What Remains?

As our government continues to pretend it has an interest in anything but enriching the individuals in Washington, a rather constant refrain of “broken system” has emerged.  It heard that phrase repeatedly in conversations in San Diego, on a variety of topics.  Now, I’m no stranger to buzzwords, but this strikes me as particularly apt to describe what we’re seeing.  A democracy within a republic builds safeguards to prevent the abuse of power, but when abuse of power occurs and one political party insists on enabling such abuse, the system is indeed broken.  Not only that, but there’s no will evident to fix it.  The GOP glories in it, feeling like it’s somehow winning the game as families and individuals suffer as a result of it.  In the past, it seems to me, there was a desire to repair what was an obvious problem.

Self-delusion, it seems, has become very common.  That, and some older politicians may not be aware how frequently they’re shown in their foibles on the internet.  Information that used to take weeks or months to filter out is now known instantaneously, and everybody’s overloaded and confused.  Politicians, instead of trying to show us the way in such a landscape are rather acting like my late stepfather in saying “Do as I say, not as I do.”  A fine bit of hypocrisy, that.  At least he tried to mend his ways, even if not successful in his efforts.  He would’ve known, however, that he had no business being president.  I reflect on this broken system quite a lot and I wonder what is next for us.  When trust in government is completely eroded, where do we turn?

Many have celebrated the decline of religion.  Let’s be more precise here and say organized religion.  Survey after survey reveals that we aren’t necessarily becoming less religious, but we’ve been watching prominent religious leaders throw their unstinting support behind a broken system.    Many of them continue to ignore the truth to support an incumbent who’s demonstrated that he’d just as soon turn on them as help their cause.  And for what?  Simply to prop up a tottering system, to squeeze out the last drops of what can be used to make things better for themselves before it all falls down.  As I was flying essentially coast to coast, it was evident from the air just how diverse a nation we are.  For nearly 250 years we’ve been able to make it work.  Now that it’s clearly broken, it seems the will to make it better has vanished.  And only politics remain.

Honest Labor

When an artisan begins a new job, s/he must acquire the tools of the trade.  During a period of unemployment I seriously considered getting certified as a plumber.  I’d done some plumbing repair and, unlike many people, I wasn’t afraid of it.  (I am, however, terrified of electrical work.)  When I was looking into it, it became clear that there would be a significant outlay of tool purchasing up front.  While all of this may seem obvious, people are often surprised to learn that writing books also involves tools acquisition, although it generally pays far less than plumbing. The tools used to be made of paper, but they can wrench pipes apart and rebuild a bathroom from scratch.  I’m referring to books, of course.  In order to write books you have to read books.

Long ago I gave up on trying to read everything in an area before writing.  There’s just too much published these days.  When I was teaching and actually had a modest book allowance I would attend AAR/SBL only to come back with armloads of books that I needed for my research.   Of course I had the backing of the seminary library as well, so I could find things.  As an independent scholar doing the same work, however, you have to do a lot more tool acquiring since no library will back you up.  Nightmares with the Bible came back from peer review with a standard-issue academic who wanted me to “show my work.”  (I.e., document everything.)  Apart from slowing the book down (it is written), this also means acquiring tools.  AAR/SBL always reminds me of just how much is being published these days and that my toolbox, although already quite hefty, isn’t nearly big enough.

As I’m going through Nightmares rewriting and adding footnotes, I’m discovering more and more material that could be included.  As an editor myself I try hard to keep to assigned word counts, and the entire allotment could easily be taken up by bibliography alone.  I am very modest in my spending at conferences now—independent contractors have to be.  Nightmares will likely be my last academic book; I can’t afford to keep going like this.  I don’t plan to give up writing, of course, just academic publishing.  Both this book and Holy Horror were written for non-specialist readerships, to showcase my non-technical way of explaining things.  Both ended up with academic presses and are slated to be among those specialist tools that the beginning artisan covets but for which s/he has to budget.  And when this house is finished it will have an impressive, if most unusual, private library.

Faithful to Monsters

“Since childhood I’ve been faithful to monsters. I’ve been saved and absolved by them because monsters are the patron saints of our blissful imperfections.” Guillermo del Toro’s quote came to me via my colleague John W. Morehead’s wonderful Theofantastique (actually its Facebook page).  I get the sense that those of us in the field of teratology parallel play a lot.  At least I console myself that way because so few monster sites link to my blog.  Nevertheless, I have great respect for del Toro and his drive to bring monsters into the mainstream.  His quote, however, hits upon a central theme of what I try to do here and elsewhere—reflect on what monsters have to do with religion.

Notice the religious language (obviously intentional): faithful, saved, absolved, patron saints.  Monsters are indeed self-reflections, and they play on the same field as religion does.  Often at the same time.  Religion, even in the best of circumstances, entails fear.  If everything were fine all the time, what need would we have of it?  Instead, aspects of life we don’t cherish or anticipate come at us.  Winter comes far sooner than we expected.  Monsters lurk in that brief season between summer and winter, that autumn of the soul.  They know us quite well.  Our weaknesses are evident to them.  But as del Toro notes, they absolve.  And more readily than any Episcopalian.  The religion of monsters is fierce and forgiving.  When we watch them on the screen, we’re watching the drama of, in del Toro’s nomenclature, salvation.  If we didn’t require saving, again, why would we need religion (or monsters)?

Being faithful to monsters again bears comparison with the divine.  Should you become one of the lost while the 99 don’t require any assistance, your monsters will come find you.  In fact, that’s what they most specialize in.  What are dark nights of the soul without a little company?  It’s not sacrilegious to map the divine world with that of monsters, for any language regarding such high stakes beings must be metaphorical.  Our standard version of God is often a large human.  Generally he’s male, and he doesn’t always display compassion, although capable of doing so.  Monsters may be creatures of our own imaginations.  They are cast large on the screen since they too stand in for those to whom we owe some tribute for this is not a safe world in which to raise your kids.  Guillermo del Toro understands; we should listen.

Prophets and Precipitation

I have no idea how they name winter storms, or even if they should.  Weather-hype is yet another instance of click-bait, or watch-bait that requires constant upgrading to draw in increasingly jaded readers/watchers.  Winter storms are a fact of life, particularly in northern states.  If you name them, then you think you own them, as the saying goes.  In any case, beyond the fact that they go through the alphabet to draw their inspiration, I have no clue what criteria are used for giving names.  The storm that many of us were out in for much of the day yesterday was “Ezekiel.”  There are plenty of “E” names available, and I wondered at this biblical choice.  Ezekiel is often treated as a name for eccentrics, and I wondered if something about this storm was proto-apocalyptic or what.  Beyond the standard “snowpocalypse,” I mean.

The storm may have been considered of “biblical” proportions since it affected/is affecting much of the nation (as it is me, even as I write).  We tend to use the Bible for things that are of large scale, and, frequently, beyond our control.  Prophets often called for events on national level, and Ezekiel’s message had to do with a kind of ultimate redemption.  I suppose it’s the kind of message our nation could use right now, snow or not.  We could use good times sent from above, following the decidedly unbiblical evangelical administration we’ve put up with for three years now.  What would Ezekiel say?

Back in my teaching days, I had to cover Ezekiel in less time than the prophet deserved.  He pantomimed the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and, among the exiles, proclaimed their return to a better future.  Now I can’t say if winter storm Ezekiel will lead to a better future or not.  It will lead to some sidewalk shoveling, some travel headaches (as we experience firsthand yesterday), and the usual array of winter wonders.  I do know that claiming insanity to label a prophet is a cheap shot when it comes to explanations.  Ancient people recognized madness when they saw it, and prophecy, they knew deep down, was different.  None of this suggests this storm has been in any way predictable.  Yesterday with its accumulation of sleet and freezing rain, and today with its projected snow are all part of a typical December around these parts.  As people addicted to media stimulation, I guess we have to give it a name so that we can feel properly awed.

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.

Steel and Snow

I sometimes feels I need to pause before launching back into my usual reflections.  Commercialism tells me the holiday season is here (I noticed while watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that the real highlight is Santa and the official start of Christmas).  Please don’t misunderstand—I love the holiday season and look forward to it every year.  It’s not that I want to get things or spend lots of money.  For me the holidays are about rest and respite from the constant stream of work that never really gets done.  I need to retreat once in a while.  Ensconce myself in a quiet room and not have to worry about the next crisis facing me as an editor or the publishing industry as a whole.  I do love the holidays, but I often wonder about how we’ve let their symbols become the main point.

Now that we live near “the Christmas City,” we attend the Christkindlmarkt in Bethlehem while family is home.  One of the more stark symbols of this festival is the juxtaposition of a Christmas tree against the now silent and rusting steel stacks of what used to be Bethlehem Steel.  The evergreen, of course, was a Teutonic symbol of life continuing in the midst of the shutdown of the growth season.  Nature hasn’t really died, although it may appear to have done so, but we feel that difficult times with short days and cold temperatures will now dominate our existence.  Our industrial efforts participate in this slowdown too.  What once identified one of Pennsylvania’s two steel cities has ceased an Bethlehem has had to adapt.  We see the change and wonder.  I grew up just north of Pittsburgh when it was a very large industrial city.  When I was in high school it was the 16th most populous city in the country.  Currently it’s 66th, with Charlotte, North Carolina holding its former place.  We adjust to changing seasons.

Christkindlmarkt is a lively place with four large tents dedicated to symbols of the season.  Christmas merchandise is a large part of it, of course.  Small business vendors, however, take advantage of the fact that crowds throng in.  Food, naturally, comes to hold a place of some significance as your blood sugar drops after spending a few hours on your feet.  Music is in the air and people don’t seem to mind the masses of others who all had the same idea.  I never purchase much at the event, but I enjoy being among those inspired by it.  Some of us are the rusty towers in the background, and others are the lively, decorated tree that stands before them.  The season has begun, and the symbols are open for interpretation.

Mad Dog

Like those who write long books, those who write very many books ask for some level of commitment from their fans.  I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing I had more time to read.  I tend to be driven to Stephen King’s novels by the movies made around them, and there’s nothing wrong with that I suppose.  I decided I wanted to read Cujo some years back when I was on a werewolf kick.  I knew it wasn’t a werewolf story, yet as one who suffers from cynophobia even a large household pet will do.  I didn’t know the story in advance, and I had no idea how it ended.  It’s good to read novels like that sometimes.

I took it with me to San Diego and read most of it on the plane, finishing it somewhere over the mountain west.  It is a bleak story, one of King’s more drawn-out and wrenching tales.  It’s made more so by the fact that it could happen, at least in the main storyline.  Or could have happened.  Maybe I waited too long to read it, but I kept thinking as I was going through—today we have cell phones.  A large part of this story unfolds because of Donna Trenton’s inability to contact anyone while a rabid dog keeps her trapped in her car during a record-breaking heat wave in Maine.  I suspect it’s kind of a story about redemption, but I really need some time to think about it before rushing to such conclusions.  There’s not much you can really consider religious in this particular tale, and perhaps it’s because Cujo is a very natural kind of monster.

I saw my first rabid dog when I was maybe five.  My brothers and I reported a dog acting strange to our mother, after which she kept us in the house.  That wasn’t the origin, I don’t think, of my cynophobia.  Two of my brothers were bitten by a family dog when I was little, and I was once chased by a dog about as big as I was, certain that it was going to eat me.  At the same time, we had dogs as pets, and apart from the one that liked to bite, they never gave cause for fear.  Cujo tapped into those memories and made me reflect on what it means to befriend wolves.  It won’t be my favorite King novel, but it did help to pass the time from coast to coast.