Steel Industry

It was a building on Broadway, just south of Times Square.  I don’t know the name of the building or remember what business it may have housed, but I did notice on my quick walks through Manhattan on my way to the bus that it was being renovated.  The facing had been removed and an exposed I-beam bore the words Bethlehem Steel.  From coast to coast, and even to ships at sea, Bethlehem Steel was a major supplier.  Today the factory is still.  There’s a poignancy about such giants falling.  The world as we know it was largely constructed from the products of the still impressive, rusting reminder of days of glory.  No doubt the air is healthier to breathe and the noise level much more suited to humanity, but standing here next to this behemoth it’s easy to fall into a reverie.

I grew up near heavy industry.  Nobody in my family was directly involved, but my hometown had a steel mill just across the river and my next hometown housed an oil refinery.  Both are closed now and the area has been in an economic depression that has lasted for decades.  Industry on this kind of scale requires workers willing to sacrifice much in order just to survive in an industrial world.  Over 500 workers died over the years at the Bethlehem Steel plant.  Factory life involved dangerous jobs with machinery containing material at over 3,000 degrees, and single pieces of equipment that could easily crush a person beyond recognition.  Workers were in some sense expendable as the collective, the nation, grew.  The factory never shut down, running all through the night, seven days a week.  The profits were enormous.  So were the costs.

Global warming was well underway as the greenhouse gases belched into the sky.  Bethlehem Steel wasn’t the only polluter, of course.  Heavy industry, industrial farming, individual cars—we seem to be determined to poison the air we breathe in order to make money.  If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that we’re all connected.  Rising prices and supply chain breakdowns have underscored that we all depend on each other worldwide.  Climate change has already assured that disruptions will continue and likely worsen.  There’s a kind of autumnal beauty in desolation.  These great steel stacks stand rusting and silent beneath a leaden but too warm sky.  Actions have consequences, and those that affect many create ripples that become waves.  We have created monsters but we can’t control them.


Paywall

They were my former employer, for goodness sake!  Here’s how it happened.  It begins with research.  Nobody is born knowing all they need to learn.  Research teaches you to question what you read and check sources.  That’s how bibliographies are built.  So I came across a reference to an article I needed to read.  The problem was it was behind a Taylor & Francis paywall.  (Taylor & Francis own Routledge.)  The cost to read one article in an academic journal?  $45.  That’s usually my upper limit for buying an entire book.  Working in publishing I know the reason for this.  They want you to go to your library (I don’t have one) and ask them to subscribe.  If you need access, probably somebody else will too.  This particular author isn’t on Academia.edu.  Should I risk Sci Hub? I mean the article is right there, but I’m not allowed to see it!

I did find that you can ask the author for a copy on Research Gate.  First you have to join Research Gate.  They want your institutional email.  My email doesn’t have a .edu extension.  I therefore had to go through a lengthy process of verifying that I am a researcher.  I had to claim papers I’ve authored.  I had to explain why I don’t have an affiliation.  I had to have them email me, twice.  Each time I had to provide further information.  I swear, it’s like getting a Real ID all over again.  All this so that I can ask an author for a paper that’s only available for $45 on the publisher’s website.  Every time I start a new research project I ask myself why I keep at it.  I guess I want to be part of the conversation.

The open access movement is gaining steam.  The idea is that research should be free.  Very few object to paying nominal fees for access, but often prices are extortionate.  Publishers are caught in this web because overheads are so high—they have to pay employees—and the cost of materials isn’t cheap.  Traditionally this has been overcome by passing some of the expense on to customers.  That’s why academic books are so pricy.  With journals, such as the one I need, the scenario’s a little different.  Journals are purchased by libraries via subscription.  “They wouldn’t subscribe to them,” so the argument goes, “if researchers could get the contents for free.”  Still, putting in place a free article or two before dropping the price bomb would seem to be in the best interest of actually moving knowledge forward.  Hey, T&F, don’t you remember me?


Dark Academia

Genres can be slippery things.  Those of us who dabble in fiction sometimes find it difficult to describe what we do.  Writing is individual expression and it may have elements of this and that.  Given my disposition, much of my fiction has some horror features but I tend to think of it as something else.  My wife recently sent me an article on Book Riot about the genre Dark Academia.  The piece by Adiba Jaigirdar begins by asking the question of what exactly dark academia is.  The label conjures up books about something untoward happening in the halls of learning, and that certainly qualifies.  It’s difficult to be more precise because it’s different things to different people.  Some of my fiction, in my own mind, falls into that category.  Things go wrong in higher education all the time.  Why not preserve it in fiction?

I’ve attended, and worked at some gothic places.  The contemporary university, such as Rutgers—although it’s old by American standards—has continuously modernized and although I don’t know it’s history well, I suspect gothic was never its aesthetic.  The same is true of Boston University where I went to seminary.  Edinburgh University, while also modernizing, has retained much of its gothic feel.  That’s certainly true of New College, where I studied, in the heart of the medieval old town.  There’s a gravitas to such dark settings.  They invite strangeness.  My first teaching job was at the intentionally gothic Nashotah House.  Although I didn’t agree with the politics I loved the setting.

I seem to have slipped from Dark Academia into Gothic Academia.  Indeed, it’s difficult to keep the two distinct in my mind.  When I taught I maintained the tweed jacket and somewhat disheveled look of someone who has something else besides grooming in mind (this is entirely genuine).  Indeed, that’s one of the great charms of higher education.  You need not constantly worry about each hair being in place—they’ll take care of that when they shoot the movie.  Not many people, and probably a diminishing number given the state of things, experience full-time life in academia.  It can be well lit and modern.  If done right, however, it should take you into odd places.  Discovery is generally messy.  Perhaps that’s part of the dark of dark academia.  When we use our brains we end up in unexpected places.  I’m not sure I understand dark academia, but I have a feeling that I’ve lived it even without my fiction.


Eve’s True Desire

Psst—don’t tell anyone!  There is a free copy of my first book available on Academia.edu.  I thought I was kind of radical for doing that, but people who write books want people to read them.  Having a book priced $70 or more, heck, even $30 or more, means only diehards will buy it.  Nightmares with the Bible promptly sank at $100 cover price, released during a pandemic.  I’ve always admired scholars who’ve bucked conventions to make their work available.  Recently I needed to consult a book.  I won’t say what it is because I fear a take-down order will be issued where I found it.  The author, aware the book was hard to access, actually photocopied the entire book and put it on a website.  I stand up and cheer!  Photocopying an entire book is a lot of work, a labor of pure love.

Now, I’m all for authors getting royalties.  It takes a lot of time and energy to write a book.  It can cost years of your life.  You ought to get something back for it.  It seems to me, however, that a different model is required for academic books.  Why are they so expensive?  Not only that, but smaller publishers without the distribution channels often publish worthwhile books, but in small quantities and they go out of print after the initial run is sold.  The academic enterprise (knowledge for knowledge’s sake) has become a captive of capitalism.  There’s no other way to trade in that market.  Books that have willing, even eager, readers are sequestered in libraries only accessible to employees.  Is there anything wrong with that picture?

Academics at less wealthy institutions often find ways around the rules.  I did my research for Weathering the Psalms at a small seminary that had trouble getting unusual items on interlibrary loan.  Bigger schools were distrustful of this tiny enclave called Nashotah House.  Would they ever get their rare property back?  Meanwhile worldwide mail service crisscrossed with offprints sent for free from scholar to scholar.  It was like your birthday, or Christmas, when a long-awaited piece of research landed in your mailbox.  Nobody was in it for the money.  We were beguiled by learning.  Eve looking wistfully up into the tree.  Now it’s all business suits with dollar signs for eyes.  The academic who puts their book up for free on the internet is nothing less than a saint.  Seeking knowledge is never really a sin.

Tasty fruit of knowledge

What’s Class Got to Do with It?

As an editor you get to read synopses of nascent books across a wide variety of disciplines.  A live topic in sociology and poli-sci is class.  As in “the hidden injuries of.”  So I’ve been grinding class in the machinery of my mind and the product always seems to be a question mark.  Neither of my parents finished high school.  My father worked, when he did, as a house painter.  With three children and no money for childcare (and not even a GED), my mother was of the stay-at-home variety.  I saw neither parent, and this would include my step-father, sit down to read a book for enjoyment.  My mother read the Bible for consolation, and read us children’s books before bed, but literature wasn’t really part of our lives.  I still think of myself as working class because that’s what I learned growing up.  Working class with books.

I recently posted about a contract for my fifth book.  The previous four have earned total royalties of well under four figures (combined).  I’ve been asked why I do it.  It’s not an expectation of my job.  It takes up most of my time outside an unrelenting nine-to-five.  Where does it get me?  None of my books (so far) have sold more than 300 copies.  I can see why—they’re either expensive or obscure (perhaps both).  But I love books and reading and I want to give back.  The truth is I don’t know why I do it.  Working class folk wind down from work in different ways.  Some of us do it by writing, I guess.

Learning, for me, works best if someone shows me how to do it.  I expect that’s why I did so well as a teacher.  Explaining things works for me.  I still run into this all the time—people come at you in media res and suppose you’ll know what they’re talking about.  At work, in extra-curricular organizations, just about everywhere.  My working class response is “whoa, back up!”  There’s no better place to start than the beginning.  It’s folk wisdom, I suppose.  In this world where everyone middle class is too busy, they don’t like to stop and tell you what you need to know to get started.  I don’t know how to be middle class.  One of my early jobs involved using a sledge-hammer.  I’d never done it before and I learned by watching others.  I’m not qualified to theorize about class, but I do know that by the end of the day that blisters will accompany any new task.


Podcast Live

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you forgot what day it was?  (Come on, now, it’s a pandemic—you can admit it!)  I spent yesterday unaware that it was Tuesday.  Tuesday is important because I knew that The Incarcerated Christian was going to be posting my interview on Holy Horror on their podcast.  It’s live now—give a listen!  I’ve been toying with rebooting my own podcasts, but like most other things in life I just can’t find the time to do it.  I still enjoy talking about my ideas and I thank Robin Mitchell Stroud and Debra Levy Martinelli for allowing me to yak their ears off for an hour.  There are many interesting podcasts on their site, so it you decide to listen the interview be sure to hang around a while and explore.

My hosts understand that Holy Horror was written for general readers, if not priced for them.  Being asked questions keeps you sharp, and sometimes it feels like my blade has been dulled from sitting in the drawer too long.  At the risk of sounding too biblical, iron sharpen iron, right?  Conversation is increasingly important in a polarized world where minds are already made up and the preferred solution is to hate others based on differences of opinion.  Why not talk about things?  Interviews also keep me sharp in asking about things I wrote years ago.  It may not seem like it, but the main body of Holy Horror was finished nearly five years ago.  Books take a long time to write and then a long time to publish.  It’s good to be asked about what one has written.

The questions asked on this interview were well thought out and reflective.  I can only hope that my responses were the same.  If you decide to listen and like what you hear, please share it with others.  The interview actually spilled over into a part two that will be posted in a couple weeks.  There’s a lot to say about religion and horror.  I’ve continued to watch movies since the interview and I notice further affirmations.  The Wicker Tree, for example, is a very biblical movie.  Or at least it quotes from the Bible quite a bit.  Holy Horror was very much an experiment on my part to find out if there was any room for a book like this.  After I wrote it I found others shared some interest in these topics, and two people cared enough to schedule an interview about it.  Please give it a listen.


Time Keeps on

Do you want to feel old?  Consider this BBC headline: “TikTok overtakes YouTube for average watch time in US and UK.”  If you’re like me you first heard of TikTok at some point during the pandemic and had only a vague idea what it was.  A new platform yes, but platforms come and go and I was really just starting to get into YouTube.  In fact, I remember when I first heard of YouTube.  A colleague at Gorgias Press was telling me about it.  It was a place to post videos.  I didn’t own a video camera and besides, what does a washed-up professor have to say?  No only that, but my computer didn’t have the memory capacity to upload and edit videos and who even has the (figurative and literal) bandwidth?  (I do have a YouTube channel, but it turns out that a nine-to-five and writing books on the side take up pretty much all of your time.)

Speaking as a homeowner, YouTube has been a lifesaver.  Most of what I have to do in household repair (a lot) I learn how to do from YouTube.  I know younger people who prefer YouTube to movies and never watch television.  It turns out that people are pretty good at entertaining each other even without the studios telling us what to watch.  (Although discoverability benefits from sponsorship, so money does change hands and the economy is happy.)  I was just beginning to get YouTube figured out when TikTok came along.  I was under the impression it was a music app—does Napster even still exist?  CDs are getting hard to find, as are DVDs.  I guess I can learn out where to buy them on YouTube.  Or TikTok?

I recently watched a horror movie on one of those services where they break in with a commercial at the absolutely worst moment time after time.  As the excitement began to build the commercials became more frequent.  As soon as it was over I was wishing for a DVD.  Too much content is on somebody else’s terms unless you’ve got a physical disc that you can slide in on your own timetable.  It’s strange being in that transitional generation between print and ebook, vinyl/VHS and streaming, paper maps and Google maps.  Now I guess I have to figure out what a TikTok is and how to use it.  I think I’ll go to the library and see if I can find an old-fashioned reference book on it.


Psychology of Religion

It’s so human.  Mistaking form for substance, I mean.  A recent piece in Wired that my wife pointed out to me is titled “Psychologists Are Learning What Religion Has Known for Years,” by David DeSteno.  As the title intimates, religion benefits individuals in many ways.  Church attendance, however, has been declining for a long time.  While not the point of the article, I do wonder how much of it is because mainstream churches are stuck in a form that no longer works and people aren’t finding the substance there.  The basic church service is premised on a specific religious outlook that no longer seems to fit how the world works.  Potential ministers go to seminary where age-old ideas are tiredly replicated, based on an incipient literalism that simply doesn’t match what people see in the world.

Wired?

I’ve experienced this myself.  Depending on who the minister is, a church can go from dynamic to dull several times in the course of a member’s life.  People still crave the substance, even if the form stops working.  The form, however, is seminary approved and seminaries are accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.  The folks are academics and academics are well aware of the developments that suggest the form doesn’t work.  Speaking as a former seminary professor, sermons just don’t do the trick when you’ve done your own homework.  As DeSteno points out, once you remove the theology science and religion tend to find themselves in agreement with one another.  For years I’ve been suggesting that secular seminaries are needed.  Churches that aren’t bound by form or doctrine.  Instead we swim in a sea of retrenched evangelicalism.

Religion is an effective survival technique.  It evolved, even while denying it did so.  Some time after the Reformation a resurgent literalism led Catholicism to modernize, removing the mystery that was perhaps the last tenuous grasp that form had to provide substance.  Religion, beleaguered as it is, still has substance to offer.  DeSteno’s article is adapted from his new book How God Works.  I haven’t read it yet, but from the summary I can see that I should.  There are religious groups that attempt what this article suggests.  From my experience, however, I see they easily get sucked into mistaking the form they settle on for the substance of what they do.  I had recently been toying with the idea of attending seminary again.  I found, however, form after form.  What I need is substance.


Seedy Delivery

Call it a weird indulgence, for that it surely is.  I’ve been slowly re-collecting childhood books—really what we call “tween books” these days, but there were no tweens back then.  Since these are out of print and somewhat difficult to find, I order them when I can afford to, and have been doing so for over a decade now.  The latest one shipped from Minnesota, via the US Postal Service.  Since these are not easily replaced, I follow the tracking.  The seller indicated a delivery date of September 16-18, only to send an early delivery notice when it was mailed.  Indeed, I’d ordered this on the 8th and by the 10th it was in Pittsburgh.  In case you’re not familiar with Pennsylvania geography, I’ve sketched a map.

Pittsburgh is about 6 hours away from where I live.  It was now scheduled for delivery on the 11th.  I had my doubts.  I awoke on the eleventh to find that it had overshot and was now in Baltimore.  Baltimore is only about two-and-a-half hours away, but still, the thought that it could reach the local post office and get out for delivery that same day seemed slim.  The next day was Sunday, so I figured maybe Monday.  Sure enough, on Saturday the 11th it had reached the dreaded Lehigh Valley Distribution Center, in Allentown.  Allentown is only ten miles from here, within actual walking distance.  The tracking site said it would be delayed.  On the 14th it had been shipped back to Pittsburgh (where it had been less than a week before), from there to Warrendale (which I had to look up on a map), and from there to Johnstown.  Barring another flood, it was due here on the 16th.  Of course, it may have to go through the horror-inducing Lehigh Valley Distribution Center again.

That same center had shipped a package to East Stroudsburg, over thirty miles away, just the week before and had sent a notice that it had reached its final destination.  I’m not one for squandering money, but I would gladly buy the Lehigh Valley Distribution Center a map.  They could look and see that Bethlehem is a mere 20-minute drive to the east.  That could prove useful information.  The package arrived the 15th.  The next day I received a status update alert that it was out for delivery and would arrive that day.  I’m a Post Office booster.  I believe the government should fund the postal service adequately and quit trying to win elections by cheating.  And maybe they could throw in a map while they’re at it.  I’ve got one they can have for free.


Before Current Parameters

I recently had cause, for a work project, to survey which Episcopal seminaries are still around.  You see, I began my teaching career at Nashotah House.  (There were few teaching jobs in the early nineties, although we’d been promised a glut in the late eighties when I set out on that career track.)  In any case, I remembered marveling that the Episcopal Church had eleven seminaries.  For perspective, one of the largest Protestant denominations, the Methodists, only had thirteen.  Enrollments were high in those days.  Before the rise of the Nones, seminary teaching was a viable, if perhaps staid, option for a career.  Or in the case of some of us, it would be a holding pattern until something more suitable came along.  (I’ve always thought of myself as a small college professor.)

So the list of Episcopal seminaries is now down to ten, but those ten are much diminished from what they were back in the nineties.  Seabury, the nearest competitor to the south of Nashotah, has merged with Bexley Hall to make a very small federation.  Berkeley at Yale is a Jonah in the whale.  Episcopal Divinity School had to vacate campus and merge with Union in New York, leaving the tradition Episcopal stronghold of Boston.  The others seem to be clinging on.  In the midst of all this I learned that the Anglican Church in North America, a conservative break-away denomination, has reissued the Book of Common Prayer.  The BCP, as it’s fondly known, has a long and venerable history.  The 1979 edition has both a more conservative and a more modern liturgy, but even that doesn’t seem to be enough to prevent fracturing.

Photo credit: Church of England, via Wikimedia Commons

Fracturing.  Estimates for the number of denominations in North America set the figure at about 40,000.  No wonder Nones are among the fastest growing category!  If you’re going to place your eternal salvation on a bet, and there are that many options to choose from, the odds seem awfully long.  In some cases it’s a matter of being in the right state, or city, where the “one true church” exists.  If you miss it by thirty miles you could end up in Hell.  And all this with shrinking numbers.  The landscape has changed since I entered the seminary world.  Even as the numbers go down the fragmentation increases.  From a bird’s eye view this looks pretty odd.  Even if you look to the Prayer Book for solace you have to ask which one.  I just make the sign of the cross and move on.


Reading Memory

I recently wrote about writing too much (as if such a thing were possible).  After posting that I thought of how much the same can be said of reading.  I like to believe that whatever I’ve read is stored in my brain somewhere, rather like my writing on all those external drives.  I get some hopeful hints of this when a fragment of something read long ago suddenly reappears.  It’s good to know it’s there somewhere.  What brought this to mind is that a book I’m currently reading used a significant term.  Overly confident as I only am when reading, I figured I’d remember where it occurred.  A few days later I’d forgotten.  “No problem,” I thought, “the index.”  Indexes are never perfect and I’m always amazed by what strikes me as being so important failed to make the author’s cut.  So it happened.

This particular book was compactly written, but even so, it was more than sixty pages ago.  It took a few days of skimming, and finally going through line-by-line to find the word again.  It was a capitalized word and I thought mere skimming would be able to pick it out.  No such luck.  Part of the problem, I suppose, is that since I’ve left academia I’ve pretty much stopped writing in books.  I always did it in pencil, but still—there’s something about that pristine page so carefully typeset and laid out.  Well, if I had all the time in the world I could re-read those first sixty pages again, but I don’t have time to read all the books I need to, so I grabbed my old Pentel and began marking the spots I wanted to remember.

When we age it’s recall that suffers.  I tend to think the memories themselves are still there, sometimes distorted, sometimes altered, but present.  Books, after all, can be reread.  If I read something while commuting to Manhattan, there is a good likelihood that some of it was occluded by the worries of work lying ahead, coupled with the anxiety of catching the bus back home at the end of the day.  Not to mention anything that might’ve been happening in real life—that place outside of work that you really care about.  I’m glad for the commute reading; I regularly read over 100 books a year.  You couldn’t take notes while on a New Jersey Transit bus, though.  It’s not possible to read too much, but reading memory, it seems, is a sometimes a scarce resource.


A Life of Writing

One problem with being a graphomaniac is forgetting what you’ve written.  I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this.  Once we had the eminent historian Owen Chadwick to our house for dinner.  We of course had invited some students as well.  At one point one of the students asked him about something in one of his books.  The famed historian shook his head, not recalling it.  “One writes so much,” he replied.  Now, I’m not comparing myself with a knighted academic of international fame, but his remark in our living room has stayed with me all these years.  There are over 4,400 published posts on this blog, over a million and a half words, by my calculation.  Not even I remember everything I wrote.  “One writes so much…”

Just the other day I was looking for something I wrote.  You see, when I get an idea for a book (which happens frequently) I start writing it.  Inevitably, since I have very little time for writing on a daily basis, given my job, it joins many other partially written books.  Unless something like a book contract happens, my interests shift from one project to another, slowly building each up to near book length.  Once a project reaches that point I try to finish it off.  This involves writing and countless edits.  Holy Horror, for example, went through fifteen rewrites, some of them extensive.  Before it was sent to the publisher other books had already been started.  A conversation the other day reminded me of a book I’d started and I couldn’t find it.

My backup discs are a jumble of projects that take up too much memory on my laptop.  I try to organize them, but when a computer warning comes on while in the middle of a project one tends to cram things aside until one has room to finish up what one’s currently working on.  All of this authorial drama takes place before the sun rises, and when enough time passes I don’t always remember which file I put that old project into.  What did I even call it?  Writing, you see, requires constant practice.  Working nine-to-five creates a sense that you owe a great deal of time to your employer.  (Ironically, in my case, helping other people get published.)  The people I talked to the other day thought that that unfound idea sounded like a viable book.  Perhaps it is, if only I could remember where I put it.  Meanwhile I remember Sir Chadwick’s words from a quarter-a-century ago.


Healing Time

Twenty years ago today I walked into the refectory at Nashotah House after morning mass and wondered why the television was on.  Normally people had their own theological issues to hash out over breakfast, so this was unusual.   When I saw what was happening, I skipped breakfast and went home to my family.  I remember the feeling of shock and terror of those days.  America, I knew, wasn’t the innocent nation it projects itself as being.  We had provoked, but none of that mattered as the isolationism of over two centuries on a mostly friendly continent crumbled.  We were vulnerable.  Living in the woods of Wisconsin there was no immediate danger, but the sense of confusion—and certainly the feeling that a less-than-bright president wasn’t up to handle this—made us all feel weak, even with the most powerful military in the world.

Yesterday the New York Times headlines ran a consideration on whether we’ve emerged better in the ensuing two decades.  Looking at where we are—a deeply divided nation because a narcissistic president that the majority of voters voted against put (and still puts) his ego ahead of the good of the country—the answer seems obvious.  It will take years, if not decades, to heal the damage that one man did.  His putative party (really his only party is himself), seeing his popularity as their means to power, refuse to distance themselves.  We simply cannot move forward.  Not in the midst of a pandemic where Trump followers won’t get vaccinated causing new waves of the virus to surface and thrive.  I’d like to think that on September 11 we might reflect—yes, I know it’s hard work—on how we all need each other.

Photo by Jesse Mills on Unsplash

Little could I have guessed in 2001 that a mere ten years later I would find myself working in Manhattan.  Somewhere in my mind on every day of that long commute I wondered if something might again go wrong.  On the bus I was thrown together with people of every description—well paid and just getting by, women and men, gay and straight, from all around the world—and we knew our fates were linked together.  Differences had to be put aside.  Selfishness has no room on a crowded bus.  That was my introduction to life in New York City.  Those who hear only the poison rhetoric of 2016 through 2020 should try commuting with an open mind.  If we all took the bus, life after 9-11 might’ve turned out very differently.


Ancient Near Ideas

Looking backwards has its issues.  I still think about the Ancient Near East.  My reputation on Academia.edu is based entirely on it.  (From the user stats, nobody’s really interested in my horror writing there.)  Let’s face the facts, though.  If you an expert in a field (mine is Ugaritic mythology, a form of history of religions), you can’t just write things off the cuff for publication.  I need to be very precise and accurate.  I like to think that’s why my articles on Academia get attention.  To do that kind of writing you need time—when I was a professor most of my “free time” was spent reading in that field—and either research funding or an incredible library.  Professional researchers (i.e., professors) get paid to do that kind of thing.  I don’t do it anymore but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it.

The other day I saw an article about Mehrdad Sadigh.  Although this antiquities dealer operated mere blocks away from where I worked when I commuted to Manhattan, I’d never heard of him.  It turns out that he had (has) a full-scale forging operation right in the city that never sleeps.  He has made a living, allegedly, for years by selling fake antiquities as genuine.  The story is tragic, but it underscores the point with which I began—people are interested in antiquity.  We want to be in touch with the past.  I can attest that there’s nothing quite like the thrill of being the person who unearths something on an archaeological dig.  Touching an artifact than no human hand has touched for two or three thousand years.  Looking back.

Looking back makes it easy to get distracted.  As much as I enjoy and appreciate my friends who still get to do Ancient Near Eastern studies for a living, I sometimes think how it’s good to move on.  Who knows, maybe I have another Ph.D. left in me yet.  Moving on increases the breadth of your knowledge.  Since university jobs are as mythical as the texts I used to study, doing a doctorate for a job is a fool’s errand.  Doing it to learn, however, is something I still heartily recommend.  There’s nothing like immersing yourself into a single topic for three-to-five years so that you come out with more knowledge than is practical about it.  I still think about the Ancient Near East.  I’m still tempted to buy new books that come out on the topic.  Instead, I watch horror and think it might be fun to earn a doctorate in monsters.


Screaming Season

The signs are all around.  The orange and black Spirit Halloween signs are appearing where vacant storefronts stand.  Advertisements for autumnal activities are cropping up.  Brochures broadcasting local haunted festivities now adorn store counters, free for the taking.  I picked up a leaflet for the local Field of Screams the other day although I really don’t like to be in scary situations.  I do appreciate the spooky sense that they generate, however.  This local event runs from early September through early November—the two months enterprising farmers can draw urbanites to their land, cash in hand.  Halloween has been a major money-maker for many years now.  The less doleful minded wonder why, but I think that lots of us are really afraid.  Halloween says it’s okay to be so.

Perhaps it’s the realization that it’s all in good fun and nobody will really hurt you.  I’ve attended a few of these haunted events over the years, but it was more fun to participate in them.  Perhaps it goes back to Nashotah House.  I’m guessing that most of you’ve never been.  Nashotah is a gothic campus, at one time pretty isolated, out in the woods.  Halloween was, once upon a time, a real celebration there.  Our maintenance crew would offer a hayride through farm fields owned by the school, then through the cemetery on campus.  I used to dress in a grim reaper costume and carry a kerosene lamp through the graveyard, awaiting the tractor.  Nobody instructed me to do it, but we all knew it was in good fun.  And I wasn’t the only volunteer who’d pop out from behind headstones.  Students got into the spirit of it too.

These days remembering such shenanigans is more appealing than actually going out at night to have other people scare me.  The last time I went to a haunted maze it was really too unnerving for me to enjoy.  I volunteered instead for a local haunted house in New Jersey.  The run up to Halloween was usually an intensely creative time of designing and fabricating homemade costumes, and thinking of ways to make pumpkins look scary.  Now it’s become a season in its own right.  An important segment of the economy.  I won’t be going to our local Field of Screams, but I will understand those who do.  Changes are in the air.  It’s dark quite a bit earlier these days.  The air is chilly in the morning.  And the local fear fields open this weekend.