Web Design

As those who read this blog on the actual site will have noticed, I’ve been playing around a bit with my “look.”  Neither famous nor influential, I’m just a regular guy with a doctorate who wants to make some use of it.  This blog is a way of doing that.  In any case, as I was changing templates and background images, I noticed my rather lengthy blogroll.  Apart from sounding like a particularly tasteless eastern appetizer, blogrolls are pretty much outdated these days.  Back when I started this, there was a community of like-minded bloggers who linked to each others’ pages and helped stir some stats.  In those days doing something like posting on the winner of the Super Bowl could garner you a thousand hits in a day.  The web’s become a bit more crowded since then, I suspect.

So I went to edit my blogroll.  As I did so I found no other blogs linked to mine—no offense taken!—and many that had become defunct.  Many, many.  And there were many blogs that hadn’t been updated in years.  Now, I understand that it is possible to make a living as a blogger these days.  According to my stats, this will be my 3,447th post.  When I consider the time it takes each day to write one of these things, I realize it’s a considerable piece of my life.  Seeing the blogs that have become inactive was like walking through a technological graveyard where many virtual comrades are buried.  For me, the exercise of writing (and I don’t mean the physical typing) is an essential part of each day.  I’d miss it if I stopped.

My redesign focuses on a couple of things: books and pelicans.  Since the books part should be obvious, the pelicans might need explaining.  The background image is one I took while visiting the University of California, Santa Barbara for Routledge.  On my lunch break I went down to the beach and this flock of pelicans flew right over my head.  The iPhone was new in those days, so I pulled it out and snapped a picture.  It won a company photo of the month prize (no monetary value).  There’s quite a bit of symbolism in this image of birds against the California sun.   This blog tends to be metaphorical and those who’ve complained on it over the years don’t really get that.  That’s because things are not what they seem.  There’s something valuable about having to dig for meaning, even if it means looking up.

Bookish Dreams

Driving into upstate New York via interstate 81 you’ll find a remarkable rest stop.  To put this into context, I should say that my wife and I have driven from Maine to Washington (not on a single trip) and from Wisconsin to Louisiana and South Carolina.  We’ve laid down considerable mileage together, and never have we encountered such a nice rest stop.  Clean, modern, and featuring local goods for sale, it’s a loving homage to the southern tier, the New York outside the city.  One of the features of this unusual facility is a terrazzo floor fresco highlighting the various points of interest within a couple hours’ drive.  Mostly when we stop here we look toward Binghamton and Ithaca, the cities we most frequently visit.  We stop to use the restroom and then drive on.

When we stopped over the holidays, however, we lingered a little bit.  There’s a display on Mark Twain—he lived in Elmira, New York for a time—and there’s an in-ground plaque outside to Rod Serling.  I spent some time looking over the points of interest in the floor map when my wife pointed out a site listed as Hobart Book Village of the Catskills.  I couldn’t believe that I’d been in this building dozens of times but had never bothered to look that far east.  Curious, I did a web search once we reached out destination.  There is, it turns out, a village in upstate known for its main street of book stores.  What perhaps impressed me even more was that it was considered significant enough to be given a kind of “Hollywood star” treatment in what is an often overlooked part of the state.

Now I can’t say what my impressions of Hobart are.  I’ve never been there, having just learned of it on a recent roadtrip.  What I can say is that my world suddenly began to feel just a bit more friendly knowing that such a place exists.  We live in a country that could indeed use a bit more positive influence.  Some of my happiest memories involve bookstores.  Back in my teaching days we made regular autumnal literary weekend trips, visiting sites haunted by writers.  Often we’d find an independent bookstore near such sacred places.  To many, I realize, this would smack of nonsense, but to those ensconced in literary dreams, it created pleasant memories.  You feel something in the air as you stand near the house or grave of an author.  Places are made sacred by what transpires within them.  The writing of books shapes the very space-time around them.  At least it does for those who even find inspiration in an interstate rest stop.

Holly Days

Thirty years ago today, my wife and I were penniless grad students.  Trying to be logical about when to marry—I’d been accepted at Edinburgh University shortly after we’d decided on a May wedding and the latest I could matriculate was April—we decided the holidays would be the best time.  Not Christmas, of course.  Or New Year’s Day.  As students we held to the illusion that others observed the natural caesura between the two.  We considered it from the feast of Stephen to New Year’s Eve, days when everyone is recovering from the intensity of Christmas or staying up late to welcome in 1989.  We settled on December 30.  The church was already decorated for Christmas, saving that expense.  Having moved up the date by some five months we did ask them to remove the banner that read “For unto us a child is born.”  Our reasons were purely academic.

I generally avoid writing too much about my personal life on this blog, but a thirty-year wedding anniversary is somewhat extraordinary.  Being a working-class kid I told my wife when I proposed that I couldn’t promise much but I could assure her our life together would be interesting.  That slippery qualifier has proven correct time and again.  Our first three years as a couple were spent in Edinburgh, and quite unexpectedly, the next fourteen at Nashotah House.  The first two of those years involved being apart from Sunday through Wednesday as I commuted from Champaign-Urbana to Delafield to teach my courses.  And, of course, to attend chapel.  Our daughter was born while we lived at the seminary and a Fundamentalist takeover led to the loss of my first (and to date only) full-time academic job.

The academic job market had been tough when I started and it had tanked in the meantime.  We had to uproot and move to New Jersey to find any work at all.  Publishing proved remarkably unstable and yet we stuck together.  This year we bought a house and moved to Pennsylvania.  It took three decades, but we’ve finally achieved what some would term normalcy.  The fact is, though, that long-term marriages are to be celebrated.  Many of the vicissitudes we’ve faced could easily have capsized our little boat.  Looking back over the years I can see that we never did prosper in any kind of financial or career situation.  Life has indeed been interesting.  I don’t blog much about my personal life, but today I can’t help but think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have found a soul-mate willing to stick with a guy who still thinks like a penniless grad student.  Thirty years of schooling and it’s not nearly enough.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

Righteous City

I’m a stomach sleeper, if that’s not TMI.  This began many years ago when I realized that upon awaking from nightmares I was always on my back.  I started doing what I knew was dangerous to infants, safe since I haven’t been part of that demographic for decades.  Terrazzo isn’t one of my favorite sleeping surfaces, however, and on my back on the floor of Newark’s Liberty Airport I realized I couldn’t roll over, for many reasons.  My glasses, for one thing, were in the internal pocket of my Harris Tweed.  For another, on one’s stomach one’s wallet is exposed in a way that’s maybe too inviting.  Before suggesting I could’ve placed my wallet and glasses elsewhere, let me write in my own defense that rationality isn’t my strong suit after midnight.

The night before

I found a spot next to a set of escalators where the constant thrumming alternately kept me awake and soothed me to nod.  I heard many languages spoken as I drifted in and out of consciousness for the few hours I had to wait for dawn.  And nobody disturbed me.  This is rather remarkable—a person asleep is a vulnerable being.  Doing it out in public with no private walls was a new experience for me.  I don’t sleep on planes, buses, or trains.  Or, until two days ago, airports.  It brought to mind the biblical world.  A town was considered a righteous place if a stranger could sleep unmolested in a public place.  The traveller—please take note, United—was in need of special consideration.  My situation revealed something unexpected about Newark Airport.

The morning after

It was full of angry, frustrated people.  I opened my eyes at five a.m. to find a very long line snaking down the corridor behind me—a queue that had been there when I first drifted off.  These were people trying to reschedule flights since United couldn’t bump that day’s passengers because they’d decided not to fly out the night before.  Despite the weariness and intensity of emotions, there was very little bad behavior.  We were biblical strangers, mostly in the same circumstances.  No creature comforts, no privacy.  An east Asian woman said the next morning that in her country the airline would’ve brought food, and blankets at least.  In the United States fiscal concerns reign supreme, however; do you know how much it would cost to care for all these stranded people?  When I opened my eyes the situation was about the same as when I closed them.  I couldn’t help noticing I awoke on my back.

Eternal Return

For those of you who don’t live, eat, and breathe academic religious studies, it’s my duty to point out that the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) annual meeting begins this week.  For those of us in the biz it’s like the sun holding still at Makkedah as we try to prepare for our various roles.  This year the conference is in warm and sunny Denver, so be sure to dress in layers.  The meeting was held in Denver many years ago now, and I remember very little of it other than it being the year my final published paper from my Nashotah House days was read.  Or started to be.

I don’t know whether it was the altitude or the time of year, but I wasn’t feeling well the last time we met in Denver.  Although it may not show on this blog, I’m really into geology and the city has a great mineral collection in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  I went out to look at the collection the morning of my paper and had the great embarrassment of being sick while in the museum.  I went back to my hotel for a nap and when it was time to read my paper I had to excuse myself because running my eyes across the lines of text made me nauseous.  Concerned-looking philologists didn’t know what to do as I sat through the session with my head between my knees.  That’s how I remember Denver.

Perhaps this year will offer redemption.  You see, it’s very different attending the conference as the representative of a press instead of an institution.  Your time is completely booked.  People want to discuss their book ideas with you.  For a few short days of the year you’re one of the popular guys.  But for me, there are colleagues from every stage of my career on hand.  Not too many people from Nashotah House come, although there are more now than there were when I was about the only faculty member who went.  I see those I knew from Oshkosh and Rutgers, Gorgias and Routledge.  Those I knew as friends before we became professional colleagues.  They’re not after me to publish their books, and sometimes that’s all it takes to make three days of popularity really count.  Later today I’m off to Denver and I won’t have time to see the sparkling minerals this time around, but hopefully I’ll remember it more fondly when its over.

The Falls of Lucifer

The Devil is everywhere.  At least if we go by the many places named after the dark lord.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, we visited Lucifer Falls.  Like several of the cataracts in the area, this is an impressive waterfall that exposes the many layers of the gorge it has carved out over the eons.  Part of Robert H. Treman State Park, the falls were impressive after all the rain we’ve been having here in the east.  But why are they called “Lucifer Falls”?  The literature on the park begs ignorance as to the origins of the name, noting that it was likely taken from the original Iroquois name.  If that’s the case, it’s likely been distorted in transmission.  Many such satanic names are.

Apart from the fact that Native American names for geologic features weren’t based on the Christian trope of God v. Satan, early European settlers heard what they wanted to hear.  Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, which we used to visit in my Nashotah House days, was more properly translated “Spirit Lake.”  Since the Christians who encountered the native name believed that indigenous religion was inspired by the evil one, they recast the spiritual lake into an infernal one, at least in name.  People will still vacation there, thank you very much, while retaining the baptismal moniker that an intolerant religion bestowed upon it.  There’s nothing evil about Lucifer Falls.  It is an astonishing testament to what nature can do when left alone.

Well, at least for a while.  Like its more famous cousin Niagara, Lucifer Falls, upriver, was harvested for its ability to turn a mill wheel.  The old mill still stands today in the park as a testament to how the river was exploited.  Mills aren’t naturally evil, of course.  They turn to produce the things people need—in this case flour.  They can also, however, be symbols of corporate greed.  Those who own them can exploit more than just the water, and mills became a name for many other places of industry that eventually stole the lives and livelihoods of those whose work in them was cheap.  William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” remains a memorable phrase testifying to what happens when the wealthy, when corporations—which are “persons” with no feelings—are allowed to make decisions.  Treman State Park’s old mill was the center of a community that apparently didn’t experience such exploitation.  It was just a mill.  It’s picturesque waterfall was just a waterfall.  The name, however, still speaks volumes.

Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.