Wrong Entity

In one of those weird synchronicities the universe likes to play, the very next day after I watched The Entity (2015) and wrote a blog post on it, this happened.  In yesterday’s post I noted that I couldn’t remember where I’d read about the movie, or who had recommended it to me.  I couldn’t even be sure which The Entity it was, since I didn’t write down the movie’s date.  The next morning I had the privilege of watching Claire Donner, of the Miskatonic Institute, talking about The Entity and it immediately came to mind that it was she who’d suggested I might like it (or might not).  Also, that I got the wrong one.  I haven’t had the opportunity to watch the one actually recommended yet, but it brings back to mind just how the Miskatonic Institute contributes to understanding horror.

The Institute has asked me to present a course this coming October and I will be posting more on that closer to the time.  It got me to thinking about a couple of things.  One is that I missed some major horror films growing up.  When I “got religion” in high school (I always had it, of course, and saw no problem with enjoying monsters too) I began to steer away from horror.  In college I had a dating occasion or two to watch horror, but it really only started again in earnest after being booted out of academia.  I was interviewed in seminary by a sociology grad student interested in why people watch horror, but my watching was (and still is) circumscribed by lack of cash flow.  The Entity made quite a splash in the early eighties, but it took someone in the 2020s telling me about it before I realized I probably should watch it.

The other thing Donner’s talk brought to mind is how religion and horror relate.  Such films are scary because of an existential threat—THE existential threat.  There’s nothing more powerful than God, but in such movies God can do nothing.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I suspect that’s true.  It’s certainly true of The Exorcist, with which it’s sometimes compared.  God doesn’t deliver Regan McNeil, no, Fr. Karras does.  And only by sacrificing himself to do so.  The existential threat has to involve a universe entirely out of kilter.  What is a God that’s powerless (it’s implied) to drive out evil?  The exorcism in The Exorcist doesn’t work, does it?  Yet there’s some benevolent force in the universe that gives us synchronicities and, it seems, is looking out for goodness in an often cruel world.

Iron Man?

As a vegan, I sometimes end up thinking more about nutrition than I used to.  Back when I first became a vegetarian colleagues wondered how I got my iron.  I’m one of those apparently rare individuals who really likes broccoli.  I could eat it nearly every day of the week without tiring of it.  In any case, iron is important for health.  I’ve known people with iron deficiencies and it can be a real problem.  Doctors recommend ferrous gluconate as a dietary supplement since the body absorbs iron better from it.  (It’s best on an empty stomach, I’m told, followed by orange juice.)  But I’m no physician.  In fact, I’m quite squeamish, which may seem strange for someone who watches horror.  Still, thinking about iron took me back to my childhood.

I was a sickly child.  Couple this with a tendency to think too much and I must’ve been a handful for my mother.  I remember trying to explain to her once that I didn’t believe reality was real.  I was maybe twelve at the time.  She prescribed ironized yeast.  Now, Mom’s no doctor.  She didn’t even finish high school.  So thinking about broccoli made me wonder about ironized yeast.  First a web search revealed it’s not sold any more.  Further, it was a health food fad beginning in the 1930s.  Although I remember the taste and scent distinctly, I couldn’t find a website saying what it was or how it was made.  More to the point, why did my poor, frustrated mother think that it would help me couple reality with what was happening around me again?  (And was that even such a good idea?)

Questioning perceptions seems to run in my family.  I’ve long known that my thought process is very different from that of other people.  My saintly wife still says the reason she was attracted to me is that she’d never met anyone who thinks the way I do.  My thought process has had plenty of opportunities to drive her crazy since those early days, I suspect.  My brother and I sometimes talk about what it’s like being, I suspect, were we diagnosed, neurodiverse.  It’s easy to fall into the perception that others think like we do.  I suspect all people do that.  Few, at least among those I’ve met, question the reality that their senses tell them really exists.  Physics tells us it’s mostly empty space.  And yet although I still don’t know what it is, maybe I’d better find someone with an old stockpile of ironized yeast to get back to business. It is, after all, a work day.

Who knows what goes on in the mind of others?

Surviving AI

A recent exchange with a friend raised an interesting possibility to me.  Theology might just be able to save us from Artificial Intelligence.  You see, it can be difficult to identify AI.  It sounds so logical and rational.  But what can be more illogical than religion?  My friend sent me some ChatGPT responses to the story I posted on Easter about the perceived miracle in Connecticut.  While the answers it gave sounded reasonable enough, it was clear that it doesn’t understand religion.  Now, if I’ve learned anything from reading books about robot uprisings, it’s that you need to focus on the sensors—that’s how they find you.  But if you don’t have a robot to look at, how can you tell if you’re being AIed?

You can try this on a phone with Siri.  I’ve asked questions about religion before, and usually she gives me a funny answer.  The fact is, no purely rational intelligence can understand theology.  It is an exercise uniquely human.  This is kind of comforting to someone such as yours truly who’s spend an entire lifetime in religious studies.  It hasn’t led to fame, wealth, or even a job that I particularly enjoy, but I’ll be able to identify AI by engaging it with the kind of conversation I used to have with Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door.  What does AI believe?  Can it explain why it believes that?  How does it reconcile that belief with the the contradictions that it sees in daily life?  Who is its spiritual inspiration or model or teacher?

There are few safe careers these days.  Much of what we do is logical and can be accomplished by algorithms.  Religion isn’t logical.  Even if mainstream numbers are dipping, many Nones call themselves spiritual, but not religious.  That still works.  We’ve all done something (or many somethings) out of an excess of “spirit.”  Whether we classify the motivation as religious or not is immaterial.  Theologians try to make sense of such things, but not in a way that any program would comprehend.  I sure that there are AI platforms that can be made to sound like a priest, rabbi, or preacher, but as long as you have the opportunity to ask it questions, you’ll be able to know.  And right quickly, I’m supposing.  It’s nice to know that all those years of advanced study haven’t been wasted.  When AI takes over, those of us who know religion will be able to tell who’s human and who’s not.

What would AI make of this?

Spiritual Alterations

I’d been meaning to watch Altered States for quite a few years.  I suspect the reason (it’s been long enough that I can’t recall for sure) is that I knew it had a story line tied in with religion.  The tale follows Edward Jessup, a psychopathologist, who is attempting to understand schizophrenia.  He’s particularly taken by the religious nature of some schizophrenic delusions, and he uses sensory deprivation on himself to trigger something similar.  A trip among tribal Mexicans leads him to a psychoactive substance that he decides to combine with sensory deprivation to enhance the effects.  Along the way he explains to his girlfriend, and eventual wife, that his father was religious but died a horrible death.  He therefore became irreligious but his altered states of consciousness are often full of images from Revelation.

While the Bible theme eventually gives way to biological regression to pre-Homo sapiens, one of Jessup’s experiences has him coming to his dying father again and dropping a Bible on him which turns into the veil of St. Veronica on his face, which he then rips off and throws, flaming, to the floor.  Another instance of the Bible in horror, the film also uses crucifixes and hellish images to demonstrate the religious nature of these alternative states.  Jessup’s goal is to regress to the original thought, to encounter, as he puts it “God.”  This desire, combined with the potent Mexican drug, transforms him physically, and, in the end, emotionally.  Instead of being dissociated from his wife (whom he is planning to divorce), he realizes that love is the only thing that can save him from the terror of his experiences.

This is some profound stuff.  Paced like a movie from 1980, it has a quality not unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The message seems to be sound—the need for encountering the “divine” ends up convincing Jessup (that may autocorrect keeps changing to “Jesus”) that love is really what it’s all about.  The transformation scenes, while not shown in the detail of An American Werewolf in London, are nevertheless convincing enough.  It’s a rare movie that treats religion respectfully.  Here Ivy-League scientists are motivated to understand it.  In real life, alternative states of consciousness are quite real, if poorly understood.  They’ve been part of religious practice from the beginning and are a far cry from sitting in the pew and singing anodyne hymns week after week.  The more movies I see, the more it seems that a sequel to Holy Horror will be necessary some day.  

Inventing Chaos

A recent (in my personal interaction with time) article from the New York Times recounts two bad inventions by Thomas Midgley Jr.   Namely, leaded gasoline and the practical use for chlorofluorocarbons.  Besides making me interested in Midgley, the article got me thinking about inventors and inventions.  We never know, in real time, if innovations are good ideas or not.  We have no crystal ball and what seems like a good idea now may prove to be a catastrophe.  I’ve given a couple of talks on the Antikythera mechanism.  If you’re not familiar, it is essentially an analogue computer invented in the first century.  Experts suggest there were likely multiple such devices, but they never caught on and transformed society.  Why?  Nobody saw the practical benefits.

A replica of the Antikythera mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism was made essentially to predict eclipses and track the movement of heavenly bodies.  The fact that such a thing existed within a century of when Jesus of Nazareth lived and died is mind-blowing at first.  Still, it makes a point.  We never know when an invention will take off and change the world.  And we never know if that change will ultimately be good or bad.  There are many who suggest that the invention of agriculture was a mistake.  We eat less healthily than our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and they may have been much happier (in general) than we are.  Still, agriculture (despite creating desk jobs) has its benefits.  We live longer.  We have medical science.  And we can entertain ourselves with clever people on YouTube.  While we sit around too much and eat things that really don’t benefit us, we seem to be doing okay.  We’re living longer, at any rate.

The problem, it seems to me, is when capitalism takes an idea and blows it up into a huge money-making venture.  People just can’t take their eyes off that shiny, shiny gold.  And ideas, when they start making unreasonable demands (a new cellphone every other year?  Really, is that necessary?) tend to lead to the same results as leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons.  If they can be monetized, ideas will push themselves into this unbroken feedback loop we call economy.  Often at the price of ecology.  Inventors are both necessary and dangerous.  Their efforts often make the world more comfortable, more convenient.  They might, however, cause immense harm.  Being a vegan, I’d have a difficult time surviving as a hunter-gatherer.  Gathering is more my style, in any case.  If only I had a way of tracking the movement of heavenly bodies, I might just be content.

Planting Knowledge

In an effort not to harm other living creatures, I became a vegan about seven years ago.  Generally it’s not too difficult, although many eateries still think you have to exploit animals to eat anything.  Vegan fare is quite good, and some of it is remarkable.  Then I saw the article in Popular Mechanics, “So It Turns Out Plants Have Had Voices This Whole Time” by Jackie Appel.  Well, “voices” may be stretching it a bit, but they do make sounds.  According to the article, plants “talk” at the same volume as humans tend to, only it’s in a range that we can’t perceive.  Other animals, however, may.  That’s right, your dog may be able to hear the noise plants make.  This is one of the reasons I marvel at scientific arrogance.  Human senses simply can’t perceive all stimuli—how can we claim that what we term “supernatural” doesn’t exist?  We don’t have nearly all the data.

Meanwhile, we live with animals whose sense of smell would send us running even more frequently to the showers.  Animals who can hear plants “talking.”  Animals who can perceive magnetic fields.  We’ve evolved knowing what we need to know.  (At least in part.)  What then do plants communicate?  Can they hear one another?  The sounds plants make, if “translated” to human perception, seem to be “I’m thirsty,” “I’ve been hurt,” or “I’m fine.”  The terminology here is Appel’s but you get the idea—plants broadcast their status.  Can plants scream?  One of my students reminded me a few years back that I once wondered to her what a tomato felt when it was being sliced.  I responded, “That sounds like something I would’ve said.”

They know.

So now I’m a vegan and plants are joining the conversation.  My hope is that they don’t feel pain.  As far as we know, plants don’t have brains.  Even so, heliotropes are smart enough to follow the sun across the sky.  And even fully grown trees move—very, very slowly—to optimize the light they require.  Such intelligence in nature always leaves me in a state of wonder.  We’ve been told for centuries of human exceptionalism.  Sure, we have opposable thumbs and have figured out how to communicate intricate things vocally.  So much so that we can represent them in written form (such as you’re reading right now) and can know what someone’s saying even at great distances.  That doesn’t mean we’re the only remarkable creatures.  But it does leave me with the dilemma of what to eat.

Pondering Origins

I’m not a numbers guy.  I never had any interest in statistics, and I tremble when I see my accountant’s number pop up on my phone at tax time.  But exponential sequences have an inherent fascination.  Think about your ancestry (I recently wrote about genealogy and that got me pondering).  You have two parents.  And they each had two parents.  By the time you get back to ten generations (eight greats before grandparents) you have 1,024 ancestors of roughly the same generation.  That’s a lot of people just to make one individual.  Think of all the circumstances that might’ve led to any two of them having been kept apart—then where would you be?  Of course the numbers double each generation which is where my reasoning capacity shuts down.

At some point, doesn’t it seem, that there wouldn’t be enough people available to make you?  I know that’s not true—you’re reading this and that proves this false—but it does make each individual life a thing of wonder.  Or even at the level of your own parents.  If you have siblings you know how different even biologically similar people can be.  And there are many others who could’ve been conceived instead of you or me.  The chances are astronomical that we’re here at all.  I often wonder if such circumstances are why our minds seek religious answers.  People are meaning-seeking creatures.  And against such long odds, it seems that maybe we’re a miracle after all.  Naturally, a driving force behind it all suggests itself.

Photo credit: NASA

Science has been a real boon for the billions of us alive today.  There’s no doubt that dispassionate, rational thought can lead to amazing outcomes.  At the same time, the doubt creeps in that this is the only explanation.  It occurs to me when watching the birds in the spring.  How do they know their own species and with whom to mate?  Is all of this driven by that notorious fudge factor we call “instinct”?  I have no answer to what the source of that will to keep life going is.  Biology tends to be among the slipperiest of sciences.  Life is difficult to define when we don’t even know everything that’s out there in our infinite but expanding universe.  The numbers are just too massive.  All I know is that by the time you get back to twenty generations (eighteen greats) it took over a million people to make just one of us.  And that’s by the numbers.

Human Humanities

The New Yorker, if it didn’t take so much time to read, would be on my magazine list.  I’m primarily a book man, and there’s so little time these days that magazines seem mere ephemera.  However, someone at work pointed me to a story on the end of the English major that was really about the end of the humanities.  It was most disturbing.  Making the case that college students really prefer the humanities, they nevertheless go to STEM because that, and business, are the only place to find jobs.  In a world where work increasingly demands more hours a day, these young people take employment that kills their souls in order to keep their bodies alive.  The “starving artist” is no joke.  Society has deemed humanity unimportant.

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, by Charles-Joseph Natoire, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, via Wikimedia Commons

What happens when we cease to be human?  Artificial intelligence and robots and capitalism.  It’s a cold world where only numbers matter.  I’m not a great one for metrics and “evidence-based” humanities.  No, Romanticism is not dead.  The world where imagination reigns and Adam Smith is not even a shiny shekel in his great-grandfather’s blue eye.  How do I know it was blue?  Imagination.  You see, I’ve written a few novels (unsuccessfully), and I know a few (very few) colleagues who do as well.  Mainly I know that because their novels find publishing houses that know how to get them in the public eye.  I jealously guard those friendships because I’m a Romantic.  I tilt the electronic windmills telling me all of life is statistics and figures.  No, those slowly spinning blades are liable to chop your head off, if you let them.

My friends often express surprise when I reveal that I’m a Romantic.  Books should be evidence enough.  Ideally, work would allow us to bring our gifts to the table—or more accurately, screen.  It would find a way of saying, “be human here because we really mean what we say about diversity and inclusion.”  Instead, evaluations are metrics-based.  The numbers.  The bottom line.  At moments such as these, I throw off my hat and let my thoughts run free.  I daydream about the books I’ve read and those I’ve written.  I imagine life as a place to truly be human.  The humanities are all about understanding what it means to be authentically human.  And let me tell you something—it’s not all about numbers.  In fact, if I had it all to do over again, I think I would be an English major.  With no regrets.

Friends and Dreams

The mind is a labyrinth.  Ever since the time change (especially), I’ve been waking with the weirdest dreams.  One involved someone I haven’t really thought about for years.  Someone I knew in college and who was a close friend, but who’s fallen out of touch.  (And who would likely not approve of my evolving outlook on things.)  Why she came out in a dream is a mystery to me.  It does give me hope, however, that all those things I think I’ve “forgotten” are really still in there somewhere.  A friend once told me that it’s not a matter of “remembering” but of “recollecting.”  He claimed that the memories are still there.  Ironically, I can’t recollect who he was, although I think it was someone I knew in college.

My generation’s ambivalent about the internet.  Most of my college friends I simply can’t find online.  I recall one of my best friends saying he would never use a computer.  I suspect he’s had to backslide on that, for work if for nothing else, but he’s not available online at all.  The same goes for people my age at seminary.  Some I occasionally find through church websites, but honestly, most of them have better pension plans than I do and have retired to become invisible.  We children of the sixties are likely the last generation that might be able to make it through life claiming never to have given in to computers.  It took quite a bit of effort to get me over the reluctance.  One of my nieces set up this blog for me nearly 13 years ago, otherwise I’d still be hard to find.

But minds.  Minds can, and do change.  My mind was dead-set against computers in college.  For one class I was required to do one assignment via computer, and I did that task and that task only.  Seminary was accomplished with a typewriter and snail mail.  Even my doctorate, done on a very old-fashioned Mac SE, was purely a feat of word processing.  Nashotah House was wired during my time there, but that was mainly email.  My mind was slowly changing at each step of the way.  I wasn’t becoming a computer lover, but I was realizing that I was learning something new.  Now I can’t get through the day without writing and posting something on this blog and sharing it on Twitter and Facebook.  And checking email—always email—to see if anything important has come in.  And, perchance, someone I had a dream about might actually email me out of the blue.

Rock the Absurd

Okay, so it was bound to happen eventually.  You see, the internet makes us all interchangeable in a way.  I occasionally lament being confused by various algorithms with other “Steve Wigginses” out there (and there are many).  So while innocently checking my personal email after work the other day I spied a message clearly not sent by one of the many organizations that spam me constantly.  It was an invitation to participate in a conference.  Now, with a 925 job that’s just not possible, but I always appreciate being asked.  Then I read what the conference was about.  Agriculture.  Why were they asking me to attend a conference on agriculture?  Then I recalled, one of the other Steve Wigginses is a professor of anthropology, specializing in agriculture.  Was this an electronic mail mishap?

It also made me wonder if this poor soul (I don’t know him and have never met him) has been receiving email about horror films and wondering why.  His research trajectory has him trying to help people (which is why I wanted to be an academic in the first place) in a real down-to-earth way.  This made me realize the dilemma of other biblical scholars I know who are interested in monsters and horror, but who also realize that we need to help the world.  I can say from experience that it’s a lot easier to do as a professor than it is as an editor.  At least a professor has a platform to stand on.  And all of this brought to mind the theater of the absurd, tying me back to my younger days.

As I started high school I learned about the existentialists.  Looking at my own life, I saw it was absurd.  The times when I start to get down are when I’ve started to take all this seriously.  This Steve Wiggins, in any case, spends his life trying to figure things out.  But he lives in a world where two and two don’t always come to four.  Anyone who’s been inside an organization with open eyes knows the absurdities—large or small—that go on within it.  As old Ecclesiastes says, the race isn’t always to the swift.  That’s biblical and bankable.  So it’s a bit absurd that three (that I know of) Steve Wigginses are or have been professors.  It’s absurd that we don’t all use our full names because most two-name combinations on the web are going to lead to duplicates.  Mix-ups are bound to happen and we should just enjoy the absurdity we see.

Photo by Steven Weeks on Unsplash

Actual Intelligence (AI)

“Creepy” is the word often used, even by the New York Times, regarding conversations with AI.  Artificial Intelligence gets much of its data from the internet and I like to think, that in my own small way, I contribute to its creepiness.  But, realistically, I know that people in general are inclined toward dark thoughts.  I don’t trust AI—actual intelligence comes from biological experience that includes emotions—which we don’t understand and therefore can’t emulate for mere circuitry—as well as rational thought.  AI engineers somehow think that some Spock-like approach to intelligence will lead to purely rational results.  In actual fact, nothing is purely rational since reason is a product of human minds and it’s influenced by—you guessed it—emotions.

There’s a kind of arrogance associated with human beings thinking they understand intelligence.  We can’t adequately define consciousness, and the jury’s still out on the “supernatural.”  AI is therefore, the result of cutting out a major swath of what it means to be a thinking human being, and then claiming it thinks just like us.  The results?  Disturbing.  Dark.  Creepy.  Those are the impressions of people who’ve had these conversations.  Logically, what makes something “dark”?  Absence of light, of course.  Disturbing?  That’s an emotion-laden word, isn’t it?  Creepy certainly is.  Those of us who wander around these concepts are perhaps better equipped to converse with that alien being we call AI.  And if it’s given a robot body we know that it’s time to get the heck out of Dodge.

I’m always amused when I see recommendations for me from various websites where I’ve shopped.  They have no idea why I’ve purchased various things and I know they watch me like a hawk.  And why do I buy the things I do, when I do?  I can’t always tell you that myself.  Maybe I’m feeling chilly and that pair of fingerless gloves I’ve been thinking about for months suddenly seems like a good idea.  Maybe because I’ve just paid off my credit card.  Maybe because it’s been cloudy too long.  Each of these stimuli bear emotional elements that weigh heavily on decision making.  How do you teach a computer to get a hunch?  What does AI intuit?  Does it dream of electronic sheep, and if so can it write a provocative book by that title?  Millions of years of biological evolution led to our very human, often very flawed brains.  They may not always be rational, but they can truly be a thing of beauty.  And they’re unable to be replicated.

Photo by Pierre Acobas on Unsplash

Self Finding

I had occasion to peruse the Dictionary of American Family Names recently.  I realize that other people’s genealogy is generally boring, so I won’t provide the details, other than to say that “Wiggins” seems to be Breton in origin, way back when.  In any case, I checked my other ancestral names to find that they were either Germanic or unknown.  That made me feel a little special (an unusual feeling, to be sure).  I may be a mutt, but I’m a mutt with mysterious background.  Can you feel the mystique?  The thing about our origins is that they’re irresistible.  When I was still employed as an academic, one summer I was completely enthralled by the state archives in Madison and spent hours and hours researching—trying to figure out who I am retroactively.

This was before the need for horror films reasserted itself.  I was living the dream, employed in the profession for which I’d trained.  Or at least close enough.  At Nashotah House there was no real measure of academic productivity.  I was publishing at least an article a year and I had the draft of my second book written.  But who was it that had written that book?  What did I know about that person and where he’d come from?  My family names, at least until I get back to the inevitable Smith, are all pretty distinctive.  As a child “Wiggins” was a rare name, but it is the most common one from among my grandparents.  Perhaps all this Teutonic weight helps to explain my endless pondering.  Perhaps not.

Origins have always fascinated me.  The other day I was glancing over all the books on Darwin and Genesis that I had collected and read in those Nashotah House days.  Those were for the book that had never gotten written.  And names (and their origins) are all about identity.  Other people we meet want to know what we’re called.  Surnames, especially, convey quite a bit of information about us.  They might locate us geographically or ethnically.  It’s really a wonder that they’re not protected information.  Indeed, if you reveal too much genealogy online someone might be able to answer one of your security questions!  I suppose that’s another reason to keep your ancestry to yourself.  We do, however, take some of our cues for our identity from our names.  Family names aren’t generally chosen, except in cases of name changes.  And those can be tricky for those seeking to learn who they are.  Who am I? It depends on when you ask me.

Hard to Say

There’s no easy way to say this, so I probably shouldn’t try at all.  Still, I feel compelled to.  You see, I’ve sat on admissions committees and I’ve written my fair share of letters of recommendation.  The former (admissions committees) have a difficult kind of calculus to compute.  Schools need students and their tuition money—this is, after all, the capitalist way.  (Yes, there are alternatives, but boards of trustees have severe deficits of imagination.)  Some schools get around this by being elitist.  Generally they have endowments of very old money and can weather all but the most severe of storms.  Such universities are in the minority and so the rest, and various small colleges, need to compromise from time to time.  Money or integrity?  You cannot serve both God and mammon.

At the graduate level this becomes even trickier.  Grad students bring in more money, and getting into grad school used to (and here’s the difficult part) require what some admissions folks secretly call “special intelligence.”  The paperwork and in-person interview reveal it clearly—this candidate (not always from a privileged background) displays a canniness that suggests they might really have a truly unusual ability to reason things out.  This is someone who should be admitted for advanced work.  But if you apply that principle not only will you be called “elitist,” you’ll also run out of lucre.  The solution is simply economic—let those who don’t have this kind of special intelligence in.  I have seen Ph.D.s after names from schools that I had no idea offered doctoral-level research.  And they legitimately call themselves “Doctor.”

When choosing a grad program—go ahead, call me elitist, but then interview me and see that it’s not true—I knew it had to be at a world-recognized research institution.  I ended up at Edinburgh, and my bubble was already deflated when I told family from western Pennsylvania and they supposed I was going to Edinboro College (now Edinboro University of Pennsylvania), located maybe 50 miles from where I grew up.  I had been accepted at Oxford and Cambridge, however, neither of them could offer scholarships to a penniless Yank, but the famously frugal Scots were far more generous.  And let’s face it, Scotland is more exotic than England.  You have to admit that much.  Of course, the deciding factor was, in my case, money.  You have to wonder if there’s any possible way of escaping it.  From all appearances, mammon wins.

Human Capital, Are You?

Human capital.  Is there any more demeaning phrase?  Those in positions of political authority like to use the term.  To grow the economy, to people the military, to ensure the GDR Almighty surpasses each and every idol, we have to ensure the correct placement of our human cattle.  Oh, I mean capital.  I was recently reading about our rivalry with China.  The expert I was consulting noted that it all comes down to human capital.  With populations shrinking, this is annoying to those who want to measure nation against nation, back to back.  In China, it’s said, your fate is determined at a fairly young age.  And that made me wonder about late bloomers.  Like yours truly.  To see me up through at least fourth grade nobody would’ve supposed I was Ph.D. material.  (Considering how this all worked out, maybe they were right.)

Humans, if we’re honest, mature at different rates.  Some of us take decades to learn what we’re good at.  This may be a problem endemic to the poor—kids who are raised by parents that are uneducated and don’t even know about things like after-school classes and clubs to enhance the experience of growing up.  Or if they do know about them, can’t afford them.  They raise their children to be blue collar in mentality.  Of course, capitalism relies on this.  You need human capital to collect garbage and dig ditches.  To people the military.  I often wonder how many of these folks might’ve been (and still could be) hidden geniuses.  You see, when I grew up working as a janitor in my middle school, during the summers, I listened to the hourly employees as they talked.  It wasn’t all about women and alcohol.  No, some of them were untrained philosophers.  I learned that I wasn’t the only human capital that thought deep thoughts while running a floor stripper.

The very concept of human capital ensures that some potentially world-changing kids will be overlooked and slotted where “society needs them.”  If we would educate ourselves more our world could become a more equitable and pleasant place for the 99 percent.  Instead, we keep the capitalist machine fed, nations comparing one another’s capabilities.  China may use balloons creatively, but we can be assured that all developed nations are surveilling their neighbors, assessing how they’re using their human capital.  All I know is that I grew up destined to work as a janitor, but the thoughts in my head wouldn’t stop.  And one mentor, who worked for a church, decided to show me the way.  How I wish I could help others escape, but there’s some comfort in being part of a machine.

Which bit are you?

Just Being

You know, I sometimes resent being forced to be something I’m not.  In these days of tolerance and letting people be themselves, the bullies have taken over, forcing the rest of us to clean up their messes.  Take politics, for instance.  I have no interest in it.  From the beginning of this nation to the present the political inbreeding has been obvious.  Wealthy families presuming that riches mean you know how to govern—since the beginning they have set the tone.  Voting is always important, but how can you be anything else when you need to be a constant political activist just to assure politicians are actually doing their jobs?  I’m no micromanager—in fact I’m okay with just getting by.  Still, I feel compelled to spend my time keeping an eye on corrupt politicians.  How are you supposed to write books?  Imagine what we could accomplish if they’d just do their job!

Or consider business.  It’s tax season.  Every New Year marks the time when you need to keep track of what you spend on what because accountants, backed by politicians, can’t keep their noses out of other people’s money.  You want to eat?  Find a place to sleep out of the incessant rain?  Then you have to play the capitalist game.  There’s no opt out short of heading under the bridge and going through trash cans for your next meal.  Those of us who are creative don’t really impose our wills on others.  You don’t like what I write?  Don’t buy my book.  (And I speak with authority on this particular point!)  Nobody forces you to look at art.  (Although they do force you to listen to music in many stores, even if you’d rather shop in silence.  This, I think, is a business decision.)

Image credit: Warren K. Leffler, public domain, via Library of Congress

One of the reasons a monastic vocation appealed to me even as a young Protestant was that I need time to think things through.  To contemplate.  To try to make sense of all of this.  I’m not motivated by money or power.  I want to be with others who just want to be.  I’m not lazy and I don’t mind being productive.  It’s just that, well, can’t things not be about money for a while?  Can’t politicians just act like actual adults with a moral center for a time?  The religious leaders who managed to do this were quickly commodified.  In this cloud-smitten winter I’m in the mood for lament.  Some of us want to live authenticly, but those with power and money simply won’t allow it.