It’s Thorpe, Jim

On a rainy fall day we found ourselves in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.  We’d been through the touristy town before, but had never had any luck finding parking so getting out to explore was problematic.  Named after perhaps the greatest all-round athlete America has ever produced, the town bore the American Indian name of Mauch Chunk prior to the communal name change.  Once the greatest eastern vacation attraction after Niagara Falls, it’s now a town that caters to a regular stream of tourists and supports the small, boutique shops that thrive in such an environment.  Whenever I’m in a new place, I look for books.  Perhaps an illness, it is one I have no wish to cure.  Sellers Books is small but I didn’t walk out empty-handed.

A few yards later a sign at Emporium of Curious Goods caught my eye.  A store of mystical, magical whimsy, it had a posted note saying the owner had been friends with Ed and Lorraine Warren.  I hadn’t anticipated such a thing—we were here with friends and really just expecting to enjoy the quaint ambiance.  Being October, nearly every house and shop on Broad Street was decorated for Halloween, creating that frisson that only this time of year offers.  I stepped inside the shop and looked around.  I asked the owner how he’d met the Warrens.  He said that many years ago they’d lectured at East Stroudsburg University.  Introducing himself, he’d invited them over to his place and soon they became long-time friends.  They agreed to do a talk there in Jim Thorpe.

The brief conversation made me aware that as much as reading reveals, it never conveys the full story.  The store advertised having all the Warrens’ books.  I have all of them myself, but I had never seen all of them together in a single store before.  I wished I had something magical or mystical to buy to support the owner so willing to share information, but I had little time to look around with friends waiting outside, probably wondering what I was doing in such a place to begin with.  The Warrens are both deceased but their legacy lives on through the Conjuring movies.  More than that, in the lives they’ve influenced.  Yes, they may have been using their fame as a way of making living, but many celebrities do that.  It doesn’t mean they were any less sincere in attempting to help people with their ghosts and demons.  A rainy day in October reveals so much.


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.


Museum Time

It was a very strange feeling.  Wearing masks, yes, and socially distancing, we went to a museum.  Casting my mind back, I can’t recall the last time I was in a museum.  On a family visit to Ithaca we decided to go to The Museum of the Earth.  Ithaca is a small town, and this is a small museum, nevertheless the first place Google (or Ecosia) brought up for fossil identification was The Museum of the Earth.  On Saturdays a paleontologist is on hand to help identify the traces of life from millions of years ago that lie scattered around for anyone to pick up.  Collecting fossils has a treasure-hunting vibe to it, and it’s great to find anything beyond the usual, ubiquitous sea shell imprints.  Don’t get me wrong—I love sea shells with their symmetry and flowing lines.  Some of them even look like angel wings.  But there’s a draw to the unusual.

Some time back I’d found a fossil in the Ithaca area that I couldn’t identify.  It was Saturday, and we’d all received at least our first vaccination.  And I had to wait in line to get an identification.  It was cheering to see so many people—with limited, timed entry—coming to a museum.  The specialist confirmed this to be an interesting fossil.  She identified it as a bryozoan, ancient animals related to coral.  This one, she suggested, based on the age of rocks in this area, was likely Devonian.  The age of fishes.  I was glad I hadn’t wasted her time, and I was glad to have an expert eye on something that, let’s be honest, often functions like pareidolia to the laity.

Years ago I took my daughter to an open house day at the geology department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  If it weren’t for the calculus requirements (and I even tried to teach myself calculus because of it), I was seriously considering going back to school to study geology.  There is an organic connection between biblical scholars interested in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and paleontology.  I get too busy, it seems, to go down to the local creek to look for fossils.  Perhaps it’s for the best because our house would be full of rocks (even more than it already is).  The earth is a great museum.  Even so, it felt like an alien activity, late in this pandemic, to remember what it’s like to explore these treasures indoors, with strangers.  It felt as if time was actually progressing.


Found and Lost

After the year that was 2020, I decided that I needed to read some books that might make me laugh.  That can sometimes be pretty difficult, just as finding books that scare me (unless they’re nonfiction) can be.  Turning to the internet (where else can we turn in these days of rare vaccinations?) Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent came up more than once.  I think I may have read some of his other work, but this is one of his earliest books.  Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but much of the humor seemed a bit cruel.  No doubt in America there are lots of things at which fun would be easy to poke, but we’ve become sensitive to others—perhaps overly so—perhaps to the point that even using the word “others” can leave you open to criticism. But still.

Bryson’s book is a classic travelog.  It’s the kind my family kept when we were able to travel.  We’ve still got a printed out copy of our journeys to significant places, stuck in an ersatz binder, awaiting notice perhaps.  We tried to keep it funny.  There’s something about travel that’s great for your sense of humor.  Bryson set out on two wings of a country-wide trip while back from England.  Starting at his home in Des Moines, Iowa, he drove south and east then up north and back to his starting point.  The second half of the trip, obviously, went west, to the south west before angling up through the high plains and back home.  

The book is hard to classify.  The cover on my copy says he was looking for the perfect small town, but mostly it just seemed to be driving around.  And hitting some big cities as well.  There were a few laugh-out-loud moments even for this dour reader, but mostly there were some smiles and a bit of sadness.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was the late 1980s.  In fact, I was living in the United Kingdom when the book came out, which is probably why I never really heard of it before.  I do, regardless of how well the humor works, enjoy a travelog.  You can learn a lot that way.  Many of the places Bryson visited I’d also been, but my impressions were somewhat kindlier.  As a kid I didn’t get to travel much (kinda like now) and seeing new places I was always awash in wonder.  Not everywhere is pristine, of course, but keeping notes always seems like a good idea.  And if you can get them published, you might even be able to make a living out of it. We all remember the freedom of the open road.


Bookstore Odyssey

Work isn’t the best place to express yourself.  Once a marketer asked for input from everyone concerning their favorite independent bookshop.  Well, I might’ve gone a bit overboard, admittedly.  I listed several, each with their attributes.  I was living in New Jersey at the time so The Bookworm in Bernardsville and The Labyrinth in Princeton featured large.  But so did Farley’s in New Hope.  And the Clinton Book Shop in, well,  Clinton.  Then my mind roved to the unfortunately deceased River Front Books in Binghamton.  Then back to Wisconsin where we lived within walking distance from Books and Company.  Then to Illinois before that, where Pages for All Ages was a hangout.  We’re spoiled here in the Lehigh Valley with the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem,  Book and Puppet in Easton, Let’s Play books in Emmaus, and plenty of used bookstores about.  And the Montclair Bookshop back in New Jersey—okay, I told you I went a bit overboard.

Ithaca, New York, is the very definition of a college town.  Home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, it has a sizable student population.  It once boasted seventeen bookstores.  By the time we’d started visiting they were down to one indie new book store (Buffalo Street Books) and two used bookstores.  Since then one of the used stores has closed.  Like a phoenix, however, a new indie has opened: Odyssey.  On a recent trip to Ithaca we stopped in.  During a pandemic I feel compelled to make trips short, but there was a lot to see there.  Like most indies, it’s small.  As Andrew Laties notes in Rebel Bookseller, such shops thrive by becoming part of the community, and stocking books the community will buy.

Our visit, I suspect, proves his point.  If you set up shop in a university town you can stock intelligent books and make a living at it.  Despite the weather and the virus we weren’t the only customers in the store.  And we didn’t leave empty-handed.  The independent bookstore is a symbol of hope.  Books are not clutter.  Literacy is not dead!  As much as our beloved internet tries to tell us the future is digital, I like to open the door and step outside once in a while.  And leave my phone behind.  During this pandemic I’ve gone to four kinds of stores only: grocery, drug/necessity, hardware, and book stores.  The pandemic has been a shot in the arm for trade books—bored with staring at screens all day, people are starting to read actual books again.  I’m not naive enough to think it will last beyond Covid-19, but I just remembered Watchung Booksellers in Montclair and the Town Book Store in Westfield…


Preserving Culture

When I travel (remember travel?) I try to visit the places of famous writers.  It doesn’t matter much whether I’ve read a lot of their material; I know kindred spirits when I feel them.  Last summer—the one before the pandemic—I had to make a business trip to Oxford.  Now Oxford has a long, long list of literary illuminati, and I didn’t have much free time.  My hotel, however, turned out to be just a couple of blocks from the house of J. R. R. Tolkien.  One patch between meetings, I wandered over to the house.  It’s behind a high wall, so you can’t see much.  Like most European private homes, it isn’t ostentatious—over here we like to make it obvious when we’re wealthy.  In any case, I stood as long as a stranger can comfortably stand outside someone else’s house and tried to commune with the spirit of the former occupant.

Just the other day I noticed a New York Times headline that stated a movement is afoot in merry old England to purchase Tolkien’s house to make it a museum.  Although there’s no scientific way to prove it, people are somehow connected to the places they live.  There’s no other sensation like returning to your home town.  If, for some strange reason, anyone wishes to recall me after I’m gone (perhaps my pen name will take off someday), they’ll find precious little.  Not one of my pre-college homes still stands.  Not that that’s that unusual in the low rent district.  Still, when I visit my hometown, small as it is, almost nothing of me remains but it still feels like I belong.

I can’t say that I felt much other than my own awe at standing outside Tolkien’s house.  It’s on a residential street, and people were driving and walking by.  I was the only one who seemed to be hanging about.  Probably a bit suspicious-looking wearing a tweed jacket and in general appearing like a displaced academic.  Much of the tourism industry, however, is based on the draw of certain locations because someone famous lived there.  We want to be in touch with them.  Show our respects, perhaps.  If visiting Oxford weren’t always a work occasion for me, I could quite enjoy wandering its literary haunts and ending up for a leisurely afternoon spent in Blackwells.  We congregate in such places for a reason.  I’ve lost track of all the authors’ homes I’ve visited over the years.  Each time, I’m compelled to say, I’m glad someone thought to preserve them.


The Good of Others

On a recent trip to visit family in upstate New York, the Sunday we had to leave (for work Monday is an implacable law), we decided to have lunch in a local park.  The weather was fine and there was plenty of social distancing, given the size of the grounds.  After a nice picnic and stroll, we realized it was getting late to start out in order to get home by my oddly early retiring time.  We headed back to our hosts’ car only to find it wouldn’t start.  They had a new battery and so we popped the hood and hoped to find something obviously wrong as we waited for the long response time for AAA in a rural area on a weekend.  We were a little concerned because we still had a long drive and no real way to get back to our own car, parked at our hosts’ residence.  A stranger came up and asked if we were having trouble.  Listening to the symptoms he said, “Do you mind?”  Putting his head under the hood, he said, “I’m a mechanic.”  He had our host try again and the car started right up.  He refused to take payment and wouldn’t even give his name.

Despite the fear the Republican Party tries so hard to spread, it has been my experience that good Samaritans abound.  When I’ve had car trouble far from home, I’ve never waited long beside the road before a stranger has stopped and asked if they could help.  Technology may make us feel more self-sufficient (we have smartphones and can call for our own help), but it doesn’t always work that way.  My wife had accidentally left her phone at our hosts’ place, and I’d forgotten to charge mine so the battery was depleted.  Uber would require an active, charged phone and our hosts were using theirs to communicate with AAA.  If the stranger hadn’t stopped by we would’ve been stuck, likely for hours.

I oftenconsider how Calvinistic GOP thinking can be—assuming the “total depravity” of everyone and declaring that we must be kept in check by laws that maintain outdated concepts of both humanity and justice.  To be sure, there are dangerous individuals out there.  Would you want Trump to stop by if you were having car trouble?  What selfless behavior could you expect from that quarter?  Sucker!  In general, however, people are good.  They are motivated by what they think is right.  We’re in a pandemic.  The mechanic didn’t know us (we outnumbered him), he had no obligation to help.  Good Samaritans exist, and they are frequently found outside the yellowed leaves of Scripture.

Balthasar van Cortbemde – The Good Samaritan, via Wikimedia Commons


Twain Shall Meet

On a slightly hazy fall day, when the autumnal colors were alive, we stopped in Elmira.  To understand the significance of this stop, I should explain that from the time my daughter could appreciate it (and probably even before) we used to make fall literary trips.  We would take a long weekend and drive to where a famous author had lived.  Laura Ingalls Wilder in Pepin, Wisconsin, or Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri.  When we moved east we visited Edna St Vincent Millay at Austerlitz, New York, and Washington Irving in Sleepy Hollow.  More recently, in the spring, we went to see Rod Serling in Interlaken, New York.  So it was that we stopped in Elmira, New York, where Mark Twain rests.  I had always assumed Samuel Clemens was buried in Missouri, but his most productive literary period was his time in upstate New York, and it is here he remains.

His tombstone was covered with pennies and a few higher denomination coins, a rock or two, and a guitar pick.  People want to show their respects to the writers who’ve meant something to them.  I find this a moving tribute.  I suspect it happens at the tombstones of many famous people, but in Highgate Cemetery in London we found Douglas Adam’s small plot filled with pens stuck in the ground as mementos.  I travel through the world lightly, seldom carrying anything extra with me.  Somehow I never stop to think to bring a memory to the cemetery.  Fortuitously I had found a penny on the ground the morning we left for Elmira and I placed it among the others on Twain’s marker.  

What would make the appropriate calling card to leave?  I often wonder that.  If I had such a token, I suspect I would feel the need to revisit the various cemeteries of years past to leave a sign of my respect.  There are lots of them.  Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore.  George Orwell in Sutton Courtenay.  H. P. Lovecraft in Providence.  Is there anything that ties them all together?  Pens seem an obvious choice, but stones are far more traditional (especially in Jewish settings).  The tradition is traced back to building cairns in biblical times, and the idea survives in that stones are more permanent than flowers and are a sign of respect.  Writers often have more elaborate items left, but it’s clear that they are removed from time to time by the grounds keepers.  Before I visit my next literary grave, I’ll give some thoughts to symbols and tokens and the importance of celebrating writing.


Almost Ancestors

During the Covid-19 crisis, cemeteries seem to be safe places.  Not too many people are in them, at least not people that can spread the virus, and they always provide grounds for rumination.  Besides, being outdoor spaces they can get you someplace outside the same four walls you see all the time.  My wife and I both have an interest in genealogy.  We’ve worked on our family trees and even try to keep our Reunion software up-to-date.  This past weekend we visited a family burial plot in upstate New York.  My wife’s family has a more accomplished pedigree than mine does, and one of her ancestors here actually merited an obelisk and was written up in local histories as a noteworthy member of the community.  I also have ancestry in upstate, and we’ve traveled to some of their sites in the past, although their markers are usually harder to find.

Being in a cemetery, the logic of ancestor worship suggests itself.  Without these people history as we know it would’ve been different.  Without those who are our direct ancestors we wouldn’t even be here pondering our own insignificance.  We wish these headstones could talk, saying more than the names, vital dates, and perhaps a quote from the Bible.  We listen, hoping to gain knowledge of who they were.  It seems to me that cemetery histories would be a boon to genealogists.  For those of us whose predecessors were buried in small towns, such guides could be a real boon.  As it is, Find A Grave dot com is often a helpful resource, but who wouldn’t like to be written up in an actual book?  Network reception often isn’t great out here in rural America.

Graveyards are gateways to the past.  In a world that feels like it’s changing way too fast, it seems right to have these places—these sanctuaries—to stop and reflect.  They represent lives lived.  Peaceful after the trauma of day-to-day angst and struggle.  Unfortunately the pandemic is daily adding to the number of those who’ll be buried in cemeteries across the nation and around the world.  Although somewhat preventable, we have no national will to stop the tragedy.  So it is I find myself staring at a monument erected to someone I never knew, but without whom my life would’ve been vastly different.  It’s a sunny day and I’m outside amid a crowd that can cause me no harm, but who, at times like this, inspire me. 


Narrow Passage

While on a rare family visit (it’s scary to get out too much) we visited Watkins Glen State Park in upstate New York.  My mother’s family has roots in this area, and we’ve visited it several times in the past.  There are always people there, but in manageable numbers.  The website declared it was mandatory to wear a mask (“New York tough”!) and to keep social distancing.  It perhaps didn’t help that we went during a heat wave when a walk along a waterfall-laced path seemed like a refreshing idea.  I guess I had in my head the modest crowds we’d encountered in our many past visits.  We were, however, not the only tourists (although somewhat local) with that particular plan.  Not by any metric I can conceive.

If you’ve never been to Watkins Glen, the park has a Civilian Conservation Corp-built stairway and trail (approximately 600 stairs) through a glacial and water-cut gorge.  The sedimentary layers are fascinating for anyone with an interest in geology and for those who like to ponder the millions of years required for the laying down and lifting up of multiple bedding planes.  The gorge itself has a curvilinear appeal that is almost mystical.  Waterfalls produce negative ions which, everyone knows, tend to make people happy.  I was, however, more on the terrified side of the spectrum.  It became clear even before we reached the gorge that there were hundreds of people already in the park.  Most of them unmasked.  Large crowds gathered around the more picturesque waterfalls, blocking the narrow walkways.  Tourists have no idea what “six feet” might possibly mean.  Stair-climbing is an aerobic exercise, and wearing a mask in such circumstances is the only smart thing to do.

While on the considerably less crowded trails of the Pennsylvania outdoors venues we more commonly frequent, I’m nervous when someone walks even more than six feet away in the opposite direction.  This felt like a nightmare to me.  Too many people paying too little heed to the mandated caution.  I’ll be quarantining myself for two weeks for sure.  Maybe more.  I don’t get out much in any case, but even though we were obstructing our view through cloudy glasses and trying to get adequate oxygen through made-to-specification cloth masks, there’s only so much that prophylactics can do.  I jog at first light to avoid other health nuts on the local trails.  I go to stores only for necessities.  Being in a canyon with the careless invincibles inspired less than confidence in this petrified pilgrim.  Knowing human nature, it seems closing popular state parks until people get smart may be the best way out of a tight squeeze.


No So Innocent

Mark Twain’s best-selling book in his own lifetime was his first commercially produced one: The Innocents Abroad.  Originally a set of letters sent during an excursion to parts of the Mediterranean basin with stops in Europe and the Levant, it’s difficult to read today.  Although satirical with much of it clearly for fun, Twain’s humor about those other than Americans embodies an attitude that would fit into Trump’s America a little too comfortably.  Other religions are strange and therefore wrong, for example.  People in the regions visited did not bathe frequently enough and were often singled out for their looks.  There’s something rascally about the behavior of the American visitors, chipping away at monuments so that they might take a piece of history home with them, yet never failing to feel superior.

I had to remind myself constantly that this is a period piece.  It contains much of the gritty humor for which Twain became justly famous.  Travel broadened him also.  A southern abolitionist, Twain nevertheless never overcame some of the racism into which he was born.  My wife and I were reading the book because of its early description of western visits to Palestine (there was no Israel at the time).  Keeping in mind that travel to much of that part of the world was expensive (his trip was sponsored by the newspaper for which he worked) and difficult, his account is actually one of the early modern travelogues on what would eventually become a fairly common pilgrimage.  Twain, like all of us, was a product of his time.

Twain’s diary famously reveals what he came to believe about religion.  There are inklings of it here.  Although he refers to the manner of dress of the ship’s passengers as “Christian,” and although he casts aspersions on Islam frequently, he reserves his most biting humor for his own brand.  During their visit to Smyrna (one of the seven cities of the book of Revelation), for example,  he writes, “Thick-headed commentators upon the Bible, and stupid preachers and teachers, work more damage to religion than sensible, cool-brained clergymen can fight away again, toil as they may” (page 327 from the 2018 SeaWolf Press edition).  Still, the assumption of the rightness of Christianity is something that he would eventually come to question.  His humor does often fall flat in an era of government support of racist, sexist tropes.  And the impressions made on those they met was summed up in his contractually-obligated note to the paper: “Many and many a simple community in the Eastern hemisphere will remember for years the incursion of that strange horde in the year of our Lord 1867, that called themselves Americans, and seemed to imagine in some unaccountable way that they had a right to be proud of it” (page 526).  Some things, it seems, haven’t changed despite the time elapsed.


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.


Page Count

Research has taken on a different flavor now that I don’t have a teaching post.  I’ve started work on my next book after Nightmares with the Bible, and I’ll reveal more about it eventually, but the topic does require research.  Much of the reading required for both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible was done on the bus.  Those long commuting years weren’t exactly conducive to getting a lot of writing done, but there were hours of built-in reading time each weekday.  My research often involves reading big books and I’m a slow reader.  It’s a valid question why a slow reader would go into editing for a career.  A bit of research on this blog would reveal the answer to that, but the fact remains that big books take a huge amount of time to get through.

Back before any of this was a concern, back when I was a mere seminarian, I had plenty of time for reading.  One summer I volunteered for an archaeological dig at Tel Dor in Israel.  This involved meetings ahead of time and a lot of advanced planning.  One of the questions that naturally got raised was how many books to take.  It was a long flight from Boston to Tel Aviv, and I didn’t have much cash for sightseeing.  Most people, I was told, take James Michener’s The Source.  This is his archaeologist book.  In addition to that, it is a long work, just like most Michener novels, which meant you only had to take one book for the entire trip.  I decided to buy a paperback of Tolstoy’s War and Peace instead.  What a luxury it seemed in those long Israeli days to read such a tale.

In fact, I didn’t finish the book during the flight over, the six weeks at Pardes Hanna, and the return flight.  It took me at least until winter back in Boston.  These days when I take on a big book I generally read smaller ones alongside it.  You see, I have to see some progress as I’m going.  I tend to read nonfiction before work in the morning and fiction after work is done.  My days are literary work sandwiches, I guess.  And the stuff that I need to do around the house doesn’t pause while I indulge in my favorite vice of reading.  Yes, my research has definitely taken on a different flavor since being paid to do it.  What hasn’t changed is the desire to push knowledge forward, one page at a time.


Ancient History, Part 3

It was an old idea.  I had it when I was still teaching at Nashotah House, that’s how ancient it is.  It seemed to me that if brains evolve with the rest of us, our perceptions of gods might change over time.  I’d been working on this for an Ugaritic conference held in Sherbrooke, Quebec.  The conference took place, but I’d been ousted from my position at Nashotah House.  The conference organizer, in what was an amazingly magnanimous move, came up with funding for me to attend.  I delivered the paper and Jean-Marc Michaud, of blessed memory, encouraged me to submit it to the tome with the very academic title Le Royaume d’Ougarit, de la Crète à l’Euphrate. Nouveaux axes de recherche, Actes du Congrès International de Sherbrooke 2005, Faculté de théologie, d’éthique et de philosophie, Université de Sherbrooke, 5-8 juillet 2005 (Coll. POLO–Proche-Orient et Littérature Ougaritique 2).  Unemployed and unable to access libraries, I had to decline the publication.

In one of those great ironies of life, I began to be approached to take on projects after I lost my academic position.  (This continues to happen; I received an invitation to contribute just last week.)  I often have to turn them down because I still have no access to an academic library and academics generally have no idea just how draining a nine-to-five is, with or without the commute.  In any case, a Festschrift for Simon B. Parker was announced.  I knew Simon as a student at Boston University School of Theology, and he wrote many letters of recommendation for me.  His sudden death shocked many of us.  Herb Huffmon, of Drew Theological Seminary, asked me to contribute to the Festschrift.  I still had this article that required some work, so I decided to try to finish it.  I received a note that the volume is about to go to press with Pickwick.  Academic publications won’t let me go.

If I had my druthers, I’d be getting along with my fiction.  I’ve had over twenty short stories published, and I’ve got many more in the works.  Every time I think, “Now I’m in the clear, I can focus on writing that is fun to read,” I get another academic invitation.  Those invitations don’t come with job offers, so I wonder why I have such trouble saying “no.”  Anyone who writes wants to be remembered.  We have ideas that we hope others will find engaging.  In academia you publish to keep your job.  Most of your work will be forgotten unless you’re groomed as an academic superstar (yes, they exist!).  I’ve never been groomed.  I write because I have ideas that beg to be expressed.  One of those ideas, many years old, will soon be available for consumption at Pickwick Press.


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.