Cool Cash

The seller’s market is the place to be in a capitalist society.  Last year, when we were looking for a house, it was a seller’s market.  Our realtor said he’d never seen inventory so low and staying so low.  We found a domicile we liked, but it was older and had obviously (only after moving in) been neglected.  The previous owners, it was clear, had simply let things go (and they were younger than us, and had no excuse).  When we asked for a new roof they had flat-out refused.  With no other options (our lease was about to expire) we agreed to take it on anyway.  We’ve been having the roof done in installments—and if you’ve been getting the record levels of rain that Pennsylvania has, you know our decision was, in a literal way, short-sighted.  Ah, capitalism!

So, just after I noticed the piles of sawdust that the web tells me are carpenter ants, the refrigerator died.  Of course.  I tried to keep cool.  We don’t have what the overlords call “liquidity.”  Our cashflow is dammed at the source, as it were.  A new major appliance was not a welcome addition to the fixer-ups that appear nearly every day.  The first warning was that my soy milk was room temperature when it splashed on the cereal yesterday.  All of this made me reflect on how much we rely on our appliances, our modern conveniences.  When talking to my mother later in the day, I realized that as recently as her generation not everyone had a refrigerator.  You could live without one.  You could also live without a dishwasher, believe it or not!  

The whole episode of packing the food in ice sent me on a Calvino-esque reverie of what we keep in the refrigerator.  There are foods that must be kept cool or they’ll spoil, foods that are better if they’re kept cool but can be left at room temperature, foods that you prefer to drink cold but can be kept anywhere, and items which are technically not food.  Considering the state of our kitchen, there are also foods that you keep on top of the refrigerator because no amount of cupboard space is ever enough.  As the carpenter ants make their free lunch of our porch, we have to throw away food for which we paid because an appliance has come to the end of its life cycle.  And since it’s a holiday weekend we’ll pay for a more expensive replacement unit because it’s on a holiday sale.  For unlike my soy ice cream, I lack liquidity.

Thunder Towers

It sounded like brontide.  The Martin Tower, the tallest in the Lehigh Valley and once corporate center for Bethlehem Steel came down yesterday morning.  Completed only in 1972, the following decade saw the collapse of the steel industry, and the building has sat vacant a dozen years.  Now it’s gone.  The reasons the building could no longer stand are many and I won’t try to explain them as if I understood.  The fall of the tower, however, put me in mind of human folly and the belief that corporate profits will only ever grow.  Capitalism is built on a set of myths that the wealthy truly believe—I suspect many others do too, otherwise the system couldn’t possibly last.  Adam Smith may have been right academically, but in reality humans are greedy, venal, and shortsighted.   At least those who “rise to the top” are.

We didn’t move to the Valley for the steel.  Having settled in New Jersey just about when the Martin Tower was abandoned, like many other displaced academics I was looking for a job.  There were cities in the Midwest—we weren’t far from Milwaukee or Madison—but there was no work.  If you’re “overeducated” your best bet is to settle near a huge metropolitan area, as closely as you can afford to.  Then hang out your shingle.  Capitalism, however, has made New Jersey affordable only for the excessively wealthy.  Besides, I was born within the imaginary lines that we call the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  In fact, when I got my license transferred last year the computer asked me if I still lived in Venango County, where I was born.

I didn’t see the tower come down.  It’s not visible from my house, but it was always right there when I drove to Lowes to pick up some necessary hardware to survive in this area.  (Weed-whacker and lawnmower—reel variety.)  My mythology of towers always takes me back to Babel.  In the biblical worldview towers were a sign of arrogance.  God seemed to think they were trying to invade divine turf, and so he made it so we could no longer understand one another.  There hasn’t been a moment’s peace since.  We build towers tall to show what we can do.  We don’t really need an angry deity to come down and confuse our language any more.  We’ve got capitalists and their excess money to lead the way.  The sound of thunder roared and I divined just where such leadership will guide us.

Price of Learning

Holy Horror, as some are painfully aware, is priced at $45.  Even those of us in publishing have lessons we must learn, and one of them is that writing a trade book involves more than just a “friendly narrator” style and non-technical language.  It also involves a subject the public finds engaging (or at least what a literary agent thinks the public will find engaging).  Holy Horror throws two apparently disparate topics together: horror films and the Bible.  The fans of each don’t hang out in the same bars—the fans of the latter, in some circles, don’t go anywhere near bars!  My thinking was that this juxtaposition was odd enough to qualify as trade, but I also knew that you have to work your way up to that kind of readership.  That’s why I’m on Goodreads, Twitter, and Facebook (followers and friends welcome!).  It’s not like I’ve got tons of spare time, but platforms must be built.

Book publishers face a dilemma: they have to sell books, but as I’ve noted before, they must do so profitably.  There are people like yours truly who’ll occasionally pay essentially a dollar a page (or at least a two-page spread) for a book that’s essential to their work.  As the capitalists grin, it’s “what the market will bear.”  I never thought of myself as a market.  To me, knowledge is priceless.  The effort that it takes to write a book is truly unimaginable to those who haven’t done it.  Obstacles exist almost from the inception.  Getting the resources you need, unless your employment comes with a free library pass, involves sacrifice.  I still look at other books I must read priced at about $45 and groan—how can I justify the expense?  It’s a strange club to which to belong.

My mother asked about Weathering the Psalms: “Is it the kind of book you get money for?”  In theory, yes.  I’ve yet to see any kind of profit from it since the tax forms you need to file for royalties cost more than the actual checks contain.  At least it’s not vanity publishing.  And you truly learn what it means to rob Peter to pay Paul.  It has nothing to do with gentiles.  Publishing is the price you pay for following your curiosity.  My books are very different from each other, a fact that comes with an invisible price tag that has little to do with money exchanging hands.  Well, maybe it does.  And maybe it does have something to do with gentiles.  Or maybe it’s an appeal to a higher power.  In a capitalist nation we all know what that is; herein lies holy horror.

Linking In

Like many in the internet age, I have most of my “connections” online.  It’s somewhat of a rarity to be invited, for example, to connect on LinkedIn by someone I actually know.  I remember the early dissemination of information from that network—it was strictly for people you really did know in real life, because they could help or hurt your career.  I took that seriously for a year or two, but it became clear that this was another Facebook with a more professional cast.  I’ve been told of authors who try to build their online platform by adding thousands of connections on LinkedIn.  The website, however, is not intended as an advertising venue.  It has, however, become one.

I’m not denigrating LinkedIn.  I’ve found two jobs through it and I’ve had recruiters reach out to me because they found my profile there.  For a religionist that can be quite flattering.  Academia and society tend to tell you that such a skillset is okay but basically useless.  Having others who know the wide diversity of human employment these days can be a sign of hope.  Nevertheless, advertising has crept into LinkedIn.  I’m not talking about the frequent invitations to go professional on the site, which will only cost a small fee that will suddenly show up on your credit card bill when you least expect it and thought you were in the clear.  No, I’m talking about connections contacting you to do gratis work for them.  Advertising their book, or their services.  Letting others know, they ask, that they can provide this or that service.  (Just to be clear, I’m not referring to people who contact me personally because we have an actual connection!)

For those of us working stiffs not in a position to hire anyone—professionally or personally—this is another symbol of how any form of communication becomes commodified.  Fully over half of my email is soliciting money in one form or another.  Hearing from an actual person with an actual message for me is so rare that I’m stunned to find one in my inbox.  Capitalism just doesn’t know when to let go.  And it doesn’t have a good read on what little I actually do buy.  Underwear (and just using that word will color the tailored ads I receive for weeks) vendors seem to think I’m concerned about the fashion of garments others don’t see.  The books Amazon suggests, based on a solid track record, are generally far off from my interests.  What hope do those who don’t know me have of selling me their wares through LinkedIn?  The dream of connection without cash changing hands nevertheless remains alive.

Old school connectivity

Patchwork

I don’t wear clothing with advertisements.  Perhaps it’s my Quaker-like sensibilities, or maybe it’s just that I hate being a shill.  What has any corporation done for me that I should give it free advertising?  Actually, not free—advertising that I have to pay to give?  I do have a few college sweatshirts, though.  Always a booster for education, I don’t mind wearing that brand.  Otherwise, I sit back and marvel how marketers get people to think it’s cool to strut their (the marketers’) stuff.  Brand names declare one’s tribe, one’s level of affluence.  I used to rip any exterior labels off my clothes but it became clear it was a losing battle, especially when brands are incorporated (note the word) into the very design.  And we play along.

I shouldn’t be too harsh.  After all, corporations are people too.  At least in the cataract-infested eyes of the law.  They have rights just like, or even more than, individuals do.  We live this fiction and watch the wealthy grow loftier, and we wear their brands so that others will sense where we belong.  Long ago I began to object to this.  Maybe it was because I grew up poor and wearing cheap knock-offs of brand names was embarrassing.  The cut of your trousers said something about what your folks could afford.  I actually began buying all my own clothes at the age of fourteen and, consequently, habitually wear things until not even Goodwill will consider them appropriate for resale.  And I still tend to buy generic.  Thoreau, in a patched quote from Walden and Civil Disobedience can be made to say it well:

As for clothing, […] perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility. […] No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.

The fact is we despise the patch-wearer for not playing the capitalist game.  You’ve got to pay good money for jeans with tears already in them and the world of the facile has no room for posers who actually wear through the knees.  If we ever meet you’ll know me by the frayed edges of my sleeves and cuffs.  I’ll likely be the guy sitting on a bench without a Starbucks cup in my hand, cradling Henry David and nodding vigorously.

Edifices

In a process that’s been going on for decades, church buildings have been sold and repurposed.  Part of the reason is the fact that spirituality has come to resemble a free market and there’s increasing competition from the Nones.  Thinking back over a lifetime of attending various services, many of which seemed to do nothing more than demand I pull out my wallet, I can understand this lack of public engagement with established religions.  At the same time the rather shallow, but emotionally based evangelical tradition continues to grow, largely based on the emotional payoff it gives.  Ironically, it makes the claim that it’s the doctrine responsible for this appeal, but it seems more likely that it’s the way the doctrine allows you to feel about yourself that’s the key.  And still the wallet comes out as the mega-churches grow.

There’s a profound beauty in dereliction.  Some of the more solidly built structures—for even the way a church was constructed was a theological statement—have lent themselves to creative reuses.  I’ve visited churches converted to used bookstores, and this seems fitting.  The trade-off of doctrine for knowledge is appropriate.  In Pittsburgh, years ago, I was intrigued by the Church Brew Works.  Occupying a closed Roman Catholic Church, the brew pub is a trendy gathering place and the titillation of drinking in a once hallowed location is part of the draw.  People find such irony irresistible, it seems.  Better than letting an abandoned building simply fall to ruin.  When it first opened some were scandalized—a lingering belief in sacred places may account for this.  People were married here.  Baptized.  Funerals were held.

While walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood recently I found a church building that has been converted to a spa.  The idea struck me as so counterintuitive that I had to think through the implications.  Churches, for all their faults, are places advocating spiritual growth.  Whether or not it takes place is quite a different question, of course, but this is all about interior life.  Spas are about the surface, physical beautification.  Indeed, often personal pampering.  This is building space come half circle.   An edifice built of heavy stone, implying the gravity of the business inside might have eternal consequences is now a place to beautify the body.  Perhaps the building itself has gone through a similar process.  What used to advertise to the world that depth could be found  here has now become merely an exterior.  Market forces dictate what it will become on the inside.

For the Love of Dog

All I have to do is say “Old Yellar,” and everyone will know the feeling.  Everyone of a certain age, I should add, who’s owned a canine.  The love of dog.  From where I pass my days I can see out the window into the neighbors’ back yards for four houses over.  They all have dogs.  Big dogs, mostly.  They also have fenced in backyards.  One of the things I haven’t seen too much in our neighborhood is dog walking.  People let their dogs out to frolic, and do their, ahem, other outdoor activities in the yard.  Once a day some member of the family, either with the basic plastic bag or with the specialized, long-handled brush and scooper, slowly surveys the yard to remove any offensive matter so the space may be used for human activities.  It’s a level of care that most would shudder to provide for their own species.

Wolves were the earliest domesticated animals.  In those hunter-gatherer days either they or humans—the jury’s out on which—realized the advantages of working together.  Kind of like we were fated to be partners.  Besides, unless the dog turns on us, there’s no question of who’s the master here, and everyone likes to be the boss.  When I catch a glimpse of one of the neighborhood pets being scolded, or praised, it’s clear they share emotions with us.  The bond is deep.  I often wonder about this—they recognize the tone of voice, something that takes humans a while to learn.  I grew up with dogs and I found out that even if you insult them in a friendly, encouraging tone of voice they’ll love you for it.  Dogs are just that way.

Our first real dog—the one that ended up staying with us his whole life, was a beagle pup we got at a farm.  Dogs like to be with others.  Unlike humans, they don’t have to pretend.  (Although they can do that too, as when they growl at you during a game of tug-o-war.)  Then we leave home and go to our places of business, where capitalism reigns.  We treat other humans coldly, clinically.  “It’s only business,” we’ll parrot, especially if we feel bad about doing what the boss tells us.  That’s the way we treat our own species when money’s involved.  And we’ll sit at our desks, daydreaming of our dog at home that will be so glad to see us when we walk through that door.  And we’ll gladly clean up after our pets what we find obscene even to write in human language.  It kind of makes me wonder when I glance out the window while at work.