Like most people I have a cell phone. If I use it to take a picture, I can send that photo any number of places with a tap, swipe, and tap. It works that way with scanned documents as well. Using a hand-held phone, I can scan important papers, convert them to PDFs, and send them via email, text, “AirDrop” (whatever that is), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—you name it. Except fax. That I cannot do. The other day a company wanted me to send them a document by fax. Within seconds I had scanned it with my phone and was ready to send it, but instead experienced electronic constipation. The company had no email; it had to come by fax.
Now, like most reasonably modern people, we have no fax machine at home. We still have some in the office in New York, but they are clunky, noisy, and seldom actually work. The technology to receive documents has improved beyond the photostatic smear that facsimiles represent. I worked for a company where the warehouse insisted on orders by fax. You’d fax them the order and wait for the phone to ring. They couldn’t read the fax and you had to tell them what it said. Well, this particular company I was dealing with wanted a fax. I downloaded two or three “free” fax apps. They suspiciously wanted my credit card info. Besides, if you send more than one page they wanted at least ten bucks for a “package” deal. I had to send a three-page document. I checked to see if my laptop could do it. The manufacturer’s website said it could, but the menu option it told me about didn’t appear. Who insists on faxes any more?
This is the dilemma of mixed technologies. It’s like those movies where the streets of some exotic city are filled with rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. The fax, in this analogy, is the pedestrian. My mother doesn’t have email, let alone the capability to text (or fax). Ours is a telephone relationship. Yet in my hand I hold a device that can send this document anywhere in the world with a tap, swipe, and tap. I recall my first trip to Jerusalem where hand-drawn carts, cars, and yes, camels, shared the streets. This was in the days before the internet. To contact home even by telephone was cumbersome and costly. Yet somehow we survived. I’d arranged the trip utilizing a travel agency and funded it by a letter-writing campaign. The Ektachrome slides I took are now a pain to look at because technology has so improved our lives. Unless, of course, you need to send a fax. Delivery by camel can at least be arranged via the internet.
Posted in Current Events, Just for Fun, Posts, Science, Travel
Tagged Ektachrome, email, fax, Jerusalem, Luddite, technology, text, travel agency
“Turn! Turn! Turn,” the Byrds sang. “For everything there is a season,” quoth Solomon. Perhaps it’s the way we acquire knowledge, but lately many fields in academia are experiencing “turns.” The idea seems to be that if fields continue to turn, they will eventually all converge on the same intersection and true knowledge will be obtained. The post-modern turn, however, suggests that there is no objective knowledge. It kind of makes me dizzy, all this turning. Although I find the use of this particular noun in such phrases a touch unsophisticated, it’s here to stay. At least until academia takes another turn. Public intellectuals, after all, have to have something to say. And academics are capital imitators.
Ironically, within the same week I read of the “religious turn” in the humanities and a different turn within religious studies. This “religious turn” is not to suggest the humanities have found that old time religion, but rather that many disciplines are now realizing that religion has played, and continues to play, a very important role in human affairs. Fields that have traditionally avoided religious topics are now “turning” that way. At the same time that others are turning toward religion, religious studies is taking a “material turn.” The public intellectuals smile at the maze they’ve created as the paychecks roll in. The “material turn,” if I understand correctly, is that the ideas of religion can be explained via the real world needs that various religions meet. There’s no need for any divine character or intervention. There is no sacred or profane, but rather kinetic movement of shifting patterns that at any one time or place might be denominated as religions.
I’m all for progress, but I think I might’ve missed the turn. To my old school way of thinking, sacred and profane, Eliadian though they may be, still have great explanatory value. I don’t know if there’s objective knowledge to be found by fallen mortals such as we. The material world we experience through our senses is mediated by those very senses so our understanding is, of necessity, limited. We can’t touch naked reality even if we try. Our quest, in circumstances such as these, would seem to be digging deeper until we come to that which resists any tunneling. It’s like coming to the end of the physical universe and wondering what’s beyond this natural limit. Then, I suppose, you’d have to turn. Until such time as that, however, all of this present day turning is for the Byrds.
Timing has never been my strong suit. As soon as I stopped my daily commute to New York City, the Morgan Library and Museum opened a display titled “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders.” To appreciate the irony of this fully, you need to realize my office was just across the street from the Morgan Library, and the daily visits would’ve provided a good opportunity for a lunch-time break with my beloved monsters. Instead I was spending the time moving further west and unpacking. Still, displays like this are a tacit form of validation. Those of us who admit, as adults, that we like monsters huddle under a cloud of suspicion. Monsters are a matter for kids—like dinosaurs and fairies—not something on which an upwardly mobile adult spends his time. We’ll take whatever validation we can get.
Perhaps we’ve been too hasty to dismiss our monsters. Even the Bible, after all, has them. They help us cope in a chaotic and uncertain world. A world of hurricanes and Trump. A world lacking compassion and sense. Monsters have always been symbols of the borderlands. Creatures that cross boundaries and that shouldn’t exist but somehow do nevertheless. Science has helped us understand our world, but in our desire to grow up enough to use Occam’s razor, we find that it shaves a little too close. Besides, what can be more unnatural than shaving? When we lose our ability to believe in monsters, we lose a piece of our ability to cope with an unpredictable world. Monsters have their practical uses indeed.
If the world were more predictable, I would still be teaching instead of editing. Or I’d still be living in an apartment rather than a house. Moving is chaos embodied. Like monsters, it’s best left to the young. It’s just like this world for a monster display to open just across the street right when you’ve moved out of town. I should expect no less in a cosmos marked by uncertainty. Medieval Monsters isn’t the only museum display of the weird and wonderful. Monsters have a way of showing up again once you think they’re safely gone. Family and friends share with me their visits to other monster exhibits at other museums. They may wonder at my fascination with them—an adult with a sober doctorate in the field of history of religions, biblical studies, ancient Near Eastern religions, whatever. It’s kind of a monster in its own right, on display here daily. If you happen to miss it, don’t worry. It’ll remain lurking in its own corner of the internet.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Current Events, Just for Fun, Monsters, Posts, Travel
Tagged aliens, Medieval Monsters, Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, Occam's razor, Terrors, Wonders
While in the theater to see The Nun (which ended up being the biggest take) this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice that the pre-movie adds were all about apps. I couldn’t help it because, much to my own chagrin, I’d left the house too quickly and I hadn’t brought a book to read while waiting. This may not be news to some people, but different cinema chains have different “channels” of what passes for entertainment and ads to try to draw viewers in early. The movie house we used to frequent in New Jersey had a variety of goods on show, most of the time. The one we visited here in Pennsylvania presumed that everyone had their phones in hand, waiting for the show to begin. On screen was the idolization of the app.
My phone is old enough that most modern apps don’t work on it. Most of the time that doesn’t matter to me since I’m not addicted to the device. Of course, when you’re trying to park your car in a town that offers only online options for such a convenience, I sometimes wish I could download the relevant necessary software. Otherwise, I often wonder what we’ve lost in our lust for connectivity. Coming out of New York on the longer distance bus recently, the driver called out, as leaving the Port Authority, “Lights on or off?” The unanimous chorus, for I didn’t speak, answered “Off!” I glanced around. I was surrounded by devices. I carry a book-light with me on the bus, for this has happened before.
“Drink the Kool-Aid” has become post-Jonestown slang for simply following the suggestion of someone without considering the consequences. I sometimes wonder if our smartphones come in more than one flavor. I’m not talking about features or physical colors. As apps chip away at our money, a little bit at a time, they also take larger pieces of our time. I’ve experienced it too, but mostly on my laptop (I don’t text—my thumbs aren’t that limber, and besides, the apocopated messages often lead to misunderstanding, emojis or not), the wonder of one link leading to another then realizing an hour has disappeared and I still feel hungry. Perhaps that’s the draw to the modern commuter. Or movie goer. I’m sitting in the theater, taking a break from unpacking. In my version of multitasking, I’m also doing research by watching a horror movie. Around me eyes glow eerily in the dark. I’m lost in the forest of unsleeping apps.
Posted in Current Events, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged apps, cinema, commuting, Internet, smartphone, The Nun
Ailanthus is known as the “tree of heaven.” It’s an introduced species in North America and, like many such species, it outcompetes its rivals. The tree of heaven isn’t bad to look at—in fact its handsome appearance was one of the reasons it was brought to these shores. Heaven isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, however. The tree is aggressive and resilient, and difficult to eradicate. Among the many unexpected “gifts” the former owners of our house left us was a back yard full of ailanthus trees. At first I thought they were pleasant but then I had to remove a small one. The smell almost knocked me off my feet. I then learned that the Chinese name for it translates to “foul smelling tree.” Whose version of heaven is this?
Over the weekend I spent some time lopping off trees of heaven. Mosquitoes, I found out, love its shade. It keeps the kinds of friends you might expect. Heaven is, after all, a construct. The word can refer to either the great dome of the sky in which the ancients believed deities dwelled, or the realm of blessedness to which the righteous go after death. In either case, it was assumed to be a pleasant place. Any trees there (and there are some according to the Good Book) would likely have a pleasing fragrance. The ironically named version we get down here didn’t get the memo, it seems. As best as I can determine, the name of the tree refers to its rapid growth, as if it’s grasping for the sky.
A problem with our own species is that we seem to think we know more about this world than we do. We introduce species from other parts of the planet without considering how they impact the local environment. In the case of a property with lazy former owners, it can translate to a real problem with heaven trees. We’re often taken in by the innocence of names. The first time I saw a tree of heaven, in a public park in New Jersey, I thought I should write a blog post about it. It took being invaded by heaven, however, to make it seem relevant. Heaven is a foreign nation, it seems. It should smell nice and be open to people of all nations and creeds. According to Revelation the trees up there bear fruit every month of the year. Presumably in heaven someone else has to take care of the yard work.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Environment, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts
Tagged Ailanthus, botany, Heaven, invasive species, Revelation, tree of heaven
Call me nostalgic, but growing up Fundie, “Capernaum” tripped easily off my lips. In fact, it was a word I heard very frequently at church, always pronounced “kap-er-NEE-um” (please pardon my amateur phonetics). Even though no one I knew had ever been to Israel, we all knew it was in Galilee and that it figured large in the early life of Jesus of Nazareth (although we assumed he was surnamed “Christ”). When I attended seminary I was surprised to hear the geonym pronounced “ka-per-NUM.” It sounded so sophisticated—aristocratic, even. Still, everyone at Boston University School of Theology knew what, and roughly where, it was. It was a household name, no matter how you pronounced it.
Spellcheck disagrees. It doesn’t recognize one of the most famous places in the New Testament. Now, I’m aware that my view of things is idiosyncratic. This blog should be proof of that. Those who grow up from Fundamentalism often know this experience—something that everyone knew when you were young and informed is arcane knowledge to the rest of the world where Kardashians and Sedarises are household names. The Bible, irrelevant at best, is a foreign country. Then the religious right comes to power and everyone’s confused. They don’t speak the same language as the rest of the world. They say kap-er-NEE-um. Others scratch their heads and glance at their knee caps.
When I visited ancient Capernaum it required some imagination to reconstruct what it had been, back in the day. Since the ruins were relatively recent—only a millennium or two—some of the buildings were still above ground, including the famous synagogue. Even among the unchurched archaeologists, everyone knew the connection of the city to Jesus of Nazareth. That doesn’t mean, however, that the programmers responsible for spellcheck recognize the name. Kardashian doesn’t get a red underline on my word processor. Even in the first century, however, Galilee was a backwater (with real water!). Important people came from big cities and had family connections.
Some things don’t change much over the millennia. The famous often find their spotlight because of connections. If the deity decided to incarnate today, s/he’d know to get a website put together first. And it would help to have some product endorsements. Even salvation at a click isn’t enough to draw most people in. Of course, the matter of name—excuse me, “brand”—is important. More than anything, you want something people can pronounce. And just to be safe, anchor it to either New York or the city named The Angels.
Posted in Bible, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged Archaeology, Boston University School of Theology, Capernaum, Fundamentalism, Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth, spellcheck
The roofers were here. One of the things you learn only after laying down a ton of money is that those selling a house like to withhold information. Moving during one of the rainiest summers in history, we naturally discovered leaks. And so the roofers are here, like noisy angels banging above my head. Given the orientation of our house, their access is outside the window of my work office. I figured it was an opportunity to learn. As the old shingles came raining down, however, I couldn’t help thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. One of his more disappointing efforts, this horror film involved a memorable scene of mass suicide where people jumped off of a high building one after another. Maybe other people would think of other comparisons, but the falling debris brought the film to mind in my case.
It’s a matter of framing, I suppose. I’ve watched enough horror that it has become a framing device. This is true although it has literally been months since I’ve seen a horror film. (Moving proved to be its own kind of nightmare and one day I suspect we’ll be unpacked enough to watch movies again.) Instead of losing the frame of reference, however, I find it intact. If you spend long enough with Poe, he gets under your skin. And changing states to M. Night Shyamalan’s eastern Pennsylvania might have something to do with it. This is Bucks County territory, after all. Another frame of reference, mediated by media.
As I watch the old shingles drop, I realize the window through which I’m witnessing this is another frame. Like a camera lens, it limits my view. At times it can be like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, seeing neighbors at their daily business. Indulge me. For nearly the past five years I worked in a cubicle with no view of any windows whatsoever. I was completely cut off from the outside. (Which, for those of you who’ll admit to having seen The Happening, might not have been an entirely bad thing.) Now that I have a window—my own framing device—I realize some of what I’d been missing. At Routledge I had a window, but at such a level that the Manhattan outside seemed artificial. You couldn’t see individuals down on the street. The entire wall was a window—too much of a frame. Gorgias Press involved working in a windowless room as well. I’m professional enough not to let the falling material or the pounding distract me much. There’s work to do because there are bills to pay. And horror films prepared me for that as well. It’s the ultimate framing device.
Posted in Current Events, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Movies, Posts, Weather
Tagged Alfred Hitchcock, Gorgias Press, horror films, M. Night Shyamalan, Pennsylvania, Rear Window, Routledge, The Happening