Travel Ban

I’m not at home.  I know in the current crisis that sounds like heresy, but I can honestly say that getting out of the usual routine where COVID-19 is all you hear about feels right.  More and more organizations are instituting work from home policies—many of them mandatory.  I’ve worked from home for going on two years now.  You need to get out a bit.  I know travel isn’t recommended, but I’m really not afraid to die.  Besides, I put a box of latex gloves in the car and when we stopped for a restroom break, wore them until they could be safely removed.  Exposed surfaces in the rest area were being continually wiped down.  Don’t get me wrong—for an introvert like me working at home is fine.  It’s just the idea of feeling like this virus is some zombie apocalypse happening just outside my door that I needed to dispel.

When I told a friend I was no longer going to be commuting on a regular basis he said if it were him he’d only ever buy sweatpants again.  Now that my reality is life with my wife being the only person I regularly see, I’m beginning to realize just how much our clothes purchases are for impressing others.  My haberdashery is akin to that of Henry David Thoreau; I wear clothes until they’re no longer functional.  They can be badly out of date but they still work.  The fashion industry is built on pride.  To put it in the words of my old friend Qohelet, vanity.  We want others to see what we’re wearing.  If we’re still donning last year’s gay apparel we’re not playing the game.  Never mind those of us whose wardrobes could be carbon-dated.  The pandemic can be revealing.

So I’m away from home for what is really the first time in months.  I had to stop in the grocery store for a few things.  Only one person I saw was wearing a mask, but I was wearing prophylactics, so who’s going to cast the first stone?  Many shelves were bare.  The CDC has become our new gospel provider.  I’m limiting my outside exposure.  Driving door to door, greeting no-one along the way (that actually is the gospel, but substitute the walking for the driving part).  I know when this weekend’s over I’ll be back to my cloistered existence as the rest of the world tries to get used to the loneliness of the sweatpants crowd.  If you’re one of them take it from me—the rest of the world is still out there.

Quiet Night

Reading challenges are a good way to expose yourself to books you might not otherwise find.  This is my fifth time through the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s annual challenge and she tends to favor books in translation.  That’s fine by me, because we could all use a bit more cross-cultural understanding.  My latest book in this challenge was my third novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Hotel Silence.  Ólafsdóttir, although a professor of art history, is quite a gifted novelist and her stories probe what it is to be human, and also reflect life on a somewhat small island.  Icelanders are known for their love of reading as well as for their geothermal power.  This novel deals with darker subjects that some of Ólafsdóttir’s previous work, but one thing becomes clear—the Bible is an influence.

With a writing style that is poetic and descriptive, she acknowledges that the Good Book plays a role in forming her story here.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it swirls around the difficult topics of suicide and war, and, ultimately, a kind of redemption.  As I’ve come to expect from her writing, the characters are quirky and have foibles.  There’s a matter-of-factness to them.  They go about following singular ideas and all of her work that I’ve read is based on the concept of a journey.  Maybe that’s something of a given for those who live on an island.  Taking her characters to far lands is a way of reaching understanding, not xenophobia.  That’s one of the reasons for reading the literature of other people.

In academia I was taught that exoticizing other cultures was a kind of evil.  I can see the point in that, although, like most academic things it takes the fun out of imagining far-away places.  Human beings need sources of wonder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a trip to Iceland, so reading stories written by a native feels, well, exotic.  Academics have a point, though.  For people of an exotic locale, their life is pretty much a daily struggle just like our lives are.  The backdrop is different and the specific circumstances are unfamiliar, but at the end, people are people.  That’s why I like Ólafsdóttir’s novels.  At the end we find them facing the same kinds of problems the rest of us face.  And we come to realize that our world is an isolated place in space.  And if there are aliens out there watching us, they must think we’re fairly exotic.  Let’s hope they’ll read us in translation.  We can all use a good challenge.

Geocheating

So, we geocache.  Not as much as we used to, but over 15 years ago my family and I began the sport and really got into it for a while.  Geocaching involves using a GPS to find a hidden object (“cache”) so that you can log the find.  It’s all in good fun.  The organization that hosts the website also offers the chance to log “trackables”—these are objects with a unique identifier that you sometimes find in caches and you get credit for logging your find.  There are no prizes involved.  We started several of these “travel bugs” ourselves, years ago.  If you started one you got an email when someone logged it, and you could see how far around the world your little bug had gone.  For many years we’ve not heard much about any of ours and assumed them to be MIA.

Recently I started getting several email notices about a resurrected travel bug.  It was as if someone had finally found a cache somewhere deep in the Sahara where it’d been hidden for a decade.  Then I had an email from a fellow cacher, in German.  I figured it must be serious.  The message was that a Facebook page was publishing trackable numbers so that anyone could claim to have found them.  One of ours was on that list.  I went to the page to look.  It said, “Let’s face it, it’s all about the numbers.”  And they proceeded to list hundreds of numbers so that you could claim to have “found” the pieces with your posterior solidly sunk in your favorite chair.  This is annoying not only because we had to pay for the trackable dogtags, but also because it was cheating.  I said as much on the page only to have my comment blocked.

How sad is it when people cheat at a game when there’s no gain?  All they do is claim to have done something they haven’t, for no prize or recognition.  A fun family pastime falls victim to the internet.  Ironically, geocaching was really only possible because of the internet.  It required a place where players could log their finds in a common database.  Facebook, continuing its potential for misuse, allows someone to spoil it.  I, along with my unknown German counterpart, reported the page to the powers that be.  But since we live in a world where the powers that be don’t recognize any rules beyond inflating their own numbers, I shouldn’t be too optimistic of any results.  I guess this is how Republicans play games.

Back to Normal

The western philosophical tradition is built on the idea that permanence is reality.  From the Greek philosophers on, the idea has been to identify the basic, unchanging building blocks of reality to get at what’s really real.  The eastern philosophical system posits that change is reality.  Permanence is illusion, and that which we think of as unchanging is a deceptive projection of our own minds.  This dichotomy keeps coming back to me when things change and I keep waiting for them to go back to “the old way” or “the usual way.”  Most recently, for example, the shift to or from (I can never remember which) Daylight Saving Time.  This was followed closely by a mandated trip to San Diego, three time zones away, that lasted five days.  While there I met with potential authors later into the evening than I generally stay up on eastern time.  Now that I’m back home I keep waiting for things to go back to the way they were.

My response to all of this is to wonder if maybe I have the wrong philosophical disposition.  Problem is, the entire western world is built on the proposition that permanence is reality.  The things that worry us are, in eastern thinking, part of the constantly changing flux of reality.  While away from the usual constant connectivity of life at home, bills still come electronically.  Websites ask you for passwords that, like eastern thought, are constantly changing.  I play along, even to the point of “buying” property so that it will always be mine.  Right now lots of things are up in the air in the western world—the future of democracy itself is uncertain—and I keep waiting for things to get back to normal.

Part of the problem is that I keep too busy.  It is easier for me to maintain this illusion if I slow down and have time to think it through.  Things change too quickly for that, however.  Using time as a pole star to navigate this constantly heaving sea, I’ve become a little confused about my longitude.  I’m settling back into eastern time at the new hour they tell me that it is, but I feel as though I’ve left lots of things behind.  I’ve had a little time off work over the holiday and there’s a tremendous amount of change awaiting me once I fire the laptop up again.  I want to go back to where I was before I boarded that plane, back before I “gained” an hour.  Back before I had to learn everything you need to know to “buy” a house.  I look to the east and nod.

Post Facto

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Psalm 23 asserts, “I will fear no evil.”  Nor should one fear evil when flying over Death Valley, as I did coming out of San Diego, but I did.  There are perhaps not too many national monuments that can be appreciated from 30,000 feet, but the only way I’ve seen both the Grand Canyon and Death Valley is by plane.  My flight home from AAR/SBL had me sitting over a wing, so a photograph of the famed graben would simply show mostly wing and a bit of Death beyond.  This valley holds the record for the hottest ambient temperature recorded on the surface of the earth (134 degrees) and is famed as one of the filming locations for Star Wars.  Still, from the air the juxtaposition of mountains and salty, flat dearth was impressive.  I had no one with whom to share my excitement; the kid next to me was watching a movie on his phone and I had no idea who he was or if he’d be interested.

Disneyland, they say, is the “happiest place on earth.”  While I have my doubts about than endorphin-laced claim, I do know one of the opposite locales.  The hotel in which I stayed, the Grand Hyatt, San Diego, hosted the AAR/SBL Employment Center.  The hotel is not to be blamed for holding the most unhappy place on the planet, but as I looked at the booth I wondered if this was truth in advertising.  Should it not read “Unemployment Center”?  That two-letter prefix would make this at least honest, if not cheery.  I have spent some of the most miserable hours of my life in the employee hopefuls’ lounges at past conferences.  Hours and hours wasted, waiting to see if anyone, anyone at all was willing to grant you an interview.  I saw more than a few tears shed in that horrid place.  Some of them mine.

Now I’m high over Death Valley.  It feels far too sanitary to experience it in this way.  The professorate, which seeks to improve the world, is generally a powerless lot.  Signs scattered throughout the Convention Center and hotels asked such things as Does your school have over 50% contingency faculty?  And statements like Tenure track is not the norm.  The psalmist, it seems to me, got it right.  If you want to face the valley of the shadow of death and not fear, you have to walk through it.  The more people who do, the better the hope that we’ll land this plane with some kind of resolve to do be open to visions and to act upon them.

J L Seagull

Perhaps it has happened to you as well.  At some undisclosed period life became so busy that you felt as if—in a good southern California metaphor—you were riding on a huge wave and you couldn’t get off.  Back in my teaching days I had time to plan my trips to AAR/SBL and fit in some human activities as well as maybe even getting around to see the outside once in a while.  It’s great to run into so many people from every stage of my academic life—toddlerhood at Grove City College through my current doddering editorship—but I can’t help having the feeling that I’m popular now because I’m thought to have something others want.  The keys to the kingdom.  A possibility of getting published.

Those of you who read my daily reflections know that I’m glad to share publishing knowledge.  I encourage academic authors to learn a bit about the publishing industry.  It’s rapidly changing and when you have an inside track (here is the real added value) you need to look beyond your current book project to see what goes on behind the veil.  Widen the focus.  There’s a whole world out there!  My glimpses out the hotel window inform me that there’s an entire bay to be explored.  I watched seals or sea lions (it’s hard to tell from this distance) playing in the water as the sun rose.  Then a seagull flew up and landed inches from my face on the windowsill of my room.  It stayed for nearly a minute, looking me over as I looked it over.  Noticing the tiny white feathers that formed a W on the edges of its beak.  Its Silly Putty pink feet with small black nails.  The emerging red patch on the underside of its bill.  It took a step off the ledge, spread its wings and looked elsewhere for a snack.  I soon learned why.  A second later a larger gull landed in its place.  We too regarded one another curiously.  Had the glass not been there, we could’ve easily touched.  It also lept off to be replaced by an even larger, more mature gull.  None of the three were in any hurry to get away, but when they realized I couldn’t give them what they wanted, they left.

I’m a great fan of metaphor.  Academic writing, unfortunately, doesn’t encourage the craft of utilizing it (neither does it often encourage being coherent).  Later this morning—it will be early afternoon back home—I have to rush to the airport to catch a hopeful tailwind back east.  Someone else will check into my room.  If, perchance they sit by the window with the curtain drawn before dawn, the gulls will visit.  And maybe a lesson will be taken away.

Armed Forces

You ought to feel safe with the U.S. Navy so close by.  The naval base at San Diego is the second largest surface base in this particular branch of our sprawling military system.  From my hotel room I can watch the ships chugging through the harbor and from the Convention Center you can see quite a spread of naval real estate.  Still, all this hardware doesn’t make me feel safe.  Perhaps because I’m a child of the sixties, I can imagine a world at peace where military budgets don’t literally take food from the mouths of hungry citizens.  The last time I was in San Diego for AAR/SBL I toured the USS Midway aircraft carrier.  It’s clearly visible from my room.  I was amazed at both the technology and the obvious expenditure for such a craft.  It can’t be easy to set a city afloat.

Whenever I experience things like this I can’t help but wonder what we might accomplish if we loved each other as a species and put our heads together to try to solve our problems.  Lack of water—perhaps ironically in this naval city—is a serious global issue.  Poverty is the ghost of civilization.  The grasping of power by the driven but inept is clear worldwide.  We build great, complicated war machines.  The noise generated by the helicopters charging overhead bespeaks their weight and weaponry.  Down here in the southwest there are places civilians just can’t go because our military is busy keeping us too safe to allow us to wonder what they’re up to.  Black budgets must be nice.  I stand here among religion scholars and dream.

Ironically religion often leads to the fear that leads, in turn, to militarization.  We want to protect our “way of life.”  We’ll follow the prince of peace into war any day.  Just give the signal and release the missiles.  It doesn’t make me feel safe at all.  One time on a family visit, we drove through Norfolk, Virginia.  We stayed at a cheap hotel, because, well, we’re cheap.  The metal door was heavily reinforced with a stolid steel lock.  Navy men, we were informed, didn’t always behave well while ashore.  The locks were to keep us safe from those protecting us.  We stayed only one night and left early the next morning.  So I while the annual meeting away under the watchful eye of our largest line item on the budget.  They’re keeping our bodies safe, but who’s keeping track of our souls?