Footprints in the Snow

Although my back’s grateful, many of the snowstorms rolling across the country have left just a small bit of snow here so far.  Small bits of snow create their own hazards, however.  A snow covered trail quickly becomes hazardous for jogging, so I walk.  This past week we had a little snow and temperatures low enough to dissuade many of those who normally walk or run the trail.  Those of us with desk jobs really have to make an effort to move.  When I was out I was surprised by a couple of things.  There were no other lunch-time walkers and it was above freezing.  The almost untrodden snow gave under my feet and in the patches where the sun made it through, was actually wet.  I took my usual constitutional and headed back to work.

These short, cold winter days are too treacherous for walking in the dark.  Black ice isn’t a myth unless you can slip and fall on a myth.  The next day it was bitterly cold.  Still, skipping exercise a day is a slippery slope.  I headed back to the trail.  At first my footsteps from the previous day had led to a regular set of tracks where the snow had melted down and the pea gravel had dried out.  Walking was safe here.  As I reached the further, more wooded end of the trail it was quite different.  Sheltered by the trees, my foot prints from the previous day had slightly melted and then refroze, leaving a track of ice that could easily twist an ankle.  I began to think of the concept of following.

We find those whose wisdom compels us.  We hear them in the classroom, the pulpit, or the street corner.  Or we read them in a book.  We might even see them on television or the internet.  They seem to have something we lack, so we follow them.  Their tracks often start out secure enough.  Dry patches in an otherwise slippery covering of snow.  We follow on, thinking we’ve found our way.  Somewhat further down the path, however, the tracks become icy, showing us that even the great leaders have their own hidden secrets.  The places where they too slip and fall.  The wisdom we seek is collective.  No one person has all the answers.  If that were so it should be obvious to us all.  Instead we need to strike out on that nearly unbroken snow to discover for ourselves.


Saint Maud is one of those movies that requires some thought.  (And I’ve been giving it plenty.)   It follows a brief time in the life of Maud, a hospice nurse who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of one of her patients.  Maud has direct experiences of God, like Teresa of Ávila but the film doesn’t make it clear, until the very end, if she suffers delusions.  After the traumatic loss of a patient at the beginning of the film she becomes a devout Catholic and when she feels she isn’t succeeding in her mission she punishes herself by using medieval-level means.  She hears God talking to her and what he (yes, he’s male) demands makes the viewer wonder if she’s found the correct spiritual entity.  Moody, edgy, and theological, Saint Maud is another example of how horror and religion work together.

It’s one of those movies that, when you finish it you start looking around for someone to talk to about it.  Of course, I watched it alone, wearing headphones, so I had dialogue with my own imagination.  One of the founding principles of cinema was the realization that viewers liked to discuss what they’d just experienced.  The other horror fans I know tend to be academics far removed from here.  I don’t know any of them well enough to pick up the phone, or call up on  Zoom, and say “Hey, let’s talk about Saint Maud.”  The thing is, I understand some of the doubts and motivations of Maud.  It’s always that way when religious interactions are with an invisible, petulantly silent deity.  Kind of like watching horror movies alone.

Horror has proven to be a kind of therapy for me.  The stresses of life are many and unrelenting.  Watching someone even worse off can help, as long as it’s fiction.  The world we’ve created is a very unfair place.  Many people suffer so that a few can enjoy more than they deserve.  Their lifestyle is protected by lawmakers that they buy while others suffer.  I’d just spend a day hearing about such injustices, and then paying hefty bills, and it seemed that some weekend horror was just what the doctor ordered.  I’ll probably watch Saint Maud again once I’ve had time to recover, and to think about the implications of the story.  Horror and religion have a viable partnership.  Such films occasionally become blockbusters, but sometimes they’re smaller affairs waiting to haunt us on weekends after hearing about the sad state of the Frankenstein world we’ve all created together.


Prolonged Re-entry

It’s a trope as old as holiday decorations themselves.  We all know the house (or plural) where the Christmas decorations remain until it’s warm and light enough to go out and take them down.  The same thing happens inside our house, on a smaller scale.  Bits of the holiday—whether it be Christmas cards on the mantle, or the not quite spent candles from the Yule log—remain, while we reluctantly reenter BAU (business as usual).  It’s a process best taken slowly.  I suspect many of us find AU (as usual) to be not really ideal.  Too many bills, too much Covid, too much of a demand made on that non-renewable resource, time.  I know people happy to see the holidays go, but I’m already counting the days until they come again.

January, whose end is fast approaching, is a waiting time.  Waiting to recover from perhaps a little bit too much holiday spending.  Waiting for a bit more light and warmth.  Waiting for that package to arrive.  Waiting for the plumber to call back.  Waiting for, well, business as usual.  I read about holidays quite a lot.  They wouldn’t be special if they happened all the time, of course.  And we need the supply chain that demands steady production of goods and services from those not actually chained to a desk all day.  Still, I can imagine a different world.  One in which there is time to get the non-work stuff done as well as filling obligations to capitalism, pouring out our libation to the emperor.  Many analysts are suggesting technology has increased efficiency to the point that a four-day work week is optimal.  Who’s going to pay the same for less, however?

Time is a commodity.  I’ve got a lot of projects outside work that I really want to finish.  Some of them, like that junk car in my step-dad’s yard, could turn a profit if only I had the time to spend on them.  Meanwhile there’s work to be done.  Long days in front of the computer knowing there’s something more exciting after it’s all over.  When work’s done I’m too tired to get much accomplished.  It’s like the endless lapping of the waves on the sea shore.  Unchanging.  Persistent.  Aware there’s always a coming storm.  So I’m sitting here with Tom Petty, waiting.  Even if we don’t know what comes next.  Let’s call it a holiday.


Making Noise

There’s a real danger, it seems, to having an open mind.  We live in a world defined and classified by materialists.  They hold sway not only over science and commerce, but in whether prestigious jobs are on offer.  Consider the case of William Roll.  Roll was a fully credentialed psychologist with an interest in parapsychology.  His book The Poltergeist is a classic in the field.  He’s now frequently called a “credulous investigator.”  What that means, of course, is that he listened to and sometimes believed the people who reported the paranormal.  For materialists that discussion is already closed.  Anyone who tries to pry it back open is ridiculed and called names.  (We’re all adults here, right?)  Yet his classic book still gives pause.

If you actually read it, “credulous” is not a word to suggest itself.  Could Roll have been tricked by clever pranksters?  Yes.  Most people, even clever pranksters, can.  If someone is caught hoaxing a phenomenon, does that mean the whole thing is a hoax?  Not necessarily.  It’s here the materialists swarm.  Interestingly, Roll acknowledges that there could be good psychological reasons for hoaxing after a genuine event.  The person caught hoaxing perhaps realized the benefits of the attention received when something unexplained occurred, and learned how to replicate, or at least imitate it.  People will do anything for attention.  Roll asked a bit more finely parsed question: does hoaxing discount genuine phenomena?  He even tried to get experiencers to the lab where controls could be put into place.  As this book demonstrates, he doubted some of the cases and did so openly.

I became interested in Roll after watching A Haunting in Georgia.  The Wyrick family maintains that the events happened (I’ve written about a book penned by two of the aunts), and they seem sincere.  The problem is money.  Once there’s potential money to be made the skeptics come out, claws bared.  The problem is we all have to make money to survive.  If that involves “capitalizing”—even that word betrays much—on weird things that happen to you, skeptics claim it’s all made up.  There’s an ulterior motive.  For most of us there’s an ulterior motive for going to work, too.  For me, Roll appears to have been sufficiently skeptical.  Statistical anomalies shouldn’t be simply dismissed.  If they are, it’s possible we’re missing something important.  While this book may not have aged particularly well, it is still worth reading with a mind at least a little bit open.  


Are Ghosts Monsters?

It’s a question as old as my interest in horror.  As a child I kept ghosts distinct from monsters.  Ghosts may be scary, yes, but they’re people who’ve died.  Then zombies came along.  I was too young to watch Night of the Living Dead when it came out (I was only six).  Depending on how far you want to go with this, among the classic monsters they’re pretty much all human.  Dracula is undead, but originally human.  Frankenstein’s creature is dead folks stitched together.  The mummy is a person reanimated.  The invisible man is, well, a man.  So is the wolf-man.  The latest of the Universal line-up, the gill-man was more a human-like reptile with gills.  To add a few other favorites, Mr. Hyde was Dr. Jekyll.  Witches were magical women.  For sure, there are plenty of non-human monsters (Godzilla, the blob, and those various giant spiders) but it seems much of what we fear is warmed over human.

So ghosts—are they monsters?  I still have a difficult time sorting that out.  They seem different from other revenants, don’t they?  Uncle Joe or Aunt Sally don’t really pose an existential threat, do they?  (Unless one of them was a psychotic killer or something.)  Yet we still fear ghosts.  Many horror movies and novels feature them.  It seems more because they represent the unknown in a kind of ultimate way.  We can’t die to find out and then come back.  Although, it seems, that’s just what ghosts do.  That liminal line, or terminal line in the sand is the point of no return for the human imagination.  Yet on a dark night in a creaky old house it feels like more than just imagination.  Of course, other monsters could be lurking in the dark.

Image credit: Henry Justice Ford, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thing about horror is that it holds up a mirror.  We see what really does scare us and what we see reflected back is human.  We all die and most of us don’t like to think about that.  Ghosts force us to.  They make us confront perhaps the most primal of fears.  There are, of course, bad ghost—dybbuks and hungry ghosts and whatnot.  Of course they’re monsters.  But considering the garden variety, or perhaps haunted-house variety ghost suggests maybe our fears are misplaced.  Monsters can be scary.  Ghosts don’t have to be.  We classify them all together as horror, but that may be a hasty judgment.  As least for someone who used to be, and maybe still is, simply human.


Higher Learning?

I was reading, as one does, about a mental institution.  In the last century they were often called, rather insensitively, “lunatic asylums.”  The neurodiverse were often shunted away so that the rest of society could get on with business as usual (as if that’s sane).  There were any number of reasons sought for such individuals thinking differently.  The source I was reading had a short list and I was surprised to see on it, “over study of religion.”  It really said nothing more about it but it left me wondering.   First of all, it brought Acts 26.24 to mind: “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad!”  Religion, from the very start, it seems, had the reputation of driving people insane.

Image credit: Published by W. H. Parrish Publishing Company (Chicago), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As someone who’s spent well over half a century thinking about religion, reading about religion, and analyzing religion, I can see Festus might’ve had a point.  This way much madness lies.  I don’t think religion evolved to be thought about.  It was largely a fear reaction to being, in reality, rather helpless in a world full of predators and other natural dangers.  Although we’ve managed to wipe out most of our large predators, we’re still under the weather, as it were.  We can’t control it, and what messing around we’ve done through global warming has made it less hospitable to our species and several others.  And also the small predators, those that evolve quickly, such as Covid-19, are now the real challenge.  Facing fear was the real evolutionary advantage of religion.

Being story-telling creatures, we made narratives about our belief systems.  Then we started taking those stories literally.  Believing too seriously, we used those stories as a basis for hating and killing those with different stories.  We still do.  Can anyone deny Festus’ accusation?  I’m sure religious mania has, historically, led to some institutionalizations.  It was kind of a trope in the seventies, for example, that too much Bible-reading could lead to criminal behavior.  It’s not difficult to see why those trying to classify what might make an individual off balance might look to religion as an explanation.  Nationally, and very publicly, we can see strident examples of this promotion of irrational ideas on a daily basis.  Many of the large mental institutions have been closed down and many of the neurodiverse have been turned out to the streets.  Ironically, it is often the religious who try to care for them.  Understanding religion, it seems to me, might be a great public good.


Homegrown Haunts

The thing about the unknown is that it’s, well, unknown.  Like many people I’m interested in getting at the truth behind ghost claims, so American Hauntings: The True Stories behind Hollywood’s Scariest Movies—from The Exorcist to The Conjuring, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Joe Nickell looked helpful.  Indeed, it is.  To a degree.  The book, however, devolves at points to debunking cases that aren’t in the movies and frequently asks “Why didn’t somebody take a picture?”  (In cases where there are pictures they say how they could be faked.)  Given the authors, you kind of know none of the claims will be accepted.  Even so, there’s a lot of good information here.  They do a great job of outlining the very probable hoax at Amityville.  For some of the lesser known cases they offer explanations harder to believe than the poltergeists they so abhor.

That’s the thing: for all the “hauntings” they default to poltergeists and then explain how poltergeists are faked.  They begin with An American Haunting, and move on to The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Conjuring, The Amityville Horror, and The Haunting in Connecticut.  Sandwiched in there is also the non-movie Don Decker case.  What struck me as strange is they often seem offended that movies embellish stories.  That’s what movies do.  They’re quite right about the money aspect, however.  They also take in films that make no claims about being true, such as Poltergeist, which drew inspiration from an actual case but didn’t make that assertion.  It’s also odd that they didn’t ask some of the writers about this.  I once met Brent Monahan, author of An American Haunting.  He readily admitted some of it was made up.  In other words, taking offense at the “based on a true story claim” feels a bit naive.

In some cases they speculate what might’ve happened without visiting the location.  It’s hard to tell if a leaky roof can explain things when you don’t specify if the room is on the first or second floor.  Also, suggesting a young boy is faking because a professional magician can duplicate effects raises its own set of questions.  If a kid is as good as a professional, why doesn’t s/he go on the circuit and make some money from it?  That kind of question, by the way, characterizes much of the skepticism in the book.  Why not become a magician?  Because we don’t have the whole story.  It seems to me that dismissiveness doesn’t really help to get at the truth.  Nevertheless, this book contains much that is useful and skeptical voices should always be included when attempting to sort our extraordinary claims, even if you never , ever want to be caught without a camera.


Phobia Therapy

I don’t like being scared.  That’s why I watch horror.  You see, many people deal with fear by running away from it.  Embracing artificial fears, however, prepares you for the horrors life will inevitably throw at you.  We humans have created an artificial environment for ourselves with many natural dangers removed.  For example (and there are always exceptions) we’ve been able to seal ourselves up in our homes and wear masks in public to avoid a killing virus.  For the most part we’ve destroyed our large predators.  As a society we tend to avoid the things that make us afraid which, in turn, makes us fragile when we have to face truly frightening situations.  I wouldn’t suggest becoming a fear junkie, but experiencing scary scenarios can diminish the overall  fear factor.

People often make assumptions about those of us who watch horror, even though it is the majority of Americans.  We’re seen as creepy people who lurk in dark places, unable to get along with our fellow human beings.  Perhaps it’s true, or perhaps it’s a reasonable coping technique.  I tend to think of it as a spiritual practice.  Spirituality is often about feeling, but it’s not completely divorced from rationality.  Often it has to do with that gut feeling that this is really real.  This is something that my years on this weary old globe have taught me is true.  Many times it’s this way in the face of evidence.  Others have trouble believing it, although some bearded guy alone on a mountain top says it’s true.  So life goes.

Spirituality is important.  I have many humanist friends and they are often uncomfortable thinking about spirituality.  It seems dangerous, a superstition that somehow survived enlightenment.  Enlightenment, however, is itself a spiritual idea.  There’s something inside of us that makes us who we are.  Whether it’s something physical or something else, it requires nourishing in order that we might thrive.  We expend a lot of energy arguing about the right (only right) way to do it.  The way to be a more spiritual person.  To me it seems that it’s about discovering what replenishes us.  What makes us into better people.  You find that and you feed it.  Spirituality comes in many forms and shapes.  Some of us have it fed by what others dismiss as mere horror.  There’s more to it than meets the eye, however.  I watch it to learn not to be afraid.


Ghost Chasing

I’ve known about Quirk Books from their very first publication.  That’s a rarity, I suppose, since many publishers have been around far longer than I have.  I tend to think of Quirk as mainly a purveyor of unusual fiction.  I’ve pitched a book or two to them myself over the years.  In the last few years they’ve been producing some good nonfiction as well.  The topics are, well, quirky.  I just finished reading Marc Hartzman’s new book with them titled Chasing Ghosts: A Tour of Our Fascination with Spirits and the Supernatural.  It’s a good compendium of material that traces the very long history of human obsession with the restless dead.  It begins with some ancient ideas about ghosts and comes up to contemporary times.  Not all of this can be covered with great detail, of course.  But there’s a lot here.  And it has a great cover.

The chapter on Spiritualism and seances is necessary, but it also reveals one of the reasons, perhaps, that modern skeptics still scoff at ghosts.  Mediums (not necessarily Spiritualists) were often caught in trickery, but as Hartzman points out, that doesn’t logically imply that everything was a hoax.  For me, when the rules start to include special boxes or sitting behind a curtain the old skeptic meter starts clanging loudly.  Still, some of this happened because, it seems, you can’t force a ghost to attend.  If there are ghosts and if they retain personalities, well, how do you like it when people tell you that you must be here at this time so I can make you do what I want you to do?  

The chapter on haunted locations covers many of the expected and a few lesser known haunts.  Often a very real human tragedy has occurred in such places.  Is it unreasonable to think we might impress such things on our environment somehow?  Or that our consciousness—which we still can’t explain scientifically—might not hang around to resolve unfinished business?  The final section on using devices to “capture” ghosts brings us up to the present ghost hunter craze.  The pursuit of ghosts is extremely popular, leading to the predictable result that academics shy away from it.  It’s a shame, really.  A few universities have, and some still quietly do, sponsor(ed) departments or facilities to study such things.  It seems to me that if people have been seeing, hearing, and feeling something for millennia, it might be worth some serious effort to find out what’s going on.  Until then, quirky books like this one will always be a guilty pleasure.


925

Sometimes you just know.  One of the things I know is that nine-to-five schedules are killers.  Literally.  I grew my permanent teeth as a teacher.  Before that I had been set on being a minister.  Something they have in common is that neither profession relies on a nine-to-five schedule.  The hours are much longer than a forty-hour work week, but they’re flexible.  If you’re not in class, or in church, or a committee meeting, or your office hours, you can dash out to the store if you need to.  You can shut your eyes for a few minutes if you didn’t sleep well the night before.  As long as you get your work done adequately, nobody really bothers you about your time.  My initiation into the nine-to-five, in my mid-forties, was a shock from which I’ve never quite recovered.

A few years into this unnatural territory, my nine-to-five (925 is quicker to type) evolved into the commuting variety.  I didn’t live terribly near New York City, so that meant catching a very early bus.  I’m a morning person, so that’s not really a concern.  The problem is that my brain’s not a 925 brain.  Like one of my professors, I still awake at 1:30 (having gone to bed about five hours before) with an idea that won’t let me go.  When that happens you have to put on heavy layers of clothes against the night’s low thermostat and make your way downstairs to the computer.  By three a.m. your body’s in the fully awake commute mode.  Thing is, you’ve got a 925 day in front of you.  When I was teaching I’d be able to snooze again before even my eight o’clock class (I was never one to object to the early shift) began.

The idea behind the 925 is an atavistic throwback to pre-internet days.  Pre-pandemic days.  Days when you had to be watched to ensure you were working.  When you had to sit in a cubicle where nobody and everybody can see you.  If you’re not staring at your screen or not in a meeting you’re not working.  So this antiquated thinking goes.  Teachers and ministers don’t hold to regular hours.  They identify with their jobs—the very definition of “professional.”  If it’s what you’re born to do you don’t complain.  And if you happen to awake at 1:30 with an idea that just has to be expressed, those who pay you will understand if you yawn a time or two the next day when, ideally, you won’t be stuck staring at a screen.


Investigating Investigators

I firmly stand by my earlier assertion that you can learn a lot from reading badly written books.  It’s difficult not to attribute motives (particularly of the pecuniary kind) to a book apparently hastily written and self-published.  But still, but still.  Writing even a short book takes quite a bit of effort.  One thing that came through in my reading of Paranormal Investigators: The Complete Collection Books 1–10 is that Rodney C. Cannon and Leo Hardy have a legitimate interest in the topic.  Not everyone has the facility with wordsmithy that makes for pleasant reading.  Not everyone has years of research training.  Still, there were moments of eye-rolling and actual out loud snorting that accompanied reading this one.  It continues some useful information, but all of it will need to be double or triple-checked.

My reason for reading it is the dearth of good information on controversial figures.  This has bothered me for some time.  Academia tends to pretend figures such as Ed and Lorraine Warren, Hans Holtzer, and Montague Summers simply don’t matter.  The fact is they have very wide followings and they share the feature of being self-taught in the field of ghosts and/or monster studies.  I knew this book was self-published (itself a warning sign, but then many credible authors self publish because it’s nearly impossible to break into the commercial publishing world).  I had hopes that it was simply because publishers don’t like to take chances on authors without a platform, without household name recognition.

The book is, however, poorly organized and repetitive.  The grammar is bad enough to make an erstwhile teacher such as yours truly pull out his truly’s hair.  And yet there is information here.  I can’t accept anything as factual from a book loaded with grammatical errors, very very few citations, and factual mistakes.  That doesn’t mean there’s nothing of value to be found in it.  In fact, I learned a thing or two (that I’ll need to confirm) that may help me in my own research.  And besides, it’s a quick read.  Given the constraints in the publishing world, we can all be forgiven for not automatically dismissing those who have something to say but who need to sidestep the standard publishing world to do it.  Amazon and others have made self publishing as simple as clicking a few buttons.  Who can be blamed for taking advantage of what others have wrought?  I learned something and that is, after all, the point of reading.


Ghosts Again

In keeping with my holiday ghost interest, I read John Kachuba’s Ghosthunters: On the Trail of Mediums, Dowsers, Spirt Seekers, and Other Investigators of America’s Paranormal World.  Yes, that subtitle is a mouthful.  The book is a series of essays without an overarching thematic arc, but it does contain some interesting accounts.  If you’re hoping to walk away with proof of ghosts this probably isn’t your book, but a few of the people the author interviews have some pretty convincing stories.  Ghosts remain one of the great unknowns.  People of all intellectual backgrounds, every socio-economic class, and every religion have encountered them, and this is true throughout history.  Ghost hunting isn’t a science and has no developed methodology, but then ghosts don’t seem to perform on demand.

I was particularly interested to see what Kachuba had to say about Ed and Lorraine Warren.  They were the original ghost hunters and their work was controversial from the beginning.  One of the consistent problems with the paranormal is that advanced degrees tend to make you quite skeptical.  You look for proof in the fields recognized by your peers and although a few departments of “parapsychology” have cropped up from time-to-time, mainstream science is doubtful and drives doubt into all comers.  Those who investigate ghosts suggest that if you don’t believe you won’t see.  Here’s the basic paradox between faith and proof.  And it only raises questions when you learn that science doesn’t prove but rather provides the best answer, given the data as currently understood.

Kachuba presents himself as neither a firm believer nor a dismisser.  He clearly enjoys ghost hunting himself and several times mentions his Ghosthuntermobile.  He interviews not only Lorraine Warren (Ed had had a stroke by this time) but also a variety of mediums, Spiritualists, and ghost whisperers.  He writes about various haunted locations, but in the accounts he shares he doesn’t see anything that can’t be explained.  Some of the essays are written with a humorous take on the subject, while others are entirely serious.  It’s kind of a grab-bag of a book in that regard.  Like many readers, I suppose, I hope to pin down something certain when it comes to the unknown.  My guess is that if anything definitive appeared we’d know about it.  Given the goings on in the world these days it probably wouldn’t be front-page news, as much as any information on eternity should be.  In the meanwhile we can read and wonder.


Masking Identity

Who am I, really?  Identity has been on my mind quite a bit during this pandemic.  With millions dying I suppose it’s important that “the officials” know who we are.  At the same time I don’t feel comfortable taking my mask off in front of strangers.  It’s kind of like a facial striptease that puts you at risk for some communicable disease.  Because I had to fly for Thanksgiving this year I got to put my Real ID to the test.  I removed my mask for the photo—at the DMV, of all places—so there was risk involved to prove that I am who I’ve always been.  When I went to get a Pennsylvania license three years ago, the system remembered me from when I got my permit and asked if I still lived in the county where that had occurred.  They seem to know a lot about me.

At the airport the TSA guy told me to take off my mask.  He had to confirm that I was the same person my Real ID stated I was.  I wish our government would tell me who I am.  And of course my passport decided to expire also during this pandemic.  I went to a local pharmacy to get my passport photo taken.  (I know you can do this at home, but you need a printer that handles photo paper.)  Then you can send the application in by mail.  How do they know it’s really me in the photo?  I had an uncanny experience many years ago when a visiting team from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) visited Nashotah House for an accreditation visit.  One of the inspectors looked very like me.  I think we both noticed the resemblance immediately.  It was like we were twins.  Later I found his photo on the school website and asked my pre-literate daughter who it was.  She said “Daddy.”

Who is that masked man?

So I’m standing here with my mask off in a store for confirmation that I am who I claim to be.  I wonder if this other guy’s photo were sent in would they know the difference?  In fact I’ve had the experience I suspect many people have had of being mistaken for someone else.  Helping a friend move to Kentucky after college, I had several people in a small town I’d never visited before identify me as Joe’s son.  I looked just like him.  Of course, that was way before the pandemic when our faces were public property.  Now I just wish I could put my mask back on so that I could feel a little less naked.


Thinking Big

Depending on who you are the Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies (BICS) may set your eyeballs to rolling.  You might know that extremely wealthy Robert T. Bigelow made his fortune as a hotelier and then began investing his money in aerospace technology.  He publicly admits to believing that aliens are already among us, and has contributed to advances in space travel components.  (It seems that many of the uber-wealthy are looking for a way off this planet at the moment.)  Not an academic, Bigelow is keen to admit his interest in what is often laughingly labeled the “paranormal.”  If you’ve got money you really don’t need to worry about what other people say.  I recently ran across an announcement regarding the winners of a BICS essay contest regarding the survival of consciousness after death.

As I’ve noted before on this blog, the paranormal and religion are close kin.  Nevertheless it does me good to see that so many people with doctorates (both medical and of philosophy) entered the contest.  I’m glad to see not everyone is buying the materialist narrative.  We’ve been so misguided by Occam’s razor that we can’t see reality is more complex than they teach us in school.  Churches may not be doing it for us any more, but it does seem that “there’s something out there.”  With a top prize of a half-a-million dollars, there was certainly a lot of interest in this enterprise.  If you go to the website you can download the winning papers.

Consciousness remains one of the great unexplaineds of science.  Answers such as “it’s a by-product of electro-chemical activity in the brain” don’t mesh with our actual experience of it.  Indeed, we deny consciousness to animals because our scientific establishment grew out of a biblically based worldview.  Even a century-and-a-half of knowing that we evolved hasn’t displaced the Bible’s idea that we are somehow special.  Looking out my window at birds it’s pretty clear that they’re thinking, solving problems.  Dogs clearly know when they’re pretending, as in a tug-of-war with its weak owner.  We don’t like to share, however.  Being in the midst of my own book project I really haven’t had time to read the essays yet.  I do hope they come out in book form, even though they’re now available for free.  I still seem to be able to carve out time for a book, which is something I consciously do.  I’m not convinced by the materialist creed, although I’ve been tempted by it now and again.  I like to think that if I had money I’d spend it trying to sort out the bigger issues of life, no matter what people call them.


Human Agency

Goodreads Choice Awards elected John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed as the Best Nonfiction for 2021.  It’s easy to see why.  Green has long been known both as an internet personality and as a fiction author.  His fiction tends to fall into the Young Adult category, but I’ve read a couple of them as an adult and found them compelling.  Green has an uncompromising way of writing about difficult topics and evoking what it was like to be young.  His main fan base is probably much younger than me, but I always enjoyed his fiction, so why not non?  To understand the context of The Anthropocene Reviewed, it’s important to realize that it is a podcast.  Some of the segments have been written up into a five-star rating system that has been done with quite a bit of humor and some very real tears.  That’s the book version.

For me personally, reading this book was quite a bit like walking the mental paths already in my own mind.  Although we’ve led very different lives, John Green and I share many of the same anxieties, the same love of writing, and similar theological backgrounds.  I don’t know him, of course, but I get the sense that we both still wonder what we want to be when we grow up.  The selection of topics in this book represent Green’s interests well.  Topics are researched and fascinating stories emerge.  It takes quite an author to make me keep reading when sports are invoked.  Some of the topics are sentimental and some of those must be so.  In fact, some of the topics he addresses are things I’ve blogged about.  Some of them even use similar phrases to describe our experiences.

The book is subtitled Essays on a Human-Centered Planet.  From Green’s point of view, this human-centricity isn’t always a good thing.  He nevertheless never loses sight of the fact that humans are fascinating creatures.  Fascinating and disturbing.  We destroy our own environment and each other.  Yet we’re capable of such incredible feats and loving and caring.  Green wrestles with his own neurodiversity here.  He doesn’t shy away from the difficulties that mental illness can present.  He’s also an example of one of us who succeeds despite this liability.  Indeed, our neurodiversity is one of those unacknowledged things that make us so very human.  We expect a world to obey the laws of logic, which it stalwartly refuses to do.  When we notice this we can either cry fowl or we can think about it and invite others to do so.  Read this book and think.