Geography Lesson

As someone who eschews easy labels, I’m always conflicted when someone asks what my doctorate is “in.”  Universities have departments, of course, and different academic fields have differing standards of what qualifies you as an expert.  My Ph.D. was mainly in the field of history of religions, but focused (all such project must be narrow) on what is best called ancient West Asian cultures.  Recently someone showed me a website with free geography quizzes on it.  (I post the link here with the caveat that this can be very addictive.)  This friend asked me how good my Asian geography was.  I knew that once I got east of Iran I was going to be in trouble.  Some countries, such as Russia, India, China, and Japan are hard to miss, but the others I was properly humbled over.

I tried the quiz again and again until I could point to any of the official Asian nations with a fair degree of accuracy.  Eurasia is a very large landmass, and when you consider that it is, apart from human-made canals, attached to Africa this is a lot of space to label.  Considering that many isolationist politicians can’t correctly find smaller countries on a map without an app, I started to realize just how lopsided the world is.  Many more people live in Asia than populate the “New World.”  They actually have more space than we do here, but much of it is too cold or too dry for comfortable living.  Still, I considered that if I’d had this quiz as a kid I might’ve known my geography much better than I do.

As I’m preparing to attend the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in a few days, I recall priding myself at knowing all fifty states of my native country.  I’ve been to all but five of the lower 48—Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Nevada have eluded me (the conference never meets in them and I don’t have friends who’ll put me up for free in them).  But at least I know where I haven’t been.  

After trying my hand at Asia on the app, I attempted Africa.  Let’s just say I still have a lot left to learn.  And unlike when I was a kid, I look forward to taking quizzes.  Work interferes with web time, though, and learning modern countries isn’t the same as knowing where Hatti or Elam used to be.  Religion, after all, forms borders just as impermeable as mountains, oceans, or deserts.

Yeti Again Again

I wish I had more time for reading short stories.  I grew up on them since, like many young boys I lacked the attention span for entire novels.  Many collections of short stories sit on my shelves, but I’ve been drawn into the world of extended stories, perhaps because so much of reality bears escaping from these days.  In any case, I find myself neglecting short story collections.  I have a friend (and I tend not to name friends on this blog without their express permission—you might not want to be associated with Sects and Violence!) named Marvin who writes short stories.  This past week his tale called “Meh Teh” appeared in The Colored Lens.  Marvin often uses paranormal subjects for his speculative fiction.

“Meh-Teh” is a Himalayan term for “yeti.”  Since we jealously guard our positions as the biggest apes on this planet, science doesn’t admit yetis to the realm of zoology without the “crypto” qualifier in front.  Still, people from around the world are familiar with the concept of the abominable snowman.  Maybe because I grew up watching animated Christmas specials, I knew from early days that a mythical, white ape lived in the mountains, and that he needed a visit to the dentist.  The yeti has even become a pop culture export from Nepal, since those who know little else about that mountainous region know that strange footprints are found in the snow there.  Apes, however, like to dominate so we tend to drive other apes to extinction.  Still, they had to be there on the ark, along with all other cryptids.

I recall an episode of Leonard Nimoy’s In Search of that dealt with yetis.  Or was it a Sun Pictures presentation about Noah’s Ark?  I just remember the dramatic earthquake scene where either the skullcap of a yeti or a piece of the true ark was buried, lost forever under the rubble.  Yeti is also a brand name for an outdoor goods company based, ironically, in Austin.  This fantastical ape has become a spokesperson, or spokesape, for the great outdoors.  All of this is a long way from the story Marvin spins about the great ape.  As is typical of his fiction, religion plays a part.  I really should make more time for reading short stories.  In a world daily more demanding of time, that sounds like a solid investment.  And free time is more rare than most cryptid sightings these days.

TMI

Recently I was left alone for the entirety of a Saturday.  On rare days when I feel affluent, I’ll go and purchase supplies to take on the many tasks that need doing around the house—most of the books on my office are still stacked on the floor for lack of shelves.  I can build them, but that takes money.  Often when I have an unclaimed day I plan it out weeks in advance.  Things have been busy enough of late that I didn’t even have the time to do that.  All the sudden I woke up on a November Saturday with tabula rasa in front of me.  Then I realized one of the constant pressures I face: TMI.  One of my nieces—the one who started this blog, actually—first introduced me to Too Much Information (TMI).  I don’t get out much, you see.

Like most people who flirt with tech, I snap photos with my phone.  When we go somewhere that I suspect we’ll never be able to afford to go again, I take an actual camera and let fly like I work for National Geographic or something.  Since my laptop’s on a data diet, all of these end up on a terabyte drive, hurriedly downloaded as IMG or DSCN files, waiting to be sorted later.  Do this since the inception of digital photographs and you’ll get a sense of the magnitude of the problem.  My laptop says it’s full and I have to delete images with that dire warning they’ll go away forever.  I back them up.  When was the last time I did this?  I wrote it down, but I forgot where.  What did I even name the file?  Did I back it up or is it on my hard disc?  Why are there eight copies of the same photograph?  I spent the day sorting, virtually.

Before I knew it, the sun was beginning to set.  I’d awoken at 4:00 (being a weekend I slept in), and after a day of organizing electronic photos into electronic folders, I’d barely made a dent.  Deduping alone takes so much time.  Some of the pictures, while nice, I couldn’t remember at all.  I shudder, though, thinking about grandparents that burned old photos because nobody remembered who they were any more.  Then I realized that our lives are the most documented of any in history (so far) but nobody really cares.  You could learn an awful lot about some stranger just by going through their photos—where they’ve been, what they thought important, and just how obsessive they could be.  As I wound up the day, I realized why I don’t get out much any more.

Dead Language

Tis the season for returning from the dead.  Goodreads is one of the few websites that I allow to send me notices.  I try to check them daily, and I even read their monthly updates of new books by authors I’ve read.  I was a bit surprised when November’s newsletter began with The Andromeda Evolution by Michael Crichton.  I really enjoyed The Andromeda Strain when I was in high school.  The fact that I was in high school four decades ago made me wonder about the robustness of Dr. Crichton, especially since I knew that he had died over a decade ago himself.  I don’t know about you, but the writing industry feels crowded enough without dead people keeping in the competition.  It’s like those professors who refuse to retire, but also refuse to teach or do research.  Some people, apparently, can never get enough.

We live in an era of extreme longevity.  In the scope of human history, people haven’t lived so long since before the flood.  Some of us—not a few, mind you—work in fields with limited job openings.  We are the sort who don’t really get the tech craze, intelligent Luddites who’d rather curl up in the corner with an actual book.  There are very few professorates available.  Even fewer editorships.  And anyone who’s tried to get an agent without being one of the former knows that there are far too many writers out there.  Now the dead keep cranking ‘em out.  I’ve got half-a-dozen unpublished novels sitting right here on my lap.  Crichton’s gone the way of all flesh, but with an active bank account.

The end result of this Novemberish turn of events is that I want to read The Andromeda Strain again.  I haven’t posted it to Goodreads since when I read it the internet itself wasn’t even a pipe dream, except perhaps in the teenage fantasies of some sci-fi fans.  Since you can’t rate a book twice on Goodreads, and because paper books don’t disappear when you upgrade your device, I can do it.  I can actually walk to the shelf and pull a vintage mass-market paperback off it.  Even if the Earth passes through the tail of some comet and all networks are down.  And I seem to recall that the original strain came from outer space.  As did the strange radiation that brought the ghouls back to life on The Night of the Living Dead.  Now if only some of the rest of us might get in on the action.

Old Grains

Back when I was somebody—a professor is somebody, even if only a seminary professor—I was invited to meet with a group of Seattle writers and intellectuals.  I was in Seattle already because driving all the way out here was possible when you live in the Midwest and your summers are basically open and free.  (Professor’s privilege.)  One of the group members, the one who invited me, asked me about grain.  When the club met they ate.  With a bent toward history, one of them brought period-appropriate bread.  What kind would be fashionable for a night of ancient Near East talk?  (I was still researching and writing on Ugarit at the time, before Ugaritology passed away.)  Without stopping to think I replied “Einkorn.”  I didn’t know if einkorn was still around or not.  All I knew is that it was the earliest (at least as understood at that time) domesticated grain.  The loaf that arrived that night was a more accessible grain variety.

All of this came back to me as I stood in the local health-food store.  We don’t shop here for regular groceries—it’s expensive to eat healthily—but we’d been invited to someone’s house and said we’d bring appetizers.  The health-food store had vegan cheeses, so we needed crackers to go with.  Then I spied the word “einkorn.”  The Seattle discussion had to be well onto two decades old by now.  I was finally able to answer my question, einkorn was still alive.  The craze for ancient grains did not exist in my professorate days.  Some companies, according to occasional news stories, were trying to brew the beer of ancient Egypt or Sumer, but the health conscious hadn’t gone so far as to trying to replicate the diet of the earliest agriculturalists.

Ancient grains cost more because the yields are smaller.  Although the grain heads look disturbingly like those house centipedes that scamper in the basement when you flip on the light, they aren’t nearly the size of a current wheat head.  It stands to reason that it takes more of them to make up the same amount of flour, and appetites have grown over the millennia.  Like most vegans, I read boxes.  Another ancient grain cracker, apart from brown rice, included amaranth, flaxseed, millet, quinoa, sesame, and sorghum.  Never mixed this way in antiquity (for amaranth and quinoa were part of the “new world” and the others “old”), modern mixologists have devised new ways of using ancient grains.  Einkorn nearly went extinct with the development of wheat, rye, and barley.  But it hung on, and now, as a dozen millennia ago, it has a way of sustaining both dreams and fantasies.

Greatest Weakness

What a privilege it must be to work in a world of ideas!  (And to get paid handsomely to do so.)    My particular (and peculiar) career—if that’s what you call it—is intimately bound up with academics.  Those who know me personally treat me nicely, but the vast majority who haven’t a clue that I’m anything other than a guy who’s helping them get published sometimes forget their privilege is showing.  I’m not busting on my homies; I know what it’s like.  But I’ve noticed some interesting trends (“turns” in academese) that are fascinating from the point of view of an ordinary mortal with a mortgage and a great deal of anxiety about it.  For example, I find catch phrases time and again.  (See what I did there?)  Academic writers learn that if they buck the conventions they’ll be relegated to presses that don’t enhance your career.  All roads lead to Harvard, after all.

All of this is preamble to a curious trend that I’ve been seeing claiming that an idea’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  I read this time and time again, so I began to wonder about the origin of this idea.  Now, not even Google understands “what is the origin of the phrase greatest strength is greatest weakness?” but it does bring up about a thousand-and-one websites about job interviews.  I’ve had many of these throughout this thing I’m calling a career, and just like everyone else I’ve read that when asked what your greatest weakness is reply that your greatest strength (whatever it may be) is it.  The classics such as “I’m a workaholic,” or “I just can’t stop acquiring more x” (and we all need more x), are tired cultural tropes.  How did academics pick up on this?

Does it stretch back to Achilles and his heel, or Goliath and his gigantism?  Or is it that to admit weakness is to disqualify yourself from a job?  A well-meaning friend told me I should go through this entire blog (as if anyone, including me, has time to do that) and expunge all mentions of having lost my job.  They should be replaced with insinuations that I’d chosen to leave.  “Nobody,” he implied, “likes a loser.”  Well, I guess my greatest weakness is that I’m an honest graphomaniac.  I write incessantly.  Novels and nonfiction books, short stories and essays, and even a learned article or two.  I used to be an academic you see.  And I was always honest.  It was my greatest weakness, if you see what I mean.

Whose Computer?

Whose computer is this?  I’m the one who paid for it, but it is clearly the one in control in this relationship.  You see, if the computer fails to cooperate there is nothing you can do.  It’s not human and despite what the proponents of AI say, a brain is not just a computer.  Now I’m not affluent enough to replace old hardware when it starts slowing down.  Silicon Valley—and capitalism in general—hate that.  I suppose I’m not actually paid well enough to own a computer.  I started buying laptops for work when Nashotah House wouldn’t provide faculty with computers.  Then as an itinerant adjunct it was “have laptop, will travel (and pay bills).”  I even bought my own projector.  At least I thought I was buying it.

I try to keep my software up to date.  The other day a red dot warned me that I had to clear out some space on my disc so Catalina could take over.  It took three days (between work and serving the laptop) to back-up and delete enough files to give it room.  I started the upgrade while I was working, when my personal laptop can rest.  When I checked in it hadn’t installed.  Throwing a string of technical reasons at me in a dialogue box, my OS told me that I should try again.  Problem was, it told me this at 3:30 in the morning, when I do my own personal work.  I had no choice.  One can’t reason with AI.  When I should’ve been writing I was rebooting and installing, a process that takes an hour from a guy who doesn’t have an hour to give.

As all of this was going on I was wondering who owned whom.  In college professors warned against “keyboard compositions.”  These were literal keyboards and they meant you shouldn’t type up your papers the night before they were due, writing them on your typewriter.  They should’ve been researched and “written” before being typed up.  That’s no longer an option.  This blog has well over a million words on it.  Who has time to handwrite a million words, then type them up all in time to post before starting work for the day?  And that’s in addition to the books and articles I write for actual publication.  And the novels and short stories.  For all of this I need my laptop, the Silver to my Lone Ranger, to be ready when I whistle.  Instead it’s dreaming its digital dreams and I’m up at 3:30 twiddling my thumbs.