Tag Archives: Austin

A Weird Resurrection

Driving through an unfamiliar city doesn’t allow for much time to appreciate what you’re seeing. Back in February when I was visiting Austin, Texas for the first time, it was 65 degrees outside. Given the irascible temperatures in New Jersey this year, that felt like summer. Of course, the locals were bundled up since it was, for Texans, unseasonably cool. The weather has been off this year. Of course, we know who to blame. Cthulhu. As I was trying to find the University of Texas with an impatient GPS as my co-pilot, I spied someone walking down the street wearing a Cthulhu ski mask. I can’t express how badly I wanted to pull aside and snap a photo, but pulling aside in a strange city can lead to unwanted adventures. Especially when your co-pilot is an opinionated GPS. I’ve been to north Philly and the south side of Chicago. I didn’t want to take any chances that Austin might hide such districts.

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H. P. Lovecraft, like most original thinkers before the computer age, was ignored in his lifetime. I wonder what he would have felt if he had divined that the internet would one day bring him world-wide fame. His writings, of course, had been appreciated before the computer was invented, but the web has nearly as much Cthulhu as it does LOL Cats. Even those who’ve never spent a dark night curled up with the Necronomicon recognize Cthulhu’s octopoid visage when they see it. Davy Jones of the Pirates of the Caribbean fame borrowed his unforgettable face from the Old Gods discovered by Lovecraft. Cthulhu has become a cultural icon of the chaotic, the cosmic, and the somewhat comic.

In a strange way Cthulhu stands for resurrection. In Lovecraft’s mythological world Cthulhu lies under the sea, dead but dreaming. A dying and rising god of utter terror. Lovecraft, an atheist, built his fiction nevertheless around a series of gods. Today his stories are noted for their moody portrayal of improbable worlds, and his storytelling has had an incredible influence on many of those who attempt to generate worlds that are fantastic but somehow still believable. Cthulhu’s resurrection, however, is not to be desired. Even if these he represents life anew, it is a life humans could not bear. In a deeper sense yet it is Lovecraft himself who has experienced a kind of resurrection. A writer forgotten in his lifetime, but rediscovered when it was too late for him to realize just what he’d created, the true master of Cthulhu, I like to believe, lies dead but dreaming, and he has already revealed that he will rise and the masses will tremble.

Religion and Its Discontents

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Travel broadens the mind. I’ve always felt that travel, for those who pay attention when they do it, is one of the best forms of education available. When I do campus visits for work, my time is spent talking to faculty, but on my walks between appointments I keep an eye out for my own education. This past week at the University of Texas in Austin, I couldn’t help but notice how much religion still plays into the lives of many people—even undergraduates. One of the first things I noticed as I approached campus was the sign outside a Methodist Church announcing a sermon series entitled “When Christians Disagree.” Anyone with experience within, let alone between, denominations knows that disagreement is endemic. It would be difficult to find a single point of Christian teaching that is universally held among Christians without at least one group of dissenters. In my own experience, disagreements run deeply within Christian denominations, and the hatred experienced is often more fierce than that between Christians and “heathens.”

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Well, maybe not between some Christians and Islam. So on a campus kiosk I found posters for a seminar entitled “Muhammad: Messenger of Peace.” In a largely Christian context, Muslim students have a difficult time with their religion being castigated in the media and in popular thought. Almost all religions are capable of violence (I was going to write “All religions” but I couldn’t think of any instances where Jains have incited violence), but most highly value and promote peace as the ideal. Few religions are actually founded on violence. I’ve heard many Christians make the claim that Islam is about conquest, pointing to the rapid expansion of Islam following the time of Muhammad. They often overlook the Crusades, one of the most violent Christian reactions to another religion in history. Is Christianity all about violence? Who is “the prince of peace” anyway?

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On a bulletin board I saw a notice for Asatru, the Pagan Student Alliance. If any religious group is misunderstood, surely it is Pagans. Christian missionaries liberally used “pagan” to denigrate the old religions they encountered throughout the world. Often attempts were made to eradicate such beliefs completely. With some success. Many forms of paganism today are revivals of the old religions, and a few are actual survivals. The Pagans I know are moral, peace-loving people as well. Claims of human sacrifice (often fabricated) aside, paganism was, and is, an attempt to make peace with the planet upon which we find ourselves. Peace, it seems, is a desideratum of many religions. If we studied college campuses, where such beliefs are encouraged to coexist, we might find a model that would work for people in the “real world.” And perhaps peace really would have a chance.

Guidance

My relationship with Shiri is a love-hate relationship. Shiri is what I called my “Neverlost” GPS in my rental car in Texas. My iPhone has a female voice called Siri, so I figured my talking navigator must be her electronic kin of some sort. Finding my way around has been a lifetime vocation, but it is job most of us are never paid to do. I learned the trade using maps and the occasional compass. What a God-like feeling to look down at a map and visualize it from way up in the sky—it’s a kind of power-rush. Seeing the country, state, or city laid out below you, knowing that you want to travel particular roads based on traffic, tolls, or scenic beauty. Shiri and I had our first argument just after I disembarked in Houston. I’d never been to Houston before, and, being parked in a concrete bunker of a parking deck, Shiri was a little groggy and unclear about where she was when I spelled out that I wanted to go to Austin, avoiding major highways and tolls. Do I turn left or right out of the garage? She still hasn’t decided.

Shiri likes highways. Not a fan of urban driving, I’ll take a smaller road if possible. My first appointment wasn’t until the next day anyway. I can’t help attributing personality to Shiri. Was that a hint of disappointment in her cheerful voice as my driving made her recalculate the route yet again? Shiri has trouble determining if I’m on an interstate or a parallel access road. She sometimes sees roads that the naked human eye can’t discern. We fight, but she does eventually get me there. I have a feeling that she crawls into the back seat and weeps when I lock the doors and stagger to my hotel. It’s not that I don’t love Shiri, but she doesn’t respond quickly enough to real life conditions. A “slight left” across four lanes of rush hour traffic is purely academic to her. To me it is impressions of my fingers deeply embedded into the plastic of the steering wheel.

Shiri doesn’t understand that Houston’s many toll roads only accept EZ Tag and, being a visitor, I don’t have said tag. On the way to the airport—do I really have to see George Bush again?—she keeps trying to steer me onto roads that state “EZ Tag Only.” Texans are swearing at me as I suddenly change lanes and Shiri doesn’t help by repeating “At soonest opportunity, make a legal u-turn.” Shut up! Shut up! Where is the airport? I should be able to see it by now. Did I really leave the hotel two hours ago to travel this forty miles into… where? Is that a tumbleweed? When I see the Hertz rental return sign I break into spontaneous prayers of thanksgiving. I poke Shiri’s power button and leave without saying goodbye.

But now, a thousand miles away, secure in my own home, I miss her electronic voice.

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Persistent Idealism

Few spans of human life are so idealistic as our college years. There we meet many people from beyond our hometown, and we learn the treasures of diversity and different ways of doing things. Ideas mix and blend, and with professors who’ve learned so much telling us all the places we can go, the possibilities seem endless. I find the idealism of college kids refreshing. That’s one reason, I suppose, that I enjoyed teaching them so much. At work you’re far more often told why things won’t work and how they can’t be done. And I find myself thinking back to college and wondering when people lost their sense of vision. When did idealism die?

Yesterday I spent on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Between appointments I was crossing a quad area and noticed a bunch of blue and white balloons. We’re all still kids inside when we see balloons. I stopped to look. Then I noticed, across the street (in which sat a very obvious police car) a small group of students waving a Palestinian flag. Several police, frankly looking bored, stood between the two peaceful groups.

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Looking back to the balloons, there were a series of tents set up and a sign read “Israel Block Party.” Obviously this had been a carefully planned event, and we all know the heinous story of the constant persecution of the Jews throughout much of “civilized” history. The simple table across the street bore the sign “Free Palestine.” Less than ten students stood around, handing out literature, peaceful, yet literally flying their flag. Yes, the Palestinians have also been oppressed for much of their history. If only adults could live so peacefully as these students. My heart went out to them.

The issue of Israel and Palestine is one of the deepest scars in our collective human psyche. Indirectly, that conflict is responsible for many tragic terrorist acts, including the attacks of 9/11. And it is so frustrating because both sides (and there are actually more than two) are victims. We like our good guys in white and our bad guys in black. I’m still an idealist, after all. Yet in Israel/Palestine we have two historically oppressed groups vying for the very same land. And in the middle of this maelstrom, the Bible. The very book that can be read as an eternal promise by God that the people of Israel should own this land. By 1947, however, we’d stopped relying on God and began relying on guns. And atomic bombs. And life has never been the same since.

Images of the wall going up between Israelis and Palestinians just after the wall went down in Berlin reminded me of Bush’s proposed wall between Texas and Mexico. Here in Texas just about everyone in the lower paying jobs I’ve met is hispanic. And friendly. Grateful in a way that many of us wouldn’t emulate in such low stations. We are all people. We all experience the same feelings, needs, and desires. Why not tear down the walls and let us look at one another? Take a good, long look. And my idealistic self says, if we face another human being with love everything will be all right.

Austin City Limits

Maybe it’s just because Texas feels like the brass buckle of the Bible Belt, but I had moral qualms about landing in George Bush International Airport this afternoon. Texas has so many worthy heroes, but in the land of Rick Perry, recent Republican politics is king. Not queen. But king. It felt like a work of supererogation to drive to Austin after a three-and-a-half hour flight to Houston, but Texas reminded me of Illinois with palm trees. And cacti. Well, okay, and longhorns. One could get culture-lash flying here from New York. Before I embarked I had visions of my rental car being a huge Cadillac with real steer horns for a hood ornament. I just couldn’t picture myself in a ten-gallon hat.

I sometimes wonder how religion could’ve come to divide a nation such as the United States. Founded on the principles of religious liberty, lately one party has been claiming the right to legislate morality for all, deeply polarizing a populace that should be able to accept differing viewpoints. Still, there are issues on which human rights insist there can be no compromise: women have equal rights with men, and have the right to self-determination just like men. It truly amazes me that such common sense can even become a divisive issue. If we could agree on even that, we’d have to declare it progress over the objections of the Religious Right. My thoughts wander that way when I tarry in the south. It’s really a pity. The people are friendly here and the landscape has its own beauty. Are we really that different?

I’m not altogether convinced that this isn’t just a case of prejudice masking as religious sensibility. Religions can be all too gullible when they feel their honors might have been impugned. While I regularly express my opinion here, I do respect nearly every form of sincerely held religious belief. None of us has all the answers, and it seems the height of hypocrisy to insist that anyone is right all the time. Nevertheless, my sojourn beneath the Bible Belt has me wondering about the origins of various religious squabbles. Or maybe it was the just the long drive along the “presidential corridor” after touching down at an facility that most websites still refer to as simply, Houston International Airport. Travel broadens the mind—it is, in fact, an excellent form of education. Maybe if we got out more we would all get along better.

From here we all look the same.

From here we all look the same.