Seasonal Music

Music is deeply, deeply personal.  That’s why I don’t write much about it.  There are pieces, I swear, if someone walked in to shoot me when I was listening to them I wouldn’t even notice.  This effect is amplified in autumn.  I don’t listen to music all the time.  In fact, I rarely do.  The reason is, counterintuitively, I fear that music may cease being meaningful to me.  Good things have a way of running out.  The music I like is only very slowly supplemented.  So as the clouds encroached this month, I put on some tunes and I began thinking of appropriate songs of the season.  I’ve heard attempts of more recent artists to sound spooky, but their lyrics don’t match the mood I’m seeking—remember, it’s deeply personal.  So what is autumnal music?

Despite being a fundamentalist, I was raised on rock-n-roll.  My favorite artist growing up was Alice Cooper; in fact, to this day Alice is the only secular rock artist I’ve seen in concert.  Two tracks on Welcome to My Nightmare are among those eerie autumn songs: “Years Ago,” and “Steven.”  This album was profoundly sunk in my psyche before I discovered others.  While not scary in the same way, “Brilliant Disguise” from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love hits a similar chord.  The melancholy of autumn must be appeased and this song begs to bring it on.  Many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are like the angst of this season bottled up for a restorative tincture, but I was quite a bit older when I discovered Nick Cave.

The Boatman’s Call with its willowy sound and occasionally explicit lyrics, walks that line between a deep-seated spirituality and fear.  There are others, of course, some even fairly recent.  Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” from Night Vision certainly qualifies, as do the first two tracks on Muse’s The Resistance.  But this is my list, and I fear to reveal too much.  Someone who knows your music knows very much about you.  I hear some people discuss music as if it’s a throw-away commodity.  For others of us it has become part of our souls and we’re reluctant to reveal too much.  New members of this autumn music club are added only very slowly, and I reacquaint myself with the long-term members not frequently enough to rob me of their impact.  So it was as the clouds thickened and the cold wind began to blow as the leaves were beginning to turn that I put on my personal songs of the season.  And there was transcendence, but it was, as transcendence tends to be, deeply personal.

2017 in Books

At the end of each year I think back over the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Since I don’t blog about every single book, I use Goodreads to keep track of my numbers. I pushed my reading challenge at that site to 105 books for last year, and the meter stopped at 111. In 2018 I’m planning on reading some bigger books, so I’ll scale the numbers back a bit, I think. In any case, what were the most memorable books of 2017? It’s perhaps best to divide these up into categories since the number of books has become unwieldy. I’ve written a book about horror movies, and much of this year’s reading has been in support of that. Since my book addresses, among other things, possession movies, I’ve read several tomes on the topic. Noteworthy among them have been the three books by Felicitas D. Goodman that I read over the year. J. H. Chajes’ Between Worlds was exceptional, and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil, was likely the overall best on the topic. Also noteworthy for purposes of my book research were Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic and Monstrous Progeny by Lester Friedman and Allison Kavey.

For books on religion, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy was an important start. Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture and James William Jones’ Can Science Explain Religion? addressed aspects of the topic that will continue to bear further exploration. God’s Strange Work by David L. Rowe and American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton stand out in my mind as a memorable treatments of William Miller, and of understanding American religion respectively. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists is remarkably urgent and should be read widely, especially since he has shown where current political posturing will lead if it’s not stopped cold. We will be struggling against a situation like Nazi Germany for many decades to come, and forewarned is forearmed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Much of the fiction I read was excellent. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, Robert Repino’s D’Arc, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, and Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes all stayed with me long after I read them. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some non-fiction read just as engagingly. The autobiographies by Carly Simon and Bruce Springsteen were deeply engrossing. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleneben and John Moe’s Dear Luke, We Need to Talk were great guilty pleasure reads along with Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, W. Scott Poole’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces. The latter title brings us full circle. I suspect that’s appropriate for rounding out a year. Many of the other books were also quite good; I tend to rate books favorably. Read the revolution—make 2018 a memorable year with books!

Blood Brothers

Every once in a while I take a chance and write about music. I don’t do this too often since it’s a very personal thing, and as open as I may be on this blog, I’m not as accessible as I seem. We all need a place to retreat in this world, and Bruce Springsteen’s music is one of those places for me. Late last year, just after it was published, Springsteen’s Born to Run—his philosophical and revealing memoir—sold briskly for several weeks. Since it made its way into my stocking I’d been intending to read it since then. And putting it off. There’s something disillusioning about finding out your heroes are only human. The best among mine are heroes precisely for that reason. Gods need not apply. Overcoming my fear, I dove in.

Two things stood out in this autobiographical account: religious imagery looms large, and depression mingles liberally with it. I recall reading an early review where the writer expressed surprise that the Boss suffers from depression. I responded (perhaps out loud), “have you ever listened to his songs?” I became a Bruce fan because he sang about working class people. Bruce and I share that background. He knows that your roots never let you go. Indeed, roots are what keep you grounded. Many of my academic colleagues, I learned, were simply carrying on the family business—and a privileged business it is. Those of us who had to overcome poverty to get in the door were never really welcome in the ivory tower. You can’t help where you’re born, but you can sure be punished for it. Bruce understands that.

I’ve never been to one of his concerts. I don’t even like to listen to his music when someone else is in the room. There’s something deeply personal about communing with someone you feel understands you. Of course I’ve never met Bruce Springsteen. I probably never will. He won’t know the kind of influence he’s had on my life and I feel that I’m risking an awful saying so here on this blog. There aren’t too many heroes in my life. I’m not inclined to idolize people. In this memoir, however, Bruce won’t let himself become an idol. He’s not perfect and he takes pains to make sure that you know that. We were, nevertheless, raised in situations not dissimilar from each other. Unlike Bruce, I have no musical gifts. No, I’ll never likely meet him—and if I did I wouldn’t want it to be with other people around. Some things are just too personal that way.

Ash Monday

I was traveling abroad with a friend. We’d just arrived back in the United States and were making our way through customs. Since he was from another country we were separated. The border agent told me I couldn’t come back into the country unless I demonstrated that I was a racist. Only racists were permitted. He began to pressure me, even offering to help. Should I comply? I awoke in a panic. As someone who suffered frequent childhood nightmares, this was something new. In the past it was merely a monster chasing me, or my alcoholic father. Now I’m having nightmares about the government of my own country. And here it is, Presidents’ Day. Like U2’s early “New Year’s Day” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day,” there’s a decidedly poignant tone to this holiday. Looking towards DC I see nothing to celebrate. I see a government putting the mock in democracy.

This Presidents’ Day, I have a modest suggestion. It could fix democracy. When an election (I’m thinking Brexit as well as 11/9) squeaks out a victory because people don’t vote or don’t understand the issues, a true democracy would then hold a follow-up, “what I really want” vote. If we insist on keeping such arcane tools as the Electoral College in place, this is the only way for democracy to actually work. It wouldn’t be necessary in the case of a candidate winning both the electoral and popular vote. When that happens it’s pretty clear someone won. When the two are divided, however, that’s also a clear signal. Only unthinking automatons would declare that a landslide defeat is actually a win, based purely on political casuistry. Is there an ethicist in the house?

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This Presidents’ Day feels more like Ash Wednesday to me. Ash Wednesday is for public mourning. It is a realization and confession that we have sinned. We wear ashes to make it conspicuous. This year no ashes are required. Perhaps we should wear black bands on our arms. I would, only arm bands seem to have a way of becoming bright red and appropriating ancient religious symbols. We have sinned, and we have sinned boldly. The miasma of Foggy Bottom is as clear a condemnation as is devoutly to be wished. When I start waking up in a panic, in a body-sock of sweat, my childhood monsters have become real. It’s Presidents’ Day 2017.

The Last First

Pluto_by_LORRI_and_Ralph,_13_July_2015

Pluto used to be a planet. Humans, in our unfaltering confidence, have downgraded it to a sub-planet, a dwarf planet, as if we know how big a planet ought to be. Even so, the arrival of New Horizons at the mysterious ice world has us all interested once again in the has-been wanderer. For ancients looking into the fixed stars of the night, the planets were all mysterious. They move against the backdrop of the stars that always maintain their places. When the planets came to be named, the gods suggested themselves. Our modern names, of course, reflect the Roman borrowings of Greek gods. Many of the Greek deities go back to ancient West Asia, where even Zeus has a strong counterpart in Hadad, or Baal, and Aphrodite is recognizable as an aspect of Ishtar.

Pluto, or Hades, was the ruler of the underworld. He was known to be decidedly rich since, well, if you can’t take it with you, someone has to inherit. Pluto, like the devourers of Ugaritic mythology, was forever hungry. Insatiable. This association of wealth and death gives us our word “plutocracy,” rule by the rich. As Bruce Springsteen sang, the poor want to be rich, and the rich want to be kings. “And a king ain’t satisfied til he rules everything.” Who says mythology isn’t true? As New Horizons flies by, we will learn more about the hellish world perpetually frozen so far from the sun. We wonder if perhaps we’ll learn more about ourselves by peering into the farthest rock from our star, Sol’s youngest child. Hades was the brother of Zeus, the king of the gods. Even Zeus had to dispose of the Titans to claim that title. In a scenario going back to ancient times, the younger generation—those we recognize as gods—struggled to make it to the top. As the paper describes it, Pluto is the last first—the last “planet” that is being closely examined the first time.

I grew up in a nine-planet solar system. I recall learning of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto, marveling at the math and patience required. Now that we’ve reached the outer fringes of our solar system, our little piece of the galaxy, we’re still uncertain how to occupy the earth. Many claim that science will vanquish religion completely, and that those who believe are hopelessly superstitious and uncritical in their thought. And yet, if we were to take a close look inside New Horizons, this technological wonder that has reached the farthest point of our sun’s gravitational influence, we would discover a small package of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes inside. The man who discovered Pluto is the first to actually go there, although he’s been dead for nearly two decades. Even the most stoic of scientific minds must pause for a moment and appreciate the profound symbolism of this illogical gesture.

Once and Future Bible

RiseFallBibleWhile I may not share Timothy Beal’s view that print culture is on its way out (I harbor hopes every time I see vinyl records making appearances in stores), he is certainly correct most of the time in The Rise and Fall of the Bible. Written for non-specialists, this book nevertheless gives his fellow biblical scholars pause to stop and think. Beginning with an eerily similar childhood experience (although mine was considerably more dysfunctional and appears to be veering back in that direction by career exigencies), Beal recounts how he came to study the Bible with a critical eye and to observe a number of important things. One of the scholars associated with the Iconic Book movement, he shows how our biblically illiterate society still values the symbolic nature of the book in various ways. We still buy, for example, lots of Bibles. We still want elected officials at least willing to swear on one. We still think it has some special kind of power.

Beal gives a brief history of “the Bible” as an idea. It is essential, as he notes, to realize that as a “thing” the concept of Bible is fairly recent. Certainly nobody in Jesus’ day thought of it as we do. What’s more, and more to the iconic element, Bible sellers have been looking for “added value” to boost the sales. Biblezines (of which I’d not heard) and Manga Bibles are only two examples of the many “extras” Bible vendors add to their texts. In essence they are making new Bibles. Beal wonders how much buyers read the actual biblical text as opposed to the other, more eye-catching material in these books. Bibles are made trendy and hip, decorated, dissected, and dolled up. And we feel virtuous for purchasing them. We play right into Big Dan’s hand, if you get my meaning.

A fascinating collection of interesting bits about the way the Bible has been re-presented to the same public for over two centuries, The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book is an appropriate subtitle here. Those who fueled the Bible craze—those that we now routinely call Fundamentalists—are among those most distressed by the indignities perpetrated upon what was once considered a sacred text. What can be more fundamental than making money off people’s beliefs? Still, for Beal and his colleagues who have managed to land the rare positions teaching Bible, there is an urgency about this whole enterprise. “These jobs,” in Bruce Springsteen’s words and my own experience, “are going boys, and they ain’t comin’ back.” Meanwhile our culture will continue to make love to its holy book, even though they may not recognize who they wake up next to in the morning.

Always with You

DeerHuntingIf you read only one book this year, let it be this one. I picked up Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus at a used book sale because of the title alone. The blurbs on the back suggested it would be hilarious, and even the subtitle, Dispatches from America’s Class War, didn’t sink in until I began reading. Written during the dark ages of the Bush administration, the contents are a bit dated, yet timeless. Although there’s humor here, I, like Bageant, was born and raised in a working class environment. My father was a house painter (before it became chic) and my stepfather was a blue-collar Joe who did the kinds of jobs nobody else wanted to do. Life was coarse and rough at times, but the people I knew were fiercely patriotic and staunchly Republican. Most adults I knew had never read a book since they’d managed to escape from high school. Deer hunting was nearly as religious as church, and anything you heard in either venue was to be taken absolutely literally. And yet government programs to help them get along were merely shams that politicians knew they couldn’t see.

Like Bageant, I feel at home among the working class. I am one of them. My job may be in Manhattan, but the sensibilities that got me this far are from the backwoods of Pennsylvania. Those who know me outside the office still occasionally call me a redneck. Perhaps it’s an affectation, but it is an affectation born of deep appreciation of the honesty of the worker. They’re no saints, the working class. They will get away with what they can (what bobble-head wagging above a white collar can honestly claim that it doesn’t as well?), they will laugh at the crudest jokes, and they will be mean and turn on each other if provoked. They are, however, good people caught in a system that won’t let them improve. The only possibility is education, the one service governments slash at every opportunity. The system, as Bageant shows, was built just to do that. Like Moses, throughout the book, he calls them “my people.” I know exactly what he means.

When I visit my hometown, it’s like a Bruce Springsteen song. Windows are boarded up and the streets seem even meaner than they were when I was a kid. These are people in ill health with a government that would rather not spend the money on them—we’re used to it, and Uncle Sam knows that—so it assures that the only businesses that thrive are fast food and liquor stores. You can also find a television and rifles, but not much else. The liberals, as Bageant states, don’t know how to relate to the common man. In my own experience, the redneck who earns a doctorate won’t have a chance of getting a job. The university liberals have their own agendas, too busy trying to save the planet to worry about the real people who make their lifestyle possible. I picked up Deer Hunting with Jesus as a joke, but found it the most important book that I’ve read in many years. Please read it and try to understand.