Whose computer is this?I’m the one who paid for it, but it is clearly the one in control in this relationship.You see, if the computer fails to cooperate there is nothing you can do.It’s not human and despite what the proponents of AI say, a brain is not just a computer.Now I’m not affluent enough to replace old hardware when it starts slowing down.Silicon Valley—and capitalism in general—hate that.I suppose I’m not actually paid well enough to own a computer.I started buying laptops for work when Nashotah House wouldn’t provide faculty with computers.Then as an itinerant adjunct it was “have laptop, will travel (and pay bills).”I even bought my own projector.At least I thought I was buying it.
I try to keep my software up to date.The other day a red dot warned me that I had to clear out some space on my disc so Catalina could take over.It took three days (between work and serving the laptop) to back-up and delete enough files to give it room.I started the upgrade while I was working, when my personal laptop can rest.When I checked in it hadn’t installed.Throwing a string of technical reasons at me in a dialogue box, my OS told me that I should try again.Problem was, it told me this at 3:30 in the morning, when I do my own personal work.I had no choice.One can’t reason with AI.When I should’ve been writing I was rebooting and installing, a process that takes an hour from a guy who doesn’t have an hour to give.
As all of this was going on I was wondering who owned whom.In college professors warned against “keyboard compositions.”These were literal keyboards and they meant you shouldn’t type up your papers the night before they were due, writing them on your typewriter.They should’ve been researched and “written” before being typed up.That’s no longer an option.This blog has well over a million words on it.Who has time to handwrite a million words, then type them up all in time to post before starting work for the day?And that’s in addition to the books and articles I write for actual publication.And the novels and short stories.For all of this I need my laptop, the Silver to my Lone Ranger, to be ready when I whistle.Instead it’s dreaming its digital dreams and I’m up at 3:30 twiddling my thumbs.
Who’s ready to sue?Now, I’m not a litigious person, but when someone (and corporations are people, according to the law) to whom I’ve been paying buckoodlesof money for many years tries to force me to do things as quid pro quo, it’s time to sue.I started using Apple products during the Reagan Administration.I can’t recall how many laptops, computers, iPods, iPads, iPhones, and iTunes cards that entails, but it’s been a year’s salary’s worth at least.Okay, my phone—which is a classic—has been fine until… and this is the kicker… we bought a new phone for my wife.Since then my iPhone has started having problems it never had before.Our service provider knows we bought a new phone.There’s got to be more money available there, “What’s he got in his pockets, my precious?”, right?As soon as it was activated, mine began acting up.Coincidence?
Look, tech gods.I don’t need a whole universe in my pocket.My phone is a camera, a GPS, and a text-sender.That’s all I need it to be.I can still read cursive.I have LPs—not the modern retro ones either—in my living room.I own pens and pencils.You have no right to make me buy an upgrade I don’t even need!I hate the capitalist game.Come here into my closet with me.(It’s okay, nothing weird, I promise.)See this shirt?I still wear it.I bought it in 1981.I know that’s 38 years ago.That’s precisely my point.The shirt’s still good, so why throw it out?You guys in Silicon Valley need to get out more.There’s more to life than upgrading people’s software while they’re asleep.I don’t know how you sue gods, but I’m going to figure it out.
Some of us are minimally middle class.Maybe in California you don’t have a lot of rain, but around here we do.And that means roof replacements.Maybe the tech gods pay you guys better, but I spent my youth earning a Ph.D. so I could earn less than a tree-trimmer in Iowa.That is true, by the way.So the last thing I need is some tech god extorting me to buy a new device.Leave my phone alone!And don’t tell me the tech doesn’t support it because I know people with cellphones over a decade old that still work.Republicans and tech gods know how to ignore subpoenas, I guess.But it’s time for the rest of us to file a lawsuit.Who’s with me?
For the next sixty seconds… (If you were born after Civil Defense aired these commercials, it’s your loss.) I’ve been reading about animal intelligence—there will be more on this anon. Today’s lesson is on artificial intelligence. For now let this be an illustration of how difficult it is to come down from an inspired weekend to the daily technology-enhanced drudgery we call day-to-day life. One of the real joys of seeing art in person is that no tech intervenes in the experience. It is naked exposure to another human being’s expression of her or himself. Over the weekend we wandered through five venues of intense creativity and then, back home, it was once more into the web. The ever-entangling internet of things.
I write, for better or for worse, on my laptop. My writing’s actually better on paper, but you need everything in electronic form for publication, so who has the time to write and retype, especially when work is ten hours of your day? Then a system update alert flashes in the upper right corner of my screen. “Okay,” I say setting the laptop aside, “go ahead and update.” But then the message that states I have to clear enough gigs for an update. I have been a little too creative and I’ve used my disc space for stuff I’ve made rather than Apple. This is a test. Okay, so I plug in my trusty terabyte drive to back things up before deleting them. But the laptop doesn’t recognize the drive. Oh, so it needs a reboot! (Don’t we all?) I give the command to restart. It can’t because some app refuses to quit beach-balling, as if it is the computer that’s doing the actual thinking. Force quit. “Are you sure?” the Mac cheekily asks. “You might lose unsaved changes.” I need a technological evangelist, I guess.
All of this takes time away from my precious few minutes of daily creativity. Restart, login, start copying files. Time for work! Just a mere sixty hours ago or less I was wandering through showcases of genuine human creation. Art pieces that make you stop and ponder, and not have to upgrade the software. Artists can talk to you and shake your hand. Explain what they’ve tried to express in human terms. Meanwhile my phone had died and was pouting while I charged it. I know Apple wants me to upgrade my hardware—their technological extortion is well known. Anyone who uses a computer experiences it. Buy a new one or I’ll waste your time. The choice is yours. This is a test. For the next sixty years…
Now, I don’t know how often you have to compile a bibliography, but it’s harder than it used to be.Some time ago—my hardware’s a bit aged, so I can’t remember exactly when—Apple products wouldn’t run Microsoft software.In one of those turf wars that occasionally break out among those who vie for technical control of the world, the two companies divorced for a period.As a result, when I open Word files on my Mac, they become “Pages” documents.That’s fine; since I use a variety of word processors I can usually figure them out fairly readily.One thing, however, that both Word and Pages do is to assume they know what you’re trying to do.Software engineers control “smart options” so that when, for example, you’re working on a numbered list (or lettered list) it automatically goes to the next number or letter, formatting happily as it goes.
I have an article coming out in a collection of essays and I had to put a bibliography together.One of the books was, unfortunately, written by an author who styled himself with an initial for his first name.Since that initial was “A.” I had great difficulty convincing Pages (as I would have Word) that I was not trying to start a lettered list.I was trying to build a bibliography.No matter what I did—copy and paste, retype, hit “delete” til my fingers bled—it simply would not change this A. from a numbered list (just as it likes to capitalize the word that comes after a period automatically) to regular text.I finally had to retype the whole entry, careful not to put the first initial first, so that Pages wouldn’t reform everything with no option to shut that feature off. I later snuck in while Pages was dozing and added the A.
Early on, I admit, the footnote function in Word saved premature graying.Having typed—literally typed—many a college paper only to find that I’d misjudged the spacing required for footnotes and having to retype the entire page, I appreciated this auto-function.It was great to have an option where an algorithm could figure out all the spacing for you, and all you had to do was enter data.Now, however, word processors think in terms of the lowest common denominator.If you begin with “A.” you naturally will be progressing to “B.”Apparently there is no other reason that a sentient being would begin with “A.” And of course bibliography begins with “B.”
A few years ago my wife bought me a smart phone. Being lifelong Mac users, the iPhone was the model of choice. I don’t have the intense connectivity issues of the young, I guess, so I don’t use it for texting or surfing the net. It’s great for holding bus tickets, though, and navigating in unfamiliar places. I’ve grown quite used to the convenience of having the internet in my pocket. Such a smart device. Naturally, one smart device in a family will breed others. We all have iPhones now. Like most Apple products they’re hermetically sealed and have few moving parts. The user need not know what goes on inside. It’s the very definition of a black box.
Then my wife’s phone went rogue. Suddenly it stopped picking up 3G signals (these are older models, after all). Now, you can’t just open up a black box and look inside. Even if you could I’d have no idea what I would be looking at. So I called tech support. My wife keeps music and photos on her phone, so we didn’t want to lose anything. Little did I realize that I’d just committed two-and-a-half hours of my life to phone repair. Before I was done, I would come to know six discrete people at differing levels of intimacy as we worked together to figure out what might make a black box tick. I spoke to Apple support and our service carrier. They put us back through to Apple support, and they had to call us back because the process was a lengthy one. In the end, it worked. The phone was restored to its former glory, but I had lost one of the very brief evenings I have.
One of the typical sci-fi, or apocalyptic, scenarios is the person or civilization that builds something s/he it can’t control. Like a biblical plague, we’ve unleashed a technology that makes our lives oh so much easier but ever so much more complicated. In addition to our professional expertise, we all need to understand, to some degree, technology. Technology and deity have begun to share blurred lines. It’s as if many believe it will save us. At the end of the day, however, we have to assert that it is here to serve us. We are the gods and technology represents the lowly beings we’ve created to do our bidding. Then again, those who read ancient stories know what happens when the gods create a servant race. I’m lucky that all it cost me was two-and-a-half hours, and not some even greater sacrifice.
I think Steve Bannon has already taken over my computer. How else can I explain everything stopping in the middle of a word, fingers flying, building up to some rhetorical flourish and suddenly the screen goes blank. Windows that I’d forgotten I had open reappear only to shut down. A brief message appears telling me that an “update” is being installed. I don’t mind do I? After all, it’s the middle of the night. Who’s watching in the middle of the night? We all know who the real president is, but why he’s interested in my muddled musings is anybody’s guess.
You see, I live a regimented life. You have to when your bus arrives before 6 a.m. I crawl reluctantly from my bed at 3:30 for one purpose only—to write. The commute and work take about 14 hours of the 24 I’m allotted every day, and I’m told that 8 of the remaining should be for sleeping. That doesn’t leave much time. So I skimp on the dozing part and get up to scribble my thoughts when, traditionally, demons are a-prowl. I need my computer to be with me on this. Kind of difficult to post on a blog without it. Not that I enjoy my early morning violence to the soft fabric of dreamland. My fellow early morning commuters know what I mean. Every day there’s a car just pulling up to some bus stop as the driver’s put on his blinkers, indicating he’s pulling out. I know some folks roll out of the bed, into the shower, and onto the bus. Some continue their sleep on the bus. I can’t blame them. I’m Manichaean about my day. It’s either asleep or awake. I don’t nap, so I need to write when I’m most awake. Just after 3:30 a.m.
How do I know it’s Steve Bannon? It’s only a guess really. I’ve heard that Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates keep a piece of opaque tape over the camera of their laptops. Why anybody’d want to see a confused, morning-headed, middle-aged guy with his mouth hanging open, wondering what’s just happened to the blog post he was writing is beyond me. But then I’m no expert in national security. In this year of 1984 we’re all threats to the powers that be, I guess. Thing is, I can’t remember what I wanted to say once the laptop restarts half an hour later. And that’s probably the point.
How terribly rude. I was right in the middle of a sentence when my word processor shut down. Then my computer. A system update. It’s 4:00 a.m., the time I usually upload my blog post. You have to understand that I get up at 3:30 so that I have time to write. My laptop assumes nobody is working “in the middle of the night.” I would’ve thought my fingers on its keys would’ve given it a clue. Now it tells me I’ll have access, new upgraded system installed, in 25 minutes. Doesn’t my laptop have all my personal details when it comes to shopping? You’d think it would know all my personal habits by now. I mean, this is the way I do it every day. Right now my concerns are secondary. This system update can’t wait. I wasn’t even given a choice. Power nap for Apple.
What disturbs me most is that my computer reads every word I type, yet it still thinks I’m just like everybody else. Who’s awake and writing at 4:00 a.m.? And I thought we had a rapport, my laptop and me. I was the Skipper to his Little Buddy. The Agent 86 to her 99. The Will Robinson to its Robot. I guess I had it backwards all the time. The brain on my lap doesn’t agree with the brain in my head. If I can’t get my writing done now, it won’t get done at all because at ten minutes to six I’ve got to be on that bus. New Jersey Transit doesn’t offer working overhead lights much of the time, let alone wifi. It’s now or never. My coffee’s already gone and the next thing on my daily agenda is the shower. I always come up with ideas in the shower—I need my Little Buddy waiting for me when I rush out to write them down.
Who’s sitting on whose lap? How could I have gotten something so very basic so terribly wrong? In ancient times the one sitting was superior to the one standing. When the computer’s sitting on the one sitting we know who’s really in charge. Let the one with eyes to read understand. I’m a busy man, but my Little Buddy—my Skipper—is busier. When’s the last time I read a paper map? Opened a phone book? Wrote an actual letter? I can hear those bus wheels rumbling. Excuse me, but my master is calling.
Can belief be quantified? Apparently yes. I’ve spent my life trying to avoid the dismal science, yet it seems that everyone else is pretty much agreed that money is the measure of all things. Higher education has certainly been chasing that rabbit for years. My choice of “careers” has always been aimed at those which downplay finance while paying enough to cover the bills. One has to be practical. My wife recently sent me an article in The Guardian by Harriet Sherwood entitled, “Religion in US ‘worth more than Google and Apple combined’.” At first, I have to admit, a kind of triumphalism overcame me. A vindication that I had chosen a valuable aspect of human existence with which to while away my years here on earth. Then came the troubling implications.
We tend to hear only the bad news about religion. Religion, we’re told, is only super-sized superstition. It supports prejudice. It capitalizes on fear. And nobody really believes anymore. And so the trite truisms march past like tin soldiers on their way to a real war. You see, if we can’t put a dollar value on religion—or any belief system—then we have no way to assess whether it’s worth wasting our time on or not. Maybe people will begin to pay attention now. There’s gold in them thar hills. Yes, the religious are more likely to open their wallets and keep the economy moving than are the wealthy. Yes, those are antithetical groups, for the most part. When we can start toting up dollars and pence it is time for those with more dismal scientific interest to take notice.
Religions, like all human institutions, have faults. They are prone to takeover by self-interested individuals who look for the angle that will lead to personal power or fame. They do often insist that they alone have the correct interpretation of what life means and how we should go about pleasing a deity that only they truly understand. And they bicker amongst each other. It’s easy to forget that religions are based, without exception, on the belief that human life can be improved. We can do better, people. Takeovers, sometimes hostile, can occur. One sect may take out a contract on another. Love may be recast as hatred. Overall, however, religions are, to borrow a phrase from a sage, “our better angels.” And of course, the fact that you can put a dollar value on that only sweetens the deal. The dismal science has studied the matter and its conclusions are indisputable.
Corporate logos are among the most instantly recognizable symbols in the world. Even in “developing” countries, kids know what the golden arches represent. Not a real fan of large corporations, I still buy things not knowing who the manufacturer is, if it is something I need. I find the frenetic need of non-profit organizations—even colleges and universities—to “brand” themselves vulgar and distasteful. Why do those who truly have something to offer feel like they have to snuggle up to Wall Street and its resident demons? Still, the corporate logo has a way of drawing attention to products. And sometimes we look for more significance in them than they actually have. Keep in mind corporations’ goals are merely to separate you from your money. Often it doesn’t take much thought.
When I was a child I thought the golden arches were supposed to be french fries. And when I started to use computers—always Apple—I wondered if their logo might not be the most infamous bitten apple of all, the apple of Eden. Forbidden knowledge. It seemed to fit perfectly. Too bad it’s incorrect. Interviews with Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and various marketing designers have revealed that the Bible had nothing to do with it. The original Apple logo was Isaac Newton under an apple tree with the apocryphal fruit falling toward his head. It was felt that this detailed and complex logo didn’t have the instant recognition that a trademark requires, and so a marketing firm came up with the apple we all recognize. Initially it was a rainbow apple, but now the mere outline tells us what we need to know.
But what’s with the bite mark? Surely that must be a throwback to Eden? No, apparently not. We don’t know that Newton ate his apple, but a stylized apple looks a lot like a stylized cherry. The bite mark was added to the logo for scale. You don’t want to confuse the buyer. Corporate logos are markers that say, “place your money here.” Non-profit organizations used to exist to provide valuable services—services that couldn’t be rendered in matters of dollars and cents. Now there is no other way to show value. We have followed the false idol of corporate thinking and the only way we can imagine to draw attention to what we offer is to brand ourselves. So it has always been with cattle, where branding was much more obvious. Yes, those who follow corporations should remember that the brand began with red-hot iron and it left an indelible scar. Of course, I’m writing this on an Apple computer.
It’s like Nightmare on Elm Street, as my daughter suggested: if my laptop falls asleep, it dies. Actually, that only happens if it turns off. As much as I rail against technology, I have to admit that I get a little choked up thinking about it—my laptop has had its final reboot. Finally back home from a trip where my MacBook died in transit, the local Genius Bar genius told me the frank truth. The on-off switch has stopped working. He was able to take it in the back and get it started with a “hard reboot” and I can’t help but imagine that it involved tiny little defibrillator paddles and a techie with a trendy haircut shouting “Clear!” before jolting the little guy back to life. If it turns off again, though, they can’t guarantee that they’ll be able to bring it back to life. At five years it’s suffering the effects of old age. Planned obsolescence means that you shouldn’t get too close to your machine. Still, with all this talk of artificial intelligence, I wonder if we haven’t given this laptop life. It sits right on my lap every day. It has for five years. It keeps me warm in winter and too warm in summer. It knows my deepest thoughts.
Like Logan, however, it was only planned to live for a few years. Its crystal is flashing, and I’m getting kind of emotional. Yes, it’s been running slower and slower. Sometimes it doesn’t hear my commands. It takes its time waking up in the morning. Still, it has become like a friend. So when the disciples came to Jesus in a panic saying Lazarus was dying, he replied that the sickness was not unto death. Lazarus died nevertheless. And Jesus wept. I wonder if he would’ve felt the same about an old laptop. This machine has been with me through several jobs—it was purchased to help with my teaching at Rutgers, but it has kept me company on many long flights and lonely nights traveling for publishers and trying to remain sane when there was only a whiff of a wifi scent to latch onto. We’ve done a great deal together.
It can be fixed, the genius said. I have to send it to the iHospital where a new switch will be installed. It will cost a lot of money and if it goes bad again, Apple won’t be able to replace the parts because they don’t keep them on hand all that long. The best solution—buy a new laptop. Spoken like a young man without a child in college. I’m dithering here. I can keep this computer running for a long time without shutting it down. Still, it’s borrowed time. The genius helping the next customer over said, “It’s not a matter of if a hard drive goes, it’s a matter of when.” We’re living on borrowed time. Our devices are meant to be tossed, but my gray matter understands things differently. I like my old laptop, and when Freddie Krueger comes for its soul, I know I’ll be wide awake.
Those of you who punish yourselves by reading my posts regularly may wonder at how different my last couple of posts have been. “Vacation” in and of itself is sufficient explanation for the out of the ordinary—different time zones, unreliable grammar, a certain dreaminess of topic (this is why we should all take plenty of time off work). In this case, however, there’s more to it. My wife injured herself the night before our early morning flight, and although she’s recovering well, another traveling companion is moribund. My faithful laptop that has traveled the country, indeed, crossed the ocean a hextad of times, died in its sleep on the flight over. I shut it down before climbing aboard the plane, and when I tried to boot up after that, nothing. Not friendly Apple starting tone, no wink from the camera, no sign of life from the screen.
I pulled out my phone as soon as I landed and asked Siri if there was a Genius Bar nearby. I was headed into remote parts, where shotguns are far more common than laptops. I had projects to accomplish in the rainy moments. I had a couple of readers to keep updated. Could the geniuses perform a miracle? Alas, the schedule was unforgiving. I hadn’t made an appointment and even though I’d been pouring money into Apple products while the genius before me was in still in diapers, I was up a proverbial (as well as literal) creek without an Apple. He halfheartedly gave my keyboard some kind of Vulcan finger combination pinch, but the look in his eye was definitely more Klingon.
I remember coming to this remote cabin before cell phones were invented. People were just beginning to whisper about this rumor called the Internet. People still wrote each other letters. And here I am in downtown Spokane, weeping over the dead device in my lap. It had its limits, in any case. I can’t take it into the lake with me. It needs, at its age, never to wander too far from a power outlet. And yet, it holds all my darkest secrets and most enlightened ideas. And my thumbs are too fat for typing on my phone. Looking out over the mist dancing wraith-like across the Saran-Wrap early morning surface of the lake, I see two bald eagles fly by. Surely I wouldn’t have seen them had I been behind the large screen of my departed friend. These are, after all, communications from the very edges of civilization, and technology may not, all things considered, save my soul.
In the white heat of rhetoric, my word processor froze up. I don’t have much time for writing with my commuting schedule, so the full forty-five minutes lost between the typing of a letter “s” that apparently caused the meltdown and being able to access my text was lost in a prayer that my work hadn’t been lost. I remember the days when everyone used Microsoft Word and there was this joke going around about the Devil and Jesus being tested on their computer skills. I can’t remember the joke but I do recall the punchline: “Jesus saves!” So it was in those days that you had to hit “save” every few minutes or your work would be lost. Many laments could be loudly heard of students having lost an entire paper because they’d forgotten their prophylactic “save”s. I found that working on a Mac that such problems weren’t always so bad. But then, system upgrades became more frequent. Two programs that you needed open simultaneously, Word and Internet Explorer (called something else in those days, but I can’t remember what), were a sure recipe for mutually assured destruction. The memory required would freeze even an Apple to its core, and so the systems gurus made improvements and things got better.
Of course, those of us who’ve spend the Gross Domestic Product of a small country on Apple devices have been lulled to complacency. Over the years (since the fiasco of the original iMac) we’ve come to learn that Apple will save our work, and that crashes, while infrequent, will bring our files back onto the screen after recovery. You really don’t need to save since autosave is capable of being the messiah of all computer files. Then the gurus upgraded the system. For the past several months I can’t run a word processor and internet browser simultaneously on my computer without freezing up the system. Imagine my chagrin when, having less than an hour to write, copy, paste, and post my blog entry for the day, my word processor decides that it doesn’t recognize the letter “s.” Of course, Apple long ago stopped being compatible with Microsoft Word. Those of us who used both Macs and Word cheered when the two finally became compatible about a decade ago, but in the battle for computer supremacy, we no longer have that option. My Mac can open Word files and save documents as Word files, but it can’t run Word. Instead it runs word processors that don’t recognize that most rare of characters, the insidious “s.”
So I went to back up my files over the weekend. I keep some files on a memory stick (so called) because they take up a lot of space and I don’t use them that often. The memory stick failed in the middle of a save (doesn’t Jesus save anymore?) and I spent an entire Saturday trying to recover files that were already saved. According to some Christian traditions, once saved, always saved. You can’t be unsaved. After losing an enormous amount of work that equated to many hours of precious weekend time, I’m beginning to have my doubts about my faith. Using Pages, Apple’s version of Word, is sure to lead to a crash. This has been happening since at least September. I get systems upgrades more frequently than calls from telemarketers. I really don’t ask for much. I’ve got about an hour to get my writing done in the morning and I would really, really appreciate it if forty-five minutes of that hour weren’t taken up by Pages trying to recognize the letter “s.” After all, not even Jesus can save without it.
Truth claims are integral to religions. No one would join a religion not declaring itself to be true. Some months ago, I posted about the store True Religion that had recently opened at our local mall. I’ve always found such branding odd—surely the store wasn’t proselytizing those who had religious commitments to buy its jeans. Or perhaps it was trying to lure in the increasing generation of nones. I have seldom felt any kinds of truth claims applied to my apparel. I buy clothes at reasonable prices and wear them until they are no longer fit to be seen in public. Even then I continue to wear them at home until they simply grow too holey to be of utility. I seldom have clothes left in good enough shape to donate, and I’m only fashion-conscious in terms of a decade or two between stints of buying what’s on the bargain rack. Religions, of course, sometimes do dictate what it is appropriate to wear. Leviticus famously declares that fabrics of mixed fibers are an infraction. Perhaps True Religion carries only single fiber-fabrics? I guess I’ll never know.
Since our local mall has mostly clothing stores (few whimsical shops appear any more), I seldom go. There is an Apple store, and since our family has used exclusively Apple products since the 1980s, we do have to stop in from time to time. On my most recent trip, I noticed that True Religion, right across the corridor from Apple, had gone. “There’s no more true religion,” my daughter quipped. I couldn’t help but think about the implications of all this. Surely this was not the first religion to die. Disused churches have been converted into businesses for years, and some religions die out entirely rather than just fade away like an old pair of jeans. What is the message, however, when a claim of truth is made, only to be closed down by the exigencies of finance alone? Something disingenuous is going on here.
Religions not only make truth claims. They also convey a sense of promise. If you believe, you receive something in return. But what does it mean to believe? Driving home we passed the Elks Lodge. Once, when my daughter received a certificate of merit from the Elks, we were invited to an award ceremony there. The president of the lodge, doing a bit of proselytizing, mentioned that very little was required to join the Elks. “You do have to believe in God,” she said. How do you measure such a belief? Did she mean to say “you have to say that you believe in God”? The Elks are, after all, not a religion, but a community organization. Although True Religion is gone, the Elks, with their minimal commitment to faith, are still around. My clothes are perhaps a bit too worn to join the Elks, but what else is there to do when there is no more true religion?
Hebrew can be an obstinate language. And computer software companies can be immature. In a biblically inspired pulling out of the hair and rending of mine cloak, I am trying to submit an old manuscript for publication. You see, I have been a loyal Apple user from the beginning; Moses himself was one of my original teachers. This was back in the day when the processor took up proportionately about 90 percent of the space, and the screen was about the size of, say, an iPad. Monitors were black-and-white then, kids, and you had to save everything on devices called “floppy disks.” In any case, Macs died and Macs resurrected—actually, they never really die, as an attic full of aging, but document-rich Macs attests. Operating systems evolved at a frightening rate, and the document I want to submit was originally written *gasp!* about eight years ago. The Dark Ages. Before OSX. Before Keurig individual serving machines. When fax was still used.
The publisher made a simple request: send us a Word document. The problem, you see, is that Apple no longer runs software based on Microsoft platforms (Bill and Steve, play nice!). That means instead of Word I now use Pages. That’s mostly fine, but then Hebrew can be an obstinate language. It is written backwards. The vowels are above and below the consonants. It has letters that English doesn’t and most English speakers can’t even pronounce. So geeky font-makers came to the rescue and devised clever fonts to fill the gaps. In Word. I convert my old file into Pages so I can open it on a laptop that actually connects to the internet (the laptop on which it was written never could quite manage that) and guess what? Pages can’t display the fonts. I convert them, but like stubborn infidels, they remain the same on my screen. It is like driving through a blizzard with windshield wipers that don’t work. I can’t be sure what a PC reader, using that antique software, Microsoft Word, will see on the screen. I’m not sure what I’m writing.
I remember the rejoicing in heaven the day Apple announced that you could open a PC file in Word on a Mac. My life was easier, except for the fact that I was unfortunately working at Nashotah House—but that is a different story of archaic woes, for I could slip in a floppy disc (consult your dictionary) and share it with a less-sophisticated PC user. Now Mac OSX no longer supports Microsoftware and I can’t read my own fonts. I decide to copy the file onto a flash drive and submit it unchanged. My old laptop scratches its metaphorical head at this strange device I’m inserting into it and tells me this wondrous USB-deity is beyond its capacity to fathom. My Hebrew is stuck in the past. Along with my head, which, as you’ve been given to understand, is now bereft of hair.
Religion is all about death. Well, maybe not all, but still…
All religions deal with death in some detail. Perhaps that’s because death is such a universal experience. I think about it quite a lot—not to do so seems to be caught at a crisis without having thought through the implications—but mine are not always morbid thoughts (although, by definition, they may be). When I read Mary Roach’s Stiff a few years back, before I started this blog, I was amazed by the number of ways one could decide to have their “remains” treated. When I was a kid it seemed that there were only two options: bury them or burn them. To some religions the latter option felt a little close to Hell and was condemned as a sin. Occasionally I’ve posted here about various new methods that have made the news: having yourself morphed into a bullet or diamond.
In what I hope was not too much of a hint, my wife shared a further option with me—having yourself turned into a tree. Now while this seems what nature intended, it also feels profoundly Asherah-like. I have my doubts that Asherah was a generalized tree-goddess, but there is some kind of connection between wood and the goddess. Certainly by the Rabbinic Period of Judaism any tree in or near a sanctuary could be understood as the goddess and therefore a threat to monotheism’s hegemony. The solution: chop down the tree. Now Asherah whispers back, when you die, I can make you a tree.
People, like all animals, biodegrade when they die. Some saints apparently avoid this fate while others are pickled to a state of perfection artificially, but for us regular folk nature has a plan. Animals eat the plants, plants eat the animals. We are all consumers. Bios Urn is the brainchild of Gerald Moline and features your deceased body packaged in a biodegradable urn along with tree seeds of your choice. All you need is a post-holer and a bit of rain. Some might wish to be a redwood with their aspirations to immortality. I think I would prefer to be an apple tree. Apple trees give back year after year. Plants, by their floral nature, are givers. The apple tree gives in a way that seems especially divine. After all, many are those who claim it is the very tree of Eden.