Not Sterling

Only indirectly has the coronavirus pandemic influenced my decision to read books of short stories.  Indirectly because bookstores are closed and I have several such volumes gathered here at home.  This particular collection includes a book “especially written for young people” called Chilling Stories from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.  This is a book I had as a young person, discarded, and then regretted discarding.  I have to say that most books I discard I eventually regret.  When you’re young and moving from apartment to apartment, though, you can’t keep all your books.  Anyway, I re-acquired it several years back.  The book doesn’t list an author.  Instead, the title page says “Adapted by Walter B. Gibson.”  Gibson was best known for writing The Shadow series.  The end result is that I don’t know who wrote the stories in this book.  They have the ideas of Rod Serling, but the writing isn’t in his style.

When I buy a book (I got this one used on the internet, back when it was young) I like to know the author.  WorldCat lists Serling as the author, but the book was published pre-ISBN days, back when publishers could be a bit less than transparent about such things.  Other websites put Gibson first under authors, followed by Serling.  The publisher, Tempo Books, was an imprint of Grosset & Dunlap, which eventually came under the Random House/Penguin umbrella.  Originally publishing primarily children’s books, Tempo lists this book for young readers, although as an adult reader I wonder if it could appeal to young people today.  There’s no sex and any violence is really implied rather than explicit, but there’s some adult-level subtlety going on.  Books for young readers are much different these days.

Just recently my daughter introduced me to the increasing sophistication of levels of book genres.  Like most readers and writers I’m encouraged at how young adult books have taken off.  A future generation of readers is cause for hope.  There are now “new adult books.”  These are targeted at those college aged or just over.  Unlike young adult titles they’ll have sex and adult language.  My Twilight Zone book lacks these, and it also lacks the sparkle of Serling’s teleplays.  Serling was a playwright and screenwriter.  These stories clearly contain his ideas but not his ability.  I didn’t know that as a child.  I do know that I never finished the book before now.  One of the reasons, I expect, is that it didn’t really seem like I was reading Serling, even to my young self.  Still, ghost stories during a pandemic have their own appropriate place, and who doesn’t want to be young at heart?

Occam’s Disposable Razor

Since new books are kind of rare right now, I’m reading through some of those I’ve collected but haven’t actually read.  One is Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin.  I bought the book because the topic, as addressed by a university press book, is interesting.  Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin approach the subject as philosophers.  Their main focus is on the widely accessible and successful books by Eben Alexander and Todd Burpo.  Also the somewhat less well known efforts of Jeffrey Long and Pim van Lommel.  (Instead of taking up blog space with all these titles, just email me if you’re curious, or read my Goodreads post.)  Applying standard scientific methods to spiritual experiences isn’t easy, and Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are clear that they aren’t trying to take the value out of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), but rather they are challenging how these authors try to make them authentic.

Philosophers parse words finely.  The authors show that “real” is not the same thing as “authentic” and demonstrate how some of the more spectacular NDEs can possibly be explained by science.  Those who’d temporarily died might’ve caught onto things that happened just before or just after brain activity ceased or restarted, for example, and then misremembered them.  As a still-living guy who can’t remember where he left his wallet half the time, misremembering is an authentic reality.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Science and religion ask different questions.  One of the mainstays of scientific method is Occam’s Razor—the solution that requires the least mental gymnastics to explain something is the most likely to be true.  Many times this razor is flashed in the face of those trying to make a religious case for something.

Ironically, the authors here dismiss Occam’s Razor.  They state that sometimes the more complicated solution is the right one.  I happen to agree with them on this, but it proved a real distraction in reading the book.  Many scientists use the exact opposite argument against spiritual things.  It also struck me that a book so brief (less than 200 pages) would necessarily struggle to explain a complex phenomenon convincingly.  Trade books, such as those by Alexander and Burpo, aren’t meant to be held up to the stiff standards of peer review.  They are meant for selling lots of copies.  Their authors aren’t philosophers.  It’s almost a mismatch in categories.  Some academic presses are now publishing on NDEs and asking plenty of questions about them.  It’s no surprise that philosophers favoring physicalism would do the same.  It seems a little hairy, however, to do so with Occam left firmly in the shaving kit.

Distance Education

As an exile from academia, I do feel for my employed colleagues who are having to learn distance education techniques on the fly.  I do also feel compelled *ahem* to note that I was trained in online teaching long ago at Rutgers University.  The school declined to hire me then, and I’ve had no offers since.  Now it’s become fashionable for academics with virtually no online experience to look to the hills—whence is their help to come?  It’s not very often that I can claim to have been ahead of the curve.  In fact, I’m usually so far back that I don’t even know there is a curve.  Mismatches like this (someone who’s always been good at teaching, and trained to do so online, who’s been deemed exile-worthy while the unprepared now brush off their virtual bona fides) occur all the time in history.  It’s one of the things that makes it interesting.

Higher education isn’t a luxury.  I disagree with President Obama that all people should go to college, though.  Not everyone needs to.  Everyone should be able to attend, however, if they feel compelled to do so.  There are a number of myths about it that politicians of all stripes should seek to dispel.  One is that the more education you get the higher salary you’ll be able to demand.  As a Ph.D. holder I know that is decidedly not the case.  There are plenty of manual labor jobs that pay better than the options open for a humanities Ph.D. earner.  I also know that universities don’t tell new doctoral candidates this fact.  The old ways are changing.  I’ve often wondered if the collapse of civilization would be slow or rapid.  Living through it I now can see it looks slow from the inside.  Future historians will need to assess for future readers how it looks from the social distance of chronological clarity.

Historically crises have helped people pull together.  This one seems only to have divided us further.  If our government knew how, it could now model kind and considerate behavior.  It doesn’t know how.  The selfish often don’t comprehend how the wellbeing of others can affect their own.  Some companies are beginning to realize that customer loyalty after the crisis may depend on reasonable treatment at at time like this.  For others it’s more difficult than house-training a new puppy.  Nobody wants to go into exile.  When you do, however, you can’t help but notice how it changes your view of things.  Ironically I was hired away from academia the very year I had completed my training in distance education.  I can image how it might’ve been.  But then, I’m living in a land not my own.

The Essentials

The current crisis, in my mind, dates to Thursday, March 12.  That particular day, at least in my socially distant location, the pandemic became a panic.  Decisions were made to have employees work remotely.  Zoom or Skype meetings were substituted for the face-to-face variety.  Church services were cancelled.  There was a run on toilet paper.  This final aspect has me really vexed.  Why toilet paper?  Experts say if we kept to our usual buying habits there would be plenty for everyone, but the survivalist mentality kicked in and people began hoarding.  If the apocalypse was coming, they wanted to go down fighting with clean underwear on.  We were in Ithaca the next day to see my daughter.  We ordered out from a local restaurant.  When we got home we found a role of new toilet paper in the top of the bag.

According to my amateur dating technique, we’ve been in this state for 13 days now.  Toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels are nowhere to be found.  I looked on Amazon.  They can get you toilet paper, but you’ll need to wait until May.  Why?  Ironically, because it’s being shipped from China.  Yes, the nation where the pandemic erupted has toilet paper aplenty.  Here in the greatest [sic] nation in the world, there’s none to be found.  What does this tell us about a country that self-identifies as “Christian”?  Whatever happened to “if someone demands your coat, give them your shirt also”?  Or perhaps more to the point, “turn the other cheek”?  How has a nation of Bible believers responded to a crisis?  By becoming selfish.  By stockpiling toilet paper.

I’ve spent a lot of time camping.  I’m fairly comfortable with the ways of nature.  Like most other people I prefer a nice, private restroom with all the accoutrements, but if bears can do it in the woods, why can’t we?  I have my Boy Scout guide right here.  But it suggests using toilet paper.  If books could be ordered, I suspect How To Poop [this is the family friendly version] in the Woods would be a current bestseller.  Trump says he wants everyone back to work by Easter, but the toilet paper ordered from Asia won’t even be here by then.  And will offices have access to some secret stash that only those who buy in bulk can find?  Hoarding makes any crisis worse, but this particular one seems especially mean spirited.  It makes me realize just how great America has been made.

Frankenstein’s Family

The story of Frankenstein has many unexpected twists and turns.  I’m currently reading a book about the writing of the novel—something I’ve done a number of times before.  There was an aspect of this story that hadn’t really caught my attention too much, but then, circumstances changed.  Suddenly old information became new.  It all started with a missed opportunity from childhood. 

It was a real puzzle.  Although my grandmother lived with us her last years, I never knew the name of her mother.  There had been hints.  My grandfather’s book with birthdays in it listed the first name, so I had a Christian moniker and birthdate only.  She’d died young, I knew, somewhere in the Washington, DC area.  This had been the state of my knowledge for many years.  My grandmother died before I was a teen, and before I took any interest in the family story.  I knew her heritage was Germanic, her father having been a first-generation American.

So young Mary Shelley (technically Godwin) was on a tour of Europe with her lover Percy.  Although they both came from distinguished backgrounds, they were cash poor.  Running out of money they made their way back to England as cheaply as they could.  They passed near Castle Frankenstein along the way, although there is no record that they actually visited it.  The name seems to have stuck, as does the story that they potentially learned about a mad scientist who’d lived in that castle.  This scientist was a theologian who dabbled in alchemy and experiments with dead bodies.  I know what you’re thinking—it’s like a puzzle piece we desperately want to go in this place but its fit’s ambiguous.  We’re not sure how much of this Mary Shelley knew.  The alchemist’s name was Johann Konrad Dippel.  I’d read about him before.

I’d spent nearly an entire summer some years back working on my grandmother’s family, finding little.  Just two years ago I did a casual search on “Find a Grave,” and to my surprise, I found my great-grandfather.  I knew it was him because his second wife’s name matched information from all the family records.  The cemetery record, in Maryland rather than DC, had his first wife’s name.  It was that easy.  After decades of searching, a few keystrokes revealed the mystery.  When it also listed her parents, the significance of her mother’s maiden name—Dippel—escaped me.  Now I have no way of knowing if this is the same Dippel family of Castle Frankenstein, but it put flesh on the bones of my long-standing interest in monsters.  Seeking them out may be the same as learning family secrets.  Perhaps it always is.

Green Dilemma

It’s a dilemma.  I face it every year.  I don’t have green to wear and it’s St. Patrick’s Day.  For your average run-of-the-mill citizen, this might not be an issue—but I do have an Irish heritage (in part), and so it’s a heartfelt concern.  The reason I don’t have green has less to do with fashion (consider the source!) than with my clothing purchasing practices.  First of all, I like to make my clothes last.  Fabrics can be quite durable.  They aren’t mechanical and therefore don’t break down often.  I don’t live a rough-and-tumble life, so tears aren’t really a problem.  The end result is that I keep my clothes as long as they’re functional.  When they begin to wear out I go to the store and examine the clearance racks until I find something in my size.  That means color selection is often a matter of very limited options.

Once in a great while I have landed something green.  I still remember a green shirt I had in college.  It served me well for more than four St. Patrick’s Days.  It long ago succumbed to overuse, however, because I wore it on other days as well.  And let’s face it, when I make one of those infrequent trips to the clothiers’ shops, this particular holiday’s not on my mind.  Unless, of course, I go shopping in March.  Back when I lived in Boston it was easy to get your Irish on.  I bought a bright green silky (I don’t know if it was real silk) tie with white shamrocks on it.  It was probably down at Faneuil Hall.  It had been a bit outlandish to wear to work in New York City, though.  Indeed, at work staid dress was by far the most common code.  Consequently it hung unused in my closet for years.

When we moved a couple summers back, I noticed my green tie had faded to bronze.  I thought it went the other way around.  In any case, my last truly green clothing article was no longer green.  Yes, it still has shamrocks, but I’d feel even more ridiculous trying to rock a bronze tie and pass myself off as Irish.  It won’t even pass for gold.  Of course, I work from home.  I’ve practiced social distancing long before it was a trend or a government mandate, whichever it is.  The only people to see my lack of green would be my wife and daughter, and perhaps a Jehovah’s Witnesses that might stop by.  But still, even minor celebrations are anticipated at times such as this.  Although I won’t be going out today I’ll probably be spending some time in my closet and reflecting on the true heritage of my Irish forebears.

Perhaps St. Pat shops like I do?

Virtual Church

All the way back in seminary my friends and I used to joke about virtual church.  What made it so funny was that the idea seemed ridiculous.  The very raison d’être for church (which essentially means “gathering”) was, well, gathering.  We joshed about putting a communion card into an ATM and getting bread and wine.  Little did we know we’d live to see virtual church become a reality.  While I prefer not to tip my hand as to my affiliation (I began doing this when teaching at secular schools, for if a professor of religion is being academic about their specialization their affiliation should have no bearing on the class) I confess I am the member of a religious community.  That community has become virtual, as of today.

This isn’t a permanent thing.  Unless coronavirus is a permanent thing.  As I spoke with my clergy person about it, I wondered how many people would attend virtual services.  Sermons would need to be stellar.  Who would hear if I tried to sing hymns (this is not a pretty thing, take my word for it)?  My laptop doesn’t even have a disc slot into which I could insert my offering.  Churches, synagogues, mosques—they’re about community.  What does community feel like when you’re sitting there in your pajamas, at least on the part that the webcam doesn’t pick up?  Does the minister see you in virtual church?  Have I, like number 6, been reduced to a numeral?  I suspect the current crisis is going to be a real test for faith communities.  Meeting together would make us all feel like snake-handlers now.

The funny thing was, back in seminary it was a joke.  At Boston University School of Theology in the late 1980s we knew that churches weren’t really growing.  Some megas had started and we now see them following the mushroom cloud to its dissipation stage.  As little as we meant it, we could see devices creeping into the mix.  I did not use a computer until after seminary.  Funnily enough, thinking back to the pre-1990s, we survived without cell phones.  If you were going to church you were going. To. Church.  These days of pandemic in the pews will be a real test of the preacher’s power.  For Episcopalians the mediating of grace had to be done in person.  I remember watching worriedly as the priest, clearly with a sniffle, was the first one to take a sip from the community chalice before holding it out for others to drink.  We wondered about efficacy of ATMs dispensing consecrated hosts.  It was only a joke, then; really it was.