Saturdays Past

Feeling somewhat between a state of self-pity and that of a salmon who couldn’t find his way upstream, I turned to horror.  The weekend before Thanksgiving has traditionally been AAR/SBL weekend for me.  I missed the Annual Meeting a few times due to unemployment, but for the most part I have been there every year since 1991.  As the representative of a publisher it is an endurance-testing event.  I had half-hour meetings scheduled all day on Saturday, Sunday, and today, and even a couple for the much neglected Tuesday morning.  Then I found myself home, awaiting a suitcase delivery.  United Airlines couldn’t say where the bag would be, and it only arrived Saturday night.  My wife had to work all that day, and so I turned to my boyhood.  Saturday afternoon was monster movie time.

For my current book project I’m discussing the components of The Conjuring diegesis.  I’m also trying to do some traditional research on the films.  Airport-lagged (I hadn’t been on a jet, but at my age being awake so late and sleeping so poorly has its own consequences), I pulled out Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation.  I wondered what it would be like to see them in the order of their plots rather than their actual chronological order.  Would the story hold together?  Would I find anything new?  The films discussed in my books are those I’ve watched many times—what I like to call “guilty pleasure research.”  Or just a boyhood Saturday afternoon revisited.  I couldn’t leave the house since I was told my bag couldn’t just be dropped on the porch.

From the beginning the story of Annabelle, the “possessed doll,” takes many twists and turns.  The demon is invited into the spooky toy by distraught parents after the tragic death of their child.  It then takes over an orphan who is adopted by a couple that she murders, as their natural daughter, in the earlier installment.  The doll is possessed in that telling because the girl Annabelle had joined a Satanic cult, like Charles Manson’s, and her blood dripped into the doll as she lay dying.  After claiming another female victim, the doll is sent to a couple of nurses as a present, where she appears at the opening of The Conjuring.  The story shifts with each sequential telling, leaving the binge viewer dissatisfied.  I haven’t had time for a double-feature since moving this summer.  Thick snow still covered the ground and the sky held that solemn haze of late November.  My colleagues were discussing erudite topics in Denver, and I was home using horror as therapy.  If you’re curious for further results, the book will be out in a couple of years.  Be sure to look for it at AAR/SBL.

Righteous City

I’m a stomach sleeper, if that’s not TMI.  This began many years ago when I realized that upon awaking from nightmares I was always on my back.  I started doing what I knew was dangerous to infants, safe since I haven’t been part of that demographic for decades.  Terrazzo isn’t one of my favorite sleeping surfaces, however, and on my back on the floor of Newark’s Liberty Airport I realized I couldn’t roll over, for many reasons.  My glasses, for one thing, were in the internal pocket of my Harris Tweed.  For another, on one’s stomach one’s wallet is exposed in a way that’s maybe too inviting.  Before suggesting I could’ve placed my wallet and glasses elsewhere, let me write in my own defense that rationality isn’t my strong suit after midnight.

The night before

I found a spot next to a set of escalators where the constant thrumming alternately kept me awake and soothed me to nod.  I heard many languages spoken as I drifted in and out of consciousness for the few hours I had to wait for dawn.  And nobody disturbed me.  This is rather remarkable—a person asleep is a vulnerable being.  Doing it out in public with no private walls was a new experience for me.  I don’t sleep on planes, buses, or trains.  Or, until two days ago, airports.  It brought to mind the biblical world.  A town was considered a righteous place if a stranger could sleep unmolested in a public place.  The traveller—please take note, United—was in need of special consideration.  My situation revealed something unexpected about Newark Airport.

The morning after

It was full of angry, frustrated people.  I opened my eyes at five a.m. to find a very long line snaking down the corridor behind me—a queue that had been there when I first drifted off.  These were people trying to reschedule flights since United couldn’t bump that day’s passengers because they’d decided not to fly out the night before.  Despite the weariness and intensity of emotions, there was very little bad behavior.  We were biblical strangers, mostly in the same circumstances.  No creature comforts, no privacy.  An east Asian woman said the next morning that in her country the airline would’ve brought food, and blankets at least.  In the United States fiscal concerns reign supreme, however; do you know how much it would cost to care for all these stranded people?  When I opened my eyes the situation was about the same as when I closed them.  I couldn’t help noticing I awoke on my back.

Odyssey in Blue

Now I have the United bastardization of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” stuck in my head.  This comes from listening to the same recording approximately a quarter-gazillion times while on hold.  I expected to awake this morning in Denver, but instead I learned a very valuable lesson about refugees.  It went down like this: yesterday’s east coast storm over-performed while United Airlines under-performed.  Seeing the forecast, I changed to an earlier flight to try to beat it out of Dodge.  I arrived in Newark only to have my flight incrementally delayed until it was cancelled around 9:30.  By this time all the hotels within 11 miles of the airport were booked solid from earlier cancellations.  Taxis were running into Manhattan only.  Access to New Jersey Transit was not possible.  I’d been awake since the 4 a.m. text alert from United that said bad weather was on the way.  Finally, around 1 a.m. I found an unoccupied piece of floor and slept next to total strangers.

The experience opened my eyes to the plight of refugees.  Weary airline employees (probably worried about getting home themselves) were not friendly and didn’t welcome questions.  The line for rescheduling flights was, by no exaggeration, at least 400 individuals long, one of whom told me this morning she’d waited 8-hours to talk to someone.  Since cancelled flight baggage is not checked, it had to be retrieved, and the line for doing such was equally as long as the rescheduling queue.  United was under-staffed, stressed, and not in control of the situation.  Nobody wanted to listen to you.  You were just another stranger with a sad story and all of us have problems, don’t you know.  The refugee has no place to go.  Nobody to care.

With my aging cell phone dying, my lifeline to those who cared was fading.  The shops closed, cutting off access to food.  Ground transportation was not responsive.  Hundreds and hundreds of people were stranded, relying on their own wits (or in my case, lack thereof) to decide what to do.  I just wanted someone to say “Go here.  Do this.”  Instead I found myself wrapped in tweed, using my carry-on, Jacob-like, for a pillow.  I felt for the strangers around me.  They were suddenly friends as we were all in the same category—displaced people.  This nightmare lasted under 24 hours for me, but I am now keenly aware that it never ends for some.  Refugees need a caring glance.  A kind word.  And it would help if the powers that be would leave Gershwin alone.

Eternal Return

For those of you who don’t live, eat, and breathe academic religious studies, it’s my duty to point out that the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) annual meeting begins this week.  For those of us in the biz it’s like the sun holding still at Makkedah as we try to prepare for our various roles.  This year the conference is in warm and sunny Denver, so be sure to dress in layers.  The meeting was held in Denver many years ago now, and I remember very little of it other than it being the year my final published paper from my Nashotah House days was read.  Or started to be.

I don’t know whether it was the altitude or the time of year, but I wasn’t feeling well the last time we met in Denver.  Although it may not show on this blog, I’m really into geology and the city has a great mineral collection in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  I went out to look at the collection the morning of my paper and had the great embarrassment of being sick while in the museum.  I went back to my hotel for a nap and when it was time to read my paper I had to excuse myself because running my eyes across the lines of text made me nauseous.  Concerned-looking philologists didn’t know what to do as I sat through the session with my head between my knees.  That’s how I remember Denver.

Perhaps this year will offer redemption.  You see, it’s very different attending the conference as the representative of a press instead of an institution.  Your time is completely booked.  People want to discuss their book ideas with you.  For a few short days of the year you’re one of the popular guys.  But for me, there are colleagues from every stage of my career on hand.  Not too many people from Nashotah House come, although there are more now than there were when I was about the only faculty member who went.  I see those I knew from Oshkosh and Rutgers, Gorgias and Routledge.  Those I knew as friends before we became professional colleagues.  They’re not after me to publish their books, and sometimes that’s all it takes to make three days of popularity really count.  Later today I’m off to Denver and I won’t have time to see the sparkling minerals this time around, but hopefully I’ll remember it more fondly when its over.

Good Company

It’s a matter of scale. If you read this blog chances are you like books. If you like books you probably know about remainders. When you walk into a bookstore and see a shelf or section of really cheap new books, you’ve found the remainders. This happens when a publisher overprints and, instead of pulping books (that hurts even to type!) the remaining stock is sold at just above cost so that retailers can add a small markup and make a marginal profit. Most authors don’t like to see their books remaindered, since it means demand wasn’t as high as the publisher anticipated. Expectation was that the book would do better than it did, now the publisher and bookseller just want to recoup some of their losses. Often there’s a marker stroke across the bottom pages of the book so you can’t return it for the retail price.

For those of us whose books sell in the double digits, seeing yourself on a remainder list would be kind of a thrill. The other day I looked at Wipf & Stock’s 50 percent off sale to find a copy of Weathering the Psalms listed. Probably it was overprinted for the AAR/SBL annual meeting, since I saw that they did have copies there again last November. If they hadn’t bothered to print out a bunch, I would never be on the remainder shelf in Eugene. I don’t mind because I’m in good company. Looking at the list I feel like I belong in some kind of academic crowd in the reduced bin. There’s a sense of community among the overprinted.

Turnabout, they say, is fair play. I’ve bought plenty of remaindered books in my life. Lately I buy used academic books because the new editions are out of the reach of an independent scholar who isn’t independently wealthy and who doesn’t have access to a university library. If I buy others cheaply, I turn the other page and expect the same back. Most of us who write academic books aren’t in it for the money. We want to be remembered for our contributions to the discussion. We took the many months and years it takes to research, write, and polish a book, and we want others to take an interest in what we have to say. It’s all about the dialogue. It’s all about the community. For those of us who never really found a home among the established academy, publication can mean a lot. It doesn’t matter that the books are sold cheaply—in fact, that’s good, because it means somebody might just read what you wrote. It’s all a matter of scale.

Home of Cthulhu

Travel by train seems to be so much more civilized than flying. You don’t need to arrive at the airport two hours in advance for the privilege of standing in long lines to be practically strip-searched. You just hop on the train and find a seat. The wifi is free and you don’t have to set your phone on “train mode.” Amtrak isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s not bad. When I’m flying I often wonder where I am. I guess at each large town we fly over, although some natural features can’t be mistaken from the air. The Great Lakes, Grand Canyon, and even Niagara Falls are all pretty obvious. The names of many towns, however, remains unknown from above. On the way from New York City to Boston, each stop is announced, small towns and large. I noted that one of the later latter was Providence.

Providence is, of course, many things to many people. To me it will always be the home of Cthulhu. Yes, I know that Brown University and Providence College are both located there, but higher education doesn’t seem to have a room for me, so I revel in the imagined monsters of H. P. Lovecraft. You can’t help but experience a bit of Lovecraft’s New England on the train. Skirting not far inland, the tracks take you through swampy lowlands with grand houses and dilapidated hovels overlooking them. Miskatonic University, as is widely known, is based on Brown, which Lovecraft never attended. He was a writer keenly aware of place. These tracks take me through the world of his murky water gods on the way to Boston.

The train station in Providence turns out to be subterranean. Well, not really, but it is under the street level with no noticeable distinguishing features. Lots and lots of graffiti cover every concrete surface along the tracks coming into the city. It’s hard to tell from the train, but none seem to make reference to Cthulhu. I thought of Lovecraft’s gravestone with it’s famous epitaph, “I am Providence.” Idling in the shadowy station, unable to see anything of the enjoyable town I recall from my few visits here, it’s easy to suppose that this might be Cthulhu’s home after all. Caught somewhere between civilization and the sea, in the half-light of a late autumn day, buried under what we think is somehow progress, I think perhaps Lovecraft was right. Cthulhu may be dead, but he is dreaming still.

Spinning Wheels

That warm, secure feeling of being home for the holidays never goes away. Admittedly Thanksgiving takes on a different cast for those of us who are vegetarians becoming vegan, but it’s not about the food, really. It’s never been only just about the food. Thankfulness as a way of life seems to hard to obtain when your own government has turned against all the principles that once made America a wonderful nation in which to have been born, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful. As a commuter, I’m especially thankful for time. Each day’s normally spent riding a bus, working, and riding again. Over the past several days I took a train to Boston for the AAR/SBL annual meeting, and then a long train ride back. Followed by a single-day drive to Ithaca and back. I’m thankful for a little time not to be on the move.

Among the many memories for which I’m grateful is a mountain road that divides Glen Kinglas and Glen Croe in Scotland. Known for its splendid view, it’s one of many places that I have had the privilege of visiting. Although sitting still, here in my chair, I recall yet another busy day of driving with friends. Poor graduate students all, we nevertheless knew the value of good company and taking little for granted. As someone who grew up poor, I had managed to move to Boston, travel to Israel and work on a dig, and now I was living in Edinburgh, working toward a doctorate in one of the world’s great universities. That afternoon, however, I was out viewing what the wider world had to offer. The name of the viewpoint on the A83—from which that world all seemed visible—was “Rest and Be Thankful.”

The name speaks volumes. New Jersey certainly isn’t Scotland. My job is not that for which I trained. I continue to live as if I were a graduate student while friends have purchased houses and furnished them nicely. Today none of that matters. I’m not on a bus, train, or plane. I’m not glued to my seat in an automobile. I’m thankful to have some time to sit and reflect. Catch up, perchance, on a little bit of sleep. Unstructured time is perhaps the rarest commodity in a capitalistic society. Today I have it in relative abundance. No turkeys have lost their lives on my account and I’m able to rest and be thankful. There’s still a long way to go, but for today I’ll enjoy family and stillness. And I am thankful.