All’s Fair

The county fair is an institution that tastes like a real slice of Americana. My family’s been involved with our 4-H Fair for several years now. Long days sitting under tents in the August heat, showcasing to young people that a good time can be had without the usual kinds of diversions that lead to regrets and tattered dreams. For many kids the fair will be as close as they ever get to a cow, goat, or chicken. For the less rurally inclined, there are pets like cats, dogs, and small animals. For others there are model trains, rockets, and airplanes. Increasingly robots and more current forms of art such as steampunk and film-making are appearing. In short, there’s pretty much something for everybody there. I know that my entire family has benefited from the experience. I didn’t know about 4-H as a child, so this has been a pleasant awakening for me.

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As I wondered the fairgrounds, something that I suppose I’ve noticed before hit me with a new clarity. The Arts and Sciences tents are right next to one another, and these represent the classic forms of liberal arts education. Yes, the Gideons and Right-to-Lifers are here, but they’re over in the commercial tent. They’re selling something. Education—true education—is free. Those who grow up on farms can learn an awful lot about science by watching animals. The more formal schooling, however, asks for deeper engagement. Creative writing helps to explore ideas that simply don’t flow in conversation. Photography forces you to look at something from someone else’s point of view. Science teaches close observation and practical extrapolation. This is like a little university set up in a grassy field with a very affordable tuition.

The old hiker’s mantra goes “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” This year there was a real emphasis on footprints. The kinds of footprints that many clubs chose, however, were carbon. Many adults have grown up in a culture of consumption and disposal. Our young are now trying to demonstrate for us the errors of our ways. Sure, there are resources to last for centuries yet, but they will not last forever. Who are we to suppose it is our right to take what we please and leave the mess for our young to clean up? A day at the fair always renews my sense of hope. These are all volunteers here, giving up the latter part of their summer to try to make the world a better place. Perhaps the ethics should come up from the young, rather than descending from generations that have put their own wants ahead of those who might truly make a difference.

Fair Country?

One of the lesser known Bruce Springsteen songs is “County Fair.” I hadn’t heard the song until I purchased The Essential Bruce Springsteen some years back when you actually had to buy a disc to get the music. Not a rock-n-roll anthem, it is a quiet, poignant song about the existential pleasures of a county fair. My daughter has been a 4-H member for six years and we’ve annually attended our county fair-the largest free fair east of the Mississippi, it is said-each of those years. In a good year 10,000 people will wander through, looking at farm animals that seem so foreign in our urban lives and which most people only recognize covered in gravy or some glaze. They see the exotic animals and pets so cute that they should be illegal. Like a fledgling college campus there are Arts and Sciences tents. Model planes, model trains, and model automobiles. To a sophisticated adult this might seem like pretty mind-numbing stuff, but I never fail to leave feeling inspired. I play “County Fair” religiously before heading out the door. Yesterday saw the close of the sixty-fifth Somerset County 4-H Fair, and despite the periodic showers, people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Under the commercial tent stands the Gideons’ table. Each year the fair is literally littered with free Bibles. I noticed with interest that the sign, which had originally read “Free Testaments” had been redacted to “Free New Testaments.” I tried to imagine the conversations, or confrontations that led to such a change. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect Hebrew Bible professors are not among the higher demographics of fair attendees. Most of the colleagues I know would never confront a poor Gideonite about ambiguously handing out New Testaments. I did, however, experience a kind of existential downgrade here. Christians used to declare, doctrinally at least, that the “testaments” were equal. Sure, when you’re standing on the George Washington Bridge trying to decide whether or not to jump, there’s some parts of the older testament that you’d probably be better off not reading. Nevertheless, doesn’t the rule book say the two are part of a whole?

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Nationally, as I well know, there are fewer “Old Testament” jobs than “New Testament.” But that slick little book the Gideons hand out feels a lot more streamlined than the bulky full edition. And I also realize that walking around a relaxing event like a county fair, seeking the most innocent kinds of fun imaginable, that a Bible in your hip pocket is probably overkill. There seems to be no devil lurking here among the sheep and the goats. Feet damp from the rain, under a cloudy, August nighttime sky, sitting in the car my daughter reflects on how this is her last fair as a 4-H member. I wish there were some twinkling stars overhead to make this a storybook ending. But all I’ve got is a truncated Bible in my pocket, and it is missing my favorite part.

Retrograde Hollow-days

Surrounded by the intoxicatingly ebullient aroma of balsam, it is difficult to believe that it is not yet Christmas. As 4-Hers decorate their wreathes, in November, I recall that the first signs of Christmas appeared in the stores before its unexpected cousin Halloween this year. In fact, stores hawking Christmas remain open year round. This retrograde motion of the holidays in time belies the very concept of the “holy day.” Ancients, and not-so-ancients, believed that there actually was something different about particular days. The trimmings and the trappings were secondary to the point of the day; something momentous had transpired on this very day, making it unlike any other. With the advent of industrialization and its unrelenting work ethic, holidays came to represent a kind of mini-exodus, a release from labor that falls outside the insufficient weekend. Leisure time encourages shopping. A modern holiday is born.

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The increase in labor-saving devices has placed us in a twilight of leisure. Holidays can be anticipated many months in advance—gifts purchased earlier and earlier, until the holiday itself seems to pale by comparison. Moving retrograde into other seasons. The joys of the consumer holiday are hollow. It is too easily forgotten that money is a symbol, a mere medium of exchange. It has become an end in itself. Just two centuries ago nobody would have dreamed of collecting the symbolic patina of a capitalist system for a profession. Now accounting may lead to great wealth. The wealth, however, is transparent. Millionaires, like emperors, are disinclined to have the fact that their clothes are immaterial pointed out. They are, after all, where we want to be. Let the one with no dreams pop the first seam.

Holidays have the capacity to give symbolic meaning to life. They emphasize the cycles of nature and of life itself: birth, procreation, death. Removed from context, however, they lose their meaning and become just another excuse to spend too much, eat too much, drink too much. We call it celebrating. Those on the receiving end of the cash flow have the most to gain by promoting such hollow-days. Nothing is so easily exploited as child-like anticipation. The scent of balsam takes me back to a far-distant childhood this November night. The memories, no matter how dysfunctional the setting, are serene and full of anticipation. The symbolism suggests this may not be vanity after all. Until the bank statement comes, and the hollow-days begin all over again.

For the Love of Books

As is so often the case, publication and religion go hand-in-glove. George Routledge was a man with a vision. As a literary man of nineteenth century England, he moved from bookseller to publisher, establishing the well-known London house of Routledge (aka Warne & Routledge, George Routledge & Sons) in 1843. Although his initial successes were literary, among his first publications were the reprinted Bible commentaries of Albert Barnes. By 1854 a branch of Routledge was established in New York where it continues to operate. Acquired by Taylor & Francis in 1998, Routledge still pursues and produces notable academic books in many fields of the humanities and social sciences. The company is a testimony of the strength of vision of a man with a love of books.

I began this blog as a recently unemployed editor at Gorgias Press and part-time lecturer at Rutgers University. Both were jobs involving books and religion, but I am now moving to Routledge as a religion editor. Once again, I will be full-time in the world of books. Regular readers of this blog will know of my sense of loss at the closing of Borders this year. Although I claim no special insight into the way businesses work, the loss of comfortable space surrounded by books is something I felt very deeply. There seems to be a kind of redemption in taking on a position that will once again set me in the role of seeking to produce more books. It is as if the fabric of several loose strands of my life that had unraveled under the trials of the world of higher education have once again rejoined.

While whiling away the happy hours at the 4-H fair last week, I enjoyed strolling through the arts tent. There I noticed that someone in our county has started a creative writing club. This was a hopeful sign; the previous year I had made inquiry into starting such a club myself. When the world seems to have evolved beyond books, those of us who need them must invest the love of writing in our young. Although 4-H is not a religious organization, writing nevertheless has a sacred appeal. Those who feel drawn to the craft know the incredible grip that written expression can exert on a person—seeing your name on the cover of a book is a form of eternal life, metaphorically speaking. As editor I will not be the name on the cover, but I will be the one helping others to attain that immortality. It may not bring Borders back from the dead, but even the very idea of resurrection comes to us in the form of a book. Even so, Routledge is the agent of resurrection in my meandering career.

Natural Born Killers

Every year I spend some time at the local 4-H fair. I grew up not knowing about 4-H, and the discovery of the organization as an adult has been an education for me. The local university extension that supports 4-H is Rutgers, although on campus you never hear about this rural aspect of the sophisticated world of academia. My daughter has been a member of the cat club for years, and although not a member myself, they are cordial and always offer me a chair (something no university has ever done) to spend a few hours in the shade while the kids showcase their skills and knowledge. Young potential is one of the few sources of optimism I find in a culture obsessed with selfish gain. My daughter’s cat club shares a tent with the alpacas, the epitome of herbivorous tranquility. With wool so soft as to be unbelievable, the alpacas with their long, graceful necks and huge brown eyes, look to be the least offensive creatures at the fair (except maybe the bunnies).

People in crowds, however, often shift dynamics and stress systems that would otherwise find their own balance. While many of the thousands of visitors at the 4-H fair are respectful of the animals, many others seem unaware that loud voices and running children and constant noise can stress even docile animals kept in small enclosures. Kids will find a cat in its cage and bark at it to get a reaction, and we all know the glass-tapping behavior that drives the reptiles wild. The fair has been part of my life for three years now and I’ve never noticed a stressed alpaca. They seem above it all. Yesterday, however, one stressed animal took on a surprisingly human behavior and began to bully a smaller alpaca in its pen. Apart from the caricatured spitting, the larger animal began licking and biting the smaller one, snaking its long neck after the smaller camelid’s head, biting its ears, and generally making its life miserable. The aggression lasted only a few minutes, but it felt to me like the tension of seeing bullies rough up a kid on the playground. The fairgoers felt uncomfortable, with some even wagging their fingers at the larger, aggressive animal.

Club members eventually stepped in to separate the fighting alpacas, and the poor, smaller animal kept trembling for several minutes after the attack. No blood was let; the assault was mostly psychological. I went out to get a snack at the food tent. When I returned I was relieved to see the smaller animal had been removed from the pen, given some space. Later I learned the young animal had died from the stress of the attack. I had seen the incident, and the violence had mostly been of an unrelenting display of dominance with a minimal physical attack. The aura of threat had created the stress. Saddened, I realized that a parable had unfolded before my naïve eyes that afternoon. Like all parables, only those with perceptive eyes may be able to see through the drama and get to the heart of the matter. If only people were as perceptive as even the innocent herbivores, perhaps such parables could finally come to an end. In the meantime, maybe I’ll watch the bunnies and forget what I read in Watership Down.

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Religious Raven

Having seldom achieved any sort of public recognition in my youth, I have been gratified to observe the approbation my daughter frequently earns. One such instance occurred yesterday as she won an Outstanding Presenter award at the state level of 4-H. For her presentation she introduced and recited Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” from memory. As much as I like to take credit for some of her taste in literature, her remarkable memorizing ability that has impressed several judges and parents along the way is the result of her own determination. “The Raven” has always been among my favorite poems. As I listened to my daughter’s recitation yesterday, once again the wealth of religious and biblical images stood out.

Starting subtly with the perching of the raven on a bust of Pallas, Athena, the protective goddess of Athens itself, Poe adds the supernatural to his lamentation on the death of his wife. The bird’s origins on “the night’s Plutonian shore” also point the reader to the classical underworld toward which the poem inevitably points. The last five stanzas, where Poe’s verse turns directly toward his black thoughts at the decline of his wife, introduce the presence of seraphim—the turning point in the poem—angelic beings mentioned as attendants to God’s throne in Isaiah. The divine presence, however, offers Poe no comfort as the raven refuses to relinquish his memories of his love. Asking with Jeremiah (and citing the bird as prophet) if there is balm in Gilead, the poet is informed no such comfort exists. Calling God in Heaven as witness the bereaved asks if in Eden (Aidenn) he will be reunited with his bride, only to be informed such will not be the case. The raven, compared to devil, thing of evil, and a demon, represents for Poe the ultimate reality.

“The Raven” is a dark poem, tinged with religious imagery that was freely drawn upon in the nineteenth century. Having heard it recited many times over the past few months, I have come to believe that Poe would have been in accord with my belief that religion and fear are close siblings. When the climax of the author’s pain and sorrow is reached, the religious imagery predominates. This is a paradigm of many human lives. How many non-religious folk seek to make their peace with the supernatural when death is imminent? “Eleventh hour conversion” may be a trite trope, but it does point to something that Edgar Allan Poe recognized long before me—when we find ourselves most afraid religious impulses are frequently at hand.

Trashing the Bible

For the past month any free time I’ve had apart from class preparation has gone toward helping my daughter get ready for a presentation at the 4-H County Fair. Now, the morning after the close of the fair, when prize dairy cattle and model rockets and treasured family pets have all been transported back home, I am left with that sense of purposelessness that follows a period of intense preparation. Four minutes of public exposure translated into hours, days of often emotional planning, trouble-shooting, and dreaming. Although I grew up in a small town, farm life is as foreign to me as Cambodian politics. When I’m at the fair, however, spending long hours wandering amid animals, and go-carts, and community college recruiters, somehow being outdoors feels like being truly human. Perhaps it helps that the local 4-H is part of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension. My regnant, reluctant employer channels enormous resources into helping the youth of the state transform into the future.

One of the vendors at the fair was the Gideons. Each year they have a table piled high with cheap New Testaments bound in flimsy plastic made to resemble jaunty orange leather, and the unwary soon find themselves with the Gospels and Paul tucked away in their bulging samples bags. It is curious that the Hebrew Bible, apart from the Psalms, is so dispensable in the cause of conversion or enlightenment. The motivation of the Gideon movement, ironically, draws on the book of Judges for its very label. An occupational hazard, I already have more Bibles than any decent human should, nevertheless, the Gideons always wish me to take on one more, if only a truncated version.

While wandering back to my daughter’s club tent after a trip to the bustling food tent, I passed one of the numerous trash receptacles mandated by any such large gathering of people in a disposable culture. Glancing in for a place to toss my greasy napkin, I spied a Gideon Bible, its optimistic orange cover partially smudged by cotton candy and other ambiguous substances. The tableau gave me a moment of reflection amid the noise, energy, and enticing aromas of church and firehouse cuisine. To someone, the Bible was that extra bit of unwanted, cheap, fair promotional junk. Although not a Bible-worshiper, the image left me just a little sad. Those weeks of intense preparation for my daughter’s presentation are brief compared to the decades I’ve spent trying unsuccessfully to cobble a teaching career out of the Bible. Sometimes symbolism can be cruel and ironic all at the same time.