An Odyssey

Once again in Ithaca, I find myself thinking of the classics. Although it’s difficult to believe these days, even rural Americans used to value a classic education. Take upstate New York. Not only is there an Ithaca, but also a Rome, Syracuse, and Homer, among other locations. This speaks of a time when the non-urbanites wanted to be considered sophisticated rather than gun-toting, bigoted rubes who actively hate higher education and all that it stands for. My maternal line of ancestors came from this region, and although they were simple farmers, they still named my grandfather Homer. And his sister was Helen. They knew the Bible, yes, but they may also have know the Iliad.

In a recent, flattering online game, Oxford Dictionaries offered a quiz to help you identify which classical hero you were. This is flattering because most of us aren’t heroes, but instead work-a-day types just trying to survive in a Republican world. I had to confess being pleased to find the result suggested I identified with Odysseus. Odysseus was king of Ithaca, you see, and considered one of the heroes more inclined to use his brain than his brawn (although he could use that too, if push came to shove). Perhaps it felt right to me since my own life feels like an odyssey. And my grandfather was Homer. I was first exposed to classical mythology in fifth grade, and I have loved it ever since. Besides, I’m more of an upstate mentality than a downtown one. The thing about an odyssey is that you’re not always in control of where you end up.

Sitting here in Ithaca I wonder how Americans came to despise the notion of classical education. The standard of living is higher in college towns like this. People treat each other well and there’s a strong sense of community spirit. On the way here yesterday we had to drive through rural New Jersey. We stopped in the decidedly non-classically named Buttzville for gas. The car in front of us had “Blue Lives Matter” and pro-Trump bumper stickers all over it. Yet the guy who limped out and made his way into the vehicle looked like he had probably benefitted from government largesse over the years. Proud of a president who brags about not reading. Who wants to bomb a country he can’t find on a map just because it’s different. I think to myself, I’m glad I’m on my odyssey to Ithaca.

Movie Meaning

Theology has never been my thing. Now, those who don’t parse things too finely may find that an odd statement. “This blog almost always addresses religion,” they may say, “how can you say theology’s not your thing?” Perhaps for the layperson “theology” means anything having to do with religion. In the biz it has a more specific meaning. Theology is tied to a faith system. It tries to explain, rationally, what that belief system entails. Religious studies is more about studying what religion is and how it works. It was this fine distinction that put me off from reading Screening the Afterlife: Theology, Eschatology and Film. Christopher Deacy treats the subject theologically and, depending on the theologian, that can mean a lot of effort for little result. I was, however, pleased about a number of things in Deacy’s book. He doesn’t shy away from horror, for one. And he takes cinema seriously.

The idea behind the book is straightforward—theology and movies should be in dialogue about the afterlife. At a number of points Deacy makes it clear that films reach a wider audience than theology books. Again, those of us in the biz know that to be very true. If people watch movies they begin to accept what those movies tell them as true. For those of one of the established faith systems, if things haven’t altered all the much since I was young, discussing the religious meaning of a secular film is always interesting. (Some of my friends drew the line, however, when I found Elijah parallels in a film where a bread machine went out of control, but that’s a story for another time.) People take movies seriously. During economically depressed times, movies thrive. We need to pay attention to them.

The problem with theology is, no matter how open it may be, there’s always some element of rightness involved—this perspective is right and that one wrong. It can hardly be any other way. To open the door too widely is to invite yourself to exit. Deacy selects films he finds theologically meaningful when addressing (mostly) Christian views of the afterlife. I’m guessing—and it’s only a guess—that many people get their information from popular media and theologians are completely off the screen. That doesn’t mean theology has no place, but it does mean that its place is in the hands of other scholars rather than those who just want to sit around and talk about the film they saw last night. Both may be profound, but one is more clearly enjoyable than the other.

Meaning What?

An occasional reader will contact me to say that something I’ve been writing about for years has appeared in a major media source. Not the story I wrote, mind you, but in an episode of convergent explication somebody better connected has drawn the same conclusions I’ve been muddling over since the 1980s. So it goes. One such story appeared recently in the New York Times. Despite the title “Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s,” the piece is really about finding meaning. According to the Times, and I’ve been saying this for years, meaning is something that the facts don’t always give. Religion gives purpose to life. Most academics, naturally, ignore it.

The use of UFOs in this story is clearly an attempt at demonstrating the irrational. Those who see such things are the laughingstocks of the “sophisticated” crowd. Anyone who’s attended an editorial board meeting where a book mentioning UFOs is raised will know immediately what I mean. Laughter all around, no matter how serious the treatment may be. After all, only crazy people see them, right? That having been said, the Times article is quite correct that UFO religions are on the rise. Increasing numbers of earthlings are looking offsite for meaning. And who can blame them? Traditional religions often suggest that the beyond, however defined, is much more interesting than the mundane we find laying around all over here. Ironically, this can be a one way street.

What is that?

“Believers” in UFOs often resist the association with religion. After all, isn’t it the religious who are really crazy? As long as people see things in the sky they can’t explain (and this has happened for millennia) there have been Unidentified Flying Objects. Despite Project Blue Book they’ve never been studied in a serious way by science. The few bona fide scientists who’ve dared admit an interest have put their academic or industry jobs at risk. If you wonder why all you have to do is attend an editorial board meeting. We like to laugh at those more gullible than ourselves. As someone once said, indignation feels good. Nothing raises indignation like feeling superior to others. And we feel superior when their intellects are obviously so feeble as to believe in things like religion. Oh, I’m sorry! Were you expecting me to write “UFOs”? Well, go ahead and make the substitution. I won’t be offended. After all, I’ve been saying this stuff for years.

Lovecraft Legacies

Although long fascinated by popular culture, I’ve not really been part of any fandom. I suppose this is because my interests tend to be quite broad, and finding one piece of pop culture over which to obsess is difficult. I might miss something somewhere else! While not really a “fan” of H. P. Lovecraft, I’ve read much of his writing and I’m amazed at how pervasive his cultural influence has been and continues to be. W. Scott Poole, who’s taken us into realms historians often shun, has done a great service to those interested in Providence’s most famous son. In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft is a thoughtful, honest, and in-depth consideration of both the man and his fiction. The basics of Lovecraft’s life are easily accessed, but the probing questions Poole puts to the evidence are thought-provoking and, in many respects, revelatory.

Perhaps the largest Lovecraft demon that Poole tackles is H. P.’s racism. There’s no secret about this, but fans often find ways of excusing it or explaining it away as being a product of his time. Those of us who write can understand that Lovecraft didn’t get out much. When he did get out he preferred it to be among people like himself. (Male, white, and gentrified.) It’s difficult to say what the origins of prejudice are, beyond the natural tendency to fear those who are different. Still, intelligent people can generally figure out that such biases are based on lack of experience or willingness to learn about other cultures. There are many, many cultures in the world and it’s often hard to think that yours isn’t the best. A large part of today’s political turmoil is based on this very thing.

An added benefit to reading Poole’s book was the realization that although Lovecraft really didn’t travel much (he didn’t live very long either, and the two are at least partially related) he did at one time visit the small town in New Jersey where I live. That came as a bit of a surprise. The last time I visited Providence, there wasn’t much in the way of signage or plaques to mark where Lovecraft had left his stamp. That may have changed in recent years as his literary star has continued to ascend. Still, to find out that he’d passed this way once upon a time was a nice little bonus in the investigation into who this man was. There’s a lot more to dig out of Poole’s book, and fan or not, if you’re interested in Lovecraft this is a must read.

On the Rocks

This universe is indeed a mysterious place. You don’t have to believe in the paranormal anymore to see it. A look at the headlines makes my point. There are those, however, who do look at the genuinely strange, and once in a while this realm crosses paths with that of religion. A friend pointed me to a story on Mysterious Universe about floating rocks. Apparently this story is going to be on the mainstream Travel Channel, so it’s not completely bonkers. It caught my attention because it’s about rocks. While of decidedly poor qualification to be a rock-hound, I have more than a passing interest in geology. Itinerates shouldn’t collect rocks, but I can’t help myself. Anyway, I’ve been known to go to publicly open mines and tap away with my rock hammer hoping to find some not-so-hidden treasure.

According to the story, there is such a publicly open mine in Arkansas. Crystals (I expect quartz) are available for surface excavation, for a fee. Then the owners, the Murphys, noticed the anomalous rocks. Since they are conservative Christians (this is Arkansas after all) they feared what powers might be behind rocks that don’t obey the laws of gravity. The mine didn’t get closed and hushed up because of an unusual source of inspiration. An article by Billy Graham on divine mysteries led them to keep the mine open and to allow for investigation. Once the Travel Channel comes out with its program Crystal Mine is sure to experience an influx of business. Mainstream scientists, one expects, will not be among them.

The universe is vast. We haven’t explored all of our own planet yet (we’re kind of busy destroying it at the moment, so if you don’t mind…) and yet we gleefully claim what’s impossible. I don’t know if there are levitating rocks in Arkansas, but I do think we’ve been a bit hasty about some of our conclusions. We may yet find things that will force the concepts—the laws—to change. Consider gravity, which seems particularly relevant in the case of floating rocks. Sir Isaac Newton (devout theist that he was) ending up having to relinquish the “correct” explanation to Albert Einstein. Some have been so bold as to suggest that maybe even Einstein might not have gotten the whole skinny on gravity. We continue to learn. Levitating rocks are indeed strange. Not so strange, however, as Billy Graham being the one to rescue an anomaly for the world to see.

Survival Instructions

When the apocalypse comes—present political antics assure it more than any biblical prophecy—I fear for the survivors. This post is for them. I presume you’ll get the internet back up and running quickly; it is, after all, humanity’s most important achievement. I know you’re hungry, but first a bit of history. (Sorry, I used to be a professor; it’s how my mind works.) The trendy drinking glasses that some restaurants used to use were called Mason Jars. They were originally for home canning. You see, in summer when the earth was generous, we’d have too much food. Judging from the state of my refrigerator, it’s impossible to keep it fresh for more than a few days. So people invented canning. You’ve probably found a stash of cans, which is why you’re reading this post. These glass cans came with a pretty obvious screw-on lid, under which was a sealed lid that you could pop off with a thumbnail if you were desperate enough. Food awaits.

Then a metal canning process was invented. To open a metal can you need a special tool called a “can opener.” Since I’m sure all electric can openers were destroyed in the apocalypse, you’ll need to know how to open a can with the items at hand. Do not panic. If any Swiss Army knives have survived (and I’m sure they have, if anything has) you can use one of those. Unfortunately, describing how is more a job of poetry than prose. Besides, I don’t have a webcam to record myself, or my disembodied hands, doing it for you. You might find a commercial can opener a better option. Be careful, they break easily. If you find some in the ruins of a store take them all—you’ll need them. Got one? Okay, now here comes the tricky part.

You need to use this device to open the can to get at the goodies inside. I’m writing this during a rather paranoid and poorly educated period of human history, so please bear with me. It is your salvation. Even the simple can opener has to be sold with wordless instructions in my era. I am here posting those instructions. Follow these two simple steps, numbered conveniently “1.” and “2.” You will have food for your starving bellies soon enough. And while you’re slurping down whatever sweet or savory goodness is inside that metal container, maybe you’ll pay heed to a bit of friendly advice from someone who didn’t survive the dread end of the world: when enough of you find each other to need to elect a ruler, please be sure that whoever it is knows what she’s doing. One thing you might look for is someone who at least knows how to use a can opener.

Citation Anxiety

As a recovering academic, I sometimes am compelled to look when sends me notices. Academia, most of my academic colleagues don’t realize, is a for-profit website that advocates open access. “Open access” (or OA in the biz) is academic trash talk for making the published results of research available for free. It’s a great idea, but it often doesn’t take into account how complex publishing really is. Peer review, printing, and distribution of articles all take money and to make all research free cuts out what those who publish the research can use to fund the venture (with a cut taken out, of course, to make the whole thing worth their while). That’s the way capitalism works. (Look it up under economics.) In any case, not realizing that Academia is also a profit-making venture, lots of us put our published papers on it, making them freely available to anybody who cares.

Once in a while Academia will send its users a flattering notice: “X-hundred people have cited your papers.” Be still, my throbbing heart! Desperate for any attention, most academics (let alone us exes) are thrilled that more than 100 people have read their stuff. So I clicked their link. “309 papers mention the name ‘Steve Wiggins’ or ’S.A. Wiggins’” it cheerfully reads. I know something the robot apparently doesn’t. I’m not the only Steve Wiggins on Academia. There is a slightly older agronomist whose name I share. He’s employed in academia and has more papers than me. And “S. A. Wiggins” could be anybody. My 309 paper mentions shrinks to double digits. Not high double-digits either. Names are hardly unique identifiers. With some seven-and-a-half billion people, there’s bound to be some reduplication. I always tell the few curious to search “Steve A. Wiggins”—with the quotation marks—to find the few, true references.

Taking on the internet is a fool’s errand. This blog gets a few piddly hits a day. I often consider closing it down. Readers don’t share it enough to get any attention. It takes a lot of effort on my part since I write books (both fiction and non) in my hours not at work. So when Academia shows up in my inbox my excitement spikes, just for a moment, and I go on with my other work, which never seems to get done. And then, when I’m sure nobody else is looking, I go ahead and click on the link.