Columbo

I liked Columbo.  Peter Falk was an award-winning actor, and his working-class detective character was always entertaining to watch.  Unlike other TV cops, he didn’t carry a gun.  Hearing the tragic news from California where yet another shooter killed multiple people before himself, I think about the proliferation of guns.  The New York Times runs story after story showing that nowhere else in the developed world are gun deaths remotely anywhere near what they are in the United States.  Not only do we have a super-abundance of firearms, we have politicians on the dole from the NRA who simply won’t take action because they personally stand to lose money if they do.  And apparently they can sleep at night.  As a nation, our guns outnumber people.

Estimates for the number of guns in America stand at around 466 million.  98% of them are in civilian hands, as opposed to the military.  And we have multiple mass shootings per year.  Is there any chance that these facts might be related?  Ironically, many firearms are owned by those who loudly proclaim they hate the “culture of death”promoted by those who try to make gun ownership more difficult.  I’ve written on this topic so many times before that I really don’t know what else there is to say.  Perhaps it’s time to just give up and weep.  Last year, excluding suicides, there were over 20,000 gun deaths in this country.  There have been 15,000 or more per year since 2016.  Approximately 120,000 gun deaths in just six years.  And yet nothing is done.

The public strongly favors stricter gun laws.  Government officials do not.  In fact, some Republicans are now attempting drive-by shootings of suspected Democrats.  I’m not anti-gun.  I am anti-insanity.  You see, that was the thing about Columbo.  He never pulled a gun, but he doggedly pursued those who did.  The culture of hate that has swept this country since 2016 needs to be reminded of Columbo’s message.  Guns aren’t the answer.  Pursuit of the truth is.  How a purportedly Christian movement does nothing but support the gun lobby is a mystery requiring investigation.  It has to be asked where in the Bible does this idea of arming yourself come from.  It has to be asked which commandment declares obtaining deadly force and making guns easily obtained by the mentally unstable is God’s will.  I guess that about wraps it up.  Just one more thing—what would Jesus do, really?


The Point of It

It’s not difficult to feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem.  Race was a construct developed to oppress.  The intention was to keep those of non-European, especially non-northern European, ancestry in servitude.  The rationale for doing so was part capitalistic, but also largely religious.  Convinced that Jesus was white, and that the “New Israel” had passed to Christianized Europe, it didn’t take much theological maneuvering to get to the point that others can be—in that mindset, should be—brought into line.  And since this religion comes with a built-in body-soul dualism, it’s not difficult to claim you’re trying to save a soul by destroying a body.  That way you can still sleep at night while doing something everyone knows is wrong.

Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up to such ideas.  His understanding of Christianity was more in alignment with what Jesus said and that threatened those in the establishment who found any challenge to profit heresy.  There can be no denying that racism is one more attempt to keep wealth centralized.  It’s something not to share, which, strangely enough, is presented as gospel.  There are many people still trying to correct this wrong.  It is wrong when a religion distorts its central message in order to exploit marginalized people.  The key word here is “people.”  Black people are people.  Their lives matter and every time this is said others try to counter with “all lives matter, ” a platitude that misses the point.  We need Martin Luther King Day.  We need to be reminded that we’re still not where we should be.  We’re still held in thrall to a capitalism that rewards those who use oppression to enrich themselves.

I was born in the civil rights era.  I suppose I mistakenly reasoned that others had learned the message as well.  All people deserve fair treatment.  Today we remember a Black leader, but we still have the blood of many oppressed peoples on our hands.  Those who first came to live in this country, whose land was stolen in the name of religion.  Those whose gender and sex put them at threat by those who believe control of resources is more important that care of fellow human beings.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but in King’s words, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”   If we believe that, and if we can act on it, there remains the possibility that we might actually achieve the reason we set this day aside to reflect.

Photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash

New Horseman

You’d think it’d be obvious, but it took me some time to realize that when a story’s being retold in a literary context, the point isn’t to restate the original in new words.  No, sometimes the vision is quite different and the result is like building a different person from the same skeleton.  I’m still on my Sleepy Hollow kick and I’m interested in what contemporary writers see in the story.  Serena Valentino’s Raising the Horseman is a feminist retelling with sensitivity to LGBTQ+ concerns.  Like some other recent Sleepy Hollow novels—Alyssa Palombo’s Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel and Christina Henry’s Horseman—she takes the point of view of either Katrina or one of her descendants.  In this case, both, as a present-day Katrina reads the diary of the original Katrina in Sleepy Hollow.

The story is pitched at the young adult level—a literary scene that’s thriving these days—and sets up the story this way:  Katrina Van Tassel married Brom Bones and left her vast estate to her daughter and their daughters, as long as they took her name.  This creates an unbroken succession of Katrina Van Tassels.  As might be expected, the current Kat, as a teenager, wants to follow her own path rather than staying in Sleepy Hollow for the rest of her life.  She meets a new girl in town, Isadora, who encourages her to see how her boyfriend Blake has been keeping her in an abusive relationship.  “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a love triangle, and that develops here as well, moving in new directions.

Valentino has been writing a series called Villains for some time.  That series takes on the viewpoint of the antagonist rather that the hero.  Such tales are quite popular these days as we reexamine dusty assumptions that have been sitting undisturbed for far too long.  Fans of Sleepy Hollow will recognize the base story in this novel, but will be taken along a different path and will be left without a simple resolution.  Younger readers adopt a more open attitude towards life, watching, as they do, the antics of many of their elders (particularly angry white men in positions of power), and they recognize bad behavior when they see it.  The novel is a plea for tolerance, a trait that’s much needed in the world.  The Headless Horseman is still there, of course, but the real villains of the story might not be who you assume they are.


Night Mom

Kurt Vonnegut is one of those tragicomic writers that can leave you reeling.  Mother Night was never on my must-read list, although I’ve read about it many times.  Reading about a novel isn’t the same as reading it, of course.  I picked it up in a used bookstore earlier this year when I didn’t want to walk out empty handed.  I go into such stores with a list and try to limit myself to it.  If they have nothing on the list, I try to find an author I know.  Since I’ve read several Vonnegut novels, I have an idea of what I might find.  This one was pretty bleak, though, but then the subject suggests as much.  Those critics that say it’s funny are made of sterner stuff than yours truly, I guess.  

The story is the account of a Nazi propagandist who’s actually an American spy sending encoded messages through his radio broadcasts.  Throughout the novel he’s conflicted because he wants to be left out of the business of war, and yet he’s aware of the potential for evil on both sides.  It’s a chilling book to read in the light of Trump because American nazis feature pretty prominently in the plot.  Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is on everybody’s hit list—American Nazi haters/hunters, Russian Nazi haters/hunters, and Israeli Nazi haters/hunters, and even on his own hit list.  His role in the war made him look like a Nazi.  Vonnegut has some profound things to say, such as:  “Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”

And this: “Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.”  The book was published before I was born, and that took place about six decades ago.  The set-backs we’ve seen since then make this one of Vonnegut’s most disturbing books.  I have no doubt that he was a haunted man.  Like many who’ve been through war, he has neither luxury nor appetite for politicians and the immoral games they play to retain power.  Mother Night deals with evil and its ambiguity.  And the sad fact that as much as two people love each other and want to separate themselves from the troubles of the larger world, it’s simply not possible to do so.  The reasons for this are far too obvious but since we have difficulty seeing the obvious, novels like this are necessary.


Word of the Year

I still have to look up “goblin mode” each time I read it.  I’ve been reading it quite a bit because it was Oxford University Press’ word of the year for 2022.  Throwing voting open to the public for the first time, goblin mode was overwhelmingly chosen, edging out my personal favorite, “metaverse.”  (It’s not every day that a word your brother-in-law invented gets that kind of accolade!)  But goblin mode is in the Zeitgeist.  It means to live an unkempt existence, perhaps hedonistically, without caring what others think.  It is, of course one of the offspring of the Covid-19 pandemic and its lock-downs.  Like social distancing, it’s something some of us had done before we knew what it was called.  But only partially.  I have a mental self-image that I don’t allow myself to show because I don’t like being judged.  I’d be safer in the metaverse, perhaps.

Image credit: Goblin illustration by John D. Batten from “English Fairy Tales” via Wikimedia Commons

Somewhat a natural hermit, I do crave human company and, like most people, I worry about what others think of me.  The thing is, people are natural actors.  We keep our goblins well hidden, usually.  Social life is quite different from the moments we spend alone.  Goblins are, of course, a type of monster.  Somewhat undefined and malleable, they can be compared to demons or fairies.  They do tend to be associated with households, which may make their use with this phrase appropriate.  Goblins tend to be thought of as ugly, thus goblin mode is letting your “ugliness” take over, no matter who may see.  You could be in permanent goblin mode in the metaverse, though.

I have to admit that such things make me feel my age.  The lessons of conformity, even though I was born in the sixties, were pretty deeply impressed.  “Do you want other people to see you like that?”  I wonder if we’re not all insecure at some level—it’s our primate inheritance.  Going into goblin mode, then, is striking back at the natural human acting ability.  It comes at a time when the message of not judging is also prevalent.  In the metaverse, as it was first used in Snow Crash, you chose an avatar that could look like anything you wanted.  I suppose that’s a form of goblin mode too.  We are natural actors.  Watch people in a crowd sometime.  Or at the office.  Or even at home, if they’re not alone.  If other eyes are watching the question always remains “do you want others to see you like that?”  And what we see is probably not authentic.


Ideal Christmas

This blog is even open on Christmas.  I’m enough of a pragmatist to realize that few read it today, but even Carl Sagan knew that launching the Pioneer plaques into the void was the smallest spark of hope.  A quark in a universe so vast that we suppose it infinite.  And even so, it makes room for us.  So, if nobody reads this on Christmas I’ll certainly understand.  If you do, and if you celebrate Christmas, a merry one to you.  Thanks for stopping by.  For some folks, I know, Christmas is a time for gathering together.  A British colleague recently remarked to me, “But Thanksgiving is the big American holiday.”  I think he meant both for family gathering and for time off work—it’s the only regular four-day weekend capitalism deigns to give to those who live between the anvil and hammer of nine and five.  But today’s Christmas, we don’t have to think about that.

For me the ideal Christmas is one hunkered down with my family and when we don’t ever have to get out of our pajamas.  A bohemian holiday when you don’t have to go outside to check the mail.  As cold as it is this year, that’s really a relief.  And it’s also a time for stories.  Most of the Christmas gifts I give require explanation.  Even if they don’t, I like to tell stories about them.  That’s the way writers roll, even us obscure ones.  Holidays are based on stories and are made up of stories.  Those we tell only to our families are the most intimate kind.  You see, the brain doesn’t stop working just because it’s a holiday.  So all the books bear witness.

Although it’s too early to tell (the sun isn’t up yet), we might just eke out a white Christmas around here.  In eastern Pennsylvania we managed to avoid the worst of the massive storm that ruined holiday plans for many.  At the tail end of the rain, and at the knife’s edge of the frigid air, come a dusting of snow.  The temperatures have kept low, so if the sun hasn’t managed to warm the still green grass enough, we may see some white today.  It seems we have Bing Crosby to blame for this particular dream.  Christmas isn’t predictably white around here, and global warming only makes it less so.  But this is a holiday, and we don’t need to think about that.  I know not many will read this post, but if you are one of the few, and if this day is special to you, celebrate it for all it’s worth.


Space Ads

So, I’ve got enough stuff to worry about down here—the chimney needs some attention, that backyard gate still doesn’t hang right, and Giant keeps on running out of the cereal I buy—to have to turn my attention to space.  I love outer space, although, unlike some people I’ve never been there.  One of the simple pleasures in life is to be outdoors at the lake and watching the night sky where there’s no light interference.  Then I learned about space advertising.  You see, as an editor you get to read about all kinds of topics, and this came up in a proposal one time.  I had no idea that companies had been proposing billboards in space to fly across our nighttime skies.  It’s hard enough to use the internet anymore without hacking your way through a jungle of ads, and now they want to clutter our view of the nighttime sky so there’s no escaping capitalism.

“Space, the final frontier.”  This is a mantra that many of us grew up with in the sixties.  Most of us can’t afford to, and really have no desire to, go into space.  Born down here, we’re content to stay down here.  That doesn’t mean we can’t look at the sky with wonder.  Already you can’t go to the beach or a stadium event without planes flying banners trying to draw your mind back to the commercial world.  Even in remote forests you can find litter stamped with some company’s logo, trying to sell you more.  It’s enough to make you want to get to space to get away from it all.  Now that companies can afford to fly people to space as tourists—this is pretty strictly limited to the top one percent, of course—they feel they have the right to clutter the nighttime skies so that you’ll have that midnight urge to go buy a Tesla.

The original space advertising?

At this time of year we look to the nighttime sky in hopes of seeing a special star.  People with too much money cause so many unnecessary problems for the rest of us.  This has been apparent throughout history, but has been brought into sharper focus in the days of late capitalism.  Having too much only makes you want more, it seems.  And since other people have some you need to flash your company in their faces constantly.  From what I’ve read the only reason space advertising hasn’t really taken off is that it costs millions to get your ad up there.  Despite inflation it seems that these kinds of costs always come down.  And yet you can’t even get a contractor to come out and do something about that deck that’s falling apart.  And I do hope that they’ll have my cereal at the store this week.


Yule Tidings

Happy Yule!  One of the things my British colleagues find hard to believe is how Dickensian American employers are about days off around the holidays.  Corporations tend to give one day for Christmas, and you can hear them grumbling, “I suppose you must have the whole day?” even as they give it.  Christmas is, however, a season.  The twelve days begin on the 25th, but Yule starts today.  Yule marks the solstice—the fewest hours (minutes) of daylight occur today.  Tomorrow daylight will start to grow longer, although it will take many days before we begin to notice any difference.  I know this reflects a northern hemisphere bias, but having read about how less time is necessary for work, given technology, I wonder if there might not be a more equitable solution to this hemispheric focus.

What if we regularly gave generous time off around the holidays to recharge our batteries—renew our spirits—for both hemispheres?  What if we gave our southern neighbors the benefit of, say, a week off in June, after the summer solstice?  And what if we joined them as well?  Only the most uninformed believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born on December 25.  The best that those facile with calendars and history  can do is that he was likely born in the spring, so why not split the difference and offer rest and respite in both December and June?  Bean counters who equate every second in front of the screen as adding to the bottom line (a fable as sure as anything the brothers Grimm recorded) might need to be the ones leading the way.  Rest is important.  Time to think about something else.

Yule is an ancient celebration.  We don’t know how far back in history it goes because there are no records of its earliest celebration.  Before computers, before the industrial revolution, it was recognized that little truly productive outdoor work could be done during the winter months.  Obviously we can’t sit around and do nothing all the way til March, but these very short days bridging the end and beginning of what we now recognize as the new year, are custom-made for reflection and renewal.  Why not encourage it?  Perhaps the bean counters could use it to read A Christmas Carol.  Maybe they could set aside their abacuses and reflect on the wonder of the seasons that suggest to us that now is the time to rest and wait for the light to return.  Let’s truly celebrate Yule.


Best Beasts

Strange Beasts of China left me strangely affected.  Yan Ge’s novel received quite a bit of acclaim for a book of speculative fiction.  Of course whether or not it is speculative fiction is open to debate.  The narrator, an unnamed former graduate student, makes her living by writing about the “strange beasts” of the fictional city of Yong’an.  Uncertain of where she fits, she’s been researching any number of creatures that resemble humans in various aspects, and who lived often hidden lives among the population of the city.  Her relationships revolve around people who, and this may be a spoiler, often turn out to be beasts.  It could almost be a parable.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  The word “cryptozoologist” occurs in the copy and it was blurbed by a couple of horror writers.

It’s not really a horror novel, though.  There’s some action and even a bit of violence—not too explicit—and some well-executed twists.  I wasn’t sure where the story was going, but I found myself eagerly awaiting the opportunity to pick the book back up again.  One of the truths of our species is that we find ways of othering those who are different than we are.  Othering so that we can fear and mistreat them.  And feel superior.  That’s why this story feels so much like a parable to me.  The beasts aren’t really monsters, but then, monsters are really us.  What matters is how we treat them.  Yan Ge handles them with sensitivity—her narrator, after all, is very interested in these beasts—and our suspicions grow as the novel goes on.  We shouldn’t be judging here.

That this book should come out even as American attitudes toward China veered decidedly toward “othering” (the book was published in Chinese back in 2006, but appeared in English in 2020), is significant.  There are reasons to fear the autocratic government of China, but a significant portion of Americans seem to favor the autocratic style over democracy.  So it is that parables continue to be made.  We live on a planet with billions of other human beings, each with cultures, hopes, and dreams.  They may look a little different and thy may speak in ways that we don’t immediately understand, at least not without some effort, but they are just as human as those who speak English and who live in their own fictional cities isolated by a couple of oceans.  Strange Beasts of China really made me think.


Seasonal Sights and Sounds

It’s listed as one of the top ten Christmas activities in Pennsylvania.  Koziar’s Christmas Village, located north of Reading and really out in the country, has been in business for 75 years.  Family owned and operated, it’s a walkthrough Christmas lights display.  I’ve been to many drive-through displays over the years, but on Saturday we went to this walk-through.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  In the end, it was like many such attractions—lots of lights and painted plywood cutouts, flocked animals and dioramas with mechanically moving dolls.  What was truly impressive, however, was the number of people there.  Opening daily at 5 p.m., just as it’s getting dark, the sizable parking lot was already filling up at 4:30.  Walking through the display was essentially letting yourself by moved along by the crowds.  There were thousands of people there on Saturday night.

Getting into our car to head home, there were yet miles of cars backed up wanting to get in, and this was at 8:30.  Such sights of Christmas put us in holiday mode.  Seeing so many other people getting into the spirit of things was, in its own way, inspirational.  The next night—this being the weekend before the holiday itself—we attended the Christmas with the Celts concert at the Zollner Arts Center in Bethlehem.  Bethlehem prides itself on being “Christmas City,” founded, as it was, on Christmas Eve by the Moravians.  Christmas with the Celts is an annual show with different line-ups having in common live music, Celtic tunes, and Christmas.  The auditorium was pretty full, so I was glad for our masks.  They didn’t get in the way of the sounds of Christmas and a few stories from Ireland.

The sights and sounds of Christmas are part of what make this time of year so memorable, and something to which we look forward each year, despite the shortness of the days and the coldness of the air.  There’s a hopefulness about the holiday season, an underlying awareness that things need not always be as they are now.  Just two days away, the winter solstice—the holiday of Yule in its own right—marks the slow turning point to longer days.  It means winter is just getting started, but the cold brings with it more and more light in compensation.  Holiday sights and sounds help us through this transition.  And maybe, if things go right, they won’t be just the same as before afterwards, they may be even better.


Birthing Stars

Fusion.  The recent breakthrough with fusion announced so close to Christmas hardly seems a coincidence to me.  I have to admit to having been interested in fusion since high school.  One of my school term papers was on what was then called a “magnetic bottle”—a theoretical device capable of containing a fusion reaction.  The hydrogen bomb, of course, had already demonstrated that fusion was possible.  Controlling it was, at the time, the difficulty.  Now, I’m no scientist.  I’ve read quite a bit of lay science over the years and even worked on a project about the relationship of science to religion.  Still, you can’t follow everything.  I’d lost contact with fusion until the announcement this week that scientists have finally demonstrated that it’s possible to get more energy out of a controlled fusion reaction than it takes to get the reaction started.

In case you know even less about science than I do, fusion is what powers stars.  Unlike fission, it’s a “clean” nuclear reaction and one, as far as we can tell, that has made life possible on this planet.  Star power.  We’ve known for many decades that this could be the solution to humanity’s energy needs.  Of course, big petroleum has tried to slow such research down—there are personal fortunes to be lost and what is life without a fortune?  Now, with technology far beyond my comprehension, a fusion reaction was born that showed promise that we’re on the right track.

Photo credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

Since it’s been rather gloomy around here this December, the thought of more sunshine cheers me.  Living in the Lehigh Valley, of course, my thoughts turn toward the Bethlehem star.  It’s such a crucial element to the Christmas story that we’d hardly know what to do without it.  Stars are our guides through the dark.  Winter nights are often clear and are opportunities to see the nighttime stars, even as we light up our artificial ones here below.  Light encourages light.  In a laboratory somewhere scientists are busy making stars.  I have to believe it’s satisfying work.  Perhaps the kind of job you’re eager to get back to the day after Christmas.  Although fusion would be used for power in general, one of the functions would surely be the giving of light.  As we move toward next week’s solstice and light our Yule logs, encouraging light to return, women and men in white smocks are designing and using complex equipment to help it on its way.


Religion in Its Place

The other day at work I virtually “met” someone else from western Pennsylvania.  It came about in an odd way.  We were both in an online author talk and my colleague put something in the chat about a particular social issue being purely religious for some parts of the country, like his native western Pennsylvania.  I immediately knew what he meant.  For those who think religion is irrelevant, look at the make-up of our government.  Those preachers in rural places wield incredible power.  Their word is law and because of the shortsightedness of our founders, the rural few have amazing sway over the vast majority of the urbanites.  We need each other, of course, but not all have educated themselves on the issues.  When they want to vote they turn to their preachers for the answers.

Interestingly enough, churches lose their tax-exempt status (and thus many can’t afford to survive) if they openly back a political party.  They are required by the law they game to remain party neutral.  Of course, depending on who appointed a federal judge, they are often willing to overlook that particular law.  You get the sense that God favors some commandments over the others anyway.  But back to the homeland—western Pennsylvania is a preacher-dominated part of the country.  That may well have been what set me off on this strange track I follow instead of a career.  We were a church-going family in a church-dominated part of the state.  If you took what you heard on Sunday seriously, we should all be studying religion, down on our knees.

My colleague brought something into focus for me.  The religiously convinced will accept no other evidence.  They’ll refuse vaccines that could save their lives.  They’ll say women and blacks are lesser humans.  They’ll even—since I pay taxes this is okay—vote Republican.  Clergy have been sidelined by much of what’s going on in society.  They are hardly irrelevant, however.  I recently had a minister tell me that if I were to make a formal “questing” status with a denomination I could pick up some preaching cash on weekends.  Without that status, this clergy asked me, “why should anyone listen to you?”  Ah, there’s the rub, you see.  Although I’ve studied religion more than many clergy, and taught those who are now clergy,  I’m not qualified to make it official.  Perhaps it would be different if I were from somewhere else.  


Goodbye, Linda

It’s out of the ordinary for me to post twice in one day, but I’m compelled to do so by the passing of a friend I’d never met.  I’ll already published today’s post when I learned the news.  Linda S. Godfrey was a Wisconsin journalist.  She’s known for her many books on paranormal and weird subjects.  She was the reporter who first took “the beast of Bray Road” seriously.  I only discovered her after we’d moved from Wisconsin, although we didn’t live far from her in those days.  Fascinated by her work on the beast, I contacted her with some information I’d read and we opened a very occasional exchange of stories.  She was my very first Twitter follower, and she published one of my true stories (anonymously, by request) in one of her books.

I know that academically-inclined folks are dismissive of her work, suggesting she was credulous.  I always looked at it differently—Linda was willing to listen to people.  Yes, she probably talked to some people with mental issues, but here’s a true secret—all people have mental issues.  Although I never met her in person I had the sense from her writing that she didn’t simply accept what others told her, but she was willing to consider it.  I remember visiting Rutger’s University library while I was an adjunct there, to find a difficult-to-locate reference for her.  I mailed her a photocopy of what I’d found.  As I say, we never met, and we only corresponded once in a great while.

Seeing that her blog hadn’t been updated for some time (so this is related, you see, to my earlier post), I began to wonder if she was well.  Like most of us born to write, I knew it was unusual for her not to post.  Not knowing her personally, I didn’t think it polite to ask.  I’ve read several of her books, some of them highlighted on this blog.  Often dismissed as “only a cryptozoologist,” my sense is that Linda was hounded by the need to know the truth.  Yes, the world is a mysterious place—it’s not nearly as well understood as we’re often confidently told that it is.  Some of us simply can’t rest without finding out for ourselves.  Linda earned a reputation as an expert on werewolves—many suggest the beast of Bray Road was some such creature.  She recognized the tie-in to folklore but she also knew that monsters always, always cross borders.  Linda is missed already, and it’s about time I caught up on some of her latest books, for I’m compelled to believe she now knows.


The Denver Curse

I’m posting this early today because I’m flying to Denver for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) annual meeting.  At least that’s the plan.  I don’t have a good track record with Denver and this conference.  I’d been attending AAR/SBL since 1991.  I can’t recall what year it was when I first attended in Denver.  I was still a professor then and had a paper to read.  I also had free time (something editors don’t have at conferences).  I decided to view the world-famous mineral and dinosaur exhibits at the Museum of Natural History the morning of my paper day.  While at the museum something very embarrassing happened—I got sick in public.  It was scene-from-a-cheap-movie bad.  Literally sprinting to a public waste can to throw up in front of strangers.  I’d never been sick at AAR/SBL before, despite the November timing.  When I went to read my paper that afternoon, the motion of my eyes made me sick again and I had to sit with my head between my knees while a bunch of biblical scholars looked on with what passes for concern in academic circles.

The second, and last, time I was flying to Denver  for the conference there was a small snowstorm.  I was flying out of Newark on an evening flight.  Because of the snow (which ended up being about two inches) my flight kept getting delayed and delayed.  They made the decision to cancel the flight after 11 p.m. by which time all local hotels were full from the earlier cancelled flights.  To make matters worse, there was no way out of the airport.  All public transit shut down.  Even if I could’ve caught a taxi where was I to go?  I live in Pennsylvania.  With no other choice, I slept on the floor of Newark’s Liberty International Airport.  I awoke early, having used my briefcase as a pillow (a step up from a stone, I expect) and found my way to Somerville, where we used to live.  My wife picked me up at the train station there and drove me home.  I missed the conference, needless to say.

And so you see that I’m a bit dubious about trying this again.  I have nothing against Denver.  Before getting sick I was enjoying my time there.  So, if things go according to plan, I’ll be on a plane headed that direction by the time I usually post my daily thoughts on this blog.  Will the Denver curse be broken?  Only the next few days will tell. Watch this space.

Photo by Acton Crawford on Unsplash

Outside In

Work duties necessitate my attendance at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, starting Friday, in Denver.  Given the state of the pandemic I can’t say that I’m thrilled to be attending, but work is work.  What really prompts this post, however, is the travel arrangements.  The agency I used is based overseas.  They customarily send a fact sheet about the country to which you’re traveling—in this case, my own.  It was fascinating to read how the rest of the world rates the United States.  Overall we receive a pretty good score, but there are a few items of concern.  One is that mass shootings are not uncommon.  The guide laconically states “Due to the wide availability and proliferation of arms across the United States, high-profile shootings occur.”  This is not wrong.

It goes on to note that if you can avoid being shot, crime rates are overall low in the US.  Disease, apart from Covid-19, is well under control.  While organized crime and gang problems are mentioned, it notes that open conflict between states does not exist.  It seems that, despite the rhetoric of certain politicians who like to use hatred to get their way, we do tend to cooperate pretty well.  We have plenty of micro-cultures here, and I know that I’m only comfortable living in a northern one.  I like four distinct seasons, and I don’t mind shoveling snow, but I’m getting away from my guide.  Hurricanes are a risk on the east coast through November and wildfires are possible in the west, also largely through November.  Earthquakes are localized and infrequent.  We live with a heightened risk of terrorism, but our medical care is good.  If expensive.  We have good dental.  

While I didn’t really learn anything about the United States per se, I did learn a little about how others view us.  We are a nation with tremendous resources and great potential.  Our melting pot nature is, I believe, the source of our cooperative strength.  We are still, after two centuries, suffering growing pains because there are some who want things the way they used to be in spite of the incessant, almost daily, changes that take place.  There is no turning back.  After the apple has been eaten you can’t unlearn that knowledge.  The recent elections spoke pretty clearly: we believe in democracy and we support women’s rights.  That’s how we see ourselves.  How the world sees us, however, may be quite a different interpretation.