All in This Together

The rain falling from the dark sky is barely liquid.  The thermometer reads 33 as we step out into the early evening—this is not the kind of night I’d want to be outside, but this is important.  When we arrive in Bethlehem there are already maybe a couple hundred people lining Rose Garden Park with signs.  We park and join them.   Many of the signs are clever and to the point: “I shouldn’t have to miss Nixon,” and “Vichy Republicans—shame on you!”  This winter of discontent, crumbling democracy, we are here as warm bodies on a cold night to protest what has gone on far too long.  The impeachment vote is scheduled for today and across the country people have come out—supper hastily eaten or yet to be started when they get home—to say enough is enough.

Now Pennsylvania isn’t the bluest of states.  I wasn’t sure of what our reception would be on the busy corner of 8th Avenue and Union.  I was amazed.  Large numbers of cars, and even some commercial trucks, honked their horns in support as they drove by.  Thumbs up out windows in the cold air.  Long blasts on horns.  For sure, many drivers remained silent, but only three that I counted bothered to roll down their windows and shout support for Trump.  They were treated respectfully and cordially by the protesters, many of whom were considerably older than my wife and me.  I listened to snatches of conversations as my fingers and toes grew numb.  Vietnam vets, and even one from the Second World War.  Retirees who should be spending December nights in their warm homes.  We all had something important to do.  We had to stand and be counted.

Because of a childhood incident, I suffered mild frostbite on my fingers and toes.  It is excessively painful for me to be out in the cold to this day.  We could only stay for about an hour and a half.  It was a work night after all.  There were many stalwarts still holding signs and chanting as we headed back to our car.  Around a sign for the park where other, more temporary signs stood, a protester said, “Someday maybe we won’t have to do this anymore.”  A younger man corrected him.  This happened because we failed to be vigilant.  Vichy Republicans are a real thing and although the elections are about eleven months away, we need to get ready.  We need to get everyone out to vote.  If the signs of support we saw last night reflect the feelings of Americans, it’s time for us to become a democracy again.

Steel and Snow

I sometimes feels I need to pause before launching back into my usual reflections.  Commercialism tells me the holiday season is here (I noticed while watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that the real highlight is Santa and the official start of Christmas).  Please don’t misunderstand—I love the holiday season and look forward to it every year.  It’s not that I want to get things or spend lots of money.  For me the holidays are about rest and respite from the constant stream of work that never really gets done.  I need to retreat once in a while.  Ensconce myself in a quiet room and not have to worry about the next crisis facing me as an editor or the publishing industry as a whole.  I do love the holidays, but I often wonder about how we’ve let their symbols become the main point.

Now that we live near “the Christmas City,” we attend the Christkindlmarkt in Bethlehem while family is home.  One of the more stark symbols of this festival is the juxtaposition of a Christmas tree against the now silent and rusting steel stacks of what used to be Bethlehem Steel.  The evergreen, of course, was a Teutonic symbol of life continuing in the midst of the shutdown of the growth season.  Nature hasn’t really died, although it may appear to have done so, but we feel that difficult times with short days and cold temperatures will now dominate our existence.  Our industrial efforts participate in this slowdown too.  What once identified one of Pennsylvania’s two steel cities has ceased an Bethlehem has had to adapt.  We see the change and wonder.  I grew up just north of Pittsburgh when it was a very large industrial city.  When I was in high school it was the 16th most populous city in the country.  Currently it’s 66th, with Charlotte, North Carolina holding its former place.  We adjust to changing seasons.

Christkindlmarkt is a lively place with four large tents dedicated to symbols of the season.  Christmas merchandise is a large part of it, of course.  Small business vendors, however, take advantage of the fact that crowds throng in.  Food, naturally, comes to hold a place of some significance as your blood sugar drops after spending a few hours on your feet.  Music is in the air and people don’t seem to mind the masses of others who all had the same idea.  I never purchase much at the event, but I enjoy being among those inspired by it.  Some of us are the rusty towers in the background, and others are the lively, decorated tree that stands before them.  The season has begun, and the symbols are open for interpretation.

Seventies

It’s pretty rare for me to be out on a week night.  Like a kid on a “school day” I’ve got to get up early the next morning.   And yawning a lot at work is bad form, even if nobody can see you.  I risked it recently, however, to meet with some colleagues from the Moravian orbit in Bethlehem.  As we talked, current projects came up, as they’ll do when doctorate-holders get together.  Demons are a conversation stopper, but I nevertheless asserted that our modern understanding of them derives directly from The Exorcist.  The insight isn’t mine—many people more knowledgable than yours truly have noted this.  One of my colleagues pointed out the parallel with The Godfather.  Before that movie the mafia was conceived by the public as a bunch of low-life thugs.  Afterward public perception shifted to classy, well-dressed connoisseurs who happen to be engaged in the business of violence and extortion.

The insight, should I ever claim as much, was that these films were both from the early seventies.  They both had a transformative cultural impact.  Movies since the seventies have, of course, influenced lots of things but the breadth of that influence has diminished.  I noticed the same thing about scholarship.  Anyone in ancient West Asian (or “Near Eastern”) studies knows the work of William Foxwell Albright.  Yes, he had prominent students but after Albright things began to fracture and it is no longer possible for one scholar to dominate the field in the same way he did.  Albright died in the early seventies.  Just as I was getting over the bewilderment of being born into a strange world, patterns were changing.  The era of individual influence was ending.  Has there been a true Star Wars moment since the seventies?  A new Apocalypse Now?

You see, I felt like I had to make the case that The Exorcist held influence unrivaled by other demon movies.  We’re still too close to the seventies (Watergate, anyone?) to analyze them properly.  Barbara Tuchman suggested at least a quarter-century has to go by for the fog to start clearing.  Today there are famous people who have immense internet fame.  Once you talk to people—some of them my age—who don’t surf the web you’ll see that internet fame stretches only so far.  It was true even in the eighties; the ability to be the influential voice was passing away into a miasma of partial attention.  The smaller the world gets, the more circumscribed our circles of influence.  And thus it was that an evening among some Moravians brought a bit of clarity to my muddled daily thinking.

Thoughts on a Book Signing

I’m a small-town boy.  Having the opportunity to hold a book signing, even if nobody requested said signing at the event, in the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the country was an honor.  This is a prelude to the Easton Book Festival next weekend, in which I have two roles—part of a panel discussion and an individual presentation on Holy Horror.  Putting yourself out there when you’re a writer is important, even if nobody pays attention.  I thought quite a lot about it; horror movies are almost always successful, but do people like reading about them?  Well, some of us do, obviously, but the average viewer, probably not so much.  And then there’s the somewhat embarrassing juxtaposition of the Bible.  People know what it is, but don’t want to talk about it.

Two people stopped to chat at the signing desk.  One was an adjunct geology professor.  We discussed science and religion, which is something on which I used to teach classes.  He thought the book idea was interesting, but not enough to read it.  The Moravian Book Shop scheduled this on the evening of their sold out ghost tours.  Quite a few people came in for a Saturday night, mostly for the haunted Bethlehem walks.  The second conversation was with a ghost tourist who thought the book idea was unusual.  It is.  I admit it.  As I say in the book itself, “If you see something, say something.”  So it was with me, with Bibles in movies.  The bookstore did a nice display, but then, I have an awareness of the smallness of my impact.  No surprises here.

The thing that really struck me was just how many people avoid looking at you when you’re behind a table with your books.  I know I’ve done the same thing.  I’ve gone into bookstores when an event was going on, not knowing about it and having no interest whatsoever in the book being presented.  That’s the way these things go.  I wasn’t doing this to make sales.  McFarland isn’t the kind of publisher you use to make money.  For me it was all about the experience.  It was like seeing my name outside a church in Manhattan.  It doesn’t do anything for you materially, but at least you can say you had it happened to you once.  The signing was advertised in the local paper, and on its website.  Maybe someone out there took a glimpse and saw something that sparked their curiosity.  It doesn’t matter if they buy the book.  As a teacher at heart, it is simply the interest that I’m hoping to raise.

Fall Festivals

Now that it’s October, it’s officially okay to be scared.  Determined to fight my fright of hubris, I make brave to mention that I have two appearances scheduled for the first ever Easton Book Festival, coming up from the 25th to the 27th.  The Festival has turned into quite an event, with some 200 writers taking part.  I got involved by being in the right place at the right time, for a change.  Authors are being brought in from as far as New York City, Vermont, and Massachusetts.  I know from experience that even Manhattan is a trek.  I contacted the organizers back in the summer since I have an autumn book that came out in late December last year.  For the festival I’ll be involved in a panel discussion “Poets as Prophets—Merging Art and Religion” on Saturday, and a presentation on Holy Horror on Sunday.

Like many people who write, I’m shy and not naturally good at promoting myself.  The other day while out for a walk my wife and I were run by by a group of shirtless high school guys, presumably on the track team.  It felt like the gallimimus scene from Jurassic Park—we’re smaller folks, and these confident, athletic sorts were not.  It felt like an object lesson to me.  Some of us are born with genetic dispositions to grow large and to feel confident.  Others not so much.  When we watched the caber toss at Celtic Fest last weekend, the contestants were all well over six feet tall, which I suppose makes sense if a caber is in the cards for you.  As they showboated for the crowd, I knew a small display with my book was just up the hill in the Moravian Book Shop.  Like me, in the shadows of the shelf above.

Perhaps my only regret about the Easton Book Festival is that I don’t have a fictional novel to present.  Well, I do, but it isn’t published.  Lately I’ve been exploring that wall of separation between fiction and non.  In the kinds of books I read in the fall, the wall is more of a hurricane fence.  And it’s only about waist high at that.  Holy Horror isn’t an academic book, it just plays one on the market.  If it were a standard academic title I wouldn’t have put it forward for the Easton Book Festival; people come to such events to be entertained as well as to learn.  This one will encompass pretty much all of downtown Easton for the weekend.  And that weekend is just before Halloween, when the wall between worlds is especially thin.

 

Fearing Hubris

I’m afraid of hubris.  You see, my academic career was not exactly distinguished, and as an editor you’re encouraged to keep to the background.  Still, when you write a book you need to promote it a little, which is one of the things I learned as an editor.  I was equally parts embarrassed and pleased to see the bookstore display for my upcoming book signing in Bethlehem.  I mean, although I wrote Holy Horror for a general readership, the publisher tends more toward academic books and their pricing, so this is not an inexpensive purchase.  Those who write are nothing, however, without readers.  Those chosen for interviews are writers who’ve made a sales impact or who have a university behind them.  When it’s just me, it feels like maybe I’m trying to ascend Olympus on my own initiative.

I was in the Moravian Book Shop to purchase Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.  I’ve fallen a bit behind on Neal’s work, largely because Goodreads challenges are measured in numbers of tomes read.  I was pondering this, book in hand, when I noticed—there I was with my own display.  You see, Holy Horror was meant as a guilty pleasure read for those of us who like the scary time of year.  The book price is the scariest part about it, however.  I feel a profound gratitude when anyone actually buys it.  Since there are now copies available on sites such as eBay, I’m guessing some who’ve read it want to recoup a little of the cash outlaid.  While all of this is happening, however, I know that I have to learn the art of book promoting.  Still, it feels like that self-promoting I was warned against as a kid, an unseemly thing.

Writing is a form of conversation.  When I’m in a room with a bunch of other people unless I’m the teacher I have trouble making myself heard.  I’m soft-spoken by nature.  I suppose it’s obvious, then, why a book signing feels hubristic.  Perhaps it’s appropriate for a book about fear to engender this sense of discomfort.  Entering the conversation has always been difficult for me.  At the same time, as the beneficiary of so many books, I feel compelled to give something back.  My insights, if such there be, won’t rock the world.  As I think of myself signing books, I wonder what I could possibly say to someone who’s willing to pay that price for something I produced.  If you’re going to try to climb that mountain, you’d better think about what you’ll say when you meet the gods at the summit.

The Sound of Musik

“Why is there so much people here?”  The words aren’t mine, but those of a random stranger I heard in Herald Square.  Not only was it grammatically offensive, I always find “much people” in Manhattan, but this was the occasion of the Pope’s visit a few years ago, so more of us were crowded into that area than normal.  It was a feeling that returned last night as my wife and I wandered around Musikfest.  If you’re not from around here, Musikfest is the largest free music festival in the United States, and it takes place in Bethlehem each summer.  Ten days of free, live music and tents hawking wares and all kinds of comestibles, as well as that strangely satisfying feeling of being lost in a crowd.  We ended up there more or less accidentally.

I was an experimental subject.  Those of you who know me will probably not find this odd, and you may well come up with many reasons to find me in the psychology department, some involving locked doors.  This was, however, a voluntary research project that required participants and it had been literally decades since I’d volunteered to be one of the “much people” who was not not part of the university crowd.  It felt good to be on a campus again.  The Lehigh Valley hosts several colleges and universities, and that draw is perhaps related to why Musikfest is held here.  When we got to town my wife realized we might have trouble parking.  Sections of downtown Bethlehem are closed to traffic and there are people everywhere.  I finished my experiment and we became part of the crowd again.

Music and religion, I’ve noted before, hang out in the same crowd.  They both have the ability to be transcendent and people seek out such experiences.  Since we hadn’t planned on attending—accidental musicologists we—we had no groups as targeted hearing while we wandered.  Mostly we marveled at the size of the event.  The city of steel transformed to the city of music.  And the religious feelings music brings.  As I walked from the college back to downtown, a couple strangers accosted me.  “Hi, brother,” they said.  “Heading to Musikfest?”  This, I realized was a congregation.  I was an unknown brother.  Music brings peace.  Dona nobis pacem, sisters and brothers.  Like those crowds a few years back hoping for a glimpse of the pontiff, an entire city had kicked off its shoes for a Friday night of potential transcendence.  Why is there so much people here?  Simply listen and you’ll have your answer.