Paid Reading?

It’s like when you slowly pull a cotton ball apart.  Interrupted reading, that is.  Some people never cotton onto reading—we’re all different—but some of us find it such a beguiling exercise that we neglect other aspects of life so that we can engage it.  Almost an altered state of consciousness.  That moment when you have to close a good book, though.  There’s nothing else like it.  It’s difficult to pinpoint whether images or words make up the continuity a reader experiences.  For me it’s like a continuous conversation.  Since my life may be too regulated (“nine-to-five” jobs are like that), every day at work begins with interrupted reading.  If you’re awake early, you’ll find there’s no other uninterrupted time like it.  No librarian has to shush anyone at three a.m.

My job is largely reading.  It’s also a good deal of customer service.  As an author myself I guess I get that.  Content is what the world wants, and if you find a writer who does what your press likes, well, you try to keep her happy.  Why doesn’t enforced reading feel like reading by choice, though?  It’s that reading before work that feels like the pulling apart of fibers that’ve organically grown together.  By nighttime, which is still light in summer, it’s not so much pulling apart cotton balls.  Bedtime reading is more like stumbling through a forest.  When you come to that part of the path you know you’ve been on before—perhaps multiple times—it’s time to put the book down and hopefully reboot.

There may be jobs which consist entirely of reading for pleasure.  If there are I never learned about them in high school or college.  I have a friend who’s a musician.  Many years ago I asked him what he like to play for fun.  He looked at me and said “Music, for me, is work.”  I have to believe that somewhere deep inside he still found it enjoyable, but I instinctively grasped what he meant.  Once you take your passion and convert it into a source of income the magic goes out of it.  Once I get out of work the thing I want to do immediately is read, but what I want to read. And although studies show that the reasonable way to get your best work out of your employees is to give them more time off, employers tend to disagree with the data.  The more hours you put in the more “dedicated” you are.  But then, some of us are in publishing because we love to read.  But even now, as work time approaches, the cotton ball begins to shred.


Building Trust

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the Trump presidency was the four years of eroding trust.  People, it seems to me, no longer trust each other.  I’ve noticed it most since the reign of a pathological liar.  It’s kind of like a nation of children of alcoholic parents—trust is a real struggle.  I regularly deal with academics.  Now, critical thinking tends to make a person skeptical, at least to a degree, but it seems to me people would trust a very old, highly regarded institution.  Lately I’ve noticed that trust eroding in various ways, and that puzzles me.  If we can’t trust those who’ve done the heavy lifting of keeping a solid reputation for centuries, well, who can you trust?  It’s a real dilemma.  Maybe it’s because we had four years of equating “my opinion at the moment” with “facts.”  The damage will take many years to repair.

The basic way that civilization works is with trust.  We tend not to pay our money for something unless we believe it’s worth what we’re spending.  Skepticism, in appropriate measure, is a good thing.  So is trust.  One way that I often see this is in the hiring of contract managers.  Yes, there is such a thing!  Many younger academics now hire companies to make sure the publishing contracts they sign aren’t cheating them.  When I was in academia you simply went by the reputation of a publisher.  Everyone knew who had a good reputation because of, well, their reputation.  What a publisher represented was well known and respected for what it was.  Perhaps I’m mistaking the desire for personal advantage for lack of trust.

Companies sometimes engage in trust-building exercises.  Getting beyond someone’s politics to the person beneath seems to be a dying art.  Deep divisions are difficult to achieve when people trust one another.  Consider the anti-vaxxers who are now feeding the delta-variation of Covid-19.  They’ve been taught not to trust the scientists and officials who offer a way to ending this pandemic.  For free.  They even don’t believe the post-presidential interview with Trump where he encouraged (far too late) his followers to get vaccinated.  Trust has to be built slowly.  Over centuries sometimes.  One man’s selfishness tore down the modicum of trust that had been slowly growing since the 1860s.  Now uninformed skeptics think critical race theory is some kind of plot.  Trust isn’t a bad thing.  It is the only way to move forward.  Trust me on this.


Thy Sting

“It’s hard to imagine a more alarming sign of a society’s well-being than an inability to keep its citizens alive.”  This quote is from the New York Times’ The Morning team yesterday.  Life expectancy in the US has been dropping.  Not coincidentally, the article notes, so has the wealth disparity in the country been rising.  And guess whose lives are shorter.  Isn’t it often the same people who vote for those whose wealth keeps them (the candidate) alive longer, and in luxury?  This story struck me as poignant.  Have we lost our national will to live?  We see politicians who give no mind to what the people want getting themselves elected to further their own means.  People know they’re not being cared for.  That they’re being lied to.  Perhaps it’s working its way into our national mortality rates.

I think quite a bit about mortality.  Death is a natural part of life and we seem to have bought into the capitalistic idea that more is always better.  The debates in ethics classes were always about such issues of quantity versus quality.  Is a good life better, even if it’s shorter?  Improving the lot of others increases, we hope, the number of good lives.  Not everyone wants to be rich.  Part of the problem with our current system is that we’re narrowing it down to one way of existing—the way of earning more money.  Those occupations suffused with meaning are disappearing because they’re not profitable.  Does the will to keep on living grow when money is substituted for meaning?

Books on “the good life” sell well.  Whether it’s stoicism, Buddhism, or feel-good Christianity, people want to read the answers.  In a capitalistic system only so many can be rich.  They accumulate power to themselves and many have nothing beyond this for which to strive.  How many classes are available for finding meaning in life?  As universities continue their march towards the status of business schools, the philosophy and religion departments struggle.  They don’t bring in money, but they do, I suspect, discuss the systems that give meaning to people.  That could instill the will to press on.  The article makes the point that although Covid-19 has led to a good part of the decline, it isn’t the only factor involved.  We’re all so busy that we don’t have time to think about it and yet, finding a reason to continue to improve might give us what we need.  Maybe slowing down a little and pondering things would help.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

Yellow Jacket Redux

Back before what year it was really mattered, I stepped on a yellow jacket nest.  (I know I wrote about this last summer, but there’s a point being made here.)  So traumatic was the ensuing horror scene that I literally did not wear shorts (other than those obligatory for gym class) for at least a decade.  I’m still reluctant to do so.  The south side of our house is the best real estate in town.  For bugs.  After last year’s unfortunate yellow jacket massacre, I went out and patched every hole I could find and reach.  I missed one.  (Actually, it is where previous owners didn’t bother to reattach a porch light after installing a new porch.  The gap was too big to use filler and I was trying to figure out how to do the repair when it got cold out last fall.)  So the jackets are back.  Ironically, not two feet from where they settled last year.

I really don’t want to kill the little buggers.  I have respect for all of life, and if they didn’t regularly get into the house I’d leave them be.  They’re only doing what they evolved to do.  At times it seems like all of life is an experiment presided over by some alien race, curious about what would happen if a few select species were given an intellectual boost.  You see, these yellow jackets are smart.  They’re problem solvers.  When I realized what they were doing—it was already too late—I started going outside at 3 a.m. (I’m awake anyway) and duct-taping the gaps shut.  I did this three days in a row before I realized what would happen if the police drove by.  A guy in a hoodie in the dark, standing next to a window on someone’s back porch with a roll of duct tape in his hand?  How do you explain your way out of that one?

Nature couldn’t have given these yellow jackets a real analog for duct tape wrapping the entry to their home, but each day they came back and buzzed around it contemplatively.  I figured the stickiness of the tape (I could barely get it off my fingers) would dissuade them.  They began digging under it.  Not only that, they began building an exterior entrance tunnel.  Soon they had an even better fortified nest with an easily guarded means of ingress.  Their brains may be small, but working together they can accomplish truly remarkable things.  More so, in many ways, than this human who watches them with fear and reverence.


Peak Complexity

I remember being a kid.  Things probably weren’t as simple as some adults seem to remember—society, even as a child, is complex.  You soon learned the important lessons: who the bullies were and how to avoid them.  Cars are dangerous, particularly if they’re moving.  God is always watching you.  Then you start school and you begin to learn things you simply didn’t understand before.  You study math and although addition and subtraction seem pretty easy, division and multiplication require some concentration.  By the time you get to high school the math has become so complex that hours of homework are required to figure it out.  I don’t know about you, but nobody explained to me what jobs you needed this for.  I just hoped it wouldn’t be mine.

I’ve managed to get through so far with only the obligatory mathematical complexity of trying to explain certain problems to my daughter when she was in a similar situation.  Fortunately she understood how things worked better than I ever did.  The complexities, however, also come in other species.  I learned that being an adult meant constantly negotiating complexities.  That’s tricky for a guy like me because I tend to understand things by tracing them to their origins.  (There’s a reason history appeals to me.)  Social complexities often don’t allow such tracing—you need to figure out relationships and their implications and how you fit into the picture.  The same is true of jobs.  I’m sure many of you’ve had a job where the requirements change as circumstances alter.  You may have been hired to do one thing, but now you do another.

Then big life events come in with all their own complexity.  The other day I was wondering if there’s such a thing as peak complexity.  If there is, what happens when we reach it?  Do things in life simply become so intricate that society (I’m thinking here simply in human terms) implodes?  Or do we start to make things simpler again? Is there any going back?  I used to tell my students that my own grandmother was born before heavier-than-air flight.  By the time she died we’d been to the moon more than once.  Yes, rural life had its complexities, but since the industrial revolution the pace has been—what’s more than breakneck?  I know computer engineers and they tell me code is so complex that it’s actually a job to sort it out.  Just because you can fly a helicopter doesn’t mean you can put one together.  If we ever do reach peak complexity I have a suspicion that we won’t be able to tell, until in retrospect.  Childhood’s beginning.


How You Feel

Image credit: NASA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever had someone tell you how you should feel?  This always feels like an odd thing on the receiving end.  Each of us is born, learns from our experiences, and confronts emotions.  Many people believe that they might improve others’ lives if only others would feel the way they think they should.  Interestingly, and simultaneously, at work and in social settings we’re being told to honor diversity.  We are to respect the feelings of others, no matter how uncomfortable they make us feel.  Who is the guardian of others’ feelings?  Emotions are tricky to figure out.  We can clearly see them at work in animals—the age-old flight or fight response, for example, is based on fear.  Still, based on their own experience and temperament, one animal will run while another in the same circumstances will attack.

Emotions don’t come with an instruction manual.  For a not insignificant outlay of resources you may hire a professional to help you work through them.  Or you might learn to trust your emotions.  They evolved for a reason.  Telling someone else how to feel invalidates their experience.  If they feel frustrated, or lonely, or angry, aren’t those legitimate human responses when neither fight or flight works?  Human societies create great complexities.  Some of us like things the way they were.  Many of us currently alive are only a generation away from people who grew up with horses clopping down the street and now all of life is virtually virtual.  How does that make you feel?  How do you even assess what the right feeling might be?

Advice givers mean well.  Perhaps your emotional state causes them discomfort.  If only you would cope the way that they cope then we could all go home happy.  The lament, however, is a time-honored means of expressing frustration when things just aren’t going your way.  We like to believe that good people prosper and that things work out for them in the end.  We like to believe lots of things.  We also have plenty of feelings about them.  Invalidating others’ experience may make us feel better about ourselves.  After all, we have just given valuable advice to someone who hasn’t experienced the situation like we have.  Being a parent may be the best way of learning to empathize and help another human being deal with the always tricky realm of emotion.  The important thing is to let others know that, no matter what somebody else says, only they know how they are feeling.


Shifting the Narrative

Wide ranging.  That’s a phrase that comes to mind to describe Vine Deloria Jr.’s book God Is Red: A Native View of Religion.  Another phrase is very important.  I know this book has been available for several years and it’s been on my reading list for many of those.  What is it about?  Some books are just difficult to summarize, but the basic answer is that it’s an American Indian view of how Christianity has distorted the world.  An accomplished academic, student of law, and activist, Deloria knew of what he wrote.  His book explains articulately the view of Christianity from the outside and what a religion that reverences the earth really looks like.  What makes the book so fascinating is that Deloria had theological training and could engage with the Christian worldview over a considerable range of topics.

Controlling the narrative is of primary importance and the fact is white men have controlled the narrative and normalized one view of history, science, and our place in the universe.  First nations peoples had, and some still have, a radically different outlook.  Deloria makes the crucial point that even our science developed out of our religion.  That science, in turn, supports the worldview that created it.  It is possible to look at things differently.  In fact, for much of human history those alternate views were predominant.  The triumphalist view of Christianity claims it’s successful because it’s right.  A native view takes a longer view, saying “we’ll see.”

Very concerned about the state of the planet brought on by the Christian/capitalist partnership, Deloria advocated for not only Indian rights, but environmental protection s well.  Not only is the environment central to Indian spirituality, the concept of sacred spaces is very real.  Many of us not raised with indigenous points of view have experienced this as well.  Some places are special to us.  We hesitate, because of that very science created by the Christian worldview and its view of God, to call such spaces objectively sacred.  Even the “objectively” part is determined by a Christian perspective.  Deloria ends up by asking whether this form of religion has improved the state of the world.  There’s no doubt that some of Christianity’s achievements have lessened human suffering.  It is also true that science has achieved great things.  If I understand correctly, Deloria isn’t disputing this.  His point of view is much more essential.  Is this the only way to live on this planet?  From the indigenous point of view, which is far more important that we want to admit, the question is—is this the only way to see it?


Altared States

Religion Dispatches is a great website.  I used to write for them from time to time, and according to Google they were probably the most read of my internet publications.  I’m not sure what happened, but a few years back time simply evaporated.  These days literally the only time I have to get things done is on the weekend.  A simple thing like taking the car in for inspection takes advance planning and can throw off my entire schedule for the week.  I have difficulty finding time to write for Horror Homeroom these days.  That’s a long preamble to saying I saw an interesting article by Hollis Phelps on Religion Dispatches titled “Hulu’s ‘Hamilton’s  Pharmacopeia’ Shows that We Can No Longer Ignore Connections between Religion and Drugs.”  There have been a number of suggestions that drugs and religion are related over the years, but our “Christian” culture has declared the former taboo.  (Except wine, of course, and even that’s suspect.)

Photo by Alex Kondratiev on Unsplash

This article has me thinking about chemistry.  Not that I ever did very well in it.  Still, I recall hearing one high school teacher or another saying life is organic chemistry.  I’ve come do doubt the standard definition of life as I’ve aged, but there’s no doubt chemical reactions are a large part of the somatic existence we all experience.  Eating leads to chemical reactions to break down the chemicals in food.  Some of them are good for us, others are not.  Some (but not all) of the really dangerous ones we outlaw.  Drugs are a good example.  I don’t use drugs, but I’m aware that many religions do.  I don’t doubt the altered states of consciousness that reportedly arise from the responsible use of such drugs.

I haven’t watched “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia” (I have no time).  Still, I have to wonder why Christianity, in particular, came to declare its own war on drugs.  A large part of it, I expect, was the belief in the imminent return of Jesus.  You didn’t want to be caught unawares.  Then there was also the sad fact of abuse of controlled substances.  Alcoholism and the opioid crisis are reminders that these unfortunate aspects can still cause serious problems.  At the same time, research is demonstrating that religious experience and the use of some drugs are related.  American Indians, at least some of the tribes, found religious significance in peyote.  There are present-day religions devoted to cannabis.  Does it all just come down to chemistry?  I don’t know, but if there’s a drug to increase the number of hours in a day that might be a real revelation.


The Future of Consciousness

Consciousness is unexplained.  We’re born and we become aware.  Raised by parents or guardians, we learn where we belong.  The decisions of one generation affect the futures of the next, often without conscious consideration.  I’ve been thinking about how, with our limited resources, we’ve pressed on, reproducing beyond what our environment can sustain and each of us is born conscious.  Some of us—many, in fact—in difficult circumstances.  Instead of working together to figure this out, we keep on, not quite sure of what we’re doing or where we’re going.  Heath Ledger’s Joker may’ve been speaking for all of humanity when he asked, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?”  Do any of us?

During a discussion the other day the topic of the severe western drought came up.  There have been general drought conditions in the western half of the country (the northwestern coast has been spared) for well over half-a-century.  I wonder why the cities in such regions continue to expand and then I realize that each generation is a kind of reboot.  We tend to think we belong where we’re born.  My thoughts turn toward the ancestors of the first nations and how they knew that moving was necessary for life.  When the ice sheets start descending you really don’t have many options.  Perhaps our sense of place is an evolved trait, brought on by the changed circumstances of invaders’ senses of ownership.  Capitalism certainly doesn’t help.  Those born in drought-ravaged areas soon come to think of it as normal.  We can adjust to just about anything.

Settled existence is necessary for a life that defines meaning by ownership.  For me, I have a difficult time imagining my life without my books.  What we read tends to define us.  What would I do if the ice sheets began descending again?  Such change takes time, of course, but our complex society doesn’t seem to be very good at advanced planning.  My consciousness tells me where I belong geographically, psychologically, and even religiously.  I was taught such things as a child and even if I unlearn lessons that were wrong, I will always still feel that they were right.  If I flee the coming ice sheet I simply have to accept that my reality has changed.  Until that ice sheet’s at my back door, however, I can continue to deny it’s a problem.  Consciousness is a funny thing.


Story Power

A story can change everything.  You see, we are story-telling creatures and if you want to sway someone a story is a far better means than a lecture.  I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this because a story, in the form of a movie (it doesn’t matter which one), has been on my mind quite a lot lately.  This got me to thinking about the ways stories we tell ourselves come to define our lives.  It happens on a national as well as an individual level.  We’re engaged by a continuous narrative.  Until some kind of resolution comes we wonder what happens next.  Since my research has lately shifted to popular culture and religion, I’ve had the excuse to watch lots of stories.  Some of them just won’t let you go.

To me there’s no comparison between a well-written movie and one thrown together only for box-office potential.  They do overlap sometimes, but a film where the story is central often has power to stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.  We make sense of life through story.  Our biographies are the stories we tell about ourselves from our own perspectives.  I love to listen to other people’s stories.  I suspect—no, I know there would be a lot less conflict in the world if belligerents would listen to one another’s stories.  The tragedy of politics is those driven to rise to leadership roles often have vacuous stories—the blind ambition to be on top is hardly a tale worth the telling.  We like stories of presidents born in log cabins who had to struggle to get to a position of influence.  They have compelling stories.

Quite often, it seems to me, world leaders today are cut from the somewhat sociopathic model favored by businesses.  No story need be told.  Success is measured by the numbers.  Metrics tell you all you need to know, never mind how your workers feel.  The workers, you see, are telling their stories.  Building their narratives.  It isn’t too difficult to tell story tellers apart from those who climb out of corporate ambition.  The story tellers are much more interesting to listen to.  Even politicians—at least those who’ve not yet lost their souls—can be affected by a story.  It seems strange to me that, given the obvious power of story, we don’t emphasize it more in education.  There’s more to life than getting a job and climbing to the top.  Those on the bottom often have the best stories.


Hybrids

Photo by Maria Lupan on Unsplash

Hybrids.  They’re everywhere these days.  From hybrid cars to the modified foods we eat, mixed forms seem to be in style.  I can’t think of myself as anything other than a hybrid.  A person not welcome in academia isn’t expected to research and write books, but I just can’t seem to help myself.  There a rare excitement in finding, and loving, a new idea.  Academic writing I can do without, but the writing up of ideas, that is intoxicating.  I’m afraid I can’t always share such things here since I don’t have release time for research and publication and it can take me considerable time to gather all my sources and write up the results.  Meanwhile I’m just a working stiff like anybody else.  A hybrid working stiff.

Describing the elation of a new idea is difficult.  Knowing that something nobody else has noticed before is coming into focus, and that someone might want to publish it is thrilling.  Okay, so many people find other things like sports or dangerous activities exciting.  That’s fine.  For me an afternoon in a museum or library can do it.  You see, after finishing a big project like a book, it’s normal for me to go through a slump.  People ask “what are you working on next?” and although I have many ideas racing along it can sometimes take up to a year before a front-runner emerges.  When it does, however, all bets are off.  Ideas like this can buoy my mood for days at a time.  Now if only I had a classroom to test them out.

I mentioned The Glass Menagerie the other day.  Plays can be, and often are, mirrors of reality.  In high school we had to read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.  Although that was approaching forty years ago I still remember our teaching pointing out the real tragedy was that Willy Loman had real skills that were evident to those who knew him.  Circumstances, however, had compelled him to become a salesman.  There is a difference between a job and a calling.  Callings, however, are no protection against an economy based on greed.  Perhaps we’re all being channeled into salesmen positions.  Even if that’s the case, however, we know what brings us our sense of meaning in life.  Although there’s no inherent reason that a person can’t research and write on their own, it can be a costly and time-consuming venture without institutional support.  But a hybrid does things a little bit differently.  And hybrids are everywhere these days.


Candid Camera

Early on in the pandemic, various meeting leaders—whether Zoom or Teams—asked participants to put on their cameras.  The point was that, missing seeing other people at the office, the video feed was psychologically reassuring.  I get that.  I began working remotely before the pandemic broke out and I’m still reeling from being ahead of the curve for once in my life.  Does it always feel this giddy?  In any case, we’ve got to the point where many people simply do not put on their cameras, even in small meetings.  Since we are trained for diversity we know that some people simply don’t want us to know how they look on a certain day (or perhaps how cluttered their background is).  And that’s perfectly fine.  It does make me think how artificial work in the office is.

At least you could see this kind.

You put yourself together a certain way to be seen by other people.  In fact, we sometimes even put “dress codes” together for work.  I even had an employer once say dress was “business casual,” only wrinkles were unacceptable.  I don’t iron my clothes, so I guess that particular employer was warning not to let them sit in the clothes basket too long after taking them from the dryer (or clothes line).  In any case, now that we’ve come to realize we may not always look our best, we have an option to leave the camera off.  How many days commuting into the office did we feel this way but were given no choice?  Since leaving academia I’ve never had an office at work.  I was a midlife cubicle denizen.  I never liked the idea. Who looks their best after getting out of bed at 3:00 a.m.?

Being on view isn’t the same as working productively.  The pandemic has also taught us that going into the office is often not necessary at all.  If they supply the tech, which we’d need anyway, we will do our work without Big Brother watching over us all the time.  We’ve become, it seems to me, more humane.  Turning the camera off is a way of perhaps admitting I didn’t sleep well last night.  Or something’s really bothering me and I don’t feel like smiling falsely.  Or any number of other things that might put us in the place of wanting some space.  For once now we have it.  It is my hope that once things start to get “back to normal” that we will have learned some lessons.  We can treat people more like humans want to be treated and still contribute to the bottom line.  It’s amazing how much people will do if they’re treated like human beings rather than cogs in the capitalist machine.


The Persistence of Forgetfulness

It has happened twice this past week.  Maybe you’ve noticed, but probably I’m presuming too much.  Last Sunday and Thursday past, there were no posts on this blog.  Both days a post was cued up and ready for me to hit the “publish” button, but other things interfered.  To get a sense of this you need to realize that my blog posts are always ready to go by 6:00 a.m.  By that point I’ve been awake for a minimum of two hours and have already lined up my initial thoughts for the day.  I also realize that many other people are not awake yet.  Since my blog posts feed out to Twitter I worry (rightly) that a tweet so early will be dismissed along with other early morning bird calls.  I load up my post and wait.

In an abundance of caution, I begin my job at 6:30.  The reason is clear enough—I was let go from two jobs after being told I was doing great.  I don’t want that to happen again.  I’m one of those people whose best time is the morning.  I’m aware this is unusual, bordering on the freakish.  I have come to a compromise—I push the publish button just before I start work.  When I began working remotely (I was ahead of the curve, for once), I knew we’d need a house with a dedicated office.  That office is upstairs and is reserved for work.  My creative writing is done downstairs.  Since I go upstairs before actually starting work to settle in, I need to remember to click “publish” before I read the first work email of the day.  If I don’t, Thursday happens.  (It very nearly happened again yesterday!)

What about Sunday, did I hear you ask (in my imagination)?  Fair question.  Weekends I try to hold out until after 7:00 (so late!) or later to post.  But on Sunday I’m in charge of the adult education program in my faith tradition.  I schedule and run the Zoom meeting.  Since that program is early, I need to be ready early.  By 6:00 a.m. on Sunday my post was loaded.  Many Sundays, however, are about as busy as a workday although it’s all volunteer work.  I awoke Monday morning and found Sunday’s post still in the dock.  The world has been spared my musings for a day.  Ironically, WordPress had been sending daily streak messages “You’re on a streak!”  My streak struck out on Sunday, and again on Thursday.  Maybe it’s time for a new routine.

It’s like there are two minds at work here.

Kafkaesque

Although it’s a bit early—it’s never really too early—I just finished a banned book.  One of the main reasons I do annual book challenges is to help keep myself well rounded.  The categories often include books I might not otherwise read, although banned books are among those toward which I gravitate.  Lists of banned books are quite long, and so the choices are many.  I read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore for this particular category this time around.  As the name Kafka in the title implies, there will be some surrealism here.  It was banned, as many books are, because of the sexual elements.  Anyone who made it through their teenage years without having struggled with that, however, is truly fiction.

Kafka is, in this instance, a fifteen-year-old Japanese boy running away from home.  On his journey, interlaced with that of an older, disabled man, he begins to discover what it is to grow up.  A number of unexpected things happen along the way, and pretty soon you’re not able to tell which world you’re really in.  The story refuses to be tied down to the ordinary.  The writing draws you in, however, and reminds the reader that being a teenager is indeed a liminal state.  Almost larval, to use a Kafka metaphor.  And yes, the metaphor is extremely heavy here.  There’s no denying two worlds bleed into each other as the story progresses.  Becoming an adult, it seems, involves having to make difficult choices.

Woven in with the base story is the Oedipus myth.  American cultural figures also appear.  Questions are raised but never really answered.  I’m not sure that I was fully ready for the mind-bending nature of the narrative.  Especially in these days when it’s considered okay, with a badly distorted moral compass, to hate those who are different, it’s important to read books like this.  There are characters you simply can’t figure out.  There are situations that seem unlikely, but that match some of the inherent strangeness of life itself.  I’m trying hard not to give away spoilers here, but this is a profound book.  I can’t tell if it was written for teenage readers or not—there’s clearly a lot of life experience behind it, and we were all teens at one time.  It was banned for being honest about sexuality, but perhaps, as is the case with most, if not all banned books, the real problem is that it’s simply too honest about being human.


Is This Contact?

And speaking of the X-Files—but ah, I shouldn’t jest!  In fact, I strongly advocate avoiding the ridicule response when a claim seems outlandish.  A few weeks ago I posted on a review of Alan Steinfeld’s Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Existence, a book just out.  The review I’d seen made reference to the aspects of religion and paranormal in the book, and given the mainstream media’s treatment of the topic of UFOs lately, I thought I should see what was being said.  As you might expect for a collection of essays, the tome is a mixed bag.  While ridicule is excluded, a healthy skepticism is necessary.  Amid the contributors with known credentials are those who make claims that are difficult to verify.  Much like the rest of life, you’re left making choices.

Amid all of this, where does religion come in?  Books like this often reveal the deep biblical literalism of our society.  Amid the authors who haven’t held government (although that’s hardly a situation where critical thinking is necessary) or university posts, there is clearly the assumption that the Bible is literally true.  Cherry-picked verses are “explained” by the presence of UFOs or aliens, with the supposition that if it’s in the Good Book it must be true.  This kind of simple credulity is quite common, but it does make you wonder if all the homework’s been done.  I know, I know, biblical scholars spoil all the fun!  If one piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit, however, perhaps the picture hasn’t been put together correctly.

That’s not the extent of the religious—or better, spiritual side of the topic.  Many of the essays are written from a somewhat “New Age” perspective with vibrations, and energy, and universal guidance of spiritual beings.  Other essays deal with government whistle-blowers who seem to tell a coherent story of secrecy and deception on the part of those in power.  No matter how you slice it, reading this book without ridicule is a perception-bending experience.  It may not be the one book everyone needs to read to get up-to-date information on where things stand in public perception, but it will make you think.  Given how much the topic has been in the media lately, and how it has at last been treated without snide asides, may be cause for hope.  “No go” topics may be vanishing, if only because our military admits to taking this one seriously.  And there seem to be, as always, religious implications.