Welcome the Stranger

Welcome, sibling! Have you ever contributed to a genealogy online?  I know not everyone’s into their ancestry, but there’s enough of the treasure-hunt to it, and enough mystery to keep you turning the pages.  Some time ago—it was when I was a professor, because I actually had some leisure time—I posted a bit on WikiTree.  WikiTree is a free communal effort to map the world of relationships.  Just about every week there’s a newsletter emailed around, offering how many degrees of separation you are from someone famous.  Often this is tied into the news cycle, so recently Prince Philip was among those measured.  Then Carrie Fisher.  Without fail, over the past several weeks, the family member through whom I’m connected to the famous is a great uncle.  The same great uncle.

I usually lose interest when the relationship starts to get to siblings and spouses.  There are webs everywhere.  Still, this intrigued me.  I’d never knowingly heard of this great uncle (and certainly never met him) but he was under 20 degrees of separation from several famous people.  It made me consider how you never can tell what relationships might lead to connections.  My direct ancestors, as far as I know, were all humble, work-a-day sorts.  One branch of the family had an engineer a couple generations removed, but for the most part they were farmers, laborers, truck drivers, and such.  The web of human relationships includes everyone, of course.  At some point in our family trees, we share a common ancestor, be they Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon (or a blending of the two).  When we harm or hate another person we’re harming or hurting a sibling, distant or close.

Getting along with everyone may be too much for which to hope, but at least tolerating seems worth stretching for.  I once found a long-lost cousin.  This was accompanied by a wonderful feeling of having found a family I didn’t even know.  Genealogy made that particular reunion possible.  Before that I might have passed this cousin as a stranger on the street.  It made me stop and think.  Is that stranger actually someone related?  Traveling back to the areas my ancestors lived I occasionally glimpse a face that could be a distant uncle or aunt.  My mental calculus kicks in, but there’s really no way to know just how close they might be.  Now, if I were my unknown great uncle chances might be somewhat better that I’m only a degree or two removed.  Even so, I should try to treat the stranger as though that were the case.

We’re all interconnected.


He’s Dead, Jim

So there’s this thing called Spotify.  Like most modern contraptions, I approach it warily.  I’m not sure how it works.  Do the artists get paid?  What’s the catch?  Is it only having to listen to a commercial for Amazon every three or four songs, like the radio?  I don’t have a lot of time to listen to music, but when I do have time I like to discover something new.  Then there’s the oldies.  And I can’t help but feel a deep sense of loss at the death of Jim Steinman.  I discovered Steinman earlier than I realized it when “Total Eclipse of the Heart” came out the year my first romantic relationship ended.  That song can still reduce me to a quivering lump of emotion.  All I knew at the time was that it was a Bonnie Tyler song.

Growing up fundamentalist, even album titles like Bat out of Hell, Meatloaf’s Steinman breakthrough, were enough to scare said toponym right out of me.  I never knowingly listened to any of the songs on that album until after earning my doctorate.  When I did I was hooked.  My research skills had grown by that time to include finding out who the writer of a song was.  I discovered that “Wagnerian rock” really spoke to me.  And the only guy who seemed to know how to write it was Jim Steinman.  Most kids, I suppose, settle into their music tastes much younger, but in my thirties and forties I found Steinman a most compelling artist.  I listened to his older stuff, and his newer stuff.  I found out some surprising things, such as that even Air Supply’s “Making Love out of Nothing at All” was a Steinman song.

I seem to be hopeless at playing musical instruments.  I’ve studied piano and taken guitar lessons, leaving bewildered teachers in my wake.  My wife tried to teach me the recorder.  Despite my failure as a player, music means a lot to me.  I don’t listen to it unless I can pay attention to it.  For me it’s not background noise.  When I learned to identify operatic rock, I soon came to realize that it was the work of a singular genius who was covered by a wide variety of artists.  No one else, it seems, could capture the feeling of being young like Steinman could.  Now he’s gone.  In my noodling around with this thing called Spotify, I wonder if I can discover any more of his songs.  Meanwhile, I’m thankful that I found him when I did.


Learned Ghosts

For one memorable year of what I call a career, I taught at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.  One in a series of near misses, this came close to becoming a full-time job.  Apart from a couple of rather humorless colleagues, the department was welcoming and an enjoyable place to be.  I even got to know the dean, now elsewhere, and planned on working on a project with him.  It was a memorable year in many respects.  One was its inherent strangeness.  I was living away from home while teaching there, and saw some odd things on my drives through the Wisconsin countryside.  It also happened to be at Oshkosh that I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft, so the weirdness was, in a word, enhanced.

Students like to tell ghost stories.  A recent article by Jocelyne LeBlanc on Mysterious Universe caught my eye because it tells of students in Oshkosh that live in a haunted dorm.  These kinds of stories are ubiquitous and Oshkosh is in no way singular here.  Students, whose brains haven’t yet ossified, are often open to new experiences.  Most of them, however, don’t possess the research skills to get behind the origins of some such tales.  Sometimes there’s an explanation.  Other times there’s not.  At Grove City College, when I was there, students told of a haunted playing field.  It was the site, it was said, of a former gymnasium.  What made it haunted was the death of a basketball player who’d smashed through a glass gymnasium door during a game and bled out before help could arrive.  It sounds improbable and I never had time to research it.

We all, I suspect, have a longing for the supernatural.  We want to believe that there’s more to this world than physics and earning money.  And strange things do happen.  I never saw any ghosts in Oshkosh, but the things I did see helped to make up for that particular lack.  Edinburgh, where I studied for my doctorate, is widely rumored to be among the most haunted cities in the world.  Although I saw no ghosts there, people flock to the ghost tours.  In fact, one stopped right below our first apartment’s window every night during the tourist season.  By the time we moved out we had every word memorized.  The haunted dorm story is a revered tradition.  Thinking about it makes me wish I could afford to be a student again.


Clippings

Weren’t newspaper clippings more fun than bookmarks?  For one thing, bookmarks are hidden away in your browser where they proliferate like bunnies in April.  Clippings were always limited in number, to the level of your interest.  Or physical storage capacity.  I once decided to organize all my bookmarks into “folders.”  I’m still not finished and some websites don’t seem to fit any category.  Still, the exercise is an eye-opening one.  I’ve been on thousands of webpages, hundreds of which I want to remember.  With newspaper clippings, there were a limited supply and they felt—let’s face it—real.  These words and images were printed on tangible paper.  Kept in a file (or in old movies, tacked to a bulletin board that inevitably contained clues), they were visible reminders of something that caught your attention.

I’ve seen movies made where research is being done on the internet.  They involve people who know they have to go beyond the top page of a Google search.  They may even go to the third page or further!  Such thrills.  Compare that to a scene where someone pulls open a desk drawer and finds a clipping.  Isn’t there real drama there?  No doubt the internet has made finding information easier.  It has also proliferated it so that we no longer have time to read it all.  I recall reading how Isaac Asimov read the entire encyclopedia when he grew up.  Who could read all of Wikipedia?  It changes every single day.  The clipping file, depending on the papers and magazines to which you had access, might be pretty slim but it helped to inform opinions and outlooks.  There were occasional hoaxes but nobody worried about fake news back then.  After all, reputations still meant something in those days.

There was a real thrill, growing up in a small town, to being mentioned in the newspaper.  In my case it was generally about being in the Cub Scouts, or, interestingly, being baptized in a river.  (This was a small town.)  Ironically I didn’t have a clipping of the baptism story; I found it online.  The Franklin News-Herald wasn’t a large circulation broadsheet, but it was paper closest to where the incident took place.  Perhaps it struck a locals as odd seeing a bunch of people wading into the river fully clothed, even though it was 1970.  It’s an event I remember well.  But most of my clippings have flowed away over time, like those sins that were washed downstream that day.  I must remember to bookmark that site.


Street Teaching

When I’m out on the street—not so often these days—I’m sometimes accosted with strange questions.  This has happened to me quite a few times over the years.  Recently, when I was taking the recycling out for my daughter on a weekend visit, I saw a couple guys in a car right by the receptacle.  I was wearing a mask, due to, you know,  Covid, so I wanted to keep social distance.  The one in the driver’s seat asked if I was going to dump the recycling and when I said I was his partner said “I’ll take care of that for you.”  They had a plastic bag full of cans and were loading glass bottles in their trunk.  I thanked them for their help and turned to go.  As I was walking away one of them called out.

“Hey!  Are you a teacher?”  I get asked that a lot.  Only the academy refuses to recognize it.  I acknowledged that I used to be.  “What level?” they asked.  I allowed as I used to be a college professor.  “Where?” I told them most recently at Rutgers.  “What’d you teach?”  This is where it always gets interesting and I start to sweat a little.  I told them religious studies.  I also said that’s why I couldn’t find a teaching job.  “The best information we ever had on religion came from a six-year old.  You know what the F in faith stands for?”  I shook my head.  “Forgiveness.  Without that the rest of religion means nothing.”  I told them I could accept that.

Then as I was turning to go they called out, “You know the acronym for Love?  Living our values every day.”  I told them they were now the teachers and I was the student.  They responded by telling me that they’d just sold a song they co-wrote for a million and a half dollars.  I expressed surprise at that.  They told me the title and said it was recording in Nashville this week.  I congratulated them and finally was able to be on my way.  This made me reflect on the several such strange conversations I’ve had on the street.  They often begin with “Are you” and not infrequently end with “a professor.”  This is usually followed up with some kind of intelligent question.  People, it seems to me, are eager to learn.  Maybe not in the classroom, but in what is referred to as the “university of life.”  Perhaps that’s all the schooling we ever really need.


Not Out Loud

I’ve been thinking of funny things lately.  Literally.  You see, while many of us are waiting for vaccines or any sign of hope, it’s natural to try to cheer oneself up.  I try reading books with the reputation of being funny.  I try looking for movies that IMDb tells me will make me laugh.  One thing I’ve discovered is that what’s truly funny is a matter of taste.  Some comedians make me laugh.  Others, well, don’t.  Books that I’m told are LOL (“laugh out loud”) funny often turn out to give me a snicker or two as I wend my way through the pages.  The “out loud” part remains elusive.  But it’s the movies that get to me most.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that made me laugh from beginning to end.  “Sophomoric” is the word my wife used to describe most of the movies on online comedy recommendation lists.

I suppose funny is a matter of buying into lowest common denominator culture.  Education, if we’re honest, can knock the sense of humor out of you.  Besides, most movies have a story to tell and few stories are funny every step along the way.  During a pandemic you might well need something like that.  Of course you couldn’t go to the theater to see it if it came out.  There’s some fun stuff on the internet.  People I know will sometimes send me things that make me chuckle, but I’m guessing I need to step away from horror movies for a while to reacquaint myself with what’s funny.  I got so desperate the other day that I sat down and tried to make a list of the funniest movies I ever saw.  Then I looked at the lists I found online and saw little overlap.  Where to go for a good laugh?

Our sense of humor must have roots in our youth.  I really got into religion then, and I became a very serious teen—we’re talking eternal consequences here.  So much so that I had a conscious epiphany one day that I no longer laughed.  I needed to rebuild my sense of humor.  I tried buying funny books (which wasn’t easy in a town with no bookstores).  I tried to catch up with the others in school who were always talking about this or that funny movie they’d seen.  Of course, anything crude scandalized me then, so it had to be clean fun.  Now it’s a matter of trying to see if anyone gets my sense of humor.  After a year in lockdown we could all use a good laugh.


Rabbit Years

A childhood horror movie that I only recall in the most wispy of fringe memories is Night of the Lepus.  It’s one of those monster movies that involves mutated animals, in this case the unexpected rabbit.  I’m not sure why it’s been on my mind lately, but a little research indicated that it was based on the Russell Braddon novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit.  This book is out of print and still under copyright, so finding a copy wasn’t easy.  Apart from vague images of giant rabbits, I had no idea what to expect.  The book turned out to be a comedy horror, in that order.  Remembering that the movie wasn’t funny (although it is consistently considered one of the worst cinematic efforts of the time), I wasn’t prepared for this.

You see, I don’t like to read about books before I read them.  I don’t read cover copy.  (I tend not to watch movie trailers either, unless it can’t be helped, like when you’re in a theater.)  I suppose knowing a genre of a book helps, but I just wanted the experience of reading the story behind a movie that won’t completely vacate my memory cells.  The Year of the Angry Rabbit is a satire on government, war, and capitalism.  If you’re not expecting a serious horror story it’s quite funny.  Russell Braddon never became a household name—he was from Australia and a person’s cultural impact tends to be greatest on their own continent—but if you knew this was a satire from the start you’d probably enjoy it as such.  Although written in the sixties, it’s climax takes place at the millennium, now two decades past.  It’s always interesting to see what people thought we might be up to by now.

Although there are elements of humor to our politics, Orwell seems to have been more on the money than Braddon.  Nevertheless it’s important to keep the old stories alive.  There are still people like me who will seek out rather obscure novels from many decades ago.  They might have to have sat on library shelves for years without having been checked out—this used to be the glory of the library, before “evidence-based usage” studies ruined them.  I search for things I want to read in my local small town library and find that my tastes are too obscure.  Besides, old stuff has to be cleared out to make room for the more recent books hoi polloi wish to consume.  I’m glad they’re still reading.  For me, however, I’ll need to stretch back to a time before I was old enough to read to satisfy an unrelenting memory. It was rabbit years ago.


one of many

It’s been some time since I’ve read about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There are so many religions that I need to refresh my study on them periodically.  So it was that I received a mailing from the local Kingdom Hall.  You see, the very last people at my front door before the pandemic was declared were bearing the Watchtower and telling me the end is nigh.  We knew about Covid-19 at that point and were being urged to keep social distance, although the authorities were still dithering about masks.  They knocked nevertheless and we stood several feet apart on the porch as they tried in vain to convince me of their truth.  So now, a year later, they’ve reached out by mail.

You’ve got to have a soft spot for a religion that has its origins in Pittsburgh.  Well, maybe that’s the case for those who grew up where it was the nearest big city.  And I do admire that pioneering spirit that says “established religions just aren’t doing it for me.”  The great swath of NRM—New Religious Movements—shows that you shouldn’t feel lonely if this applies to you.  Even today’s Christianities bear little resemblance to the teachings of the carpenter of Nazareth.  He who said even to look upon a woman lustfully was to commit adultery, but whose followers support a president who recommends grabbing them by the, well, where the originator said not to look….  Religions evolve.  The literalism many associate with Christian belief is really only about a century old.  We have no business castigating religions just because they’re recent.

My mailing from the Witnesses included a personalized (somewhat) letter inviting me to a virtual commemoration of Jesus’ death.  Due to the pandemic it’ll be held on Zoom, of course.  The expected flyer with its Anglo-Jesus contains the details.  I did attend a Witness service back when I was in college.  Those days of heady explorations never really ended for me.  You have to settle into a tradition to get to know people, of course, but there’s a world full of ways of looking at our spiritual side and there’s more being propagated just about every year—even Jehovah’s Witnesses have splinter groups.  I suppose missionaries are something we’ll always have to put up with as long as people are convinced that their way is The Only Way.  Trust that others have perhaps quietly, perhaps deliberately, perhaps with a great deal of thought and reflection, have found their own way seems never to be good enough.  Still, an invitation is an invitation and those have been rare during a pandemic.


Who Says Suez?

“Where was Moses when the lights went out?”  That’s one of the few sayings I remember from my grandmother.  She lived with us when I was a child and she’d say that when someone came in too late to help with something.  I always thought it a strange expression since Moses didn’t do miracles on demand, but I still remember it—kind of a miracle in its own right.  The expression came back to me when hearing about the MV Ever Given in the Suez Canal.  This massive cargo ship, buffeted by high winds, has choked the canal that links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean for days.  This shortcut means ships don’t have to round Africa to get to European and American ports.  While the problems of this one ship play out, over 150 others are waiting to pass through and goods could be delayed for weeks around the world.  I’m glad we have toilet paper.

Image credit: Ten Commandments trailer, via Wikimedia Commons.

Now Moses was known for have a role in the dividing of the Red Sea.  Of course, the name of the body of water is debated.  The Good Book actually says “Reed Sea” and nobody’s really sure where that is.  Besides, the miracle isn’t really credited to Moses.  God did the deed through, well, a strong wind.  If the waters could be divided perhaps present-day crews could figure out how to free the ship.  Photos of a bulldozer that looks like a Tonka next to the colossal freighter give an idea of the scale of the problem.  People building things so large that they can’t control them.  And the forces of nature seem happy to remind us that we’re not in control, right, Moses?

And everything, we assume, will go smoothly if left to its own devices.  How often do we really worry about the Suez Canal?  Or large ships, for that matter?  Theses things should go just as clockwork, we suppose.  Until our order from Amazon is inexplicably delayed.  The pandemic, Post Office troubles, and unexpected bad weather have caused major shipping delays around here over the past several months, and now we have no Moses when we need him.  According to Exodus, God lives right next door on the Sinai peninsula.  That’s where Moses first met him.  If we had a true prophet these days (let the reader apply wisdom here) there would be no concerns for something as simple as a wedged ship.  But we can’t even find Moses when the lights go out. 


Free Knowledge

I was struck with an idea.  Not just any idea—an academic one.  I find myself out of practice, and wondering where to find sources when I have no access to an academic library.  I’ve spent my precious writing time for the past several days trying to bang out a respectable academic article.  It represents an area that my personal library does not cover adequately.  The fully employed academic has a library and interlibrary loan to support ideas that won’t let go.  It’s a bit more tricky for the independent scholar.  I’ve contacted local schools but during these pandemic times there is no public access.  Nor electronic access—thanks to all the fancy deals publishers make to try to keep the industry profitable.

The past few academic publications I’ve had were difficult to write, particularly the footnotes. Something the garden-variety academic doesn’t understand is that the university library is a privilege.  I read a lot.  Probably more now than when I was a professor.  Still, research leads you in directions you’d never anticipate.  It’s quite a wild ride, actually.  So with my current project (I can’t tell you what it is because someone with library access would easily be able to scoop it) I’ve had to buckle up.  As I was reading an obvious connection became clear.  It reminded me of the thrill of discovery.  The researcher has a drive for new knowledge—a treasure-hunter of the mind.  It is wonderful to be reminded that there’s more out there still to be discovered.

I’d almost forgotten how an insistent idea can push other projects out of its way.  I have any number of projects going simultaneously.  They get a few minutes’ attention before the work day starts and some of them mature enough to be sent for publication.  At any given time there’s a lot more standing behind those ideas that actually show up on this blog, or in a journal, or even in the fiction venues in which I publish.  But that idea just won’t let me go.  Even while I’m at work it lurks in the back of my mind.  The professorate, for all its limitations, doesn’t pin you down to a nine-to-five schedule even when the time would be better used otherwise.  The thing is, you can’t tame ideas.  Who would want to live in a world where you could?  So I keep working away, hoping to find a library or at least electronic access.  It’s just an idea I have.


Werewolves Not Forgotten

Copyright is a strange thing.  Without it there would be no making a living as a writer or artist or even music composer (or so I’m told).  The idea is straightforward enough—someone comes up with a “marketable” idea (how marketable varies widely), and therefore owns the exclusive rights to the expressed form of that idea.  If, for instance, the idea becomes a published book the publisher (generally) owns the rights and pays the writer royalties for the use/ownership of those rights.  Copyright, however, like fresh food, expires.  Written work or music or art becomes part of the public domain and can be reproduced by any with the gumption to do so.  There are publishers, such as Gorgias Press, that got their earlier starts by doing just that—finding public domain material, scanning it, and republishing it for a price.  All above board.

Back before I worked long in publishing I was going through a werewolf phase.  No, I am not a lycanthrope, but I was reading about werewolves.  I knew one of the main sources of folklore was Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves.  Being strapped for cash (some things never change), I bought a copy published by Forgotten Books.  They’re rather prevalent on Amazon.  Although the content is free online, some of us prefer to have a book in our hands and leave the devices aside.  I soon discovered why my Forgotten Books version was so inexpensive.  It is simply a printout of the scanned book, apparently with optical letter recognition software utilized.  No serious formatting or proofreading required, a book is produced, covered, and sold.  It is a disorienting experience reading such a book.

Readers look for landmarks just as surely as a hiker or traveler of any sort.  Old books have layout and typesetting to help the reader navigate.  My copy has “Error! Bookmark Not Defined” instead of notes.  First editions of Baring-Gould, it turns out, sell for upwards of $6000.  So I continued reading.  A lack of italics and the occasional optically misread word make me wonder just how much of Baring-Gould I’m really ingesting.  Any book that begins with a disclaimer regarding possible errors should’ve been assigned a copyeditor.  SBG likes to use lots of foreign words.  They may be spelled correctly or not.  I have no notes to check.  Caveat emptor, n’est-ce pas?  The technology that allows scanned, unread by human eyes products to be sold as books makes me wonder.  No, I haven’t forgotten books.


The Spiritual Life

Genuine spiritual experiences don’t sit well with a nine-to-five job.  When something truly profound happens to a person s/he requires time to think about it.  Ponder the experience.  If such a thing occurs on a Sunday (imagine that!), the next morning, still reeling, you need to go to work.  Perform duties that no longer seem significant.  And continue to do so for four more days, until the fire has gone out.  This paradox has plagued me for some time.  Perhaps it’s the fate die cast for an editor who can’t just read submissions for their financial payoff.  Who asks, “What if she’s right?”  Doesn’t that affect everything?  Especially in the case of a religion editor.

Blown away.

I first noticed this in college.  Even there the schedule was quite flexible, according to classes you had to take.  The professors were sincere in their presentation of ideas you should take seriously, but then in the work world your boss indicates that you’re not being paid to do that.  You’re being paid to produce.  Contribute to the machine.  Cogs and sprockets don’t think.  They do.  Then a significant weekend would come (or a holiday, say) where the message would really speak to me.  Change my outlook.  Until Monday morning.  The outlook would still be changed, of course, but the demands on routine would not also be changed.  It’s quite a dilemma.  As the great contemplatives throughout history have known, these ideas must be wrestled with.  Conversed with.  Tried on for size.  Walked with.  Such things can’t be done in the context of what you’re paid to do.  “Do it on your own time.”

What is your own time?  The weekend, essentially.  Work expands to fill the quiet times of weekdays.  Your time is owed to somebody who pays you less than the national average to do something any nonspiritual person could do.  Such is the danger of being open to new ways of looking at things.  Vacations need to be planned.  They are rejuvenating, but spiritual experiences can’t be planned.  They just happen.  HR has no algorithm for them.  Not exactly sick days or floating holidays.  And what if you need more than one day?  That meeting that was scheduled for Tuesday, what about that?  As if such things were really important.  Perhaps you too had the professor late for class because s/he was struggling with an idea, an experience that fit her or his specialization.  There were always office hours to recover.  That’s all fine and good, but it’s time for work.


Taxing Thoughts

Tax season has come with a new fear this year.  We had to visit our accountant’s small office to sign things.  We managed to get last year’s taxes filed before the pandemic became evident.  This year I spent weeks worrying about the upcoming appointment.  Sitting in a room with a man I both respect and fear.  Our government loves its paperwork, and although you can file electronically you still have to pay any amounts owed (on the state or local level) with actual paperwork.  That paperwork has to be signed.  To do so you need to meet an actual person who has some inkling of how this all works.  Ironically, the technology exists for taxes to be done automatically by the government.  Groups like Intuit, the owners of TurboTax, lobby the government not to make it easier.  Intuit would lose its income stream.

I don’t mind paying taxes.  I did chafe a bit the past four years, knowing I was supporting an evil government, but overall I understand that we all need to contribute in order for things to continue to run (somewhat) smoothly.  The thing that frightens me is being in a room with someone who might’ve been earlier talking with someone who had a dread disease.  Last week marked the one-year breaking point.  My wife and I agree that March 12 was the day the news turned utterly ominous.  Although the Trump administration knew about the disease, it had decided simply to ignore it.  Now, with more than half-a-million Americans dead, we’re still paying our taxes to try to undo the damage that one man did.

The more immediate problem is how to survive getting those tax papers signed.  Ironically, I can oversee the acquisition, editing, production, and sale of a physical book without ever having to touch a piece of paper.  It’s a marvel, really.  In fact, many of the books I acquire I don’t see until months after they’re published.  For taxes, however, we still need to send the physical paper in.  The alternative is TurboTax.  They add on so many fees that we ended up paying them as much as an actual accountant last time we did our own taxes.  I’m happy to pay a human being to do them, and I even like our accountant.  It’s just that it doesn’t feel safe to go inside somebody else’s space right now.  It’s a little too cold and wet to stand outside and sign the papers with trembling fingers.  Perhaps next year we’ll be able to do our part without fear.


Slacking Off

The other day someone on a committee on which I serve suggested we might eliminate the problem of buried emails by using Slack to communicate.  The problem, it seems to me, is that we have too many ways to communicate and yet lack the means to do so well.  For me email is indicative of the problem.  Email was devised—and I remember its beginnings well—as a means of swift communication.  The only real options before that were writing an actual letter (which I miss) or telephoning.  At that time you might have a cordless phone that you could carry from one room to another but you probably did not.  The phone was relegated to a place on a wall or table and, although I appreciate knowing things quickly, the fact is we got along in those days.  Junk mail was evident at a glance.  You sorted it and life went on.

Now email has taken over life.  I simply can’t keep up with it.  Some time ago Google offered a trifurcated email experience: primary, social, and promotional.  Their algorithms aren’t perfect (numbers seldom are) but I can often ignore large swaths of the promotional page.  That saves time.  Most of the social is dominated by people I don’t know wanting to connect on LinkedIn, or someone mentioning something I should pay attention to on Facebook.  Or perhaps something going on in the neighborhood on Nextdoor.  Primary deserves its name, but I can’t keep up with even that.  You see, I have a full-time job.  It largely consists of reading emails.  If I get a personal email in the morning, chances are it will be buried on the second page by the time the day’s out.  It may never been seen again.  I don’t need another new way to communicate.

The pandemic has introduced the new malady of Zoom exhaustion.  It isn’t unusual for my entire weekend to be taken up with Zoom.  If I don’t have a good part of a Saturday to sort my emails into files things I promised I’d do begin to slip.  I don’t see that email—the one that serves as a reminder to this addled brain of mine.  If I order something on Amazon I have to follow up on an email asking me to rate the service.  And then, if it’s not sold directly by Amazon, a vendor fishing for a compliment.  That after getting an email to confirm my order and another to tell me it’s been shipped.  No, please don’t subject me to Slack.  Or better yet, send me an email about it.  I’ll get to it eventually, as long as it stays on the first page.


Pandemic Thoughts

Waiting for rescue.  For many years now, I’ve been hoping for it.  It goes back to my first professional job at Nashotah House, perhaps earlier.  Particularly late in the game, I found myself wondering when I might be rescued from that difficult situation.  The teaching and research I loved, but the context was brutal.  The hoped for salvation never came.  Since those days the wishes have swung around to a steady job in a field I love.  One for which I trained.  The feeling arises particularly on weekends.  Often busier than even workdays, I nevertheless sense an almost gothic freedom to them, and Monday rolls around again reminding me that salvation never came.  Things are still the same.  Now, I don’t just sit around waiting for rescue.  I throw out all kinds of lines.  I shout and squirm and try to make myself known.  The ocean is large, however, and my voice is small.  

Perhaps this sense is a natural outgrowth of being raised in a religion that emphasized personal salvation.  The sudden conversion experience.  It was easy to believe things could change rapidly for the better.  Science, particularly uniformitarianism, tells us that the same slow processes always hold.  Solomon was right after all—there’s nothing new under the sun.  At least nothing that we couldn’t see coming for a good, long time.  Out here the horizon stretches ever so far in every direction.  Religions realize the problems with this sameness.  They give us sacred times and sacred spaces.  (The latter of which, however, the pandemic has forced online.)

Rescues that evolve can take many years to reach effective strength.  As a child I recall anticipating the rescue of adult respectability.  When I grew up people would listen to me because I was an adult.  For a brief while that was the case when I stood in the classroom and some students came because they wanted to learn.  I learned from them, and they, I hope, learned from me.  Perhaps this situation arises less among those raised in stable, middle-class families.  Perhaps they don’t sense the constant wolf pacing outside the door.  Maybe salvation is primarily for the poor.  Whoever it’s for and whencever it comes, the feeling has been with me for decades.  Rescue, it seems, is a construct we badly need.  At least on a philosophical level.  The pandemic has leveled our concept of time to a stifling sameness.  I’m prepared.  I’ve been waiting for rescue for as long as I can remember.  Then Monday rolls around again.