Category Archives: Travel

Posts that are concerned with location-specific topics.

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.

Just the Fax

Like most people I have a cell phone.  If I use it to take a picture, I can send that photo any number of places with a tap, swipe, and tap.  It works that way with scanned documents as well.  Using a hand-held phone, I can scan important papers, convert them to PDFs, and send them via email, text, “AirDrop” (whatever that is), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—you name it.  Except fax.  That I cannot do.  The other day a company wanted me to send them a document by fax.  Within seconds I had scanned it with my phone and was ready to send it, but instead experienced electronic constipation.  The company had no email; it had to come by fax.

Now, like most reasonably modern people, we have no fax machine at home.  We still have some in the office in New York, but they are clunky, noisy, and seldom actually work.  The technology to receive documents has improved beyond the photostatic smear that facsimiles represent.  I worked for a company where the warehouse insisted on orders by fax.  You’d fax them the order and wait for the phone to ring.  They couldn’t read the fax and you had to tell them what it said.  Well, this particular company I was dealing with wanted a fax.  I downloaded two or three “free” fax apps.  They suspiciously wanted my credit card info.  Besides, if you send more than one page they wanted at least ten bucks for a “package” deal.  I had to send a three-page document.  I checked to see if my laptop could do it.  The manufacturer’s website said it could, but the menu option it told me about didn’t appear.  Who insists on faxes any more?

This is the dilemma of mixed technologies.  It’s like those movies where the streets of some exotic city are filled with rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.  The fax, in this analogy, is the pedestrian.  My mother doesn’t have email, let alone the capability to text (or fax).  Ours is a telephone relationship.  Yet in my hand I hold a device that can send this document anywhere in the world with a tap, swipe, and tap.  I recall my first trip to Jerusalem where hand-drawn carts, cars, and yes, camels, shared the streets.  This was in the days before the internet.  To contact home even by telephone was cumbersome and costly.  Yet somehow we survived.  I’d arranged the trip utilizing a travel agency and funded it by a letter-writing campaign.  The Ektachrome slides I took are now a pain to look at because technology has so improved our lives.  Unless, of course, you need to send a fax.  Delivery by camel can at least be arranged via the internet.

Museum Monsters

Timing has never been my strong suit.  As soon as I stopped my daily commute to New York City, the Morgan Library and Museum opened a display titled “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders.”  To appreciate the irony of this fully, you need to realize my office was just across the street from the Morgan Library, and the daily visits would’ve provided a good opportunity for a lunch-time break with my beloved monsters.  Instead I was spending the time moving further west and unpacking.  Still, displays like this are a tacit form of validation.  Those of us who admit, as adults, that we like monsters huddle under a cloud of suspicion.  Monsters are a matter for kids—like dinosaurs and fairies—not something on which an upwardly mobile adult spends his time.  We’ll take whatever validation we can get.

Perhaps we’ve been too hasty to dismiss our monsters.  Even the Bible, after all, has them.  They help us cope in a chaotic and uncertain world.  A world of hurricanes and Trump.  A world lacking compassion and sense.  Monsters have always been symbols of the borderlands.  Creatures that cross boundaries and that shouldn’t exist but somehow do nevertheless.  Science has helped us understand our world, but in our desire to grow up enough to use Occam’s razor, we find that it shaves a little too close.  Besides, what can be more unnatural than shaving?  When we lose our ability to believe in monsters, we lose a piece of our ability to cope with an unpredictable world.  Monsters have their practical uses indeed.

If the world were more predictable, I would still be teaching instead of editing.  Or I’d still be living in an apartment rather than a house.  Moving is chaos embodied.  Like monsters, it’s best left to the young.  It’s just like this world for a monster display to open just across the street right when you’ve moved out of town.  I should expect no less in a cosmos marked by uncertainty.  Medieval Monsters isn’t the only museum display of the weird and wonderful.  Monsters have a way of showing up again once you think they’re safely gone.  Family and friends share with me their visits to other monster exhibits at other museums.  They may wonder at my fascination with them—an adult with a sober doctorate in the field of history of religions, biblical studies, ancient Near Eastern religions, whatever.  It’s kind of a monster in its own right, on display here daily.  If you happen to miss it, don’t worry.  It’ll remain lurking in its own corner of the internet.

Museum Haven

At various points of my career I’ve applied for museum curator positions.  Since those who actually land those jobs have degrees in museum studies, I’ve never gotten as far as an interview.  Still, I like to think I’d be good at it.  I spend time in museums and I’ve been told I have an okay eye for design.  And I recently read that museums are educational institutions.  That makes sense since people tend to be visual learners.  (This is something I took into account in my classes as well, illustrating lectures to make a point.  The traditional academic feels that pictures are somehow “soft” learning as opposed to the harsh realities of text and word-based instruction, but I beg to differ.)  We see things and they stick with us.

On a visit to the New York Historical Society museum I once looked at their somewhat abbreviated sculpture collection.  This isn’t the Met, after all.  One of the tricks I’ve learned about museum displays is that some curators place subtle humor in their framing of objects.  For example, my gaze was drawn to a figure of a pilgrim.  A stern-looking fellow, he’s captured in full stride, massive Bible tucked under his arm, determined frown on his face.  This is a man trying to create Heaven on earth, dour though it may be.  Taking a step back, my camera found a smile in this image.  On either side of this angry Christian were two naked women: one was apparently Artemis with her bow, the other perhaps a Muse.  The lines of the display draw attention to this juxtaposition.  There’s some humor here, intentional or not.

This also takes me back to yesterday’s post about Heaven.  Perceptions of what it is differ.  There’s a mindset like the pilgrim that sees a life of suffering being rewarded in the hereafter with endless bliss.  I do have to wonder whether too much hardship down here might not make one forget how to enjoy oneself.   It’s difficult to picture a Puritan in rapture.  It’s as if the journey—the hard road—is the real source of enjoyment here.  Each of us, I suppose, has her or his own view of Heaven.  Mine’s kind of like a library with all the time in the world without end to read.  Others, I suspect, would find paradise as a garden.  Yet others would see Heaven as a kind of museum, but it would be one where laughing out loud was okay, for the Curator definitely has a sense of humor.