Paper Chase

Maybe you’ve done it too.  Kissed the posterior of technology.  Up until three years ago I didn’t pay bills online.  I waited for a bill, wrote a check, stamped an envelope, stuck it in the slot and forgot about it.  Then I started getting overdue notices.  My payments were failing to reach their recipients.  I switched to online payment—it seemed like the only option.  That has worked fine for two years but then something else started to happen: my email notices failed to show up.  I started to get overdue notices again.  I went to websites and enrolled in auto-pay for all my regular bills.  Then the emails began showing up stating accounts were overdue.  The actual websites said the bills had been paid.  There seems to be no pleasing the technological beast.

You see, I’m a simple man of pen and paper.  I don’t read ebooks unless I have to.  I don’t trust most of what I find on the internet.  Mine is the mindset of a working Post Office (or at least Pony Express), paper payment for which you receive a copy back.  Some solidity.  Live Science ran a teaser headline that the next solar storm could lead to an “internet apocalypse.”  All records wiped out.  With no shoebox full of receipts, how are you going to prove you’ve got the money you say you do?  (That could be a boon to braggarts such as Trump, but the rest of us will be waiting timidly for a letter from our banks.)  Technology seems to be chasing an invisible goal.  Doing it because we can without thinking of the consequences.  Shooting rockets into space with no certified astronauts on board—what could possibly go wrong?

Tech isn’t bad, of course.  It has preserved many of our jobs through a pandemic.  It makes it easy for forgetful guys like me to be able to find information quickly.  But functioning is only as good as the coding behind it, and it feels terribly vulnerable to me.  Coronal mass ejections, apart from sounding slightly dirty, are rare according to the story by Brandon Specktor, but they tend to happen every century or so.  A century ago a working landline telephone was a luxury.  The computer as we know it hadn’t been invented.  We were about to plunge into the madness of a second world war in which tech would be used to kill on a massive scale.  Now I guess we await the apocalypse.  The safe money says to have plenty of paper on hand.


Like a Hurricane

Around here we welcomed September in with the remains of Hurricane Ida.  For the second summer in a row, far inland, we’ve sustained hurricane damage.  For storms like this it’s not so much a question of if there will be damage, but rather “how much?”  It was complicated by the paper wasps.  It’s like a 1970s natural disaster movie.  It starts at the end of August.

I was going out to put the recycling bin away (more on this later).  When I opened the garage door I was stung three times by a paper wasp (or maybe two)—twice on the face and once on a finger.  The previous day when I’d taken the bin out there hadn’t been a nest, but 24 hours later, angry waspids were protecting their territory.  I couldn’t even get the door closed.  We don’t have any bug-killing spray on hand since we believe in live and let live.  But I do need to get into the garage.  Due to my weekly schedule I couldn’t get to the hardware store before Friday.  Fine, let the Hymenoptera have the garage.

The next day—actually later that day—Ida began to arrive.  We’ve had extensive roof repairs since moving in here.  We’ve had two-thirds of it replaced entirely.  Then the rain started.  The plumber came before it got bad to replace a cast-iron radiator that we had moved so I could repair the drywall behind it.  While doing that I repaired the ceiling where water from ex-Hurricane Isaias leaked through.  The roofer had patched this part after Isaias, so we thought we were good.  By mid-afternoon there was water dripping from the ceiling again and the repairs I had made crumbled into the bucket set there to catch the water.  So it goes.  Outside the street was closed due to flooding.  I couldn’t get into the garage to check for damage because, you know, wasps guarded the only door (still open).

It used to be that weather was a neutral topic to discuss.  Of course, it’s become politicized now.  Having a climate-change denier in the White House for four years made the topic dangerous to raise.  This area used to never get hit too badly by hurricanes.  Global warming, however, has changed everything.  I got up the morning after wondering where to start.  It was still dark and a cricket had come inside to get out of the weather.  It chirped as I came down stairs.  Everything will be all right.

Our unofficial rain gauge

Weather rules

One of the observations that prompted me to write Weathering the Psalms concerned the disruptive nature of storms.  Power outages was pretty common in that part of southeast Wisconsin where we were living at the time.  Downed trees could block rural access—more limited than the alternate routes of cities—for hours.  There was clearly a sense of being at the mercy of nature and it was disruptive to the human schedules and lives we’ve constructed.  The tornado warning we had a couple of days ago reminded me of that aspect.  While radar saves lives by giving advanced warning, it also makes it difficult to concentrate on work when you’re told to take shelter.  As far as I’m aware HR doesn’t have a tornado policy.

Having lived in the Midwest for a decade and a half, I came to be aware of the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.  While my phone was showing a watch, another family member’s was showing a warning.  My evening plans were replaced by standing at the window looking west.  The worst of the storm passed us but as long as the weather was threatening there was little else we could do.  Eventually all devices agreed that this was a warning and we should take shelter.  The storm eventually passed, leaving my tightly packed plans for the day in tatters, even though our actual house was fine.  That’s the nature of the weather that makes it so interesting.  As much as we like to think we’re on top of it, we’re really all potential victims.

Weather is more powerful than humans.  We have to change our plans according to its whims.  And climate change is making it more extreme.  Even with the evidence all around us deniers still try to block legislation that takes steps to preserving our planet.  Those who wish to destroy it for theological reasons don’t stop to think that doing so is about as selfish as you can get—something that the Bible really doesn’t promote at all.  One thing about the weather: although it is very different from place to place, we’re all in it together.  It can be very disruptive, yes.  It reminds us that we and our human plans are temporary.  When we’ve managed to do ourselves in, or have abandoned this planet to find a more hospitable one we can ruin, the weather will remain.  Majestic storms will come and go, whether or not there’s anyone here to see and appreciate them.


As Nature Directs

The news about the “stampede” in Israel last week is tragic.  People like to gather in large crowds once in a while.  Religious events are sometimes such occasions (although not so much the case among mainstream religions anymore).  In this case the celebration, largely among the Ultra-Orthodox, was Lag BaOmer, a festival with unknown origins.  It has to do with counting the omer, a measure, in a biblically based instruction regarding grain offerings.  Since it’s based on the lunar Jewish calendar, it doesn’t fall on the same date of the solar year every time.  To be honest, I’d not heard of this celebration before the tragedy that occurred last week.  Having been confined for over a year, many religious groups are anxious to be back together in numbers.  Nothing reinforces belief better than having the size to be taken seriously.

A few years back, if I recall correctly, it was Muslim faithful at Mecca who experienced a tragic uncontrolled panic.  Religious ideas bring people together, but they can’t always control the results.  I’m reminded of what a Protestant clergyman told me many years ago: after a Billy Graham crusade came to town, the regular ministers were ill-equipped to handle the large numbers of emotionally charged members who normally sat still in the pews.  Religion stirs people, but its psychological nature shows when it leads to tragedy.  No particular group is immune since we are all emotional animals.  One slip on the stairs, one panicked individual, and those nearby can be infected.  Already emotional from the event itself, nature takes its course.

Stampedes are an evolved flight response.  Herd animals, when perceiving a threat, begin to run.  Others, not even directly aware of the threat, join in.  Other animals, not aware of their “herd mentality,” seem to handle this more naturally than do people.  Indeed, our religions often instruct us not to think of ourselves as animals at all.  Our religious events are often removed from our familiar surroundings.  I suspect that may be one reason people don’t find “Zoom church” very satisfying.  The emotion of religion is more easily spread in person.  In a place specifically designed as being outside the norm.  You take your hat off in church.  You sit quietly, reverently, in church.  You do not use coarse language in church.  In a pandemic you try to join in while physically in the environment where the rest of everyday life occurs.  When we gather again, we must do it while being aware of our nature.  Being part of nature itself can often be, if well thought out, cause for celebration.  We mourn those who fall victim to it.


One, two, three

The danger of statistics is that they turn an individual into a number.  A few days ago an article in the New York Times addressed the rare blood clots that some women develop after receiving the Johnson and Johnson covid vaccine.  The response of the cited physicians was telling.  Many praised the decision to halt use of the J&J vaccine immediately.  Others, however, point to the numbers.  If a vaccine is halted many more could be exposed to and contract Covid-19.  It is better, they aver, to take the statically smaller risk and use the vaccine.  While I understand the logic here, I do wonder if the side effects occurring primarily in women has anything to do with the reasoning.  Why not save this vaccine for the men instead?

This raises once again the specter of consciousness.  Statistically the odds are small that a woman will develop a clot.  What if you are the woman who does?  This dilemma always bothered me while camping in the woods.  Statistically black bear attacks are rare.  How does that help you if your tent is one that looks like a candy wrapper to a bear of little brain?  You become a statistic instead of a living, breathing, feeling, blogging person.  Statistics.  There’s a reason some of us identify with the humanities, I guess.  I can imagine what it would be like to have your doctor say to you, “Sorry, this is rare, but look at the bright side—you now become a statistic!”

Photo credit: HB, via Wikimedia commons

The fact is we’re all statistics to strangers anyway, the government above all.  We are vote-bearing numbers to be gerrymandered and prevented from voting.  Beyond that we’re merely annoying.  This pandemic has introduced Stalin’s accounting with a vengeance.  542,000 is a big number.  Unless you know one or more of them personally.  Then the statistics seem to melt.  Life is full of risk, of course.  We’ve barricaded ourselves in our homes for over a year now, eating things that are likely more dangerous for us than a rare complication.  The virus, and perhaps some vaccines, are among various killers on the loose.  Nobody can declare with any certainty the correct course of action.  Actually doing something about the virus when it was first a known threat would’ve helped, of course.  We find ourselves on the brink, it seems, of getting Trump’s disease under control.  Would that we all could do so, without having to worry about lying down to be counted.


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. 


Weird Dreams

It’s almost like we’re all part of a huge experiment, perhaps orchestrated from outer space, to see how we react to being caged.  The pandemic and its associated lockdowns have held us in place for nearly a year now.  Long enough that I’ve started to dream about it.  For the longest stretch of time my dreams remained in “normal mode.”  That is to say, people talked about the pandemic very little and it was represented only by the occasional dream anxiety that I wasn’t wearing a mask.  I have yet to recall a dream wherein people are wearing masks.  Recently I dreamed that I had to start commuting again, and I climbed on the bus only to remember I’d forgotten my mask at home.  It was like one of those showing up to school without your pants on dreams,  only scarier.

Dreams are an antidote to the sameness of our days, I suppose.  I’ve watched as stable folks I know start to show signs of isolation stress.  I’m sure that I’m showing them too, but the thing is we often don’t see such things in ourselves.  We’re social animals and we’ve been kept in separate cages for a long time now.  I used to go to zoos and feel sorry for the obviously neurotic animals bored out of their skulls, isolated from their species.  Even as we were being told that animals don’t think and don’t have emotions, it was clear that their having interactions with our species was like us having nothing but Zoom meetings to keep us in company.  It’s artificial, but since the zookeepers have us in separate cages we try to act as if it’s normal.

Speaking of neurotic, at least around here since Trump’s been mostly out of the public eye people have begun wearing masks.  Nothing demonstrates that we’re herd animals better than the fact that an obvious charlatan was able to convince millions of people that he doesn’t care only about himself.  Funny how people can be used and not even know it.  We’ve been enjoying national sanity for just over a month now and things seem like the meds may be kicking in.  Vaccine production is booming and, apart from logistic issues, many people are receiving the necessary protection.  It’s always made sense to me that other beings exist in the universe.  I’m not so arrogant as to assume that we’re all that special.  Looking over the past year, it seems as if we may all be guinea pigs after all.


Seeking Renewal

Now that many are breathing a sigh of relief that 2020 is finally over, I stop to ponder time.  Measuring time, although most forms of life do it in some way, is a human organizing principle.  Calendars were originally religio-agricultural devices.  In order to keep the crops on their seasonal cycles, the gods were invoked—there was nothing secular about their world.  It’s not known who invented holidays or even the concept of a new year, but it is clear that it was a fairly early idea.  Different cultures today still celebrate New Year’s Day at differing times of the year.  Having it a week after Christmas helps to make this a holiday season, but it is no guarantee that a sharp break in continuity will come after a bad year.

Lots of bad stuff happened in 2020, but clearly the circumstance that made it a “bad year” was the Covid-19 pandemic.  Here in the United States it became a full-blown crisis because of the cause of four years of ethical famine, Donald Trump.  Those who can see beyond their religio-politics know that he is a man who spent his entire career looking out for nobody but himself.  Such people do not work as public servants and are downright terrible in a crisis.  The pandemic quickly grew into a crisis and we spent nearly ten full months out of twelve isolating ourselves.  The other crises of the year (generally pointing fingers at Washington), such as the important resurgence of Black Lives Matter and the California wildfires, were exacerbated by the pandemic about which our government did nothing.  Lack of interest has led to death numbers that have become a Stalinistic statistic.

As much as we like to think nature bends to human plans—our calendars—we have no idea what 2021 might hold.  We’re left with a country that has been neglected for four years.  Our Republican-controlled senate can’t even agree to provide any kind of relief to average people without adding riders and conditions to make our situation even worse.  Still, I’m optimistic.  New Year’s, whenever it is, marks change.  I’ve been noticing for over a week now that the sun is rising earlier than it had been as we descended into December.  The light is beginning to return.  While we can expect nothing good from the White House for twenty more days, we can look beyond that and know that change is on the way.  The division of time may be an artificial construct, but it can, if we allow it, become a sign of hope.


Ode to Bookstores

The pandemic has changed everything.  You knew that, of course.  Like many people in fields of regular job uncertainty, we’ve curtailed spending as much as we can.  Never very securely established after Nashotah House, we’ve managed to get by by not thinking too far ahead.  I can’t imagine retirement (if there’s still a job left to report to).  Even more, I can’t imagine a life without books.  The only way I get through each day is by trying not to think about it.  Still, I miss bookstores.  Pre-pandemic, when jobs at least felt somewhat secure, we’d often nip into one of the many local independents of a weekend.  Missing browsing shelves sorely, we stopped into Book and Puppet over in Easton, when on a trip to buy produce at the outdoor farmer’s market.

It felt strange, the thought of going into a store that wasn’t dedicated to groceries or hardware.  Masked, of course, but would there be lots of people there, crowding the air with germs?  No.  There was maybe one other customer in the place.  I have to admit that I was a bit disoriented, trying to read over spines on a shelf, not wanting to touch anything.  I’ve tried hard to curb any spending during these highly uncertain times, but could I imagine a world with no bookstores?  Would I even want to?  Books, you see, give me hope.  My vision of heaven is October and a never-ending stack of books (and, of course, friends).  Books allow for escape and exploration.  Life will continue after the pandemic in books.

The fear has gripped many of us, I suspect.  I’m old enough to retire, but not well-off enough to do so.  Our house requires a two-person income at our level (highly educated, under-employed), and the pandemic rolls on.  I think of the Black Death—I’ve read about that too—and how history changed because of it.  In this pandemic we’re dying (all but the wealthiest) piece by piece.  The most vulnerable first, of course, but the middle class may well be in the sights.  The owner of the bookstore said he wasn’t sure how long he could hold out.  Just last year at this time I was participating in the Easton Book Festival that he’d organized.  I had a book-signing at the nearby Moravian Bookshop.  I can’t remember a time I felt so hopeful, knowing I had another book coming out, and if we survive long enough, another after that.  I really shouldn’t, but I’m in a bookstore.  I’ll buy one in hope that the future may just offer a place to keep it.


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.


Enough

Stories of the wealthy never interest me unless they have a mysterious, ageless cousin who’s really a vampire.  Unfortunately fantasy can’t save us from the reality of a once great nation that’s now crumbling.  As I wrote earlier on this particular book, we already know, at some level, what it says.  Mary L. Trump, who alone has courage among her family, exposes quite a lot in Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.  There’s no point in ascribing blame for deeds done.  I also fear there’s no hope that justice will ever be served in this case.  Dysfunctional families are all too real and all too common.  Some of the traits (but none of the money) from Fred Trump’s cruelty were as familiar to me as my own childhood.  A powerful, overbearing stepfather riddled with a sense of his own inadequacy, taking it out in his own empire within the walls of his house.  The damaged children it leaves behind, each struggling to cope in their own way.

The family Fred Trump raised was bound to become damaged goods.  It is to the everlasting shame of the Republican Party that it could come up with no other viable candidate for the highest office in the land.  Not so long ago I would’ve written “world,” by that day’s gone past us.  Not only did “the party” accept his nomination, it has enabled him, as Mary Trump shows, every step of the way.  Knowing that something is deeply wrong—that more people will have to die in this country of Covid-19 than anywhere else, just to stoke one man’s ego—and refusing to act should be a sin in anybody’s book.  Who still emerges as his defender?  The Evangelical.  This mess is so convoluted that it will take historians (presuming anyone survives it) decades to try to unravel it.  That’s because nobody in the GOP has any empathy for those already born.  Strange form of “Christianity,” that.

This book is a depressing read.  Still, I’m glad I did it.  Not that it will change much.  Those who are psychologically like Trump, incapable of distinguishing truth from fiction, will say it’s all lies.  You can always play that card.  There are facts, however, and they are recorded.  Those who are able to weigh evidence know (and already knew) that a dangerous man had been coddled by a dangerous party that puts self-interest over nation.  You know, I think there may be a vampire in this story after all, but I just don’t have the heart to look any further.


Hurricane Isaias

People have been debating how to pronounce Hurricane “Isaias,” an hispanic name based on Isaiah.  Pennsylvania, which has few distinguishing features, is generally well enough inland not to have too much hurricane damage.  Isaias, however you pronounce it, dumped over five inches of rain in the small town in which we live.  Multiple roof leaks sprang up in our house and a small part of the ceiling in one room came down.  Not exactly wrath of God level treatment, but unwelcome nevertheless.  The real problem was the short amount of time in which the rain fell.  Averaging about an inch per hour, the water simply overwhelmed the devices put in place to keep it outside.  Being of my particular disposition I can’t help but think of the prophet Isaiah.

Not a classical prophet of doom per se, Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the New Testament.  He is remembered for “predictions” and soaring rhetoric that promises deliverance.  He’s also a prophet known for his woe declarations, as reflected in the Hebrew Bible.  This storm, I suspect, has delivered more of the woe than of the hope.  Streets were flooded as the local creek burst its banks.  Our own street was closed as I called our roofer who, I’m sure, had more than wanted popularity in one day.  Being a homeowner, I quickly discovered, is largely a matter of trying to keep the water out.  Our sump pump was working overtime and still the rain came.

My book Weathering the Psalms was intended to be the first in a series of volumes exploring meteorotheology in several books of the Bible.  The weather, you see, is a popular topic of discussion since in ancient times their meteorology was theology.  After the Psalms my exploration was intended to move toward the prophets.  There are dramatic events where these saintly folk were able to bring down rain, or withhold it.  Israel never experienced hurricanes because they don’t form in the Mediterranean.  Meteorological terms, however, shift over time just as by the time Isaias reached us it was a tropical storm.  The wind buffeted us a bit, but it was mainly a rain event.  I thought at first that I would look at weather terminology in Isaiah and see what I could find there.  I don’t know what my conclusions would have been since I was cut off before I could get that far.  Like those who cast their bread upon the waters, after many days it came back, ironically in the form of Isaias.


Everybody Knows

One of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs is “Everybody Knows.”  On a related note, the best-selling book in America last week was Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.  With the publisher citing 900,000 copies sold upon release, it produced numbers that most publishing houses only dream of.  I’d preordered it on Amazon but for the first time ever I did not have a copy on the day of release.  There were a lot of people ahead of me in this line.  That’s even more remarkable than it sounds because we all pretty much know what the book says.  We also know that its subtitle is true: we have a very dangerous man (daily rising Covid deaths show this to be true) given free rein by Republican senators.  Even adults without high school educations that I talk to know there is something seriously wrong.  Indeed, anyone who knows how to fact-check can see it.

A very popular way to deal with inconvenient truths is to posit a conspiracy theory.  Evangelicals (now defined as Trump supporters) have long used conspiracies as ways of explaining how facts simply don’t support their views.  From the moment “alternative facts” left the lips of the administration in January 2017 I knew we were in deep, deep trouble.  Funny thing is, many Evangelicals had to read Orwell in school, like the rest of us.  How they could support anyone that had such a long, long track record of criminal cases against him before placing his hand on the Bible and swearing to uphold a constitution he’s been daily dismantling since is anybody’s guess.  Daily life, it seems, is now a conspiracy.  

One of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs is “Everybody Knows.”  The lyrics suggest that whatever it is we want to keep secret everybody, well, knows.  That’s what’s so distressing about America’s current decline.  Everybody knows that being president is a very difficult position and that it’s only handled adequately by well-trained and smart people who, despite their faults, put country above self.  With the election of 2016 it was clear from even before day one that ego was the driving factor behind 45.  Americans love their outrageous television personalities and somehow think that appeal on the small screen somehow translates to leadership ability.  We’ve learned before that this isn’t true.  I haven’t read Mary Trump’s book yet—it just arrived in the mail—but when I do I’m sure I’ll find out what everybody knows.


Missing Markers

Something truly remarkable happened this week.  The Society of Biblical Literature, which, along with the American Academy of Religion, meets annually in November, has canceled its in-person meeting.  I’ve been attending this conference since 1991 (with a few years off for good behavior).  It always meets the weekend before Thanksgiving, stretching to the Tuesday prior.  Some academics use the meeting to have an exotic Thanksgiving break with their families, particularly when it congregates someplace warm.  (It was scheduled for Boston this year.)  So I’m ruminating what this will mean for a year of missing markers.  Some of you may recall I missed two years ago, electing to stay in Newark Airport instead, but this is different.  We’re all being changed by this virus.

Missing markers.  That’s what my wife calls it.  March 12 was the day that Covid-19 became a crisis.  In my extended family that’s in the middle of birthday season.  Travel plans had to be altered.  Trips to see loved ones had to be delayed.  Then cancelled.  Memorial Day came and went.  It was a long weekend, but for most of us it was a long weekend at home.  Our usual summer trip to the lake was also a victim.  A remote lake may be the safest place to be, but you have to get there.  Flying doesn’t seem safe and we don’t have enough vacation days to drive all the way out and back.  Here we are halfway through the summer and each day feels pretty much like the one before, even if it’s a day off work.  Time seems out of whack.  Back in April it was hard to believe it was still 2020, now it’s difficult to comprehend that the year’s more than half over and there will be no AAR/SBL in November.

Growing tired of the phrase “unprecedented times,” I prefer “missing markers.”  Yes, the weather’s still doing its time-keeping job.  This summer has been quite hot around here, for the most part.  I remember shivering in my study sometime not so long ago, bundled up in layers and thinking that when summer rolled around this coronavirus would be a bad memory.  If only there were something governments could do to keep people safe.  If only there were people in the White House who cared.  I had visions of professors, hundreds and hundreds of them, wearing masks with their tweed.  It was a vision of wonder.  They’d walk up to you, extending an elbow to bump, but you’d back off.  That’s actually too close.  And lecturing spreads germs very effectively.  Over time 2020 itself will become a marker.  I’m not sure anyone will miss it, however.


Weathering Frights

It reminded me of a nightmare.  The box, containing a book, was soaked through.  A sudden thunderstorm had come before we knew the box was even there on the porch and memories of several boxes of rain-ruined books came back uninvited.  Water and books just don’t mix.  This particular book, I knew, was Peter Thuesen’s Tornado God, which I had ordered back in December and which has just been released.  The irony wasn’t lost on me.  My own second book, Weathering the Psalms, was a rather inelegant treatment on a similar topic and I’ll discuss Thuesen’s book in further detail here once I’ve read it.  The point is that no matter how arrogant we become as a species the weather just remains beyond our control.  The rainbow at the end of this small storm was that although the packaging was soaked, I found the box before the book itself had time to get wet.

My research, ever since my first book, has largely been about making connections.  The weather is so quotidian, so common, that we discuss it without trepidation in casual conversation.  It is, however, one of the most dangerous things on our planet.  Severe storms kill both directly and indirectly.  Cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes can do so on a massive scale.  So can their dramatic opposite, drought.  Snow and melting ice caps also threaten life, as do floating chunks of ice in chilly oceans.  It’s no wonder that the weather has been associated with gods from the earliest times.  Even today literalists will say God is in the sky although meteorologists and astronomers can find no pearly gates when they look up.  We just can’t shake the idea that weather is some kind of reflection of divine moodiness.

As weather becomes more and more extreme—it’s already a system that we’ve tipped seriously off balance—I suspect more and more people will start to assign it some kind of divine agency.  This June we’ve already gone from shivering mornings with frost on the roof to nights when sleep is impossible because it’s so warm and humid, all within a matter of a couple of days.  And this isn’t that unusual.  Wait’l the gods really get angry.  Weather is closely related to the water cycle, of course.  We can learn about such things from books.  We can’t take them out during a storm, however, and homeownership is all about keeping water out, or only in prescribed locations indoors.  When the delivery driver leaves a box on your porch, however, it remains within reach of the storm gods.