Index Fingers

I’ve occasionally written about how authors obsess over indices, or indexes, for their books.  These days most things are looked up electronically, but this entire week my reading, writing, and relaxing time have been taken up with the index for Nightmares with the Bible.  Creating an index is an odious yet perversely enjoyable task.  Most publishers (at least among the academic crowd) foist this duty onto the author since a freelancer can easily add $4,000 or $5,000 to the book’s budget.  After preparing an index you can understand why.  At least I get to work with searchable PDFs, but I remember doing indexes on paper and having to sort through printed proofs and hoping that you’d catch every instance or a word or phrase.  The searchable PDF helps, but it depends on the material you’ve got to work with.

The Bible, for instance.  Not only are many book names short—Job, John, Mark, James—they are also common.  People have named their kids after biblical characters, or with biblical names, for millennia.  Not only that, but Job can be job.  Unless you put the quotes around it “Eve” will show up on just about every page, believe it or not.  The real strain on the eyes comes from those terms that are important and show up throughout the book.  Words like “Israel,” or “monster,” or “priest.”  I’m not one of those people who writes a book about demons and puts “demons” in the index, though.  Hey, if you know that’s what the book is about, why look in the index?  Just read it!

Meanwhile, the cover copy came this week for my approval.  I haven’t seen the cover proof yet, but last time I actually had time to check (several days ago now) other media outlets had picked up on the imminent arrival of a new book.  It wasn’t on Goodreads the last time I looked, but there’s time for that.  Right now there’s no time for anything, however, other than indexing.  It actually takes longer to do this than it does to read the proofs for the book.  And indexing helped me discover a spelling error that had gone past both me and the copyeditor.  So this is a valuable exercise, but there are many other things to do as the weather turns cooler and other projects are aching for attention.  Four days of intensive indexing and I’m only up to the “p”s.  I’ve been away from it too long, so I’d better mind my “q”s as well.

Propaganda

“[F]or the most part, thinking is inherently and irrepressibly liberal.”  As much as those who’ve drunk the Trump Kool-Aid (watered down, for sure) might want to deny it, these words by Jeff Kripal are true.  Thinking itself is nearly always a liberal activity.  This election has become one of propaganda versus thinking.  Propaganda is, according to Oxford Languages, “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”  People who, I know for a fact, were taught about propaganda in high school (lots of little heads were nodding yes that they understood what propaganda was and then nodding no that they were never fall for it) have now jumped onto Trump’s propaganda bandwagon, claiming that facts are “liberal hoaxes.”  Thinking is liberal.  Thinking hoaxes, I guess.

Liberals, as I’ve stated repeatedly, don’t take anyone’s word for it.  We fact-check.  Herein lies the difference.  If Joe Biden were to state that Democrats couldn’t win without cheating in the election, liberals would be all over this, fact-checking.  Where did he get this idea?  Did he cite his sources?  Does science concur?  And then if he were to lie about having said it, liberals would point out the contradiction.  Trump’s followers, who have nearly four years of massive lies, well documented, taped, and public, to draw upon, simply deny he said them.  The “liberal hoax” they cite is propaganda, by definition.  It is not to be fact-checked because they might not like what fact-checking reveals.  In high school we were taught about Nazi propaganda.  We all understood.  Now we conveniently forget.

This election is about trying to bring a deeply divided nation back together again.  Trump’s lies from day one (biggest inauguration ever, although those of us actually there could see the lie clearly) have been about dividing and conquering.  Most Trump supporters have no idea what liberals are.  The very definition of liberal concerns broadening knowledge.  Higher education teaches us not to take anyone’s word for it.  Not only do Trump supporters accept his lies about liberal hoaxes, they simply dismiss the fact that liberals’ greatest critics are other liberals.  We don’t sit around coming up with hoaxes—we hardly agree with one another!  The most insidious thing about all of this propaganda is that Trump supporters distrust those who’ve seen behind the screen.  They won’t, however, look for themselves.  All the news from all the world lies, they say, if it doesn’t support Trump.  Thinking back to high school, I can imagine no better way to illustrate propaganda.  At least to those who were willing to pay attention to their teachers.  For those who refuse to learn, education itself is all a hoax.

Looks more like today, America under Trump…

Preorder Alert

Although you can buy most anything from Amazon, the book industry is particularly under its hegemony.  I have to admit that I enjoy browsing there, and often dream of the books on my wishlist.  I suppose that’s why I was pleased to see that Nightmares with the Bible is now available for preorder on Amazon.  I like to give updates for those interested, and the proofs have just arrived.  There’s kind of an inevitability to seeing your book on Amazon, a prophecy almost.  It now exists out there somewhere on the internet.  I do hope that it might stir some interest in Holy Horror, but like that book it will miss its sweet spot of a release before Halloween.  That means it also misses the fall catalogue.  The next one comes in spring, and who’s thinking of horror then?  Something all publishers of horror-themed books know is that minds turn toward these topics in September and October.  Just look at the seasonal sections of stores.

Horror films come out all year long, of course.  Halloween, however, serves as an economic lynch pin.  People spend money on being afraid in the early fall.  By mid-November thoughts have moved on to the holiday season and the bright cheer of Christmas.  Holy Horror arrived days after Christmas two years ago, and although I was delighted to see it, I knew we’d missed the boat for promotion and by the time it was nearing the backlist at the next Halloween it was old news.  That doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the books, of course.  It just means they won’t get the attention they might have had.

Nightmares with the Bible is about demons.  Primarily demons in movies, but also a bit of a history of how they develop.  There’s a lot of academic interest in the topic at this point in time, so hopefully it will get checked out of academic libraries that will make up its primary home.  According to Amazon you get five dollars off the exorbitant price if you order it there.  Although it’s standard practice in the industry, I’ve always disagreed with “library pricing.”  It comes from presses publishing too many books, I suspect.  Since few of them are pay dirt they have to recoup their costs by overcharging for the rest.  Nightmares with the Bible is reader friendly.  It’s non-technical and, I hope, fun to read.  Amazon seems excited about it (it’s an illusion, I know, but one for which those of us who do this kind of thing live), and is happy to take preorders.  Have your library order one, and if you do, be sure to check it out.

A Walk in the Park

About five years ago my wife and I took a drive along the infamous Shades of Death road in Warren County, New Jersey.  Urban legend has all kinds of creepiness associated with it.  It was a pleasant enough autumn drive for us, and we didn’t see any ominous signs.  History has moved on since the road had been named and, as is typical, the origins had been lost to time.  Something I’ve noticed in moving from east to midwest back to east and a little further west again is that names tend to travel with westward expansion.  I haven’t read enough local history to gain a good sense of this, but we noticed that if New Jersey has a “Devil’s Half Acre,” so does eastern Pennsylvania.  

Yearning to get outdoors for a bit—it’s been rainy here and the pandemic limits options for seeing much of anything—we decided to visit Hickory Run State Park in Carbon County.  Not a bad drive from where we live, we decided to pick out a hiking trail before making the trip.  With over forty miles of trails, your choice of parking depends on which one you want.  We found that there was a Shades of Death trail.  The website tries to dispel the fear factor of the name, noting that early settlers referred to heavy woods and rocky terrain when they named the area.  It is some of the more challenging hiking offered in the park, with passages over small boulder fields and some slippery rocks.  It also turned out to have some wonderful scenery.  We’d arrived early enough to avoid the crowds that’ve made walks in the woods less pleasant in pandemic times.

Indeed, as we finished our hike near noon, families with kids excitedly shouting “Shades of Death” were making their way along the at times narrow path.  I couldn’t help but think how our lives have become so much easier, at least with physical challenges, than those of the original settlers who named these once treacherous places.  We find the names quaint and a little amusing.  Indeed, at the visitor center, the outdoor art emphasizes that particular trail, demonstrating its popularity.  Part of the draw of horror is, of course, reading or watching it from a safe location.  On a sunny morning with modern conveniences never far away, the name gives a little thrill even as it reminds us that a walk in the woods once held a peril difficult to imagine when you can drive right up to the trailhead for a walk in the park.

Walnuts

The walnuts are always the first to turn.  At least around here they are.  Their yellow leaves began to litter the bike path in August.  Their nuts can be quite a hazard to a jogger if it’s not quite light.  Still jacketed with their spherical rind, an unexpected foot landing on one can lead to a rolled ankle or even a fall on the pea gravel.  Such incidents led me to wait until it’s light enough to see clearly before going out for a jog.  You see, I like to exercise before starting work, so I jog at first light.  In June this can mean heading out even before five if the weather’s clear.  Since I start work around 6:30 this is a comfortable time to go.  Nobody else is on the bike path then.  And with Covid lurking, that’s a good thing.

The earliest sunrise comes about a week before the summer solstice.  By the time summer officially begins I already have to delay my jog slightly.  This is one of the great disappointments about Daylight Saving Time.  After winter’s long darkness, it starts to get light in the morning and I think to myself “I’ll soon be able to jog before work again,” but then we set the clocks back and set sunrise progress back by another month.  During the darkling months of the year I have to jog at lunchtime.  The changing walnuts always warn me that such a time is drawing near.  Already here in early September I’m getting back late for my usual work time since the sun is reluctant to throw its first crepuscular rays over the brow of the hill before six a.m.  The problem with this is that many more people are out on the bike trail at six than I ever see at five.  And often they don’t care to share.

There are a couple of older guys who walk abreast, taking up pretty much the whole trail every day now.  They hear me coming, look back, but like the marching band in “American Pie,” refuse to yield.  Single file for them is a sign of weakness.  I have to divert into the dew-soaked grass on chilly mornings to get around them with my now-wet feet.  I long for the days when I could easily jog before they even think of heading out to the trail.  The solitude of half-light.  The walnuts are the prophets of the tree world, however.  Their fruit is both nutritious and dangerous.  Scattered across the trail in the persistent dusk of a cloudy morning, they’re both a hazard and a warning.  And it’s a sign that the morning jog may already have to wait until mid-May to reappear.

Yellow Jackets

Deeply conflicted.  That’s how I feel about calling the exterminator.  The longer I’m alive the more eastern my thinking becomes.  What right do I have to kill other animals for doing just what they’ve evolved to do?  The yellow jackets who made a nest in our siding were doing just what nature directed them to do.  In what sense is our house natural?  When they started getting inside, though, memories of having been traumatized by stepping on a yellow jacket nest when I was younger came to too sharp a focus.  Terror is probably the right word.  We were catching and releasing five or six a day and summer doesn’t look to be about to give way to autumn very soon.  There’s nothing like being startled by an angry bee when you walk into a room in summer-weight clothes.  So the exterminator came.

As the yellow jackets fled into the house to escape the poison I pondered what right I had to deprive them of their lives (here’s the eastern thinking part).  How was my comfort, or my lack of terror, more important than their need for a home?  Couldn’t we peacefully coexist?  You see, I’m no fan of violence of any sort.  In my ideal world there would be no war and no meanness.  You might not be able to call yellow jackets cuddly, but they don’t seem the happiest of creatures with whom to interact.  They’re industrious, like business owners want their drones to be, but their people skills aren’t too good.  Maybe it’s just projecting, but when they swarm the only word that comes to mind is anger.  Even their evolved body armor reflects that.  Still, I didn’t want them killed.  I just wanted them not to misunderstand our human interactions while shut in during a pandemic.

Life is a gift to all creatures.  I became a vegan years ago because of humanitarian concern for our fellow creatures.  The mess our world’s in now because of our lack of care for anything but money plainly shows.  Bees, it could be argued, make more of a contribution to the well-being of the planet than I do.  Who am I to make any claim of superiority?  Still, I’m responsible to pay half my salary on a mortgage that will keep me in one location until the situation betters.  When I see that silhouette in the window a sting of terror from my childhood comes back as I grab an empty peanutbutter jar to catch and release, only to have another bee replace the first.  Childhood traumas are like that, of course.  But now I apologize for bringing on the death of fellow creatures and I walk through the rooms through which they had freely flown.

Permanently Changing

Classifying the world of thought into “eastern” and “western” is a gross oversimplification.  Nevertheless we require some handles by which to grip this unwieldy beast of mental life.  One of the first distinctions that we’re taught is that western thinking tends towards the default of permanency while eastern thought emphasizes change.  Change, of course, is the lack of permanence.  The older I get the more I see the wisdom in accepting change as the only thing that’s really permanent.  It’s a lesson you learn as a homeowner.  In my typical western way of thinking, I assume things will pretty much stay the same, but the myriad of small, external forces work constantly toward change.  The only way to keep a house well is with constant upkeep.

The other day I found a rotted windowsill that our inspector somehow missed.  That it hadn’t happened on our watch was clear by the fact that the previous owners had slapped a thick layer of paint over what was clearly a broken and decaying sill, in essence ignoring the problem.  Change, you see, is constant.  Things really get interesting when you start to apply this to religion.  Although the Bible only hints at it (for the view isn’t entirely consistent) God is considered unchanging.  The same yesterday, today, and forever.  Meanwhile everything down here is constantly in flux—changing, evolving, decaying, reproducing.  Religions of eastern Asia tend to embrace this change as a given.  Our frustration in life, as Buddhism recognizes, has its roots in attachment to permanence.  Things inevitably change.

On the one hand this is so obvious that it might appear simplistic.  But then think how we live our lives here in the western hemisphere.  Our employers hire “change management” teams.  We suppose things will return “back to normal” after this pandemic is over.  We’ve been living the cloistered life for nearly six months now and things have been changing.  Especially in the early days people could be heard lamenting how quickly information and circumstances shifted.  Change is permanent.  For the homeowner anxious about the ability to keep up with upkeep, the constant growth of the lawn and the aggression of weeds can be their own kind of trial.  At times it feels like you need to be paid just to take care of your home since it’s a full-time job.  It is overly simplistic to draw an arbitrary line from pole to pole, but it does seem that some cultures, tending toward the east of the birthplace of monotheism, have some basic insights from which we might learn.

Google Scholarship

The other day I had to check something on Google Scholar for work.  Since our computers now know who we are, mine asked if I would like to update my profile on the site.  I figured it couldn’t hurt.  I waited until after work, however, since my scholarship is strictly separated from my job.  When I went to complete the profile I learned that you can’t do it without a .edu extension on your email.  In other words, and independent scholar is no Google Scholar at all.  It’s not the first time I’ve run into this bias.  I have sat through many meetings where those with no institutional affiliation are spoken of with deep suspicion, as if the extreme shortage of academic jobs has left only the worthiest employed.  Classic blaming the victims.

Having once been a full-time academic, I have watched the job ads for nearly three decades now.  The number of positions has steadily decreased while the number of new Ph.D.s has readily increased.  There aren’t enough jobs to go around and those who don’t land one of the few available are considered inferior scholars.  Even Google says so.  The interesting thing about this is there is little outcry from academia itself.  You’d think that, given the protests that go on in other areas of perceived injustices that the educated would call for redress.  You’d think incorrectly.  As a society we distrust those who don’t have an institution backing them.  Unless they’re rich (for money is a kind of institution).  It’s a strange state of affairs.

In my line of work citations on Google Scholar don’t really matter.  In fact, many publishers are kind of embarrassed when their employees are published, or are even cited in the books they produce.  Scholarship, in other words, is institutionalized.  The thing is, life in our society isn’t so neatly categorized.  My first job, in a poverty-level family, was working as a janitor.  I was always surprised at how philosophical the discussions were among the cleaning staff at our local school district.  Many of these guys were deep thinkers behind a  broom.  In the schools where they worked the students tended to make fun of them.  You certainly won’t find their musings on Google Scholar.  I tend to think that our society might be more equitable if we’d recognize intelligence where it exists rather than sticking it behind the walls of academe.  But then, I’m no Google Scholar so you need not believe a thing I write.

The Birth of Nightmares

It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child.  A similar idea lies behind the writing of a book.  Sure, the lion’s share of the research and writing are done by the author—the person who gets credit for the work—but publishing is an industry.  That means other people’s livelihoods are based on the end result as well.  The author often doesn’t know what’s going on when the book is in production.  It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find the publisher’s website for my book is up.  You can see it here.  My own site for the book has been up for months (here; go ahead and take a look, there’s not much traffic).  Those who only read these posts on Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter may not realize there’s a whole website out here that addresses things like books and articles.  (I think the CV part requires updating, though.)

In a writer’s experience, seeing a book’s website—receiving an ISBN—is like the quickening of a baby.  You’ve known for some time that it’s there, but the proof is in knowing that other people can find out.  I only learned of this because a friend wanted a link to the book page.  If you google the title without quotation marks you’ll find lots of websites about Christians and nightmares.  (Who knew?)  People of my generation still often don’t realize that, much of the time, searches with quotations marks are increasing necessary on a very, very full internet.  I’m still not sure of a publication date for Nightmares with the Bible, but you can preorder it.  (Sorry about the price.)

Once a friend asked me why we do it.  Writers, I mean.  Unless you’re one of the few who are very successful you don’t make much money off the project that has taken years of your life to complete.  I’ve never earned enough in royalties even to pay for the books I had to purchase to research the topics on which I write.  It’s not an earning thing, although that would be nice.  For some it’s an expectation of their job.  For some of us where it’s not, writing books is perhaps best thought of as monument building, a long and intensive “Kilroy was here.”  You notice something you think other people might find interesting, and so you write it down.  Chances are the number of other interested people will be small.  Family (maybe) and a few dedicated friends will lay down the cash for an academic book.  But still, there’s a village behind it, and I need to thank them here.

A Slice of Childhood

Few names from childhood are as well known as Dr. Seuss.  When my wife and I read Theodor Seuss Geisel, in the Lives and Legacies series, we realized that neither one of us had learned to read with his books.  It’s not that they hadn’t been written and widely adopted yet (they had by the time we started school), but rather that our districts had gone with other fare.  I learned with the famous Dick and Jane series, and I think there must’ve been some Seuss thrown in here and there.  We didn’t own any of his books, but I remember my mother reading from library copies of Hop on Pop.  When our daughter was born we read to her daily and Dr. Seuss was a large part of our informal curriculum.  Before reading this book, however, I knew very little about who Theodor Geisel was.

The series Lives and Legacies features short books, so this is a quick and no-frills way to meet the man.  Although Geisel was born into a middle class family, he experienced (ironically) the trauma of being in a German family during the First World War.  What we would call hate crimes today were committed against German-Americans during the war, even though there were sizable populations of Teutonic Americans by that point (including my mother’s family).  Not only that, but Prohibition put his father’s brewing company out of business.  Still, Seuss was accepted at Dartmouth and, like many who make it to the Ivy League, his connections helped him to a successful career in advertising and then in writing children’s books.

Geisel was a successful man, but wasn’t driven by money.  He was an artist both with images and words, and as Pease makes clear he approached his craft seriously.  As he matured he began to address social and political issues in his larger formatted books.  He eventually became the most successful children’s book author in history.  Reading to my daughter when she was young we discovered that, unlike the often idealized times of the fifties (followed by the sixties into which I was born) there is a wealth of quality children’s literature available.  It’s easy for middle-class kids to be raised loving reading.  Dr. Seuss knew that the pretensions of adults often created the seriousness with which we face life.  Children enjoy fun and the ridiculous.  He never lost sight of that simple fact.  We live in times when it is readily to be wished that many of the adults in power would go back and read a little Seuss and perhaps, just perhaps, learn their lessons.

Zoom Game

Perhaps you’ve notice it too.  The technology blame-game, I mean.  Although it’s grown more acute since the pandemic, it has been around for as long as the tech disparity has existed.  A typical scenario goes like this: someone (often of a more senior generation) encounters a techical problem communicating with someone else (often of a more recent generation) and asks them what the problem is with their (the younger person’s technology).  I sent you the message, the narrative goes, there must be something wrong with your tech if you didn’t receive it.  Believe me, I understand how bewildering this can be.  We’ve sold seniors (one of which I am rapidly becoming) on the idea that this little device in your hand can do anything.  When it doesn’t work, it must be somebody else’s fault.  The young, however, often have the latest tech and fastest speeds and broadest bandwidth, so the problem is probably on the sending end.

I run into this quite a bit since I run a small program for some local folks that involves weekly Zoom meetings.  I’m no Zoom maven.  My wife trained me in it and I can do passably well at running a meeting.  Many of those older than me, however, often have problems.  They wonder what is wrong with my broadcasting rather than their receiving.  I’m not sure how to say ever so gently that we pay (through the nose) for high-speed connectivity.  We have to since I work from home as a matter of course.  Now my wife also works from home and the two of us use our bandwidth all day long with multiple simultaneous meetings without any issues.  The tech here seems good.  We have no way of checking the tech on the end of those who are having connectivity issues.

I’m not setting myself up as any kind of tech prophet.  If you read my blog you know that I am deeply ambivalent about this whole thing.  I’ve been thinking a lot about overpromising recently and I wonder if that’s not a major part of the problem.  Technology will not solve all of our problems.  The fact that you need a regular source of electricity for it to run shows its inherent weakness.  It is a tool like any other, and if the tool is bladed to be useful it must have a dull part onto which one might hold.  Our Zoom society is bound to have issues.  Once we can see each other face-to-face again, all we’ll have to worry about is whether the laptop will communicate with the projector, or if the microphone is on the fritz this morning.  So it always has been.

Back in the Zone

In general I’m a fan of reading the book before seeing the movie.  In some cases, however, the written version comes later.  A few months back I started to have a hankering for stories written by Rod Serling.  I’m aware that he mainly wrote scripts, but I also know he had a rare talent for doing so and most of the books I’d collected as a child were collections connected to Serling but not written by him.  He had, during his lifetime, “novelized” three volumes of Twilight Zone scripts into books of short stories.  The second of those books, More Stories from the Twilight Zone, is one I’d not read before.  I remembered some of tales from episodes I’d watched while others were new to me.  All that they have in common is that something isn’t as it “should be.”

This “oughtness” is an illusion, as we’ve learned over the past four years.  Each day has an incredible sameness even as everything changes radically, almost daily.  To me that’s one of the comforting aspects of the Twilight Zone in these days.  Not only does it take me back to my childhood, but it also prepares me for the unexpected.  Rod Serling was a great metaphorical writer.  Quite often on this blog I try my hand at it, writing posts that are apparently about one thing but that are really about something else.  I think most of us tend to be literalists when we read (thus the crisis literalism has wrought when it comes to the Good Book).  Unless we know to shift our focus we take things at face value.  These stories try to teach us otherwise.

Some of these stories anticipate Stephen King.  Others reflect Ray Bradbury.  They are eclectic but unified by a voice that was able to see that the world could actually stand some improvement.  People could treat each other better.  Without being preachy, they are often like morality plays.  Of course that is my experience of reading them.  Readers differ in their responses.  The Twilight Zone was an influential series in a world open to new experiences.  If the twentieth century has taught us nothing else it has shown us that we can take nothing for granted.  To go deeper than the surface, that’s as it should be.  What are the stories really about?  A large part of it will depend upon what the reader takes away from them.  All of this is very helpful, at least to this reader, in times like these.

Update on Nightmares

Progress continues on Nightmares with the Bible.  Despite pandemic conditions, I received a happy email last week telling me that the manuscript had been transmitted to production.  If you don’t work in publishing that probably sounds like a pretty simple step, but in reality it’s immensely complicated.  The job of many editorial assistants is often just making sure books get through the transition from author to publishing engines safely.  Since Lexington/Fortress Academic is short-staffed at the moment (publishing is a “non-essential” business), they ask authors to take on additional responsibilities.  One that they passed on to me was to find people to endorse my book.  Fortunately I’ve got star series editors who agreed to take on the task, sparing me from going to someone and saying, “Um, hi.  Would you like to say nice things about my book?”  I’m shy that way.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not excited about the book.  It came about in an odd way, but like any parent an author loves her or his books, even if they aren’t quite what you expected.  Getting a fourth book published is kind of a hallmark for me, especially since I spend a lot of time on the websites of successful academic colleagues older than me that haven’t reached that benchmark.  Publishing books, for me, is a kind of validation.  The original ideas of editors aren’t much valued, either in publishing or in society at large.  Who cares what an editor thinks?  Put that same person in a college and s/he’s a superstar, eh, Qohelet?  So I sit here like an expectant parent, wondering what the book will look like although I already know what I’ve put into it.

Nightmares was never meant to be a research book.  Indeed, Holy Horror was written with an eye toward trade publication.  I’ve been working on my next book project (which I’m keeping under wraps at the moment for fear that someone with more time might get to it first, since there’s no getting the genie back in the bottle).  Before too many weeks have passed I’ll need to brush off my indexing skills (in as far as I have any), and get proofs submitted.  I’m afraid I’ll miss the coveted Halloween launch yet again with this book.  “Scary topic” books always sell best in September/October, but if you miss it, the next year you’re old news.  Like an anxious parent I sit here and wait because at this point things are literally out of my hands.

Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob, it is said, was quite a dreamer.  While fleeing from his brother Esau he had a dream of a ladder, or stairway, to heaven.  Well, “Heaven” as we recognize it didn’t exist then, but you get the idea.  Angels were climbing up and down on it, I’m guessing to do roof repairs.  You see, neither my wife nor I are what you might call tall.  In fact, I’m a bit shorter than the average guy and we can’t reach the top shelf in our kitchen, let alone the ceiling.  Or, God forbid, the roof.  So when tropical storm Isaias (not to be confused with the prophet) dropped upwards of five inches of rain on us, some of it got inside.  Our roofer, vexed as I was, promised to get over the next week but there’s more rain in the forecast.  I had to get up there to do some temporary patching.  I needed a ladder.

Ours is an older house.  The roof is way higher than any ladder we have.  I have one that allows me to get as high as the ceiling, but being acrophobic I don’t use it much.  It doesn’t come halfway to the lowest roof.  The hardware stores have ladders, but delivery’s a problem.  A ladder twice as long as our car seems like a road hazard, strapped to the top.  I asked about delivery at the local Lowe’s.  It would cost a third of the price again of the ladder itself, and that’s only be if they could deliver it.  Their truck was, ironically, broken down.  Wasn’t this a DIY store?  Could nobody there fix a truck?  I put a face-mask and rubber gloves on for this?  The world isn’t easy for the vertically challenged.  I really don’t want to climb that high, but with the ceiling below already coming down I’ve got to do something.

I wonder if Jacob’s ladder is still lying about somewhere, unused.  We don’t live far from Bethlehem.  Maybe I can scoot over the Bethel and pick it up.  Then again, maybe angels deliver.  I hear they can be quite accommodating.  Of course, if they’d keep the rain off in the first place that would’ve been helpful.  I’m pretty sure that Plant and/or Page had a leaky roof.  When they went to get up there they’d found somebody had already purchased the ladder (I think they call it a stairway in England).  So I find myself with a leaky roof and no way to get to heaven.

Almost Ancestors

During the Covid-19 crisis, cemeteries seem to be safe places.  Not too many people are in them, at least not people that can spread the virus, and they always provide grounds for rumination.  Besides, being outdoor spaces they can get you someplace outside the same four walls you see all the time.  My wife and I both have an interest in genealogy.  We’ve worked on our family trees and even try to keep our Reunion software up-to-date.  This past weekend we visited a family burial plot in upstate New York.  My wife’s family has a more accomplished pedigree than mine does, and one of her ancestors here actually merited an obelisk and was written up in local histories as a noteworthy member of the community.  I also have ancestry in upstate, and we’ve traveled to some of their sites in the past, although their markers are usually harder to find.

Being in a cemetery, the logic of ancestor worship suggests itself.  Without these people history as we know it would’ve been different.  Without those who are our direct ancestors we wouldn’t even be here pondering our own insignificance.  We wish these headstones could talk, saying more than the names, vital dates, and perhaps a quote from the Bible.  We listen, hoping to gain knowledge of who they were.  It seems to me that cemetery histories would be a boon to genealogists.  For those of us whose predecessors were buried in small towns, such guides could be a real boon.  As it is, Find A Grave dot com is often a helpful resource, but who wouldn’t like to be written up in an actual book?  Network reception often isn’t great out here in rural America.

Graveyards are gateways to the past.  In a world that feels like it’s changing way too fast, it seems right to have these places—these sanctuaries—to stop and reflect.  They represent lives lived.  Peaceful after the trauma of day-to-day angst and struggle.  Unfortunately the pandemic is daily adding to the number of those who’ll be buried in cemeteries across the nation and around the world.  Although somewhat preventable, we have no national will to stop the tragedy.  So it is I find myself staring at a monument erected to someone I never knew, but without whom my life would’ve been vastly different.  It’s a sunny day and I’m outside amid a crowd that can cause me no harm, but who, at times like this, inspire me.