Believing and Seeing

Our eyes locked for a moment.  He wasn’t ten feet away.  Of course, like all famous people he knew that his fans thought they knew him and hoped that he would know her or him.  This isn’t a particularly rare thing to happen in New York City, but the instance in my mind happened in Atlantic City after an Alice Cooper concert that I attended with my brother.  As kids we’d listened to Cooper with some avidity,  and even the concert itself was a somewhat intimate affair (we were both adults at the time).  An audience of hundreds instead of thousands, and many of the attendees about our age—that is to say, not young.  That meeting of the eyes, however, reinforced something I already knew.  Looking is more that your eyes receiving light particle-waves.  It is a connection.

Try this with your bestie—it can be your spouse, lover, or friend.  It especially works if you’ve known her or him for many years.  See how long you can go staring into each other’s eyes.  It’s not easy.  You start to feel that they can see your secrets: your fears and vulnerabilities.  You glance away.  Materialists claim that seeing is a simple matter of light entering our eyes and our brains interpreting it.  We all know, however, what it’s like to be stared at.  How uncomfortable it makes us feel.  We can often tell when someone’s staring at our backs.  I wonder if there’s more to seeing than appears?  Performers often crave the energy of being before thousands of eyes.  They know how it’s just not the same when you have to pretend.  I knew that well as a teacher.

Could seeing really go both ways?  Even animals don’t like to be stared at.  It’s an informal experiment I’ve tried while jogging.  If you break eye contact with a deer, cat, or rabbit, you can get fairly close.  If you stare, however, they dash away.  It doesn’t matter if you turn your head—it’s the eye contact.  I ponder how this relates to narcissists in power.  They crave the eyes on them.  The way to de-power them is to stop looking.  Alice Cooper, I’m certain, has no idea who I am.  He wouldn’t remember me if we ever met.  That night he was standing outside the door of the afterparty where those who’d paid extra could get to meet him.  We didn’t exchange a word, but we made a connection.  There’s more to seeing than meets the eye.

Kind Animals

How many people could it be?  That’s the question a pandemic naturally raises.  Last weekend my wife and I ventured to a Vegan Festival in Easton.  Since we vegans are a rare bunch anyway, and since we tend to be socially conscious, there wasn’t likely to be any dangerous behavior.  That, and how many people would actually show up for what is often considered a somewhat wobbly crowd who don’t like to “rise, kill, and eat.”  It felt like a safe place to be with socially distanced kindred spirits.  Everyone was wearing masks and there was no Trump bravado going on.  For a moment it reminded me of the kind of accepting country the United States used to be.

Veganism, you see, isn’t just about not eating and not exploiting animals.  It’s about honoring the wonder of life in all creatures.  I realize some of the issues—believe me, I try to think things through thoroughly.  It’s all about consciousness.  We’re still a considerable distance from being able to define it, and some people, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, believe it might go all the way down and through the plant kingdom as well.  Consciousness is one of the great mysteries of science.  We hardly know what it is, and how are we to know where it stops?  If we assume other people are conscious (with a few notable exceptions) based on their words and actions, might we not suppose at least some of the “higher” animals are as well?  Or are you just being a fool when you talk to your dog?

You see how this naturally suggests consciousness may lessen by matters of degree, but then we learn that even some insects know how to count and can understand a concept of zero (beyond most Republicans).  We like to put insects down at the bottom because we’re bigger and therefore more important.  Veganism suggests that we stop and think about these things.  We don’t necessarily take everything for granted.  It is clear that the largest polluter and environmental problem is industrial animal farming.  Rainforests are cleared for grazing land.  Profits from big agra are staggering.  Wandering through the stalls, keeping our distance from others who perhaps think too much, we partook of the counterculture in our own quiet way.  The street festival was small this year, but I do have hopes that it might grow, along with some serious thinking about the consequences of our actions.  

The Parable of the Dates

Speaking of resurrection, a news story I saw on Agade, apparently originating in the New York Times, tells of dates.  The kind you eat.  These dates were newsworthy because they were grown from seeds two millennia old, found in an archaeological dig in Israel.  The story shows just how tenacious life can be.  Seeds dead for centuries came back to life and bore fruit.  Things like this fill me with an optimism about this thing we call life.  Two thousand years is a long time to be buried.  These seeds nevertheless came back when the conditions were right.  There’s a parable here.  The parable of the dates.

Tardigrades are remarkable.  Sometimes known as “water bears” or “moss piglets,” they are actually microscopic animals.  Google them and take a look.  The amazing thing about tardigrades is their ability to survive.  Although they are animals, they can go three decades without food or water.  (Not quite the same as two millennia, but trees have their own remarkable abilities.)  Tardigrades can survive temperatures as low as absolute zero and higher than boiling.  Scientists study what makes these little critters so sturdy, but the takeaway for me is that life is remarkably resilient.  Given that Republicans and their ilk seem set on destroying the planet, it is comforting to know that life will continue, even if without our particular species to appreciate it.

The idea has been expressed in many ways over the years.  Doctor Malcolm in Jurassic Park says “Life will find a way.”  Stephen Jay Gould wrote in Bully for Brontosaurus that when we talk of the destruction of the earth what we really mean is the end of our own survival.  The planet—life—can and will persist.  The funny thing is that we don’t really have an accurate understanding of what life is.  If a tardigrade can be revived after thirty years without water, isn’t this an exuberant expression of what life can do?  And what about the Galapagos Tortoise, surviving a century-and-a-half?  If we leave them alone, sea creatures can live even longer.  Bowhead whales last two hundred years while at least one Greenland shark doubled that.  And the news story about dates raised from two-thousand-year-old seeds indicates something wondrous about life.  It persists.  These dates are from the time of Jesus and the Roman Empire.  Some trees, such as the bristlecone pine, have been continuously alive for double that span.  We should be in awe of life.  And we should act like it, for it will outlive us by a long stretch.

Bird Land

Since I like to blog about books, my usual reading practice is to stick with a book once I start it.  This can be problematic for short story collections because often there’s one in particular I want to read.  Somewhat embarrassed about it, I have to confess that sometimes it’s because I saw the movie first.  So it was with Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds.”  Du Maurier, the daughter of a father who also wrote horror, caught Alfred Hitchcock’s attention.  Several of his movies were based on her works.  Not all of them can be called horror—a genre that’s difficult to pin down—but they deal with gothic and thriller themes that had an appeal for Hitch.  In fact some analysts date the modern horror film to the period initiated by this iconic director.

I have a collection of du Maurier’s short stories, written in the day when 50 pages counted as a short story rather than “product” that could be “exploited” in various formats.  (Today it’s not easy to find literary magazines that will publish anything over 3,000 words, or roughly 10–12 pages.)  In any case, “The Birds” is an immersive tale.  The movie is quite different, of course, set in America with a cast of characters that can only be described as, well, Hitchcockian.  Du Maurier’s vision is much closer to the claustrophobic pandemic mindset.  A single English family, poor, tenant farmers, far from the centers of commerce, must figure out how to survive the bird attacks on their own.  The suddenly angry birds attack their hovel in time with the tides (they live near the coast) so the family has to gather supplies between attacks and try to last another night of pecking and clawing.

The story is quite effective.  Reading it suggests the importance of self-reliance and willingness to accept a changed reality on its own terms.  No explanation is given for the birds’ change of attitude.  Human intervention in the environment is supposed but how would a simple family living of the fringes of the fabric woven by the wealthy know?  Forced to react, they try to keep the kids calm while knowing, at some level, this can never end well.  The movie maintains the ambiguous ending, which is probably what makes it so scary.  Corvid or covid, there are things out there that drive us into our homes where we must shelter in place.  Although I didn’t read the whole book, this choice of story seems strangely apt for the current circumstances.

Addenda

One of the perceived advantages of electronic publication is the possibility of corrections.  I say “perceived” because this casts us into the deep sea of uncertainty when it comes to citing sources.  If you read an article, and something really struck you, then the author revised that very thing later, you would be “misquoting” if you quoted that fact you found so stunning.  In our mania for keeping up-to-date you would need to constantly recheck your sources to ensure that you were working with the latest version of your resource.  This level of change speed isn’t conducive to academic practice.  When I was young I was taught that a book of the same edition, published under the same title, by the same author, would be the same across printings.  That’s no longer true.  Due to the ability to insert corrections, the same ISBN can result in two very different books.  Call it the hang-up of an ex-literalist, but this bothers me.

Back in the old days it was common to publish books with a “addenda et corrigenda page that listed the known errors.  Beyond that you just had to suck it up and admit that there might be errors in your book.  You had to face with fortitude when someone pointed them out.  Now you can go back to the publisher, particularly if the book is in electronic form, and have your errors corrected.  The only ones to be confused will be your readers.  Why are we so bad at owning up to our mistakes?  Electronic reading can lead to a slippery slope of confusion about what publishers call “the version of record.”  Your permanent record, it turns out, can be changed after all!  Mistakes can be erased.  Sins can be forgiven.

In publishing the set standard had been that you had to wait for a new edition to change the interior text of your book.  The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) was your guarantee that the contents would be identical to any other copy with the same ISBN.  That’s no longer true.  If you don’t pay attention to which printing you have (which is never cited in footnotes or bibliography) you could be citing in error.  This practice has deep and worrying implications.  It has come to a crisis under Trump, a president who constitutionally lies.  Truth is what he says it is.  And if you want to check the facts, well you better be sure that you cite your printing because any of your critics could easily stick a [sic] next to your words if they find any “error” at all.

No longer “Standard”?

Yellow Jackets

Deeply conflicted.  That’s how I feel about calling the exterminator.  The longer I’m alive the more eastern my thinking becomes.  What right do I have to kill other animals for doing just what they’ve evolved to do?  The yellow jackets who made a nest in our siding were doing just what nature directed them to do.  In what sense is our house natural?  When they started getting inside, though, memories of having been traumatized by stepping on a yellow jacket nest when I was younger came to too sharp a focus.  Terror is probably the right word.  We were catching and releasing five or six a day and summer doesn’t look to be about to give way to autumn very soon.  There’s nothing like being startled by an angry bee when you walk into a room in summer-weight clothes.  So the exterminator came.

As the yellow jackets fled into the house to escape the poison I pondered what right I had to deprive them of their lives (here’s the eastern thinking part).  How was my comfort, or my lack of terror, more important than their need for a home?  Couldn’t we peacefully coexist?  You see, I’m no fan of violence of any sort.  In my ideal world there would be no war and no meanness.  You might not be able to call yellow jackets cuddly, but they don’t seem the happiest of creatures with whom to interact.  They’re industrious, like business owners want their drones to be, but their people skills aren’t too good.  Maybe it’s just projecting, but when they swarm the only word that comes to mind is anger.  Even their evolved body armor reflects that.  Still, I didn’t want them killed.  I just wanted them not to misunderstand our human interactions while shut in during a pandemic.

Life is a gift to all creatures.  I became a vegan years ago because of humanitarian concern for our fellow creatures.  The mess our world’s in now because of our lack of care for anything but money plainly shows.  Bees, it could be argued, make more of a contribution to the well-being of the planet than I do.  Who am I to make any claim of superiority?  Still, I’m responsible to pay half my salary on a mortgage that will keep me in one location until the situation betters.  When I see that silhouette in the window a sting of terror from my childhood comes back as I grab an empty peanutbutter jar to catch and release, only to have another bee replace the first.  Childhood traumas are like that, of course.  But now I apologize for bringing on the death of fellow creatures and I walk through the rooms through which they had freely flown.

Permanently Changing

Classifying the world of thought into “eastern” and “western” is a gross oversimplification.  Nevertheless we require some handles by which to grip this unwieldy beast of mental life.  One of the first distinctions that we’re taught is that western thinking tends towards the default of permanency while eastern thought emphasizes change.  Change, of course, is the lack of permanence.  The older I get the more I see the wisdom in accepting change as the only thing that’s really permanent.  It’s a lesson you learn as a homeowner.  In my typical western way of thinking, I assume things will pretty much stay the same, but the myriad of small, external forces work constantly toward change.  The only way to keep a house well is with constant upkeep.

The other day I found a rotted windowsill that our inspector somehow missed.  That it hadn’t happened on our watch was clear by the fact that the previous owners had slapped a thick layer of paint over what was clearly a broken and decaying sill, in essence ignoring the problem.  Change, you see, is constant.  Things really get interesting when you start to apply this to religion.  Although the Bible only hints at it (for the view isn’t entirely consistent) God is considered unchanging.  The same yesterday, today, and forever.  Meanwhile everything down here is constantly in flux—changing, evolving, decaying, reproducing.  Religions of eastern Asia tend to embrace this change as a given.  Our frustration in life, as Buddhism recognizes, has its roots in attachment to permanence.  Things inevitably change.

On the one hand this is so obvious that it might appear simplistic.  But then think how we live our lives here in the western hemisphere.  Our employers hire “change management” teams.  We suppose things will return “back to normal” after this pandemic is over.  We’ve been living the cloistered life for nearly six months now and things have been changing.  Especially in the early days people could be heard lamenting how quickly information and circumstances shifted.  Change is permanent.  For the homeowner anxious about the ability to keep up with upkeep, the constant growth of the lawn and the aggression of weeds can be their own kind of trial.  At times it feels like you need to be paid just to take care of your home since it’s a full-time job.  It is overly simplistic to draw an arbitrary line from pole to pole, but it does seem that some cultures, tending toward the east of the birthplace of monotheism, have some basic insights from which we might learn.

Upgraded at Last

Those who pay close attention to labels may have noticed the tag “Neo-Luddism” appended to some of my blog posts.  Luddites were nineteenth-century protestors against machines because, their thinking went, machines denied people jobs.  I’m not fully in line with this way of thinking, of course, but I do occasionally point out the ironies of how our technological life has become, well, life.  Tech seems to have taken over life itself and some people really like that.  Others of us miss the outdoors and even the “free time” we used to have indoors.  Our computers, phones, iPads, left behind and maybe a physical book cracked open—this seems a dream at times.  I really do enjoy our connected life, for the most part.  It makes this blog possible, for instance.  What I object to is being forced to upgrade.  That should be a decision I make, not one thrust upon me.

Which cloud is it?

This is just one small instance of what I’m talking about: my laptop wants an update.  It has for a couple of months now.  Since it’s in rather constant use I can only devote the time to it on the weekends and the past four weekends have all been used up with other things, including two that had over eight hours of Zoom meetings scheduled.  Now, you see, the update isn’t just a matter of simply updating.  You need to clear space off your computer first.  I like to keep my files and the tech companies want to pressure me into keeping them on “the cloud” so they can charge me for the privilege of accessing the things I created.  Instead I back them up on terabyte drives, sorting as I go.  Photos, formerly iPhotos, take seven or eight clicks to upload and delete for each and every set.  If you snap a lot of pix that translates to hours of time.  It also means when I want to access my files I have to remember where I put the terabyte drive, and then connect it to the computer.  At least I know where my files are.

But do I?  If I were to crack open the drive would I have any means of locating what, on my laptop, looks like memories of family, friends, and places I’ve been?  Are they real at all?  If you’re sympathetic to this existential crisis created by the tech world in which we live, you might understand, in some measure Neo-Luddism.  Of course memory is available for purchase and it will surely last you at least until the next upgrade.

The Parable of the Doves

A loud flapping of wings.  I looked out my window in time to see a mourning dove land on the roof opposite with audible bump.  The poor thing sat there, looking stunned.  Then another flapping of wings.  Another dove flew over the gutter onto the higher roof.  It was then that it dawned on me that these two were being pushed out of the nest.  I’ll admit that I doubted the wisdom of a dove building a nest in the neighbor’s gutters, especially when the tropical storm dumped several inches of rain on us last week.  Sometimes animals know what they’re doing, however, and even after the storm I could see the mother dove winking at me, her head just above the level of her aluminum-sided home.

The stunned youngster sat there for quite some time.  As soon as Mom was gone, the one that had flapped above climbed back into nest.  Was I watching a parable unfold?  Mom flew back when chick number two decided to flap down and join its sibling.  Throughout the morning I watched as the mother returned, landed in sight of her offspring, then showed them how to get down to the ground.  Ensuring they were watching, she waddled to the edge, dropped, and spread her wings.  She did this several times as the young birds kept carefully away from the edge.  Mom, it seemed to me, was growing impatient.  She’d occasionally fly back to peck them, but the siblings simply wouldn’t take the leap.  She started coming back to feed them instead.  I wondered how she managed with two beaks jammed into her own at the same time.

I kept an eye on the drama the entire day.  By the time I turned in for the night, the two youngsters were bedded down next to each other on the roof.  Their mother had landed, cooed insistently to them, but they dutifully ignored her, afraid of falling.  We look at birds and think they’re built to fly.  It’s one of their greatest assets.  It is the kind of gift, however, that requires overcoming obstacles.  Just because you can fly doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid to fall.  There’s learning involved.  Such episodes of animal intelligence always inspire me.  We could learn so much if only we would take the time to see how birds learn to fly.  The transition from coddled nesting to the freedom of the skies is not easy, and being built to fly still requires overcoming a very natural fear.

Fiction

All writing is fiction.  I suppose that requires some unpacking.  One of the first things we do when we approach a piece of writing is answer the question “what kind of writing is this?”  We may not do this consciously, but we wouldn’t benefit much from reading if we didn’t.  If your significant other leaves you a note stuck to your computer monitor or the refrigerator door, you know at a glance that it likely contains pithy, factual information.  If you pick up a newspaper you know what to expect the contents to be like.  It’s quite different if you pick up The Onion.  Or a romance novel.  These categories are extremely helpful, but they can also be problematic.  Any writer knows that you write and others decide on your genre.

I read a lot of nonfiction.  It is a kind of fiction, however, since it follows a narrative and it contains mistakes, or perhaps faulty assumptions.  Moreover, nonfiction is a reflection of its own time.  Geoffrey of Monmouth’s England had giants in its past.  It simply did.  Today we question his working assumptions just as surely as future people (if we long survive) will ours.  This current generation doesn’t really excel at critical thinking.  Many academics, as critical as they are in their own fields, fall into standard assumptions once you get beyond their expertise.  They accept the fictions of their era just as readily as does everybody else.  In reality our nonfiction is not the naked fact we like to think it is—it is the narrative of one perspective.  It is perhaps the truth as it is perceived in its own time.

This may seem to be a subtle distinction, but it is an important one.  Genres are very convenient handles that we use to classify what we’re reading.  Very often they become straightjackets that constrain what writing has the potential to be.  The word “genre” is related to the concept of genus, the classification about species.  Zonkeys and other, perhaps rare, but possible cross-breedings show us that hopeful monsters of the literary world are also possible.  We would soon suffer without genres in a world as full of words as this one is.  We also suffer from simple distinctions that somehow become iron-clad over time.  Think about the narrative that comes out of the White House.  We’re accustomed to it being mostly nonfiction.  At least we were until recently.  Watergate broke our trust in that, and now we live in a world of fiction masquerading as reality.  Critical thinking is, perhaps, the only way to make sense of any of this.

Unnatural Nature

It began as an odd sort of noise.  I had the study windows open during the morning of a heat wave and I heard a small, but metallic noise coming from the roof outside.  My study overlooks part of the first floor roof and slinking to the window I saw a sparrow trying to pick up a roofing nail.  We’ve had the roofers over twice already since we moved in a couple years back (and will have them again), and some of the nails from their work on the second-story roof landed here.  I’ve noticed sparrows pecking at them before.  Instead of skittishly flying away when I came up—I was only about a yard away—she still tried to lift the nail without success.  She then flew even closer to me, snatched up a different nail, and flew off with it.  Sparrows have, of course, adapted well to human dwellings, but what would a bird be wanting with a nail?  Surely not to make a nest?  It wasn’t even shiny—it was a rusty old one from the shingles replaced—since everyone knows birds are attracted to bright objects.

I’ve been a close watcher of nature my entire life.  This isn’t the same as being an outdoorsman, but when I can see outside, or when I do spend valued time outdoors, I look closely.  I always keep an eye out for animals on my daily jogs.  And I watch animal behavior through the window when work isn’t too pressing.  Still, I wonder about what a sparrow could want with a nail.  The next-door neighbors moved out a couple of months ago, and I watch the sparrows on their porch roof.  With no human activity nearby, they frequently gather there.  They seem to be picking up bits of human detritus—even pulling at, it looks from here, nails.  Now this behavior has me a little worried.  I’ve read about sparrows before and despite their innocent looks, they can be very aggressive birds, even attacking and sometimes killing larger perching fowl.  The idea of them weaponizing themselves is disconcerting.

Intelligence in nature is one of the last features many scientists want to admit to the the discussion.  There seems to be too strong a supposed correlation with shape of the physical brain and the ability to “think,” it seems to me.  I don’t know what the sparrows are planning, but clearly it involves gathering rusty old nails.  Even as I was writing this I noticed sparrows chirping aggressively.  Looking out my window across the street, I saw that a squirrel had crawled across an electric cable into a bushy roost where there must’ve been a sparrow nest.  Sparrows began flying into the fracas from all over the place, loudly chirping.  I couldn’t see what what happening because of the leaves, but the squirrel soon rushed out with a whole flutter of sparrows in pursuit.  Perhaps he’d discovered their plan with the nails.

Now, the next order of business…

Almost Ancestors

During the Covid-19 crisis, cemeteries seem to be safe places.  Not too many people are in them, at least not people that can spread the virus, and they always provide grounds for rumination.  Besides, being outdoor spaces they can get you someplace outside the same four walls you see all the time.  My wife and I both have an interest in genealogy.  We’ve worked on our family trees and even try to keep our Reunion software up-to-date.  This past weekend we visited a family burial plot in upstate New York.  My wife’s family has a more accomplished pedigree than mine does, and one of her ancestors here actually merited an obelisk and was written up in local histories as a noteworthy member of the community.  I also have ancestry in upstate, and we’ve traveled to some of their sites in the past, although their markers are usually harder to find.

Being in a cemetery, the logic of ancestor worship suggests itself.  Without these people history as we know it would’ve been different.  Without those who are our direct ancestors we wouldn’t even be here pondering our own insignificance.  We wish these headstones could talk, saying more than the names, vital dates, and perhaps a quote from the Bible.  We listen, hoping to gain knowledge of who they were.  It seems to me that cemetery histories would be a boon to genealogists.  For those of us whose predecessors were buried in small towns, such guides could be a real boon.  As it is, Find A Grave dot com is often a helpful resource, but who wouldn’t like to be written up in an actual book?  Network reception often isn’t great out here in rural America.

Graveyards are gateways to the past.  In a world that feels like it’s changing way too fast, it seems right to have these places—these sanctuaries—to stop and reflect.  They represent lives lived.  Peaceful after the trauma of day-to-day angst and struggle.  Unfortunately the pandemic is daily adding to the number of those who’ll be buried in cemeteries across the nation and around the world.  Although somewhat preventable, we have no national will to stop the tragedy.  So it is I find myself staring at a monument erected to someone I never knew, but without whom my life would’ve been vastly different.  It’s a sunny day and I’m outside amid a crowd that can cause me no harm, but who, at times like this, inspire me. 

Who Watches You

When my wife saw Dominic Johnson’s God Is Watching You on the top of my pile she said “Are you sure you want to be reading that?”  Her question was justified, of course.  I was raised in a religion where the punishment of God was very much on the surface.  Heaven’s carrot was nothing next to Hell’s stick.  I still suffer from that religious outlook in innumerable ways.  Johnson’s subtitle, however, is How the Fear of God Makes Us Human.  Johnson, who holds doctorates in evolutionary biology and political science, is well placed to try to untangle what those of us with just one doctorate in religious studies deal with constantly: what is religion?  The main idea of the book is deceptively simple—we have evolved the way we have because we feared (and continue to fear) supernatural punishment.

Johnson establishes that sociological and anthropological studies have shown that humans respond much more readily to punishment than reward.  Reward is like icing—you can eat a cake without it and still enjoy it—while punishment is like the threat of all food being removed.  You see the difference?  One has a far greater motivating factor than the other.  This idea spins out into many aspects of religion, and even perhaps hints at the origins of religion itself.  I have often written on this blog that animals exhibit religious behavior.  We don’t speak their language so we can’t know for sure, but some of what various animals do seems very much like what we do in church, synagogue, mosque, or gurdwara.  Accusations of anthropomorphism fall flat, to me.  We evolved, did we not?  Then why do we resist pointing out in animals where that behavior sticks out like a sore opposable thumb?

Human societies worldwide share the fear of divine punishment.  Interestingly, even a significant portion of atheists admit fearing it too.  Often those who know me ask about my preoccupation with fear.  It sometimes shows in my writing about horror, but I think Johnson may well have the key in his pocket.  Religion is about fear.  It’s not just about fear, but it clearly is about avoiding divine (however defined) wrath.  Lose a job or two broadly defined as religious and disagree with me.  Am I sure that I should be reading this book?  Now that I’ve finished it I can definitively say “yes.”  While I don’t agree with everything in it Johnson has clearly hit on something that all people who study religion should know.

Hebrew Class

It is utterly remarkable that in this year of the Common Era 2020 that even in Unicode you can’t write Hebrew in Microsoft Word without gymnastics.  The task at work was a fairly simple one: proofread the Hebrew in a typeset manuscript ready for the printer.  This means the manuscript is a PDF at this point and to get Hebrew to appear in a comment bubble you need to copy it from Word and paste it in.  But wait!  Word only has some Hebrew letters in its Symbols menu.  Try getting a yod to appear.  I looked up a Unicode chart, copied and pasted the Unicode unique identifier and Word gave me a capital P.  Not a jot or tittle to be found.  So, to get the yod I had to fetch my personal Mac and use the language menu and type the word out.  Copy.  Paste in an email from my personal account to my work account.  Wait.  Open work email message.  Copy again.  Paste again.

Using this method, a task that would take me maybe twenty minutes stretched into hours.  There was simply no way to get Microsoft Word to display a full Hebrew alphabet shy of changing the language on the computer.  And since I don’t read Modern Hebrew I had a feeling that would lead to disaster.  Part of the problem is that programmers thought it would be smart to make Unicode Hebrew automatically appear right to left.  This has been the bane of many of us since the earliest word processors tried to replicate the language.  We grew used to typing it in backwards.  Now you never know which letter is going to disappear if you hit delete—it doesn’t help that it can act differently on a Mac than on your standard business-issue PC.  Not only that, but when you paste it the receiving document often automatically reverses word order.  Can I get a pen and paper over here?

I sometimes jokingly lament the hold that technology has on us.  In some instances the joking takes on a serious tone, I know.  I do wonder about having techies drive where we’re going.  It’s one thing to make it possible to print Hebrew letters in electronic form, but it is quite another to read them and have a sense of what they’re saying.  And those of us challenged by the whole right-left orientation and a cursor blinking on one side of a word but having its effect on the other wonder if it’s worth the effort.  There’s a reason ancient people wrote in clay, it seems. 

Graphic Graphomania

You can spot them fairly easily.  Graphomaniacs.  Perhaps it’s a bit closer to the surface when you work in publishing, but the person who writes too much can run risks.  Some authors turn out a book every few months.  While this may be okay for potboilers, for academics it is seldom possible to do this well.  Research and reflection take a long time.  Those who churn out book after book sometimes wonder why their works don’t sell.  Graphomania has to be reined in.  Horses have to be held.  I’m sympathetic, actually.  If you write every single day you’ll soon end up with a surplus.  So much so that your computer will tell you to empty some stuff out or it’ll go on strike.  I had to order a new terabyte drive this week exactly for that reason.

To free up some additional space on my laptop I went through the many, many folders that have essays, book drafts (both nonfiction and novels), stories, blog posts, etc.  While I didn’t throw them away, I had to clear them off my working disc.  As I did so I realized that the great majority of these writings will never see the light of day.  There are really a lot of them.  Part of the problem is you never know what you’ll feel like writing when you get up in the morning.  Sometimes the best ideas come after a wretched night’s tossing and turning.  Well-rested you can get up to a brain so content that it doesn’t have much to say.  Or that story you started yesterday may seem dumb today.  That nonfiction book that burned with passion just last week may now seem lame.  My fear is that by moving them off my hard disc they’ll become forgotten.

The terabyte drive is a thing of wonder.  It can hold so much information.  I have to go back and hook it up to my laptop to find it, however.  Out of sight, out of mind.  I’ll move on to other things.  I honestly can’t count the number of projects I have going.  Graphomania can be a problem.  This blog is a daily outlet, and you, my faithful few readers, are saints for coming back.  In my attic, next to the brick wall of external hard drives, are folders full of handwritten material.  Many of them are stories that are complete, but that haven’t been transcribed.  Some writers suggest flooding the market with your stuff.  Others of us know that graphomaniacs are feared in some quarters, and so we keep our own counsel.

Photo credit: NASA