside our house.  We live in a working-class, but descent neighborhood.  From the bits and pieces glimpses out the window revealed, there was a problem with a car that had been parked on the street for quite a while, and that didn’t belong to any of the local residents.  The natural response to seeing that car just outside was fear.  We fear criminals and we fear the police.  We fear what Covid-19 is doing to us, even to those of us who’ve managed not to contract it.  Traditional religion would tell us punishment comes from the Almighty.  These things are all related.  And across the way the bricklayer keeps up his work, row after row.

Live Long and

Neither Edgar Allan Poe nor H. P. Lovecraft lived to see fifty.  I began the task of trying to publish fiction when I was a year beyond Lovecraft’s demise.  I’ve kept up a more or less steady trickle since then, and I wonder, from my perspective of advanced age from either of their perspectives, what their stories would’ve been like had they lived to tell the tale.  Many of us grow up with grim imaginations.  Perhaps because we no longer have to flee predators (apart from the occasional bear in the neighborhood) our minds periodically revisit that unfinished business of natural terror.  As we get older, however, life begins to wear on you.  It wore pretty heavily on both Poe and Lovecraft, of course, without getting to advanced age.  But what if they had?

Lovecraft was born just five years before my grandfather.  Had he lived to my grandfather’s age, with that additional five years, we would’ve overlapped.  I probably still wouldn’t have discovered him then, however, unless one of those weird tricks of life occurred when someone messes with the space-time continuum.  I wonder what kinds of tales an older Poe or Lovecraft would’ve written.  I know this is mere speculation, but considering the impact of their respective oeuvres, it is worth wondering.  Of course, it could have been some kind of personal hidden knowledge that they wouldn’t live long that led to their performance.  I wouldn’t make bold to compare myself to either of them, but I know the pressures of limited time before the daily commute often produced some good work for me.  Knowing time is limited seems to be the key.

The traditional advice for writers is to put your protagonists on the edge of a cliff.  Then throw rocks at them.  Perhaps this is because human experience so often feels like a challenge.  Most of us have been living under extreme stress since 2016.  The coronavirus has added to that stress, and the senseless killing of African-Americans just for being people has raised the tension even more.  I would hope that, apart from a truer sense of justice, that some good writing will have emerged from all of this.  None of it will be from Poe or Lovecraft, of course, but they may have shown us the way regardless.  I am curious how they would have responded to this internet-tied world filled with showy, inept politicians and the heartless treatment of human beings in the midst of a pandemic.  It sounds like a world from which they might’ve produced some strange fiction indeed.

Slimy Veggies

This wasn’t the work of ghosts, but it sure looked like it.  I snapped on the kitchen lights at 3:00 a.m. to find one of the counters dripping with slime.  It looked like the basement of the New York Public Library.  As I grabbed a damp rag and a roll of paper towels, I thought about Ghostbusters and fresh produce.  The slime, you see, came from a burst freezer pack.  During the pandemic we’ve been using Misfits, a service that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to your door.  Early on, back in March and April, it looked like various shortages, apart from toilet paper, were here to stay.   Every couple of weeks we’d get a Misfits box, so we’d at least have that.

Since fruits and vegetables are perishable, and since there is a time lag involved, they are packed with freezer bags.  These cold-pack bags are reusable and we began sticking them in our ice-box.  We have no free-standing freezer, so the unit atop our fridge was getting full.  The last week’s pack had begun to leak in transit, and, being too busy, I’d set it aside until I could figure out how to dispose of it in the most environmentally friendly way.  We don’t generate a huge amount of trash.  We compost our food scraps, and being vegan we don’t have smelly animal byproducts to toss.  And we recycle all that we can.  I guess just “throwing it out” has become a kind of last resort.  In the dark, the freezer bag made the decision for me and so I found myself mopping in the middle of the night.

It’s a small price to pay, really, to try to help save the environment.  The past four years have contributed unconscionably to global warming.  We tend not to care because those who’ll bear the brunt of it in the short-term are the poor.  Industrialists can afford vacation homes in the mountains.  Our lifestyles have an impact everywhere.  We need to learn to think differently about things.  Of course, that leaky freezer pack did cause quite a mess.  The gooey slime was everywhere, but it was everywhere with a conscience.  I have to wonder what happens to the world when leaders lack conscience.  Unfortunately I don’t have to wonder long since I have the headlines to read.  No, this wasn’t the work of ghosts, but unless we change our ways it could well be.  And when those treating you like enemies are your leaders, who you gonna call?

Aching Backs

The other day someone mentioned to me (virtually, of course, since real conversation is limited to immediate family) that she was going to the chiropractor.  This simple spinal adjustment comment made me curious since my mother has used a chiropractor to manage back pain for as long as I can remember.  I also had heard many disparaging comments about chiropractors over the years and decided to look up some information.  Medical science, if we can hypostatize it that way, considers chiropractic a pseudoscience.  Part of the reason is that the medical training required to be a chiropractor doesn’t come up to the level of a MD degree.  The main reason, however, as far as I can determine, is that chiropractic was founded on the basis of receiving information from “the other world.”

Creator unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

Daniel David Palmer founded chiropractic in the 1890s.  His knowledge of how to do it came from a doctor dead for half a century.  Some of the tenets of chiropractic are spiritual rather than physical.  Not being based on empirical studies going back to such traditional medical ancestors like Galen, the new way of understanding medicine was labeled as a kind of religion—an alternative medicine.  Now, I’m not a medical person.  In fact I’m rather squeamish.  I try not to look too deeply into biology, but this is fascinating.  There are more than 70,000 chiropractors in the United States alone.  If what they are doing doesn’t really help people then why do they keep going back?  Is it a matter of believing that you’ve been helped relieving pain?

Often cost effectiveness is given as the reason people use chiropractors.  In these days of Covid-19 we know that medical practitioners have been on the front lines for many months.  We also know that in the United States many people can’t afford standard medical treatment.  Our government has staunchly refused to nationalize health care, as every other government in developed nations has done, preferring to keep it a free market.  The end result is many people simply can’t afford to go to the doctor.  I don’t know if chiropractic is a pseudoscience or not, but if it provides at least short-term relief for people who can’t afford standard treatment is this a bad thing?  I don’t know much about the topic, but the whole thing seems worthy of further exploration.  Any time the mind in brought in to help heal the body, I suspect, we are knocking on the door of religious thinking.

Teutonic Ennui

I don’t remember its title or its author.  I do recall that there was a character, or perhaps there were characters, who kept saying “etwas muss getan werden”—“something must be done.”  You see, we read quite a few existentialist short stories in German IV in high school.  There were so few of us left from the freshman intro all the way back in ninth grade that our teacher could put us right in the middle of German literature and have us read.  I wish I still had that facility now.  Although I can work my way through many languages academically (German, French, Spanish, Italian, and, of course, the dead languages of koine Greek, classical Hebrew, Ugaritic, and assorted other semitic dialects), the fluency of sitting down and just reading atrophied long ago.  Still, etwas muss getan werden.  That sense of anxiety feels like it’s permanent now.

Every now and again, when tensions are running high—this past week is an example—I find myself nervously checking online news sources frequently to see if anything dramatically good has happened.  This gets to be almost a tic.  I need to have some assurance that we’ve not become a dictatorship, or that there are those in power with enough humanity left inside them have tried to do something to make things better.  Being a nation of throw-away people is ethically wrong no matter what scale you use.  Skin color and national heritage do not lessen the worth of any human being.  We can’t even get out to protest properly because a pandemic, which is still being mishandled, rages.  The days are full of such sameness.  Etwas muss getan werden.  Please.

I wish I could remember the stories I read in high school.  Some have stayed with me through the years.  German class was my introduction to existentialism, a philosophy with which I still mostly identify.  That was the reason I would pick up books by Kafka, Camus, and Dürrenmatt when I would find them in the once plentiful used book stores.  I remember the latter’s Der Besuch der alten Dame. I recall seeing the play performed and being reminded that we are all players in a drama whose only sense comes from our assignment of the same.  Now I sit inside on sunny days.  Afraid of economic insecurity—who knows how long the jobs will hold out?—I don’t go to stores and try to order as little as possible online.  I keep waiting for something to happen.  As I learned in high school etwas muss getan werden, no matter where I read it.

Nothing To Eat

Some stories are unsettling to the point of spirituality.  That’s my impression of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  My wife wanted my opinion of it and when she used the adjective “Kafkaesque” I knew I had to comply.  The comparison is eerie in that Franz Kafka essentially starved to death because no way could be found to feed him with his underlying medical condition.  The Vegetarian shifts focus in its three parts, but the protagonist, Yeong-hye, is a young woman who finds her life run by other people in her family after she decides to become a vegetarian (in actual fact, a vegan).  Basing her decision on disturbing dreams she has, those in her Korean culture cannot accept vegetarianism and attempt, by various forms of coercion, to change her decision.  Throughout the account, Yeong-hye becomes silent—we’re never given her point of view—but those around her can’t accept her decision.

This is a challenging book to read, given my own personal history, but after scratching my head a bit when I finished it I came to reflect on this spiritual side of it.  My own vegetarianism was an ethical decision.  I realize that I can’t and shouldn’t impose my ethics on others, but I’ve not had much resistance from others (apart from colleagues who occasionally make reservations at eateries with no hint of the concept).  Likewise, I became a vegan a few years back based on further reflection of an ethical kind.  This is actually a spiritual practice.  I don’t often express it in those terms, but clearly it is.  In the novel when Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law tries to direct her life, he takes her to a Buddhist restaurant because he knows nowhere else to find vegetarian offerings.

Yeong-hye believes herself to be becoming a plant, and that leads to the next logical step in this progression of thinking.  Eating is, or at least can be, a spiritual exercise.  Many religions advocate fasts of various durations to derive the benefits to the soul.  Daily life is a matter of routine for many, often based around our culturally driven mandate of three meals a day.  I’m not alone at working through lunch while trying to get more done at my job.  By the final meal of the day I find myself exhausted.  It’s about more than food.  This strange little book has put me into a reverie about the ethics of eating.  I don’t know if Han Kang is a vegetarian or not, but she does understand the soul of one.

Cold Psalms

“Ne’er cast a cloot ’til May be oot,” as we heard it in Scotland, was a warning, loosely translated, to “never take off a layer until May is over.”  That bit of lowland wisdom fits this spring pretty well.  As I was donning full winter regalia for my jog this morning my thoughts naturally turned toward the weather.  Memory distorts things, of course, but I keep coming back to my youth and thinking late May used to be reliably warm.  There were chilly mornings from time to time, but yesterday held a touch of November in the air, as if the world somehow switched axes.  Even the usual animals I see—deer, groundhogs, ducks, and the occasional fox or raccoon—all seemed to be sleeping in this morning.  Who could blame them?

I postulated in Weathering the Psalms that the weather is somehow connected in our psyches with the divine.  It’s God’s big blue heaven, after all.  The weather is something we can only control in a bad way, though.  While other people are fixated on surviving the coronavirus outbreak Trump has been quietly (although well documentedly) been relaxing environmental regulations so that when this is all over the beleaguered wealthy will have further income streams.  And so global warming gets a head start on opening the doors of industry again.  Those older than even me tell me the weather is far wilder than when they were young.  Perhaps it’s just the Anthropocene hadn’t had time to settle in yet.  Or maybe environmental degradation is spitting in the face of God.

First light is beautiful.  I’ve been awakening before the sun for so many years now that I can’t recall what it’s like to stumble out of bed when blue begins edging the curtains.  When it does I pull on my sneakers and head out the door.  It’s easy to pretend out here that everything’s okay.  When I do spot a deer, statue-still until I’m mere feet away, I wonder what life was like before the koyaanisqatsi of industrialization.  When our human impact on the earth was humble, like that of our fellow animals.  Now the weather has turned.  It’s chilly out here this morning.  I’m wearing a stocking cap and gloves and I’m watching my own breath forming the only clouds in the sky.  The weather is a kind of psalm, I guess.  I should pull on another clout and consider the wisdom of my elders.

Seeking Reality

I spend a lot of time struggling to figure out the fundamental basis of reality.  I’m hampered in this by a brain that was evolved—optimized—to help me survive in my environment, not to penetrate the depths of what’s really real.  That’s why I began studying religion in the first place.  The connection was organic.  Raised as a fundamentalist daily reminded that an eternal hell of torment awaited, it made sense to study the antidote (the Bible) as much as possible.  When I prepared for college, which wasn’t the plan at the beginning, I could think of no other major beyond religion.  In Paul Tillich’s nomenclature, it’s all about ultimate concerns.  I didn’t accept the very evolution that had made me this way.  That required thinking through.  

Attending a liberal arts college wasn’t really a conscious decision.  Nobody in my family had been to college and I didn’t know the difference between a research university and a stand-alone liberal arts institution.  Somebody has to teach you these things.  Religion, I found out, is a pretty good way to work toward perceptions of reality.  These days the award for that goes to philosophy, but the two fields are closely related, as much as philosophers socially distance themselves from theologians.  They’re both seeking the same thing, really.  Public perceptions of theology, however, trail after televangelists and their ilk, leading a wrong impression in the minds of the masses.  Even professors are prone to accept this facile supposition.  Seeking reality doesn’t mean you won’t get laughed at along the way.

Although there have been some among religious leaders who claim to have found the answer, the rest of us continue to struggle.  The more I read both of science and of religion the more complex it all seems to grow.  And of course human agendas require the keeping of secrets.  Knowledge that is for employees only because they kind of have to know.  The price on the sticker represents a mark-up that could be cut down.  What is this item really worth?  So it goes with the search for reality.  There’s no end to the searching.  Even after Siddhārtha Gautama was enlightened, he continued to have to work at it.  Christianity used to teach that love was the point of it all.  That message seems to have changed with the arrival of the messiah known as Trump.  Those of us who can’t stop searching even if we find can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something more worthy on which to spend our time.

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.

Ethics of Nations

If it hadn’t started two world wars last century, Germany would likely have a stellar reputation.  I don’t say this because of my own Teutonic blood, but rather because as a nation they seem both intelligent and troubled.  Philosophical, if you will.  A story in Times Higher Education explains how Germany is planning its reopening with the input of humanities experts as well as scientists.  The stance is driven by ethics.  We know that when strictures are loosed more cases of COVID-19 will break out.  More people will inevitably die of it.  Germany realizes that this makes it an ethical issue as well as an economic one.  And ethics are best discussed by those who study humanities.  I noticed that they’re even including theologians on their panels.  This seems smart to me.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson’s reopening team in Britain is secret.  Not wanting the public to know who’s making the decisions that will certainly kill some of them, they prefer to act under cover of darkness.  The thing about the cone of silence is that it never works.  Historians will scratch their heads over how, in the course of one century, the good guys became the bad guys and the bad the good.  Have the Allies become an—to borrow a phrase—axis of evil?  The wealthy alone are worth saving, and the economy takes presedence over the welfare of the greatest number.  Back in my philosophy classes we learned about utilitarianism and also its problems.  You see, being a humanities specialist means learning to think through thorny issues, looking at all different angles.  Being a conservative means looking only at the bottom line.

Humanities are related to the concept of humanitarianism.  I know that’s a big word, and it doesn’t bring in much mammon, but still, it encompasses all of us.  This crisis could bring out the best in humankind, or we can let the narrative go to the Clorox-eaters and those who believe winning elections are all that’s important, even if there’s nobody left to govern when its all over.  Being a politician is a zero-sum game I guess.  Looking at the numbers, Germany seems to have brought the number of deaths down when measured against the count of established cases.  That to me seems like a human goal worth striving for.  Of course, we could just incite riots in our own countries to infect even more people.  Being reelected so as to give oneself even more tax breaks is all that really matters.  At least among the axis powers.

Quiet Quarantine

I’m an introvert.  I require quiet time—quite a lot of it—to recharge and prepare myself to be social.  Some people think introverts don’t want to be around others.  That’s not true.  The fact is being with other people is enjoyable, but it requires a special kind of energy that introverts don’t have in great reserve.  When the COVID-19 outbreak began introverts collectively (yes!) felt a need to help their extroverted friends and colleagues deal with the “new normal” of isolation.  Now that we’ve been in the situation for over a month, I have seen a different pattern emerging.  Extroverts are now taking over the quiet space and trying to make it noisy.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but I do think that introverts may be the ones most stressed out by this situation.

Here’s an experiment.  Put an extrovert in self-isolation with a room full of communication devices.  What do you think will happen?  If you’re on the introverted receiving end, you already know.  Days interrupted by cheeps, dings, and chimes as someone needs to talk to you.  Why you?  You’re quiet, you know how to listen.  The extraverts can’t become quiet, and of quiet and noise the same one is always on the receiving end of violence.  Quiet shatters, noise doesn’t.  Five weeks into this and the introverts have bags under their eyes and the extroverts are exclaiming “It’s not half so bad!”

While Nashotah House ruined it for me, for many years I had considered whether I shouldn’t join a monastic community.  I need quiet as much as I need air, and although I can be outgoing when I have to, I need quiet at the end of the day to make up for it.  My case is somewhat mild.  I know introverts who truly struggle when they have to spend a lot of time in a crowded place.  The internet, my friends, is a crowded place.  It took these weeks for me to figure out why I have so much less time now than I used to.  The demand of making noise has been upped.

Sitting at home with quiet streets outside can be eerie.  It can also be rejuvenating.  Embracing the silence isn’t a bad practice.  One of the reasons, I suspect, that I still awake around 3:00 a.m. is that it is quiet.  Very seldom am I interrupted then.  Work will have its pound of flesh, of course, and from there on my day descends, or ascends, back towards quiet.  It’s not a bad way to live.  It just takes practice.

White Rabbit

There are books that make you feel as if everything you know is uncertain.  D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic is such a book.  Its subtitle, UFOs, Religion, Technology, only pauses at the brink of the rabbit hole down which this study will take you.  Over the years I admit to having been jealous of colleagues who’ve been able to make an academic career stick.  The credentials of a university post open doors for you, even if you’re a professor of religion.  Pasulka has opened some doors here that I suspect many would prefer to have kept closed.  This is a compelling book, threading together many themes tied to religious studies.  There are things we might see, if only we’ll open our eyes.

Although immediately and automatically subjected to the ridicule response, UFOs are a fascinating subject.  This book isn’t about UFO religions—of which there are many—but rather it connects this phenomenon to the study of religion itself.  In Pasulka’s related field of Catholic studies, there are those anomalous accounts of saints who did the impossible.  Like UFOs, they are subjected to the ridicule response, making serious discussion of them difficult.  Might the two be related?  As you feel yourself spinning deeper and deeper down that hole, technology comes into the picture and complicates it even further.  Pasulka was a consultant on The Conjuring.  I’ve written about the movie myself, but what I hadn’t realized is how media connects with perceptions of reality.  Yes, it has a religious freight too.

Every once in a while I reflect that my decision—if it was a decision; sometimes I feel certain my field chose me—to study religion might not have been misplaced.  Perhaps all of this does tie together in some way.  American Cosmic is a mind-expanding book that assures me all those years and dollars learning about religion weren’t wasted after all.  I had a discussion recently with another doctoral holder who’s been relegated to the role of editor.  We both lamented that our training was in some sense being wasted on a job that hardly requires this level of training.  Still, if it weren’t for my day job I probably wouldn’t have known about this book, and that is perhaps a synchronicity as well.  Life is a puzzle with many thousands—millions—of pieces.  Some books are like finding a match, but others are like informing you that you’ve got the wrong box top in hand as you try to construct the puzzle with the pieces you have.  If you read this book be prepared to come close to finding the white rabbit.

Ancient History, Part 3

It was an old idea.  I had it when I was still teaching at Nashotah House, that’s how ancient it is.  It seemed to me that if brains evolve with the rest of us, our perceptions of gods might change over time.  I’d been working on this for an Ugaritic conference held in Sherbrooke, Quebec.  The conference took place, but I’d been ousted from my position at Nashotah House.  The conference organizer, in what was an amazingly magnanimous move, came up with funding for me to attend.  I delivered the paper and Jean-Marc Michaud, of blessed memory, encouraged me to submit it to the tome with the very academic title Le Royaume d’Ougarit, de la Crète à l’Euphrate. Nouveaux axes de recherche, Actes du Congrès International de Sherbrooke 2005, Faculté de théologie, d’éthique et de philosophie, Université de Sherbrooke, 5-8 juillet 2005 (Coll. POLO–Proche-Orient et Littérature Ougaritique 2).  Unemployed and unable to access libraries, I had to decline the publication.

In one of those great ironies of life, I began to be approached to take on projects after I lost my academic position.  (This continues to happen; I received an invitation to contribute just last week.)  I often have to turn them down because I still have no access to an academic library and academics generally have no idea just how draining a nine-to-five is, with or without the commute.  In any case, a Festschrift for Simon B. Parker was announced.  I knew Simon as a student at Boston University School of Theology, and he wrote many letters of recommendation for me.  His sudden death shocked many of us.  Herb Huffmon, of Drew Theological Seminary, asked me to contribute to the Festschrift.  I still had this article that required some work, so I decided to try to finish it.  I received a note that the volume is about to go to press with Pickwick.  Academic publications won’t let me go.

If I had my druthers, I’d be getting along with my fiction.  I’ve had over twenty short stories published, and I’ve got many more in the works.  Every time I think, “Now I’m in the clear, I can focus on writing that is fun to read,” I get another academic invitation.  Those invitations don’t come with job offers, so I wonder why I have such trouble saying “no.”  Anyone who writes wants to be remembered.  We have ideas that we hope others will find engaging.  In academia you publish to keep your job.  Most of your work will be forgotten unless you’re groomed as an academic superstar (yes, they exist!).  I’ve never been groomed.  I write because I have ideas that beg to be expressed.  One of those ideas, many years old, will soon be available for consumption at Pickwick Press.

Thoroughly Earth Day

It’s difficult to say, since I don’t get outside much, but reports have come in that the earth is healing itself while we’ve been sequestered.  Rivers usually polluted have begun to run clean.  Smoke-smuggered skies have turned blue.  Animals have begun to explore human-made environments abandoned while we all shelter in place.  Could there be a more poignant statement about the reason for Earth Day?  If our worst behaviors are ceased even for a little while, the damage we do to our home planet begins to come undone.  To me that has been the most profound hope brought to light by this crisis.  Living more simply might be a virtue after all.

From NASA’s photo library

Going without can be difficult.  Every time the fleeting thought comes that I need to run to the store for this or that—and I’ve been taught that shopping is normal and natural and good for everyone—I have to stop and weigh the options.  Do I really need whatever it is?  Can I do without it?  Even bank accounts, for those fortunate enough to be able to keep working, have started to recover.  The frenzy we normally live under—earning money to keep buying things we don’t really need—is suddenly cast into perspective.  Times like this Earth Day I think of Henry David Thoreau.  Sometimes we like to laugh about our American saints, but his desire to live more simply does have appeal.  

Like many students who find themselves in Boston, I once made pilgrimage to Walden Pond.  The day I went there with some friends I believe we were the only car in the lot.  We lived simply in the way that grad students do, being under the sword of educational debts and loans, but we had come to see the place where nature had called one harried philosopher to solitude.  I knew, even as I stood by the marker of the cabin site that we couldn’t all live like this and still enjoy the benefits of medical science and technology (such as it was in the 1980s).  Perhaps it is possible, however, to reflect on better ways of living now that we’ve all been placed in a kind of enforced solitude.  I’ve begun reading more poetry.  I’ve started painting again.  Life has, in the midst of a pandemic, begun to feel more healthy.  It’s Earth Day.  Normally I’d be looking for an opportunity to join a community cleaning event, or even to go out and pick up trash on my own.  Since these are ill-advised, I stand before my bookshelf and reach for Walden instead.