Naming Rainbows

Living in the area around Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton (ABE, in airport parlance), one can’t help but be aware that Crayola is based in the E sector.  We visited the Crayola Experience while still residents of New Jersey and if there’s any place that smells like childhood this was it.  One of the truly interesting aspect of Crayola is that it defined specific shades of color.  Or at least Crayola’s version of it.  Many of us have pretty clear ideas about the basic six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.  Sure, they added “indigo” to make it into a pronounceable name, and changed purple to “violet” to give us the standard seven, but this illustrates the point that I’m making—colors are somewhat relative.  Try to get anyone to describe, famously, puce (which I’ve learned is French for “fleas”).

A friend has recently been sharing stories from a book on the origins of color names (Secret Lives of Colors by Kassia St Clair), from which I learned about puce.  Although I haven’t read the book myself, it has become clear that colors indicate different things to different people.  All of this reminded me of a crisis I faced in my youth.  One of my teachers in middle school, in physics class, mentioned that not all people perceived the same color in the same way.  Or at least there’s no way to know whether they do or not.  Perhaps, he suggested, everyone has the same favorite color, but what they call it is different.  While the latter point seems unlikely, I took to heart that not everyone sees things the same way.  The same dilemma came back to me as my friend showed me various colors and said that her idea of what that color name designated was something quite different.

As in much of what I write, there are metaphors and analogies active here.  A paradox of religions is the great variety among them combined with the certainty that one’s own alone is “the truth.”  And all religious believers tend to be certain that theirs is true.  Like the color names we learn as children, we seldom grow up to question what we were told in our youth.  Some religions appeal to adult converts, but most people stay close to the orthodoxies of their youth.  Religions, like colors names, are a matter of consensus, for there are any number of shades and hues, and what we decide to name them is not revealed from on high.  They do, however, give the world considerable color.

 

Waiting for a Miracle

A friend recently sent me a New York Times story about Marianne Williamson’s spiritual background.  Before I say anything more about this I have a confession to make.  I didn’t know who Marianne Williamson was and, consequently, I’ve never read any of her books.  I also didn’t know about her presidential bid, although she seems much more grounded than whatever it is that sits in the Oval Office these days.  In any case, it’s the spiritual background part on which I’d like to focus.  Williamson is apparently a devotee of A Course in Miracles, a book written by Helen Schucman in the 1970s.  According to the NYT article, Schucman penned the book by the dictation of a divine voice.  This aspect seems worthy of further exploration, regardless of politics.

You see, sacred books have a long history of divine dictation.  The Bible makes such claims only obliquely, but clearly there were some who believed that Moses was the recipient of narration from on high.  Mohammed heard a voice saying “Write.”  Centuries later the Book of Mormon was written out at the dictation of Joseph Smith.  The point is that such texts are often believed to have had sacred origins.  I find Schucman’s reluctance to put herself down as the author of A Course in Miracles instructive.  She didn’t believe she wrote it.  Not to devalue any of these sacred texts mentioned, I would nevertheless note that authors often feel that their words come to them.  Maybe academic books don’t count, but when I’m writing fiction, it’s like somebody’s hands are on the wheel, but I’m not sure I’m the one driving (with apologies to Jeff Daniels).

A Course in Miracles has been translated into double-digits languages, something quite rare even among many bestsellers.  What this says to me is that people still crave answers from an authoritative text.  The written word has a power that electronic publication lacks.  Who wants to point to a screen and say, “this is divinely revealed truth”?  Hefting a heavy book, printed on actual paper, has a symbolic power that outweighs that of ebooks.  Probably it’s because the Bible paved the way.  We’re already primed for a sacred text, in physical form.  The longer I study holy books the clearer it becomes that they will unlikely ever cease to be written.  Helen Schucman didn’t have the last word.  As long as people write it’s doubtful anyone ever will.

Why July?

The weather in July can be exhausting.  I’ve always pretty much associated the Fourth of July with hot, sticky weather and this year’s holiday weekend has lived up to that.  Combine it with the incessant rain in the eastern half of the country and you’ve got a mix that won’t permit you to open your windows, but makes you simmer if you stay inside.  We often handle this by seeking out air conditioned facilities where you don’t have to spend a ton of money in order to find some relief.  It also happens that today is the anniversary of our moving into our new house when, as I recall, the current rainy cycle began.  Restless, stormy nights may be Gothic, but they don’t fit the staid, steady nine-to-five lifestyle very well.

Despite it all, I still value summer.  The sense of carefree days, as my friend over on Verbomania says, give estival days a shimmer like none other.  So much so that it’s difficult to keep track of what day it actually is.  For me this particular date will always remind me of buying a house for the first time and spending a literally sleepless hot night learning the hard lessons of homeownership.  Still, since I mentioned Independence Day, I continue to find myself relieved at the lack of land lordliness when it comes to the list of those who hold something over my head.  If only I could catch up on some sleep over a long weekend it might all seem more real.  July can be like that.

As I saw this weekend approaching from a distance, I made plans at how much I would accomplish.  I would get so much writing done that I’d be well ahead on my next project.  I might figure out what it was most important to say, and maybe finally find the meaning to life.  (Summer makes me feel optimistic, it seems.)  I would post new videos on my YouTube channel.  The weather, however, as the Psalms indicate, can change your plans.  Twilight lengthens to the point of making night and day difficult to distinguish.  Sleep doesn’t refresh the way it usually does and morning—my writing time—is hazy and lazy.  My next book sits untouched on my hard disc while I look over boxes that remain unpacked from a year ago.  Childhood summers set the pattern of dropping all and experiencing the mini-anarchy that lack of structure brings.  Despite all that I’d hoped to accomplish, I find myself welcoming this hot and humid anniversary.  That’s what July is like.

The Joy of Techs

Those of us with Luddite tendencies prefer to hide them.  Tech is the ultimate good, right?  You’ve got a smart phone in your pocket or purse and it contains the entire internet and what more could anyone possibly want?  Besides an upgrade, that is.  I recently misplaced part of the charger for my old iPhone 4S.  Yes, a phone that old can still work, no matter what they tell you!  I went to the store to replace said part only to find that you had to purchase an upgraded replacement that costs twice as much as the old part did.  Why?  It had a new type of USB port, in addition to a “traditional” USB.  Pardon my ignorance, but I thought the U stood for “Universal.”  Now even vocabulary has to change to meet the demands of tech?  Whoever the tech god is, s/he is extremely mercurial.

So I was in a meeting the other day.  A guy older than me was talking about the future of tech.  It occurred to me that guys my age (who didn’t get to take early retirement) are trying to act like those half our age, as if we really understand technology.  Growing up with something is the only way, it seems, to adapt to it in any kind of naturalized way.  There are kids today, if the internet’s to be believed, who don’t understand that you had to lift the receiver on an old-style telephone before dialing.  And if that dial is rotary, well, let’s just say the pizza’s not going to be delivered anytime soon.  Those who grew up with the internet and smart phones have a native understanding that people my age lack.  I still write ideas down on paper.  I prefer DVDs and CDs to streaming.  And I believe books should be made of paper.

Changes in the tech world vindicate me.  I heard that iTunes is going to be retired.  This is after I’ve spent plenty of money downloading songs that I could’ve bought on DVD and have in “hard copy.”  Indeed, friends are telling me to back up my MP3 files on some kind of storage device before iTunes goes the way of UltraViolet.  And we’re supposed to trust tech.  I’ve lost ebooks by switching devices.  Some of my tunes have been licensed away because I downloaded them on an older computer.  What’s one to do?  Buy them again.  In a new format.  On a platform that will eventually be retired so you’ll need to repeat the purchase a third time.  Or you can buy it once in paper or plastic and have it for good.  Now there’s a radical idea.  If only I had something to write it down on.

Ghostly Thoughts

Ghosts tend to be on my mind in the autumn.  Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, has been on my reading list for quite some time.  As a novel about possession, it has some scary moments, but it’s difficult to compete against The Exorcist in that regard.  Tremblay handles the topic with an ambiguity worthy of Shirley Jackson, however, and there are a few clear nods to her work here.  At the risk of giving out spoilers (you have been warned!) although it’s pretty clear by the end that much of the demonic was a cry for attention, the family member behind the tragedy is clearly left obscure.  We find out whodunit, but we’re left unsure as to the real reason behind it.

For fear of giving away too much (although my Goodreads assessment might be guilty of this), I’d like to consider something that I address in Nightmares with the Bible.  Demonic possession is largely coded as a feminine phenomenon.  The reasons for this are likely complex, but they are clearly related to the idea behind witch hunts and fear of women’s power in “a man’s world.”  Possession narratives, while they predated William Peter Blatty, became an essential part of the revived interest in demons brought on by The Exorcist.  Tremblay’s story is clearly aware of this, as he has his characters citing both fiction and non-fictional treatments of the topic.  Since researching the subject on my own, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to handle it as deftly as Blatty did, and although Tremblay has two girls under threat, the question of whether it’s real or not tends to outweigh the pathos of believing Marjorie really has a demon.

In the end, it seems as if her father might be the real source of the family’s haunting.  An unemployed man looking for a way to support his family, he turns to religion.  This scenario is all-too-real to life.  And religion gives us not only a rationale for demons, but also a solution in the form of procedures and proper responses.  There are priests here—the males who alone can deliver the females—but whereas Blatty clearly made them the target of a demon that was pretty obviously real, Tremblay doesn’t play that card.  The priests come and go, and deliverance takes a form not expected for such a narrative.  A Head Full of Ghosts raises lots of questions and, like all good fiction, leaves us pondering at the end.  There’s still time to read it this coming fall.

Freedom’s Price Tag

Independence Day makes me feel conflicted.  Jingoism seems to be an international problem, and although patriotism is deemed next to saintliness, I have my doubts.  No nation is perfect *gasp!* and we would all do well to learn from others.  America is a nation in love with money and that affair has serious consequences.  One is our medical care system.  We’re one of the very few (if not only) “advanced” nations without universal medical coverage.  In fact, people routinely suffer because they lack insurance or their coverage doesn’t provide for what their physicians think is best.  This came home to me while staying with a family member who was hospitalized recently.  On the television the GOP was sponsoring ads against universal health care.  The irony was thick enough to be sickening.

Highly touted as the most affluent nation in the world, we refuse to take care of our own.  How am I supposed to get into the mood for Independence Day?  In Britain (as in most other places) they have universal health care.  I lived there for three years and knew that I could get treatment without emptying out the bank.  Here, in my native country, we have less care.  Someone might make a few dollars less, and that, we’re told, is unacceptable.  Anyone who’s experienced the illness of a family member knows the old one-two.  The treatment itself and the bills that come after.  Lately I’ve just been throwing up my hands and opening up my wallet.  It’s Independence Day.

Not that I’d expected much to change, but my first inkling of being a writer was winning a state-wide essay contest right here in Pennsylvania.  I wrote an essay on “Americanism” back in 1980.  It noted the false sense of righteousness that accompanied the notion.  I was an evangelical Christian then, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t cynical.  In my small town I’d seen John Cougar Mellencamp-level suffering.  I saw unemployment, drug use, and desperation.  I saw politicians saying everything was great and would be even better if we had more guns.  I saw trickle-down economics stemmed at the source.  I knew we were being lied to.  I did hope that things would get better, but now with the GOP fully behind 45 the true ugliness of jingoism has become clear.  It’s Independence Day and I feel sick.  I look across the ocean and see the nation from which we declared said independence suffering from a similar backlash.  But at least they can afford to go to the doctor.

Abroad at Home

Now that I’m back in the United States (but still traveling), I’ve been thinking about impermanence.  That is to say, when you plan an international trip you like things to be somewhat familiar.  At least I do.  For example, when arriving in customs and immigration anxiety can run pretty high.  Having once been stopped at the border of Canada, I have bad memories of how even friendly nations can treat one with suspicion.  Upon arriving at Heathrow, however, entering the United Kingdom was simply a matter of scanning my passport and smiling for the camera.  (It was much more difficult getting back into my native US, ironically, in both these cases.)  Believe me, I don’t mind the improvements, but I didn’t know to expect them.  The same was true of the change in currency.  I even learned that all those pound coins in a box at home, so solid compared to American money, we’re no longer good.  Money for nothing, or nothing for money?

Currency is highly symbolic.  Retiring a form of currency, of course, disadvantages those who live abroad.  And I’m not picking on the UK here.  When my wife and I visited what used to be Czechoslovakia (which is now no longer even a country), our Deutschmarks exchanged for fistfuls of colorful crowns.  This was shortly after the Velvet Revolution, and times of uncertainty tend to devalue the symbols we use to represent buying power.  Although we went from Prague to Vienna, we didn’t have to change all our Czech currency to Austrian.  We didn’t exchange it all, knowing that it was very likely that Czech money would change before we ever got back.  Indeed, the country we visited is no longer a political entity and we’ve not had the opportunity to return.  Who can see the future?

Impermanence is part of being human.  Apart from issues such as global warming, which is creating a more and more inhospitable climate for all species, these changes are based mostly on human culture.  The British currency system was only decimalized in 1971.  Some forms of currency were then no longer legal tender.  I used to collect coins, and constantly changing money is a boon for those who stay with it.  If you keep old coinage long enough, its symbolic value increases beyond what it’s face value ever was.  That’s probably not good investment advice, but for me it was a matter, at least in part, of believing in permanence.  If I take a wheat-back penny from 1909 and hand it to a clerk (where pennies are still accepted), it’s legal tender.  It would have, however, bought much more back when it was first minted.  The symbol itself, it seems, has changed.  And that applies even at home.