Whose Bus? Omnibus!

The long-distant commute is an extended social experiment.  Although some of the people on the bus know each other—from overheard conversations while in line it’s clear that many of these commuters go to New York daily—they want to sit alone.  The idea behind a bus, short for omnibus (Latin, “for all”), is essential equality.  When I commuted daily from central New Jersey, I was a passenger from the originating city on the route.  By the time New Jersey Transit buses got to New York it was rare for a seat to be empty.  Now I take TransBridge, a bus line that operates out of Bethlehem.  The buses are much nicer, but I’m no longer from the originating town.  By the time the bus arrives at 4:30 a.m., it’s already half-full.  (Half-empty if you’re an optimist.)  That’s not a problem, of course, but the way people claim territory is.

Typically those who get on at the initial stop sit in the aisle seat, place their bag in the window seat, and do their best to fall asleep before reaching my stop, which is only 15 minutes away.  When you go to get on, in other words, there are almost no seats and the happy, dreaming commuter knows you don’t want to wake him or her to get them to move their bag and let you in.  Like most people I’d like to have two seats to myself—who wouldn’t?  But the fact is the bus will be full and these people who do this every day should know that.  But still they try to block others out.  As a social experiment, it is worth some consideration.  If you put your bag in the aisle seat it’s easier to accommodate the person who’ll inevitably sit next to you.  But this is Trump’s America—everyone for himself.

I’m a fairly quiet person, and I don’t want to disturb anyone’s slumber.  Many people not only sprawl out like they’re in bed at home, but they wear dark glasses and headphones so that you have to nudge them to get their attention.  Then they act as if you’ve insulted them.  Or they’re doing you a favor by letting you sit in “their” seat.  I suspect the fact is that none of us wants to have to go so far to work.  And I know that sitting next to a stranger can be less than ideal.  When I buy my ticket, however, I know that I’m opting for an omnibus, and those who do so should be clear on the concept before handing over their money.  Or maybe I’m just dreaming.

 

The Lagoon

My current book project has me watching The Creature of the Black Lagoon again.  One of the Universal monsters—indeed, arguably the last of them—the Gill-man fascinated me as a child.  There was a strange contradiction here.  The creature had evolved in the Devonian Era and remained unchanged into the 1950s.  But the movie opens with a voiceover of Genesis 1.1.  There’s a mixed message here, appropriate for scriptural monsters.  Watching the film again brought back many of the innocent perceptions of youth, as well as the trajectory of my own life.  I don’t often get to the theater to see horror movies anymore, but at the same time the Universal monsters aren’t quite the same thing as modern horror.  As a genre it had to evolve.

Strangely, as a fundamentalist child, the evolution aspect didn’t bother me.  I was after the monster, you see.  The backstory was less important.  Growing up, at least in my experience, means that the backstory becomes more essential.  It has to hold together.  There are, of course, inaccuracies in the story—many of them, in fact.  Still, within the first three minutes Genesis and evolution are thrown together in a happy harmony that belied what I was being taught at church.  The Gill-man is a monster mainly for being a creature out of time.  When modern humans invade his lair, he defends his territory.  The story might’ve ended there, had he not spied Kay.  He doesn’t so much want to kill her as get to know her better.  For a movie posthumously rated G, it has a body count.  Five men die but the Gill-man apparently just wants to evolve.

There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in Creature from the Black Lagoon with both the publication of The Lady from the Black Lagoon and the death of Julie Adams this year.  The Gill-man seldom shows up in the same billing with Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster, or the Wolf-man.  He’s a bit more inaccessible in his watery abode.  Both cold and hot-blooded, he represents how science and Scripture might get along, at least on the silver screen.  The film holds up remarkably well, if a modern viewer can handle the pacing.  Underwater filming was pretty new back in the day, and watching humans swim in many ways suggests the truth of evolution in its own right.  These aren’t the childhood observations of the movie, but rather the reflections of a guy wondering if there might not be some hidden wisdom in the monsters of yesteryear.

Let It Lie

At the grave risk of over-simplifying, the list is brief: destructive scapegoating behavior, intolerance of criticism, concern with public image, and deviousness.  These characteristics, back in 1983 (note well the next year), were widely considered the description of evil.  Now look at the White House.  What do you see?  I know that I’m reading into the current situation, but how can one not?  I have never read anything by M. Scott Peck before.  Growing up I saw The Road Less Traveled on many, many bookshelves of friends and clergy.  I recently picked up Peck’s People of the Lie because, along with Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, it convinced many in my generation that demons actually exist.  At the time, still pretty much a Fundamentalist, I didn’t require any convincing.  Reading Peck’s People, however, in the era of Trump is a frightening thing.  And not just for the politics.

I always find books by psychologists and psychiatrists difficult to read.  I admit to having had a less-than-ideal childhood, and although self-healing is possible such books make me think I should spend my free time in therapy rather than writing.  In any case, People of the Lie is difficult in another respect as well—the labeling of evil.  Peck advocated for the scientific study of evil.  Good and evil, however, have generally been considered values rather than facts.  Science studies the latter while religion and philosophy deal with the former.  Not that lines in the sand are intended to be permanent.  Still, what one person calls evil may not be what others call evil.  Peck focuses primarily on narcissism and laziness as sources of evil.  He may very well be right, especially with the narcissism aspect, but some of the patients he described certainly didn’t seem evil to me.

Many aspects of this book could be discussed on a blog like this.  No doubt many of them will be, in sublimated form, in future posts.  Books, however, are part of the context in which they’re read.  In Peck’s day, the great political evil still fresh in many minds was the Vietnam War.  Today’s world, however, is one where Vietnam, Watergate, and even to a great extent the tragi-comedy of the W administration have all been eclipsed.  The cult of personality headed by one of the most obviously narcissistic individuals this nation has produced makes what Peck labeled “evil” seem perfectly normal.  And those who have the authority to do something about it either sit idly by, or worse, use it for their own means.  Roads less traveled indeed.

Premature Burial

I have recently finished writing an article for a collection of essays on the Bible and horror.  Have no fear—I’ll pass along details once it’s published.  I do have to wonder, though.  All those years I was teaching and publishing regularly in ancient Near Eastern studies nobody ever approached me about contributing.  It took coming out of my monster closet for that to happen.  Monsters, you see, are a guilty pleasure topic.  They’re so much fun that they hardly seem like work to write about.  Or read about.  I was a child when Dark Shadows aired as a daily soap opera on ABC.  For reasons about which I’m beginning to speculate I found this series strangely compelling.  Marilyn Ross (W. E. D. [William Edward Daniel] Ross) based some 32 of his over 300 novels on the series.  I collected them as a kid and then got rid of them when I went to college.  I’ve been collecting them again in a fit of nostalgia over the past several years.

I just finished Barnabas, Quentin, and the Crystal Coffin.  The story was actually quite different than typical Collinwood fare.  What drew me to these novels as a child was their atmosphere and, if I’m honest, the fact that Barnabas was a vampire.  Memories of youth are fleeting things at my age, but it may be that Barnabas Collins was my introduction to vampires.  I was four when the series first aired, and I’m not sure if I discovered it before I came across Dracula or if it was the other way round.  Dracula, once I was experienced enough to have an opinion on such things, was my favorite monster.  I liked the others as well, but he was rich and immortal—the things sickly kids in poverty idealize.

In my fascination with Dark Shadows I’m not alone.  Despite Tim Burton’s movie version, Johnny Depp (who is my age) admitted growing up wanting to be Barnabas Collins.  Friends about my age have discovered PBS’s recent re-release of the original series in all its campy glory.  For whatever reason, however, it is the books that always draw me back in.  They, for me, defined the Gothic novel.  Ross’s writing is formulaic and predictable.  His adjective choices feel forced and subtleness was never his strong point.  Still I can’t stop myself from occasionally dropping into the world he manages to recreate in the woods of Maine.  Afterwards I move on to more profound writing, but then, his work is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.

Tyranny of Plants

Notwithstanding what I wrote yesterday, there is a tyranny of plants.  Specifically those which make up lawns—in my case, mostly weeds.  A friend recently reminded me that weed is just a name for a misplaced plant, and I confess that I’m fine with weeds but neighbors may not be so open-minded.  Non-conformity is still a virulent stigma.  If an observer from outer space were to observe us during the spring and summer, they might well conclude that we were in the service of our yards.  The irony here is that yard care is perhaps the ultimate sign of success.  You have really made it if you can keep it neat and trim.  And you’ve excelled beyond that if you can pay someone else to do it for you with their tractor full of buzzing implements.

Because I’m concerned about fuel consumption, we purchased a reel mower when we bought our house.  I never mowed the lawn as a child.  First we rented, and when a stepfather came into the picture he didn’t let the kids mow.  (It wasn’t to be kind—it was a control thing.  If he saw a snake he’d race across the yard to dismember it.  More than once I’d be out playing only to find snake suey, with flies.)  College at Grove City involved carefully manicured lawns done by others, and after grad school we lived on campus at Nashotah House where the students cut the grass.  From there it was back to renting.  In other words, I never had the opportunity to learn how to mow lawns.  My lines aren’t straight, and I’m tempted to sneak out at night, when the grass is high, and leave crop circles at which the neighbors might wonder.  I don’t like being a slave to plants.

The reel mower is like pushing the grim reaper in a baby carriage.  Or at least it must seem so from the perspective of the grass and weeds I call my lawn.  The suddenness with which constant lawn care becomes a major concern has tightened my focus on the fealty we owe to ground cover.  We’ve had a break from the rain for a couple days and after work I find myself pushing that mower like a deadly thurible, releasing the scent of newly shorn grass.  Our particular town retains the right to fine those who let the grass get too long.  As I go along cutting back both grass and weeds indiscriminately, I wonder at the biblical nature of even this.

Epistemic Epistemology

I’ve been thinking about thinking, if you’ll pardon my meta.  More to the point, I’ve been thinking about what happens to thinking when it becomes writing.  Thoughts may or may not be safe if they’re left in your head, but once they’re on paper other people start to get concerned.  A diary, of which the weblog is a public variety, is often private.  You may write to remember.  You may write to stab at mortality.  You may do it just for fun.  No matter why you do it, if enough people read it, your writing will be misunderstood.  Ironically, even in a nation with freedom of speech, and the press, the writing rights of individuals aren’t guaranteed.  Take this blog, for example.  Over the decade I’ve kept it, a few jobs—two actual and one potential—have instructed me in what I could or could not write.  Like Niagara Falls, you’re getting only a portion of what flows in my river of thoughts.

Thoughts can change the world.  Considering the news lately that might not be such a bad thing.  In any case, the vast majority of writing remains private.  Even with Amazon and others making self-publishing simple, it’s not easy to get ideas out there.  Getting the attention of a major publisher has odds that are vanishingly small.  And the internet’s a big place, getting bigger by the day.  In cyberspace nobody can hear you scream, I guess.  Even on a smaller scale, my own computer complains that I write too much.  “Not enough space for updates,” it says in its dialogue box dialect, “too many documents.”  Never mind that I purchased it for writing, and a bit of surfing.  It wants more of the latter.  Other’s words, in other words, commodified.

My writing life began young, but not as young as that of many fictional writers like Jo March or Francie Nolan.  Our apartments and eventually small house had no space for one of the kids to hole up and write.  When I did start, in my early teens, I breached the dam without anticipating the results.  I’d been reading a lot, and writing seemed the right way to join the conversation.  I started composing novels before high school, but my first published book (and for many years my only one) was my dissertation.  I always believed that writing could be done on the side for any job, but that’s not the case.  Well, it is if you keep it in your diary, I suppose.  If you open the tap, however, you’d better make sure you have a mighty big glass in hand.

Refuge in Diversity

The Easton Saturday morning farmer’s market is a happening place.  Daring to spend a non-raining Saturday away from mowing, my wife and I decided to check it out.  If you’re not familiar with Easton, Pennsylvania, it has more than the Crayola factory that smells like childhood itself.  The downtown is marked by a traffic circle with an island in the middle large enough to fit, well, a thriving farmer’s market.  As usual, large gatherings attract those selling spiritual rather than material goods.  A very well dressed gentleman handed me a flier and when I got home I had to look up Refuge Church of Christ to find out what it it’s all about.  A New York City-based denomination of predominantly African-American membership, the church has over 500,000 members.  That I hadn’t heard of it before is no surprise.  There are well over 40,000 denominations of Christianity alone and it’s difficult to keep track of them all.

There comes a time in the life of anyone who takes religion seriously enough to study it professionally when s/he’s inclined to ask which is the original.  Think about it: you’re bartering with your eternal soul on the barrelhead here and don’t want to make the wrong choice.  When someone invites me to convert (I don’t know the secret handshake to show I’m already a member) I’m curious about them.  The unfortunate thing about all of this is that each tradition believes it has the truth and most, if not all, others have got it wrong.  Few are the faiths that declare, “Believe whatever, just believe.”

I once tried to make a denominational genealogy chart.  Part of the problem is that tracing things back to Catholicism isn’t quite right.  The Roman Catholic Church as it exists today is quite different than anything Paul, or Peter, or James would’ve recognized.  To say nothing of Jesus.  And that’s inevitable.  Religions don’t stay the same.  They evolve as soon as they pass from person to person.  Those who belong to denominations often do not know what the official teachings of the body are, and getting back to the original they’d find that their denomination started out believing things quite different than its own current theology.  If you’ve got only one soul with which to make that eternal decision and literally thousands of choices, well, let’s just say that you don’t want to think about it too much.  Besides, we’re here for fresh fruits and vegetables.  And it’s a rare gift of a Saturday without rain, no matter who’s responsible.